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Corporate Schooling

If society pressures on schools worked, Monday's timetable could look like this:

Political education
Computer coding
Climate change
Religion
Substance abuse
Financial literacy
Lots of testing

The point is that there are plenty of different pressure groups in society with strong reasons for getting into schools. Some of them are powerful, monied and corporate.

Corporations in schools

For years, the private sector has pushed their own student materials in New Zealand state schools. They include programmes like Iron Brion from Beef and Lamb NZ; Nestlé healthy kids; My greatest feat (McDonald’s); Food for thought (Foodstuffs).

The latest to arrive is a full suite of online computer training courses from Amazon Web Services. It caters to ages 6 to 15+ and includes topics like coding, cloud skills, robotics, programming, machine learning. Some use “gamified” systems, which means game elements.

In this Covid time, we can expect large multinational corporations to offer study materials to fill the gap caused by temporary school closures and interruptions to classes.

Digital programmes and resources can be especially inviting when the main form of contact with students is online.

Corporate complications

But these mostly free courses come with fish-hooks. First off, they’re a step into privatising part of the school curriculum.

Privatising is part of the outsourcing that has characterised state institutions from the social reforms of the 1980s. The twist in this case is that in effect, it's a form of contracting in.

Through their courses, outside corporations introduce their own material to the education curriculum. Once in the school system, they have a platform for their own corporate messages and values.

Not surprisingly, well-packaged corporate materials draw students into a company’s products. A case in point is McDonald's My greatest feat, built around the 2008 Olympic Games.

It encouraged school children to count their steps and take part in a virtual marathon. A website reports that 55% of NZ's primary schools took part, sweeping in over 94,000 children (NZDM Awards 2019).

And McDonald's gained. Their "brand trust scores" surged, some rising by 33%, such as, “Is a company I can trust,” and “Has food I feel good about children eating.”

Click-bait

We cannot be naïve about the offer of free learning materials. Teachers are enormously busy and stretched. It takes time and energy to devise the curriculum and create teaching materials. Pre-packaged courses provide a relief for some of the teaching day.

Not surprisingly, large multinationals are keenly interested in moving into the existing structure of public education. In that way, they don’t have responsibility for the total system, but can benefit from the resources that the state puts into education.

And some of their topics are highly contested. Amazon Web Services, for instance, offers courses and webinars on image recognition and robotics, which are controversial and hotly debated elsewhere in society.

Other sources present fast food choices as healthy options or even a means of weight control, which is why McDonald’s My greatest feat came into existence.

We would expect a sound education system to take a critical approach to such contested issues. But you wouldn't assume that a corporate industry would want to ask questions about products it is promoting.

Ministry and curriculum

It's illuminating to see the Ministry of Education's approach to its curriculum. In response to a query about preparation of curriculum for schools, the Ministry cites its resource document, Climate change – Wellbeing guide.

It's heartening to see that it draws on information "from the Ministry for the Environment, NASA, NIWA, the Institute of Environment Science and Research, Christchurch City Council, MetService and Stats NZ." Theh Ministry adds, "It’s designed to promote critical thinking and problem solving."

Yet overall, the Ministry still takes a light-handed approach to outside contributions, apparently welcoming outside contributions.

Case for the defence

What of the case for corporate curriculum offerings? The corporates would presumably argue philanthropy – that overall, they are acting as responsible corporate citizens, giving back to the community.

They could also argue that they specialise in their own field – they know their product, and so can present information knowledgeably. They could claim they are saving busy school teachers time, by providing materials.

And they could note that some donated programmes simply run themselves, as certain computer courses do.

Each of these points has an answer and just as significantly, creates controversy. The companies know their own areas and will present them mostly in their own interests.

Those promoting financial literacy, for instance, can argue that they are fitting students with necessary future proofing. But it's unsettling that programmes like PrEP help to attract young students into the business world from an early age.

The contained, self-functioning course is a Trojan horse. It has something of the old programmed learning of the 1960s, with every phase and step delivered by the providers and in effect out of the hands of teachers.

Big-Bro future

Overall, Large Tech sees an altered reality. According to Naomi Klein in the Guardian Weekly late May 2020, Silicon Valley is moving fast towards “permanently integrating technology into everyday life.”

NZ won’t be immune to these sweeping changes, nor will schools. Klein thinks we will see “seamless integration of government with a handful of Silicon Valley giants – with public schools, hospitals, doctor’s offices, police and military all outsourcing . . . many of their core functions to private tech companies.”

I therefore urge extreme caution in snapping up corporate programmes in the school's curriculum. It is educators within the school system who should develop curriculum content, based on the needs of learners rather than on corporate capture and profit.

References

Klein, N. (2020, 29 May). How big tech plans to profit from coronavirus pandemic. Guardian Weekly, p. 3.

https://www.theguardian.com/news/2020/may/13/naomi-klein-how-big-tech-plans-to-profit-from-coronavirus-pandemic

Powell, D. (2020). Schools, corporations, and the war on childhood obesity: How corporate philanthropy shapes public health and education. London & New York: Routledge.

David Cooke was formerly at Unitec and at York University, Toronto

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