Digital Education Governance Beyond International Comparative Assessment: Complex Histories, Contested Presents, and Contingent Futures

8 Mar 2022
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Digital Education Governance Beyond International Comparative Assessment: Complex histories, contested presents, contingent futures

Event recordings


International organizations have driven large-scale comparative assessments and quantification as the basis of policy influence, development and diffusion since the mid-20th century, and have been instrumental in shaping education discourse since the turn of the 21st century. A growing body of research, however, has begun identifying the influence of new ‘digital’ actors and methods in the ways education systems, schools, teachers and students are governed and how educational policies are developed, diffused and enacted. Schools are underpinned by digital systems for management and pedagogy, while official agencies employ data infrastructures to formulate and assess policy interventions. The education technology industry, with political and investor support, has introduced new algorithmic capacities of learning analytics, artificial intelligence and automation into classrooms through digital platforms. Global technology corporations such as Google, Microsoft and Amazon have extended their powers in education too, expanding the reach of their cloud architectures, digital platforms, and data mining into schools, colleges and universities worldwide. At the same time, the most powerful governing organization of the last twenty years, such as the OECD, World Bank and UNESCO, have begun ‘digitalizing’ and ‘datafying’ their practices and methods.

The online conference ‘Digital education governance beyond international comparative assessments: complex histories, contested presents, and contingent futures’ provides an opportunity to examine and discuss recent paths of development, current enactments, and possible trajectories for education policy and governance in a time of intensive digitalization and datafication. ‘Digital education governance’ signifies three major interrelated transformations: a structural shift in the organizations, actors and expertise involved in the governance of education; new techniques to govern, control, steer, enable or constrain education systems, institutions, populations and individuals; and changing forms of agency and authority, which make governance more pervasive and challenge the relationship between public and private. The conference will bring together researchers to build a collective knowledge base for future research, theory generation, and critical intervention on digital technologies in education governance.

Hosted by Ben Williamson (Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh) and Barbara Hof (Institute of Education at the University of Zurich), the free online conference takes place online, 25-26 May 2022, on Zoom. If you have any questions about the event, please contact us:




The ongoing datafication of schooling manifests as a highly complex and ambivalent process and through ongoing global-local recontextualization. Thus, it poses significant challenges for researchers who seek to understand and critically disentangle what datafication 'is' and what it 'does' to schooling, both from global and local perspectives. Still, over the past years, a variety of conceptual, method(odolog)ical and empirical approaches has been developed to support such an understanding and disentanglement. The keynote will illuminate some of these approaches, focusing in particular on the critical investigation of data infrastructures, new intermediary actors (e.g., new 'shadow professionals'), and governing practices. Based on these insights, the keynote will equally discuss remaining challenges and blind spots, which should be more systematically addressed in the future.

A CONVERSATION AND Q&A WITH AUDREY WATTERS, author of Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning

Audrey Watters is the acclaimed author of Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning. In this Q&A session, Audrey will discuss the significance of a historical view on digital education governance as a way of understanding the present and confronting future imaginaries. The session will begin with questions from the conference organizers, followed by an interactive Q&A with conference participants.

SYNTHETIC GOVERNANCE: HOW DATAFICATION AND ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE ARE SHAPING EDUCATION, Kalervo N. Gulson (University of Sydney, Australia), Sam Sellar (University of South Australia, Australia)

Science fiction tales about Artificial General Intelligence eclipsing humanity are still, for now, fantasies. However, many AI experts are “spooked” by the prospect of AI outpacing human cognition this century. Amidst this condition of uncertainty regarding the futures of AI, we argue it is now necessary to undertake speculative inquiry into its possible impact on education, and specifically education policy. Focusing on how datafication and artificial intelligence are changing the conditions for education policy and governance, we argue that that governments are increasingly turning to synthetic governance as a strategy for optimizing education. This mode of governance arises from the synthesis of (1) human rationalities, values and practices; (2) new data analytics approaches; and (3) the spread of algorithmic decision-making, including artificial intelligence. This synthesis of human and machine cognition may dramatically alter the way we think about educational problems and their solutions. We will also map some political strategies for responding to changes wrought by algorithms, automation, and data science in education. New strategies and new politics are required to move us beyond debates about datafication and digitalization that sustain distinctions between humans and machines, or education and data-driven rationalities.