Erwin J. Haeberle
Higher Education for Lower Expectations?
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and their future impact on academic teaching and learning continue to be widely discussed in both print and electronic media. However, those most likely to be affected - the average student and the average professor - do not seem ready to join this discussion.
However, we are dealing here with an issue that concerns us all, and one that we must not leave to the "experts". The electronic revolution is continuing at an exponential pace, but its far-reaching economic implications are only now slowly coming into view. The emerging picture suggests that, if the present trends continue, we could eventually face some very disagreeable unintended economic consequences.
Georgia Tech (Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, GA) charges its students on campus $ 45 000. for an M.A. in Computer Science. At the same time - and for the first time - it now charges $ 7000. for the same M.A. online.
So what do you think will happen? I think sooner or later this will happen:
1. More and more students will get the degree online, and fewer and fewer students will get it on campus.
2. Georgia Tech will make more money with its distant online students that it ever made with its students on location in Atlanta.
3. Once most or all
of its courses have been fully developed and have become available online, Georgia
Tech will be able to manage with fewer and fewer "overqualified"
professors and will run its degree programs with cheaper "assistants"
and "mentors". The most famous professors will get special contracts
for the use of their names, for "updates", and for general
supervision. The less renowned faculty members will become increasingly
expendable, or at least will have to suffer demotions or salary and budget
cuts. There will be less hiring of new, expensive faculty. Tenure will become a
thing of the past.
It does not matter here, whether Georgia Tech continues on this course or abandons it. I am citing it only as a current example of an interesting trend. Anyway, if my prediction should come true, i.e. if academic training should indeed become more and more "automated", we would see a paradoxical development: An enormous increase in the number of students and a simultaneous decrease in the number of professors.
Among other things, this could mean the following:
- Because of the lower cost of online education, many more young people than ever before would be able to get a college or university education and thus see a chance for social "upward mobility". More and more students would become ready to join the "middle class" or "upper middle class".
- Massive online learning would also produce more income for the university in two ways:
The tuition paid by so many new students, while lower than before for each
individual, would still add up to a much higher total, and
3. Those faculty members, who lose their jobs could fall victim to social "downward mobility".
4. If the number of formerly secure high-salary jobs in the "knowledge industry" should indeed decline, how far "upward" could the "upward mobility" go for the multitudes of newly trained graduates? Indeed, would their academic training still guarantee them a job and sufficient income? Or would they have to lower their expectations?
This leads us to a basic question: What will happen to our "middle classes" in the coming, increasingly automated world? The answer will matter a great deal, because a strong middle class has long been the bedrock of democracy and social stability. Will the middle class grow as it acquires new members, or will it shrink as former members are forced to leave and new members are unable to enter? Or will increase and decrease cancel each other out and thus end up maintaining our traditional way of life?
Two recent publications offer some insight into this conundrum, although they do not deal specifically with online education. Nevertheless, they can help us understand some current trends and where they might lead us. The books were written by two pioneers of the digital age: Martin Ford, "The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future"(2) and Jaron Lanier, "Who Owns the Future?"(3)
The first of these books was published in 2009, before MOOCs became a fashionable topic in academia, although some of them, including my own, were already available at the time. Nevertheless, and apparently unaware of the then latest developments, Martin Ford does offer a brief chapter on "The Future of College Education". In it, he predicts that the dream of advancement through education will sooner or later collide with the trends in outsourcing and automation: "Machines and computers will… increasingly invade the realm of the highly educated". This will have the result of making many educators "redundant", as the British so aptly put it. In the end, a college degree will no longer be seen as a ticket to a well-paying job, but as a ticket to a job that is likely to disappear. Therefore, education as such will lose its value, and many potential students will no longer bother to obtain one.
But not only "knowledge workers" will be affected: Because of increasing automation, job opportunities on all skill levels will decline. This, in turn, will force the better educated to accept and take over the shrinking number of jobs formerly performed by the less educated, and these will face an ever-bleaker future. The final result: A dramatically shrinking middle class, an even faster diminishing working class, and a hopeless, growing "class of the unemployed".
Before I continue, one more observation: There are still educators in the US and Europe who believe that they have nothing to worry about, because "education can never be automated". They probably missed a news item that appeared in 2010, only one year after Ford's book: "Korean schools welcome more robot teachers". (4) The article is accompanied by a photo showing a humanoid robot standing in front of a class in an elementary school. There is no human teacher in the picture. At first glance, this little item seems harmless enough and even amusing. However, some observers took this news very seriously as a warning of things to come, and now they feel vindicated. In their view, we are witnessing the next logical step: Automation is moving from elementary school to the university, as illustrated by the increasing popularity of MOOCs.
This brings me to the second, more recent book by Jaron Lanier, who asks: "Who owns the internet and, with it, our future?" He agrees with Ford that outsourcing and automation are threatening the middle class and sums up the issue by arguing that the internet will destroy more jobs than it creates. However, Lanier is more concerned with broken promise of the electronic revolution itself that once seemed to launch a new era of equality and freedom. Actually, upon reflection, there never was such a promise. There was only a general misunderstanding of what the internet can or cannot do under the prevailing economic and political circumstances. As it now turns out, the internet does not create equality among its users, as many had originally hoped. Instead, it tends to concentrate ever more wealth and power in ever fewer hands. Those with the largest and most efficient computers will end up controlling the others.
And here is the irony: These others are powerless, because they themselves have given their power away and continue to do so. Even right now, they produce, without any financial reward, all sorts of videos for YouTube, run personal, political and scientific blogs, write book reviews for Amazon and articles and corrections for Wikipedia, comment on music, movies, comedy sketches, cities, touristic attractions, hotels, and a great variety of public and private services. They contribute to "Google Scholar", and, albeit unknowingly, to the perfection of "Google Translate". etc. etc.. All of these unpaid contributions enlarge the internet, attract more users, and thus strengthen the position of those who control it.
Much more importantly: The contributors themselves take advantage of the many "free" internet offers on their PCs, tablets, and smartphones, some even with "leaky apps". They use Google Search, Yahoo, Bing, Dogpile, Google Books, Google Ngrams, Google Maps, Google Play, PayPal, eBay, craigslist, Twitter, Google+, Facebook, XING, LinkedIn, BoardX, CareerBuilder, and many other social networks. Thus, over time, they quite voluntarily feed the "Big Data" machine with their own personal information: Photos, e-mail address, postal address, level of education, age, health status, marital status, number and ages of children, income level, religious affiliation, shopping habits, general internet use, searching habits, reading habits, travel and vacation patterns, character and number of online "friends" etc. etc. They transmit this information intentionally and unintentionally, here and there, directly and indirectly, piece by piece at irregular intervals. However, every bit of information they provide is being collected, assembled and stored by the large computers of large corporations and yields an increasingly accurate profile of each individual user – tens or even hundreds of millions of them. These millions of profiles are then being used for customized advertising and other commercial purposes that bring in very large sums of money. This increases the already enormous wealth and the power of the rich and powerful even more. The actual "authors" of these valuable data, however, having provided them for free, gain nothing. On the contrary, they fall victim to the apparently unstoppable concentration of power at the top. And the situation can only get worse when future electronic gadgets transmit data from eyeglasses, wristwatches, automobiles, and household appliances.
Lanier gives the now widely quoted example of Kodak and Instagram: Kodak invented and built the first digital camera. At its height, the company was worth $ 28 billion and employed more than 140 000 people. Today, the new face of digital photography is the "free" service Instagram. When Instagram was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in 2012, it employed only 13 people.
then asks: Where did all these jobs at Kodak go? What
happened to the wealth Kodak created? And how could it be that only
13 people produced something worth a billion dollars? The answer is as simple
as it is depressing: The value was created not by the 13 employees at Instagram, but by
the millions of users who contribute to the network without getting paid. Kodak produced
tangible objects - cameras and film - that were bought and paid for by
customers. These payments, in turn, paid the salaries of Kodak's
employees. Instagram is a
digital service free for its users. These users are, in fact, unwitting
suppliers of gratis merchandise. The customers of this merchandise are the
advertisers who pay for
Lanier also cites the example of Walmart, the world's largest retailer. Through its computer-based system of buying, shipping, and storing their merchandise as cheaply as possible, it was able to annihilate its competitors and expand to the point of self-defeating efficiency. That is to say: Walmart not only offered low prices to its customers, but also paid very low wages to its employees. This, in turn, forced competing retailers to do likewise, and the general income level in the retail business fell accordingly. At the same time, Walmart opposed unionization and eventually even reduced its workforce in order to cut costs even further - a risky move that led to stock shortages. Thus, gradually and indirectly, Walmart "impoverished its customer base." It had simply forgotten Henry Ford's insight that his workers had to be able to buy the cars they were building. In the US today, an estimated 20% of Walmart's customers are on food stamps, a government program that is now being cut along with unemployment benefits. This means, that many former customers have become too poor to shop at Walmart. Instead, they are turning to dollar stores, thrift shops, and soup kitchens. This and other examples of "super-efficiency" once again add up to slower or even stagnating growth for the economy as a whole.
Such melancholy ruminations of an erstwhile internet trailblazer ring a bell with many scientific writers, because they describe a process well known in the academic world: Unpaid authors are sending their papers to large publishing companies, which employ unpaid "peer reviewers" and insist on acquiring the copyright. They then use it for their own commercial purposes. This way, and over many years, they have become very rich and mighty. (In the US, during the twenty years from 1985 to 2005, the average institutional price of journals increased by a massive 302 per cent compared with inflation of just 68 per cent.)
I have repeatedly described this development myself and warned against its ultimate consequences. For example, five years ago, I said this in a lecture at the World Congress for Sexual Health in Gothenburg, Sweden:
"Many of us have written articles for scientific journals for which we have never received honoraria or royalties. We did this, and still do, because being published in reputable journals enhances our own reputation and may help our academic advancement. However, over the years, our unpaid work has made the journal publishers rich and powerful. This power, in turn, is now being used against us, when the publishers demand all rights to our work, including the electronic rights, so that they can charge individuals and libraries not only subscription fees for the print versions, but also reading fees for the electronic versions. Nevertheless, we authors still don't get paid and, to add insult to injury, we see our already limited readership shrink as more and more libraries cancel their subscriptions. And we can all count on one thing: Sexological journals will be sacrificed first, well before those of the traditional sciences." (5)
A recent news item shows that the publishers are quite serious about keeping the power they have. In December 2013, Elsevier, one of the largest publishers of scientific journals, sent out mass notices not only to the research sharing web site Academia.edu, but also to various universities, and even individuals scholars, demanding that the research papers they had made freely accessible be taken down. Since Elsevier owned the copyright, the demand had to be fulfilled.
very belatedly, created an uproar among the suddenly alarmed authors, some of
whom went so far as to demand a boycott of Elsevier. Actually, some
leading universities had, several years ago, already anticipated trouble on
that front and adopted their own "open access" policies. These encourage their
faculty to keep the electronic rights for themselves. As the Princeton
professor Andrew W. Appel described the policy:
However, I do believe that, in the end, the publishers will be defeated and, having become superfluous, will withdraw from the battlefield. However, so far, the publishers have proven to be quicker and much more resourceful than the universities. Indeed, they have opened new front lines. For example, some of them have now started so-called "open access" journals, which are freely available in the internet, but require the authors to pay for the privilege of being published, often several thousand dollars for a single paper. This outrageous scheme merely shifts the cost from the journal subscriber to the author, while the publisher is still making his usual profit. This reinforces an already existing pernicious trend - the academic "survival of the richest". It should be roundly condemned by everyone interested in the objectivity of science and scholarship. And there are other worrisome developments, such as phony new journal publishers accepting all prepaid papers without any review at all. They are interested only in "making a fast buck", their predatory journals are worthless, and the authors eventually find out that they have been duped. But this is a side-issue here.
Instead, let me return to the problems of automated teaching:
Once a MOOC has been created by one or several authors, it can be run and earn money for the university as long as its content remains up-to-date. Theoretically, there are several ways of arriving at this point:
1. The authors produce the course as part of their official duties as faculty members without additional pay, and the university keeps the copyright.
2. The authors manage to retain the
copyright and thus keep control over the use of their courses and their
updates. They also continue to receive a share of the profits.
In the first instance, the university no longer needs the author(s). It can run the MOOCs "quasi automatically" as it sees fit. Most often, it will keep teaching them with cheaper "teaching assistants" or "monitors". It can also change them at will with the help of other faculty members or even outside authors. The courses can also be broken up into fragments, and these can be used as parts of various other courses, if the opportunity or need should arise. This model will be favored by university administrators.
The second case will, at first, probably be rare and will depend on a variety of special circumstances. However, once academic writers understand the obvious financial interests of their university and their inevitable consequences, they will also begin to see their own economic role in a more realistic light. They will then try to negotiate a contract that allows them to keep the rights to their work and, as a parallel, they will point to the tradition of keeping the copyright to their textbooks. Initially, many faculty members may lose this internal power struggle, but I believe most will prevail in the end. After all, the university still gains enough even as it shares its profits. This will probably become the standard model. The author(s) will supervise possible modifications of their product, but they will also take advantage of every possible form of "automation". But even they will use "teaching assistants" and "monitors" in order to increase their own profit and that of the university.
The above-mentioned third example is the most intriguing, because it could produce models of teaching and learning that combine automation with outsourcing - the two great threats Martin Ford is so rightly worried about. Admittedly, even our first two examples can lead to such a combination, but here we can see it in its pure, unadulterated form.
As a simple illustration, let me refer to my own "open access" online courses.
First, some historical background: I put my first freely accessible course online in early 2003, when nobody else even thought about such an experiment. Anyway, having retired from government service two years before, I simply went ahead and did it as a private person with my own money. I was and remained an academic outsider in spite of the fact that I maintained a close relationship with Humboldt University in Berlin. It first gave me office space and later housed my books, journals, and collections, which I eventually donated to its central library. As part of this relatively informal, but otherwise solid arrangement, my Archive ran on the university server for a good dozen years. However, "open access" online teaching about sexual health was not - and still is not - on the university's agenda, and I therefore never received any financial support. Finally, last summer, I had to realize that Humboldt University would never have any use for my courses, and I therefore decided to continue independently on a server of my own.
In the meantime, my offer had grown to a considerable size: I now provide a complete "sexual health curriculum" of 6 courses (6 semesters) in 6 languages, and translations into still other languages are continuing. This fact alone shows that "outsourcing" has been essential in creating my curriculum, although, in this case, a better word for it would be "cooperation". Idealistic colleagues and their students in different countries sent me books, papers and reviews for my online library, and they also provided - without pay - translations of my courses, initially for their own benefit, now for the benefit of anyone who speaks and reads the respective languages.
However, it is clear that few, if any, universities today are capable of teaching these ready-made courses in all of their translations. (The well-financed MIT/Harvard initiative edX offers MOOCs in English, Chinese, and French, and is planning to add more languages in the future.) At this time, however, such multilingual offers are still rare. Therefore, if any "regular" university were to take over my Archive right now, it would not be able to use more than some parts of it. But what should then be done with the rest? One could keep expanding it, as I have been doing with the help of cooperating colleagues, or one could just preserve the status quo, thereby losing the "cutting edge" and gradually fall behind. Or should the Archive be broken up, so that different parts of it could be transferred to different hosts? And should these different hosts then cooperate for the sake of the whole? What would such a cooperation look like? Or should one "master host" farm out different parts of the Archive to different "sub-hosts"? What about the many different copyrights - those of the various contributors and my own? How do they hang together, and how could they be sorted out? And what about the financial aspects of these various options? These are only some of the many questions that arise when a project of this size changes hands.
Putting such problems aside for now, let me return to my central concern - outsourcing and automation in academic teaching and learning.
As the example of my Archive has shown, "outsourcing" has been an essential element in its growth:
Contributions from outside sources
Contributions to outside sources
This would not really be exceptional, although the unique example of my Archive brings it into clearer focus. It is well known for example, that medical schools and hospitals already employ the services of "teleradiologists" and "telecardiologists". They use the internet to send X-ray, CT, MRT and ultrasound pictures to specialist in foreign countries, for example India. From there, they receive the relevant diagnoses, again through the internet. Obviously, these convenient outside sources allow them to cut down on their own staff. Also, universities have long taken advantage of all kinds of information available in the internet and have, in fact, occasionally given credit to their own students for distance courses offered by other universities. Conversely, the already mentioned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has, for years, been running a gigantic project under the name OpenCourseWare (OCW) It offers freely accessible course materials in seven languages for over 2000 courses to everyone interested, students and professors alike. The new joint initiative edX with Harvard offers not just free materials, but complete "open access" courses, and it now also involves the UC Berkeley and the University of Texas System. Only those students who want a "certificate of achievement" or other forms of academic credit have to pay. All others are invited to audit the courses at no cost to themselves.
is no doubt, therefore, that online "outsourcing" is and will remain a fact of
life in higher education, or in education generally, for that matter. And it
works in both directions: A university will receive information from outside
sources, while also providing information to other universities, thus
becoming an outside source for them. The information exchange may
concern nothing more than a simple dictionary definition, but it can also
involve a whole special encyclopedia (I have several in my Archive online
library). Or it may entail a complete curriculum (like my six online courses). The
question is: How far will all this mutual
Some observers have surmised that, just like automation, outsourcing will also lead to an ever-increasing concentration of wealth and power at the top, so that, as Sebastian Thrun famously put it in 2012: "In 50 years, there will only be 10 universities left in the world."
I believe this was meant as a wake-up call and not as a serious prediction. Nevertheless, we would all make a mistake if we simply ignored it. There is no doubt that many departments in many colleges and universities will be unable to compete with the growing number of high-quality offers from the outside. As the "losers" wither and die, there will be a considerable realignment in higher education. More universities, or at least university departments, will form groups for mutual support across the traditional boundaries. Others will simply be closed down. How exactly this will happen is hard to predict, but the eventual outcome seems predetermined. In any case, many teaching positions will become unaffordable to their employers and will no longer be filled.
This, then, is the "downside" of outsourcing. Now what about automation?
As I mentioned above, a certain amount of automation is already part of online education today. Indeed, in some ways, it predates the internet. I remember teaching a course with over 600 students in the early 1980's at San Francisco State University. For this, we had to use the university's large theater, and the final exams could be done only with the help of printed sheets containing "True or False" and "Multiple Choice" questions. The sheets were then run through a machine which graded them automatically. I remember my surprise when I discovered that my best student had been a Chinese, whom I had never noticed during my lectures and lively class discussions.
Grading thousands of distance students will, of course, have to be much more "automated" than this. And that remains true even if one tries to differentiate. The simplest case is a mere "certificate of completion" or a "certificate of successful completion". It becomes more complicated when one tries to introduce a "certificate of excellence" or wants to award actual academic degrees. Nevertheless, all of this can be done - and is already being done - by "online universities" like the American University of Phoenix and the British Open University. The technical details involved have long been solved. The only remaining question is: "How far can such automation go"?
In my view, this question cannot be answered at this time, because no one can predict what forms automation may take in the future. It may take forms that, to us, are still inconceivable. I do believe, however, that automation will increase well beyond its present boundaries. I am more comfortable making another prediction: The degree of automation in academic teaching will vary with the subject matter and with the technical and financial resources available to the teachers. And here we return again to the subject of power and powerlessness: Large foundations, wealthy sponsors, and rich universities will be able to dominate the market – and it is a market – make no mistake about it. This, in the end, could very well result in a dangerous uniformity of content. Unconventional and downright heretic ideas will no longer get a hearing. Challenges by outsiders will no longer have a chance. However, as history has shown us again and again, very often it was the unorthodox, initially ridiculed, dissenting voice that has moved science forward. The loss of variety will therefore be a very dangerous threat to our future.
In this context, we now also have to worry about the future role of "Big Data" in distance learning, i.e. about the the foreseeable advances in data mining and data analyzing technologies. As the blogger Santhosh Kumar recently wrote on a commercial service web site:
"Big Data refers to the large amounts of unstructured data flowing through numerous sources in our digital world every second. In the e-learning scenario, Big Data is the data produced by learners interacting with the learning content. This data is collected through Learning Management Systems (LMS), Content Management Systems (CMS) and other media, including social networks via which the learners interact with our learning programs.
Due to the rapid advancements in computer processing power, Big Data can now ....help us understand the real behavior patterns of our learners more effectively ….. These patterns could lead us to highly valuable information on what and how they learn….However, the real strength of Big Data lies in its power to help forecast or predict scenarios and take preventive action. For example, Big Data could help us predict learners' performance and outcomes before they start a training program. This could even be at the early stages of analyzing the training requirements! …. These are possibilities that we never even imagined or visualized earlier. Big Data has the potential to change our approach to learning and development by challenging the most important beliefs and principles of learning design." (7)
Such unbridled enthusiasm for the total surveillance of students is, of course, unsurprising on a commercial website that sells its design and development services to other commercial enterprises for the in-house training of their employees. However, the possibilities outlined here will eventually also shape higher education. Indeed, the university network Coursera is already offering an "open access" online course "Big Data in Education". (8)
course will teach, among other things, some of the following:
This is eerily reminiscent of an earlier famous statement by Eric Schmidt, the head of Google: "We know where you are. We know where you've been. We can more or less know what you're thinking about." In the meantime, of course, Google can predict more and more behavior of its customers, and with increasing accuracy. Thus, Tom Foremski, in his blog Silicon Valley Watcher can now write: "Big Data And You: How Your 'Likes' Reveal Sexuality, Race, Drug Use, And Your Parents' Divorce ." (9) The term "Likes" refers to a click on the respective buttons (thumbs up) on many web site pages.
Leaving aside the problem of surveilling whole national populations - aleady a possibility and, to a large extent, also an uncomfortable reality - let me comment here just on the total surveillance of students. Obviously, Big Data now makes this possible, but is it really desirable? Kumar had listed the advantages, but what about the drawbacks?
I think it would be naïve to assume that Big Data would remain content with tracking the learning patterns of online students. (Of course, this alone will already make Big Data even bigger.) In actual practice, and almost unavoidably, information about the students' personal background will enter the picture. This information can then be used for the selection and admission of students, for determining the price of tuition, and for possible quotas (along gender, ethnic, national or religious religious lines). Needless to say, it will also be used for a variety of purposes unrelated to the courses themselves, such as individually targeted advertising. Selling this information to interested parties could produce additional income for the universities, unless, of course, these interested parties already possess this information thanks to their own collecting capabilities. Finally, the information will play a role in the allocation of funds within the university, with "popular" courses and departments receiving more funds than the others. In any case, all of this will again contribute to the further growth of Big Data and thus to the accumulation of wealth and power at the top and away from the middle and lower classes.
For me, the most worrisome likely development, however, will be the streamlining and simplification of contents and the increasing uniformity of results. When I was young, I could, without any application procedure, freely move from one German university to another and thus become familiar with different professors and their different viewpoints and approaches (I eventually attended 3 German universities: Cologne, Freiburg Br., and Heidelberg). These days are now long gone, and the internet had nothing to do with it. However, with the new electronic possibilities, the students' already narrow options are likely to shrink even more. True, as distance students, they now have access to a variety of online courses, but this variety will more and more be shaped by so-called market forces. These will eventually determine the student admission process and, in the long run, they will decide what will remain available to whom at what price. Inevitably, this will also affect the course contents. Unorthodox courses will find it increasingly hard to compete and will finally be "shaken out " by the system. Instead, a global consensus is likely to form about what is "useful" to know and what is not.
In principle, of couse, this is nothing new either. Even in the past, universities have transmitted some generally "accepted wisdom" to their students until some "heretic" forced them to reconsider and to accept a "paradigm shift". Indeed, the "science of sex" itself is a perfect example of this. It was entirely the work of private scholars and scientists, who worked outside the academic mainstream and were actually shunned by the universities, at least initially. Only later did sexology receive some institutional acceptance. However, with the continuing rapid advance of the electronic revolution, we now face the prospect of a global academic orthodoxy shaped by commercial considerations. The most powerful and most "efficient" providers will eventually crowd out poorer dissident voices. Thus, "efficiency" will become a decisive criterion for educational success.
This is an ideal, however, better suited to training than to education in the wider sense. Training wants to make the students fit for the performance of a given task; true education, in contrast, wants to enable them to develop their own capacites, so that they can also master new, unknown tasks or even tasks they may set for themselves. An educated person is flexible, used to critical thinking and capable of seeing the "big picture". Truly educated people have a better chance to become and remain successful in our increasingly complex world than those who have received only training. Our entire Westen tradition of graduate schools is built on this assumed truism. But will it always be true?
As Big Data and "efficiency" enter our universities, teaching and learning will change their character in fundamental ways. Indeed, in the future, "higher education" may become so "efficient", that it loses the value it traditionally had and still has at this time. The predictions of Martin Ford that I quoted in the beginning, raise some serious doubts: Thanks to massive online courses, we would end up with a global hord of narrowly trained and narrowly focussed specialists. But their special skills could quickly become obsolete, as still newer, and even more specialized skills will have to be mastered. And for how long will these be in demand? In the end, many potential students will simply give up and no longer bother with getting an "education" at all. Then, Ford's gloomy prophesy could come true: The new "efficiency" will become self-defeating and, together with increased automation, will create a social downward spiral, in which a shrinking middle class is forced to take over jobs from an equally shrinking working class, while both face a steadily growing "class of the unemployed".
Interestingly enough, a recent study by the French economist Thomas Picketty indirectly confirms this development. He convicingly demonstrates the existence of a long-standing and still growing income gap in our Western societies - an unavoidable consequence of capitalism itself: Those with more capital than others have an advantage that tends to become ever greater over time. In other words: The rich get richer while the middle class stagnates or loses. Only wars and economic depressions act as temporary brakes on this overall trend. (10) Some of Picketty's critics have suggested that education, being in fact a type of capital, might also be able to act as a brake and thus prevent, or at least ameliorate, the worst capitalist excesses. It would enable members of the less affluent classes to turn this intellectual capital into actual cash, i.e. increased income for themselves. This, in turn, could help in closing the income gap. However, for the future, the books of Martin Ford and Jaron Lanier demolish this appealing theory. Indeed, as I myself have tried to show, massive online teaching and learning may, in the future, very well aggravate the problem.
The internet prophet Lanier, for his part, is now feeling a bit like Goethe's sorcerer's apprentice: He does not really know how to "deliver himself from the spirits he had been calling". But he does have some suggestions:
If the concentration of wealth at the top continues, it will end up undermining the very base on which it was built. One day, the great internet companies like Google, Facebook etc. will, like Walmart, also achieve their level of self-defeating efficiency, their point of diminishing returns. Their freely obtained merchandise in the form of personal data will lose its value, as fewer and fewer of its suppliers are capable of responding to the commercial enticements directed at them. In other words, not only businesses like Walmart, but the economy as a whole will have become so efficient as to be self-defeating. The middle class will have shrunk to the point where it can no longer support the present business model of the internet giants or that of other giant corporations.
In the meantime, the case of Kodak-Instagram has had an even more bizarre sequel: The internet giant Facebook just acquired WhatsApp for $ 19 billion - a messaging service with a total of 55 employees. Once again, and quite obviously, the enormous value of this service was not created by these undoubtedly productive workers, but by its users, who pay a single dollar per year and thus practically enjoy a free ride. But, just as in the earlier example, it is the mass of their uncompensated personal data that now helps to concentrate even more wealth and power in the hands of the already wealthy and powerful.
In order to reverse this trend toward growing income disparity, Lanier proposes a solution that, upon a first hearing, sounds utopian and impossible: Every person supplying data to the internet should be enabled to participate in the accumulation of its wealth. This could be done, for example, when the internet users receive a small payment for every bit of data they supply. The new policy could be summarized in the new motto: "Hundreds of millions of micropayments for the purpose of saving the macroeconomy!"
Quite apart from the technical difficulties in setting up such as system, it is easy enough to dismiss Lanier's idea as unworkable. Still, it should give us pause and lead us to more fundamental questions: Why do we think it's unworkable? Who has an interest in keeping it that way? What can be done instead to make sure that the internet users, as the actual creators of internet wealth, finally get their share of it?
I myself, not being an internet pioneer like Lanier, have a more modest suggestion for a more limited area of contention - the publication of scientific journals. I believe that, even in this comparatively narrow field, radical steps must be taken. I know, of course, that, even in the internet, certain costs of publishing remain unavoidable. For example, in contrast to the unpaid authors and "peer reviewers", journal editors usually do get paid by the publisher, in some cases a rather handsome salary. However, in the future such salaries and other production costs can, and should, be paid by the universities and organizations that profit from the journal's reputation. After all, if adopted everywhere, such a system would be much cheaper than the present one, because universities would save more in library subscription costs than they would have to pay out in additional salaries. Moreover, universities, foundations, and sponsors could very well maintain "open access" web sites. Some of these sites could finance themselves through advertising, or they could provide additional special services for a fee. University libraries, unable to pay the rising cost of journal subscriptions, might use the money they do have more wisely by starting online publication platforms of their own. Indeed, libraries could form cooperatives, pool their financial resources and thus could end up offering more journal articles to their readers at a lower cost than ever before. And let us not forget the membership fees of those scientific organizations with their own journals! Instead of going to print publishers, these fees could just as well go directly to the organizations' own web sites. Finally, one should also remember that many universities have their own, highly respected publishing companies that could step in for the now parasitic journal publishers. Of course, this will require a much higher degree of cooperation between universities and individual faculty members than we have seen so far. In the end, however, they will have no choice. Sheer economic necessity will force them to do what they should already be doing right now but are still postponing.
The lesson for us authors is also clear: We must, from now on, retain the copyright for all our unpaid publications. This way can we decide ourselves where and how our texts get published. In many cases, an "open access" electronic publication will prove preferable for two reasons: 1. It can reach many more readers, and 2. It will not fall victim to subscription cancellations and thus disappear altogether.
These humble suggestions can do no more than address a small portion of a much larger economic problem. Actually, they may very well make it worse. If carried out - and there is no escaping the irony here - they will again eliminate a number of former decently paid jobs – in paper manufacturing, printing, binding, storing, shipping etc.. And this will, once again, weaken the middle class.
Finally, looking beyond our immediate concerns as academic writers and teachers, we have to realize that the ongoing collection of ever vaster amounts of personal data also has a political dimension. The internet giants are bound to share their information, whether knowlingly or unknowingly, with government security agencies, and this means that there is also an accumulation of political power at the top. Indeed, some observers have already spoken of a "military-informational complex" that could very well be the ultimate threat to our democracy.
what's the solution? Do we need a new and substantial process of "creative
destruction" in the sense used by Joseph Schumpeter? Or are we already
in the midst of it? But what exactly is it that needs to be or is already being
destroyed? Can and should we interfere with this process? According to Lanier,
we will not find out, unless we "rethink" the internet "from the ground up".
Indeed, he demands a radical paradigm shift. Under the prevailing economic
conditions, the idea of "free information", as we understand it today, can only
lead to a restriction and ultimately to a loss of freedom. The very idea is an
illusion. In the end, even the "winners" will lose. We therefore must ask
ourselves: How can we learn to think anew "outside the box" in which we have
imprisoned ourselves? Can we still wrest the ownership of our future from those
who are taking it from us? Or will they see the light by themselves and
understand that they must share their wealth now, if they don't want to lose
most of it later? And more importantly, can we do all this without changing our
present economic system? Or will the electronic revolution inevitably lead to a
2. Martin Ford, "The Lights in the Tunnel:
Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future",
Acculant ™ Publishing, 2009
4. Korean schools welcome more robot teachers