Panic as Breeding Ground for Edupreneurs

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

Two kinds of panic have broken out around education. The first is what’s known as a moral panic; a disproportionate, hostile and media-fuelled response to something that’s seemingly threatening us. According to the sociologist Stanley Cohen, moral panic occurs when a “condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests” (p. 9). In a moral panic, we humans often use dramatic language to make our arguments, we preach far-reaching consequences, and we call for urgent and fundamental changes. The subject of the panic (in this case problems in education) is also getting a lot of publicity; after all, the expected negative (devastating) consequences make them newsworthy.

An often recurring moral panic[1]:

The children today love luxury; have bad manners, contempt for authority; disrespect for elders…are tyrants…contradict their parents…and tyrannize their teachers.

The world is passing through troubling times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves…They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything, and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them.

Sound familiar? This panic has been going on since Socrates (±300 BC) who was the author of the first quote and was notably repeated in the 12th century (second quote) by Peter the Hermit (priest of Amiens) who was a key figure in the First Crusade and who died on July 8, 1115.

This type of panic is everywhere when it comes to education. We read doom-/fearmongering newspaper articles about how bad education is. We hear radio spots for private educational institutions that will guarantee a diploma in less time than a school, see and hear ads for specialty courses and tutoring companies that will help kids learn what the school didn’t or couldn’t teach them, and watch TV commercials for quizzes and games that guarantee to make learning effective and fun. And of course, let’s not forget the ubiquitous presence of all different makes and models of web-based student tracking systems/apps which parents can also access and often do so more than their kids.

All of the companies promoting their educational products and/or services are responding to parents’ fears that their children will fall through the cracks when being left with just ‘regular’ education or to their concern that they won’t be able to follow (and of course intervene in) their children’s learning progress in the case of tracking apps. The companies involved don’t explicitly state that the education that the kids are getting is bad. Instead, they make clear that they’re there for you and to serve your child who’s ‘looking for more challenge’ or ‘who needs to go the extra mile’. In other words, they use code language to say that education is substandard and they’re there to do for the parents and their children what schools are unable to do. They’re coming to the rescue.

Ideland, Jober, and Axelsson describe this phenomenon beautifully in their article entitled Problem solved! How edupreneurs enact a school crisis as business possibilities, which by the way isn’t an easy read. Edupreneur is of course a portmanteau[2], combining education with entrepreneur; an educational entrepreneur.

Abstract of the article

This article explores how a growing apparatus of edupreneurial actors offers solutions for the current ‘school crisis’ and how these commercial actors become taken for granted in the public school system. The Swedish case is interesting, as it involves a once-strong welfare state that is now associated with both the neoliberal discourse of competition and the outsourcing of policy work. Two examples – research-based education and the digitalization of education – serve to illustrate how a crisis narrative is translated into edupreneurial business ideas and how companies become established in the edupreneurial market through ‘public/private statework’. Bacchi’s notion of problematization is used to analyse processes through which the crisis has become a hegemonic truth and thus an obvious object for (business) intervention. In addition, this study shows how the commodification of school limits what becomes the ‘research base’ for schooling. The results point to the importance of how the problem is constructed and what is represented (or not) in this problematization process, for example, how critical research is left out. Another important conclusion is that the crisis narrative and policy reforms nurture the existence of these private companies.

The authors looked at Sweden as a case in point for the rise of edupreneurs who were keen to shape the social basis of education in that country on a neoliberal foundation. These private parties saw and grabbed the opportunity to implicitly and indirectly frame – sometimes insignificant -problems in and with education as a ‘crisis’. It’s not that their websites refer to teaching as outdated and boring, educational research as ‘useless’ and ‘unpractical’, or the classroom as messy. Instead – perhaps even worse – the websites speak in terms of possibilities, in optimistic language that shows engagement, structure, and possibilities. By describing it in this way, the crisis is translated into a ‘solution-oriented’ commodity (a commodity of solutionism’” is how the authors say it). The edupreneurs use research, often from big name researchers like John Hattie or Dylan William, very selectively and they often ask ‘critical questions’ around transparency (What do children really learn?) and efficiency (How do we make teachers more efficient?). This, in turn, is reinforced by the politics and media that eagerly respond to one another; another hallmark of moral panic. In other words, the edupreneurs are partly responsible for the crisis while – the coincidence is staggering! – being the solution at the same time.

The second type of panic is real panic. Covid-19 is an example of this. Due to the corona pandemic, schools, all the way from primary to higher education, have been forced to teach in a different way (see this blog). They’ve switched en masse from face-to-face same time same place teaching and learning to online, distance, emergency remote teaching using technology platforms such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom or… you name them. But there’s more. Online course platforms such as Coursera now offer universities almost free use of their courses which, until recently, were behind a paywall. You might think this is all great, but there’s a catch.

The Dutch Financial Daily recently wrote a down-to-earth article about this topic on 25 October (no link provided cause you need to register to view it). The newspaper, when it comes to the online courses, wonders somewhat sarcastically who can possibly be against spreading knowledge through a platform that allows adults to follow lectures. We could add: Who can oppose giving away conference platforms so that all students have access to distance learning? The article writes:

  • Colleges and universities can no longer ignore the use of new technology due to the corona crisis.
  • Wealthy tech companies see their chance and are committed to strong growth.
  • Critics warn against marketing gossip about public knowledge, saying tech companies are not doing enough to strengthen education.

Well…, as also pointed out in the newspaper article, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that, in our justified panic, we don’t take the necessary time to, for example, impose firm conditions on privacy and data.

In an article written by Benjamin Herold about an evaluation of the privacy policies of a number of providers carried out by Education Week he raised concerns about the use of tracking and surveillance technologies that allow third parties to collect information about students. There were also questions about the collection, use and sharing of enormous amounts of “metadata” of pupils and students. At some companies there’s the possibility (according to their privacy policy) to share information with third parties almost limitless, among other things through their collaboration / connection with Facebook and Google. We quote: “Khan Academy, which provides open instructional resources to 10 million unique users per month, came under the sharpest criticism. Ms. Barnes, for example, said the Mountain View, Calif.-based nonprofit’s privacy policy allows for “almost limitless” sharing of student information with third parties.”

Both the experts consulted by Education Week blasted the privacy policy of Khan Academy, a non-profit organization that has made a big push to expand its reach in recent months via new partnerships and new math resources tied to the contentious Common Core State Standards.

“They are essentially enabling third parties to gather unlimited information about users and disclaiming any responsibility for that,” Mr. Reidenberg said of the organization.

Ms. Barnes pointed to Khan Academy’s integrations with Facebook and Google—”businesses that are founded on the idea of commercializing information”—and liberal approach to granting third-party advertisers and app developers access to student information as particularly problematic. Worse, she said, the organization explicitly says that its privacy policy “does not apply to, and we cannot control the activities of” those third-party partners.

Plus, Khan Academy users who want to know how their information will be utilized are advised to review the privacy policies of all the third parties with whom the organization partners—none of whom are identified by name, and most of whom likely reserve the right to change their policies at any time, with limited or no notice, she said.

Which proverb do we choose here? Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth or there’s no such thing as a free lunch?

References

Cohen, S. (1973). Folk devils and moral panics. St Albans, UK: Paladin.

Herold, B. (2014, April 12). Prominent ed-tech players’ data-privacy policies attract scrutiny. Education Weekly. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/04/16/28privacy_ep.h33.html

Ideland, M., Jobér, A., & Axelsson, T. (2020). Problem solved! How eduprenuers enact a school crisis as business possibilities. Eruropean Educational Research Journal. https://doi.org/10.1177/1474904120952978

McRobbie, A., & Thornton, S. L. (1995). Rethinking ‘moral panic’ for multi-mediated social worlds. The British Journal of Sociology, 46, 559-574.

[1] This example is from Paul’s book Urban myths about learning and education which he wrote with Pedro De Bruyckere and Casper Hulshof (https://www.amazon.com/Urban-Myths-about-Learning-Education/dp/0128015373)

[2] You may not be aware of this, but you use such words daily. Examples are podcast (iPod+broadcast), smog (somke+fog), or brexit (Britain+exit).

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