The Fire Last Time

This post originally appeared on the Software Carpentry website.

Back in November, Justin Reich wrote a post titled "Will Free Benefit the Rich?" (re-posted as "Open Educational Resources Expand Educational Inequalities"). In it, he outlines two possible futures. In scenario 1, everyone benefits from free online resources in ways that narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. In scenario 2, everyone benefits, but the well-off benefit more, so the gap widens. What caused a fuss was his claim that the empirical data we have so far supports scenario 2: in the year of Occupy, saying that something is going to increase inequality is going to stir up strong emotions.

Some of the responses were thoughtful: see, for example, Audrey Watters' "OER and Educational Inequality". Others, like Tom Vander Ark's "How Digital Learning Will Benefit Low Income Students", were more defensive. He is CEO of Open Education Solutions and a partner in Learn Capital, so he has a vested interest in online education being made of pure win. His post presents ten reasons why it online ed will help low-income students, but (a) he doesn't directly address Reich's point that it will help upper-income students more, and (b) he doesn't back his arguments up with data.

Meanwhile, in the world at large, Anu Partanen (a Finn herself) wrote a widely-linked piece for The Atlantic titled "What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland's School Success", which in turn refers to Pasi Sahlberg's book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?. Partanen's piece closes with this:

It is possible to create equality. And perhaps even more important—as a challenge to the American way of thinking about education reform—Finland's experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity... The problem facing education in America isn't the ethnic diversity of the population but the economic inequality of society, and this is precisely the problem that Finnish education reform addressed. More equity at home might just be what America needs to be more competitive abroad.

Again, that's a politically sensitive thing to say in the year capitalism became a dirty word in American politics [1], but I think it's relevant to Software Carpentry. First, as complained before, the small minority of scientists who do high-performance computing get the lion's share of both money and attention. The majority, who mostly think of themselves as scientists who happen to use computers instead of computational scientists, aren't just less well served—in most cases, they're completely ignored. I think that if funders and reviewers focused on the needs of the majority, the rising skills tide would life everyone's computational boat.

Second, and much more importantly, we want to help everyone, not just people in well-funded labs in first-world countries. We want to help geologists in the Nebraska outback, astronomers in Patagonia, and epidemiologists in Bihar do more with less pain. To do that, we're going to have to think hard about how our stuff is actually used, and listen to a lot more people.

Coincidentally, Scott Gray just wrote a post titled "My Thoughts on Codecademy" that's relevant to this discussion. Scott has been doing online education longer than many of Software Carpentry's students have been doing arithmetic. His post begins like this:

There is yet another new wave of start-ups emerging in the educational technology space and like those that came before, most of this new wave neglects to address some critical issues. Every few years, a new set of companies comes out with what they refer to as, "the next wave in digital education." However, these "new" methods and technologies are rarely actually new. Experienced educators who have followed the evolution of digital education since its inception over fifty years ago, have seen it all. The new distribution technologies offered by the new web don't actually enable new pedagogies that haven't been tried yet. Since the mid-1980s, there has been adequate technology and tools available to allow us to try out the entire array of pedagogical theories. Believe me, every combination of existing tools has been employed, and with a slight variance from subject to subject, very few methods used in conjunction with technology have been effective at improving educational outcomes.

His six lessons are based on a lot more experience than my five, and I think everyone who's gung ho about online education (not just computing education) should read it carefully—twice.

Going through it, I was reminded of two books on my father's shelves: Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner's Teaching as a Subversive Activity, and a collection edited by John Birmingham titled Our Time is Now: Notes from the High School Underground (with an introduction by none other than Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.). Both date from about 1970, and both were written in the belief that yes, this time things would be different. This time, they really would fundamentally change the nature of education. (The second book even thinks that new media—in their case, videotape—would be the great enabler.)

They were wrong. Forty years later, the only changes are higher costs, stagnant or lower outcomes, greater inequality, demoralization, and the hollowing out of training in skilled trades [2]. Most of the people who are now touting online education don't say, "This time will be different," because they don't even know there was a last time, or a time before that. Most have never heard of Larry Cuban's Oversold and Underused; hell, most have never heard of Larry, or even of Seymour Papert, and know more about JQuery than they do about what research tells us about how people learn.

If we ignore history, we repeat others' mistakes. If we ignore context, we reinforce existing inequalities. Avoiding both traps is this project's official new year's resolution; what's yours?

[1] I'm sure they'll get over it pretty quickly.

[2] Many of the places that used to teach people how to be welders or sound engineers have tried and failed to turn themselves into universities, primarily because of the latter's higher social status.

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