Sunday, March 22, 2009

Will entrepreneurship save education?

(Cross-posted from BlogHer)

About a week ago, in response to the edupunk panel at SXSW, Jeff Jarvis tweeted,

Entrepreneurs will save education, not educators. That's my thin conclusion from #edupunk vs. #hackedu

Jarvis's tweet set my brain on about a dozen different paths at once--and I wish I could have captured them all, as I'm guessing all those neurons firing at once composed a book or two on the topic of entrepreneurs in education, the role of entrepreneurship in education, and entrepreneur education. This post attempts to make sense of some of the issues raised by Jarvis's "thin conclusion."

First of all, if you're not familiar with edupunk, check out the links in my BlogHer post on edupunk last year. Then, if you're still interested, check out "edupunk" coiner Jim Groom's five-part conversation with Professor Gardner Campbell, in which Groom and Campbell discuss and debate the usefulness of edupunk as a metaphor and movement.

Here's the deal: Jarvis's comment irks me for a number of reasons, but its irksome nature is in line with some potentially heretical (in the circles in which I run, anyway) thinking I've been doing over the past year or so.

Reason #1: I come from a family of educators and I'm an educator myself. 'Nuff said.

Reason #2: I've heard too many bad ideas floated at the intersection of "education" and "business." One example: Back in 1999, when I was a cub reporter for a newspaper named after a smelt that climbs out of the water to mate, I was sent to listen to Delaine Eastin, who was at the time California's state superintendent of public instruction, give a talk to the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce. As I jotted down notes in my little reporter's notebook, I found myself shaking my head in a very not reporterly way. Eastin proposed that local businesses might better support K-12 public schools by "adopting" individual campuses. In her example, a coalition of automotive businesses might provide significant funding and lend a certain degree of expertise to a school, and in exchange the school would, for example, teach automotive math (whatever that is), offer more advanced automotive shop courses, and have students read technical manuals in their literature courses. (As someone with two degrees in English, I believe I actually may have choked on my own vomit at that final suggestion.)

Reason #3: I don't like the arrogance of tone. I get that Jarvis is both a professor and entrepreneur, but the idea that educators will not play the primary role in "saving" education is ridiculous. If anything, the schools are where they are today because of too much involvement by bureaucracies and non-local initiatives (e.g. state-mandated testing, or No Child Left Behind) that limit teachers' autonomy in their own classrooms. As we're seeing at charter schools across the country, when teachers and parents are given greater authority over what their students learn and the methods by which young people are taught, good things happen. Does this mean entrepreneurs need to be left out of the evolution of American education? No. (See Reason #4.)

Reason #4: Jarvis in many ways has a point. I'm a huge fan of open source solutions in education. One thing some of us cheerleaders for open education fail to acknowledge is that in many cases the open source delivery methods--if not the content--are being developed in large part by people who are, have been, or I suspect one day will be entrepreneurs but who want to contribute to the public good through this project or that. (Automattic's development of WordPress, for example, comes immediately to mind.)

The older I become, the more accepting I am of the utility of entrepreneurship in education, even though I know as a left-leaning educator I'm supposed to be suspicious of profit-making enterprises. There are too many examples to discuss here, so I'll pick just one: When I hear edubloggers lament the popularity of attempts to monetize blogs, I want to counter with questions:

First, what's wrong with wanting to be paid for what one contributes to the world? (This question, of course, assumes a blogger is actually contributing something to the world, which alas is too often not the case.)

Second, how much might high school or college students learn about the way search engines, blogs, business, and systems of labor work by attempting to create a blog that brings in, say, $10 or $100 by the end of the semester? Students might--just to provide a few examples--learn how to focus research on a niche, think about the audience for their writing, develop products or services that would stretch their knowledge and skills, or learn the perils (and promise?) of affiliate marketing. They could discuss the ethics of outsourcing writing to folks on the other side of the world when many Americans are in need of work--just about any work--or the ethics of contracting with stay-at-home moms (one demographic that may be of interest to BlogHer readers) to have them write articles for $3 a pop, even though such a rate of pay likely means those moms are making less than minimum wage in some states. They might learn how writing a thoughtful blog on a niche no one else is covering--but which might be of interest to many--can suddenly make them "experts" in the eyes of the reporters who call them for comments on developments in their niche. This could, in turn, lead them to reflect on sources of information online and off, on expertise, and on their interest in exploring their niches for potential career paths.

I'm barely scratching the surface of this issue. If you'd like to read more about the intersection of entrepreneurship and education, I recommend the following resources:

What are your thoughts about the intersection of education and entrepreneurship?


Anonymous said...

I saw Jarvis' comment as well, and had a similar reaction -- while there is much that needs fixing and changing about the current educational system, the notion that entrepreneurs can "save" education is patronizing at best.

It's also ironic at best, and blindingly ignorant at worst, to continue to make the claim that education needs to become more like the private sector. Given the current financial meltdown, caused in part by people taking an entrepreneurial approach to finding new ways to invest money that wasn't theirs, it's pretty hard to make the case that the efficiencies of the marketplace should be applied to education. If anything, the state of the markets make the state of education look *good* by comparison.

The connection between open source tools and open source business models also bears more examination. Innovation and entrepreneurship within open source communities has a lot to offer education, both in terms of tools to use to support teaching and learning, and in terms of process. The open source development process relies on distributed teams communicating and collaborating across time and distance; and, in most cases, the decision making process is transparent. More importantly, the process involves getting input and feedback from a wide range of stakeholders; open source solutions arise from within the community, as opposed to being handed down to it.

And it's the last idea that really irks me about Jarvis' comment, and others of a similar ilk: the idea that education can only be saved by entrepreneurs stepping in to save education from all those silly teachers.

As an aside, you mention wordpress as an example of open source development working in education -- you should also check out the work occurring in the Drupal community around education. Some great things are happening there.



Anonymous said...

I share your concerns about who will save education (as if all schools and classrooms are floundering).

Entrepreneurs are not, by and large, professional educators. Nor do they study pedagogy and ways of learning and knowing.

You've probably heard this before, but most people believe they know what's right in terms of fixing schools because they have experienced schooling. So on one level, they are clearly within their right to comment. However, those of us, like yourself, who are in it as professionals bring a different perspective (and not always a "right" one).

With this as a premise, I offer the following fuel for your fire.

The root of the problem as I others see it is -- we, as a culture, have de-professionalized teachers.
We have allowed textbooks, tests, politicians, entrepreneurs, and schools of education to supervise teachers and create curricula for them in ways that take away teachers' professional responsibilities to build their own curriculum and to think strategically about how learning works in their classroom, school, and community.

We have to reprofessionalize teachers which is anathema to those who want scripted instruction.

We also need to make teaching a more sexy job to attract talented, creative, passionate individuals.

We need to create learning environments that do not look like what we grew up in, with people learning in all different physical spaces, with different types of tools, engaged in collaboration, and solving real problems.

So what can entrepreneurs offer? Perhaps if we, as educators, are serious about changing schools we need to meet business people part way. I like the idea of a business plan, a contract that says, "give me the money to build this learning environment, and in return I will develop curricula and activities for learners that engages them in meaningful ways." We can work on this as a community, yet recognize that as the educational expert, I am responsible for the final design. In a way, what I'm proposing here sounds like what professional sports organizations do when they hire a head coach. [There is also the sticky issue of performance standards and how we measure success. However, instruments can be developed that realistically measure multiple ways students are achieving.]

I want to suggest that there is a place for entrepreneurship in education. We just need to be sure there are savvy leaders in place to make sure we do not deprofessionalize teaching and rely on others to set the standards.

Mr. Lauer said...

I took Jarvis' comment about entrepreneurship and education and thought of the innovative teachers, parents, students and administrators I know who are working within schools. I think of them as the entrepreneurs. I see many school districts run by people who have been getting it wrong for too long, and wonder why we think we will get any different results with the same structures, bureaucratic controls and people in place. In this case I'm more willing to bet on people in buildings with entrepreneurial spirit, folks like Bill Fitzgerald, than folks who have been part of the problem for way too long and have, to an extent, self interest as the basis of their decision making.

Ed Webb said...

I agree with all of the above comments, but particularly the last. Jarvis' tweet put my back up initially, but then I thought about the word 'entrepreneur' and realized that its association with private, for-profit enterprise is dying, and none too soon. Education will be saved by social entrepreneurs, educational entrepreneurs, risk-takers and innovators, for sure, but not businesspeople in the classical sense. Jim Groom is an entrepreneur. Edupunk is entrepreneurial. The times dictate social and economic change, and educational change is part of that. 'Business' in the MBA sense of it may or may not be part of it, but there's no reason it will have any privileged part of it. As Bill said, education looks pretty good compared to, say, AIG... Let's take back the word 'entrepreneur' from its narrow business school sense and apply it to social innovators who do something useful and build something sustainable and healthy.

Anonymous said...

The problem is the word "entrepreneur." Education doesn't need more people who are only concerned with money. It's fine to be rewarded for doing good work, but our current system often rewards people and companies who take advantage of others. Good educators want to be well paid for their work, but that's not why they innovate. Given the opportunity, they innovate because they care about learning.