Pearson’s vision for ‘next generation’ learning: Disrupting teaching and profiting from student data
By Anna Hogan, University of Queensland & Sam Sellar, Manchester Metropolitan University
Pearson is holding its AGM on Friday April 26 and will outline its plans to increase its share of the rapidly expanding global education market. This is an opportune time to reflect on the potential impact of Pearson’s corporate vision for public education around the world.
Pearson is a new type of edu-business that operates across multiple education sectors and industries in more than more than 60 countries. It aims to lead the ‘next generation’ of teaching and learning by developing digital learning platforms, including Artificial Intelligence in education (AIEd). Pearson is piloting new AI technologies that it hopes will enable virtual tutors to provide personalised learning to students, much like Siri or Alexa. This technology will be integrated into a single platform—Pearson Realize[Symbol]—that has now been integrated with Google Classroom.
Pearson’s vision for education in 2025 laudably promotes the benefits of technological developments and their potential complementarity with teachers. However, its corporate strategy is premised upon creating disruptive changes to the teaching profession, the delivery of curriculum and assessment, and the organisation and function of public schools. These disruptions do not follow a coherent set of educational principles. Instead, Pearson promotes diverse and contradictory educational models that serve the interests of the company’s shareholders ahead of students, families and communities.
While Pearson does not call for replacing teachers, it does promote the view that new educational technologies will require new approaches to teacher professionalism. Teachers must develop non-routine skills that complement digital platforms and AIEd. However, Pearson also endorses the routinisation of teaching in ‘low-fee’ private schools in sub-Saharan Africa, India and parts of South-East Asia. The routinisation of teachers work increases its susceptibility to automation, rather than promoting the complementarity that we need to deliver on the benefits of technological change.
The new platforms and algorithms that Pearson is developing also require and generate large volumes of student data. Pearson collects a range of data from customers, including assignments, student coursework, responses to interactive exercises, scores, grades and instructor comments, details of the books the customer has read or activities the customer has completed. These data are then de-identified and aggregated to monitor how Pearson’s services are used, to conduct educational research, and to support the strategic development of new products and services. Consent to collect and use the various kinds of data outlined above is not always explicitly sought. Moreover, the extent and nature of data collection by Pearson, including in collaboration with large tech companies like Google, makes it difficult for users of its services to understand exactly what data is collected, by whom and for what purposes.
Much of the data that Pearson generates from its services do not appear to be openly available, even though the company has been a strong proponent of open education data in the past. If these data remain locked up in private corporate silos, then their potential benefit for all learners, and for society more broadly, cannot be realised. When governments or other institutions purchase Pearson’s services they support the privatisation of what could be an incredibly valuable piece of public infrastructure. The social benefits of the new volume and variety of education data being generated by Pearson could be greatly enhanced if it were open and shared.
There are a number of other ethical questions that must be asked regarding Pearson’s role in providing ‘next generation’ learning. We live in uncertain times when we have perhaps never been less sure about the types of knowledge and skills that the next generation will need. However, Pearson’s focus on delivering personalised learning as a private service will lead to the question of what we should teach today being answered in narrow and partial ways that serve its corporate interests and the demands of its customers. This potentially undermines the social purposes of public education and the public transparency, consultation and accountability that should characterise debate about what we should teach, how we should teach it and for whom it should be taught.
Pearson’s vision for ‘next generation’ learning is premised on the disruption of the teaching profession and public schooling, including in the Global South through its support for ‘low-fee’ private schools like Bridge International Academies. Moreover, Pearson’s development of digital platforms that enable it to control large volumes of student data raise new ethical concerns about openness, privacy, bias and transparency.
On the occasion of its 2019 AGM, the vision of the ‘world’s learning company’ gives us good reasons to pause and reflect on the potentially damaging effects of its strategy for public education globally.
Download here the report: Pearson 2025: Transforming teaching and privatising education data, by Sellar S. & Hogan A. (2019)