brokenness,  higher ed

It’s only an island if you look at it from the water


David Kernohan has a good piece on education funding and the manner in which MOOCs commercialise higher ed over on his blog (although I disagree with his criticism of Jim Groom and Stephen Downes). It resonates with some discussions I had with people at the Hewlett OER conference in San Diego last week. As readers of this blog will know, I’m no fan of the ‘education is broken’ cliche.

At the San Diego meeting several smart open education people stated this belief quite passionately, and I voiced my anger at it to the point where it almost came to blows. In the ensuing discussions it became apparent that people bundle together  several things under this banner. At different times it was because i) kids are taught in age bands, ii) that we don’t encourage creativity, iii) that American kids have to walk to school through gang neighbourhoods or iv) that the current model is financially unsustainable. 

I would argue that i) is maybe problematic but is what happens when you want to ensure education happens on a massive scale. None of the alternatives I’ve seen would really operate at the scale of a nationwide system and are often predicated on very motivated children and parents. But I could be convinced otherwise. I would argue this is an administrative convenience at the moment, not indication that something is broken, and if you can show me how to do it robustly otherwise, I’d go along with it.

For ii) I think we are in the really interesting area where we could do some great stuff with good pedagogy and technology. I was impressed with the project based learning they do at High Tech High, and they take a very egalitarian approach to recruitment so I think there is a model here that could be applied elsewhere. Or many other models. This to me is a sign for opportunity.

For iii) I wonder how much people expect schools to do. If your society is this broken, then don’t think schools can fix it on their own.

Which brings me to iv) – funding. Quite often this is what people mean when they say education is broken – that it is financially unsustainable. And this is where I think we are on dangerous ground. If we go around as an education community saying this what we are really saying is “please come and privatise education for the lowest cost”. They won’t claim to do that at the start, the promise will be to offer better education, for less money. But then market forces will hit, they’re in competition with other providers, they need to pay back that VC funding, they need to comply with regulations on fair provision of education, they’re facing a lawsuit for incorrect assessment… And those promises get trimmed one by one until the model looks pretty bleak and we sit around in conferences moaning ‘this system is even more broken than the last one.’

As I mentioned on David’s post, if the argument is really about funding, then let’s have that debate, but let’s have it in the open. Maybe the full commercial model is the only viable one. We can then decide what we lose by this. But maybe other models are viable too. We spent over £20billion in the Iraq & Afghanistan wars for very little return after all, imagine if we’d put that money into education. It’s a cliche I know, but always worth considering.

I don’t think people have done proper analysis on the ROI for society for having free higher education (if they have please point me to it). For instance, there was a golden heyday of the Arts college in the 70s. Everyone went to Arts college when they couldn’t think of anything else to do. And most of our successful bands and designers came from this background. You couldn’t directly attribute the money they generated to the education they had (often they dropped out) but it created the right atmosphere for them to flourish. And sometimes young people just need some space to find out what they want to do before getting caught up in work, and this often means they do better, more productive work later.

So free higher education may not be the ‘unicorns and rainbows’ dream it seems. If we have the proper debate about education funding, at least we can look at these issues. And all of this is to ignore the more general benefits to society of having more broadly educated population. As David suggests, we need to be wary of being useful idiots by playing into this commercial solution because we’ve made it seem like the only possible outcome. So the brokenness and the solution are intertwined, but as Chief Brody says, “it’s only an island if you look at it from the water”.


One Comment

  • Brian

    “…sometimes young people just need some space to find out what they want to do before getting caught up in work, and this often means they do better, more productive work later.”
    Put me in that category. I changed my major of studies four times in two years, before settling on English. If tuition had been priced the way it was now, I probably would have flunked out of some “practical” discipline and gone back to working in the print shop (and thereby eventually be thrown out of work as digital disruption did its thing with that trade…).
    You’ve referred to the importance of “space” a few times on this blog, and it is such an under-appreciated attribute, probably because today’s students don’t really get the benefit of it. The stakes are too high.

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