#libre: What does it imply that educational institutions use commercial platforms for online learning?


Read the 2020 letter of Constant vzw: “Dear student, teacher, worker in an educational institution,

Together we witnessed how the recent move to ‘distant learning’ has meant that educational institutions have almost without exception turned to online commercial platforms. What we called ‘an elephant in the room’ only a few months ago, has finally trampled all residual ‘room’ in education. It might feel like the change is sudden, but it has been long in the making. A few years ago, your institution confided its networked communication, some of your digital archives and your collaboration tools to tech giants. It started with outsourcing services perceived as not central to education (such as email and internal communication) to Google, Microsoft and Facebook. Contracts were signed with private partners to provide ‘Learning management systems’ such as Blackboard, meaning that the way classes, rosters and exam results are organised, stored and communicated is not anymore in the hands of your institution.

Now ‘on-line teaching’ has rapidly become the norm, schools and universities worldwide have skipped any broader decisional process and signed up for expensive licenses with either Microsoft, Google or Zoom. This happened partially due to the state of emergency related to the pandemic, but mostly because decisions made on the level of IT are usually far removed from the practice of teaching and learning. Regardless of how this pandemic will develop, it is clear that the models for on-line learning, the contracts and dependencies that are now being established, are meant to stay. It is therefore urgent to discuss what they consist of, why they are problematic and how to resist them.

The services of Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Apps are centralised on the datacenters of the licensing companies, and the source code of their software is not distributed. Developing local versions is therefore hardly an option, not even when multiple schools would decide to work on this together. From now on, you are supposed to use tools and platforms for teaching and learning that were never meant for education in the first place. They were produced to streamline business management, to coordinate software development or to support online gaming and you must have noticed how each of them brings along its own forms of pedagogy, normativity and abuse. Otherwise said, these platforms are not neutral. They are the main actors of a concerted effort to move public administration, health-care, commerce and education into the cloud; this in the interest of the companies that run the services, not in the interest of public life. The business models of these companies obviously follow market laws, so apart from engaging in questionable practices such as the exploitation of workforce around the world or the abuse of power that their monopoly position allows them, they will also drag your institution along with the needs of their shareholders.

The regime of constant feedback and value judgement, which already defines formal education, now meets the algorithmic gaze of companies whose business thrives on the process and sale of ever more user data, resulting in a learning environment structured by enmeshed forms of quantification and extraction, of both students and personnel. The Terms Of Use you had to agree to do not give you much agency over your personal data and neither privacy nor security are a priority for these companies. What is important to them is to intensify and optimise forms of capture, making sure everyone is always present, on-line and surveyed. In the process, education managers are provided with an always up-to-date dashboard showing who is on-line, how long and when.

Your institution apparently accepts that educational practice depends on the fortunes of Sillycon Valley billionaires. They allow tech giants to embed themselves into institutional processes, into publicly funded cultural and educational spaces, including ones that are committed to decolonisation and commoning. It pulls your co-workers and your fellow students deeper into the intricate webs of commercial agencies. The dependency of education on cloud-based platforms raises serious issues of institutional framing and their sustainability. Infrastructural expertise leaks away and with it the ability to make decisions about, or even to imagine what an environment for learning together could be like.

Shifting the mode of ‘going on-line’ means getting involved with infrastructural questions and this can take different forms, depending on your institutional situation. It can be as simple as taking a moment to sit together and discuss what other workflows are already possible. You can read the Terms Of Use of on-line tools, and ask your management for their price tag. You can try using community-run decentralised services offered by one of the organisations listed below in parallel. You could reclaim the research and support of alternative digital practices as integral part of the work of teaching and studying, dedicating hours and resources to it when possible. You can confront the contradiction of the default dependency on software giants, which ignores inventive non-centralized practices that students and teachers are already involved in. As they happen often outside of the institution’s contracts, the weight of caring for them falls on the shoulders of independent free software projects that were never intended to provide structural public services.[1] We need to develop more and better forms of communication and exchange between teaching and infrastructure work. It is important to breach the barrier between technological and pedagogical expertise and to re-articulate the already entangled relations between them. In short, we need to have a say in decisions about the technical conditions for education.

This is not just about replacing one platform with a ‘fairer’ one, although it is part of it obviously. It is first of all about taking time to foreground processes that tech-giants want us to stay out of sight. To learn together how to experience technology differently, to develop convivial and critical relationships that acknowledge vulnerability, mutual dependency and care-taking. It means to study, to discuss and to experiment together. Collectively, we can develop other imaginations for the technological infrastructure that education needs, which also means to ask once again what education itself could and should be. It is a process of transition: from expecting efficiency to allowing curiosity; from scarcity to multiplicity and from quick solutions to many possibilities.

Constant, September 1, 2020

[1] An example of such situations comes from this spring’s peak of video-conferencing during the lockdown in Europe, when the French non-profit association Framasoft had to ask on their website to national education institutions to stop using their servers:

March 16, 2020: Framatalk is in overload of use. We ask the people in charge of national education (teachers, students, administrative staff) not to use our services during containment and to ask their referents for advice. We are aware that the Ministry of Education has the means, skills and visibility to create the online services necessary for its proper functioning during a containment. Our association law 1901 (red: in France) cannot compensate for the lack of preparation and willingness of the Ministry. Thank you for reserving our services to people who do not have the IT means of a national institution (individuals, associations, small businesses and cooperatives, collectives, families, etc.).

Discussions, campaigns, further reading:

Tools and platforms:

Free, Libre and Open Source on-line services:

Last modified: 2020-10-19

Published by Constant vzw on: https://constantvzw.org/site/Dear-student-teacher-worker-in-an-educational-institution,3347.html?w=https://constantvzw.org/wefts/distant-elephant.en.html