Education Opinion

When Leftists and Libertarians Agree about Learning Webs

By Justin Reich — June 18, 2012 4 min read
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Several weeks ago, I was in a meeting at Berkman with Howard Rheingold who recommended Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, a remarkably prescient book from 1971 which predicts the rise of technology driven “Learning Webs”. These Learning Webs are computer-mediated networks where learners identify their needs, find appropriate peers and mentors to advance their skills, and pursue their own individually-crafted education experience. What Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash did for immersive virtual worlds, Deschooling Society does for education: craft a compelling vision of a near future that we can watch come to pass around us.

Immediately after reading Deschooling Society, I thought to write a very clever blog post comparing Illich’s vision of Learning Webs with the futurist educational vision crafted by the Libertarian/free market education reformers from the Fordham Institute, who recently published Education Reform for the Digital Era.

Here’s what was so terribly clever about my idea: Illich’s critique is strongly informed by leftist leanings, especially in the Catholic, liberation theology tradition. The first educator he cites in his book is Paulo Friere, with whom he shares the strong belief that school systems are designed by repressive states to maintain the status quo of social hierarchies and inequities. Illich suggests that we remove these schools and replace them with learning webs, where school funding is diverted from state institutions to individuals, credentialing for educators is completely eliminated, and individuals use networked technologies to identify appropriate learning experiences. In some cases, these learning experiences are also mediated by computers, especially the repetitive drill work required for elementary skill development. In other cases, computers simply match learners with peers or mentors who can provide optimal support for skill development.

Illich even goes so far as to write that “Opportunities for skill-learning can be vastly multiplied if we open the “market.” This depends on matching the right teacher with the right student when he is highly motivated in an intelligent program, without the constraint of curriculum” (p. 15) Illich puts “market” in quotation marks because he imagines a small scale, artisanal-craft bazaar of learning experiences.

But if you remove the quotes from “market,” and if you decide to keep the curriculum, then you essentially have the Fordham position, 40 years after Illich. Educational Reform for the Digital Era calls for a backpack of funds for each student, the abolition of teacher certification (an unnecessary barrier to entry akin to a medieval guild membership), the wide-spread availability of educational experiences made available by a competitive marketplace, and the ability of individual learners to chose from among those market options. Students could buy a P.E. course from Reebok, Spanish from Rosetta Stone, Math from Khan Academy, and science from the institutions advocating Intelligent Design. The “curriculum” will be held in check by standardized tests that allow consumers to compare standardized outcomes among various for-profit and not-for-profit course providers.

Sometimes I think it’s helpful to imagine the American political spectrum not as a line, but as a horseshoe: go far enough to the left and right an you bend back together. I see that happening here: both Illich and the Fordham writers have a distrust of state institutions and a belief that individuals should have control over their educational futures, and 40 years apart they arrive at a vision of learning webs that are very similar to one another. They also share a belief that the changes that we need are quite radical, and the school system as we know it needs to be dismantled.

Anyway, as I said, I thought this analysis of the union of leftist and libertarian though was quite clever until I looked at the Wikipedia page for Illich. Sure enough, the libertarians of Illich’s day recognized that his critique was at least compatible with, perhaps even derivative of, Milton Friedman’s “tuition grants” for individual kids, especially kids from low-income families. Forty years ago, libertarians looked at Illich’s learning webs and saw within them the future of a free market in education, much as today’s libertarian digital reformers look at our own evolving learning webs—the edupunk movement, DIYU, flipped classrooms, Peer-to-Peer University, badges, and MOOCs—and once again see harbingers of a digitally-enabled free market in education.

There is a great deal of excitement from futurists of all political leanings for leveraging technology to unbundle education. Teachers today are lecturer, assessor, coach, mentor, counselor, baby-sitter, grader, security guard, advocate, and janitor in their classroom: what if we could assign those responsibilities to specialists? Schools are responsible for teaching math, science, reading, writing, social studies, the arts, and citizenship as well as for providing transportation, college and career counseling, security, certification, and a whole host of responsibilities: what if we could assign those responsibilities to specialist institutions?

Teachers and schools also create community. I’m very concerned about what happens to the development of young people and our society when we unbundle that.

If we follow a path of leveraging technology to create new forms of networked learning, I think they are much more likely to end up as Friedman-inspired marketplaces than Dewey-inspired learning webs. Perhaps there are real advantages to be enjoyed in such a future, but I don’t find enough thinkers—progressive, libertarian or anyone else— who have adequately considered the potential losses.

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