Edtech and education are as full of hypocrisy, cant and mendacious action as any part of the economy.
The sooner we accept this, the better we can, as individuals and as organisations,examine and calibrate our attitudes and ideas.
The recent possible boycott BETT, is but one example. I had a minor role in raising the issue of BETT’s owners, Hyve PLC, running events in Russia when many listed companies had decided to withdraw from that market due to Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Hyve’s response was a carefully crafted announcement released after the close of trading on the London Stock Exchange announcing Hyve would ‘formally exit the Russian market’. In fact in a statement to SchoolsWeek, it’s CEO went further declaring, “no longer be profiting from events in Russia nor investing in or receiving cash from Russian operations. Hyve branding will be removed from all Russian events going forward.”Job done? Maybe, as these are classic holding statements straight from Crisis Comms 101; commit to something but with few if any specifics as the situation may change and so might the required actions. To be fair to Hyve they are limited by LSE rules in what they can say and at a practical level, Russia accounts for almost 50% of their entire business, so it’s not something they can simply close overnight. As a listed company their first legal obligation is to shareholders and with 16% of these being hedge funds (notoriously litigious activist investors) they will have to try and maximise any return on the disposal of their significant portfolio of events in Russia, or risk being caught up in expensive litigation with their shareholders.
While the threat of a boycott of BETT is over (happily as I really want to go) quite how Hyve’s formal exit might occur or whether if the war ends they think the decision is no longer required is something to watch. But we are still a long way from ethical edtech.
China is just as complex, with many UK edtech companies hoping to sell their wares there. The problem is that they are doing so knowing (or pretending not to) that all the data from students using edtech in China has to be handed to the Chinese government and will inevitably have some impact on the users’ Social Credit Score. I have been deeply uncomfortable with this for several years, along with the issue of the treatment of China’s Uighur population; and as usual I seem out of step with most of the UK edtech community as well as the government and trade bodies like BESA. This week BESA courageously led the stakeholders putting pressure on Hyve over Russia, but they also have been actively involved in promoting their members interests in China. In 2016, BESA organised and led a trade mission to China on behalf of the Department for Industry and Trade (DIT) for 17 ‘leading UK edtech companies’ and the then Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Jo Johnson MP (Now Lord Johnson). In 2018 BESA’s CEO accompanied the Prime Minister on a Chinese trade mission and in 2020 BESA launched the UK-China export engagement programme, funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (but delivered by BESA), to ‘provide opportunities for UK companies to meet leading Chinese education companies and take part in cultural understanding and business briefing activities with key Chinese education institutions and policy-makers’. Do IP theft, mass imprisonment, possible genocide and invasive state surveillance impact on BESA’s thinking about the Chinese market? I’d like to think so, particularly given their strong stance on Russia’s war in Ukraine, but I have yet to see any evidence of it.
Ethical edtech should be highly critical and circumspect about doing business in China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and many other countries; however economic and self interest seem to trump our higher educational and civic ideals almost every time.
BETT, boils down to the level of hypocrisy we accept in our individual morality. I’m torn about BETT; I really want to go to see friends, colleagues and new ideas, but at the same time realise the realpolitik of business means Hyve, despite their stated goal, probably can’t totally sever their business association with Russia, at least not by the time (normally at the start of April) when their staff will start selling exhibition space for BETT 2023. At best I can hope to discuss this issue with people at BETT, and to try and see how we can help Ukraine’s students, educators and their families.
As someone who popped my head above the virtual parapet to challenge BETT’s owners, I haven’t done anything particularly moral or worthwhile (Josh Perry’s blog however did both) when you consider the stark reality facing Ukrainians for opposing Russia’s illegal and immoral invasion.
Can edtech be ethical? Yes, but only within the context of our own personal moral limitations.