13 Dec 2023

US EdTech deeply embedded in NZ school system with 'discounted prices, additional benefits'

12:45 pm on 13 December 2023
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Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Papers show the Education Ministry is deepening its ties with big US tech firms, including having weekly meetings with Google and Microsoft.

The extent of US EdTech's reach into schools has been under scrutiny in New Zealand and overseas, around the gathering of students' personal information and what is done with it, the habituation of children to certain types of technology, and the big foreign firms' hold on the education market.

The ministry spends more than $10m a year on deals with Microsoft and Google, for software licences that schools use for free.

For a new deal last year, the ministry wrote up a plan - newly released under the OIA - that said it needed a "closer, more collaborative relationship" with Microsoft.

It celebrated the "great value for money" from "extremely large" discounts it was getting from Microsoft.

It also warned it was too late to swap out. "A change of software technology would cause significant inconvenience and costs for schools, as they have built their teaching practices and school administration around the use of these products."

The OIA papers also show senior officials have been having weekly meetings with Microsoft and with Google since early 2022.

The ministry keeps no record of what they talk about, saying it is not important enough to record.

It is an exclusive arrangement. "The ministry does not hold regular meetings with any other EdTech providers," Ministry chief digital officer Stuart Wakefield told RNZ.

Local EdTech companies have said they struggle to get access to officials. Last year, several of the local companies signed a pledge not to spy on schoolchildren.

The ministry's contract with Microsoft is worth $27 million over three years, and with Google $10.5m from 2018-24.

"Due to competition between similar providers to gain a position in the education sector, e.g. Google and Apple, suppliers offer substantially discounted prices and additional benefits not offered to other sectors," its plan said.

It did the original deal with Microsoft 21 years ago - but the records of that agreement were "missing", Wakefield said.

"The ministry's records management system does not record the reason for this, or who is accountable," he added.

"I acknowledge that this is suboptimal, and my team will continue to investigate the matter."

The dominant position of two US companies in local schools has grown over time.

The later Microsoft agreements are variations on the 2002 deal, but for a greatly expanded range of software services for students and administration, and higher security settings.

When the ministry signed with Microsoft last year for another three years, it sought an exemption from having to run an open tender, arguing it really could not go anywhere else because "Microsoft licensing is currently deployed in many NZ schools".

The ministry also worked with Microsoft on a confidential project to put more AI into schools in 2020, before it was aborted in 2021.

Two years ago, Google agreed with the ministry to add Workspace for Education+ licences to its offerings, and these are now used by almost 1200 schools.

The OIA response shows Google's weekly meetings with officials began in April 2022, and are often attended by the ministry's IT commercial specialist and the commercial manager.

The meetings covered work programmes, "significant updates and future developments that may affect access", but did not meet the policy threshold to take minutes, Wakefield told RNZ - only "substantial conversations and verbal sign-off" had to be recorded.

When Google offered more discounted tech recently, "the ministry did not consider alternative technology as most schools were already using Google", it said in an earlier OIA response in October.

"No external experts were consulted in the [ministry] decision to procure Google software" and there was no tender.

The ministry's position is that it is up to schools what they and their students use - they were "free to decide".

"Schools were already using Microsoft and Google software before the ministry commenced any procurement," it said in the OIA.

"However, centralised funding [by the ministry] has resulted in reduced costs to schools and additional value."

The spreading take-up of the US tech was a big plus for the government's policy of giving digital access to all children, it said.

The Privacy Foundation in a study last year pointed out that schools lacked the power and know-how to negotiate their own deals, while the deals the ministry did "were never specifically audited or checked against privacy risks for children".

A UK study into EdTech found that when in class a child clicked on a common EdTech link, the interaction began to be tracked by about 40 third parties including various ad services and analytics.

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