In writing an essay for a collection on the need for educational change, I came to the conclusion that one of the biggest challenges facing those committed to change is to differentiate the necessity of educational transformation from profiteering. How can we underscore the need to change what is antiquated about our current system if we operate under the shadow of ed-tech purveyors who may be committed less to improvement than to the profits to be made at the expense of the 15 million students currently in our colleges and universities--and their teachers? Being clear about our motives and our personal stake in change is essential if we wish to be trusted as leaders of change.
Right now, there is a profound confusion between the need for institutional change and the treasure chest that many for-profits see as their opportunity in higher education. It is easy to argue that our system is antiquated. Protesting against a fear of profiteering too often makes us seem as if we are opposed to change. Yet fearfully rejecting necessary changes makes us even more vulnerable to people whose "solutions" do not serve us but that do serve themselves, their shareholders, and their own bottom line. The blurred lines between those things, on every level, makes it difficult for those honestly committed to improving the status quo.
So I ask again: can there be true educational transformation without profiteering? And I mean profiteering in the good old-fashioned definitional sense: "to make or seek to make an excessive or unfair profit, especially illegally or in a black market." In some cases, there will be profits to those who invent good and honest tools that are part of change. Of course. But being able to sell a product that works is not the same as profiteering. And sometimes edtech solutions, especially those that promise to replace teachers with technology, border on something that, if not technically illegal, is certainly "excessive and unfair." If you are selling legislators a bill of goods--or if legislators themselves are somehow profiting from this--then you are turning the nonprofit enterprise of investing in the education of youth into a get-rich-quick scheme for diverting public funds into private hands.
I believe we need to be reinvesting in public higher education now because it is the best investment a society can make in its own future. But the education we need to reinvest in has to be progressive, relevant, urgent, and important, the very best way of preparing youth for a complex, connected future. Educational transformation, not profiteering.
Here are a few of the questions about our educational system that we should be asking:
- How can we make higher educational affordable in the wake of the forty-year defunding of public education?
- How can we make private higher education more affordable?
- How can we question a bankrupt professional reward system (the rising percentage of professors being hired as part-time adjuncts without benefits or security is surely a diabolical replication, within academe, of society's general trend towards income and other forms of inequality)?
- How can we push greater peer-learning and peer-to-peer open learning in order to give students the oppoturnity to bring their informal methods of learning online and the ways they learn in formal education?
- How can we recreate our idea of literacy to help inform those online activities with the digital literacies, expertise, knowledge, and wisdom that we all need to be better citizens in the world of surveillance, commercialization, and data gathering that we inhabit online?
- How can we change standardized testing?
- How can we create a far more flexible idea of what constitutes expertise, credentialiting, certification, and accomplishment?
- How can we ensure that knowledge in the classroom contributes to a better, more just society?
- How can we connect the imperatives of learning to the vocation of leading an independent, adult life?
This is a crucial and interrelated set of questions. And unfortunately the answers to each of those questions are complex and variable--different answers for different kinds of institutions, even within institutions. There is no cure-all. Yet there are edtech folks out there who pretend that they have the one, perfect systemic or technical solution that can magically solve all the problems (remember MOOCs, anyone? and all the false promises at the beginning of that enterprise?)
We need real educational change informed by a sense that we've inherited a lot of systems that may have worked once but that have increasingly less urgency and utility now. Most of the apparatus for the institutions of higher education derived from the founding of the research university for industrial age training and specialization, primarily in the late 19th century and early 20th century. It is time to just as systematically rethink the apparatus of the research university we've inherited for the contemporary world. Thoughtful people--faculty, administrators, students, parents, employers, and, yes, educational entrepreneurs too-- have to work hard to think about what may or may not be a better way. It's not fast. It's not easy. But that does not make the question of educational transformation any less urgent or important.
BUT . . . . If the primary stakeholders pushing the conversation on all these questions are pushing strictly for their own profit, then every single one of these questions admits the possibility (even promotes it) of an answer, a solution, that could actually harm us, as professors or as students. That is, if we are asking questions as stakeholders in the enterprise of offering the best education possible, but we are answering them as stakeholders in making as much money as possible, then what we have is not educational transformation but profiteering.
It is that simple. It is that scary. And it is one reason why educational transformation terrifies teachers, including many who might otherwise be willing and even eager to make changes in a system that they, too, see to be antiquated. What kind of change? For whom? For what purpose? For whose profit--and what kind of profit? Those are key questions.
Too often we have seen "change" be the kind that jingles in someone else's pocket (and puts us out of a job).
Until we can separate educational transformation from profiteering, we will have some people fighting change because too many times they have seen change result in someone getting rich (and everyone else being hurt). That's the caution. That's the imperative. That's the big, big question here: how can we make educational transformation without opening the door to the unscrupulous, the greedy, the cynical, the profiteering?