The ‘Uberfication’ of education: warning about commercial operators

New Delhi, January 21, 2019: An Australian unionist is leading a global campaign against what he describes as the “Uberfication” of education.

While the Uber digital platform allows people without a taxi licence to ferry passengers, education corporations are providing scripted lessons on computer tablets that remove autonomy from teachers and their need for qualifications. Digital schools are also emerging to replace classroom teachers entirely.

Angelo Gavrielatos, a former head of the Australian Education Union and NSW Teachers’ Federation, is campaigning against the commercialisation of education which he says is worth an estimated $5 trillion globally.

“Education is the last frontier. It is seen as a very lucrative industry which has yet to be fully capitalised,” Gavrielatos says.

Gavrielatos heads the commercialisation campaign for Education International, a global federation of about 400 unions in more than 170 countries, representing 30 million teachers and education employees. Its headquarters are in Brussels.

Education International is targeting “educorporations” including Pearson and Bridge International Academies, a company listed in Delaware, US, that operates in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, India and Liberia. The World Bank and Pearson are supporters of Bridge International.

Gavrielatos said Bridge International provides educators with scripted lessons developed in the US loaded onto a tablet. He says the introduction of technology platforms compensates for not having qualified teachers “who literally read word for word from a tablet”.

“This is Uberification of education and there are plans to scale it up in the global north,” he says.

“These staff are not trained teachers. They are high school graduates who instruct kids for a fraction of the price that it costs to employ a qualified teacher.

“By and large, teachers make up about 70 per cent of a school budget. If you want to make money, you hire fewer teachers or unqualified staff.”

Gavrielatos says the tablets provide instructions including “circulate around the room for 30 seconds, rub the board, tell children to close their books”.

“All these tablets are connected to the mother ship so the company know where everyone is every minute of the day,” he says. “Bad luck if a kid asks a question.”

On March 16, 2018 the High Court of Uganda delivered a judgment which found Bridge International Academies was operating illegally.

Judge Lydia Mugambe said Bridge International’s conduct in establishing “schools all over the country without any registration with any conformity to relevant government department speaks to a high level of reckless disregard of national institutions set up to ensure qualitative education in the country”.

Mugambe said because the Bridge International schools were not registered, children studying at the schools had to register in other schools for national examinations.

“This conundrum is wrong,” she said. “That their children pass exams does not make it right.”

In a column she wrote for daily news publication New Vision in early 2018, Uganda’s First Lady and Minister of Education Janet K Musevini complained that more than 60 Bridge schools had opened without being licensed by her education ministry.

When Gavrielatos challenged a World Bank official about the bank’s support of Bridge International, he says he was called “ideological”.

“I responded it’s the law … it’s the law,” Gavrielatos says.

“This corporation has no regard for the national laws which require schools to be registered and therefore the observance of standards such as the employment of qualified teachers.

“They have no regard for national curriculum and they operate in facilities which one minister described as so lacking in hygiene that they put the health and safety of students at risk.”

A spokeswoman for The World Bank had no knowledge of the conversation between its official and Gavrielatos. She told the Herald that the private sector arm of the World Bank Group, IFC, invested $US13.5 million in Bridge Academies because of its potential for bringing quality, low-cost basic education on a large scale to children living in poverty.

“There is some evidence that Bridge’s education programs and use of technology are effective, notably a strong performance by Bridge pupils on Kenya’s national secondary school exams,” she says.

“Strong learning gains were also noted in the Liberia pilot in the Centre for Global Development’s evaluation and most recently in an evaluation of Bridge schools operating in Nigeria.”

According to the reports published in smh.com.au the spokeswoman says an independent evaluation of the Bridge Academies program in Kenya has been underway for nearly two years and early results are expected in 2019.

Bridge International’s Uganda country director Morrison Rwakakamba says it is making “excellent progress with the Ugandan Ministry of Education and have a very positive dialogue with them around our schools”.

“I’m delighted to confirm that the vast majority of our teachers are fully qualified having been through a two-year teacher training college. In addition, all our schools and materials in Uganda are meeting standards set by the government, and I expect to soon have confirmation of that from a new government inspection report.

“We are all looking forward at what is being achieved to help children in Uganda, we do not want to look back at past debates that are now resolved.”

A spokesman for Bridge International told the Herald that its teachers in Uganda were teaching the national curriculum and were qualified to teach, “well trained and supported”.

A spokeswoman for Pearson told the Herald that Bridge is increasingly working in partnership with governments to support their delivery of public education and low cost schooling for disadvantaged students. Pearson is an investor in Learn Capital which is a Silicon Valley venture fund that invests in Bridge International Academies.

The Pearson spokeswoman says it has a “small investment in Bridge” but is not directly involved in instruction or operating Bridge schools.

“Governments are increasingly recognising the value and potential of Bridge as an innovative, scalable way of delivering better outcomes for some of the most disadvantaged children in the world,” the spokeswoman says.

“We have met with Education International and also offered to build a constructive dialogue with them and other concerned parties on numerous occasions.”

Pearson is one of the biggest education companies worldwide. In Australia, it publishes textbooks and has contracts with six states and territories to print and distribute NAPLAN tests. It scans the tests, employs teachers to mark them and reports the test results. Its contracts with the NSW Education Standards Authority are reportedly worth more than $51 million.

Pearson was also contracted to develop the framework for the OECD’s benchmark Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test for 2018.

Anna Hogan, from the University of Queensland, who co-authored a report for the NSW Teachers’ Federation called Commercialisation in Australian public schooling, said school curriculum, lesson plans and teacher professional development have increasingly been outsourced to for-profit companies including Pearson and a large number of smaller operators. Some companies sell public schools software for data analysis of national tests including NAPLAN.

She says she is concerned that companies can run national and international tests as well as mark them and report on them and market materials on how to do well in them. She says the increased focus on NAPLAN and PISA provided questionable benefit to children, but had profited private companies.

“Public schools are using their limited budgets to source these external resources from companies that are making a profit off them. The taxpayer dollars are then funding commercial providers,” she says.

Hogan says many teachers have raised concerns about the use of text book materials tailored to standardised tests.

She says her research found that teachers felt pressured to use iPads as part of the curriculum and other commercial resources that they would not have otherwise chosen to use.

“That’s when commercialisation starts dictating what you teach in your school,” she says.

“Commercialisation isn’t necessarily the problem, it is the extent and pervasiveness of it, which can be. It is when a teachers’ autonomy is removed over what they are doing in their classroom and it has become commercialised.

“External providers are now saying this resource will allow you to tick this box in the curriculum and you can move on. I think that’s one of the concerns because we are looking at the deprofessionalisation of teachers.”

Hogan says she fears the use of laptops with scripted lessons in Africa could lead “to the complete annihilation of what it means to be a teacher professional which is what the scary future of teacher becomes if it starts to become adaptive learning”.

“Logging onto the computer and students are doing all their curriculum work on the computer and the algorithms are telling them what their weak areas are. The teachers are totally hands off and just facilitating,” she says.

Maurie Mulheron, head of the NSW Teachers’ Federation, says teachers are extremely concerned at the growing commercialisation of education in Australia.

“In early childhood, vocational and higher education, the for-profit industry dominates, leading to high costs [and] the loss of quality,” he says.

“In the school sector, huge ‘edu-businesses’ push narrow standardised testing agendas and occupy the curriculum and professional learning space left by the loss of positions in the public sector.”

Pearson Australia managing director David Barnett says its materials cover the curriculum and any references to NAPLAN preparation in some publications is being removed.

“It doesn’t have NAPLAN material, it doesn’t refer to NAPLAN questions. It simply helps the student learn content,” he says.

“We are really concerned about the pressure that has arisen out of NAPLAN. We certainly think the tests should be well run, but we don’t support the idea that the tests should be taught to … or prepared for.

“If good teachers believe that they can be more effective by using our products, then great. We are a commercial organisation … but it is a highly competitive industry which is an important check and balance in behaviour in any kind of industry.”

Barnett says Pearson Australia does not provide digital education but it is provided by Pearson in the US. “If parents want to access that … then that’s their choice,” he says.

A new American documentary called Backpack Full of Cash shows how children who attend “virtual” charter schools can now do all their schooling from home without the need for any physical interaction with teachers or other students. That includes dissecting a frog on their computer at home.

Gavrielatos fears this low-cost education option will take off because it can save governments the expense of paying teacher wages.

Former ACTU president Sharan Burrow, who was re-elected in December as the head of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) for another four-year term is backing the Education International campaign. Burrow, who is also a former teacher and head of the Australian Education Union, says the use of computer tablets to read scripted lessons is not in the best interests of children. “If the future is about assisted support with technology, we’re in,” she says.

“But if it is about children interacting with a tablet instead of a qualified and properly trained teacher, there is a problem.”

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