Blog Post

Can There Be Educational Transformation Without Profiteering?

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? 
  • Etc.

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?  



Can we make educational transformation without opening the door to the unscrupulous, the greedy, the cynical, the profiteering?


Why not?

There are two goals here (like every other organization in the world) which are orthogonal in nature:

1. Improve quality of education.

2. Lower costs.

Changes, innnovation, transformation, etc, etc can fall into only one of the following things: makes progress on both goals, makes progress on none of them, makes progress on one at the cost of the other.

To know with certainly which change falls into which category, one needs to evaluate change. Its easy to know if a change lowers cost or not. But how do we know if change improves quality of education or not?

If there are clear and unambigous ways to measure a higher quality education then I dont see why one should not be able to set up a framework in which change can happen without profiteering. Sadly that is not the case, the question "is education under policy A better then policy B?" is a hard question to answer.

Why? Because it is equivalent to answering the question "Is person A better educated that person B?" which is same as "Is A a better human being than B?" (as the basic goal of education is to make human beings better). Well, from the time of Plato everyone is behind that question and no concrete answer has ever come out and I dont think one will, in the near future, get an accurate answer. 

This means that one cannot setup an accurate and generally acceptable measure for measuring the quality of education. This implies one would never be 100% certain if a change resulted in a higher quality of education or not. This implies one cannot setup frameworks or systems where companies can never make money by lowering the quality of education.

Should we stop educational transformation ?


Why not?

Education like justice comes down to the zeitgeist. There is probably no perfect education system just like there is no perfect legal system for justice. Just like in every legal system, criminals escape and innocent are punished, in every education system there will be profiteering. But like laws which is reformed continously to meet the needs of the world we live in, education should also be continously reworked to meet the needs of current age. No one would wish to go through a trial in an 18th century court.! One way capture the (zeigeist) spirit of the age is to encourage as many people voice their opinion (which is why I like hastac) and then make changes accordingly. Another way would be to collect a group of thinkers/leaders and ask them to suggest changes. Which one is better? I have no clue. May be we need both. But most importantly, I feel we must keep doing this forever.!

Thank you for reading,



From your new vantage point at CCNY, I would suggest some student MA or dissertation projects on ePortfolios. The approach is actually old - it was incorporated in the Ed Reform Act in Massachusetts as "recently" as 1993 - and it goes back at least to Dewey: Kids (at all ages) are encouraged to maintain files of "good stuff" they do for courses, projects, jobs, or teams, to mitigate the worst conclusions of standardized tests. The principle is to show what they can do, to reduce the impact of data on what they can't do.

The effects are often transformative. Students often collaborate, with each other, teachers, parents, employers, or whatever, and thereby develop and demonstrate "soft skills" that go well beyond those of classrooms. The intent was to create enough documentation to justify graduation by students who test poorly. And it is frequently useful in that respect.

Yet it's been dramatically - but unevenly - subverted by capital. In the first place, ePortfolios at levels in k-12 are usually random and unplanned, often becoming paper storehouses for old papers and projects rather than clear documentation of skills gained and demonstrated. Among colleges that process is further exacerbated by software programs - almost all remarkably commercial - that attempt to enforce the expectations of teachers and departments through electronic "bins" where papers and video can prove the existence of specific knowledge. in other words, many of those ePortfolio projects beyond high school are really patch-work tests.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the UMass School of Ed battle between undergrad and grad students in student teaching, along with their program leader, against Pearson and the Dean. Barbara Madeloni was fired for supporting her students' distaste of the Pearson mandate, and has since become the leader of the state teachers' union, the Massachusetts Teachers Association. Ironically, and painfully, the idea of student-teacher portfolios was an old innovation at UMass, based at least in part on MicroTeaching, the innovation three deans before the current one. The point of microteaching was collecting and giving feedback, as a means to structure ongoing self-assessment in new teachers - much the same as other portfolio techniques.

Beyond that single approach, however, ePortfolios are still massively promoted by organizations like the Association for Authentic, Experiential, and Evidence-Based Learning, whose annual conference is later this month in Boston. And AAEEBL is largely dependent on the continuing support of their fifteen corporate (both profit and non-profit) software "partners." Ironically, the metrics they use are very institution-based, designed to feed the distinctive "common core" of sponsoring college clients rather than to document generic, corporate or pre-professional standards.

In a project a few years ago, sponsored first by Kellogg, then by Ford and later MacArthur Foundations, we explored ePortfolio assemblage with high schools students and faculty, and seriously considered the commercial opportunity to promote that model. We deliberately chose not to commercialize the model, since open source software worked quite well to accomplish precisely what students, teachers, administrators, parents, departments, employers and college applications needed. We dismissed the value a commercial product contributed in promoting both the process and their product. We were wrong, but it was worth it.

The commercial profiteers (who are hardly all "bad guys" or thieves) were no more successful than we. They still are massaging a very limited market. Even Pearson, the king of those profiteers, has hardly made a dent in their other - testing - business.

Yet it would be a really interesting graduate project to compare strategies and impact, both among the ePortfolio crowd and between ePortfolio and testing assessment systems. Good luck to your students.



     You raise a valid issue in the first part of your question (“how can we make educational transformation without opening the door to the unscrupulous, the greedy, the cynical, the profiteering?”), but you also make some assumptions along the way in the second part of the question.  I don’t see cynicism from new entrants to higher education, but it is sometimes seen from those entrenched in the status quo.  You also focus on profiteering and specifically mention “excessive or unfair profit, especially illegally or in a black market.”  I can identify some questionable practices, but I have difficulty seeing where you are going with the illegal and black market in education. 

     You also seem to equate capitalism with crony capitalism.  The evidence of the number of lobbyists around any issue seems to be more an indictment of the system leaning toward crony capitalism and away from a level playing field for all without playing favorites within the legislation, the administrative regulations, or the tax code.  You also seem to equate making a profit with profiteering without recognizing that “profit” is a somewhat artificial term defined by accountants.  Non-profit organizations may not make a profit per se, but they do need a positive cash flow to survive whether from soliciting donations or creating some product or service as an exchange of value similar to for-profit organizations.  On the other hand, a for-profit company does require a profit because “profit” is calculated before stockholders get a return on their investment whether in dividends or the expectation of future growth through the reinvestment of “profit.”  Without a return to the investors you are back to soliciting donations and/or taxpayer subsidy.  While there are variations in legal structures, many of the basic processes for sustainability are the same.  Further, the degree of profits into “excessive” territory may be driven more by monopolistic practices enabled by crony capitalism than a motive for an investment return per se.  Even the minimum profit that provides a risk-adjusted investment return is not possible if the product or service were already available from existing organizations in sufficient quantity and quality at a price that cannot be undercut.  To the extent the profit is above the required investment return, that profit will attract additional competition unless a barrier to additional entrants is erected. 

     Part of the question you raise then comes down to how education is to be financed.  To the extent that people freely donate their money to colleges and universities while tax money continues to flow into public education (though at reduced rates), an argument might be made that the for-profits are competing with a starting disadvantage.  To the extent they are able to compete at all seems to be related to either a deficiency in how the legacy schools are being assessed relative to other alternatives or crony capitalism that has somehow distorted the rules to give them an unfair advantage.   


     This is not to say I don’t believe you are raising good questions, because I think they need wide discussion.  However, I don’t see a clear path forward from your post while you seem to be trying to constrain who is to be invited to the table to discuss the future of higher education.  Further, to your questions I would add a few more:

·         How might the Theory of Disruptive Innovation apply to higher education?  Does it apply at all?  When answering, don’t confuse sustaining innovation and disruptive innovation.  There is also a need to consider scenarios driven by “what if” possibilities while considering different parts of the underlying theory of how disruptive and sustaining innovation play out. 

·         How might higher education be unbundled and re-bundled in a meaningful way that addresses various stakeholder needs while not disenfranchising any particular segment?  To some extent, this question is at the heart of many of the discussions taking place as well in the predictions on who the winners and losers might be as change unfolds.

·         How great a barrier is accreditation?  Cracks are starting to show in access to financial aid which is at the heart of how new entrants are excluded.  However, badges, professional certification, ePortfolios, and microdegrees are opening up alternatives to the historic degree structure.  Further, some delivery models are driving down the cost to where financial aid is less of an issue.  Work-study approaches also lessen the need for financial aid.

·         What comprises a sustainable model for higher education?  A great deal of foundation money is flowing into higher education to build Open Education Resources (OER) textbooks and courses, but will that funding always be there to keep these resources up-to-date?  Some are advocating a volunteer approach similar to Wikipedia.  However, equating a few minutes of time editing Wikipedia to the many hours required for course development and oversight are not the same.  Personally, there is a line I draw in how much I am willing to give away versus expecting some return on my knowledge, expertise, and time.  Any sustainable system requires the creation of value that can be exchanged.  (This of course begs the question of how to balance helping the disadvantaged versus encouraging excessive freeloading that is not sustainable.)

     The ultimate question for those in higher education is one that faces everyone encountering pressure to change: whether to react to change initiated by others or be proactive and lead the change toward a viable and desired future state?


On the other hand, I have been trying to capitalise on a gap that exists in the Indian education system and that gap would translate into financial rewards for my investors. In the EDUPRENEURIAL journey that I have embarked I have had to learn how profoundly my money blueprint has impacted my life.. to imagine that our economics professor in college hardly taught us about money and how it is created!!!

The laws in India state that all educational institutions be registered as a charitable trust/not-for-profit society with the result that enterprising individuals have found all kinds of methods to make money in the name of providing service. If profits are allowed in educational initiatives, market mechanisms would ensure that only the best of the lot survive.

Whimsical, arbitrary, idealogy ridden politics of higher education is quite another matter.. (See how Delhi University cnanged its tracks..)

In the long run, we would pay the people who are doing our thinking for us so we would settle for somewhere in the middle. The best ideas will get moneytised and they will percolate to the masses after they are replaced by better ones. There are many tectonic shifts taking place and money iteself is undergoing a paradigm shift. 


The fifth chapter of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts describes "the University in Cambridge" as the fifth branch of state government, with state officers and Congregational ministers as the Board of Overseers. There is, as it were, a long tradition of public higher education that blends those distinctions of public, private, and non-profit. They may have dis-aggregated, and Harvard's $31billion endowment suggest, perhaps, something unanticipated at the nation's founding, but at least the tradition and original intent should be recognized, if not still observed.

That tradition was dramatically broken in the 20th century, first when Harvard and others started charging any tuition at all after several centuries doing quite well without it; and then, in the 1930's and 1940's, when Extension Schools, correspondence colleges, and the like expanded beyond the scope of Land Grant aspirations of the 19th century. In other words, the current controversy about Cooper Union's tuition, and tuition at newer places like Olin College, both initially founded - like Harvard and many others - not to charge tuition, are not, in themselves, new, and echo discussions that go back at least to the Morrill Act in 1863. Furthermore, given the remarkable success of College for America, through Southern New Hampshire University, and earlier pilot Open College models here and abroad, it's not at all clear why anybody should or needs to pay more than $10,000 for a Bachelor's Degree. Were higher ed managed the way it was at its roots, colleges would award degrees for what people know, not for time-in-class or dollars-per-course.

Therefor, there's more than a little mendacity in talking about capitalism and market prices in higher education as if such features were foundational. They were not. And, as an "innovation" of the Gilded Age, polished by today's hyper gilding ala Piketty, the real discussion should be whether any education (pre-kindergarten through doctoral levels - the contemporary equivalent of ministerial) ought cost any student more than their time as a student. The focus on cost, and it's corollary, benefit, ought to address "community economic investment," rather than return on private investment.

And the growth in for-profit institutions is not merely coincidental with the growth of the charters, the decline of parochial education, and the increasingly easy means of accreditation and - thereby - access to public scholarship assistance (which further neutralizes the distinctions between public-private-profit). It's largely a consequence of Gordon Gekko thinking, which, really, is inappropriate. Greed is NOT good.