Thursday, 4 April 2013

The digital manager uses data as a tool of control

The political economy of technology and education
Why is so much of current discussions of education "reform" centred on Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and data-based decision-making?

What are the links in the education politics of ICT between corporate interests and the promotion of digital technology and "21st century skills" as key elements of the education future?
Joel Spring provides a valuable framework for analysis of these questions in his book, Education Networks:  power, wealth, cyberspace and the digital mind.

An obvious link for the corporations is profits.  If that were all there is to it, developing a counter strategy that turned ICT in education into a non-profit, social return project would be relatively simple.  Spring, however, provides a look into deeper social and technological issues that make the project much more complex than just about profits.  He provides a framework for analysis. 
Data and the digital manager

One of the most common refrains about ICT and education is a focus on data-based decision-making.  How many times have we heard "if you can't count it, you can't manage it."  The developers of centralized, standardized data systems promote this as an essential tool for improving education through massive data, analytics and a dashboard that will give administrators the information they need to direct education.
Spring contends that what we are seeing is an application to education of the tools of management of global corporations.  Data and spreadsheet software to help make sense of the data is key to identifying sources of gains or impediments to production and profits.  Managers monitor their employees using digital data. 

The assumptions of digital management are brought into education.  Areas where data can be produced become the most significant areas of attention.  Standardized tests become central to digital management.
If the data shows a decline in achievement, then the school and the teacher become the focus.  The data system gives the tools for intervening from outside the school.  The target to be managed is the school and the teacher.

A key factor is missing in this, of course.  The life of the child is more than the school and many other factors affect the child.  The data systems are not holistic and can seriously mislead, particularly if you want  to look at the development of the full life of the child and not primarily his/her development as a worker in the economy.
The data manager is constantly after more data: "the student becomes the data and the school becomes the data source." (14)  Further, "the digital mind of ICT managers tends to see schools as institutions compose do data while not seeing the holistic context of students' lives such as their families, neighbourhoods, and income levels. (24)

In Alfie Kohn's description, they miss the "quality beyond measure."  Diane Ravich in a blog posting quoted management consultant W. Edwards Deming countering the data is essential to manage message:  "The most important figures needed for management of any organization are unknown and unknowable."
An ideology of "technology as the answer" spread through networks of power

Digital management of schools to produce workers to be competitive in a global economy is appearing in the rhetoric of education reform in most countries, almost regardless of level of economic development.
Spring describes this apparent global consensus  among those with power and influence as technology is "the panacea for world problems and the solution for classroom instruction."  (25)

The World Economic Forum (Davos) that holds an annual gabfest of the global economic and government elite set the tone.  It also has a subgroup, the Global Education Initiative and other regional conferences that expand and amplify the dominance of this idea.
Other promoters of ICT and its role hold conferences as where ICT in education for global competition is promoted:  the OECD, the World Bank and regional organizations such as APEC, with its own Education Forum and the Inter-American Development Bank.  A few key corporations also play a supporting role in these influence-peddling activities.

None of these are bodies that directly make decisions about education, but they are crucial processes to building networks among those who do make the decisions.  They do have the power and influence, though, to identify "which ideas and people are 'sound'" for national education policies. (23)
Challenging the promoters of ICT in education

Spring's examples of the operation of networks of power promoting a particular version of ICT in education are drawn from New York, where he works.  To understand the global nature of the push for IT in education, it would be useful to use his framework to look at the education policies in other countries.  This could start with a description of national education policies and the place of ICT and data being used to manage and control teachers and programs. 
To develop a strategy that puts democratic citizenship at the centre rather than the global economy at the centre, it is important to identify the networks of power, with their links to transnational organizations.  To challenge these networks of power requires alternative networks of those who believe it is important that education, with or without ICT, be developed from a social, democratic and holistic basis.

Spring, Joel.  (2012).  Education Networks:  Power, Wealth, Cyberspace and the Digital Mind. (Routlege:  New York)

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