Residents were hard pressed to miss the white-liveried double-decker bus that chugged into Sunderland early yesterday morning. Out of place amidst the vacant parking lot of Houghton Public Library, the vehicle’s beaming crew emerged with collapsed chairs and tables clasped underarm, before setting up shop for a day of digital training. Christened ‘the Digital Garage’ by its dispatchers, Google, the bus beckoned passers-by with painted promises to grow careers, build businesses and boost digital confidence.
Google’s Digital Garage is emblematic of the increasing trend amongst tech giants to extend their reach deep into domains conventionally the reserve of the public sector. In the wake of the 2017 NHS cyber-hack, confidence in the ability of the public sector to provide for the fundamentals of online security has waned, and the likes of Google, Microsoft and Apple have moved in to fill the void.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the education sector, where insecure funding and burgeoning class sizes have ramped up the pressure on already strained schools in recent years. School administrators, as a result, are increasingly turning to digital technologies in order to dampen the worst effects of the prevailing condition for student and teacher alike.
The mobilisation of tech’s biggest names to meet insufficient public sector responsiveness to crisis is discernible. Two veritable hegemons: Apple and Microsoft, vie to integrate struggling public schools into their respective ecosystems and attain the status of tech teacher. Apple has sought to merge its ‘Today At Apple’ programme – a sort-of in-store alternative to Google’s ‘Digital Garage’, with scholastic curricula. Apple Education has seen the Silicon Valley staple extend professional training to teachers in its own cloud-based class monitoring and marking platforms, alongside the deployment of iPad devices in classrooms. Microsoft, similarly, has made provision for similar traineeships and has ensured that its educational workspaces are front and centre in the layout of its new Oxford Circus flagship store.
The encroachment of new tech into new territory is often met with warranted anxiety. But it would be foolish to fail to reap the rewards private-public cooperation portend for overburdened teachers and neglected students. Beyond the budgetary reach of the most-strained schools, government should seek to pilot digital technologies into the hands of every teacher and student, actualising an opportunity which is, like Google’s big white bus, unmissable.