Voices in Education

Platform Studies in Education
One of the most significant changes to education in the last decade is the proliferation of platform technologies in teaching, learning, and administration. Even before a pandemic accelerated schools’ adoption of platforms for online instruction, educators relied on such technologies to share assignments and synthesize data (Google Classroom), manage classroom behavior (ClassDojo), monitor school devices (GoGuardian), assess student learning (Kahoot), communicate with families (SeeSaw), and supplement instruction (Khan Academy). According to one study, in 2019 US districts accessed, on average, over 700 digital platforms each month. As of 2021, this number has doubled.

Education’s growing dependence on a constellation of third-party platforms has profound implications for policy and practice. It cedes tremendous power to companies that are unaccountable to the publics that schools are meant to serve, and it leaves teachers and students at the mercy of technical and commercial decisions they have no say in making. And yet, we know surprisingly little about the impacts of this arrangement on educational systems—much less how we might confront them. One reason for this is that platforms tend to be studied—when they are studied at all—in isolation, as standalone “tools” for teaching and learning. They are evaluated based on their effectiveness at accomplishing a particular task, not on the ways their use, over time and alongside other platforms, might be changing the conditions and governance of public education.

Our recent essay, “Platform Studies in Education,” argues that there is a pressing need for scholarship and pedagogies that take up this latter line of inquiry. Rather than seeing platforms as “tools,” we suggest they are better understood as “environments” that introduce competing social, technical, and political-economic imperatives into the learning contexts where they are embedded. We draw on the growing, multidisciplinary literature of “platform studies” to show how this orientation can attune educators to the ways platforms simultaneously empower and exploit their users, and we spotlight ongoing work across subfields of education that offers models for analyzing and intervening in the challenges platforms pose for equitable student flourishing.

Importantly, the growing scale and influence of platforms in education around the world means that confronting these challenges isn’t a project best left to individuals. In addition to deep, localized scholarship there is need for coalitions that mobilize multidisciplinary and transnational communities to contest the escalating ambitions of platform providers. As an initial gesture toward such practices, our essay introduces a larger symposium whose articles integrate different disciplinary and national perspectives to explore the changing role of platforms in education policy (Williamson et al., 2022), classroom interactions (Pangrazio et al., 2022), and public-private systems (Kerssens & van Dijck, 2022).

Together, these articles invite researchers, educators, and policymakers to adopt a different posture toward the platforms that school systems increasingly find themselves tethered to. Rather than weighing their effectiveness as standalone tools, we might ask instead: whose interests are (or aren’t) served by this platform? What imperatives does it introduce into the systems where it is implemented? How do these imperatives support (or undercut) the values and professional expertise of educators or the long-term stability of public education as an institution? What policies and practices are needed to regulate or reconfigure platform technologies so they are accountable to the public and can better serve the aims of equitable education for all? While these questions don’t have easy answers, they are a necessary starting point if we don’t want to cede decisions about the future of education to the platform providers who are most eager to make them for us.

About the Author: T. Philip Nichols (phil_nichols@baylor.edu) is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Baylor University, Waco, TX. Antero Garcia (antero.garcia@stanford.edu) is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University, Stanford, CA. They are the authors of "Platform Studies in Education" in the Summer 2022 issue of Harvard Educational Review.