Are The Startup Fellas Hellbent On Destroying Education Even Literate?

School is neat.Lost in the maelstrom of sadness, confusion and malaise that marks our annual observance of September 11th was a Medium post by Udacity’s new Director of Mobile Engineering, one Oliver Cameron.

Here’s the opening paragraph of Cameron’s post, “The Story of Building an Education Startup“.

Most revolutionary companies aren’t born with the intent to change the world, yet there I was trying to do exactly that. I was on the verge of starting my third company, and I wanted to do something truly special. I listed all of the industries I thought I could have an impact in, and quickly became fixated on education. It’s a market that has the potential to impact billions of lives for the better. There are so many students failed by the system. “I can fix it”, I thought.

Oh is that right, because I don’t see how, I retorted as I read this eye-popping document, which only goes downhill from there. Seriously, how? Because that ain’t a paragraph, and these are not sentences.

To say nothing of the fact that education is not a market, I muttered, emerging from italics in cold rage.

Education is a public good. Not a market! Not a money-making opportunity for would-be privatizing Silicon Valley vampires.

It’s not Oliver Cameron’s fault that he appears to believe that he, a near-illiterate who chose education as the field he wanted to “fix” more or less by means of a dartboard, is remotely fit to attempt any such thing. This is the water we’re swimming in, where every industry, every social problem apparently exists merely to be “disrupted” by a bunch of over-funded clowns in Palo Alto. And I know that the Director of Mobile Engineering is not going to be in charge of designing course content at Udacity. But please allow me to register my absolute objection to giving this person one red cent of public money in order to help “fix” anything, unless someone wants to make him write on the chalkboard 576 times that possessive “its” has no apostrophe—”We started talking and I loved everything about the team and it’s vision”—in which case fine, or indeed, show me to the Kickstarter.

Okay, more Cameron! You won’t believe.

It’s clear that iPads are the future of personal computing, but are they going to be the difference between one generation being average and another being excellent? Perhaps the tools weren’t the problem. Could it be that the traditional classroom format itself is broken? I dove deeper [...]

Reinventing the classroom was now my aim [...] the ever-rising tuition fees in higher education meant there was an opportunity to serve those who simply couldn’t afford the costs. I dreamt up ideas for a new kind of school, one where the student was taught at a dynamic pace. Working from home would be encouraged, and the teachers would always be at hand to help whenever needed. The class content would be free, but the student would pay per-session whenever they needed help from the teacher. “I finally cracked it”, I thought.

Here is the perfect decoction of the emptiness, nay, the vacuum, at the center of Silicon Valley’s culture of “disruption.” Cameron doesn’t need to cite, or have even read, a single book about sociology, doesn’t need a degree in education, doesn’t have to have taught a single class himself in his whole life in order to believe in all sincerity that he understands “the real problem” with education, after “talking to many teachers.” Like so many of our tech savants, he appears to believe that just by applying his “truly special” gifts to any intractable difficulty, hey presto! Problem solved, plus also he will become rich, as a pleasing side-benefit. That this never, or scarcely ever, happens IRL in no way impedes the speeding train of their self-regard.

Cameron maintains his staunch self-confidence even after he realizes that there are big problems with his plans for an education-disruptin’ machine, to wit, a lot of deep-pocketed competition: “Companies like Udacity, Coursera, Udemy and more. I read up on pedagogy and classroom theory”—at last!—”in the hope I could compete with them. I saw the love and dedication they had put into their products, and I’m happy to admit that I was discouraged. Beating these companies, with their wealth of knowledge and experience, was going to be an incredibly hard task. Not one to be put off, I decided to go right ahead and compete.”

Sure, why not! “Compete”! Okay well, though, eventually he was persuaded to join one of his erstwhile “competitors” instead. He loved everything about the team and it’s vision!

Prior to this move, our hero was the founder of a Y Combinator outfit called Everyme, which has since pivoted into a company called Origami, which has taken a bit more than $5 million funding in the last two years. Origami is basically Path plus GroupMe but “for families.” How does it help families communicate? A post on their blog explains.

Right.

This is exactly how we are are in danger of wrecking our educational system, and so much else. Instead of taking pains to preserve what we have, and demanding that any cuts to funding or alterations in our practices, however minute, be subjected to the most rigorous resistance and interrogation, we’re unaccountably willing to risk enormous sums, often in public money, on “experiments” to “fix” what isn’t broken—on charter schools, MOOCs, and for-profit universities, for example, in the case of education—only to find that each time, these alleged improvements consist mainly of snake oil and charlatanism.

We might blame the culture of Silicon Valley, which appears to believe that “building an app” and throwing a few million dollars at it is always a good idea; or we might blame California Governor Jerry Brown, who’s already squandered some unclear amount of public money on Udacity classes in a disastrous pilot program at San Jose State, which began in January and was suspended in a matter of months. Brown is desperate for band-aids, however tiny, however hopelessly ineffectual, with which he may pretend to conceal the giant hemorrhaging gashes in the state budget (substantially caused by the quintupling of California’s prison population since 1980). Here is an idea for you, Governor Brown: legalize marijuana! No matter what the police and private prison lobbies say.

Why are actual educators, experts in the classroom, not at the forefront of education policymaking, where they should be? Why is it not the best profs who are being asked the question (and more to the point, being given the money to answer it, and with deeds, not business plans): “How shall we manage this system?”





Maria Bustillos is a journalist and critic in Los Angeles. Photo by Tiffany Bailey.