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The Shallowness of Techno-Libertarian Education

A good portion of the online tech community* has always had a strange kind of schizophrenic politics - when it comes to their online doings, they act like libertarian socialists. When it comes to the "real world," they act like libertarian capitalists. Contributing to an open source project, seeding a torrent, helping out on troubleshooting forums, uploading cam versions of newly-released films, giving away serial numbers for Microsoft Word: these are all actions entirely antithetical - and harmful - to market relations. Using the term loosely, they're essentially acting communistically. Yet ask many of the same people about their political views and you're more likely to hear about Ron Paul or Milton Friedman than Noam Chomsky or Karl Marx.

Case in point: here we have a university professor who aims to further commodify education by using open source projects (which tend to undermine commodity relations). Deseret News:

Universities will be 'irrelevant' by 2020, Y. professor says

PROVO — Last fall, David Wiley stood in front of a room full of professors and university administrators and delivered a prediction that made them squirm: "Your institutions will be irrelevant by 2020."

Wiley is one part Nostradamus and nine parts revolutionary, an educational evangelist who preaches about a world where students listen to lectures on iPods, and those lectures are also available online to everyone anywhere for free. Course materials are shared between universities, science labs are virtual, and digital textbooks are free.

Institutions that don't adapt, he says, risk losing students to institutions that do. The warning applies to community colleges and ivy-covered universities, says Wiley, who is a professor of psychology and instructional technology at Brigham Young University.

America's colleges and universities, says Wiley, have been acting as if what they offer — access to educational materials, a venue for socializing, the awarding of a credential — can't be obtained anywhere else. By and large, campus-based universities haven't been innovative, he says, because they've been a monopoly.
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In the world according to Wiley, universities would still make money, though, because they have a marketable commodity: to get college credits and a diploma, you'd have to be a paying customer. [Click to read the rest]

Wiley is pursuing some noble goals: for example, creating free, open-source, peer-reviewed textbooks. He's rightly criticizing the extortion scheme that is the academic publishing industry. At Utah State University he allowed open enrollment into his online courses - people as far away as Brazil and Italy participated for free.

But he's also got an incredibly warped view of the institution that cuts him a paycheck. He couches his critique of higher ed in market language - that higher ed is a "monopoly," that their only "marketable commodity" is the diploma, etc. The article continues: "Many of today's students, he says, aren't satisfied with the old model that expects them to go to a lecture hall at a prescribed time and sit still while a professor talks for an hour." Okay, fair enough - I think he's spot on with this assessment.

But his solution isn't to make classes more flexible, interesting, and engaging. His solution makes the underlying problem (student disengagement, detachment, boredom) even worse - forcing students to watch pre-recorded lectures on the web or their iPods. Just from my personal experience, you'd have to be a really fucking charismatic lecturer to keep my attention on a web video for any decent length of time, let alone prod my brain into actually synthesizing what you're saying. His description of the current university classroom is also likely more illustrative of his personal pedagogical style than anything else, and when he labels colleges as "tethered, isolated, generic, and closed," that sounds a lot more like Utah universities than the rest of higher ed.

His utopia also bodes ominously for those who call university teaching their career - which includes, funnily enough, himself. David Noble, who is probably the best radical chronicler of this trend, says it better than I could in his prescient 1997 essay, "Digital Diploma Mills":

Once faculty put their course material online, moreover, the knowledge and course design skill embodied in that material is taken out of their possession, transferred to the machinery and placed in the hands of the administration. The administration is now in a position to hire less skilled, and hence cheaper, workers to deliver the technologically prepackaged course.
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Most important, once the faculty converts its courses to courseware, their services are in the long run no longer required. They become redundant, and when they leave, their work remains behind. In Kurt Vonnegut's classic novel Player Piano the ace machinist Rudy Hertz is flattered by the automation engineers who tell him his genius will be immortalized. They buy him a beer. They capture his skills on tape. Then they fire him. Today faculty are falling for the same tired line, that their brilliance will be broadcast online to millions. Perhaps, but without their further participation

Wiley and his colleagues are using 21st century technology to resurrect 19th century educational theory. He is a champion of online programs (or "virtual learning environments") like the University of Phoenix, and of slicing curriculum to ever more basic, self-contained parts, into what he calls "learning objects." Since to him education is little more than pouring information into the brain, Wiley likens himself to a chemist: able to break down the teaching of knowledge into fundamental building blocks, and to then rearrange and reorder them depending on the needs of the course. "Nope, sorry, no time to hear about your crazy theories of 'multiple intelligences' and 'different learning styles.' Can't you see I'm busy pouring? Go watch your podcasts!" Methinks he's been watching the kung fu scene from The Matrix (where Neo learns years' worth of martial arts knowledge with a few clicked buttons and fluttered eyelids) one too many times.

What has a century of empirical and anecdotal data taught us? Education does not equal information. And as long as our bodies are using brains and not RAM, that distinction is terribly important.

But unfortunately education has to equal information for Wiley. He founded the Center for Open and Sustainable Learning, which asserts that "free and open access to educational opportunity is a basic human right." A nice goal to work for, right? If he takes a set of social relationships (a school, a classroom, the teacher-student dynamic, etc.) and commodifies it, all of a sudden the task of guaranteeing those things to everyone in the world is a pretty straightforward problem to tackle. It simply becomes a question of mobilizing enough resources and personnel. However, if he were to accept that something as intangible as "learning" cannot be turned into a quantifiable object at all, then the task at hand all of a sudden becomes a lot hairier, and confronts him with a lot of uncomfortable realizations about how our society is currently arranged. He certainly can't stand for that, especially at a place like Brigham Young University.

So while Wiley & co. are busy reinventing the Scan-Tron bubble, we'll be outside in the sun, playing, learning, and facing those uncomfortable realizations head-on.

 

*which for current purposes I'll include the open source software community, bittorrent aficionados, Slashdot commenters, hackers, online gamers, and commentators (both internal and external to the community). Obviously I'm painting with very broad brushstrokes - one has to in order to say anything at all about online behavior.

Student Organizers: Use the Economic Crisis to Press Your Advantage

Administrators and Trustees show their true colors

In the face of record budget cuts for universities and colleges across the country -- both public and private -- now is the perfect time for students to assert their influence on important decisions coming down the pike.

Thanks to their insistence that students and faculty have no real say in the budget process, university administrators and trustees have few other places to point the finger of blame (other than to generic woes like the stock market, investor skittishness, state budget shortfalls -- but you'll note they use these excuses just as often during times of surplus too). Idiotic "investments" into massive stadiums and grandiose buildings are permanent, unrecoverable costs. The aspects of higher education that are truly meaningful and important are, unfortunately, all too recoverable: scholarships can be rolled back, professors can be fired, and department budgets can be cut.

Administrators and Trustees are eager to assert responsibility, except when something goes wrong. During times of plenty, the line is "trust us, we're the experts with money, and only we can handle the budget effectively." During times of scarcity and crisis, all of a sudden it's "Don't blame us! We're victims of circumstance and factors outside our control - blame someone else!" If they're so keen on taking responsibility when they're flush with cash, then let's hold them to it when they've mismanaged themselves into the red.

This is an opportunity for students to unite and tell those who run the university "you've had your chance -- it's time for more responsible people (that's us!) to take the reins."

Possible goals:

  • Read up on concepts like participatory budgeting, adapt them for your campus, and present them as alternatives to the current closed-door method of budget-setting.
  • A popularly-elected board of trustees and President, with a majority consisting of students, faculty, and support staff.
  • A binding say in the budgets of departments students are majors in (e.g. Biology majors should have a voice and vote in the budget plans of the Biology department).
  • A campus-wide referendum requirement when tuition hikes are proposed.
  • Open and transparent budget proceedings.

Possible talking points:

  • Emphasize the staggering numbers involved. Huge budget shortfalls, often in the millions even for small schools, are likely compelling enough to rile up the most apathetic of students.
  • Capitalize on the prevalent "throw the bums out" feeling. The trustees and administrators, like the executives on Wall Street, are the ones who got us into this mess. We shouldn't reward them by letting them continue to foul up our education.
  • And let's not forget, many of the business leaders on our Trustee boards literally have their hands in the current economic fiasco -- if there are concrete links, play them up like there's no tomorrow.
  • This is our money, and look what happens when others are put in charge of it! If the university expects us to pick up the tab, then we get to decide what's being ordered.
  • When those in charge screw up, we -- students, faculty, and staff -- are the ones who pay for it. Most students are incensed that the government bailed out these irresponsible financial giants. Remind them that when it comes to the university's finances, we the students are the "government" that administrators expect to bail them out. Are we going to be just like the government and give them our tuition dollars, no strings attached?
  • History has shown that it isn't a matter of appointing "better" Presidents and VPs - it's a matter of wielding power ourselves, collectively and democratically.

Some possible tactics:

  • Fill the op-ed (and hard news) pages of the student newspaper with outrage about the mismanagement of university resources, demands for its change, and models of alternatives.
  • Organize "No Bailout for the Board!" protests. Tell those on the Board of Trustees (who in most cases are overwhelmingly exceedingly wealthy) to make up any shortfall difference from their own pockets, as they themselves were the ones who approved the budget in the first place. We students shouldn't have to bear the burden of their sickening combination of incompetence and stinginess.
  • Hold an election on your campus for "replacement Trustees" (perhaps preceeded by a "no confidence" vote on the current ones). Get at least enough candidates to cover each of the Trustees, and once the election is held, send them to disrupt and ultimately commandeer the next Board of Trustees meeting. Invite the press.
  • Get alumni (preferably ones who have donated before) to sign onto a public letter, refusing to donate to the university until the administration and trustees reform their budget process.
  • Talk to the local and regional press, using talking points like those above, to link the financial crisis to the school's budget crisis in a more useful way.

Have your own ideas and suggestions? Personal experiences? Toss 'em in the comments!!
(cross-posted at Future Majority and YP4)

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