Do as iSay, not as iDo – Silicon Valley’s two faces on learning: Andrew Keen

ANDREW KEEN writes in The Sunday Times (June 15, 2015) on E-learning, which Indian universities are promoting as the latest and best. It turns out that Silicon Valley IT bigwigs, all frantically developing the perfect software that can finally eliminate human teachers, (a goal being promoted enthusiastically by the Indian system through Massive Online Open Courses MOOC), are themselves sending their children to ‘Waldorf Schools’, in which computers, tablets and smartphones are banned (yes, indeed, BANNED), because, says the Media and Technology Philosophy Statement of Waldorf School:

Waldorf educators believe it is far more important for students to interact with one another and their teachers, and work with real materials than to interface with electronic media or technology.

Oh my. Are they taking us back to the Dark Ages, as Indian teachers want us to?

Or (Heavy Irony Warning) – do children need ‘traditional’ education with human teachers and human interaction, so that they can develop the creative skills necessary to develop the software that can eliminate humans? 

And of course, it will inevitably be e-education for the masses, and increasingly expensive “traditional education” for the elites. As Keen puts it:

It is yet another irony that, over in California, the Waldorf School of the Peninsula says it provides a “Renaissance education in Silicon Valley”. While an online humanities-lite education is good enough for the masses, the children of successful venture capitalists and digital entrepreneurs are being educated in an unambiguously low-tech environment dominated by the physical relationship between teacher and student and a body of core knowledge that stretches back for hundreds of years.

Keen quotes William Deresiewicz:

Moocs, Deresiewicz argues, are “about reinforcing existing hierarchies and monetising institutional prestige. The kids at Harvard get to interact with their professors. The kids at San Jose State get to watch the kids at Harvard interact with their professors.”

Full article by Andrew Keen starts here:

Online learning is yet to take off in Britain as it has in America, where the market research firm Global Industry Analysts estimates that revenue for the online learning sector will reach more than $100bn (Pounds 64bn) this year.

But if on-line education really is the future, why are so many IT moguls choosing traditional schooling for their own children?

Among the rich and powerful families of Silicon Valley, the new-new thing is to give their children a “Waldorf” education that outlaws computers, tablets and smartphones.

“Waldorf educators believe it is far more important for students to interact with one another and their teachers, and work with real materials than to interface with electronic media or technology,” says the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, part of a private chain that has two highly popular campuses in the valley.

In its “media and technology philosophy” statement, the school adds: “Current studies reveal that the pervasive use of computers in the classroom is having a negative impact on key aspects of children’s learning.”

Ironic then, isn’t it, that the new-new thing among Silicon Valley start-ups is digital education? Billions of dollars are swirling through companies that seek to make fortunes by usurping precisely the traditional education that Waldorf encourages.

Reinventing education appears a no-brainer. Indeed, it’s one of the few things everyone agrees on. After all, improving, perhaps even radically disrupting, a somewhat archaic education system seems to be the key to solving some of our most pressing economic and social problems.

What we all want, from a reinvented educational sector, is more of the four Es: equality, employment, efficiency and enlightenment.

Better education could be an effective way to ameliorate crime and social alienation. Improved education can help confront the gap between rich and poor. Above all, reinvented education is the answer to the great disruption of today’s digital revolution, with its challenge of creating viable jobs in an increasingly automated 21stcentury economy.

But that’s about as far as the consensus about educational disruption goes. While most of us, particularly professional educators and parents, believe that the reinvention of education involves more investment in high-quality teachers and schools, and a modernisation of curriculum, the view from Silicon Valley businesses is quite different.

In Silicon Valley, technology — particularly the always-on, opensourced, digital technology of the internet revolution — is seen as the answer. Traditional education and teachers, at both the school and university level, are viewed as the next set of 20th-century institutions to be swept away by the third wave of the digital tsunami.

The problem is that educational “disruption” in Silicon Valley might actually spell educational “destruction” for the rest of us.

The internet — or at least today’s disruptive ecosystem of most forprofit educational start-ups in Silicon Valley — isn’t really the answer to our educational crisis. Rather than promoting the four Es, today’s digital revolution is more likely to compound inequality, unemployment, ignorance and inefficiency. The internet economy has gone through three revolutionary waves. The first, between 1985 and 2000, involved the building of the internet’s infrastructure by companies such as AOL, Yahoo and Netscape. The second, beginning after the dotcom crash in 2000, was the “Web 2.0” period of big data platforms such as Google, Facebook and YouTube. And the third, current wave is the integration of the digital revolution into most mainstream sectors of the economy — from healthcare, transportation, finance and government to school, university and corporate education. More than any other sector, it’s the disruption of the education market that captures both the opportunities and dangers of this all-important third phase of the internet revolution.

Online learning is yet to take off in Britain as it has in America, where the market research firm Global Industry Analysts estimates that revenue for the online learning sector will reach more than $100bn (Pounds 64bn) this year.

These numbers have triggered an investment frenzy fomented by Silicon Valley venture capitalists. At least two online learning companies have joined the much-vaunted club of “unicorns” — private tech start-ups with valuations of more than $1bn.

One of the most hyped is Coursera, founded with great fanfare in 2012 by Daphne Koller, a former professor of computer science at Stanford University — the scientific powerhouse that gave rise to Silicon Valley.

Coursera, which employs 180 people, is a pioneer of massive open online courses (Moocs), the online learning offerings that can attract up to 100,000 students per course. It has 121 university partners offering about 1,000 free online audio and video courses, such as Stanford’s popular “machine learning”.

Koller’s goal is to make the educational experience like “turning the tap — and great education comes out for everybody”. That hasn’t happened, however. Instead, history is repeating itself.

In the first two waves of the internet revolution, we were told by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs that media content would magically come out of the network for everyone’s benefit. The outcome was anything but beneficial for anyone except the increasingly monopolistic platforms that owned and operated this content.

We’ve seen the global revenues of the world’s recorded music industry cut by 50% since 1999, the redundancy of tens of thousands of newspaper journalists and a continuing crisis for many other creative professionals in photography, animation and videography. That lesson remains valid. Online learning companies embraced “free” content as if it were some sort of badge of honour to give this scarce material away.

Yet even Koller recognised the risks for universities. “You’re asking a university to take a thing that’s made them who they are, which is their content, their professors, their brand,” she has acknowledged, “and give it to everyone around the world for free.”

The economics of giving away valuable content are self-evidently absurd. Both Coursera and Udacity — another prominent education start-up, the brainchild of Sebastian Thrun, a former Google executive and a robotics wunderkind — have recently moved away from free content.

They have been either trying to “monetise” academic courses by charging between $50 and $100 for certificates of completion or shifting to the more lucrative corporate educational market. But it’s still not really clear how these companies — and the remaining high-profile free-content networks such as the Khan Academy — will generate the kind of income to transform them into lucrative businesses.

Koller offers a clue to the longterm business model. Eventually, she told The Wall Street Journal earlier this month, “we’ll have data from hundreds of thousands, millions of people at a level that’s unprecedented. I think we’re at the cusp of a revolution of treating human learning as a science.”

It’s probably no coincidence that so many former Google executives are leading the online education revolution. Google continues to generate many billions of dollars of advertising revenue through the mining of its users’ data.

This conjures up the ominous spectre of the internet transforming the “analogue” school into a digital panopticon. Are schoolchildren going to be subjected to Googlestyle surveillance in their education? Who wants to be bombarded with personalised advertisements while taking “free” online courses? Should our digital “university”, with its all-knowing algorithm, become familiar with our most intimate online behaviour? Superstar academics such as the Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel and the Princeton sociologist Mitchell Duneier have attracted huge audiences for their Moocs. This has had unpredicted consequences.

San Jose State University — just down the road from Silicon Valley — decided not to include material from Sandel in its online courses to protect its own, less well-known teachers. Even more tellingly, Duneier himself cut his ties with Coursera, because he feared it was undermining public higher educa-tion and jeopardising the jobs of less well-known lecturers.

The point is that Silicon Valley’s seductive promise that online learning democratises education is illusory. Online education isn’t going to put great universities such as Harvard or Oxford out of business. But it is undermining America’s small private colleges. Susan Fitzgerald, of the creditrating agency Moody’s, predicts a “death spiral” of small college closures.

William Deresiewicz — who taught English to “entitled little s****” at Yale before becoming a polemicist about the state of education in America — says Moocs are “not about democratising education. That is just their cover story.” Moocs, Deresiewicz argues, are “about reinforcing existing hierarchies and monetising institutional prestige. The kids at Harvard get to interact with their professors. The kids at San Jose State get to watch the kids at Harvard interact with their professors.”

It also reinforces the temptation to cheat. In the Web 2.0 period, the appearance of peer-to-peer music sharing networks such as Napster resulted in an online kleptocracy that almost destroyed the music industry. The equivalent today on unsupervised peer-to-peer learning platforms is an epidemic of cheating.

This is such a deeply rooted problem that Coursera has introduced technology that identifies its users through their keystrokes, while Iversity, an online German college, uses an invigilator to stop students getting somebody else to take online exams on their behalf.

Even traditional gender and class biases are magnified in the online learning environment. Researchers at Pennsylvania University, who examined 400,000 Coursera students, found the majority were men. “So much for the borderless, gender-blind, class-blind and bankaccount-blind Moocs,” argued the technology writer Jessica McKenzie. “If anything, this shows that Moocs are widening the educational divide, not levelling the playing field.”

Almost all online learning, particularly at the university level, centres on technology courses, with most of the popular classes being on robotics or computer science. Humanities — which are already in crisis in many American universities — are poorly represented in the digital learning revolution.

It is yet another irony that, over in California, the Waldorf School of the Peninsula says it provides a “Renaissance education in Silicon Valley”. While an online humanities-lite education is good enough for the masses, the children of successful venture capitalists and digital entrepreneurs are being educated in an unambiguously low-tech environment dominated by the physical relationship between teacher and student and a body of core knowledge that stretches back for hundreds of years.

Reinventing education isn’t, of course, a no-brainer. The fact that classroom education, with its personal intimacy between teacher and student, has lasted for centuries — and is still sought by parents who can afford it — indicates the folly of the digital disruptors who champion the redemptive educational powers of technology.

13 thoughts on “Do as iSay, not as iDo – Silicon Valley’s two faces on learning: Andrew Keen

  1. This is the kind of ridiculous logic once proposed when computers first arrived i.e that people would lose jobs because of them. This stiff necked attitude to change is disconcerting, to say the least. I believe that online education helps to democratise learning and will help provide education to the masses. In a world where even now, many, many people remain illiterate, its value is incalculable. I agree, there will be loss of jobs, but no change, no development is perfect. What we need to do is provide alternative means of employment, to redistribute those unemployed to new avenues, where those skills are more needed. The truth is that in the education sector, demand far outstrips supply even now. There are too many students, too few teachers. I challenge the people here to find even ONE college in India, where the student-teacher ratio is better than desired ratio. In such a context, it makes complete sense to democratise education, make it freely available. The problem with the Internet is that while it democratises from POV of consumer, it often undemocratises from POV of supplier. So what we need to do is create a more egalitarian environment for lecturer, so that a lesser known lecturer can compete effectively with a better known lecturer. However banning the e learning is definitely not the answer. Let us remember, cut off marks in DU is now 100%. Is this more democratic??

    1. Your comment seems more sensible than the article, honestly.
      Nobody in his right mind, would deny that Internet doesn’t reach everyone equally. That it simply mirrors and even magnifies the existing inequalities and power structures. But it is not as white and black as the article seems to suggest. As you rightly point out ‘democratization of knowledge’ is perhaps the greatest boon of the internet revolution. Indeed it serves only the privileged at the moment, but surely with time, everybody would benefit. Any new technology has the same drawback

  2. Nivedita Menon

    reformtheworld3497 and Mukesh have chosen to debate the article on the basis of the tired, stale shibboleths they assume to be God’s own truth – technology is good, more technology is even better. But they are setting up a straw man to knock down, while the article itself remains unaddressed. The article is not against computers and technology, it raises two points they have no clue how to even address, so they just ignore them:
    a) Education cannot be exclusively on-line. As Keen says: “But if on-line education really is the future, why are so many IT moguls choosing traditional schooling for their own children?
    b) Exclusively on-line education, far from democratizing education, basically pushes the masses into on-line education while only the rich can afford traditional education. As Deresiewicz puts it: “The kids at Harvard get to interact with their professors. The kids at San Jose State get to watch the kids at Harvard interact with their professors.”

    If you can address these points, that would generate debate. What you do say in your comments are irrelevant in this context.

    1. For your first point, I cannot speak for IT moguls. But I am a medical student, who regularly learns from online medical videos posted online like najeeb lectures, kaplan videos etc. I studied in one of the Premiere medical institutions in India, but through the net, I have access to lectures by the best medical minds in the world at my convenience, at my beck and call and as many times as I wish it.As for your second point, I agree that poorer students only get to watch videos while richer students get to actually learn from the best lecturers. My point is that, right now, richer students are the only ones privileged to learn, while poorer students don’t even get the opportunity. The net is at least a good first step, elearning at least a first step to universal first class education. I studied in a government medical college and am from the upper middle class in terms of economic strata. The first thing I noticed about college was how despite being a government college, most of the students fell exactly into the same economic strata, similar sociocultural background as me. In my college, 90% of the students were from the top decile of the population, economically. 90% had studied in some coaching institute other, over 50% had reached the college after repeated attempts (sometimes more than two) and many, many years in coaching institutes. People who did not know English struggled. The internet has none of these requirements, All you need is a net connection. I agree with you that our dream should be to provide universal college education to all, irrespective of economic background but MOOCs are a good first step.

      1. @reformtheworld3497 This comment suggests that you are not in disagreement with the article at all, as you first seemed to be claiming.

        No one is claiming that there is nothing good about MOOCs: note that the logical negation of “all technology is good” is not “all technology is bad”, but that “not all technology is good”. The article is arguing this last point: many MOOC enthusiasts have been hyping them as a replacement for colleges and schools, not as the supplements you envision them to be. This is the irony that the article and Nivedita Menon’s comment above highlighted: to others these MOOC enthusiasts say that MOOCs should completely replace even existing colleges, while they arrange for their own children to go to the richest old-school colleges. The point here is that MOOCs have an utility as supplements, but they are completely worthless as replacements for existing colleges. In this respect the Indian NPTEL model seems to actually have a better view of the situation: NPTEL lectures are clearly designed not as replacements for courses but as supplements.

        The MOOC propaganda has been so insidious that there have even been instances of some reasonably well known US colleges such as San Jose State University and colleges have fallen for it and have outsourced important classes to MOOCs. This is the trend that is worrying.

  3. Nivedita Menon

    Viplav, thank you, the link is most illuminating. I am reproducing below the substance of the argument you make in it, which distinguishes between what MOOC was meant to be and how it has been hijacked by profits and corporates:

    “To distinguish between the two, Stephen Downes termed the original MOOCs ‘cMOOCs’ (for Connectivist MOOCs) and the newer ones as ‘xMOOCs’, the “x” standing for being an extension of something else.

    That something else was really the type of eLearning that had grown very rapidly since the late 1990s. Corporations and even online learning providers found it expedient to digitize expensive face to face training and create standardized, mass learning experiences for their employees, in order to cut costs and save lost working time.

    For the most part, this type of eLearning tried to simply replicate the traditional classroom and curricular practices online. In traditional online learning, all learning is centrally directed, restricted to the closed boundaries of the course, performed generally alone (collaboration features see very low usage patterns), mass personalized with rigid pre-determined learning paths and assessed largely through objective type assessments.

    This type of eLearning had already failed to scale for many reasons. It was designed for stereotypes of industrial age learners. It ignored the diversity and overabundance of information that is present in real life. It ignored the autonomy of learners to personalize the learning experience. It ignored the richness of interaction on the World Wide Web. It ignored the “conversation” and “connections” in learning. xMOOCs are extensions of this type of eLearning.

    By only incrementally extending this type of online learning, xMOOCs have massively magnified challenges such as low retention, rote learning, low employability and lack of student ownership, motivation, interactivity and engagement. It is as if they have ignored more than two decades of insights from online, open and distance education.

    Backed by venture funding, top universities and media hype, xMOOCs have captured popular imagination. India has not remained immune to this hype. Addressing the need for personalized interaction and for integrating LABs, high quality online self-paced content is to be blended with face to face local faculty interactions and LABs. This addresses some shortcomings of the xMOOCs, but in essence remains their extension.

    What we should be doing instead, is to build massively open connective learning ecologies that can help our students and teachers to become capable, connected and responsible digital learners – the promise of the cMOOCs (and of an ideal educational system).”

    I understand cMOOCs then, to be the promise of what e-learning can be, developed by visionaries with the understanding of knowledge as the process of making connections, of “knowledge as network”, and what MOOCs are today in the form they have taken under the pressure of venture capital.

    1. The cMOOC’s are definitely better than the xMOOC’s. Having said that, I do not believe it should neccessarily mean the end of xMOOC’s. Standardized classrooms have their own value in teaching methods. Ideally, both should be provided. Interactive classrooms for those who can take the time off for studies, Non interactive standardized classes for those who need flexible timings. Additional teaching resources and research for those inclined to go deeper into any subject.

  4. Yasmin Qureshi

    Very timely essay at the eve of ‘Digital India’. It is ironic that ‘human-centric’ design thinking is being promoted to digitalize the world in the Silicon Valley.

    The rise of the Internet economy has led to the greatest disparities in the US economy in recent times and primary education has been one of the worst hit areas.

    My sister has been teaching in low income areas in the Silicon Valley. One may be appalled to know that some of the schools are in mobile vans, not even proper buildings where to go to a toilet a teacher has to escort the student because it’s so far. These schools have low budgets. Kids come from families with many complex issues and what is needed the most is human interaction and caring before they can begin any learning. After all, a school is more than just a place to learn courses. Digital education erodes personal interactions and human values. It is disturbing India is pushing towards this model for the masses.

    This particular high-tech boom is forcing people with moderate incomes who have been living in the Bay Area out of their homes. Cities like Oakland or East Palo Alto (in the heart of Silicon Valley) with a prominent African American population where traditional government schools were already been wiped out due to cut in budgets for education, are now being taken over by the techies.

    The disparity ranges from quality of education to housing and food where the well off (mostly high tech earners) are moving towards traditional methods of farming and cooking(eat organic, less fast food etc) as well as education which are so expensive for others who have no option but to eat mechanized food which is cheaper and can perhaps only afford digital education for their children in the future.

  5. Patrick

    The Waldorf School of the Peninsula is a great school. But the depiction in the press regarding the elite of The Valley sending their kids there then pushing something else for other people’s kids is taken out of context. For the press seems to have left some with the idea that only CEO’s kids populate the school exclusively, which is actually far from the truth and several families receive financial assistance.

    For actually, that kind of person, one who would make money off doing the opposite of what Waldorf stands for would not be well tolerated at a Waldorf School. They would be philosophical misfits and the teachers would rebel at the idea of teaching their children.

    I know because my children have been going to a Waldorf School for about 10 years.

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