Inequality in American Education Will Not Be Solved Online

With funding tight, the state of California has turned to Udacity to provide MOOCs for students enrolled in remedial courses. But what is lost when public education is privatized?

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Unlit road at night (MRBECK/Flickr)

One night recently, it was raining hard as I drove to pick my son up from an evening class at the Atlanta Ballet. Like many cities, Atlanta's roads are in terrible condition after years of neglect. Lane divider paint is so worn as to become invisible in the wet darkness, potholes litter the pavement. But this time the danger was magnified: on large stretches of Interstates 75 and 85, two major freeways that intersect the city, the streetlights were completely extinguished.

There are ways to fix such dangers. One option would involve allocating public funds to repair and revitalize the infrastructure in question. Of course, such services are difficult in an era of reduced tax revenues and massive public resistance to financial support of infrastructural projects in the first place. So another option might involve hiring private companies -- not to repair the broken roads and streetlamps, but to provide separate paved surfaces and illumination services to those who might choose to drive in conditions of wetness and/or darkness. After all, we're living in an age when traversable roads have become fiscally unviable. What choice do we have?

Such is essentially the logic the state of California has adopted in its plan to offer online classes in the California State University System, a deal the state has struck with "massively open online course" (MOOC) provider Udacity.

The startup, which has received more than $15 million in funding from Silicon Valley venture capitalists, will provide online classes in remedial and introductory subjects for students at San Jose State University (SJSU), in exchange for an undisclosed sum from the state.

In essence, San Jose State will be allocating funds that would have otherwise been distributed to the school from state coffers or student tuition or both and routing it to a for-profit company for outsourced teaching services. SJSU's provost struck the deal because of a "crisis" in which, according to The New York Times, more than half of the school's entering students lack basic knowledge in subjects like elementary math and English.

The SJSU test will be run on "remedial" courses at one of the country's most ethnically diverse universities, of which only 25 percent of the student population is white, and which is primarily comprised of minorities, first-generation college students, and commuting students. This is a population that has more likely been subject to underfunded primary and secondary schools and, generally speaking, a whole regime of distress, neglect, and bias compared to California residents who would attend Berkeley or UCLA. Put differently, the conditions that produced the situation that the Udacity deal is meant to solve, at least in part, was first caused by a lack of sufficient investment in and attention to early- and mid-childhood education.

In response, California could reinvest in public schools and the profession of secondary teaching. But instead, the state has decided to go the private paved surface and illumination services route -- siphoning California taxpayer receipts and student tuition directly into a for-profit startup created, like all startups, with the purpose of producing rapid financial value for its investors. Just how much of those proceeds Udacity will hold onto is unclear. While the company has reportedly paid instructors in the past, it's unclear if its new institutional relationships will support paid teaching or not. Coursera, Udacity's primary competitor in the private MOOC marketplace, has managed to get faculty from prestigious institutions to provide courses for free, in exchange for the glory of a large audience and the marketing benefit of the host institution.

For its part, Udacity will also enjoy the benefit of federal funding for this trial, in the form of National Science Foundation (NSF) support to study the effectiveness of its effort. It's a bit like the National Transportation Safety Board providing funding to test the effectiveness of my hypothetical private road illumination service.

That's the political situation. As for the educational one, at the Silicon Valley start-up tabloid TechCrunch, Gregory Ferenstein opinies that the SJSU experiment "will end college as we know it" because "lower-division courses ... could have easily been automated." Yet it remains unclear why the "faceless lecture halls," of these courses are any worse -- or even just any different -- from faceless web-browsers and robot graders, save for the fact that Andreessen Horowitz and Goldman Sachs might cash out their potential value for a handful of already-wealthy beneficiaries.

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Ian Bogost is a writer, game designer, and contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in media studies and a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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