Pearson’s Strategy to Disrupt the Education System

(PRNewsfoto/Pearson Education, Inc.)

I recently received a link to a report about Pearson.  Prior to reading it I thought the report was produced by Pearson and would be promoting and justifying their plans for taking over education around the globe.  How wrong I was.  The report, Pearson 2025: Transforming teaching and privatizing education data, was produced by Education International and does not support or promote Pearson’s plans and efforts.  It is informative and alarming.

The first paragraph of the summary the report starts off with raises a number of red flags for me.

Pearson aims to lead the ‘next generation’ of teaching and learning by developing digital learning platforms, including Artificial Intelligence in education(AIEd). It 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 RealizeTM—that has now been integrated with Google Classroom. It seeks to develop direct and lifelong relationships with customers to whom it will provide virtual schooling, professional certifications, assessments, and other services.  (my bolding to emphasize a few red flag items)

The next paragraph talks about a corporate strategy of creating disruptive changes to the teaching profession, delivery of curriculum and assessment, and function of public schools.

These disruptions do not follow a coherent set of educational principles, but capriciously serve the interests of the company’s shareholders.

In my eyes, the above statement pretty much describes the majority of education reform measures we have seen in the last fifteen to twenty years.

Facebook and Google, while possibly the most well-known, are not the only corporations actively collecting data about their users.  Pearson has been collecting user data for some time.

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.  Consent to collect and use the various kinds of data outlined above is not always explicitly sought.

The first of three strategic priorities provided on Pearson’s website starts off “Grow market share…”  Does it come as any surprise that the driving force isn’t educating people but using education to generate profit?  Let’s get back to the report.

Studies of the development of Pearson’s education business have been critical of its prioritising of shareholder profit over the interests of students, teachers, schools and communities (see for example, Ball, 2012; Ball, Junemann & Santori, 2017; Hogan, Sellar and Lingard, 2015; 2016; Hogan, 2018; Hursh, 2015; Junemann, Ball & Diego, 2016; Riep, 2017a; 2017b; Srivastava, 2016; Willamson, 2016).

Pearson’s focus on ‘personalised learning’ is prominently featured in the report.  (see Personlized Learning for more info)  I have broken one paragraph up into the next three quoted sections.

The most significant shift in education in this context will be the move toward ‘personalised learning’ provided by computer-based ‘instructional systems that contain empirical models of the student to predict student behaviors and knowledge, and to act upon these predictions to make pedagogical moves as students progress towards gaining expertise and mastery of the target domain’ (Arroyo et al., 2014, p. 388).

More about such predictions to be presented later.

Pearson’s focus on providing personalised learning as a private service will answer the question of what we should teach today in narrow and partial ways that are shaped by its corporate interests and the demands of its customers.

This raises questions for me about conversations that should take place:  Who should determine what should be taught?  Parents?  The local community?  The state?  The federal government?  Corporations?  Influential foundations and wealthy individuals?

The expansion of the GEI potentially undermines the social purposes of public education (e.g. preparing national and global citizens) and the public transparency, consultation and accountability that should characterise debate about what is taught, how it is taught and for whom it is taught.

Additional conversations should take place to address the purpose of education, what is to be taught, how it is to be taught, and for whom?  Should education help students develop academically, culturally, and intellectually or should it prime the workforce pipeline pump?

The report goes on to address how data will be used to make predictions.

Pearson’s corporate strategy also raises questions about how data will be used to make predictions in relation to people’s capabilities and propensities.
As Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier (2013) have shown, predictions
made about people’s future actions based on such analyses are correlational and may lead to erroneous assessments and decisions. If such predictions are used to steer customers through Pearson’s digital services, then opportunities to learn may be shaped in opaque ways by the algorithms that are used to assess and predict customer’s capabilities. More troublingly, such predictions could be used to grant or withhold access to opportunities offered by Pearson and its partners, such as allowing customers to progress to the next stage of their education or to access other services within its learning platform. The key issue here is the possibility of intervention on the basis of predicted actions, without letting fate play out and providing the opportunity for students to surprise us, as they so often do.

As for a student’s education, will such predictions pigeon hole students with the possibility of stifling their opportunity to develop their full potential?  There are greater implications for the use of data to make predictions.  What if the government started intervening in people’s lives using predications based on data accessible via various interoperable data bases?  Or is this already happening?  Is it possible people could be arrested based on a prediction that they might commit a crime?

The report seems to be making the case that Pearson is encouraging the privatization of schooling, reducing the need for trained teachers, and the accumulation of data.  The bottom line appears to be that Pearson does what it does to make a profit.

Is this report predicting what Pearson will be like in 2025 or is it providing a description of Pearson in the current day?


4 thoughts on “Pearson’s Strategy to Disrupt the Education System

  1. You outdid yourself with this article. Personalised Learning? Truth be told it should be called Personalised Indoctrination. Pearson is evil and it would be my dream to see them banned from the American education market.

  2. Very interesting – but how exactly does growing privatization lead to a reduced need for TRAINED teachers? Also, is their goal fewer trained teachers as a way to increase dependence on their materials? Not sure what all this is driving at, perhaps you could expand? Cheers

    1. Your questions are good ones to direct to Pearson. If Pearson even answered, it would be interesting to see how they address the questions.

      I am going to pull a few statements from the report. I would encourage you to read the report so as not to take the statements out of context.

      “This ‘problem’ can be fixed by ‘overthrowing’ and ‘repudiating’ the ‘classroom teacher as the imparter of knowledge’ and replacing them with ‘increasing reliance on sophisticated tutor/online instruction’ (p.23).”

      “Pearson’s new business strategy aims to accelerate the shift towards reduced need for teachers and schools in order to grow the market for data-driven personalised learning that is provided direct to consumers across their life course. Pearson’s vision for education is one in which the cost and contribution of teachers to public education is reduced, while the company plays a more central role in education provision globally through its new platforms and the data upon which they run.”

      Your second question is a great one. If money can be saved by having fewer trained teachers more money is available for technology. I think the real driver is profit and satisfying the corporate shareholders.


  3. Most homeschool families rely on printed curriculum, but professional teachers should be able to, and many do in private schools, create their own curriculum. You’d think Pearson would be advocating for more at home education. On the bright side unemployed teachers may ban together to form a bigger private school market.

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