The Rhetoric of Commercial Online Education

Article excerpt

1. INTRODUCTION

A few weeks after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the online journal Edge invited prominent scientists, philosophers, artists, and journalists to write a response to the incident. (1) One of the respondents, Roger Schank, discussed the terrorist attack in relation to U.S. policy on online education. (Schank is a noted cognitive scientist, and chair of the online-learning company Cognitive Arts.) In a piece entitled "Educating Arabs, Educating Ourselves," Schank argued that the root cause of the tragedy was lack of education-- education of the American public, and especially, the education of Arab youth. Schank proposed that a solution to the dense web of problems, conflicts, and political issues surrounding the September 11 attack could be found in online education. Creating and exporting online education to regions of the world blighted by "poverty and ignorance" would lessen the chance of a similar attack in the future. Schank writes:

If we created high quality on-line courses, for example, if Harvard and Yale and other universities took seriously their role as world educators, then perhaps what they built could be exported to the rest of the world. If it were not done on a for profit basis, but were offered for very little money, then people in poor countries might qualify for better jobs and might be able to reason more adroitly about the complex issues they face. Instead we leave their education to mullahs or their angry fathers in law. While we, as a nation export television, movies and blue jeans, we do not export quality education.

While Schank's comments are a rather stunning example of political naivete, technological determinism, and the banking model of education taken to new extremes, they are nonetheless consistent with the way in which online education has been talked about by many of its supporters in the U.S. over the last decade. For example, John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems, has said that online education will enable workers to "take more control of their jobs, while the dispossessed of the world will be able to make strides to improve their economic position" (McCright, 1999). CEOs, university administrators, publishers, and Nobel laureates routinely predict that online education will revolutionize learning, empower students and faculty, democratize knowledge production, and transform society. Schank's remarks provide a particularly vivid example of the narrow, technocratic character of many models of online education, and of the reductive way in which teaching, knowledge, and the university are often thought about.

2. THE GROWTH OF ONLINE EDUCATION

"The next big killer application for the Internet is going to be education. Education over the Internet is going to be so big it is going to make e-mail usage look like a rounding error."

John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems (cited in Friedman 1999, A29.)

Online education and distance learning have grown rapidly in the past decade. In 1999 one in three U.S. colleges offered some sort of accredited degree on line, and approximately one million students took online classes. (2) Private investment in online education went from $11 million in 1993, to just under a billion dollars in 1999 (Education Quarterly Investment Report, 2000). Wall Street analysts, accountancy firms, Internet entrepreneurs, and university administrators routinely tout the commercial potential of online education, and a variety of groups, both academic and corporate, have developed models. According to a 1999 Merrill Lynch report called "The Book of Knowledge: Investing in the Growing Education and Training Industry," the digitizing of education has made the university ripe for the kind of rationalization that took place in the health industry in the 1990's. The report prompted some Wall Street analysts to predict a future of "EMOs," or "Educational Maintenance Organizations. …