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5/16/2013
05:44 PM
David F Carr
David F Carr
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Ed Tech, Privatization And Plunder

All the reasons to be suspicious of the political-industrial conspiracy against public education and public universities.

Inside Eight Game-changing MOOCs
Inside Eight Game-changing MOOCs
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
As much as I love the revolutionary potential of technology in education, I understand why some of those who care about public education and public universities worry about privatization and plunder.

Where I want to see the potential for intelligent use of data to drive better student outcomes, others see an unnecessary invasion of student privacy driven more by profit motives than quality concerns. I listen to Bill Gates speak about productive uses of educational technology and can't help but be impressed by his turn to philanthropy, through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Others seem to see the foundation as a front for corporate and political interests determined to undermine public education and steer profits to private entities, including Microsoft.

It would be easier for me to maintain my optimism if not for some ugly facts, like the recent cynical moves from the Florida legislature. "In 2011, the Legislature made it a requirement for all high school students to complete at least one course online, creating a guaranteed market for online learning services," explains the Miami Herald, and now the other shoe is dropping as the state cuts back per-pupil funding for the publicly operated Florida Virtual School while creating opportunities for private businesses.


Bill Gates speaks about technology and education reform at SXSWEdu.

I've written before about putting my younger kids in a virtual school program run by the Broward County public school system. The Broward Virtual School operates as a franchise of the Florida Virtual School but also offers some programs through K12.com, a private firm. One of the things disturbing things we've noticed about K12.com is that it seems to invest more in marketing and lobbying than in the actual delivery of educational services. For example, the online tools it offers for taking tests and quizzes don't work properly with modern browsers, and rather than fix the problem they direct parents and students to downgrade their software. On the other hand, the public marketing site looks bright and shiny in any browser. What does that tell you about their priorities?

Political disclosure: For the past several years, I've been active in Democratic politics, which is rarely a conflict with technology reporting per se but does mean you're entitled to take my views about the Florida Legislature with a grain of salt. For the record, I do think Gov. Rick Scott bears an uncanny resemblance to Voldemort. I wasn't a big fan of former Gov. Jeb Bush, either, but count the creation of Florida Virtual School as one of the positive things he did. On the other hand, I recognize that some of the motivation for this came from the same place as his promotion of charter schools and various voucher programs aimed at distributing public money to private and religious schools. Bill Gates also tends to be a fan of charter schools, which is one of the reasons some educators distrust him.

Did I mention we also had our kids in a charter school at one point? See, I'm not necessarily a good Democrat, according to the teachers union wing of the party. My wife and I made a date night out of seeing the "Waiting for Superman" movie a couple of years ago and got all riled up over its depiction of public school dysfunction, union protection of incompetents and the cruelty of those lottery systems used to decide which students will be allowed to escape from a crappy regular public school to a superior charter one.

One of the criticisms of the movie was that it depicted charter schools in a way that might lead you to believe all charter schools are superior, led by enlightened principals who succeed because they are freed from bureaucracy and the interference of teachers unions. Unfortunately, while those schools exist (we saw them in the movie!), charter schools are just as likely to be uninspired operations operated by corporations who see siphoning off tax dollars as an easy way to make a buck. Some of them eventually mismanage themselves out of existence, like one local charter school that evaporated mid-year, leaving parents scrambling.

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Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
5/17/2013 | 3:31:19 PM
re: Ed Tech, Privatization And Plunder
"Creating a guaranteed market for online learning services" is a key point here. That's a lot of money at stake.

On a related note, in my state of Massachusetts, I feel like the mandatory requirement of master's degrees for elementary school teachers creates a guaranteed market for some of the smaller public colleges that offer that degree. And in the end, I'm not sure it benefits the students much when we don't think flexibly about potential teachers' real-world experience vs. classroom time.

Laurianne McLaughlin
InformationWeek
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
5/17/2013 | 6:38:55 PM
re: Ed Tech, Privatization And Plunder
I wrote this after reading a Carl Hiaasen novel, which helped put me in the right frame of mind to appreciate the cynical dimension of Florida politics.
dgodon
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dgodon,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/21/2013 | 5:59:00 AM
re: Ed Tech, Privatization And Plunder
Wow, it's nice to see a critical opinion of what's happening with online learning - and from a technology website no less. Kudos! As someone who works in high-tech but also follows education politics fairly closely, you nailed the situation pretty spot on.
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
5/21/2013 | 3:07:51 PM
re: Ed Tech, Privatization And Plunder
Thank you. As you can tell, I'm kind of on both sides of this. I was originally going to write a column saying a few kind words about Bill Gates, someone whose motivations some educators seem to be intensely suspicious of. I do think he deserves more credit than he gets for his turn to philanthropy and the sincerity of his efforts to improve education. Some of the things the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funds, such as the development of open educational resources to reduce the cost of quality education, strike me as unalloyed goodness.

Used intelligently, technology and online delivery of content ought to be able to do some good things for education. The policy questions are where things get trickier: stuff like whether the availability of MOOCs provides an excuse to cut back on funding of public university courses for those subjects.

I think one of the biggest problems with education, particularly in the K12 public schools, is that it is forever being "reformed" and the results of each of these reform efforts wind up layered on top of each other until we get a bureaucratic mess.
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
5/24/2013 | 1:17:11 PM
re: Ed Tech, Privatization And Plunder
The flip side of the way I've framed this question, of course, is to what extent the backlash against #edtech and #moocs is driven by unions and other forces of the status quo, rather than genuine concern about the quality and availability of education.
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