Education as an Enterprise and the Crisis of Expertise: The Case of TechChange

A few days ago, I decided to request to join a bunch of “closed” Facebook groups about various topics about emerging technologies to network and keep up with the various ways in which people are discussing these subjects.  One group was entitled, “Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization.”  This unique group hosts over 5,000 members and is part of Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) history.  The description reads:  This is the Facebook group formed by students of the Introduction to Infographics and Data Visualization, Oct 2012, the first massive open online course of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin. This group also includes students from additional offerings of the course in January 2013 and future ones.  Eager to learn how this group interacts, I decided to scroll through several recent posts to get a feel for its Discourse (Gee’s concept of the term, big “D”iscourse that means language + other stuff).  Eventually, I stumbled upon Nick Martin, CEO of TechChange, advertising a 4 week online certificate program in “Technology for Data Visualization.”  

For less than five hundred dollars, anyone with an Internet connection could choose to use TechChange’s model for assisting individuals and organizations with learning technology for the purposes of social change. Since I teach very similar topics in my Rhetoric and Writing courses (e.g. Social Media for Social Change, Digital Organizing and Open Government, and so on), I feel a mixture of emotions about TechChange’s education model.  On one hand, I am excited to see “Geeks for Good” exploiting a fact that many higher education instructors fail to engage:  higher education is not a public good.  It has been sufficiently corporatized to be appropriately defined as a business.  Unfortunately, it is a business that continues to operationalize as a state organization.  The ineffective administrative mechanisms of higher education and the delivery of ‘high quality educational services,’ are contradicted by the fact that the government makes billions of dollars from so-called financial aid packages (mostly graduate students).  This political issue is hitting boiling point and will almost certainly end up in the 2016 presidential debates.  Arguably, faith in public education is at an all-time low.  Even people who benefited tremendously from it will probably agree that its costs weren’t fair.  People who lack access will criticize it for any reason.  Some others will complain about its lack of pay-off (e.g. no jobs available, etc.).

As the significance of the revelation that the government is, essentially, running a for-profit business hits more and more ex-students, especially those of us who continue to work in higher education space, we will be unable to justify our costly “investment” as nothing more than a scam.  We will feel conflicted when our students treat us like customer service representatives instead of professors because we will empathize with the student on one hand and seek to dismantle their lack of understanding about the nature of knowledge on the other.  Clearly, we cannot blame the contemporary college student for feeling as if education is a business transaction.  This is the way that the institution and its traditions and practices are marketed to them.  Clearly, we cannot blame them for a purely transactional view of knowledge when standardized testing culture indoctrinates them into believing that the world is composed of “correct” vs. “incorrect” choices.  We cannot blame them for believing that Google and Apple and Microsoft want the best for them and that a search query will only turn up the “best results” because such databases are already “perfect.”  The task of deprogramming a student’s Manichean orientation is even more challenging when you must play the role of convincing them that their investment in college really is worth it.  To constantly argue in favor of the expansion of their choices through reflection, deliberation, and a lust and curiosity for learning about the nature of truth and rights is not a hard sell, it is simply hard to sell when the users/clients have a much simpler expectation of persuasive delivery.  Great graphics and “clear language” is what they want to see.  The cryptic syllabi and read between the lines assignments eclipse even the brightest students in higher education today.

Consequently, I feel extremely threatened by TechChange’s education model.  Their courses seem practical and the graphic design of the website appeals to their credibility. The layout presents two large columns and high contrast between the background and the large sans serif text. The crisp images of people *doing* with technology resonates with me. However, I am not moved because they are holding cellular phones or wearing construction hats, or in dialogue around a desktop machine. I am moved because the images feature diverse individuals operating in a global setting. I recognize the world in images of Asian women, African Men and Women, as well as others. Nevertheless, I am snapped back into my reality as an educator because I notice that the site never refers to the people who “facilitate” these courses as instructors. They are simply, “facilitators.” Few of them represent the images of the people that appeared so prominently on their course description pages.  Moreover, their teaching philosophy is influenced by a gaming approach–which I think is a great idea because I am always looking for ways to incentivize student responses in the course.  However, they claim that they leverage the best in “online teaching pedagogy,” and “our years of teaching in-person and online.”  What is the “best in online teaching pedagogy?”  How do they know?  Where did they learn these standards?  Is leading presentations enough to be considered “teaching?”  Who is a teacher now?  What would their qualifications look like? Who would be persuaded by them?

According to TechChange, they believe in building partnerships with Academic Institutions.  They state that, “We are working with a number of academic institutions to be able to offer credit for our courses in the coming year. TechChange staff currently teach for-credit graduate-level courses at American, George Mason and George Washington Universities as well as the United Nations University for Peace. We are happy to work with individual participants to provide letters of support to home institutions. We also currently have a partnership with the National Peace Academy. Some of our courses can be taken as part of NPA’s National Peacebuilding Peacelearning Certificate Program, a program designed to make learning for peace accessible, available and affordable for all.”

Will their entrepreneurial model of low-cost, hands-on technical learning with a “social change” theoretical framework displace similar work occurring in academia?  Will academic institutions be capable of competing with their slick visual design, “expert instruction?”  Should academic institutions pilot online courses with their dynamic courseware instead of continuing to support clunky chunky interfaces like Angel and Blackboard?

The dramatic increase of educational models suggests a need for more comprehensive advising and mentoring models that are capable of articulating the diversity of options that are available to students.  If a student wants to do digital marketing or journalism, who should they trust?  Who are organizations and companies turning to in order to assess the “fitness” of prospective job candidates?  Where do entrepreneurs and government organizations fit in this process–of researching and credentialing future workers?

As new “institutes” emerge, English and Writing departments need to be paying very close attention to their educational models and persuasive techniques. We should be resistant to claims of expertise, but we should actually participate in new platforms for learning.  If we fail to engage emerging models, we will appear even more fossilized to younger and younger demographics.  Our survival depends on developing partnerships that increase our capacity for visibility, revenue, and substance.  We’ve got a lot of history and awesome methodologies for criticism that should be informing the public’s understanding of learning.  It seems “education literacy” needs to be added to the expanding taxonomies for language, discourse, and communication.  We cannot afford to think that an educational institution’s prestige networks will be enough to sustain its existence throughout upcoming decades.


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