Towards a unified field theory of Internet charlatanism.

29 05 2011

I’ve been working on a text about late American industrialization and its effects. It allows me to read in all sorts of areas of history which don’t usually go together like urban planning and Native American policy, since industrialization was an important enough phenomenon to worm itself into practically everything during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. One of my themes is that the wonders of cheap consumer goods helped people accept the wrenching changes going on around them. The more I think about it, the more I realize that an awful lot of people who are making money off the disruptive technological revolution of today aren’t leaving anything for anyone but themselves.

I could start back again on the subject of Kindles, but let’s do e-books in general instead. Here’s the poet Charles Simic on the subject of libraries:

“I heard some politician say recently that closing libraries is no big deal, since the kids now have the Internet to do their reading and school work. It’s not the same thing. As any teacher who recalls the time when students still went to libraries and read books could tell him, study and reflection come more naturally to someone bent over a book. Seeing others, too, absorbed in their reading, holding up or pressing down on different-looking books, some intimidating in their appearance, others inviting, makes one a participant in one of the oldest and most noble human activities.”

Of course, Simic knows that whatever politician he heard couldn’t care less about the quality of the reading experience. They only care about the money. The idea is for all the financial benefits of electronic books to flow towards government so that the government can cut rich people’s taxes more. Libraries are socialism to our new Tea Party overlords, so who cares what happens to them anyways?

Our new overlords are the same way about public schools. If you want an informative but depressing experience, start following NYU education professor Diane Ravitch on Twitter. The teachers of America are not happy campers. This one came across her feed a few days ago:

Of course, where do you think all those worksheets will be delivered to students desks? From the cloud, of course, because storage costs money. Centralized production, undifferentiated content, conceived at the lowest common denominator and delivered at the lowest possible cost. Cut costs to taxpayers for the sake of lowering taxes, and let the kids rot for all the reformers care. They’ll see none of the benefits of this disruptive technology and pay the cost of its effects for the rest of their lives.

But at least they don’t have to pay the cost of students at for-profit colleges. I knew this already, but I continue to find it astonishing:

The average price of attendance, including tuition, books and living costs, for students enrolled full-time for a full year was highest at for-profit colleges after average grants were factored in. Students at for-profit colleges paid $30,900 on average in 2007-08, compared with $26,600 at private, non-profit colleges and $15,600 at public institutions.

Pay twice as much as a public college for a lousy education delivered over the Internet even though it costs them less to deliver it to you. If there really is an education bubble, that’s exactly where you’ll find it. The Walmart of higher education would price online courses less because that would be a better business decision, except for the fact that they have to keep up this fiction that online and face-to-face classes are of equal value. Most of them are not, but the American public has become so conditioned to believe that a college degree is just a piece of paper that they can’t seem to tell the difference anymore.

In the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, the Fountain of Youth can only work if you take other people’s remaining years away from them. I’m thinking that’s kind of like what we have going here with the public sphere in America. Maybe when we’re all old, the youth of this country will get back at us by taking our Medicare away. Oh wait, they’re already working on that.

Isn’t Karma grand?


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30 05 2011
Music for Deckchairs

Well, you know me, I’m drawn to discussion of online charlatanism like a moth to a flame, so I just have to say that I don’t buy the whole romanticising of book reading that underpins this. We’re in danger, surely, of reducing the problems associated with higher education system overload to a question of format: paper or e-paper? Maybe content is the issue. (One way of looking at this is to think about audio books. Where do they come on the continuum of virtuous practices? And where do overloaded classrooms come in the ranking of high quality learning experiences?)

Where I think online hooks up to the vision of institutional profit is via the curious proxy of student satisfaction. In other words, we offer education for convenient download because we think that’s what students want, not because we can offer it cheaply. But we’re like the movie industry trying to cope with television: we have a dim sense that students have changed and we’re trying to catch up with them, because our real mission is to please them. Awkward.

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