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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.
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.
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.


Maybe to convince capitalists they're wrong you have to speak 'capitalist'. To convince market focused universities they're going down the wrong path, you may have to speak to them in terms of their 'product'. The solution doesn't have to be one crotchety old dude with a video camera and a chalk board on youtube for an hour. It could be 20 young people with laptops and webcams going back and forth on a subject in 2 minute clips.