Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Rrsponse to Judith Patton

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Dec 26, 2000

Judith Patton wrote:

One of the most interesting points you made was concerning the access to education. I hadn't really looked at it that way. I would like to point out, as a person in the field, that the only thing I have to sell is my knowledge. People will pay thousands of dollars to get the knowledge from an lawyer or a doctor, but for some reason in education it should be "given" away. Education is as much as a profession as any other, but is often not seen as such.

I have four comments to make regarding this point:

1. You have more to sell than only your own knowledge, and indeed, you had better hope you have more to sell. Knowledge per se, thought of as, say, the content of a primary, secondary or even university level curriculum, is rapidly becoming accessible to all; it is certainly in easy supply. This suggests that the value of this knowledge will decline, leaving you with very little to sell. But that said, as you have 22 years experience as a teacher, you have a valuable skill set to market, specifically in the area of knowledge transfer. You are able to fashion knowledge in such a way that it is relevant and interesting to students, in such a way that they will learn it. But by this, what you offer is a specific service, not a specific knowledge base.

2. The analogy between education and medicine or law does not hold. It fails to hold in two ways:

(a) As mentioned above, the knowledge a teacher possesses is widely available and becoming more so. By contrast, the knowledge of a doctor or lawyer is highly technical and specialized. This - in the current environment - is probably why doctors and lawyers are paid so much more than teachers (as a sidebar, it is interesting to note that even the knowledge of these specialized fields is becoming more widely available as people access legal and medical data banks in order to inform themselves).

(b) People pay doctors and lawyers thousands of dollars because they are able to perform certain acts: for example, we pay a doctor not only because she knows all about brains, but because she can perform brain surgury without killing the patient. In a similar manner, although lawyers by and large possess the same legal knowledge, those who make the most money are those who are able to effectively argue for their clients in briefs or in court.

3. Even were the analogy to hold, there is good reason to argue that people should not be required to pay thousands of dollars for legal and medical services. In Canada, for example, nobody pays thousands of dollars for medical services: Canadians are covered under universal health care insurance paid for by the government. The argument for universal health care (and indeed, for universal access to legal services) is that these are essential services, and that unequal access to these services leads to unacceptable disparities in society. It is also argued that these services can be provided more cheaply and effectively if provided on an equal basis to everybody. And moreover, as a person seldom uses these services by choice, the principles of the marketplace do not apply, as people are not in a position to make an informed choice as to whether to purchase the service or not. All of these arguments apply equallu to education.

4. Finally, nothing in what I said implies that people who deliver educational services should not be paid. Obviously, every person who performs a public service deserves (and requires) a fair and equitable income. By comments regarding the cost of education refer to the distribution of education, not to the production of eductaion.

I hope you are wrong that the public school will be phased out and replaced. Public schools were started to make sure ALL people got equal educations. I know this idea hasn't always worked in the real world, but to throw out the baby with the bath water to improve schools it wrong. I do think that you are correct that the school systems do need to realize that the "learning culture" is changing. One of the things that is wrong in this theory is that schools are compared to business/market forces. I really don't think this can fit the eduactional system. It is like comparing apples to oranges.

We need to distinguish between:

(a) Public schools, as a system of educational institutions, to which children travel weekdays through most of their non-adult life, and

(b) Public schools, as a system of publicly funded education, which may be accessed by all citizens in a society for learning through their non-adult life.

My argument is that the mechanism of delivery, as described in (a) is inefficient. However, I would argue strongly that we will continue to require a system as described in (b).

When I say that the "learning culture" is changing, I am thinking very specifically that the method of gathering people in one place to learn the same thing at the same time is rapidly becoming obsolete. I am suggesting that the nature of public schools, as described by (a), will change dramatically. We are already seeing this happen.

I think that there are important ways in which schooling - especially at the college or university level - can be compared to a business or market environment. And I think that it would be foolish to fail to draw the necessary inferences based on such a comparison.

Education is a multi-trillion dollar enterprise in the United States alone; much more than that world wide. The educational economy has several clear and distinct components, both in terms of cost and in terms of revenue:


(a) Teaching - payment and training for people who actually deliver education and knowledge

(b) Resources - the cost of testboks, workbooks, educational software, wall maps, etc.

(c) Infrastructure - the cost of buildings, of heating (or cooling) buildings, maintenance, transporting students to and from buildings, etc.


(a) Government - in the form of direct transfers to schools, or in the form of eductaional assistance (grants and loans to college and university students, or vouchers to public and secondary students).

(b) Parents and students - especially at the college and university level, in the form of tuition, fees and educational taxes.

(b) Private foundations and religious organizations.

The reason why I am describing this at length is that if we view education as a market, then it is reasonable to infer that those people paying the cost of an education (government, parents and students, and foundations) will opt, where possible, to minimize that cost. New technology, when considered in the light of the major expenses, suggest areas in which that cost will be reduced:

(a) Teaching - given that a teacher's primary skill is knowledge transfer, it makes no sense to pay a teacher to (a) perform non-transfer tasks, such as recording grades, taking attendance, and similar administrative tasks, (b) transfer knowledge to people who already have that knowledge, and (c) attempt to transfer knoweldge to people who are not ready to learn it.

In other words, to get the best value from a teacher (and hence, to reduce the overall cost of teaching (though likely at an increase in pay for individual teachers)), a teacher's work should be focused on specific individuals at specific times. Today's class is a very random method of teaching: we provide teaching to a group of people based on their age or overall achievement, in the hope that it will be useful. But students do not learn at the same rate and the learning does not occur as efficiently as possible.

Moreover, the manner in which information is transferred will change. As fifty years of television (and especially television commecials) have demonstrated, much can be taught without the direct intervention of a teacher. A teacher's skills should not be applied in broadcast mode; this is best accomplished using learning technology. A teacher's work should focus on the individual, to place information into context, to provide support and assurance, to bridge the page where broadcast technology fails on a case by case basis.

As evidence for all this, consider the application of online learning even today in rural regions. Where it used to be the case that a specialized subject - Latin, say - was beyonf the reach of a school with only a few students, online learning allows the teaching of this course to be centralized and the delivery distributed. Where schools are able to teach courses they once could not, we have evidence that a cost savings has occurred.

(b) Resources - because resource production will (and is already) take advantage of information technology, the cost of producing such resources will decline, and their quality will improve. I should point out that most of these cost savings occur in production and distribution: we save because we no not need to produce physical objects, such as books or CDs, and we save because we do not need to ship physical objects across the country. However, the cost of creating the initial product will increase, requiring the specialized services of content experts, programmers, designers, and the like.

(c) Infrastructure - the largest and most obvious savings may be found in the area of infrastructure. Colleges and universities especially are already finding that providing an online learning alternative can save them millions of dollars in buildings and maintenance.

Students as well realize significant savings by not needing to travel to these buildings. This has become a major factor in the selection of online learning over traditional learning.

In summary, the business and marketplace model is useful because it sets out the parameters though which people amke choices, where these choices are expressed through spending. Given clear sets of alternatives - such as above - where people can make these choices, we can identify trends. These trends predict the future of learning: they tell business people where to invest resources, and they tell practitioners which sorts of skills and knowledge bases they should dvelop.

I agree that eduction is informed by other considerations; education, unlike, say, hamburgers, carries with it an important social component. And it would be unwise to ignore this component; this is what tells us, for example, that government investment will remain high and that certain subjects with no (apparent) economic value, such as Latin, will remain in demand. A view of education based *solely* on business and marketplace concerns would be as misinformed as one which ignores them altogether.

My dissertation is called the "Fractionalization of the American Public Schools" and my thesis is that through "improvement" of the system we are breaking it apart. In the next few years the results of home schools, voucher schools, homeless children, and other factors will be entering the work world. This is where the "rubber will meet the road" and I think that many children will be unprepared for work or higher education. Adding the online learning aspect to this makes it a bit more interesting. After reading your article I am going to add a chapter to my dissertation on online learning.

I think that you are quite correct in identifying this trend: it is even more pronounced at the college and university level, where choices are made more explicitly by parents and students. Today already a wide range of alternatives to the traditional college or university is available (for example, I saw a reference recently (I forget where) which pointed out that there are 2,000 corporate or non-traditional learning institutions. Even here in Canada, the number of specialized technical schools - from software training to hairdressing - has multiplied.

I think you need to show two things:

(a) That this frangmentation is also occurring at the public school level, and

(b) That it is a bad thing.

(a) There has already been a certain amount of fragmentation at the public school level. In Canada, for example, we have a long entrenched tradition of "Separate" schools to teach Catholic eductaion in Protestant provinces (and the converse in Quebec). Moreover, in Canada, we have both French and English schools. So already at the public school level a parent would chose one of four schools for their children.

Canada also has a network of private schools; the one I remember best (because theirs was the only football team ours could beat) is Ashbury Collegiate in Ottawa. I am also familiar with the private school run by the University of Winnipeg for younger members of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.

Even within schools, choice is often offered. I remember being subject to several experiments in public and high school - we tried open concept classrooms (a failure), electives (a limited success), small class sizes (a success, but one which created a failure when normal sizes were reinstated). I remember selecting PE when the sports were gof and curling, opting out when the sports were football and basketball.

A recent trend - one in practice here in Edmonton, for example - also allows school choice within a region. A student living in Edmonton may choose to attend any of the city's high schols; the high schools, in turn, focus on particular qualities: some are arts schools, some technical schools, others focus on large size and a wide range of alternatives, and more focus on small size and personal teaching.

Finally, there has been an increase in the number of online schools here in Alberta, some publicly finded by the Alberta Distance Learning Network, and some privately funded to facilitate home learning.

I think that it is arguable that that public system has already been fragmented, but that new technology is causing the nature of the fragmentation to change. Schol vouchers do not represent an increase in fragmentation per se, they represent a change in how schools are funded, with the consequence that reporting and accountability changes (or to put the same point another way: school vouchers do not represent increased choice for students; that was always there. Rather, they represent decreased accountability to the public at large, usually for the purpose of teaching a curriculum which would not be approved by the public at large).

(b) Even if it can be shown that the fragmentation of the public school system is occuring, it cannot necessarily be shown that this is a bad thing.

The "multiple voices" argument, most famously expressed in the closing parapgraphs of John Stuart Mill's "on Liberty", is probably the most important of these. The argument is, essentially, that where a wide range of alternatives is allowed to flourish, we are more likely to find better alternatives to the current practice. Mill's argument is in favour of freedom of speech, where the conclusion seems obviously to follow. But a similar argument may be made in society in general: choice encourages the development of better alternatives.

The online learning experience substantiates this. Were students required to take the same curruculum in the same manner, then online learning would not be permitted as an alternative. In such a case, then more obscure subjects - such as Latin - would not be available to rural students.

Similar arguments may be made regarding other learning technologies. If the only model of learning permitted is the traditional classroom lecture, then we would not be able to implement customized and personalized education even where it is clearly beneficial. I think of this especially in cultural contexts: we want people to learn in their own communities, with learning adapted not only to their individual talents but also to cultural considerations and community standards. A person in a First Nations community, for example, or a Hutterite colony, should be able to recieve a quality education customized to their particular traditions. From my own experience I can say that online learning makes this possible.

I think that the only case that can be made against the fragmentation of education is one made based on social values. There are two aspects of this argument:

(i) The risk of failure is to great. An education is not merely a product, like a hamburger (although even here the risk of failure is great, as the Jack in the Box botulism cases show). An education represents a person's future, and people - especially children - should be protected from the effects of a bad education.

(ii) Education has an essential social function. We need to teach more than just facts; we need to teach people how to get along in society without killing each other.

But as in the case of hamburgers, I think that we can reach a happy medium, by allowing the choice that people want within the limits of risk and social responsibility. There needs to be a governing authority - a lot like health inspectors - which manage the overall quality of education. There also needs to be publicly provided basic services which ensure a minimum standard of eductaion for all. Within those contexts, I think, we can ensure that we do not renege on our responsibility as a society.

One of the things your article brought out was the corporate world taking over the educational world. I find it rather frightening when so much information is centered in one or two companies. This is true with books, computers, TV, or newspapers. To control the flow of information is to control the thinking of millions of people. That is scary.

I think that there is no doubt that there is a significant move afoot even today to consolodate education within a corporate umbrella. See, for example, my recent discussion of Thomson Publishing's inestments in the field.

And I share your concern about the consolidation of education into a few corporate hands. As recent books have shown - such as Naomi Klein's "No Logo" - corporations are not neutral with regard to information; the nature of the information they provide, even in a learning context, promotes a relentlessly corporate message. See my essay, "Hacking Memes".

This is part of why I feel it is so essential for people to take into account the business and marketplace perspective. It is our only way of identifying what business will do and how it will attempt to consolidate education. It is also the only way we can identify the best possible means of promoting social and ethical objectives within that context.

My own feeling is that it will be essential to adopt at least some aspects of a marketplace philosophy. To a large degree, education today is centralized under school boards and other government agencies. It is also inefficient and of (sometimes) questionable quality (though I do have arguments to counter the latter assertion). This makes it a prime target for corporate takeover, just as (in Canada) essential services such as power utilities, telephone companies, airlines and railways were previously privatized.

The advantages of a public education system must outweigh those of a private system, for otherwise a corporate takeover is all but inevitable. But in order to ensure that this is the case, we must seek to identify the efficiencies which will be offered a corporate system, and to create an alternative which does not share the weaknesses of the corporate model. This is at once a technological challenge, an organizational challenge, and a political challenge.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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