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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.

The relationship between education companies and politicians is a bit like the military-industrial complex President Eisenhower warned about in his 1961 goodbye address, "the acquisition of unwarranted influence" by the business interests with something to sell over those setting policies that shape the market for that product.

There is a conservative agenda that consistently favors charter schools and other privatization measures. Much of this is guided by ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a powerful non-profit also known for promoting conservative model legislation such as voter ID laws and pro-gun "stand your ground" laws. Education blogger Audrey Watters connects the dots by pointing to ALEC's funding from education technology companies and other firms that stand to benefit from privatization-powered reforms.

For some, that same suspicion extends to the rise of the MOOCs, the massively open online course platforms that have recently become such a sensation in higher education.

As someone who once worked for Internet World, a magazine that cheered on the disruptive innovations brought on by the Web right up until they helped drive the magazine out of business, I have no words of comfort for those who worry about the commoditization of education. In other words, get ready for the MOOCpocalypse.

Salon staff writer Andrew Leonard was initially inclined to defend the role of MOOCs, drawing the same parallel to media and music and concluding universities ought to get ahead of the wave of change rather than pretending they can ignore it. But he was subsequently inspired to worry about conservative governors declaring war on college, particularly public higher education and funding of anything in the humanities lacking an immediate ROI. In MOOCs, some politicians see a tool to replace college classes with a mass-market alternative. Leonard writes:

"After some reflection, it's become clear to me that there is a crucial difference in how the Internet's remaking of higher education is qualitatively different than what we've seen with recorded music and newspapers. There's a political context to the transformation. Higher education is in crisis because costs are rising at the same time that public funding support is falling. That decline in public support is no accident. Conservatives don't like big government and they don't like taxes, and increasingly, they don't even like the entire way that the humanities are taught in the United States.

It's absolutely no accident that in Texas, Florida and Wisconsin, three of the most conservative governors in the country are leading the push to incorporate MOOCs in university curricula. And it seems well worth asking whether the apostles of disruption who have been warning academics that everything is about to change have paid enough attention to how the intersection of politics and MOOCs is affecting the speed and intensity of that change. Imagine if Napster had had the backing of the Heritage Foundation and House Republicans? It's hard enough to survive chaotic disruption when it is a pure consequence of technological change. But when technological change suits the purposes of enemies looking to put a knife in your back, it's almost impossible.

Despite all of this, I still believe most of the people working in education technology and online education are inspired by the vision of making a positive difference in the quality and availability of education. They may also be inspired by the vision of making a buck, and that is okay. Yet when their companies try to engineer success through political influence, they undermine the credibility of the whole enterprise, as do the influence-peddling politicians trumpeting a message of reform.

Follow David F. Carr at @davidfcarr or Google+, along with @IWKEducation.

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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,
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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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