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Code Acts in Education: Breaking Open the Black Box of Edtech Brokers

A new kind of organization has appeared on the education technology landscape. Education technology ‘brokers’ are organizations that operate between the commercial edtech industry and state schools, providing guidance and evidence on edtech procurement and implementation. Staffed by new experts of evaluation and decision-making, they act as connective agencies to influence schools’ edtech purchasing and use, as well as to shape the market prospects of the commercial edtech companies they represent or host. As a new type of ‘evidence intermediary’, these brokerage organizations and experts possess the professional knowledge and skills to mobilize data, platform technologies, and evidence-making methods to provide proof of ‘what works’, demonstrate edtech ‘impact’, and provide practical guidance to school decision-makers about edtech procurement.

Although brokers represent a novel point of connection between the edtech market and state systems of schooling, little is known about the aims or practical techniques of these organizations, or their concrete effects on schools. Edtech brokers are ‘black boxes’ that need opening up for greater attention by researchers and educators.

We are delighted to have received an award from a global research partnership between KU Leuven and the University of Edinburgh, which is funding a 4-year full-time PhD studentship to research the rise of edtech brokers with Mathias Decuypere (KU Leuven) and Ben Williamson (Edinburgh). The project will examine and conceptualize edtech brokerage as part of a transnational policy agenda to embed edtech in education, the operations of brokers in specific national contexts, and their practical influences on schools. The research will build on and advance our shared interests in digital platforms and edtech markets in education, as well as our broader concerns with data-intensive governance and digitalized knowledge production.

We have already identified a wide range of brokers to examine. One illustrative case is the Edtech Genome Project, ‘a sector-wide effort to discover what works where, and why’, developed by the Edtech Evidence Exchange in the US with partnership support from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Carnegie Corporation, and Strada Education Network. It is building a digital ‘Exchange’ platform to enable ‘decision-makers to access data and analysis about edtech implementations’ with a view to both ‘increase’ student learning and save schools billions of dollars on ‘poor’ edtech spending. 

To a significant extent, we anticipate edtech brokers such as the Exchange becoming highly influential platform and market actors in education, across a range of contexts, in coming years.   

Post-Covid catalytic change agencies

In the context of the Covid-19 educational emergency, the role, significance and position of educational brokers have already grown: they are able to marshal their knowledge and expertise to advise schools on the most impactful edtech to address issues such as so-called ‘learning loss’ or ‘catch-up’ requirements.

These evolutions are not radically new. They reflect the increasing participation of private technology companies as sources of policy influence (supported by external consultancies, think tanks and international organizations) in education systems worldwide; and the rise in new types of ‘evidence’ production, including ‘what works’ centers and ‘impact’ programs, and the related emergence of new kinds of professional roles for evaluation and evidence experts in education.

However, especially during the Covid-19 emergency, brokers have begun asserting their expertise and professionality to support schools’ post-pandemic recovery, and creating practical programs and platforms to achieve that aim. Not only are edtech brokers positioning themselves as experts in evaluation and evidence, or as connective nodes between private companies and public education; they act as catalytic change agencies advising schools on the appropriate institutional pathways and product purchases to make for digital transformation.

Ambassadors and engines

We have initially identified two types of brokers:

  1. Ambassador brokers represent either a single technology provider or a selected sample of industry actors. They provide sales, support and training for specific vendor products, including global technology suppliers such as Google and Microsoft, acting as supporting intermediaries for the expansion of their platforms and services into schools.
  2. Search engine brokers function as public portals presenting selected evidence of edtech quality and impact to shape edtech procurement decisions in schools. They function as searchable databases of ‘social proof’ of ‘what works’ in the ‘edtech impact marketplace’, enabling school staff to access product comparisons and evaluative review materials.

Edtech brokers represent significant changes in the ways state education is organized. Both types of brokers operate as or through platforms that offer (part of) their services through digital means, exemplifying as well as catalyzing fast-paced digital transformations in education systems.

Ed-tech brokering is furthermore a global phenomenon, with initiatives variously funded by international organizations, philanthropies, national government agencies, and associations of private companies, representing concerted transnational and multisector reformatory ambitions to embed edtech in schools.

Edtech brokers all draw on ‘evidence’ and ‘scientific evaluations’, making it accessible and attractive for decision makers in schools. They are thereby shifting the sources of professional knowledge that inform schools’ decisions towards particular evaluative criteria of quality, impact, or ‘what works’. More particularly, ed-tech brokers are emblematic of the rise to power of new types of professionals and new forms of expertise in education.

Overall, we approach brokers as new intermediary actors in state education that are shifting the cognitive frames by which educators and school leaders think and act in relation to edtech. Brokers not only generally guide users’ decision-making processes and cognition; they equally contribute to structure particular forms of education and make specific forms of education visible, knowable, thinkable, and, ultimately, actionable.

The social lives of brokers

This project examines the transnational expansion of edtech brokering as a new organizational type and a new form of professionality in education, and provides an up-close empirical examination of its practical work and concrete effects, by opening the ‘black box of edtech brokering’ in different national contexts. We will utilize a social topology framework to study the policy ecosystem, platform interfaces, and data practices of edtech brokers, as well as their effects on school users of these services.

Exploring the fast-developing intermediary role of edtech brokers is crucial both for academic purposes as well as for the educational field itself: brokers are assembling the knowledge, expertise and platforms through which post-pandemic education will be defined. Because of their very position as connective intermediaries between specific schools and the edtech corporate world, brokers translate both the objectives of edtech companies and educational institutions into shared and context-specific aims. In doing so, they reformat, redo, restructure, and reconceive what education is or could be about.

Moving from the transnational level of edtech brokering as an emerging phenomenon to the ‘social lives’ of edtech brokers in action, the project will drill down to their influence on decision-making in schools in comparative national contexts. In countries such as Belgium and the UK, we have already observed how both ambassador and search engine brokers are actively seeking to influence the uptake and use of edtech in schools. The project will commence autumn 2021, with fieldwork to be carried out in Belgium and the UK.

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Mathias Decuypere

Mathias Decuypere is an Assistant Professor at KU Leuven in Belgium.

Ben Williamson

Ben Williamson is a Chancellor’s Fellow at the Centre for Research in Digital Education and the Edinburgh Futures Institute at the University of Edinburgh. His re...