Automation in Education: the use of EdTech in England


How are private providers of digital technology in education impacting traditional public values? This is the second blog post discussing the research from the collaborative research project DigiPublicValues: Preserving Public Values in Privatised Digital Systems.

Private providers of digital technologies are becoming deeply embedded in the provision of public services in ways that depart from, and exist outside of, traditional public-private partnerships. This is significant as these more informal arrangements side-step the governance mechanisms established to ensure that public-private partnerships do not jeopardise traditional public values. Our CIVICA project seeks firstly to identify and map the ways in which these looser public-private entanglements occur in increasingly digitised administrations before considering their potential implications for public values. The provision of education provides an interesting, if somewhat anomalous, example of this dynamic of pseudo-privatisation through technological collaboration. Education is interesting because the examples of the ways in which technology is being used in the provision of education are varied but anomalous as, in England in particular, education is already subject to a large degree of privatisation. The aim of this initial contribution is to define the notion of educational technology (EdTech); to map the ways in which it is being deployed in school education in England and to identify some of the broader societal ramifications of its pervasive deployment.  

What is EdTech?  

EdTech is defined expansively as the “practice of using technology to support teaching and the effective day-to-day management of education institutions”. As such, it covers a huge diversity of uses including access to school facilities; pupil surveillance and profiling; automated assessment and personalised learning.  

The legislative framework for Education (the Education Act 1996) imposes an obligation of result on the relevant government minister – to promote the education of the people of England and Wales – while allowing large discretion as to the means used. More specifically, local education authorities (LEAs) are obliged to promote high standards; ensure fair access to opportunity for education and training and to promote the fulfilment of learning potential of every person to whom the Act applies (s13A, Education Act 1996).  The large latitude granted to the relevant government department (the Department for Education – DfE) and LEAs paves the way for the use of digital technologies to achieve these objectives. Indeed, the DfE has emphasised that it considers technology to be an effective tool to achieve multiple aims. Some of these are designed to benefit students directly, including engaging students and communities, supporting excellent teaching and raising student attainment, while others may offer more indirect benefits, such as reducing workload and increasing inefficiencies. The DfE’s EdTech strategy also seeks to promote the role of the UK in developing EdTech technologies, noting that the UK has the “opportunity to build the best EdTech ecosystem in the world”. In this way, the role of the State in assuring the provision of suitable education for pupils is blurred with the role it takes on as a facilitator of educational entrepreneurship.  

EdTech in English Schools – Some Examples  

In keeping with the broad definition of EdTech, EdTech is being used in diverse ways in English schools. Three examples - EdTech as educational infrastructure; for identification and authentication; and for personalisation - provide an illustration of this diversity. 

Perhaps the least surprising use of technology in education is its use as educational infrastructure, where it provides a digital platform through which various pedagogic activities can take place. Google, for instance, offers a “workspace for Education”. One component of this is Google Classroom which is marketed as a platform for “streamlining assignments, boosting collaboration and fostering communication”. An important report by the Digital Futures Commission documents that Google Classroom has been downloaded over 1.34 million times in the UK to date. It was singled out by the DfE as a tool for schools to use for remote learning during the pandemic with 34% of primary school children being asked to use it.   

A report produced by a children’s digital rights group documents the extent to which biometric data processing is used in English schools for identification and authentication, with schools being amongst the earliest adopters of this technology. It observes that already in 2011 30% of schools in England used student fingerprint data for various purposes. One of the main providers of this biometric data processing technology is CRB Cunninghams which offers “cashless payment and identification systems” to over 3,000 schools in the UK. CRB Cunninghams provides schools with, amongst others, facial recognition technology systems. These systems are trained using images of children provided to the school at registration and improved by using images taken at the point of sale so that “the algorithm grows with the child”. There is a legal requirement in the UK to offer a reasonable alternative to biometric data processing where either a parent or a child withholds consent to such processing (section 26(7), Protection of Freedom Act 2012). Yet, the Defend Digital Me biometrics report suggests that there is no governmental department actively monitoring adherence to this requirement. Overall, acceptance of the use of biometric processing by Schools therefore appears to be high: for instance, the same report notes that in 2020 a school in Gateshead was offered a free trial of facial recognition technology and all but five of over 900 pupils signed up. The justification provided for the use of this technology is efficiency: CRB Cunninghams, for instance, notes that it “eliminates the occurrences of lost cards and security system complications”.  

A third way in which EdTech is being used in schools is for the “personalisation” of education. Conceptions of what constitutes personalisation may vary wildly. For instance, in 2008 it was noted before a Parliamentary Committee in the UK that a survey of 67 schools had identified more than 67 different interpretations of personalisation. We could, for instance, think of personalisation based on learning styles; student choice or adaptive learning (amongst others). Adaptive learning might differ based on personalised learning pathways or competency-based progression. Century Tech is an example of a commercial provider offering a “personalised” learning platform in England. It conceives as personalisation in terms of personalised learning pathways for students based on an initial assessment of a student’s baseline performance of a task. It also provides an overview of student performance for teachers, categorising students into groups of those who need more support, more effort or stretch and those whose commitment merits praise.  

The Societal Implications of EdTech  

The deployment of EdTech in schools raises several issues that require critical scrutiny and debate.  

First, the use of EdTech raises issues of proportionality and human rights compliance. Biometric data processing is typically viewed as a particularly serious interference with the right to respect for private life, given its unique and inherently personal nature. Human rights courts insist that its processing is subject to significant safeguards. In light of this, the widespread processing of biometric data in schools for the sake of convenience appears incompatible with the notion of proportionality which provides that an interference with a right should serve a legitimate aim and should not go beyond what is necessary to achieve that aim.  

Second, EdTech inevitably raises accuracy and equality challenges that require attention.  Where profiling is used to sort and score children, as is the case with Century Tech, there is an inherent risk of error. For instance, if a student is categorised as one from whom “more effort” is required because of, amongst others, the time spent concluding an exercise, this might mask important underlying reasons (such as the inability to concentrate for prolonged periods or competing demands on their time). Teachers therefore require training to interpret algorithmic recommendations and to ensure their appropriate usage. While empirical evidence remains lacking on the impact of EdTech on existing disadvantaged groups, there are signs that its use negatively impacts them to a disproportionate extent. Examples include the requirement in some schools that students who receive free school meals (the poorest students) must enrol with biometric systems to receive their lunch and the evidence collected by the DfE that the area where schools’ needs are least likely to be met by EdTech is in supporting students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). This suggests that the rollout of EdTech in schools should, at minimum, be accompanied with equality impact assessments.  

Finally, the expansion of EdTech entails a shift in dynamics in education with more control and power given to private providers at the expense of the State as a provider of public services. This shift in power dynamics is difficult to perceive and to quantify as it is not governed by formal relationships between EdTech providers and the State or local authorities. Indeed, the decentralisation of competence for the delivery of education to LEAs may conceal the extent of this shift to a large extent and contribute to the power asymmetries between EdTech providers and schools. Yet, we can observe this shift in various guises. EdTech has the power to increase the commercialisation of education from an early age. This is in the primary market of EdTech provision for schools but also in ancillary markets, for instance by enhancing demand from parents for EdTech. By exposing children to certain brands, interfaces and processing operations at an early age, such as the familiarity with Google products that stems from the widespread use of Google Classroom, it primes children as a market of potential future consumers. For Google Classroom in particular there is a risk of blurring the boundaries between the core classroom services and additional services (such as YouTube) where the protection offered to children is lower and their data is readily mined. Such commercialisation is occurring despite apparent unease amongst students. For instance, according to the Digital Futures Commission EdTech survey conducted in 2022 only a tenth of students thought it was acceptable for apps they use at school to share information about them with other companies. As Baroness Kidron has observed, the “processes and practices of EdTech deliberately, seamlessly and permanently extracts children’s data for commercial purposes – purposes that may not be aligned with the best interests of the child, the broader education community or indeed the expectations of society more broadly”. 

More generally, the very nature of pedagogic exercises can change because of the use of technology in the classroom. Pedagogic theory as well as empirical evidence suggest that before students can engage with materials critically, for instance by searching for information in a search engine, they must be exposed in a directed way to the fundamentals. The OECD, for instance, concluded in 2016 that greater exposure to such “inquiry-based instruction” (as opposed to teacher-directed practice) is negatively associated with science performance in 56 countries. Yet, in 2017, the New York Times noted that Google was helping to drive a philosophical change in public education, which de-emphasised the teaching of traditional academic knowledge to prioritise skills-based training. It is clear that before introducing technology uncritically to the classroom it is necessary to revisit the evidence we have about what works and does not work for learning from a pedagogic perspective.  

To conclude, EdTech offers opportunities for improved outcomes in the education sector, potentially helping students to learn more effectively and staff to deploy their finite resources more successfully. However, it also presents serious challenges which go to the heart of public values such as equality, proportionality and the very idea of public services. It is these challenges which the CIVICA DigiPublicValues project seeks to uncover and address. 

This article is the second in a series of blog pieces drawing on research from the DigiPublicValues: Preserving Public Values in Privatised Digital Systems project – a joint CIVICA research project by the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), Università Bocconi, European University Institute and the Hertie School’s Centre for Digital Governance.

Written by Orla Lynskey.

Photo credits: Mudassar Iqbal (Pixabay).