This article is part of my research into "who funds education technology," which I plan to expand with my Spencer Education Fellowship
The Omidyar Network announced earlier this week that it has invested in Data & Society, a New York City-based research institute co-founded by danah boyd. The two-year $850,000 grant will fund Data & Society’s work on “the social and cultural issues arising from the development of data-centric technology.”
The grant is just one of a slew of recent investments by the Omidyar Network in companies and organizations that work in and around education technology, including Khan Academy, Hypothes.is, and Edsurge. And much like Edsurge (as well as another portfolio company, Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept), the Omidyar Network’s investment in Data & Society certainly raises questions about that organization’s ability to be “independent” in its research and analysis.
The Omidyar Network, a “venture philanthropy” firm founded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pam, has invested over $1 billion in various projects – those run both by for-profit companies and not-for-profit organizations in finance, public policy, property rights, journalism, and education. According to its promotional materials, the Omidyar Network is “dedicated to harnessing the power of markets to create opportunity for people to improve their lives. We invest in and help scale innovative organizations to catalyze economic and social change.”
The “power of markets,” according to this investment approach, is a force for “social good.” However, the history and the impact of the Omidyar Network’s investments, particularly in the Global South, tell a very different story. It’s a story of neoliberalism; it’s a story of privatized investment at the expense of public infrastructure. And when it comes to education – in the Global North and South – that story is of profound political importance.
The Omidyar Network’s Education Portfolio
Where the dollars have gone:
- African Leadership Academy (leadership training) – $1.5 million
- African Leadership University (accredited university) – investment amount unknown
- Akshara Foundation (private school chain in India) – $950,000
- AltSchool (private school chain in the US) – $133 million
- Andela (coding bootcamp in Africa) – $27 million
- Anudip Foundation (coding bootcamp in India) – $850,000
- Artemisia (entrepreneurial training and startup accelerator program in Brazil) – investment amount unknown
- Aspiring Minds (career placement in India) – investment amount unknown
- Bridge International Academies (private school chain in Africa) – investment amount unknown
- Code.org (computer science career marketing) – $3.5 million
- Common Sense Media (media education) – $4.25 million
- Creative Commons (open licenses) – investment amount unknown
- DonorsChoose.org (crowdfunding school projects) – investment amount unknown
- Edsurge (ed-tech marketing) – $2.8 million
- Ellevation (English-language learning software in the US) – $6.4 million
- EnglishHelper (English-language learning services in India) – investment amount unknown
- FunDza (literacy program in South Africa) – $300,000
- Geekie (adaptive learning platform in Brazil) – investment amount unknown
- Guten News (literacy program in Brazil) – investment amount unknown
- Hypothes.is (annotation software) – $1.9 million
- Ikamva Youth (after-school tutoring program in South Africa) – $1.33 million
- IMCO (think tank in Mexico) – $202,500
- Innovation Edge (early childhood education in South Africa) – investment amount unknown
- Kalibrr (predictive analytics for hiring in the Philippines) – investment amount unknown
- Khan Academy (video-based instruction) – $3 million
- LearnZillion (instructional content and professional development company in the US) – investment amount unknown
- Linden Lab (best known as the maker of Second Life) – $19 million
- Lively Minds (preschools in Ghana and Uganda) – $360,000
- Numeric (tutoring program in South Africa) – investment amount unknown
- Open Knowledge (data and knowledge-sharing organization) – $2.64 million
- Platzi (online coding classes) – $2.1 million
- Reach Capital (venture capital firm) – investment amount unknown
- RLabs (entrepreneurship training in South Africa) – $465,000
- Siyavula (adaptive textbooks in South Africa) – investment amount unknown
- Skillshare (course marketplace) – $12 million
- Socratic (homework help) – $6 million
- SPARK Schools (a private school chain in Africa) – $9 million
- Teach for All (Teach for America, globalized) – investment amount unknown
- Teach for India (Teach for America but for India) – $2.5 million
- The Education Alliance (organization supporting public-private partnerships in education in India) – investment amount unknown
- Tinkergarten (marketplace for early childhood education) – $1.2 million
- Varthana (private student loans in India) – investment amount unknown
- Wikimedia Foundation (operator of Wikipedia) – investment amount unknown
(Funding data drawn from Crunchbase and from the Omidyar Network’s website)
Investment (as) Ideology
In some ways, the Omidyar Network’s education investments look just like the rest of venture capitalists’: money for tutoring companies, learn-to-code companies, and private student loan companies.
While many insist that the latter should not “count” as ed-tech, to ignore the companies offering private financing for education is to misconstrue the shape and direction that investors and philanthropists like Pierre Omidyar want education to take.
It also obscures the shape and direction that these investors are pushing finance to take, particularly for the very poor and the “unbanked.” Indeed, microfinance initiatives in the developing world have been the cornerstone of the Omidyar Network’s investment strategy for over a decade now. This work has been incredibly controversial, and despite the hype about the promise of micro-loans – “financial inclusion” as the Omidyar Network calls it – the results from these programs have been mixed at best. That is, they have not pulled people out of extreme poverty but rather have saddled many with extreme debt. “Take SKS Microfinance,” write Mark Ames and Yasha Levine in a 2013 profile, “an Omidyar-backed Indian micro-lender whose predatory lending practices and aggressive collection tactics have caused a rash of suicides across India.”
(The winners in microfinance investing: the investors.)
In a 2012 article in the World Economic Review, Milford Bateman and Ha-Joon Chang argue that “microfinance in international development policy circles cannot be divorced from its supreme serviceability to the neoliberal/globalisation agenda.” Nor can the Omidyar Network’s investment policy – in microfinance and beyond – be separated from its explicitly neoliberal agenda.
That holds particularly true for its education investments. The Omidyar Network has backed DonorsChoose.org, for example, which encourages teachers to crowdfund projects and supplies. “The end result,” write Ames and Levine, “is that it normalizes the continued strangling of public schools and the sense that only private funding can save education.”
The Omidyar Network has backed AltSchool, a private school startup that blends algorithmic command-and-control with rhetoric about progressive education. “Montessori 2.0” and such. I recently spoke about AltSchool and its “full stack” approach to education – a technology platform that manages and monitors all digital activities and physical practices in the classroom. AltSchool is one of the most commonly-cited examples of how Silicon Valley plans to “disrupt” and reshape education.
I find this “platforming” of education to be profoundly chilling (and profoundly anti-democratic), particularly with its penchant for total surveillance; but it’s probably Bridge International Academies that serves as the most troubling example of the Omidyar Network’s vision for the future of education.
Bridge International Academies, which is also funded by the Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative – is a private school chain operating in several African countries that hires untrained adults as teachers. These teachers read scripted lessons from a tablet that in turn tracks students’ assessments and attendance – as well as teachers’ own attendance and pay. Families must pay tuition – this isn’t free public education – and the cost is wildly prohibitive for most. Moreover, outsourcing to scripted lesson delivery does not build the capacity – in terms of infrastructure or human resources – that many African nations need. As such expansion of Bridge International Academies has been controversial, and the Ugandan government ordered all the Bridge schools there to close their doors in August of last year. But earlier in the year, Liberia announced its plans to outsource its entire education system to Bridge International.
So, while in the US we see neoliberalism pushing to dismantle public institutions and public funding for public institutions, in the Global South, these very forces are there touting the “power of markets” to make sure public institutions can never emerge or thrive in the first place. Investors like the Omidyar Network are poised to extract value from the very people they promise their technologies and businesses are there to help.
Conveniently, the Omidyar Network’s investment portfolio also includes journalistic and research organizations that are too poised to promote and endorse the narratives that aggrandize these very technocratic, market-based solutions.
Disclosure: I have done some paid research for Data & Society on school accountability, and I have published a couple of articles on its website.