• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

Title

When They Promise the Netflix for Education, Cover Your Wallet

Grifters gonna grift.

February 7, 2016
 

 

 

According to education consultant Michael Horn,[1] college has a lot in common with “your cable TV package.”

Horn says, “You really want just the accounting degree and you also get the football team alongside it. You’re paying for things that you will never ever use. It’s not tailored to actual needs.”

Horn (and his disruptor ilk) maintain that education needs to be “Netflixed.”

Do we really need to run through these arguments again and point out that education is not merely a content delivery system? Did the great MOOC hype collapse not already expose this fiction?

We already have things that are the educational equivalent of Netflix. I call them libraries, and guess what? They’re even better than Netflix because rather than relying solely on algorithms, they come stocked with trained professionals who will help you fulfill your content needs.

But never mind, because like all things, education must be disrupted. I just wish for once, the disruptors spoke to actual, you know, students before engaging in their disruptory ways.

Someone who thinks that football is not important to college choice must not be aware of student attitudes at places like Alabama, Clemson, or University of Michigan, where you will find many non-athlete students who indeed chose the school because of the football team.

But remember that Horn is not an educator. These people are never educators. He comes out of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation Boogaloo. He is now a principal in something called Entangled Solutions, a higher ed consultancy that uses their “startup connections to bring cutting edge technology to the academic world.”

Interestingly, the principals at Entangled Solutions with their “let them eat competency” attitudes have degrees from U. Chicago, Yale, Harvard MBA, CalTech, and Wharton.[2]

Their enemy is accreditation, and so Horn and others have formed a “task force” to challenge the control accreditors have over which institutions get access to federal grant and loan money. If they are successful, they will “open the door for the Airbnbs and Ubers of higher education.”

Do you join me in wondering how the introduction of rent-seeking entities into higher education could possibly benefit the broader public?

I don’t doubt these people deep down mean well, and sincerely believe their own B.S., but let’s not lose sight of the fact that it is B.S., and these companies are indeed on the grift. If their ideas were so good, they wouldn’t need to attach themselves to the public teat to fund them.

Indeed, programming bootcamps have managed to thrive in the marketplace, with the chief strategy officer at Reactor Core, the parent of the successful Hack Reactor camps telling the Washington Post that seeking accreditation, “Seemed like a lot of overhead and no real benefit for the students.”

Hack Reactor and the bootcamps like it are filling an underserved niche and bringing benefit to their customers and the industries they serve. For now. It seems inevitable that this sector too will overshoot the mark of demand and some providers will fall by the wayside, as they should in a free and open market.

Not satisfied with nibbling at the underserved edges, the higher ed disruptor crowd flat doesn’t like how college works, not in terms of education, but as a marketplace, and want to take their own shot at the problem. They don’t want to compete with legacy institutions so much as wreck them so they can rise in their place.

It’s unfortunate then, that our futuristic saviors seem to know so little about actual human beings.

It’s true, many fewer people would be interested in a four-year college experience if it didn’t come bundled with a degree. And yet, when you talk to students they will name dozens of other reasons they are glad to be in college: to grow as a person, to figure out what they want to do, to make friends and connections, to learn, to have fun, and yes, to go to football games.

College is like life, something to be lived, experienced, and we can't really predict or quantify the outcomes.

If you talk to students (and I do) and ask them if they want or would benefit from an “unbundled” education, you will find very few who answer in the affirmative.

My students are somewhere between befuddled by (Why would anyone want that?) and terrified of (I would fail, hard) such a future.

I teach a very traditional cohort of students, and the traditional college and university structure doesn’t make sense for everyone pursuing post-secondary education. There is indeed a role for competency-based education serving industries where discrete, demonstrable skills are necessary.

Though, I remember a time when the business themselves provided this service and called it “training,” but never mind.

And I am not one to deny the very real problems institutions face. The cost of college to students is a crisis. Of course the cause of this crisis is the disinvestment of public money in education, a fact the disruptor crowd almost always ignores because to acknowledge it would mean casting doubt over the necessity for disruption.

They see public disinvestment as a fixed state of being, as opposed to a reversible policy choice.

The idea that we’ll technology our way out of this is a fantasy. Entangled Solutions should know this better than anyone, as one of its other principals, Paul Freedman, had his earlier educational venture, Altius Education, which was supposed to help people move from associate degrees to four-year colleges, go splat and attract a Justice Department investigation.[3]

But the disruptors continue to push a narrative of broken institutions, failing students, and too much of the policy-making public is willing to accept that story.

I have a counter-narrative, the oldest one in the book: History repeats itself.

Just as the worst actors of the for-profit industry slink off the stage, followed by lawsuits and government fines, we see our techno-solutionists stepping into the breach, claiming that higher education is “over-regulated.”

Tell that to the former customers of Corinthian Colleges.[4]

Different players, same game. Let’s not be fooled.

 

 

 

[1] As reported in the Washington Post, by Matt McFarland.

[2] The next time I see a preacher of the gospel of disruption who doesn’t have a degree from an elite institution will be the first.

[3] Thanks to Audrey Watters who tipped me to this part of the story on Twitter.

[4] Recipients of $3.2 billion in federal loans since 2010.

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