Update Available: Why Big Tech is in the business of education reform

By Kelly Seacrest

My home town recently started to host screenings of the documentary Most Likely To Succeed. I went to a screening with an open mind, excited about the potential for interesting discussions about education. What sadly proceeded was a documentary about the importance of training children to work in the tech industry. Following the screening there was a “community discussion” with a Google representative. This representative, in between a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” segment and a Michelle Obama name drop, promised that tech corporations and their culture have many easy solutions for the myriad of problems education is facing today.

The Google representative and the documentary, like the majority of Big Tech’s political maneuvers, use progressive language to essentially repackage an essential hierarchy of how our compulsory school system was created in the first place; let industry determine educational policy. Instead of having school to train people to sit still for eight hours drilling the three Rs to work on an assembly line making lace or cars, the logic is to change school to train people to work creatively in teams to make apps. The skills may be different but the power structure is the same. Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon are playing the same roles as wealthy titans of nineteenth century America; producing monopolies, concentrating wealth, and thus wielding influence over institutions like education.

For Big Tech, the future is like a smartphone: shiny, sleek, efficient, and, consequently, created and understood by few for the endless consumption of the many. Big Tech sells their mindset as products and their products as a mindset. They become interchangeable, and both are promised as indispensable for a brighter tomorrow. As Google’s website on education reads, “To meet the future’s biggest challenges, students need an adaptive set of skills. We’re creating programs to ensure digital readiness in both students and teachers, and directing Google tools and funding toward expanding computer science education.” Google is not alone in using vague progressive posturing to sell, convince, or convert people, groups, and institutions.

George Packer writing in the New Yorker article “Change the World: Silicon Valley transfers its slogans—and its money—to the realm of politics,” conveys this idea well:

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Big Tech’s interests can be easily boiled down to two interconnected forces, power and profit. Those two priorities determine the organizational structure, motives, and overall impact of these companies. Whether they are selling us software, hardware, or selling our data to other corporations, their goal of power and profit is the same. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Big Tech’s internal practices are not inclusive, are highly competitive, and drive them to be isolated from the public.

The most obvious example is tax evasion, but there are more visible examples of this sought after selective isolationism. For example, Google utilizes white buses for its employees so they don’t have to take public transport. Many tech companies cater lunches so employees never have to leave. While on the surface this looks like opulence or thoughtful convenience, in reality it is another way to increase efficiency by decreasing the connection to an outside world that is less predictable and harder to control. Yet this same desire to remove oneself from the outside world also drives them to bring order to it, to command it and pull it in directions that best serve their own needs. Big Tech needs the world — it needs state funded research and infrastructure, state controlled land, state law enforcers to protect their private property, and of course, state educated workers.

The belief that technology can fix anything and everything is one Big Tech is eager to push. Public transportation? Apps will solve it! Health care? Apps will solve it! Kids not paying attention in class? Apps will solve it! There are dozens of programs and apps right now being marketed as “the answer” to a whole list of “problems” educators have defined. These “problems” such as kids not doing their homework are seen by some educators as easily fixable, and many educators see the answer in technology. Big Tech has found a hungry collaborator.

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Education as an institution often finds itself using progressive ideas such as creativity, critical thinking, and citizenship for development, recruiting, rationalizing, and marketing. Big Tech also uses progressive language to increase their profitability. They use words like “creativity” and “collaboration” because they sound good to consumers. But this progressive language never translates to structural or systemic practices. The real message from the documentary and the majority of the respondents on the panel I attended was not that creativity was a vital practice of a healthy child, but it was needed to make the child competitive in the marketplace. Ryan Boren writes concepts like innovation, design, and disruption are leaking into schools not for the benefit of students but for the benefit of Big Tech’s bottom line. Google wants to expand computer science education not because of some altruistic love of innovation, but because they need more laborers. As Malcolm Harris wrote in the New Inquiry article Reform School:

“Students can always be more effective future workers, and the enduring corporate education-reform movement and its lackeys in both political parties are always ready for a new push. At the end of the day, in a capitalist system, public education will produce wage laborers, and the American education system does a good job at producing the wage laborers that employers require. If it didn’t, employers would be forced to increase pay and train the skilled workers they need themselves.”

Everyone has an opinion on education because everyone learns. While there seems to be a multitude of voices pushing and pulling, education’s Big Tech’s voice seems to be ever growing. The question is: what happens when we prioritize the voices of adults over the voices of children and teenagers? What happens when we let success be defined by corporations? What will happen when we prioritize the voices of white and rich over the voices of everyone else?

We can make an educated guess because this is exactly how our current conventional education system was created. When this happens we will continue to get a system where the real stakeholders, children and teenagers, are ignored and controlled. We will get a system where the logic of capitalism, scarcity, competition, secrecy, and exploitation will bleed into the structures of the schools — affecting students, teachers, staff, and families.

We will get a system where the violence of white supremacy and patriarchy will help create the structures of the schools. We need to stop looking towards Big Tech for answers, and start looking to the kids for direction. They don’t need a new app, they need us to help them create spaces and practices to do what is inside us all: a drive to learn what is meaningful, an intrinsic need to build healthy relationships, and the instinct to connect to this living world.

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