Inequality in American Education Will Not Be Solved Online

To summarize: the answer to underfunded, lower effectiveness primary and secondary education requires subsidizing a private, VC-funded bet made on a roulette wheel fashioned from the already precarious prospects of a disadvantaged population.

Partnerships between technology startups and local governments may entail a contradiction. Silicon Valley culture embraces two conflicting notions of public property. On the one hand, we find the legacy of hacker culture, which embraces the principle that "information wants to be free," and which creates common property under the rubric of open source materials all parties are free to use or adapt. On the other hand, we find the equally common seizure of public property and the public interest in the name of commercialization, a practice that might suggest another aphorism, "free information wants to be sold." There is perhaps no better example of this Janus logic than Google, which advocates a philosophy of openness while simultaneously hoarding information to profit from its access.

Udacity's government-endorsed apprehension of a clear public need for private benefit highlights the most troubling aspect of MOOCs: Rhetorically, they assume "information is power," purporting to tear down the walls to knowledge by making it broadly available, even if in a very particular format. But pragmatically, they admit, if only behind closed doors, that actually power is power, and controlling the networks for services offers a good deal of it at limited investment.

"Information" was never enough. Information is only intelligible given the proper knowledge, context, and opportunity. Likewise, knowledge is produced and shared within a complex infrastructure supported by a web of different agencies and organizations. Even if made cheap or free for consumers, that knowledge still requires other, more foundational knowledge, community affiliation, and economic freedom to convert into meaningful use. And from the perspective of public investment, cheap or free education is only possible given the purchase afforded by aggregation. Handing over that benefit to private interests may offer convenience, but that convenience comes at the price of control. Need a more familiar example? Just think of your own relationship with Google or Facebook.

Udacity and other MOOC start-ups ignore all this because they have to do so in order to be the kind of businesses they are, high-risk "disruptors" meant to produce rapid, speculative financial value by converting "inefficient" social processes into "efficient" industrial ones. Even if its courses may seem cheaper or more accessible, offering a more viable entree into post-secondary education, they do so by (a) privatizing such an activity among an organization purpose-built to convert the needs of the many into the benefit of the very few and (b) by reframing the social challenges inherent in underserved educational populations as simple problems of content delivery.

Education, particularly the education of populations that most need it to improve their lot, is tied up with a political and economic situation that is not sufficiently addressed by merely connecting some of its output to the Internet, or by abdicating public responsibility to do otherwise to the first salesman who offers a sort-of viable alternative, no more than better night travel by car in Atlanta would be sufficiently supported by allowing private companies to connect to the electrical grid, or by providing government subsidies to flashlight manufacturers.

As TechCrunch's gleefully apocalyptic article demonstrates, Silicon Valley culture loves to celebrate the end of institutions merely to bask in the spectacle of falling rubble. That works for summer popcorn flicks, but in the real world, eventually we have to live among that rubble. Or, I suppose, we have to be able to afford the cost of the private rubble-clearing services that would allow us to persist in their wake.

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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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