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The Maastricht Diplomat

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Study life has moved online and created an edu-business

Graphic: Katherina Petersen via Canva

8 AM: in which room is your class? 1 PM: what do you need to read for tomorrow? 4PM: have you gotten confirmation about the exchange for next semester? A last one: where do you find the answer to these questions? You probably find them on a digital platform. In other words, studying at a higher education institution like Maastricht University does not only mean reading, writing, and attending classes: it also means navigating on and between a plethora of digital platforms, which shows the rise of a new digital market for technology companies.

Ben Williamson, the Chancellor’s Fellow at the Center for Research in Digital Education at the Edinburgh Futures Institute, emphasizes in a study from 2020 how digital platforms have accelerated the tendencies of what he calls: edu-business. The concept refers to a development of market-making of university systems, where new practical devices and technologies have come to reshape them:

“Markets have to be made, including the construction of practical devices and technologies, and (…) they then exert real effects”, which according to Williamson “create new kinds of market behaviors, relations and transactions, changing how people and organizations see and act”. In this sense, the growing amount of digital technology used by universities has real-life effects on their organizational functioning. Wiliamson even calls this “reconstituting the university and the higher education sector”.

To give just a taste of how pervasively integrated platform technology has come to be in modern higher education, Williamson gives a long list of examples ranging from recruitment, virtual learning environments, to, graduate talent analytics, and alumni and graduate relationship management.

The great number of ways technology companies have found a market in university systems is on the surface a sign of pure technological development inline with contemporary innovation trends, but foremost it is evidence of powershifts. According to Kerssens and van Dijck, who in 2021 studied Dutch primary schools’ increasing use of digital platform technology: the Netherlands has seen a stark rise in digital initiatives during the past 15 years leading “to an explosion of different educational apps and digital services”. In other words, the Netherlands has seen a high increase in power shifts between Dutch public education institutions and global technology companies as the former is becoming increasingly reliant on what the latter can provide of cost-efficient technology to fit into the market-making of education.

Most of the digital platform technology used by Ducth education is designed after a principle of intraoperability. On the upside, this kind of design increases user convenience because it integrates multiple services under the same system. On the downside, it both centralizes control over the data flow to a single actor, and accelerates privatization and commercialization of public education. Digital platforms designed after intraoperability, thus, balances user convenience to the detriment of user agency, which in some cases lowers the quality of education, according to the two scholars.

With this in mind, it is clear that the university system has not only changed for students, it has equally changed for its administration and leadership, presenting new opportunities and risks. The digital influx at universities has come to stay, which only underlines the importance of critically assessing aspects like the design of digital platforms before integrating them so that for instance, the quality of education is not lowered for a cost-efficient solution.

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