More and more is written these days about the potential of Internet-based courses and supporting electronic technology to better educate American students. Among the tantalizing predictions: Instruction will be highly individualized, social promotion will be eliminated, and an Ivy League education will be available for pennies to anyone who wants one.
Remarkably absent from these scenarios is any discussion of the ideological implications of electronic instruction. Yet the political agenda of educators—including the subtle (and not so subtle) ways that agenda shades everything from the political endorsements of teachers unions to the actual teaching of subject matter—has always been influenced by the organizational structure in which educators operate.
It is no coincidence that America's K-12 and university systems, both of which bestow the security of lifetime employment (tenure) to those who master the relevant obstacle course, currently produce teachers who are disproportionately liberal. Nor is it a coincidence that political correctness is at its worst in the very learning communities supposedly dedicated to open-mindedness. Conservative criticism of a society managed by credentialed elites understandably stirs their intense hostility: The conservative opposition threatens the legitimacy of academic systems based on professional privilege.
Enter online instruction—which, by dramatically altering the economics of teaching, are likely to alter the political biases now built into the education system.
Few people believe that online instruction will ever completely replace the college campus experience or substitute for the social, psychological and recreational benefits of a K-12 education. But the current thrust of academic innovation is clearly in the direction of "blended learning," where a student taking five courses in a semester might take one, two or even three of them online. Blended learning recognizes the value of human instruction, particularly in the younger grades, but it will minimize the importance of credentialed staffing as a measure of a school's effectiveness. As Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates argued in the Chronicle of Higher Education in June, the old professional model of schooling has failed to produce the "kind of clear metric" that allows educators to "experiment and see" if students are "continuing to achieve" success. Computers and the Internet, he said, create "something that's not purely digital," but "the efficiency of face-to-face time is much greater."
The technological transformation of education has wide-ranging political implications. Blended learning may not eliminate the need for classroom instructors, but it will reduce the numbers required. Over time, the reduction will significantly reduce the amount of dues raised by teachers unions—and therefore the influence of one of the most liberal constituencies within the Democrat Party. It will also reduce the manpower available at election time to canvass neighborhoods, cover phone banks and drive people to the voting booth in support of left-leaning candidates.
Teachers unions nationally rebel against the demands of school reformers for more accountability. Disputed issues such as student testing, merit pay and teacher evaluations seem at first glance to have nothing to do with Internet instruction. Yet the demands for better student performance clearly pave the way for blended-learning environments involving smaller and more productive staffs.
At the university level, electronic education will gradually place a greater squeeze on the more liberal faculties—those in the humanities and social sciences. As many debt-burdened graduates have already discovered, not all bachelor's degrees have the same economic value. A sociology student may earn no more after college than he would have by not matriculating, whereas a classmate who studied software design or engineering can command a relatively high salary right out of school.
In a September interview in The Atlantic, John Mitchell, a professor of computer science at Stanford and the university's first vice provost of online learning, predicted a future in which students pursuing needlessly expensive degrees will—instead of going off to college—continue to live at home and take their first two years online. Or they might spend only two years on a campus and then find a job, finishing up their degrees over the Internet.
Either way, the intellectual atmosphere of colleges and universities will increasingly reflect the staffing requirements for majors that justify student investment in a protracted residential experience: science, engineering, medicine and business—not dominated by left-wing faculties.
The development of cost-effective instructional technology, combined with the growing pressure on states and localities to cap the cost of teacher benefits and pensions, has already begun to change the incentive structure of K-12 education. In 2011, Utah's legislature passed a digital-learning policy that ties funding for Internet courses in public school to student outcomes. Online providers receive half the per-pupil payment for a course up front and the other half only after the student has mastered the material. In November, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder unveiled an education-reform plan that would allow high-school students to get credit for online courses from multiple sources, including neighboring districts, online academies, community colleges and state universities.
Udacity, one of the three largest providers of online college courses, picks its instructors not on the basis of their degrees or research interests but according to how well they actually communicate."We reject 98 percent of faculty who want to teach with us," Udacity co-founder David Stavens recently told the New York Times. He sees a day when faculty are selected and promoted very differently, with the best "compensated like a TV actor or movie actor."
As performance-based incentive structures spread, course designers and school-based curriculum directors will have to be more flexible, competitive and accountable. If history is any guide, the elevation of such workplace values will even make their way into the subjects being taught, emphasizing such conservative values as personal responsibility and entrepreneurship.
Nearly a half-century ago, communications theorist Marshall McLuhan famously observed that "the medium is the message." Not even he predicted just how true this would prove to be.