The dangerous appeal of the Silicon Valley narrative

For my book I've been writing about why it was that MOOCs came to such prominence in the popular press in a way that OERs didn't. One key aspect is that they fit the Silicon Valley narrative.

The model of Silicon Valley provides such a powerful narrative that it has come to dominate thinking far beyond that of computing. For instance Staton declares that the degree is doomed because Silicon Valley avoids hiring people with computer science degrees, and prefers those with good community presence on software developer sites. From this he concludes this model is applicable across all domains and vocations. It hardly needs adding that Staton is the CEO of an educational company.

There are several necessary elements to the silicon valley narrative: firstly a technological fix is both possible and in existence; secondly that external forces will change, or disrupt, an existing sector; thirdly that wholesale revolution is required; lastly the solution is provided by commerce.

The education is broken meme satisfies the third condition of the silicon valley narrative. If it is accepted as broken, then only a revolution is sufficient to resolve it. MOOCs appeal to the first and second of these conditions. They are a very technologically driven solution, particularly in their xMOOC instantiation. Thrun famously worked at Google after all. The artificial intelligence promise of adaptive learning systems and sophisticated automatic assessment is both appealing in that it seems futuristic and aligns with the silicon valley technological solution approach.

Although Thrun, Koller and Ng all worked at Stanford, and so could thus be seen as part of the establishment, Thrun in particular has been cast as the education outsider. In order to satisfy this need for an external party coming to the aid of the sector, the Sal Khan has often been proposed as the godfather of MOOCs.

Another important aspect that appeals to silicon valley, entrepreneurs and journalists alike is that of disruption. It is a term that has been applied much more broadly than its original concept, to the point where it almost meaningless, and rarely critically evaluated. Dvorak complains that it is essentially meaningless, stating that “There is no such thing as a disruptive technology. There are inventions and new ideas, many of which fail while others succeed. That's it.” There remains however a disruption obsession inherent in the silicon valley narrative. As Watters argues, disruption has become somewhat akin to a cultural myth amongst silicon valley: “when I say then, that “disruptive innovation” is one of the great myths of the contemporary business world, particularly of the tech industry, I don’t mean by “myth” that Clayton Christensen’s explanation of changes to markets and business models and technologies is a falsehood… my assigning “myth” to “disruptive innovation” is meant to highlight the ways in which this narrative has been widely accepted as unassailably true.”

Nobody wants to just create a useful tool, it has to disrupt an industry. Education, perceived as slow, resistant to change and old-fashioned is seen as ripe for disruption. Christensen, Horn and Johnson themselves have deemed it so, stating that “disruption is a necessary and overdue chapter in our public schools.” Hence the Avalanche report justifies itself by claiming that all of the key “elements of the traditional university are threatened by the coming avalanche. In Clayton Christensen’s terms, universities are ripe for disruption.” In his criticism of the impact of OERs, Kortemeyer states that they “OERs have not noticeably disrupted the traditional business model of higher education”, because for something to be successful, only disruption counts.

We can see many of these elements in essays on MOOCs. Let us take Clay Shirky’s essay “Your Massively Open Offline College Is Broken”, as it generated a lot of interest and was considered to be a thoughtful analysis.

In terms of our narrative essentials, Shirky even has the “education is broken” meme in the title of his piece, and later states it boldly: “I have a different answer: School is broken and everyone knows it.” He sets out a reasonably convincing case about the finance issues associated with higher education, although he does not question finance models for higher education in general. Shirky cites a book "Don't go back to school" which interviewed 100 people who had dropped out of school and gone on to be successful. Largely they then self-teach themselves using internet resources, an example of the Silicon Valley model being applied broadly.

In his previous essay, Napster, Udacity and the Academy he compares the impact of MOOCs on higher education with that of the MP3 on the music industry. This conforms to the silicon valley narrative, proposing a revolution and disruption: “Higher education is now being disrupted; our MP3 is the massive open online course (or MOOC)”. It also suggests that the commercial, external provider will be the force of change, stating that “and our Napster is Udacity, the education startup”.

All of the elements can also be seen in Clark’s piece where he declares that (referring to Khan) "It took a hedge fund manager to shake up education because he didn’t have any HE baggage." It appeals to the silicon valley narrative to have a saviour riding in from outside HE to save it. If the influence of those inside higher education such as Wiley, Downes, Siemens, etc is acknowledged then that weakens the appeal of the story.

David Kernohan performed a semantic analysis of eleven popular MOOC articles. Taking Kernohan’s articles to conduct simple word counts, then the word “disrupt” (or derivative) occurred 12 times, “revolution” 16, and “company” 17. Obviously this is a selective choice of terms (“open” appears 48 times for comparison), but the presence of these terms indicates a particular framing of the MOOC story that allies with the silicon valley narrative.

We can now see why MOOCs proved so popular with journalists. Firstly they seem to offer a solution to the education is broken meme, which had been gaining currency. Secondly, they met all the criteria for the silicon valley narrative: they proposed a technological solution, they could be framed as the result of external forces, and they provided a revolutionary model. Nearly all the early MOOC articles framed them as disruptive to the standard higher education model. And they were established as separate companies outside of higher education, thus providing interest around business models and potential profits by disrupting the sector. This heady mix proved too irresistible for many technology or education journalists.

This analysis also reveals why other open education initiatives haven’t garnered as much attention. They often seek to supplement or complement education, thus ruining the education is broken argument. Similarly, they are often conducted by those who work in higher education, which undermines the narrative of external agents promoting change on a sector that is out of touch. And lastly, they are supported by not-for-profit institutions, which does not fit the model of new, disruptive businesses emerging. If one wanted to make an argument for disruption, then open textbooks could make a convincing case, since they undermine an established business with digital, low-cost alternatives, but as projects like OpenStax are not-for-profit, they do not fit the silicon valley narrative as neatly as MOOCs.

One further aspect of the silicon valley and disruption narrative is that it demands a ‘year zero’ mentality. It is a much more convincing story if someone can be said to have invented a new way of working. Because complete genesis invention is rare, most work is tinkering with old ideas and improving them, this often requires either a wilful ignorance of past work, and an imaginative reworking of it


  1. Dkernohan says:

    Hi Martin – superb post.
    Couple of thoughts
    1) link to the unmissible Edukashun is brocken tumblr should be
    2) Have you read Eugene Morozov on Tim O’Reilly and “openwashing”?:

  2. Great post Martin.
    Just like OpenTextbook, I suspect open badges may have more impact long term than MOOCs. But once more, they do not fit the Silicon Valley narrative.

  3. mweller says:

    Thanks David and thanks for the dodgy link spot, now fixed. Yes, I have read Morozov’s piece – he crops up a couple of times in what I’m writing elsewhere, which is why he isn’t in this bit, but as a standalone piece then he probably should be (the dangers of culling blog posts from longer pieces).
    And thanks for the list of articles I used for the word count exercise, saved me compiling a set.

  4. Ghaff says:

    I agree with your argument up to a certain point. But one aspect of, say, OCW vs. edX is that OCW just isn’t all that consumable by most people for most purposes. You can reasonably argue that OCW wasn’t really intended to be consumable; it was designed more as building blocks that could be used to construct a class. The point remains though that when the topic of OCW cropped up on sites like Hacker News, the comments were filled with people writing about how they looked at OCW but it was nothing but a bunch of notes, syllabi, and so forth. (And the textbooks that formed the backbone of most classes still had to be purchased.) So OCW or OER more broadly was always going to be primarily of interest to a specialized audience as opposed to the average education consumer.

  5. LNM_Monash says:

    Hi Martin – all points that are difficult to disagree with. Have you followed the work of Neil Selwyn (from our LNM research group)?. His ‘Distrusting Educational Technology’ is all about how the different interest groups pushing ed-tech allign in some way with dominant neoliberal ideology. There was also a post on the Silicon Valley mindset and education ‘disruption’ ….
    ‘Silicon Valley goes to school – notes on Californian capitalism and the ‘disruption’ of public education’
    Finally, I know that Scott Bulfin (also from LNM) is finishing off one of those MRI research projects which analyses the discourse of over 450 newspaper articles on MOOCs from 2011-2013 … his findings chime with your general sense of outside change + economics of HE … with very little/no consideration for matters of pedagogy, learning, social justice etc.

  6. mweller says:

    @Graham – thanks, yes good point, I haven’t really put badges into the mix.
    @Ghaff – you may be right, but I think that argument would struggle to stand up looking at openlearn. I wasn’t really arguing whether MOOCs or OERs are better (although that would play into media coverage I agree) but more about how readily the media were to basically reprint PR leaflets from the MOOC companies in a way they didn’t with OER. It appealed to something in their cultural perspective, I would argue.
    @LNM – yes, in fact the chapter I pulled this from quotes Neil as well. I didn’t know about Scott’s work, that sounds fantastic, and so much better than my 5 minute study. Any results from that anywhere, would love to include it. Thanks for the article link, I’m not sure I have seen that. What a useful comment – that’s why it’s worth blogging stuff as you go along!

  7. Phillip Kent says:

    Thanks for this post. Silicon Valley Narrative is a idea that I wanted and it’s good to be able to grasp it now. For me, your post connects to a recent argument that’s been going on about TED [ ], the California cool ideas communicator. Benjamin Bratton [ ] challenged its Silicon Valley Narrative in a blistering speech [ ]. So MOOCs are one part of a larger intellectual (and political) trend.

  8. Hi Martin,
    Great post. I completely agree that the silicon valley narrative is a key reason that MOOCs became preeminent in popular reporting. Having said that, just because MOOCs fit that narrative doesn’t mean that the reasons they fit that narrative aren’t mostly correct. I happen to go along the the higher education is (mostly) broken meme. There is a technological fix available (although it is not xMOOCs in their current form). Disruption does exist (although I agree the term is vastly overused). I don’t agree that the solution has to come from commerce. It is interesting though that public higher education could, if they so wish, set up their own MOOCs very easily; the technological hurdles are minimal. And yet they don’t. Why not?
    In terms of the necessity for a revolution; I’d much rather have rapid (by higher education standards), incremental change but all I see is higher education repeating the same adoption mistakes they’ve been making for the last 20 years.
    Finally, I don’t think the silicon valley narrative is necessarily dangerous as long as we recognise it for what it is as you have very eloquently described here. In the end it won’t really matter as long as public higher education and non profits stand up to be counted.

  9. mweller says:

    @Phillip – thanks for the links – I’d read some criticisms of TED, but not this one. You’re quite right, TED is part of the whole silicon valley ‘solutionism’ of which MOOCs are just one part.
    @Mark – I really disagree with the education is broken meme. It’s dangerous and lazy. People never say what exactly is broken – sometimes it’s funding (in which case we should debate models of higher ed funding, but they never want to do that), other times it’s pedagogy, where they offer a couple of anecdotes (eg the don’t go to school brigade). As Mike Caulfield says, broken frames it as a crisis (and therefore we need outsiders to come in and fix it) whereas if you frame it as opportunity, then it’s more about working to make things better. To stress – being against the education is broken meme is not the same as saying ‘everything is fine’. Indeed that’s part of the problem, this meme wants to frame it as a revolution, so you’re either with us or you’re one of those old dinosaurs. And disruption is an almost entirely bankrupt concept in my opinion, that doesn’t want to be useful, it just wants to sound sexy.

  10. Thanks for the reply Martin. I think that is a fair and correct distinction when you say “being against the education is broken meme is not the same as saying ‘everything is fine'”.
    I’m still not sure why you think disruption is a “bankrupt concept”. Christensen and others present plenty of evidence for it as a concept. I just think the idea is hugely overused.

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