Geopolitics goes viral: The digitalisation of the post-pandemic education landscape

Eva Hartmann


The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the extent to which the Internet has become a critical infrastructure necessary for a country to function. Not unlike railways and motorways, the digital infrastructure is a vital enabler of interactions and connectivity (Peters, 2017). The pandemic helped to further roll out this infrastructure in an unprecedented way, including in the sphere of education.  Credit Suisse Senior Portfolio Manager Kirill Pyshkin refers to the impact for education as a “Netflix moment” (Credit Suisse and Fiinancial Times, 2020).  Pyshkin, like many others, expects digital providers to disrupt traditional ways of providing education as Netflix did to the film industry a few years ago, and highlights the new investment opportunities that this transformation of education is likely to create. Taking a more critical stance, Ben Williamson and Anna Hogan showed in a recent study how for-profit-providers, in particular the five usual suspects – Microsoft, Apple, Alphabet (Google’s parent), Facebook and Amazon, have indeed seized the opportunity to further expand the “hidden infrastructure” in the sphere of education (Williamson and Hogan, 2020).

What Williamson and Hogan’s, otherwise very informative, study overlooks is the geopolitical dimension of the development they scrutinize. Almost all the for-profit providers Williamson and Hogan list in their study are located outside Europe, reflecting a more general unequal distribution of the digital infrastructure. Eight out of the top ten publicly owned firms are located in the USA, none of them in Europe (see Forbes). An estimated 92 % of data produced in the Western world is currently stored in the USA and only 4 % in Europe, reflecting a geographically very unequal cloud market (see Kalff et al. 2019). The geopolitical dimension of the digital infrastructure has only recently gained public attention with the ban on Huawei’s 5G network technology, and most recently with the US banning of the Chinese-owned social media platforms TikTok and WeChat (Ruehl and Kynge, 2020; Sevastopulo, et al., 2020). All these bans were justified in the name of national and economic security. They are designed to prevent China and other countries from obtaining personal data, conducting espionage and interfering in elections. What the newspapers seem to have forgotten is the fact that the US government itself has a long tradition of using the new technology for its own espionage. The most prominent example is certainly EternalBlue, the name given to the spyware the American National Security Agency (NSA) created to exploit a point of vulnerability in Microsoft software and to expand its surveillance. Only when the spyware was leaked in 2017 and turned into the WannaCry ransomware, causing millions of dollars’ worth of damage, did the NSA’s activity become public; the project was eventually abandoned (Whittaker, 2020). The capacity of the US government to use the digital infrastructure for its security policy has been further amplified by the 2018 US CLOUD Act. This new law grants extensive extra-territorial authority to US law enforcement agencies to obtain data.

The unequal distribution of the digital infrastructure has caused major concerns within Europe, since it risks jeopardising Europe’s own efforts to digitalise its economy and society in its own way. For instance, it sets clear limits to the reach of the new EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), as Facebook demonstrated when it moved more than 1.5 billion users out of reach of European privacy law to its servers in California in reaction to this important strengthening of private data protection (Hern, 2018). The unequal distribution also deprives European governments of important revenue, since it allows non-EU tech giants to generate revenue in Europe without paying much in the way of taxes. The attempt to create digital taxation, avidly embraced by France,  has recently faltered, partly under US pressure and partly due to technical difficulties (Heikkilä and Braun, 2020). And which European government wants its population to imagine itself as a nation based on the knowledge provided by foreign education providers? With its major efforts to advance digitalisation, the European Union (EU) thus risks creating new forms of vulnerability that undermine its very own project of regional integration. It is in this context that the term digital sovereignty has gained momentum.

Digital sovereignty – an oxymoron?

The term sovereignty is not uncontested. In a recent publication, Frances Burwell and Kenneth Propp of the Transatlantic Council expressed their concern that it may stand for an attempt to bolster Fortress Europe, and reminded their readers that the United States and the EU are each other’s top trading partner and invest heavily in each other’s economy. Other commentators see it as a barely disguised attempt by EU member states to take back competences they have delegated to the EU, following the British example (see for example The Economist). There is indeed a paradox informing the term. It was digitalisation that drove the final nail into the coffin of the Westphalian order, the idea that nation states are independent entities in full control of themselves. It might be this paradox that has made this term so useful for the EU, whose integration project also challenges the Westphalian notion of the nation state. The term makes it possible to imagine the EU as an entity large enough to have the political weight to tame the “transnational private authority” (Hartmann, 2018) of the giant firms whose revenues exceed the national income of many nation states, and powerful enough to be taken seriously by big governments like the USA and China.

The EU’s uphill battle

There is a broad understanding that the European countries have missed the first wave of digital transformation (see, e.g. Hobbs, 2020). The newly elected president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, put it as follows in her outline of her agenda: “It may be too late to replicate hyperscalers, but it is not too late to achieve technological sovereigntyin some critical technology areas.” (Von der Leyen, 2019: 13). Accordingly, the digital strategy of the EU focuses in particular on some key dimensions of digital infrastructure, like the improvement of connectivity using 5G technology, the creation of an alternative to the Global Positioning System and the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI). The European Parliament promises to “adhere to high ethical standards with the aim of becoming a global leader in responsible and  (i.e. with consumers and users ultimately favouring EU-compliant products) to catch up with the US or China in the race to develop AI” (European Parliament, 2020: 3). The way the Parliament puts it is interesting. The emphasis on responsibility and trust is clearly designed to get European consumers on board, and this in turn would strengthen the EU’s economic aspirations on a global scale. Another, closely related cornerstone of the digital agenda is the creation of a Common European Data Space where “public and private sectors have easy access to huge amounts of high-quality data to create and innovate”, as the European Commission highlights in the White Paper on Artificial Intelligence. The development of learning analytics, still in its infancy as the Commission regrets, is a key feature of this agenda. Collective efforts between the member states shall help to collect big data and to use learning analytics to capture, analyse and use data with a view to improving education, so the plan.

But why should education institutions as well as their respective governments agree to share their data in such a politically sensitive area as education is? Here we get a sense of the Achilles heel that the EU digital project has where its needs trust and a broad alliance to gain legitimacy. It is not a coincidence that a leaflet recently published by the EU for a non-specialist audience puts trust at the centre of its vision of Europe’s digital future.

Open Educational Resources: David defeating Goliath?

It is in this context that we might see a strengthening of the efforts to promote open source software and open educational resources as part of the new Digital Education Agenda of the EU. It might become for the Common European Data Space what a responsible and trustworthy AI is for European developers and manufacturers, i.e. a comparative advantage; or to put it in more political terms: the concession the powerful actors driving the EU digital agenda have to make in order to gain support for their endeavour.

Open educational resources differ from open access that the EU has predominantly promoted so far. Open Access seeks to avoid that users pay twice to have access to journals publishing results of publicly funded research. In other words, Open Access does not address copyright issues, and hence the key issue of ownership. It rather focuses on the methods of funding and accessing research or other works. Conversely, Open Educational Resources (OER) is related to work that copyright owners have “opened” by adding either a Creative Commons or other License that removes some copyright restrictions.  This arrangement allows to  “retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute” information, to use David Wiley’s 5 Rs, without asking for permission, provided that the work is attributed to the copyright owner and credit is given if appropriate (Fitzgerald, 2007). The issue of OER was of no high priority for the EU so far. Only few projects had been funded. EU publications on the topic tend to relate OER mainly to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in order to address non-formal learning and its recognition (Inamorato dos Santos, et al., 2016; European Commission, 2013). As a consequence, important questions about ownership are essentially avoided which are key for the revise, remix and retain where contextual creativity comes in.

EU under pressure

I expect the pressure on the EU to move OER up on its digital education agenda to come from two different sides:

Support from “below”

Firstly, OER as well as open source software have become key priority for a number of EU member states in the sphere of education. A case in point is Germany who is not only a strong advocate of digital sovereignty and currently presiding the European Commission. Its major effort to advance the digitalization of its universities as well as schools, funded by billions of Euros, gives clear priority to open source solutions for software and content (for an overview, see Hochschulforum Digitalisierung and an excellent GEW study). This priority also informs the spending of the millions of Euros the German government had made available at short notice for moving teaching at schools and universities online amidst the pandemic, given the open source movement a major boost. 

Support from “above

The second reasons why I expect the EU to move OER up on its agenda are UNESCO’s support of the OER movement. UNESCO plays traditionally an important role in bringing like-minded actors from within Europe and beyond together. The role of the UNESCO Lisbon Convention for the Bologna Process helping to establish a European Higher Education Area is a prime example (Hartmann 2011). UNESCO has become a key platform for bringing proponents of OER together: first on the occasion of its first OER World Conference in 2012 in Paris, followed by a number of regional conferences and a second World Conference in Ljubljana in 2017. These activities have paved the way for the UNESCO Open Education Resources (OER) Recommendation adopted by the General Assembly in November 2019. An OER Dynamic Coalition had just been created commissioned with the task to support the implementation of the recommendation.

Conclusion: predicting the future

It might be, in other words, not only for-profit providers who heavily benefit from the pandemic, as the Williamson/Hogan study suggests. I would argue that the pandemic has equally strengthened the open source movement. It might be the concession that powerful European players keen on advancing a digital agenda are ready to make in order to gain broad support for their undertaking that wants to be an alternative to the “giant firms” (Crouch, 2010) from other parts of the world.

Like any prediction about the post-pandemic world, this conclusion has a speculative element since we are still in the middle of the pandemic.  However, I hope I have provided some important evidences that support my case. A first indication whether my prediction is accurate will be the next Digital Education Agenda of the EU due in a few weeks. Some initial statements by the president of the European Commission, the German politician Ursula von der Leyen, seem to support my case. But my analysis is, like the power struggles I examined, work in progress.

Independently whether my prediction will come true or not: What I hope to have achieved with this contribution is to remind us to pay more attention to the heterogeneity of the developments we scrutinise. Without nuanced analyses, we may jump to conclusions or even strengthening the tech giants by presenting their hegemonic project as the only winner of the pandemic crisis. As an unintended consequence, we risk pushing competing projects that have some emancipatory potential out of the public attention that they need to gain momentum. We researchers not only analyse social reality, we also co-constitute it.

This blogpost is based on a more detailed analysis that is forthcoming: Eva Hartmann: Geopolitics goes viral: The digitalisation of the post-pandemic education landscape, currently under review.


Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Eva Hartmann is a lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge/UK. Her works seeks to contribute to international higher education (IHE) studies by advancing an interdisciplinary perspective interrelating International Relations, critical state theory and the sociology of IHE. She has widely published on the educational dimension of the European integration as well as of international politics. Her most recent research project focuses on the rise of a transnational private authority in the sphere of education creating new territories of centrality.

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