Profits, Lies, and Education Innovation

eniac

“As long as I live under the capitalistic system I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp. This, sir, is my resignation.” — William Faulkner

Jim Groom, the director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT) at the University of Mary Washington, invoked Faulkner yesterday during his guest appearance in the Ed Startup 101 class. Specifically, he invoked it during the discussion of the successful DS106 Kickstarter campaign he ran earlier this year, and you could, I suppose, interpret it as Groom’s growling promise that y’all will get your Kickstarter rewards in the mail eventually.

But the Faulkner quotation speaks to other exigencies surrounding the relationship between education and money, many of which Groom highlights in his conversation with Professor David Wiley: the massive cuts to public education, the out-sourcing of ed-tech expertise to for-profit companies, and the question of whether or not profit motivates Groom, DTLT, or the DS106 community. (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.)

Groom’s talk stands in sharp contrast to an op-ed posted to Edsurge late Tuesday night arguing that profit as a motive is necessary for innovation to take place in education.

In it, venture capitalist Tom Segal argues that “You can’t have high-quality digital tools without the profit motive (heck, you certainly can’t have that computer without the profit motive, and I imagine even the most ardent haters of private sector in the classroom would agree that a computer is a useful educational tool).” As FunnyMonkey’s Bill Fitzgerald points out in his response, this assertion is clearly ignorant of the $35 educational computing device Raspberry Pi which was built by a British non-profit.

But that's not the only counterfactual claim Segal makes. “The single greatest innovation in education in our lifetime has been the opportunity created to leverage computers, tablets, and smartphones as delivery systems with myriad applications – and none of these devices were developed by schools or philanthropies,” writes Segal.

He’s wrong. I mean, he’s wrong about thinking of education as apps and “delivery systems” but more to the point he’s wrong about who developed the computer.

Even a cursory review of the history of technology shows that computers, along with the Internet and the World Wide Web, were developed through a combination of public and private efforts, with military, academic, philanthropic, and corporate involvement. The motivations for these innovations were never solely profit. Some people wanted scientific advancement. Some wanted to win wars. Some wanted a better calculator. Some wanted to facilitate communication and information-sharing.

Bombe Machine, Bletchley Park

Innovation comes from a community in the service of building a community and reflects that community's values and vision, whether in military technology, bio-tech, or ed-tech. If the community values profit, then perhaps profit will spur innovation. But as it stands, the education community doesn't particularly value profit. It is motivated by other things — the sharing of ideas, the care and nurturing of young minds, and the construction of knowledge.

But in Segal’s a-historic formulation, without the motivation of profit, those who work in education do not innovate. Nor do they construct technology. They merely consume it. And if the products they consume are lousy (which often they are, despite profit supposedly spurring innovation. See: Blackboard), then it’s educators’ fault for buying them.

“When I hear people crying foul and pointing fingers at a few bad apples (like, say, K12 Inc.) souring the space, I have an easy answer for them: don’t buy those products,” he writes. “Don’t pay for those services. Find an alternative that better suits your needs. That is the beauty of a free market: once a company has been exposed as a fraud or a problem-child, there goes their business. Choice—it keeps the chosen honest, and it keeps the chooser in control.”

The free market isn’t actually that beautiful. Nor is it particularly free or honest, as I noted when I wrote about the connections between ed-tech and ALEC.

And finally the “choice” here, at least in Segal’s formulation is, I’d argue, a false one. Choosing to buy iPad app A or iPad app B doesn’t give you “control.” Control — a better word, I think is “agency” — comes when learners seize the reins of their own learning and build with the technologies necessary to connect with the rest of the world, peers and experts alike. That is why the UWM pilot project of a Domain of One’s Own initiated by Groom and others to give domains and Web hosting to faculty and students is so important and so innovative.

It’s not that there aren’t financial issues surrounding the Domain of One’s Own project, as Groom makes clear in his talk. When good projects take off, finding the resources to support them can be difficult, particularly when the budgets for public education have been cut so very deeply and when your staff hasn’t seen pay raises in years. But we know — we all know — that there is no escaping the question of money, in education or elsewhere, as Faulkner points out.

But again, the money isn’t what motivates most people who work in education. Frankly, I don’t think it what motivates a lot of the ed-tech entrepreneurs that Segal hopes to rally with his pro-profit screed.

“Haters can keep hating, but the train has left the station. You can either get on board and help streamline its direction, or you can stand in its way and incrementally slow it down as it plows right through you,” threatens Segal.

And that’s not actually how things work either. In education, when we ask critical questions, we aren’t “haters.” We ask questions because we care. We ask questions because we know what it means to be part of a discourse community, where debate and disagreement and intellectual (and political) exchange foster new ideas, realizations, and yes innovations.

It isn’t simply that the for-profit motivations in Segal's Edsurge article run counter to much of the culture and values of education. It’s the distortions of the truth and the threats of violence here are utterly antithetical to it as well. No matter how much you wrap these in the rhetoric of innovation, that train isn't going anywhere.

Photo credits: Brandon Danieland mendhak



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