Who Decides?

Sal Khan and Michael Noer recently recorded an 11-minute webisode on the history of education from 1680 to 2050. It angered Audrey Watters, and I think my take on why says a lot about where I stand on education, online or otherwise.

Michael Noer works for Forbes, whose byline is, "Information for the World's Business Leaders". I don't know how many business leaders actually subscribe, but I'll bet that most of them believe that education's role is to prepare people to take their place in society. As Khan & Noer point out, Bismarck's Prussians invented modern public schooling as a way to create the skilled workforce they needed. For the powerful, in Thatcher's England just as much as Stalin's Russia, that's been its purpose ever since.

Throughout the 20th Century, though, people like John Dewey and Michael Young have believed that education ought to be about giving people more power over their lives—which necessarily means the currently-powerful will have less. Real reformers like these have therefore almost always found themselves allied with suffragettes, labor organizers, civil rights movements, and other progressives.

Which brings us to the battle shaping up around online education. After explaining how the Prussian model was imported in the United States, and how the present 12-year model was formulated in the 1890s, Noer and Khan say, "...we've basically been stuck there for 120 years." Watters' response is, what about Brown vs. Board of Education? What about similar changes that were supposed to level the playing field for children with disabilities, or for women, or the GI Bill that opened higher education to millions of people?

But this isn't Khan & Noer's point. The 20th Century may have changed who got an education, but had almost no effect on how that education was delivered. There were attempts (particularly in the 1960s), but most K-12 and university classes today use the same lockstep model that they did in the 1890s. That's what ed-tech advocates want to change.

But how far are they willing to go? Watters continues:

...to jump from 1892 to 2000...ignores the vocal opposition to that so-called factory model and the construction of alternatives by educators themselves. It ignores the entire progressive education movement. It ignores the work of John Dewey and Maria Montessori. Conveniently... [It] ignores the work done by numerous educators and technologists to think about how computers and networks will reshape how we teach and learn. It overlooks the work of Seymour Papert and all his students. It ignores the decades of research on cognitive tutoring and the notion that a computer should be able to respond on an individualized level to each student—something that Khan's history of education credits to Khan himself.

Yes it does, and that’s what this fight is really about. I’m sure the Silicon Valley and Wall Street types behind most ed-tech startups welcome the fact that women, people of color, the disabled, and plain ol’ folks can get an education these days—they’re not racists or misogynists or anything like that. However, they clearly aren’t interested in giving up control over who decides what gets taught. Flipping over to Twitter, Watters said:

2012-11-03 13:32: Almost 3K words in this NYT piece on MOOCs, but couldn't spare a single one to mention Siemens, Downes, Couros, Cormier...

Did you recognize any of those names? They're the people who actually invented massive open online courses (MOOCs), but you won't find them mentioned six times in as many weeks in the New York Times. The reason, I think, is that they take the "open" part of "MOOC" seriously: they actually want to let the people who are learning decide what to learn. That makes their experiments a lot less interesting to "the World's Business Leaders" than the Khan Academy, Coursera, Udacity, and other pseudo-MOOCs that let you watch professors chosen by someone else repeat a fixed lesson as many times as you want, and do the exercises set by the powers that be whenever you want, to earn badges that someone else has made up.

"Gosh, Greg—that sounds a bit campus-radical paranoid." Yeah, it does, but go and read Larry Cuban's recent post on power, ideology, and the (mis)use of evidence in national politics and school reform. There is very little evidence that technology of any kind can transform education, but the people who currently have power keep talking as if the matter was settled. Think about that, and about how the current drive to move education online will concentrate power in even fewer hands, and then ask yourself, as Audrey did, "All this revisionist history of education technology. Gee, I wonder why these are the stories being told?"

I don't wonder at all.