Bringing Politics Back in to Plans for the Digital Transformation of Higher Education

woman standing in front of a lecture hall with her back to the camera with the image of a circuit board superimposed on the photograph
Image Credit: Design by Joe Arton. Original photography by Michael Dziedzic and William Moreland on Unsplash.

As part of this month’s theme on Acceleration of Technology and Enhanced Learning, Ben Williamson from the Centre for Research in Digital Education and The Edinburgh Futures Institute writes of the political implications of private-equity backed technology companies steering the ‘digital transformation’ of higher education and pedagogic practice…


The turn to digital technologies in higher education during COVID-19 needs to be understood as both a shift in pedagogic practice and a deeply political event. While valuable lessons remain to be learned about digital forms of education, it’s also important to reflect on how the pandemic has been seized by some organisations as an opportunity for HE reform. Recent ‘digital transformation’ proposals are mounting political and commercial pressure on universities to become digitally-led and data-intensive institutions. This may profoundly affect the purposes and values of HE in a post-pandemic future, while illustrating the growing influence of technology companies during the crisis and shifting forms of power in digitalising societies.

Digital transformation

The declaration of states of emergency worldwide in response to COVID-19 opened up education internationally to intense ‘reimagining’ and proposed ‘digital transformation’. While technologies provided essential short-term mitigation measures against school and campus closures, the mass shift to online teaching was also treated as an experimental model for long-term reform by organisations across the political, non-governmental, and commercial sectors.

The UK Learning and Teaching Reimagined Initiative, for example, is a multisector programme of HE transformation launched in 2020 by Jisc (the digital learning agency), Universities UK (the sector’s representative body), Advance HE (the sectoral ‘strategic change’ and ‘enhancement body’), and Emerge Education (an education investment company), with technical partner Salesforce.org (the ‘social impact center’ of Salesforce, a Silicon Valley software company). The partnership between these organisations represents blurring boundaries between HE, private capital, and technology services, and assumes digital technology will be a driving force of post-pandemic HE recovery.

Its report ‘Digital at the Core’, a strategy for ‘digital transformation’ of UK HE, envisages ‘data-empowered universities’ emulating Silicon Valley platform companies:

Consumer market leaders such as Netflix, Apple, or Uber apply data-driven decisions and provide dynamic experiences based on an individual consumer’s information. Applying these same design principles to higher education can transform the way that our stakeholders experience learning, teaching, research, and professional services.

Written by partners at the investment company Emerge Education, the strategy imagines future universities powered by ‘intelligent information networks’ that ‘enable highly personalised engagement with students and staff, individualised experiences, and actionable strategic intelligence’.

It presents a highly optimistic picture of digital technology, data analytics, and artificial intelligence enhancing and improving management and education practices and outcomes in universities. While the initiative itself is new, the strategy represents how longstanding reform objectives shared among political and commercial alliances have been actively advanced during the COVID-19 emergency.

Cloud campuses

The partnership with cloud software company Salesforce on the strategy indicates how such a vision of HE could translate into practice. Salesforce has promoted its Education Cloud for HE as a ‘platform’ for ‘evolving your institution’s learning models’ during post-pandemic recovery. At the launch of the Jisc strategy, the senior vice-president of Salesforce.org Education Cloud said:

Higher education is at a turning point globally. And there is a tremendous opportunity to reimagine how the sector in the UK should evolve using technology, a pivotal step required to thrive in the next normal. Salesforce.org is proud to work alongside industry peers to develop a framework for digital transformation that will inevitably shape and contribute to future learner and institution success.

Salesforce has the technological capacity to make these visions materialise. Its Education Data Architecture provides a ‘360-degree’ view of student data, combining a range of institutional systems and third-party plug-in apps into one interoperable system.

Its Education Cloud is also ‘infused with Einstein’, the company’s machine learning and predictive ‘artificial intelligence’. As another Salesforce executive put it:

Now, campuses of all sizes are expected to operate more like nimble software organizations—innovating quickly, scaling up virtual service centers, and putting infrastructure in place to support the always-on digital engagement needs of students. … Picture using the underlying technologies in Amazon one-click, Spotify recommendations, or the Apple Watch’s health tracking for higher education.

The strategic digital transformations represented by the Learning and Teaching Reimagined partnership anticipate the emergence of a very new kind of university: a ‘cloud campus’ powered by outsourced digital infrastructure, 360-degree data analytics, automation, and artificial intelligence of the kind pioneered by global technology corporations. This is not just a commercial aspiration. In January 2021 an alliance of politicians, Lords, education technology entrepreneurs, vice chancellors and other education leaders issued a call in the Sunday Times for a ‘radical re-engineering’ of education to provide ‘personalised learning through the use of new technology’ and AI.

HE in a dataist state

The proposed digital transformation of the university as a cloud campus is one manifestation of a new form of ‘digital statecraft’ in a ‘dataist state’, as Marion Fourcade and Jeff Gordon have conceived it. In a dataist state, the state traces the activities of citizens as digital data, and then seeks to intervene to change or optimise their behaviours. These tasks increasingly involve outsourcing data collection, analysis and intervention to commercial technology partners, particularly in sectors such as education otherwise lacking the relevant in-house systems. Machines perform significant parts of the digital statecraft of the dataist state, which for Fourcade and Gordon anticipates ‘the takeover of traditional state functions by a small corporate elite.’

Strategies of digital transformation proposed by many commercial and sectoral organisations are congruent with the power dynamics of the emerging dataist state. Digital transformation of HE will involve outsourcing to giant technology providers, deployment of cloud services, data analytics and AI to trace activities, and remodelling institutions to be more like software organisations. HE institutions may now choose to adopt such digital-first strategies and the corporate values they carry—as exemplary institutions of the dataist state—or, alternatively, amplify their values as purpose-first institutions of knowledge, critical thought, and social development for deeply uncertain futures and challenges.

Clearly, as HE recovers from the pandemic, valuable lessons can be learned from the experience of remote and blended education. The Centre for Research in Digital Education has been developing purposeful approaches to teaching online for many years, critically reflecting on the visions of digital education common in many commercial and governmental organisations. The Edinburgh Futures Institute is developing taught programs to prepare students as critical and creative thinkers in relation to current and future challenges. As these examples indicate, developing post-pandemic HE strategies should involve discussing the purposes of using digital technologies in teaching and learning, while also, crucially, deliberating over the politics of digital transformation proposals, and defining the critical role of education to address the complex challenges of the future.


Photo of the author

Ben Williamson

Ben Williamson is a Chancellor’s Fellow at the Centre for Research in Digital Education, Edinburgh, where his research focuses on educational policy and digital technology. He is the author of Big Data in Education: The digital future of learning, policy and practice (Sage, 2017), an editor of the journal Learning, Media and Technology, and maintains the public research blog Code Acts in Education.

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