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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.