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Analyzing Datafication in Swedish Policy and Practice: a Problematization Approach

Abstract
Datafication practices, i.e., the transformation of social actions and practices into machine ready, quantified digital data have become central and integral parts of daily school practice. In the case of Sweden, ambitions to drive digitalization in education forward have become increasingly visible in educational policy from entities such as the Ministry of Education, the Swedish Data Protection Authority and the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions. This study aims at better understanding teachers’ datafied practices by drawing on the theoretical framing of policy assemblages. Working with a large collection of sources, this paper analyzes a selection of key policy documents and interviews with stakeholders using Bacchi’s (2009) problematization as an analytical approach. Through unpacking and problematizing the policy assemblages, interoperability and the lack thereof is shown to be a key aspect of datafication. The analyzed discourse promotes ideals of efficiency and ease-of-use, but the results presented here suggest a mismatch between the intended purposes of data practices and their part in teachers’ daily practices.

Introduction

The aim of this study is to examine datafication in schools by unpacking the arrangements of policy and practice. Producing digital data has become a central and integral part of daily school practice in many countries, and a shift toward data-driven schooling has been set in motion by a range of policy initiatives targeting digitalization. Teachers, educational leaders, and administrative staff are encouraged and expected to use digital software, leading to witting and unwitting generation of digital data while performing both pedagogical and more mundane tasks, such as ordering school supplies. A requirement for a seamless flow of digital data is interoperability, which is also a central implicit finding in this study. Deriving from the Latin words ‘inter’ (between) and ‘opus’ (work) interoperability defines the ability of different technical systems and platforms to ‘work together’ by sharing digital data with one another. While a technical term, interoperability is viewed as sociotechnical in the present study, since human actions such as manual translations from one system to another are regularly required to support and achieve it. In that sense, system, software, and data interoperability have the capacity to facilitate and re-configure every-day school practice and affect teachers’ work. However, while often described in terms of increasing efficiency and reducing teachers’ work, digital data interoperability has come under scrutiny. While providing the benefit of a seamless integration of services, interoperability simultaneously opens up for the re-configuration of pedagogical practices according to the organizing principles of commercial actors while pushing the processes of privatization and commercialization forward (Kerssens & Van Dijck, 2021). European perspectives have further underlined the intensification of data-driven accountability and performativity for teachers (Roberts-Holmes, 2015) and the governing capacities of EdTech ecosystems, which simultaneously create, shape and influence educational, administrative and organizational practices (Williamson, 2017; Hartong & Förschler, 2019). While these studies among others have examined teachers’ practices in relation to datafication and the data infrastructure landscapes in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands, there are open questions about the policy and practice relationships formed by the very wide range of actors implicated. In this respect, Sweden provides an interesting research context with a highly decentralized and market-driven school system that maintains a two-tier structure of public and private schools for compulsory education. Adding to existing work on the datafication of school practices in a European context, this study first asks: What relational arrangements of actors, objectives, political imaginations, laws, and infrastructures emerge in relation to school datafication? And second; what underlying problematizations are represented?

Method

Drawing on the case of Sweden, this study addresses policy as an assemblage, viewing educational policy as emerging from the relational arrangements of government agencies, private sector companies as well as material and discourses. Taking both human and non-human actors into consideration, the policy assemblage analysis in this study unpacks how multiple heterogeneous components are arranged and constituted (Savage, 2020). This highlights the emergent nature of policy by highlighting the relational arrangements of actors, objectives, political imaginations, laws, and infrastructures. Based on a large collection of sources related to the datafication and digitalization of schooling in Sweden, we selected three key policy documents and three interviews with stakeholders to foreground sociotechnical aspects. The sources were selected based on their topicality. In the case of the policy documents, prevalence and currency were also considered with the documents chosen being published between the years 2016 and 2019. One of the key texts for this analysis is the national action plan produced by the quasi-national Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions for the digitalization of the school system (Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions, 2019). In addition, national (Ministry of Education, 2017) and regionally focused documents (Swedish Data Protection Authority, 2019) were included. In the case of the interviews, three stakeholders working at various levels within the educational system were selected. The six sources were then analyzed using the analytical approach called What’s the problem represented to be? (WPR) developed by Bacchi (2009). This analytical lens was chosen to allow the unpacking and problematizing of underlying logics. Policy was not viewed as a solution to problems that exist outside of politics and the critical reading engaged in following the WPR approach allowed for questions to be asked about the reasoning behind problem representations and their effects. Following Bacchi (2009), in the first analytical step, problem representations, the underlying assumptions and genealogies of the identified problem representations were analyzed. Interoperability, as the exemplified problem representation, was then further analyzed with a focus on the evoked silences as well as the subjectification and discursive and lived effects of what the problem is represented to be.

Conclusion

An assemblage perspective offers ways of unpacking sociotechnical aspects of the datafication discourse. In this study, the approach revealed the issue of interoperability as a key concern. Lack of interoperability is presented as a problem for school digitalization, but there are also struggles and concerns associated with achieving the ideals of interoperability in practice. The lived effects of interoperability become visible in the expectation of frictionless data flow between systems while limited technical interoperability increases workloads as teachers are forced to use several tools or communication channels simultaneously to complete seemingly simple tasks such as taking attendance. Here, emerging interoperability standards (Swedish Standards Institute, 2020) for school platforms and attendance registers mean attendance could be further datafied and streamlined. However, interoperability is also accompanied by discursive and subjectification effects, since interoperability and data standards enact categories and distinctions to which schools like other institutions adapt (Bowker & Star, 2000). This may dramatically change classroom practices as they adapt to the organizing
principles of generating digital data and interoperability (Kerssens & Van Dijck, 2021). While technical systems and interoperability standards are set up to smooth out the production and sharing of data and rationalize teacher work, the analysis in this study suggests that they may not necessarily be directed to or beneficial for teaching practice or pedagogical considerations, as teachers may not be positioned as the recipients of the value derived from the data produced. Overall, the discourse of interoperability promotes ideals of efficiency and ease-of-use, but the data here shows a clear mismatch and tension between the intended purposes of data practices and their uses and outcomes from a more holistic view of teacher practices.


References

Bacchi, C. L. (2009). Analysing policy: What’s the problem represented to be? Pearson.

Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. (2000). Sorting things out: Classification and its consequences (First paperback edition). The MIT Press.

Hartong, S., & Förschler, A. (2019). Opening the black box of data-based school monitoring: Data infrastructures, flows and practices in state education agencies. Big Data & Society, 6(1), 205395171985331.

Kerssens, N., & Dijck, J. van. (2021). The platformization of primary education in The Netherlands. Learning, Media and Technology, 1–14.

Ministry of Education. (2017). National digitalisation strategy for the school system.

Roberts-Holmes, G. (2015). The ‘datafication’ of early years pedagogy: ‘If the teaching is good, the data should be good and if there’s bad teaching, there is bad data.’ Journal of Education Policy, 30(3), 302–315.

Savage, G. C. (2020). What is policy assemblage? Territory, Politics, Governance, 8(3), 319–335.

Selwyn, N. (2020). The human labour of school data: Exploring the production of digital data in schools. Oxford Review of Education, 1–16.

Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions. (2019). # skolDigiplan- National action plan for digitization of the school system, Skoldigiplan.

Swedish Data Protection Authority. (2019). Oversight according to the EU Data Protection Regulation 2016/679 – facial recognition for attendance of students

Swedish Standards Institute. (2020). Swedish Standards 12000:2020—Information Management—Interface for Information Exchange between School Administration Processes.

Williamson, B. (2017). Learning in the ‘platform society’: Disassembling an educational data assemblage. Research in Education, 24.


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