I spent some time over Christmas reflecting on digital education and the post I wrote about digital capabilities and climate back in July, mostly because I was sat in a “bomb cyclone” in New England – another of the extreme weather events which are becoming more regular. I’m not sure what direction I am taking here, but I wanted to put down some thinking that builds on the previous climate post, and also expand on it a bit.
We know that climate change and sustainability are closely linked to consumerism; the consumption of goods and services is a significant contributor to emissions and exploitation of resources. The production and transportation of consumer goods, as well as the energy used to power homes and businesses, all contribute to the current climate crisis. Especially in the global north, consumer culture and the emphasis on constant economic growth structurally (through government policy) encourage people to consume more and waste more, which can further contribute to emissions and waste.
Neoliberal Education Policies
Neoliberalism is an economic and political ideology emphasising free markets, free trade, and limited government intervention in the economy. When we express this simply in the context of education, neoliberalism might often, for example, involve the privatisation of education, fees for post-compulsory education, the introduction of market-based reforms, and an emphasis on employability and preparing students for the workforce.
Consumerism goes hand in hand with this ideology; emphasis on employability and joining the workforce tends to implicitly promote the idea that economic growth is a desired state. So neoliberalism in education and the weight given to employability can encourage a focus on practical, job-oriented skills and can devalue other forms of knowledge. This focuses students on the acquisition of skills that can be demonstrated to employers, it can lead to a narrow view of education where the focus may be on training students to be productive workers and may limit the development of their critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
Even more insidious is the emphasis on competition and individualism often associated with neoliberal education; which can encourage a focus on grades and test scores as a measure of success, rather than on developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills. This can lead to a narrow focus on academic achievement and can discourage the exploration of new ideas and the development of creativity.
There might be a way for neoliberalism and consumerism to have a positive impact on climate and environmental issues. Reducing the environmental impacts of production through the use of cleaner technologies and more efficient processes, encouraging the reuse and recycling of products, and promoting the use of environmentally-friendly products are all possible. But in our current moment, it seems most likely that the emphasis will be on individual achievement and profit in the deployment or invention of these products. On a behavioural front, individuals can be more mindful of their consumption habits and consider the environmental impacts of the products they buy. This could include choosing products that are made from sustainable materials, that are energy-efficient, or that are produced in a way that minimizes environmental impacts. Making more sustainable choices, consumers can help to reduce the negative impacts of consumerism on the environment and mitigate the effects of climate change. But when the emphasis remains on growth, and ignores the larger impact of corporations, government, and the wild overconsumption of the global 1%, that inevitably leads to overexploitation of natural resources.
The culture of employability and “paying for education” instils a need for young people to get a “return on investment” usually on an individual level.
The problem of Education Technology as a free market.
Education technology is linked to consumerism in several ways. First, the education technology market is seen by many governments as a rapidly growing “industry”, and there is often a focus on developing new products and services that can be sold to schools and other educational institutions. This can lead to an industry focus on creating new technologies rather than on improving existing ones, and can also lead to a focus on generating profits rather than on providing high-quality educational resources. There is less incentive to create sustainable or “repairable” hardware because there is more profit in selling new equipment. When it comes to platforms and software, edtech companies are constantly upgrading and building and selling new versions. The new versions are developed to take advantage of the latest and fastest technology, and that means if there is older hardware around it will need to be upgraded. EdTech and education are locked in a cycle of purchasing and upgrading, ultimately driven by the industry’s need to maximise profits. Education institutions participate in this cycle in part because they want to ensure that students are getting the “return on investment”–a goal also driven by neoliberal priorities.
One of the key selling points of some EdTech is the ability to “personalise experiences”. The focus on individualised learning and customisation reinforces priority being given to the needs and preferences of individual consumers rather than to the needs of the educational system as a whole. It could also be seen as reducing the need to collaborate and communicate with peers, except for where it is explicitly structured into the curriculum.
What about Climate Change?
At the start of the post, I said that this is thinking aloud. I am not arguing for the dismantling of the EdTech Industry, nor am I asserting that the EdTech Industry is responsible for the massive emissions – I don’t have the figures for that yet. I am trying to express my concern that current neoliberal education policies, and the viewing of education as an industry to consume, which is also served by a consumer-based EdTech industry, is not helping us reach net zero. Neither in the day-to-day operational aspect of education – and the EdTech arms race for profit, nor in the production of graduates who are emerging with the cultural attributes of consumerism instilled through neoliberal employability agendas.
Footnote. I asked several people to sense-check this post – thank you. One of the things I was asked was why EdTech and education? It’s a fair point. in the grand scheme of things, they’re probably not that big a “polluter” when viewed globally. But I can’t do anything about some of the other structural problems that do contribute to the global climate crisis, I do work in education and edtech, and so I feel that these are conversations we should be having. I also think (hope) that education, and new approaches to edtech, are part of the solution, but that is another post.