Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ $22,000 Volunteers

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Apr 11, 2000

Posted to DEOS-L 11 April 2000

There are two ways to view education:

  • as an economic function, whereby people become more productive and more affluent
  • as a social function, whereby the knowledge and values of society are passed from generation to generation

Insofar as we see education serving only the first, economic, function, then we may as well view education as a business. Speirs - and many commentators like him - and I agree only that business is moving into the field of education. However, because I believe that education has a wider, social, function, I do not share his Articles of Faith.

Speirs wrote,

Suely business will naturally close this gap [ie., the 'digital divide'] faster than any other plan...

Article One: Business Solves All Problems

Part of the Faith tells us that business creates all solutions itself. Yet experience tells us that if business does not see a profit, it will not act. And observation tells us that there is little - if any - profit to be had offering sevrices to poor people. Reason therefore tells us that business will not 'naturally' provide access to poor people, because they will not be able to make money doing it.

This prediction is confirmed by observations of other technologies: roads to poor communities are the last to be paved, if they are paved at all; telephone service to rural, and especially rural poor, is slow and ineffective; health services tend to congregate in affluent communities, leaving the poor to make do with whatever 'public' services are left over... and the list goes on.

If the only problems are economic problems then business is very likely to meet that need. But the needs of society are not always economic needs and the solutions do not always produce profits for those who serve them. Achieving a stable society involves pro-actively ensuring a certain level of social justice, and the provision of social justice is almost always a money-losing proposition.

and besides, who with any talent at all will "volunteer" for $22,000 when they could earn ten to a thousand times that working for one of those real companies that is in fact closing the digital divide, like microsoft or apple or emachines or dell.

Article Two: The Only Motivator is Money

The second article of Faith is that the only motivator is money. But we know that this is false; we know that people will work very hard for little or no money if the cause is just and the recipients deserving. People are willing to work when there are over-riding social objectives served by such work; that is why such unpaid labour as is provided by library boards, service clubs, and foreign aid agencies attract legions of volunteers.

As for the 'real' companies which are 'closing the digital divide', I see only needlessly expensive products and anti-competitive practices offered by such companies as Microsoft. It is arguable that these companies have actually delayed the introduction of new technology. Let us not forget that these companies have no over-riding social concerns (indeed, by definition, they cannot).

The reason business is moving into education is because they see vast amounts wasted and figure they can do a better job for less.

Article Three: Business Seeks to Improve Society

The third article of Faith is that business moves in noble ways, and that its actions are for the good of society. Observation tells us that business moves toward the money, Period. The reason business is moving into education is not so that it can Do Great Things for Society, it is because it believes it can make money.

Tom Abeles quotes Larry Downes nicely in this context:

four questions to test whether a particular industry is potentially threatened by "web upstarts":
1) are you a highly regulated market
2) are you in a fragmented market
3) is the product you deal with based on information
4 are the customers in your industry poorly organized

These four points are significant because each of them offers business a means of making money, since each of them offers business a change to streamline existing processes. None of these factors constitutes 'waste' in and of itself; but they do provide points at which a well organized (and unaccountable) agency can achieve savings.

Often these four conditions exist as means to address other, non-monetary concerns, or as a result of non-economic factors. Businesses can cut through such limitations by restricting the scope of discussion to purely economic terms. Regulations, for example, are 'wasteful' in the sense that they cost money to implement, though they may be serving some necessary non-economic function, such as ensuring academic credentials, acting as a counterbalance to racism or prejudice, or some other worthy objective.

In the measure "education" does not reject these proposals is the measure business will take over. I expect a near complete takeover.

Article Four: Subsidies are Always Wrong

In what sense does it make sense for 'education' to reject these proposals, which in the end amount to a considerable subsidy for potential users? The very worst which could happen is nothing; but more likely colleges and universities are likely to see an increase in their student base as new users come online. Rejecting this program would conversely have the effect of stalling any growth in the student base.

The only people hurt by subsidies are businesses, slightly, because with a wider (and less affluent) user base it will be more difficult to 'cherry-pick' top clients. But the needs of society are expressed by all components of society, and not only those components of society with wealth and influence. Businesses, when forced to serve a wider array of clients, serve social interests at the expense of their own interests. But they never do it willingly.


I think that there is a role for business in education and I see corporate enterpise moving increasingly into the field. I wonder a lot what will happen which that irresistable force - corporate education - meets the immovable object - universities.

As time goes by I'm thinking that the most likely scenario (and the only one in which universities survive) is one where corporations become suppliers and universities become distributors. But - that said - the money is in distribution.

If the only objective of the whole enterprise revolves around money -- that is, if we see education only as a means of helping the economy, increasing profit, training for jobs and productivity, etc., then I do think that it is inevitable that universities will be replaced by, or acquired by, corporations for corporate profit. For after all, what argument could be offered against such a trend?

It is only insofar as universities - and education generally - address broader social objectives that they will be insulated from the corporate move into the education market.

It is only insofar as we see the need for people to live and thrive outside a business context that there is a need for non-corporate education.

It is only if we see education acting in the best interests of *society as a whole*, and not merely the students served, that education will be seen as a part of a social structure, and not part of an infrastructure.

But these are hard issues. It is not intuitive and obvious that people want or need learning which has no practical (ie., economic) value. And it is more than a little pretentious, arrogent even, to say that we, academics, know better than they who must pay and work for this non-practical education.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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