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Social responsibility is a must for EdTech: How technology and learning environments shape each other

Education is an important part of our cultural environment. We spend most of our lives learning in one way or another. Learning starts at our homes in early childhood and continues in kindergartens, schools, universities, vocational and professional institutions and in a broad variety of courses, activities and everyday situations.

But also, modern life is unthinkable without technology. Technology permeates all spheres of society and education is not an exclusion. The role of technology in the education process has been growing in recent years, just like the number of education technology (EdTech) providers.

On the one hand, EdTech is expanding as a vertical market. On the other, it is expanding as part of the everyday learning and cultural environment, as a new social practice — a new routine. This text talks about the social responsibilities of the EdTech business and the ways technology and learning environments affect each other.

Rapid EdTech market growth affects the ways people learn worldwide

Working papers of the National Bureau of Economic Research reported as early as August 2017 that the market of PreK12 (preschool) software alone exceeded $8 billion in the US, while the projected estimated value of the EdTech industry worldwide was expected to reach $252 billion by 2020.

The recent Grand View Research report is less ambitious in its estimates and argues that the overall global EdTech market size is valued at $76.4 billion in 2020. The researchers suggest that the market will be growing by 18.1% per year and should reach $285.23 billion in revenue in 2027.

However, once we consider the changes COVID-19 has brought to the global education market, the numbers might grow significantly. Post-COVID update to HolonIQ’s Global Market Sizing report suggests that EdTech is growing at 16.3% and will become 2.5 times bigger from 2019 to 2025. HolonIQ estimates that EdTech will reach $404 billion in total global expenditure in 2025, which equates to 5.2% of the global education market.

While the estimates vary, each study expects that education technology services and products will grow rapidly in the near future. This means that the way we learn will be shaped by EdTech even further worldwide, which opens new prospects (growing access to education, personalized learning, international collaboration) and also new challenges (lack of socialization, increased anxiety, further inequality between the poor and the rich).

Education is a big business, but it is also an environment where people get socialized in particular ways. Along with innovation, technology brings cultural change, which can be both positive and negative for various groups and regions. This is one of the reasons why EdTech providers have to be socially responsible and account for what they market, how they market it and to whom.

Our learning habits are affected by a variety of technological solutions and EdTech platforms 

The times of blackboards, notebooks, pens and pencils are almost gone. The learning of tomorrow now resembles old-time sci-fi novels and movies. 

Students can access learning materials instantly from any location and from almost any device. Medical students and doctors can practice surgeries via VR without leaving their homes; classrooms can be transformed into historical venues and scenes with the help of AR; AI is used to personalize learning materials and adapt courses to students’ learning habits and capabilities.

EdTech is not just a combination of these features; it is also focused on solving particular tasks in the educational process. For example, workflow optimization platforms assist teachers with routine class administration tasks (automated notifications, scheduling meetings), machine intelligence-based platforms enable learning personalization, e-learning platforms for business help organizations create corporate educational environments to organize individual and collaborative specialist training and to individually adjust learning pace and load.

As a result, education as we knew it has been transformed significantly. It’s also becoming increasingly accessible globally with a variety of new technologies and learning approaches becoming part of our everyday lives. 

However, not everyone can benefit from technological innovation, as major economic, political, and social disparities across the globe preclude EdTech from being used equally and by all.

EdTech products are created faster than adequate regulating policies

One of the problems with the introduction of EdTech globally is that policy researchers and policymakers are not able to cope with the pace at which new educational products and solutions are appearing on the market. This means that it is not possible for local legislators to evaluate all the emerging features and approaches to learning in time to adopt appropriate regulations.

The situation is difficult for legislators as each technological intervention does not simply need to affect the product itself, but also the use of the product, access to the product and technology among the population, the way the product is inscribed into the local educational environment, and existing policies.

This is one of the reasons why EdTech producers should get actively involved in advocacy on local markets — to explain and assist the decision-makers in developing the ways technology could become part of local legislation and state budgets. 

For example, Tom Murray, a US advocate for education technology and distance learning policy, has been working on ways to deal with equity and access problems in the country. Murray has been in dialogue with FCC (Federal Communications Commission) in an attempt to develop a subsidy program to help those who cannot afford paying for subscriptions and electronic devices to use digital educational products.

Countries across the world respond differently to technology adoption, but the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that remote learning and EdTech are rapidly becoming new learning routines that must be accounted for. Thus, in responding to this emerging trend, US legislators and stakeholders, for example, have been actively involved in the development of the National Education Technology Plan

This plan was initiated by the US Office of Educational Technology in 2017 and is aimed at leveraging technology adoption in the education sector. The initiative is a collaborative effort by policymakers, educators, EdTech developers, school administrators, researchers, NGOs and financial donors who are working on keeping the policy up to date with new challenges in regulating technology adoption.

Privacy is another issue EdTech providers are facing worldwide

The increased use of digital products and social media creates a multitude of footprints in the online environment, which make our personal and sensitive data publicly available. Security issues and privacy leaks not only impact our digital identities and the way we represent ourselves online but may also lead to more serious issues, such as cyberbullying, stalking, identity theft and financial loss.

The 2019 State of EdTech Privacy Report indicated an overall lack of transparency and inconsistency in data privacy and security for products created for children and students. The researchers evaluated and compared 150 privacy policies from most popular EdTech providers to see how the data is managed based on the Use Responsibility Tier indicator. 

The indicator included the following categories that were evaluated: Data Collection, Data Sharing, Data Security, Data Rights, Data Sold, Data Safety, Ads and Tracking, Parental Consent, and School Purpose.

According to the findings, 80% of applications and services did not meet the minimal data transparency and safety threshold. This means that either particular steps aimed at protecting the user data were not adequately and clearly defined, or privacy policy was not developed in detail by EdTech providers.

Nevertheless, the report indicated progress in median overall privacy evaluation full scores which increased by 15% (to an overall of 52%) compared to 2018. This means that there was a positive dynamic in privacy and data security steps that EdTech companies took. However, the researchers suggest that this overall median score is lower than expected considering that many of these apps and services are made for children and students.

There are a variety of organizations, such as Future of Privacy Forum, that advocate and consult on the development of data security and privacy policies and procedures, both on international and local levels. Cooperating with such companies and local legislators to develop clear and consistent data management procedures and security policies would be a big step toward social responsibility for EdTech business.

EdTech providers should get involved in creating conditions for technology adoption on local markets

The EU Kids Online 2020 report suggests that European children aged 9–16 use the internet for schoolwork from 16% (Poland) to 46% (Lithuania) of the total time they spend online. The average time children used the internet for schoolwork was 31% across the 19 countries that participated in the survey.

The researchers report that online activities are strongly related to digital skills. According to the report, children in the EU were mostly involved in communication and entertainment activities. This means that children were involved less in education, news reading, and other activities that might require additional digital competencies.

The report questions the myth that kids are overall technically savvy and know how to manage apps and services properly. According to the report, the ability to distinguish reliable from unreliable information varies between 36% and 75%, while the ability to choose the right keywords using online engines varies between 52% and 89% across the 19 countries. Children from Spain, Switzerland, Germany, France and Italy scored the lowest in these categories.

Additionally, while most children know how to install a mobile app, there is a lack of knowledge of how to manage and monitor the costs of app usage. The number of kids who lack this knowledge varies between 48% and 84% across the countries surveyed.

While these numbers show a snapshot of children’s digital competencies in the EU, similar problems might exist among other population groups, among which could be educators, school administrators, and policymakers — important stakeholders in EdTech adoption decision-making.

Lack of digital competencies and media literacy may become serious barriers to introducing education technology, especially in less developed regions. Considering the issues described here, EdTech companies could try cooperating with local media literacy and digital skills development programs to market their products responsibly and more efficiently.

Conclusion: Doing EdTech business in the 21st century can’t be just about money

While one of the primary business goals is revenue, there are certain factors that affect the ways that revenue is earnt. In the modern world, there are manifold concepts of capital; apart from economic capital (money, assets), one should also account for such forms as symbolic capital (prestige, reputation, acknowledgement), cultural capital (knowledge, expertise, taste) and social capital (bonds, community, social networks, attitudes) to be successful on the market.

This article mentioned a few possible ways for the EdTech business to be socially responsible and to build on these different forms of capital. The strategies mentioned included active involvement in advocacy and policy-making both locally and globally, enhancing data security and management, and assisting in digital skills and media literacy development among users and stakeholders.

There is much more that could be done to both increase one’s business value and to assist with the overall development of the EdTech industry. However, the three directions mentioned here are the basics of good business practice for a technological company in the digital age.