[iDC] Hackademia as New Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

Blake Stimson blakestimson at gmail.com
Wed Jul 27 17:33:30 UTC 2011

Dear Anya,

Thank you for  your response. I think we are in agreement about the good intentions of many of the individuals involved in the development of DIY educational models (incl most of the initiatives represented on this list) and about the individual and socially enriching potential of many such models. We are also in agreement about the profit model--I did not suggest that it be used on its own as a litmus test. 

Let me try to make my point clear.

My concern was with "aggressive" business practices and the three examples were presented as a range--from Gates's support of Khan (characterized as "seemingly mixed" not, as you say, "identical") to Lebed's targeting the huge collective nest egg of college savings (as "truly scary"). 

In order to fully appreciate the range from mixed to scary of these well-funded, well-organized initiatives we need to first consider the idea of education they are proffering. Phoenix and Kaplan don't apply directly because they are institutional rather than DIY models but Phoenix-founder John Sperling summed up the shared educational philosophy nicely when he said “Coming here is not a rite of passage. We are not trying to develop value systems or go in for that ‘expand their minds’” nonsense. That is to say, there is no civic-minded mission of training citizens as citizens or humanist mission of human development that are the cornerstones of the liberal educational ideal. The Khan/Gates collaboration is mixed, for sure, but it is the product of two businessmen and, as far as I can tell, they both think about and implement the process of skill acquisition in the instrumental way of businessmen. That is, there is none of the "expand their minds nonsense" that is the foundation of our civil-social, political, and cultural heritage but instead a vocational, train-for-the-test, bottom-line approach. This becomes brutally so in the Lebed video.

In sum, the "iCollege" notion privatizes not simply because it is a for-profit model but because it turns education into a consumer good and students into consumers. What drops out in the process is the liberal idea of education as the public exchange and public development of ideas and what ends up in its place is the vocational idea of the market as the private exercise of entrepreneurial initiative and the private exchange of consumer goods.

Of course, this is not the case for many DIY initiatives--The Public School comes to mind as just one of many such initiatives, or we might just point to Wikipedia or the original, now-rapidly-diminishing "open-source" promise of the web itself--that operate on the principle that the accumulation of knowledge and the exercise of reason is, first and foremost, both part and promise of the commons. Something similar could be said of this email list.


On Jul 27, 2011, at 4:05 AM, Anya Kamenetz wrote:

> Hi Blake,
> I think it's really important that you brought this up. I've done a lot of reporting on the role of the private sector in the future of higher education.There is no doubt that the business community, including venture capitalists, consultants at Harvard Business School, and maybe hundreds of young entrepreneurs are very interested in new models of higher ed, to say nothing of the eight or nine publicly traded companies that control the for-profit higher ed market, with over 10% of all students, and still dominate the public image of online ed. There are some very scary players in this world, and if you're talking political lobbying, the Phoenixes and Kaplans are at the forefront in terms of dollars (not to mention the student loan industry, now demoted to student loan servicers, but still rich). 
> However, in the cases you mention, I find it inexact to assume that the donations made by the nonprofit Gates Foundation and the personal enthusiasms of Bill Gates should always be considered identical with "business interests," much less those of the Republican Party. I've worked with the Gates Foundation and everyone I know there is committed to education access and to supporting public higher education, not at all advocating privatization. I've also met Sal Khan and his personal commitment is to free education for all. 
> Likewise with the Thiel Fellowship--Peter Thiel, as far as I've been able to tell from talking to the head of his foundation and several of his fellows, is acting out of personal conviction to make a statement about higher education being outdated and irrelevant. Whether you agree or not, he's donating money to these kids from his personal foundation, not making for-profit investments. 
> There are some great ideas and tools for transforming higher education coming from young entrepreneurs. They are often pursuing mission driven for-profit models because they find it impossible to innovate within the system. I haven't found it useful to make profit model a litmus test for whether something is a good idea but to evaluate people's commitment to openness and access on a case-by-case basis.
> Case in point: this is one of the Thiel Fellows' entrepreneurial projects. It's a tool to make it easier for teachers to create multimedia lessons and upload them for their students and others to share. It's currently in private beta testing with about 200 classroom teachers.
>  http://www.opentheclassroom.com/
> a
> On Tue, Jul 26, 2011 at 6:35 PM, Blake Stimson <blakestimson at gmail.com> wrote:
> Dear colleagues,
> I have been following this exchange only sporadically so please accept my apologies if I am repeating something that has already been said.
> In addition to the generative potential of concepts like DIY higher ed, digital humanities, and hacking academia, it is also important to address the ways in which it is being  aggressively pursued by various business interests. These range from the seemingly mixed, such as Bill Gates's sponsorship and repeated strong personal endorsements of Salman Khan (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gM95HHI4gLk) to Peter Theil's paid dropouts (http://www.fastcompany.com/1755089/legendary-investor-peter-thiel-names-dream-team-of-whiz-kids) to Jonathan Lebed's truly scary effort to bring crisis-capitalist profiteering to higher ed as a way to pilage college savings accounts (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VpZtX32sKVE). Accelerating the privatization of higher ed through a DIY model is not yet an official part of the Republican platform as far as I know, but it is certainly on their radar and it seems reasonable to expect that it will get significantly more play soon, perhaps in the coming election (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/18/pawlenty-daily-show_n_617766.html).
> Blake Stimson
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> Fast Company column Life In Beta
> Tribune Media column The Savings Game
> Book DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of  Higher Education 
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