The ongoing digitalization raises concerns that universities might become too dependent on large tech-corporations. How can one ensure the protection of public values in cooperations with these large suppliers? Together with other stakeholders, Cees Plug (Inholland University of Applied Sciences) and Ewoud de Kok (co-founder and CEO of FeedbackFruits) have tried to come up with an answer to that question. Their ‘collaborative trust framework’ aims to help EdTech providers comply to the demands of higher education institutions.
Influence EdTech on higher education will grow
“Higher education faces the dawn of a massive digitalization that will be partly shaped by the cooperation between EdTech companies and public institutions,” De Kok explains. “Those institutions will be increasingly dependent on EdTech providers. Yet, as a public institution, you want to be able to protect and strengthen your core values in that buyer-supplier relationship.”
Together with a lawyer and experts of publicly funded Dutch universities of applied sciences, SURF and FeedbackFruits, De Kok and Plug aim to start that conversation within the higher education community. “We should hurry while we have time, so we’ll have more time when we’re in a hurry”, De Kok argues.
The current mode of cooperation between public institutions and EdTech providers, which is based on bilateral contracts, will not suffice in the future, Plug emphasizes. “The field of EdTech is relatively young. There are a lot of start-ups that, after some time, either are bought by larger companies or run out of business. As a higher education institution working with such start-ups, that makes you vulnerable. For example, a tool you have incorporated in your educational programs might suddenly disappear. You also run the risk of start-ups gaining so much leverage that they can unilaterally change the conditions of the agreement.”
Find and establish common interests
The spirit in which higher education institutions and EdTech providers cooperate should therefore change, says Plug. How? By agreeing on a path for the future that both parties are to always stand by.
“Can we find an approach that is beneficial to both the supplier (start-ups and scale-ups) and the higher education institution, and can we base a long-term cooperation on that approach? Let’s find ways to make that work. Ways in which the supplier can make money while the public institution can rest assured that intellectual property and public values are protected. That way, the supplier can continue to develop the product or service knowing that it fits the demands of the public institution. The collaborative trust framework we have developed is meant to help EdTech suppliers and higher education institutions reach that understanding and make such agreements.”
Inspiring European EdTech suppliers
The aim of the collaborative trust framework is simple: providing starting EdTech entrepreneurs with the tools to incorporate public values in their business model. “Core values by design”, as De Kok calls it.
“If we look at the landscape now, we see a lot of Big Tech companies from the United States that operate in their own value framework. As these companies are so big, it is hard for the institution to have any influence. Though I have to say Microsoft is an exception to that rule; they are large as well, but they are putting a lot of effort into adjusting to European norms.”
Chinese companies are an alternative to American companies. “I don’t think I even have to get started about that option”, De Kok says. “Most European suppliers are still start-ups or scale-ups, but they are nevertheless on the rise. What if we can inspire those upcoming EdTech suppliers to develop their products in a way that allows them both to be reliable long-term partners for public higher education institutions and to contribute to the protection of public values in a digitalized higher education community? That’s what we root for.”
From core value to deployable practice
It can be hard for EdTech suppliers to translate European core values into practical principles and guidelines, so the framework aims to do it for them. “We will provide the framework open source and involve the whole community in its development”, De Kok and Plug explain – emphasizing that the first versions of the framework are mostly meant to be conversation starters. “It should help to build trust between EdTech companies and higher education institutions. That trust is often missing.”
Building trust, however, is not the only goal. Inspiring the whole of Europe, that is what the developers of the framework are working towards. Therefore, the framework follows a four-step process that is also applicable on the European level. “First, the core values are defined, which are broken down in trust components. Those components are translated into principles, which are in turn are translated to ‘deployable practices’ – clear examples that EdTech developers can follow”, De Kok explains.
The starting point is the value framework of SURF, the collaborative organization for IT in Dutch education and research. That framework is built on the values ‘autonomy’, ‘humanity’ and ‘justice’. As the four-step process is followed, these three values are all translated into good practices.
De Kok uses the core value ‘future proof autonomy’ as an example. “Translated into a principle, that value becomes ‘guaranteeing freedom for students’. Legally speaking, a student owns all data about themselves. However, as they find themselves in a certain educational context, they are not totally free. Students cannot, for example, choose the supplier for the services they need. Hence, a possible practice for autonomy is: suppliers cannot ask students to accept terms and conditions that are not accepted by the institution the students belong to.”
This has been a problem in the past, De Kok explains. “A university can settle with the supplier that student data will not be used for x or y. However, the student themselves, with whom the supplier has not made an agreement about the use of data, must agree on terms and conditions before using a certain service. By including the use of student data for x or y in the terms and conditions the students must agree to, the supplier can work around the agreement with the university.”
Understanding why things went wrong in the past is one of the ways the developers use to construct their framework and its deployable practices. Also, they try to help starting EdTech companies write their articles of association so that does not allow possible future company owners to work in ways that harm public values. “If big investors with bad intentions find out that the by-laws of an EdTech company protect public interests, they will back off – exactly what we want.”
This benefits young EdTech companies too
The benefits of the collaborative trust framework for public institutions are clear. The benefits for start-ups in the EdTech domain are less obvious, but they can be huge, De Kok explains.
“In 2014, when FeedbackFruits was only two years old, we wanted to join SURFconext. SURF, however, demanded privacy and security standards that were really strict at that time. In fact, we had to alter our architecture to be able to comply with those demands. In later stages, those alterations really benefited us since they made it easy to comply with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) of the European Union. When doing business outside of the EU, that GDPR-label always suffices to meet regulations.”
By setting those strict demands, SURF was able to shape FeedbackFruits. That is exactly what higher education institutions should try to do in their cooperation with young EdTech suppliers, De Kok stresses. “There are our chances to guarantee that grown EdTech companies will continue to have the same aim as public institutions. European EdTech suppliers will grow; it is already happening, and it is, given their innovative power, necessary. Hence, when a scale-up grows into a Big Tech company, you want them to keep complying to the public value framework.”
Suspicion pushes EdTech companies to wrong value frameworks
Chances of fruitful cooperations between public higher education institutions and EdTech companies are further favored by the fact that many EdTech entrepreneurs are idealistic. De Kok is far from the only EdTech entrepreneur that tries to support the public interest. However, the efforts of those entrepreneurs are hindered by suspicion from public institutions.
“Even when teachers and students are really satisfied with a product or service, it is hard for EdTech start-ups to make enough money. Often, they have proof of customer satisfaction but lack the money to pay the bills. What will they do, then? Look for investors. Sadly, you’ll see their value framework change as soon as these investors are on board. By not allowing EdTech start-ups to make enough money to stay in business, public institutions push them into the arms of investors with conflicting values. That’s a real shame.”
The challenge to change that course of business is now taken up by public and private parties together. “If we prove that it’s possible to build a successful EdTech business while making the world a better place, it will be easier to board EdTech entrepreneurs on the ship that follows the course of public values.”