Time to Jailbreak Online Education

Dan Friedman (“The MOOC Revolution That Wasn’t,” TechCrunch, September 11),  expresses no little disappointment over the way online college courses measure up to initial hopes over the past few years. In terms of course completion and even viewing entire lectures, he says, “that revolution fizzled.” But it fizzled for good reason. The predominant online course model has yet to address whose needs it is intended to serve.

There’s a strong parallel between online education and the controversy over Uber and Lyft versus medallion cabs. The controversial ride-sharing services offer some cost competition to the old licensed taxi services. But they’re only a modest step in the right direction; they still embody the same proprietary, monopolistic characteristics as the old model they’re competing against. They’re still controlled by corporate headquarters outside the cities they serve and, thanks to patented apps, skim tribute off the drivers and customer who operate within their walled gardens. The next step is to jailbreak Uber and Lyft themselves with cooperative and open-source ride-sharing services.

Online learning, whether for profit or not, is a marginal improvement over traditional universities. But like Uber and Lyft, it’s still stuck between two worlds, modeled on the legacy higher education system rather than emerging as the real networked, open-source thing we need to build.

Coursera coordinates its course materials with “partner institutions” (brick and mortar universities) as part of a more-or-less traditional curriculum. Udacity tailors its offerings to skills demanded by the “tech industry” (that is, corporate HR departments). The big online course providers are firmly rooted in the post-WWII corporatist partnership between big business employers, the higher education establishment and the state, with the central goal of processing human resources to fit the needs of corporate employers in terms of both work skills and work attitudes. By processing millions of people to supply the labor demands of Fortune 500 companies, the higher education system simultaneously inflates the credentialing levels (and debt peonage) required to get work, overproduces the forms of vocational-technical labor most in need and thereby drives down the price, leaving those who learn such skills with minimal bargaining power versus large corporate employers.

Genuine free education needs to stop pouring new wine into old bottles, whether it be designing free course materials to fit the conventional university degree model, or designing curricula to fit the needs of corporate employers. Corporate employers with Human Resources departments are part of a dying economy. Some of them may struggle on for decades, as an increasingly bankrupt and hollowed out state still manages to provide them with sufficient subsidies and regulatory protection to survive. But they are obsolete and waiting to die, and will encompass less and less of the total economy as time goes on.

The future of labor is self-employment, cooperative work arrangements in small shops (e.g., garage micro-factories, hackerspaces and makerspaces and Permaculture operations), peer-production of information, and project-based work. And in the kinds of project-based work where skills and other human capital are the main source of value addition and physical tools are affordable — a growing part of the economy — existing precarious workers are likely to create new cooperative versions of existing capitalist temp agencies, or freelance unions and guilds that provide insurance, certify skills and negotiate with employers.

We need a new model of education based on voluntary, ad hoc, stackable credentialing outside the state accreditation system, driven by the needs of the small cooperative shops and networked workers who will dominate the new economy.

And of course where  online course materials are proprietary, the open-source education folks need to start hacking the Digital Rights Management on their videos and textbooks.

What we have now is a dying university system, created by a dying state to serve the labor needs of a dying corporate economy. Let the dead bury their dead.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
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