Yesterday I needed a program that my team had written 20 years ago to show to a potential client who needed something similar. The program was done at the Institute for the Learning Sciences (ILS) that I started and ran at Northwestern University 25 years ago. The program was built for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It was about how to run a public meeting. The EPA runs them all the time but they didn’t know how to train people to run them. So we created a fictional town with a fictional crisis and then had the user meet the players (via some very well done video, acting, and script writing) and eventually start and run a virtual fictional meeting. People they antagonized when they met them individually (virtually) were difficult to deal with in the virtual meeting, which looked, from the user’s perspective, a lot like a real meeting.
After I looked at that program that we had built so many years ago, I thought we haven’t improved on what was then called “virtual learning” since (video on line wasn’t so easy back then.)
I frequently criticize MOOCs in this column, but this is not my target here. My target is me. Well not me exactly, but the circumstances that have caused our recent work to not be as good, as exciting, as real-feeling, as the old ILS work.
The reason is, of course, money. The EPA program cost a lot of money to build and nowadays cheap is the watch word of online education. No matter whether you are sticking a camera on a professor who is lecturing, which was always (even back then) a bad idea or putting a test on line (which was always a bad idea) or simply using the watch word of the day “massive.” The reason for massive is money.
Universities have become Wal-Mart. “We put our courses on line” is a translation of “maybe now thousands of people will hear our professor’s lectures and imagine how much more money that can bring in.” Think of how we can lower prices and sell an even worse product. That is what universities are doing, although they couch it in other terms.
Why Stanford feels the need to become Wal-Mart beats me. But I am sure, that Stanford itself won’t give the stuff they produce to it’s own students. No one calls this racism (or classism), but it is education for poor people, just as Wal-Mart is focused on poor people. Stanford students won’t eat what Stanford sells to others, but it is selling it like mad to those folks who will never see Palo Alto and will never access a real Stanford education.
Except what they are selling isn’t very good. And, it isn’t as good as what we could do 20 years ago on a computer when there was money available to invent new kinds of education that was meant to teach real skills. The money spent by venture capitalists out to build the next Facebook or Twitter of Education is meant to make money, nothing more and nothing less. Why Stanford isn’t ashamed of itself I don’t know.
Wal-Mart isn’t ashamed of itself because it provides low cost stuff to people who can afford only that. Stanford provides high cost stuff to the elite of the elite. So, one can only guess why they want to become Wal-Mart.
As for me, I would love to go back to the old days (at ILS) when money wasn’t the issue, quality was. My people still produce quality. We have learned how to improve on what we did before (more mentoring, less multiple choice; more teamwork, less one on one with the computer) and how to get by on less money by inventing powerful tools.
Still, I long for the days when we weren't competing with Wal-Mart. (Actually, I apologize for the analogy. Wal-Mart was my client in those days and they wanted real high quality training in a virtual world for their employees too.)