Setting the agenda for digitising youth education
Conferences, education fairs and exhibitions, and social media are often described as important and democratic meeting places for schools and teachers. According to this image, teachers can make their voices heard, highlight and discuss relevant teaching issues and share successful teaching concepts and methods. A completely different picture is presented in the study Selling tech to teachers: education trade shows as policy events, published in the Journal of Education Policy.
‘Forums and events of this type are often portrayed as a new kind of grass-roots popular movement that, by providing meeting places, can influence decision-makers and strengthen the teaching profession. But what events in the IT sector allow in terms of form and exchange for teachers and school managers is extremely limited and one-sided,’ says Catarina Player-Koro, who co-authored the study with Annika Bergviken-Rensfeldt and Neil Selwyn.
Fairs and exhibitions, conferences and social media have gained an ever growing influence on policy issues when it comes to digitisation. They are examples of meeting places for private and public participants and interests. Here, profit-making IT and education companies, technology and infrastructure suppliers and education providers present digital technology as a solution to educational problems that are often complex.
Global policy network
In the study, the researchers used the IT exhibition SETT (‘Scandinavian Educational Technology Transformation’) as an example of an event that has had a great impact. SETT, which claims to be ‘Scandinavia’s largest exhibition and conference within innovative and modern learning’, has been held annually in Stockholm since 2011.
Various participants, such as profit-driven IT and education companies, technology and infrastructure suppliers, but also municipalities and trade unions, hold the fair jointly. Internationally there are corresponding events such as BETT (formerly known as the British Educational Training and Technology Show), BETT Latin America and EdTechXAsia.
In their study, the researchers followed the exhibition before, during and after the event, by visiting it, interviewing teachers and analysing the show in social media. The researchers’ main finding is that SETT and similar fairs should be seen as part of a global policy network in which ideas, technology and speakers of various kinds move across different countries and contexts, thereby setting the agenda for digitisation of youth education. This often makes the agenda uniform, superficial and better adapted to commercial than to educational interests.
Outside democratic forums
‘The SETT exhibition is part of a new type of policy process that we see internationally and that’s driven by an economic agenda. The problem is that a significant part of policy work, aimed at the content, curriculum, resources and technology of youth education, takes place outside the ordinary democratic forums for decisions in the sector like classrooms, schools, municipalities and the state,’ Bergviken-Rensfeldt says.
In detail, the study describes the situation facing exhibition participants and how the event offers manipulated communication of exhibitors’ messages, with little chance of knowledge and information being exchanged among teachers. The teachers who attend have few opportunities to make their voices heard, exert influence, pose questions or otherwise express critical comments or be invited to engage in longer discussions. The teachers present also prove to find it difficult to perceive who the message bearers are. Technology companies, app developers, teachers and researchers may have equal influence on what is considered valuable.
‘In that context, the requirement that all teaching must be based on research and proven experience becomes impossible for teachers to assess, and their perception is that the exhibition will convey what they are expected to do in the classroom,’ Player-Koro says.
Instead of knowledge and information sharing, messages are offered in the form of brief slogans as solutions to the complex challenges that exist in the education system. Both programming and inclusion have their place: ‘Programming and coding — accessible to all’, ‘Improved study results’ and ‘Inclusion for immigrants’. The slogans usually take the form of powerful narratives about successful methods and a marketplace for saleable applications and methods. Everyday school challenges and problems with digital technology are rarely presented.
‘Since we’ve now opened schools to both private and state interests in various ways, it’s also important to examine the consequences of that. If this type of IT trade fair is what teachers are offered as in-service IT training in education, it’s extremely problematic. At the same time, there’s democratic potential in a more open discussion about IT in education, but then public interests must have more influence on which issues are important for teachers and schools,’ Catarina Player-Koro says.