Edtech in Higher Education: Focus Groups, Database, and Documents on Edtech Companies, Investors and Universities, 2021-2023

Komljenovic, Janja and Sellar, Sam and Hansen, Morten (2023). Edtech in Higher Education: Focus Groups, Database, and Documents on Edtech Companies, Investors and Universities, 2021-2023. [Data Collection]. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Service. 10.5255/UKDA-SN-856729

The higher education (HE) sector has been marketised for decades; but the speed, scope, and extent of marketisation has led key education scholars to conceptualise it as a global industry (Verger, Lubienski, & Steiner-Khamsi, 2016). Further, the use of technology to transform teaching and learning, as well as the profound digitalisation of universities more broadly, has led universities to collect and process an unprecedented amount of digital data. Education technology (EdTech) companies have become one of the key players in the HE industry and the UK has made EdTech one of its key pillars in its recent international education strategy (HM Government, 2019). EdTech companies are reporting unprecedented growth. In 2019, Coursera became a 'unicorn' (i.e. a company worth over $1 billion), while British-based FutureLearn secured £50 million investment by selling 50% shares of the company. Investment in EdTech is growing at an impressive rate and reached $16.3bn in 2018 (ET, 2019). While EdTech start-up companies strive to become 'unicorns' and profit from HE, so too might universities increasingly look for new ways of profiting from the wealth of digital data they produce. The study of HE markets has so far focused on service-commodities. However, data and data products do not act like commodities. Commodities are consumed once used, but data is reproducible at almost zero marginal cost. New products and services can be created from data and monetised through subscription fees, an app, or a platform that does not transfer ownership, control, or reproduction rights to the user. Furthermore, data use creates yet more data, and the network effects increase the value of these platforms. Therefore, there is a new quality at play in the monetisation and marketisation of these digital HE products and services: 'assetization'. We are witnessing a widespread change from creating value via market exchange towards extracting value via the ownership and control of assets. This research project aims to investigate these new processes of value creation and extraction in an HE sector that is digitalising its operations and introducing new digital solutions premised on the expansion of service fees. By introducing a focus on assets, and economic rents, this project offers a theoretically and empirically transformative approach to understand emerging HE markets and their implications for the HE sector. The assetization of HE is consequential because of the legal and technical implications for its regulation. It is also crucial to examine in any discussion about the legitimate and socially just arrangement and distribution of assets, their ownership, and their uses. The project employs an innovative, comparative, and participatory mixed-methods research design. It combines digital methods, interviews, observation, document analysis, deliberative focus groups, knowledge exchange and co-production with stakeholders, and public consultation. Data analysis will include quantitative and qualitative analysis of investment trends, comparative case studies of investors, EdTech companies and universities, and social network analysis. The application of this research project is fourfold. First, it will help universities understand the emerging processes of assetization so they can develop policies and practices for protecting their rights. Second, it will assist entrepreneurs in finding ways to incorporate ethical and sustainable considerations in their innovation processes. Third, it will mediate between the financial interests of investors and the social function of universities. Here, it will provide evidence for policymakers on how to include assets in HE sector regulation. Finally, it will unpack potential forms of inequality that assetization might bring into the HE sector.

Data description (abstract)

These data were generated as part of a two-and-a-half-year ESRC-funded research project examining the digitalisation of higher education (HE) and the educational technology (Edtech) industry in HE. Building on a theoretical lens of assetisation, it focused on forms of value in the sector, and governance challenges of digital data. It followed three groups of actors: UK universities, Edtech companies, and investors in Edtech. The researchers first sought to develop an overview of the Edtech industry in HE by building three databases on Edtech companies, investors in Edtech, and investment deals, using data downloaded from Crunchbase, a proprietary platform. Due to Crunchbase’s Terms of Service, only parts of one database are allowed to be submitted to this repository, i.e. a list of companies with the project’s classification. A report offering descriptive analysis of all three databases was produced and is submitted as well. A qualitative discursive analysis was conducted by analysing seven documents in depth. In the second phase, researchers conducted interviews with participants representing three groups of actors (n=43) and collected documents on their organisations. Moreover, a list of documents collected from Big Tech (Microsoft, Amazon, and Salesforce) were collected to contextualise the role of global digital infrastructure in HE. Due to commercial sensitivity, only lists of documents collected about investors and Big Tech are submitted to the repository. Researchers then conducted focus groups (n=6) with representatives of universities (n=19). The dataset includes transcripts of focus groups and outputs of writing by participants during the focus group. Finally, a public consultation was held via a survey, and 15 participants offered qualitative answers.

Data creators:
Creator Name Affiliation ORCID (as URL)
Komljenovic Janja Lancaster University https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5951-5189
Sellar Sam University of South Australia
Hansen Morten University of Cambridge https://orcid.org/0000-0002-2775-3112
Sponsors: ESRC
Grant reference: ES/T016299/1
Topic classification: Education
Project title: UU - Universities and Unicorns: building digital assets in the higher education industry
Grant holders: Janja Komljenovic, Sellar Sam, Birch Kean
Project dates:
1 January 202129 June 2023
Date published: 03 Nov 2023 09:23
Last modified: 03 Nov 2023 09:23

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