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Commentary

E-Education, the Opposite of Equality

Internet: Computer learning merely trains cheap labor for big business.

March 23, 2000|TERESA L. EBERT and MAS'UD ZAVARZADEH | Teresa L. Ebert is a professor of English at the State University of New York at Albany. Mas'ud Zavarzadeh is a professor of English at Syracuse University

E-education is being called a hot new technology for equality. The development of online courses, "edu-commerce," and Internet software billionaire Michael Saylor's $100-million endowment for a free Internet university are seen as democratizing agents that empower people by making information available to everyone, thereby removing social inequalities and remaking the world.

But e-education actually hardens class differences by substituting training for education and obscuring the real relation between education and democracy.

When people talk about the changes e-education can bring, they really are talking about the "content" of education: what is being taught. The content of modern education is not in any substantive way identical with the trivium and quadrivium as they were taught at Oxford or the Sorbonne. But education is not just a matter of content. It is a critical understanding of issues in a historical context.

The reduction of education to its content is a product of the rise of modern capitalism, when modern industry suddenly found itself in need of skilled workers and managers. Education-as-content is training; it is the delivery of a set of predetermined information and skills.

Training is justified as empowering, enabling people to become successful. The problem with such empowerment is that it teaches people how to "get along" within the existing class system. It marginalizes the critical side of education and therefore actually disempowers people by reducing them to what Marx calls mere "instruments of labor."

Education is a process that is achieved by ongoing and rigorous encounters and critique among teachers and students whose give-and-take is put beyond the sphere of commodification. It is a dynamic process in which learning is accomplished by intense questioning of the dominant assumptions and practices. Education is always critical. Training is always functional. It conforms to the prevailing consensus and accepts the world as is.

The Internet simply reproduces the social inequalities of existing social relations. It does not change them. The existing class divisions are kept in place by the schools that use the Internet to deliver educational content to their students. They do so, for the most part, because they are second- and third-tier schools whose students are not a high priority for the state, and thus the schools do not get adequate funding. Distance learning has become a cheap teaching tool to train students as content persons.

The elite classroom, on the other hand, acts as a dynamic place of critique and debate. It is radically different from the functional interactive e-education in which isolated students interact with signs on their screen, posting functional questions to other isolated students and to overworked, equally isolated instructors who, in return, provide functional answers. In e-education, instrumental performance is all.

Far from democratizing learning, the Internet sharpens class lines in society. Elite universities and schools will continue to educate their students through close-learning and dynamic critique, while mass universities will deploy distance learning to deliver low-cost content to their students. Cyberstudents are thus trained to have the necessary skills and information processing to function in the factories and e-enterprises owned and managed by those educated in elite universities. The Internet is a class tool in shaping the consciousness of the new work force as mere instruments of labor. It efficiently and cost-effectively delivers the content necessary to turn working-class students into performers for low- and mid-level jobs in the global economy.

Saylor's $100-million endowment for a free Internet university is not a philanthropic act but a means of providing training for a cheap labor force for big business. The cheaper the training, the lower the cost of labor for big business. e-education does nothing to educate people for a democracy, nor does it change existing social relations. It reproduces them with a vengeance.

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