Risks Of Overdependence By Public Institutions On Commercial EdTech Intermediaries

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Risks In Overdependence By Public Institutions On Commercial EdTech Intermediaries
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The continuous improvement of delivery platforms is sending shock waves across the education sector. LMS are becoming a more important factor in decision-making, be it students looking for part- or full-time education or companies choosing a learning solution. In short, LMS are reshaping the academic world.

Looking into the future, debates over quality and coverage are likely to focus on LMS. While many countries have vast education systems and infrastructure, very few are committing to the technological side of the operation. As a result, the supply of LMS for many public education institutions has been the norm. This is true in the US as well as countries at all levels of wealth and education expenditures. Margaret Mattes, contributor at The Century Foundation, argues that “the involvement of a third-party in providing services so intertwined with the actual teaching and learning also presents potential risks to quality and value in the education.”

In her view, the US in particular is particularly at risk, as commercial LMS dominate a field that has grown by betting on offers where technology is more important at each new iteration. Blended learning, distance education, and MOOCs are only recent examples of a trend of deeper reliance on digital technologies.

But the fact that private companies are the ones servicing the technological platforms is not in and of itself a problem. In fact, allowing the private sector to fill in the infrastructure or technology gaps has made many areas of government more dynamic. As long as public institutions have the expertise to set clear frameworks, processes, and regulations for private contractors to follow, LMS providers can bring cutting-edge technological solutions at competitive prices.

Unfortunately, tech ability on the public side is lacking in many places, particularly in the US. Mattes sees evidence of this in the sprawling OPM (Online Program Managers) business, which to some extent bridges the gaps between public institutions and providers of learning technology solutions. It is estimated that the OPM industry is valued at $1.5 billion USD, with annual growth rates of up to 35% since 2015.

While we can safely assume the figure above is paid off with public funds, there is no evidence OPM companies have been involved in any meaningful capacity building. In fact, sustaining the growth rates would mean they are concerned with increasing their intermediation, not reducing it.

While The Century Foundation report builds a fact-based case of the issues that should be addressed at both the institutional and policy level, no considerations are given to open approaches in terms of platforms (LMS), content, and data. If public expenditures of OPM continue their double-digit growth, officials might want to consider an intermediary that supports open source technologies and promotes vendor independence.

Read The Century Foundation’s report “The Private Side of Public Higher Education” here.


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