on educational technology and divestment

I spoke yesterday about the relationships between higher education institutions, the policy makers who frame the space inside which the University is being financialised and marketised, the technology companies which are attempting to leverage value from the education sector, and the finance/venture capitalists that are underwriting educational technologies. There is a slideshow on my slideshare, and a podcast of the session here.

I have written elsewhere about the implications of this transnational network, or association, of capitals both for higher education practice and for students and academics. I have also written elsewhere about the power of such a dominant network of merchants in higher education. I have also written elsewhere about how these networks amplify the militarisation of higher education. However, there is one specific point that I made yesterday, which I wish to reiterate here, which is connected to divestment. The recent occupation by students at the London School of Economics included in its list of demands divestment, stating:

We demand that the school cuts its ties to exploitative and destructive organisations, such as those involved in wars, military occupations and the destruction of the planet. This includes but is not limited to immediate divestment from the fossil fuel industry and from all companies which make a profit from the Israeli state’s occupation of Palestine.

This idea of questioning which firms, companies, products, whatever, universities invest in recomposes any discussion of educational technology. There are some fundamental questions here about the networks of hegemonic power that universities are folded into, which link technology and data mining firms, venture and finance capitalists, academics, and the military. So we might ask, for example:

Who supplies our virtual learning environment?

Is there a parent company?

What are the relationships of the parent company to finance or venture capital?

What other companies does this parent company own? What activities are they involved in? Securitisation? Training the military? Biotechnology?

What networks of power is the company that supplies our virtual learning environment mapped onto?

What networks of power is the University mapped onto through its connections rooted in educational technology?

Through its deployment of educational technologies, how is the University complicit in activities that reinforce and reproduce hegemonic power? How does it reinforce and reproduce unsustainable narratives of growth? Given the energy and carbon embedded in high technologies, how does such deployment map onto concerns voiced by the keep it in the ground campaign?

This final question is rooted in our academic engagement with high technology firms that are seeking to use education in order to expand the orbit for value accumulation and extraction, in particular where fundamental questions are being raised about the impact on the global climate of unrestricted models of economic growth. All of a sudden we are forced to ask fundamental questions of political economy about the educational technologies that we deploy.

Clearly inside a policy space that is being opened-up for-profit through competition, divesting from such webs is problematic, and demands a larger conversation about the idea of the University as a public good. In the UK, former Universities Minister, David Willetts argued “conventional universities no longer hold all the cards on how the higher education market develops.” Around the same time, the Institute for Public Policy Research noted in its report, Securing the future of higher education that there was a need to open the market-up through: first, access to open data (which would increase accountability and consumerism); second, the rule of money in underpinning efficiency and improving the student experience; and third, by encouraging competition from new providers who would bring innovation, entrepreneurialism and cost-efficiency.

As Will Davies notes in the limits of neoliberalism such entrepreneurial activity is enacted through new combinations of technologies and practices to inject novelty into the circuits of capitalism. These associations of capitals, or venture capitals, which are able to leverage value transnationally are rooted in competition and an idea of entrepreneurial activity that is rooted in a new productive environment that accommodates power: first in expanding the time-scale for returns; second in expanding the arena for competition.

Investment in educational technology is also a space which, as Audrey Watters notes in Men Still Explain, is dominated by men from the global North.

Culturally. Ideologically. There’s a problem with the Internet. Largely designed by men from the developed world, it is built for men of the developed world. Men of science. Men of industry. Military men. Venture capitalists. Despite all the hype and hope about revolution and access and opportunity that these new technologies will provide us, they do not negate hierarchy, history, privilege, power. They reflect those. They channel it. They concentrate it, in new ways and in old.

There are serious questions about whether academics and students are content with these hegemonic positions and whether we are able collectively to understand the role of educational technology inside our universities and colleges without developing a critique of its relationships to a transnational capitalist class. We might wish to use such a critique to question where academic labour is invested and from where is might be divested. Such a critique needs to be aligned with the realities of divestment from fossil fuels. This is a political issue that is in tension with the realities of the security state and the regimes of power that are maintained through transnational flows of capital, and which educational technology reveals. We should be seeking to discuss on campus whether we are content with our educational connections to educational technology products that are rooted in financialised and marketised responses to the secular crisis of capitalism. We should be seeking to discuss on campus how educational technology reinforces our implicit, academic links to venture capital, private equity, the military and security firms.

My presentation closed with two questions.

Inside the University, can educational technology be (ref)used politically to recompose the realities of global struggles, rather than for value?

What does divestment imply for the use of educational technology?

We should be seeking to discuss on campus what our activities and our relationships help to legitimate, and whether a diversity of alternative positions is possible beyond the market and those who maintain the power of the market over everyday, public life.

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