Big Tech companies have got universities in their sights

Linda J. Dodson

“Part of our education system is doing what they need – our Caltechs and MITs and so on are doing what they need – but that’s not what most of our education system is doing,” says Richard Scott, emeritus professor of sociology at Stanford University, who co-authored a book about Silicon Valley’s relationship with the school system.

Technology has tried to intervene in education before, without the desired results. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) were heralded as the future of teaching back at the start of the last decade. But high dropout rates and low engagement put paid to that idea.

Online education is not straightforward. Any parent who has spent the last three months standing over bored and restless children spending hours each day staring at their teacher and classmates on Zoom will tell you that it’s a tough ask.

In Kansas, Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s Summit Learning was embroiled in controversy after some parents pulled their children out of the public school system because they were unhappy with the levels of screen time involved in the programme.

And any further expansion of tech companies’ empires is likely to be viewed with suspicion, particularly over their use of data.

In 2015, digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation claimed that Google had been mining students’ data and sharing it with the company’s other services, forcing the business to change some of its practices.

Tech companies have also been accused of seeing the education market as a way to begin embedding themselves in students’ lives.

“It’s that early brand loyalty – if you donate iPads to an elementary school, you’ve got early Apple users, and then all subsequent use of tech has to be Apple-friendly,” says Cherkin.

Galloway says many industry figures believe the value of a degree from elite universities is often simply an expensive signal of someone’s aptitude, rather than the knowledge gained over three or four years, and that tech may be able to improve that.

“When you really think about what is the value of these elite brands, it’s certification. The value comes out of the admissions department. Tech companies could bring in outstanding testing, they could measure student outcomes and probably do a better job.” He says a qualification with Google’s stamp on it could hold as much value as one from a traditional university, and potentially at a fraction of the cost.

Does that make it a good idea? “Quite frankly, in academia, we deserve it. If it’s anything like what’s happened with tech and other industries, our ability to regulate won’t keep up with the pace of change.

“I don’t know if it’ll be good or bad. But what I’m more certain is, it’s going to happen.”

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