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Reacting to Secretary DeVos at SXSW EDU

What might she have said in Texas?

March 15, 2018
 
 

My reaction after reading Jeff Young and Sydney Johnson’s story about the Rethink Education panel with Betsy DeVos at SXSW EDU was one of dismay, frustration and disappointment.

This is not an uncommon mix of feelings in our current political reality.

SXSW EDU just hits close to home.

To judge from conversations with other folks in higher education, this reaction to Secretary DeVos' remarks and the tone of the SXSW Rethink Education panel may be widely shared.

This post, in fact, is the result of discussions with colleagues at other institutions. (We chat cross-institutionally on Slack).

Secretary Devos' talk to kick-off the SXSW EDU Rethink Education session can be read in full on the Department of Education website.  These remarks align closely with policy priorities that the Department under DeVos has been advocating.

I'd summarize the DeVos' overall views regarding higher education as follows:

1.  The system of higher education is stagnant, unchanging, and broken.

2.  Only a combination of free market principles and new technologies will fix higher education.

3.  Solutions to the challenges of higher education will mostly come from the private sector, with the government having at best a limited role to play.

In her opening remarks, the Secretary noted that,

"Through all those changes in our homes, our communities, our country and our world... education in America has largely remained the same."  "Everything about our lives has moved beyond the industrial era. But American education largely has not."

This broad-brush trope about higher education’s stagnation is one we seem to still hear at nearly every educational technology conference.

At best, discussing points of failure can be a valiant battle-cry for improving some of the biggest challenges in education: rising costs, issues of access, issues of quality.

Those of us who work at private institutions, elite consulting firms and newly minted venture-funded entrepreneurial projects (or serve in the Department of Education), cannot responsibly continue to join the chorus of “the system is broken” without (at a minimum) recognizing the work of the countless educators who work at our existing public and private colleges and universities.

Criticizing higher education is easy.  Actually going to work each day to improve the system to create opportunities for students is hard.

It is tempting to put great faith in the ability of new technologies to solve the big challenges of higher education -- technologies that are assumed to emerge from the private sector’s "entrepreneurs, creative thinkers, and doers.”

But praise for the importance of the private sector and the free market in higher education should not obscure the fact that education in the U.S. is necessarily understood as a public good.

The policies espoused by the current Department of Education encourage further public disinvestment and a greater reliance of for-profit companies and unproven technologically based solutions, which will further disadvantage the most vulnerable amongst us.

The people who rely most on higher education, and particular public higher education, as an engine for economic mobility and opportunity will be most hurt by our failures to oppose this agenda.

While experiments such as the Minerva Project (which DeVos praised) are intriguing, a vast majority of US students are enrolled in degree granting postsecondary institutions at public colleges and universities, particularly community colleges, which are receiving less and less federal and state support each year.

Small, privately-led higher education experiments can lead to important advances in technology, but they rarely address the needs of 80 percent of all students who attend public institutions. Issues of insufficient funding plague those schools and many of the students who attend them, placing the long-term well-being of both in peril.

A SXSW EDU panel on Rethinking Education could have provided a space to introduce a critical and realistic assessment of the efficacy of technological solutions to our educational challenges.

Amongst those embedded in the world of learning technology  there is a shared understanding of the limitations of educational technology, and the perils of attempting to solve social problems with technology.

The history of technology in education has frequently been one of over-promising and under-delivering, or even serving to exacerbate privilege, prejudice, and systems of inequality. The idea that technology will either replace educators or lower overall education costs has been disproven time and again.

At best, technologies can complement the work of skilled and well-supported educators doing the hard work of teaching, and of students doing the hard work of learning.

Advocating for the essential role of public colleges and universities as creators of opportunity, while expressing some caution about the efficacy of for-profit companies and the diffusion of new technologies to address the challenges that higher education faces,  would have been a welcome counterweight to Secretary DeVos' rhetoric on higher education.

Would I have been able to make all of these points if I'd been invited to participate in the SXSW EDU Rethink Education panel?  Probably not.

But maybe Secretary DeVos, the organizers of SXSW EDU, or some other convener will read this post - and then decide to create an opportunity for a collegial and critical conversation.

Could happen, right?

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