Online Education: Another Phony “Revolution“

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Apple on computer(Image: Apple on computer via Shutterstock)Thomas Friedman’s latest column touting online education “is another exercise in (1) finding a potential positive dimension of capital’s latest profit-driven move, (2) hyping it and (3) ignoring its contradictions, especially those that are negative.”

Every technological change, from small to large, has had its hyper promoters. Those are the people who celebrate that technical change with wild exaggerations of its historic importance. Of course, part of their motivation is self-serving. How brilliant of them to have understood that particular technical change and its enormity. How generous, too, that their promotion overcomes our skepticism or ignorance.

A recent example is Thomas L. Friedman in The New York Times, January 27, 2013: “Revolution Hits the Universities.” This captures a change in universities as historic as when soft drink companies applied the term “revolution” to changes in their product. Or perhaps the better comparative metaphor might be the revolutionary transition from hamburger to “hamburger helper.” It’s more about advertising and, above all, about profitability and using any and all concepts in their service.

Freidman takes the celebration of online university courses up another notch of hype as in, “Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty.” Preacher Friedman is on a roll. No actual thought about the contradictions in this technological change is going to slow him down. He wastes no time pondering all those past technological changes with the potential to free human beings from mind-numbing drudgery that have left us working longer and harder than ever.

So let me offer a small repayment for the enlightenment provided by Father Friedman. The proliferation of online learning is an accompaniment and service to capitalism in its current phase of development. Much as capital found it profitable to leave the once-thriving economic centers of, say, Detroit, Hartford and Cleveland, so in recent decades it has been leaving Europe and North America. Lower wages, fewer regulations and cheaper bribery costs elsewhere are again the chief lures. Modern telecommunications and computer capacities make supervision and control from a distance manageable.

But one big problem in the mass relocation of capitalist industries underway in the world today is an insufficient supply of educated low-cost workers. There are not enough universities out there in Asia, Latin America and Africa, and it is too expensive to bring all the needed folks to Europe and North America for university educations. The risk, for capital, is that the wages and salaries for limited supplies of such workers over there will rise quickly. That would reduce or efface the profit gains that prompted capital’s relocation there in the first place.

Now enter online learning. Here is a wondrously cheap way to provide over there just that minimum technical skill-level and that necessary comfort with the habits of thought, language and hierarchical control required by European and US capitalists. Friedman notes how these online courses can provide certification showing which students had actually achieved the qualifications sought by capitalist employers from the US and Europe (it turns out that most online students never complete the courses they register for). Moreover, the online education Friedman hypes features professors from Europe and the US (for Friedman, of course, these are “the best professors”). They are, indeed, the perfect vehicles to convey not just the skills, but also the idioms, presumptions and the more or less conscious values and political commitments that US and European employers want to cultivate in their foreign employees.

Friedman wants us to see the rise out of poverty some of those foreign workers may achieve via their on-line courses. He misses (or maybe just wants us to miss?) the descent into poverty of all those left behind when capital moves from the US and Europe as it did before in abandoning cities like Detroit, Hartford and Cleveland. He likewise does not want to consider all that is lost in the complex process of “education” when sustained, in-person interaction for years between teacher and student is eliminated. No worry on his part about the impact on Asian, African and Latin American universities (that offer in-person education) from the rise of competing online “educations.” No worry about the impact on universities in Europe and North America either.

Friedman’s latest is another exercise in (1) finding a potential positive dimension of capital’s latest profit-driven move, (2) hyping it, and (3) ignoring its contradictions, especially those that are negative. No doubt such exercises comfort and distract many of his readers who might have entertained the suspicion of something important lost in the proliferation of online “education.” They can relax in the secure feeling that critics of that proliferation are enemies of progress, while promoters of that proliferation are overcoming poverty. If this sounds more like TV soap opera morality than social analysis, you may be right.