A Democratic Agency ☆

| February 8, 2012

For me, the story about EdLab—its purpose, vision, and strategy—boils down to the goal of democracy. This post is a reflection on today’s seminar by Gary Natriello, but I think it may also resonate with anyone who’s a part of a similar organization.

Gary articulated a vision of the future of the education sector that follows from a few basic assumptions about learning, economics, and technology. Namely, that the so-called “digital revolution” is ringing in a new age of “networked learning” (think: low-cost, p2p learning). He also shared his concern that while we ought to want to help shape this future, it seems unlikely that we at EdLab—as products of the current educational system—can feasibly do so. Why exactly? Because it would be too hard for us to participate in the midwifery of this new sector: pay cuts, lay-offs, new (possibly lower, or non-existant) educational standards, and so on.

Sound bad? It sounded even more bleak when he said it in front of a Keynote deck that juxtaposed glamourous visions of childhood with the realities of work at Foxconn. . .

But I don’t really follow his line of thinking all the way down that bleak path, and I’m particularly skeptical about two of his basic assumptions (and let me acknowledge that it’s easy to be skeptical—it’s hard to be the one in front of the room).

Assumption #1: We currently prioritize uniformity as an educational outcome.

Well. . . I guess so, but it seems like uniformity is just one of many outcomes of the current educational system. I agree we value it, as it seems integral to a democratic ideal of equal opportunity, so it’s hard to imagine a successful democracy without a shared sense of history, science, culture, etc. Perhaps Gary’s view of education can aptly be described as post-democratic.

Assumption #2: The expense of the current educational system makes it unsustainable.

I don’t know enough about economic principles to mount a compelling counterargument, but what the heck, it’s a blog, right? I don’t buy it, and here’s why: Somewhere there must be a principle of modern capitalism about potential and purpose of “creating new markets,” and the point must be that when everything is accounted for, there is a huge surplus of labor in the world. That is, the amenities of capital-generating activities seem to be diverse enough to support a virtuous circle of labor. (Sure wealth is distributed unequally, but hey, a lot of people are willing to work to afford the data plan on their iPhone.)

Why should this come to an end? And why shouldn’t education—even in its increasingly expensive forms—partake in this economy? My response to Gary is that the current education is sustainable. But I wouldn’t want to suggest that it’s deeply democratic. In terms of the cost of education, I think the education sector is already incredibly diverse (though we don’t like to admit it)—if only because education is so unevenly applied (note: additional skepticism about uniformity). So it’s going to become more interestingly diverse as different types of education are increasingly acknowledged as legitimate. In this way, I think Gary’s view is overly pessimistic about future economic conditions.


When I reflect on where my views intersect with Gary’s, I’m confronted by a surprisingly optimistic view of education. It’s a view that counterbalances the news cycle—how putting iPads in kid’s hands is going to empower them and “save schools”—and affords us a different, more democratic space to work (at EdLab, and similar do-tanks). Yes, it’s a technology-rich space, but that’s not the point. Our goal is to locate or create cheap tools that give more learners access to key knowledge. It’s not about the best education. It’s probably not even good yet. But it’s getting better, and more real every day.

Further Questions. . .

  • Isn’t the Internet itself enough? It’s cheap, and it provides key knowledge! But let’s make it even better. . .
  • Can or should educational organizations compete with no-cost, advertising-driven technologies?
  • Can or will the anti-democratic effects of high-cost education ever be overcome through other social means?