Welcome to the all-you-can-burn buffet

mentre fa correr via la macchina a motore

Higher education is explicitly a commodity now. It is explicitly open to market forces and for-profiteering. This exposes it to risk, hedging, venture capitalism, and the treadmill of competition. This means that all of the social relationships we develop and nurture within higher education are subject to the rule of money. There is no outside this exchange mechanism that frames how we relate, as Capital turns back in on what it terms ‘the developed world’, in order to accumulate [our mutual futures] by dispossession through debt-driven consumption. – Richard Hall, You have not been paying attention: putting students at the heart of the system

Providence Equity is an investment banker; the firm’s goal is profit. To maintain Blackboard’s stock price at Oracle price-earnings ratio of 20—equivalent to an annual 5% return on investment (ROI)—earnings would need to increase from 2010’s $16.6 million to $74.9 million. That is, net revenue increases and cost reductions—typically reduction of staff—of at least $58.3 million are needed to be comparable with other public software companies. A reduction of 290 positions would achieve only half of the needed increase in net income. This would be 16% of the Blackboard work force. The average annual ROI of private equity firms for buyouts is 19.6%, though they may accept a less aggressive figure for one or two years. Assuming a market capitalization of US$ 1.5 billion, earnings would need to be $292 million. This is $271 million more than current projections for 2011. To meet their expectations software prices would increase 52.3%. — Jim Farmer, Investment Bankers and Blackboard’s Future, Part One: If …

“We have some concerns,” says Sam Segran, chief technology officer at Texas Tech University. “Any time somebody goes into private equity, one of the concerns we have is profit motivation and less motivation in terms of meeting educational needs.” — Inside Higher Ed, Blackboard Gets Bought

I’ve thought about Richard Hall’s rich and provocative post a lot since reading it last week. Not so much in the context of Blackboard (though my university is ready to buck the trend and move to its system), but in the wider discourse around the fields of educational technology and open education.

When Rupert Murdoch speaks and is received like a keynote speaker at the Open Education Conference (I’ll be there, register now!), it gives me pause:

If we knew we had a gold mine on our property, we would do whatever it took to get that gold out of the ground. In education, by contrast, we keep the potential of millions of children buried in the ground.

Fortunately, we have the means at our disposal to transform lives.

The same digital technologies that transformed every other aspect of modern life can transform education, provide our businesses with the talent they need to thrive, and give hundreds of millions of young people at the fringes of prosperity the opportunity to make their own mark on this global economy.

…Finally, with digital we can bring the world’s greatest thinkers to every student, anywhere in the world, at a very low cost.

Even long-time critic Michael Wolff, while noting Murdoch’s endless record of demonstrable contempt for education and for the digital revolution, is smitten with “the new and gentler Rupert”. Maybe we’ve won?

Then again, I think about Mr. Murdoch’s contribution to the art of journalism, and have to ask what exactly his contribution to the field of education might look like?

It was an unusual topic for the News Corp (NSDQ: NWS) CEO. In November, News Corp hired New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein as an advisor, and bought 90 percent of ed-tech provider Wireless Generation for $360 million. In January, Klein got his own education division in News Corp and a $2 million salary.

Judging from his keynote to the eG8, which was assembled by France’s president Sarkozy to hear tech business’ views to be fed to the French-hosted G8 summit, Murdoch is both passionate and excited about what he sees as both a duty and a business opportunity.

This could encompass both e-books and learning materials and group learning platforms, and could be a gauntlet thrown down to one of the digital learning sector’s big beasts – Pearson.

There is no reason why all children shouldn’t have access to great symphonies or lectures from Stephen Hawking, Murdoch told eG8 delegates – no reason why, if a particular teacher has developed the best lesson plan in a field, that lesson shouldn’t be shared across a school system.

Access to great symphonies? Gee, how could that be possible without the benign assistance of multi-national conglomerates raking in billions of profits?

The lectures of Hawking? If only we could view them in the future, sometime after Mr. Murdoch has secured the long-term exposure of his investment plan.

And us yokels in the education sector will never figure out how to share a lesson plan, not until we bust the teacher’s unions and sign an assured distribution contract with a serious content provider… If only there were means to easily share resources, tools, strategies and reflections openly and freely, using commons-based technologies that easily scale up for millions of users?

So when I grumble about an open educational discourse that “favours” commercial use, it’s because I am probably thinking about how that aligns with the interests of Rupert Murdoch and his wacky pals. There are already enough useful idiots ready to serve the forces of fear, and life is too full of quiet desperation, degradation and exploitation as it is. Then again, there is joy and learning to be had, and I know what that feels like when I experience it. The question is how to preserve, nurture, and share that feeling…

25 thoughts on “Welcome to the all-you-can-burn buffet

  1. Wow, you really back in full swing, and fully swinging. I love it, you are writing with full-on force and simultaneously framing my opened presentation for me, and I really appreciate that. You are one free resource I love to exploit for profit 😉

  2. Such an excellent post.
    Murdoch’s analogy really reminds me of that brilliant audio clip played repeatedly on ds106radio back in March.
    I’m don’t know the full context (i.e. who is talking, when, where, etc) but it was basically a hilarious guy reminiscing about when he was invited to talk at a convocation and there was a corporate guy before him who told the students they were a “valuable natural resource”. Following the ‘suit’ this guy told the graduates, “I’d be f**king afraid to be a valuable natural resource in this country. Do you know how we treat valuable natural resources!!!??? We’ll mine the sh*t out you, we’ll exploit you and contaminate you till there’s nothing left! No, you don’t want to be a valuable, natural resource in this country”

  3. So here’s my question. Why do Murdoch, Gates, et al get so much traction with their support of open content? Why hasn’t the education world beaten them to it, especially in countries enduring economic crises?

    I imagine an alternate history, where a speaker responds to Murdoch: “Good point, old chap, but we’ve already done this. Teachers share their content over the Web, sometimes using CC licenses. Students are used to tracking down open content. School administrators support this. Governments and donors approve of this mixture of generosity and cost-cutting. After all, the open Web’s been with us since the mid-1990s, wikis ditto. The Budapest Declaration was back in ’01, same year as the Creative Commons’ launching.”

    My inner optimist asks: how close are we to that alternative path? What parts of the education world drove us part-way there? My inner cynic pointedly inquiries: what forces within education stopped us, back when we had a better chance?

  4. First Brian, great post.
    I can imagine you writing it with the same verve and passion that you, Novak and Will presented the MediaWiki and WordPress integration session at the recent ETUG event in Nelson, BC. You guys were on fire.
    Yes, it scales: Growing an open and social infrastructure
    I know everybody in that room in Nelson had their hair blown back as you three demonstrated *how* it could be done. I know I did. What you did was not simply tell an education story, you demonstrated the worth of the social infrastructure with resonant examples that cut across campus life and work, and that could be extrapolated well beyond UBC.
    To Bryan Alexander’s points, and related to your post. I think that getting the message out and building traction has something to do with taking the message beyond the already convinced, and into more public settings, as well as venues of less comfort, where the resonant value can be demonstrated. It’s too easy for the dismissers to put your clear thinking into an educational pigeon hole and let it languish there.

  5. @Bryan they get traction because they are seen as the experts and leaders by the non-education-field public. They are billionaires. They say they know what’s wrong with education. We should trust them. They obviously know what they’re doing. Except that education isn’t an empire, and it isn’t ripe for a land-grab bubble. Wait. Shouldn’t. It shouldn’t be. Even if they are working hard to set up another market to dominate at the expense of their customers.

    Stephen has been arguing for the CC:Non-commercial license for years. I’ve always naively (intentionally naively) thought that wasn’t necessary – that a simple CC:By license would let everyone use stuff however they wanted. Commercial use wouldn’t prevent non-commercial use. Everyone could sing kumbaya and dance around the campfire, freely sharing and reusing. But Stephen was right, as you pointed out. CC:By essentially provides creative works to be used as free-of-cost foundational bricks for the empire builders. That’s not why I share stuff.

    I’ve decided to switch all of my content to be released under the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial license. Use whatever you want, non-commercially, but if you’re going to sell something, you need to contact me to arrange a specific usage license. Which may or may not cost you money, depending on who you are and what you want to do.

    Thanks for the nudge to rethink this. I know I’ve been intentionally naive about this for years – but it’s now reached the point where I can’t just ignore the implications of commercial use.

    [looks down at bottom of Brian’s blog and sees CC:By license declaration…]

  6. @Jim – I can’t wait for your keynote at Open Ed. My grumbling aside, I still think there is real value in that gathering and I expect it to be a great conference.

    @Giulia – thanks for emphasizing that point. That analogy does indeed reveal a great deal. (I think I heard that clip on #ds106radio, but I can’t remember any names.) I recall a staff meeting last week in which one of my peers expressed discomfort with the term “professional development” for buying into the model of “humans as resources.” (I forget what the preferred alternative is.) Personally, I am OK with the term.. the fact is we *are* resources to our organizations. I am employed by my organization because I am perceived to offer something of value to its objectives. I don’t see how changing the terminology does anything to address that reality. Indeed, a more palatable term would only mask it.

    @Bryan – Thanks for that alternate history. I suppose it goes without saying that the people in this comment thread (and many others) have been hacking out and living that “alternative path” for some time. I guess the real mystery is why nobody at the eG8 thought to ask that question… It says something about who was invited to that gathering, who is making the decisions, and what their worldview entails. As for the forces that are stopping us… I have some half-baked thoughts — mostly around the times in my recent professional life where work I have done has not been deemed “serious” (which I think may be the single most pernicious concept in our field, maybe in our culture) — but I have no idea how to begin to articulate them clearly, and without laying waste to what remains of my professional viability.

    @David – Thank you for the supportive words. The response to the work we presented in Nelson was profoundly encouraging and energizing. (And of course, we need great work to make the platform more than just a shell so thanks to you and your collaborators and your students — not least for pushing us to keep making the platform better.) I agree with you that “the message” needs to be communicated more effectively… and we obviously need to be able to make the case to different people. What we are doing is not working. I’ll continue to be interested in your thoughts on that question, I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately and not sure I am any clearer there…

    @D’Arcy – Thanks for those thoughts. Personally, I reached saturation on the NC-clause question a few years ago (you may have photographed the exact moment it happened)… And as I noted a few posts back, the fact that in 2011 Creative Commons is nowhere near a clear definition of what “commercial use” means… well, I just can’t go there. On copyright questions, I’m finding myself worrying more about Access Copyright (and the excessive burden they are placing on educational institutions), meaningful fair use for everyone, etc… I’m sticking with the CC:By for myself, because it is the least restrictive license… But at the end of the day, I still can’t bring myself to care very much about what letters are in a CC license.

    To sum up some of the thoughts in this thread… Rupert Murdoch can stand in front of the global elite, including its media, saying he is working on a corporate solution to how to share education on the web, and nobody pushes back and says “a movement of educators are doing that already, and the best solution you can offer is to stop interfering with them.” That says a lot about our collective challenges and failures.

    Thanks to all of you for your thoughts, which have sharpened my positions on this subject (as well as muddling them in a very good way).

    1. Maybe that’s the key – there is no “collective” per se. Education is so fractionalized – stuck at such a profoundly local level – that it’s impossible to say “we educators stand for this.” – because there is no “we”, just a bunch of isolated collectives and districts and groups with differing mandates and agendas and resources. There is the Open Education camp. There’s the anti-LMS camp. There’s the inquiry based learning camp. The connectivism camp. The constructivist camp. etc. etc. ad nauseum. There is no cohesive Education.

      Also, education is one of those things that’s pervasive – everyone goes to school. It’s fundamental to our experience in society. But, because of this familiarity, it is devalued to the extent that some rich schlub can walk up and say “hey, hundreds of years of history are just wrong. I just thought of a better way. and I’m here to save you all.” And people believe him, because hey, anyone can be an educator. And if anyone can be an educator, then a billionaire software/media tycoon can sure as hell do a better job of being an educator than the locals teaching in the school down the street. Who wouldn’t want to be part of the billionaire’s solution, rather than what we have now?

      And, parts of what they say have merit. But other parts devalue the most important parts of education – it’s not about content distribution. And that’s primarily what these corporate tycoons are doing – reframing Education as a publishing and distribution problem. They figured it out for newspapers and boxed sets of software, so how hard could it be to copy and paste that success onto education?

      I don’t know where I’m going with this rambling. Sorry. I think it’s this “anyone can be an educator – it’s EASY!” stuff that enables the corporatization of it all.

  7. Cheers Dan. I have been following their blog since Jeff Longland mentioned them in a Tweet a month or two back. I’ll be interested to see where they go.

  8. @Brian – I find it hard to care much about copyright, or definitions or any of that crap, really anymore. It’s just bullshit that distracts us to focus on crap that doesn’t matter, rather than getting pissed off and working on more meaningful things. So, yeah, while I changed the letters of my CC license, it doesn’t mean anything. I need to find a way to stand up and find my way through all of this corporate nonsense and toward more important things. Like actually doing something rather than fucking around with licensing etc…

    Something I read recently (was it here? was it something you linked to? something Stephen said or linked to? something else? dammit. everything is so fucking muddy lately) has been bouncing around the inside of my skull. Basically, the most effective way to restrict people is to allow them rich and deep discourse on a limited range of topics. They blow their wad bickering about nonsense, rather than getting pissed off and causing real change. Feels like CC:By/NC is one of those things. Let them squabble about how to license their stupid content, so they don’t see the larger things in motion.

  9. Great responses, Brian.
    Good point, D’Arcy, about the relative status of educators vs zillionaires.

    Here’s a question: who are the leading educational figures, representing schools to the larger world? If it’s (US examples ahead) Stanley Fish or Randi Weingarten, that might explain why OER isn’t winning. If it were, say, Hal Plotkin, then things might be different.

    Or take a step back, to one of the giant questions. How does education change?

    If the answer is “slowly, very slowly, and unevenly”, then that’s the terrain of David Porter’s generous reply. This stuff (Web, wikis, OER) is a decade+ old, but it takes us a lot longer to change than that.

    If the answer is “rarely, except in response to very strong outside stimuli”, then that alternate history is alternate because the outside culture didn’t press us harder. It wasn’t a question of who was stopping us, but who wasn’t pushing us. They – politicians, businesspeople, pollsters, news media figures – really weren’t interested in this stuff for a very long time. Instead, consumerism became too huge and blotted us out of the mindscape.

    Think of how most people viewed public access tv, or libraries. Low-rent stuff, not flashy, not hip; for old and poor people without style. If something isn’t at the mall, how can it even exist on the Earth? Or, what you said, Brian, about the work not being seen as “serious”. That broader culture hasn’t driven us to move into OER. Until now. Like D’Arcy says, “they are seen as the experts and leaders by the non-education-field public. They are billionaires. They say they know what’s wrong with education. We should trust them.” They made – are making – the push.

    *Ill-formed coda: again and again I come back to this sense of how necessary it is to think of education within the full context of our deeply-laid, still-unfolding economic crisis. So much of what we’ve been doing for the past 20 years has been shaped by the giant financial bubble. It popped catastrophically, and now… we’re at a huge decision point. A hinge, from which the future swings wide. Will we rerun the bubble? Race back to the mall to run up the cards once more? The intersection of learning, schools, and technology that occupies our minds is all caught up in this dark, swirling matrix: the adjunctizing of teaching, the persistence of financial might, ever-extending globalism, the reiteration of debt, the darkening future of limited resources.
    D’Arcy again: “education isn’t an empire, and it isn’t ripe for a land-grab bubble. Wait.”

  10. Something else rattling around the brain – responding to something Scott Leslie said about the need to take a stand. He was talking about copyright, but it applies here, as well. Who would be willing to risk the financial stability (hah!) of their family, in order to take that stand? I’d love to say I’ll be out there making a difference, but really, I’m not about to jeopardize the roof over my family’s head, nor the food in the fridge. I’ve already been a part of one drawn-out decade-long legal battle out of principle, and even if I win that one (which I will), it stands to potentially cost my family everything we have saved just to cover legal fees. I just don’t have another epic battle in me, especially in such a nebulous and undefined arena as “education”.

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