A Letter from 2036

Open Education 2016

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Dear Brandon and Norman,

Thanks for thinking of me. Two weeks on the transatlantic steamer have given me the time and the space to put myself back into the mindset of the “Uber Age,” and I have begun to remember some of the Open Education debates and discussions which were current in the mid ‘teens. As you say, it does feel very much like another world—lavish and ambitious in some ways, short-sighted and reckless in others. I hope these reflections are helpful to you in developing your book.

As I recall, OpenEd16 was convened in what is now the Virginia Free State, in Richmond. By that point David Wiley had decided to keep the conference in North America—foundation and government funding (remember that!) was everywhere, and there were a lot of presentations about Open Textbooks. In those days it was young people (18-22) that predominantly attended college, and for each “course” they took, they were expected to purchase a specific textbook with the required information in it. The argument was that in saving students the cost of these purchases, they would have lower living costs, and thus could spend more time on their studies and less time working. Of course, no person of that age could ever afford (or be permitted) to attend college now, and the “career break” crowd would never have the time or the inclination to even look at a textbook.

Remember the MOOCs! There was one prominent voice (was it Seb Thrun?) who suggested that MOOCs would mean that there would be only ten universities in the world by 2050? Well, we might be well on the path to that. He got the cause wrong, of course. No one seemed to be talking about the coming demographic shift back then. But if we keep losing schools at the current rate, he won’t have been far off.
There was talk back then about automation meaning the end of work—self-driving cars and the like, with “artificial intelligence” making the decisions about when and where. All this automation was meant to lead to a life of luxury, so people thought about education in the future as entertainment, if only in the moments when they weren’t obsessing about the need for every member of society to be productive, therefore regarding education as job training.

Did we really believe both of those things at once? Those MOOCs were meant to be fun activities, and at the same time teach us how to make our next million with . . . was it an “app”? Our crowd hated the MOOCs, of course. I can’t remember why, but it seemed important at the time. It was just learning by staring at a screen, and having some computer record everything you did so it could pretend that it knew you. Which was pretty much like regular university education, actually.

Everything was online back then, mind, on a mobile or on the web. People used to have multiple “devices” to connect, charging them each evening. Tar sands were the latest place to get oil (how long did that last, eh?) and we still behaved like fossil fuels and the power they created were limitless.

Sorry, I’m rambling a bit. There was kind of an idea that “open education” was a way of using this sense of abundance in a humane way, that digital tools could let us share knowledge. I remember seeing a slogan; was it “Knowledge is power”? Free knowledge, by that reckoning, was power shared by all. The lights are bright tonight in the White House, but back home I’d be lighting up a homemade candle round about now. Shared knowledge is kind of the same. We can know all the history of innovation in education and technology, even have all the tools and code that they used and some of the things that they made, but it isn’t the same stuff as the knowledge that is used to run the world.

Sharing knowledge was an act of altruism, but it was an act by a caste that thought it was the key to power and influence. You’d think that round about the time we started giving it away, there’d be some questioning of this assumption. After all, the 2016 presidential election and that “Brexit” stuff in the UK should have offered some hints. Maybe what we knew wasn’t as important to the world as we thought. You hear that England voted to leave the Atlantic Ocean last month?

Open Education was like the last act of a dying and irrelevant priesthood. Student numbers had begun to drop off in the US after 2010, about a year later in the UK. There was a demographic effect—why did no one talk about demographics back then? There were even predictions of 13.4 births per 1000 people globally by this time, but the declining benefit to employment of having a university degree, and the rising costs of getting that degree, were equally important in putting people off. Students would have a lifetime of debt by the time they reached their mid-20s, and for what? An internship? A zero-hours contract?

In the Uber Age, there was an enormous mismatch between what were fairly modest ambitions (to do meaningful, interesting work and earn enough to survive) and the dogma of efficiency, in which workers were just another thing to be optimised. Until people started talking about authenticity as a virtue…

You remember the PresidentBot that MIT tried out back in 2020? It only took two days of being “optimised” by real people on Twitter before it become a racist, misogynist bigot with a taste for extreme pornography and kitten-strangling GIFs. There was a heated debate, but the Republican Party eventually decided to continue to support the incumbent, as he polled stronger on immigration and gun control issues.

The new perception of authenticity as a virtue (and let’s be cynical here, the global macro-economic equivalent of a Wrestlemania SmackDown) led to a rise in employment, as local manufacturing and crafts saw a resurgence. Back in 2016 we called them millennials, but the hipster generation saved our bacon with their artisanal foods and salvage chic. Some of those guides on “WikiHow” came in pretty handy too—not so much our “educational” resources.

So I guess we were preparing for a future that never happened. We do have a tendency to do that. I wonder if Elon Musk still wants to go to Mars?

All the best,

David Kernohan

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