This blog is based on a presentation to the 2021 SRHE Research Conference, as part of a Symposium on Universities and Unicorns: Building Digital Assets in the Higher Education Industry organised by the project’s principal investigator, Janja Komljenovic (Lancaster). The support of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is gratefully acknowledged. The project introduces new ways to think about and examine the digitalising of the higher education sector. It investigates new forms of value creation and suggests that value in the sector increasingly lies in the creation of digital assets.
In the context of the current SARS-COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing process of digitalisation of education has become a prominent area for social, financial and, increasingly, (critical) educational research. Higher education, as a pivotal social, economic, technological and educational domain, has seen its activities drastically affected, and Universities and the multitude of people involved in them have been forced to adapt to the unfolding crisis. HE researchers agree both on the unpreparedness of countries and institutions faced by the pandemic, and on its potential lasting impact on the educational sector (Goedegebuure and Meek, 2021). In as much as educational technologies (EdTech) have been brought to the fore due to their pivotal role in the enablement and continuation of educational practices across the globe, EdTech companies and investors have also become primary financial beneficiaries of these necessary processes of digitalisation. The extensive use and adoption of EdTech to bridge the gap between HE professionals and students due to the application of strict social distancing measures has been welcomed by investors as an opportunity for EdTech to establish themselves as key players within an educational landscape under a process of assetisation (Komljenovic, 2020, 2021). Investors and EdTech are scaffolding new digital markets in HE, reshaping the conceptualisation of universities, HE and the sector itself more generally (Williamson, 2021; Komljenovic and Robertson, 2016). In this brief entry, I focus on EdTech investors’ discourses, owing to the potential of such discourses to shape the future of educational practices broadly speaking.
Within the ‘Universities and Unicorns’ ESRC-funded project, this exploratory research (see full report) aimed at unveiling the ideological uses of linguistic, visual and multimodal devices (eg texts and charts) deployed by EdTech investors in a variety of texts that have the potential, due to their circulation and goals, to shape public understandings of the role of Educational Technologies in the unfolding crisis. The research was conducted deploying a framework anchored in Linguistics, specifically cognitive-based approaches to Critical Discourse Studies (CL-CDS; eg Mármol Queraltó, 2021b). A central assumption in this approach is that language encodes construal: the same event/situation can be alternatively linguistically formulated, and these can have diverse cognitive effects in readers (Hart, 2011). From a CL-CDS perspective, then, texts can potentially shape the way that the public think (and subsequently act) about social topics (cf Watters, 2015).
In order to extract the ideologies underlying discourse practices carried out by HE investors, we examined qualitatively a variety of texts disseminated in the public and semi-private domains. We investigated, for example, HolonIQ’s explanatory charts, interviews with professionals and blog entries (eg Charles MacIntyre, Alex Latsis, Jan Lynn-Matern), and global financial reports by IBIS Capital, BrightEye Ventures, and EdTechX, among several others. Our main goal was to better understand how EdTech investors operationalised discourse to shape the imageries of the future in the relationship between HE institutions, EdTech and governance. In line with CDS approaches, we examined the representations of social actors in context using van Leeuwen’s (2008) framework, and more in line with CL-CDS, we also operationalised the analysis of metaphorical expressions indexing Conceptual Metaphors, and Force dynamics. Force-dynamics is an essential tool deployed to examine how the tensions between actors and processes within business discourse are constructed (see Oakley, 2005).
Our study yielded important findings for the critical examination of discourse processes within the EdTech-HE-governance triangle of influences. In terms of social actor representation (whose examination also included metaphor), the main findings are:
- EdTech investors and companies are rendered as opaque, abstract collectives, and are positively represented as ‘enablers’ and ‘disruptors’ of educational processes.
- Governments are rendered as generic, collective entities, and depicted as necessary funders of process of digital transformation.
- Universities or HE institutions are mainly negatively represented as potential ‘blockers’ of processes of digital transformation, and they are depicted as failing their students due to their lack of scalability and flexibility.
- Individuals within HE institutions are identified as numbers and increasing percentages within unified collectives, students routinely cast as beneficiaries in ‘consumer’ and ‘user’ roles, while educators are activated as ‘content providers’.
- Metaphorically, the EdTech sector is conceptualised as a ‘ship’ on a ‘journey’ towards profit, where HE institutions can be ‘obstacles along a path’ and the global pandemic and other push factors are conceptualised as ‘tailwinds’.
- The EdTech market is conceptualised as a ‘living organism’ that grows and evolves independent of the actors involved in it. The visual representations observed reinforce these patterns and emphasise the growth of the EdTech market in very positive terms.
The formulation of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors is also essential to understand the discursively constructed ‘internal tensions’ within the sector. In order to examine these factors, we operationalised Force-dynamics analysis and metaphor, which allowed us to arrive to the following findings:
- Push factors identified by investors driving the EdTech sector include the SARS-COVID19 global pandemic, the digital acceleration being experienced in the sector prior to the pandemic, the increasing number of students requiring access to HE, and investors’ actions aimed at disrupting the EdTech market.
- Pull factors encouraging investment in the sector are conceptualised in the shape of financial predictions. The visions put forward by EdTech investors become instrumental in the achievement of those predictions.
- The representation of the global pandemic is ambivalent and it is rendered both as a negative factor affecting societies and as a positive factor for the EdTech sector. The primary focus is on the positive outcomes of the disruption brought about by the pandemic.
- Educational platforms are foregrounded in their enabling role and replace HE institutions as site for educational practice, de-localising educational practices from physical universities.
- Students and educators are found to be increasingly reframed as ‘users’ and ‘content providers’, respectively. This discursive shift is potentially indicative of the new processes of assetisation of HE.
On the whole, framing business within the ‘journey’ metaphor entails that any entities or processes affecting business are potentially conceptualised as ‘obstacles along the path’, and therefore attributed negative connotations. In our case, those entities (eg governments and HE institutions) or processes (eg lack of funding) that metaphorically ‘stand in the way of business’ are automatically framed in a negative light, potentially affording a negative reception by the audience and therefore legitimising actions designed to remove those ‘obstacles’ (eg ‘disruptions’). EdTech companies and investors are represented very positively as ‘enablers’ of educational practices disrupted by the SARS-COVID19 pandemic, but also as ‘push factors’ in processes of digital acceleration within the ‘speed of action is speed of motion’ metaphor. In the premised, ever-growing EdTech sector, those actors and processes that ‘slow down’ access to profits (or processes providing access to profit) are similarly negatively represented. The conceptualisation of the SARS-COVID-19 global pandemic in this context reflects ‘calculated ambivalence’. This ambivalence was expected, as portraying the pandemic solely as a relatively positive factor for the HE sector would be in extreme detriment to EdTech investors’ activities. Our findings reflect that, while the global pandemic is initially represented as a very negative factor greatly disrupting societies and businesses, those negative impacts tend to be presented in rather vague ways and in most occasions the result of the disruption brought about by the pandemic is reduced to changes in the modality of education experienced by learners (from in-person to online education). We have found no significant mention of social or personal impacts of the pandemic (eg deaths and scenarios affecting underrepresented social groups), where the focus has been mainly on the market and the activities within it. Conversely, while the initial framing of the pandemic is inherently negative, we have seen in several examples above that the pandemic is subtly instrumentalised as a ‘push factor’, which serves to accelerate digital transformation and is hence a positive factor for the EdTech sector. In a global context of restrictions, containment measures and vaccine rollouts, it is especially ideologically relevant to find the pandemic instrumentalised as a ‘catalyst’, or as an important player in a ‘experiment of global proportions’. Framing the pandemic in such ways detaches the audience from its negative connotations, and serves to depict EdTech companies and investors as involved in high-level, complex processes that abstract the millions of diverse victims to the pandemic. Ultimately, in the ‘journey’ towards profit, the SARS-COVID-19 is a desired push factor, also realised as a ‘tailwind’, which facilitates the desired digital acceleration.
On the whole, our research demonstrated that social actor representation and the distinction between push/pull factors are crucial sites for the analysis of EdTech discourse. EdTech’s primary focus is on the positive outcomes of the disruption brought about by the pandemic. In this context, educational platforms are foregrounded in their enabling role and replace HE institutions as site for educational practice, de-localising educational practices from physical universities. Subsequently, students and educators are found to be increasingly reframed as ‘users’ and ‘content providers’ respectively. We argue that this subtle discursive shift is potentially indicative of the new processes of assetization of HE and reflects more broadly a neoliberal logic.
Javier Mármol Queraltó is a PhD candidate in Linguistics in Lancaster University. His current research deals with the multimodal representations of discourses of migration in the British and Spanish online press. He advocates a Cognitive Linguistic Approach to Critical Discourse Studies (CL-CDS), and is working on a methodology that can shed light on how public perceptions of social issues might be influenced by both the multimodal constraints of online newspaper discourse and our shared cognitive capacities. He is also interested in the multimodal and cognitive dimensions of discourses of Brexit outside the UK, news discourses of social unrest, and the marketisation/assetisation processes of HE.