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?

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.

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.