This week while everyone was thinking about the impact of the U.S. election, ask I was thinking about what is going on in U.S. higher education. I attended the roll-out of my university’s newly adopted online education platform—Blackboard 9.1. With much fanfare, for sale assembled faculty were introduced to the learning management system’s much touted features that would “help faculty help students more effectively” and tie our work into an all-in-one enterprise platform that was to become the new “OS” for higher education. Just so it’s clear where I am coming from here, discount I am an advocate for online education. I teach online classes and have done for over 15 years. My students learn to think critically as well as they would in an onsite class. In so many cases whether they live in rural small towns, have five kids at home, are on active duty in the military, are too timid to engage, use English as a second language, are starting with less preparation then their classmates, or just need the convenience of working at night after work, I see students benefit immensely from the vast resources available at their fingertips. They gain entry into worlds of ideas and advanced skills once barred to them. My alarm is not about online education. It is about the underlying worldview and theoretical assumptions about what this industrial strength technology says about the role of education in a free society.
With great fanfare faculty were introduced to two joined-up systems to be added on to basic online courseware. One was a data analytics package developed originally for industry to manage customer relations and collect back-office data on performance. It has now been adapted and sold to the education sector as a tool to monitor and report how faculty deliver “education services” to students. The other was a presenter from McGraw Hill who described with TED-talk enthusiasm a content delivery system designed by his multi-national publishing corporation to deliver prepackaged digital course elements developed by their “content providers and instructional designers.” As students balk at paying $250 for a textbook, McGraw Hill and other publishing houses have rebranded themselves as software companies delivering curated information to a student’s device and calling it knowledge.
Though delivered with a pacifying dose of platitudes about its benefit to educators, “making their lives so much easier,” these two products represent nothing less than a centralized socialization system designed to deliver at industrial scale a training regimen to the largest number at the lowest cost. It is the perfect tool to provide skilled workers to large scale organizations who want compliance first, productivity second and self-authorship and creativity not at all. The fact that research says it won’t, and will only shift expenses from fixed faculty positions to the outsourced IT budget is never mentioned.
What does the faculty member do in this new world of industrialized education? Well less and less. She can decide which learning objects (pre-designed modules and assignments) she wants her students to receive, what evaluation system (multiple choice, essay, exam) will be used–all sold by McGraw Hill. And if she is a full-time faculty member (not a contingent faculty member who will teach only what they are given) she may instruct the course designer where to place each “learning activity.” She will grade those assignments that require faculty expertise (although there is now software that can do that for the overwhelmed faculty member). And while students are working on their own to master the content the faculty member (and her dean) can analyze the multiple data sets to see how she is doing. There will be graphs, scatter plots and pie charts that can tell her how many minutes a student spends in an activity, what an average score is on any assignment, whether the module is “delivering the intended learning outcome” and if prof X does better than prof Y. She will no longer need to know her individual students’ unique circumstances to figure out what kind of help they need. She is relieved of that by back office administrators who read the same data and can whip off a preprogrammed “nudge” message those whose score on an assignment suggests they are at risk.
My colleague Roberto Carneiro, former Minister of Education for Portugal, pioneer in distance education and co-author the 1996 Delors Report on education for the twenty-first century, has made a distinction between a “Clockwork Orange” education where everyone is programmed to learn the same things the same way, and an emancipatory humanistic education which is aimed at education that sets free the imagination and releases what the Delors Report regarded as, “the treasure within.” Carneiro reflected on the twenty-first century context of rising uncertainty, incoherence and rapid change and made a strong case for an education that wll help young people thrive in this new world. Where they can discover themselves and each other as—persons, beings for themselves–and develop their unique potential to participate in crafting a world that works for everyone and where human dignity is at the center.
Yesterday was among the most depressing days of my life as an educator as I saw how far we have fallen from my own progressive vision and from the aspirations of the Delors Report for an education that liberates the genius of each human being, and how the soulless and morally empty Clockwork Orange scenario appears to be gaining on us.
 Delors, J. (1996). Learning: The treasure within. Paris: UNESCO.