Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Disrupting Class: Why Technology Must Transform Education

I have taken the title here from Clayton Christensen, whose useful book on how technology creates disruptive innovation in Education I have read and written about before. But, at this time, I am reading David Ricardo, and my ideas are focused on how modern technology is set to disrupt the education model as we know now.

But, first of all, Christensen, who predicts that technology will change the business model of education. Education, as he sees it, is currently a value chain model, where value is added to set inputs at different stages of the process, and a value-added output is delivered. He predicts that this would transform into an User Network model, somewhat like the telecom business models, where users participate in a network and value is created as every extra connection is added. In an earlier post, I mused on these ideas, which indeed seemed plausible.

But the point of this post is not the business model per se, but the economics of education. More precisely, I think we need to look at 'Education Rent', which is currently hindering social mobility in societies all over the world.

The concept is straightforward, and follows from Ricardo: As the demand for education grows [which happens with the growth of population], good education becomes scarce. As demand expands, not so good education becomes available. The difference in productivity between the good and not so good [as measured in school leaving salary, among other things] gives rise to a rent, which good education can charge. This is why college education, particularly good college education, is becoming so expensive: The rent is rising on them.

The other part of the argument is that, indeed, this will hurt the producers. The producers are not just the consumers of knowledge [like the industrialists] who must pay more for their workers to offset the cost of education, or have to do with inferior workers; the producers include the knowledge workers themselves, who are actively engaged in producing knowledge, but a greater share of their earning must go into acquiring education and paying rent [they can be compared with Ricardo's tenant farmers].

As we know, technology reduced the rent on land by creating possibilities of having decent harvest on not-so-premium land, and it was only because of this, we seemed to have escaped a Malthusian implosion. This is what technology should be able to do in education. In a way, technology should undermine the elitism in education and allow knowledge sharing on a wider scale and undermine the rent that good schools want to extract.

Now, I know many people would feel inherently uncomfortable with the concept. Good education, in their mind, is best left inaccessible to masses. Quality, to them, is equal to restricted access. But, rent, in our time as it was in Ricardo's, can't be good: It is a premium one pays for lack of supply vis-a-vis demand, and it essentially subtracts value rather than adding. Quality isn't about restricted access: That is a lazy man's perception of quality. Quality should be all about expanding access to match demand to maintain the productive capacity of an economy, which should be geared towards raising the standard of life of all of its citizens.

This is exactly where the discomfort with educational technology is. The providers of education have a problem with technology exactly the same way British farmers wanted protection on grain imports after the Napoleonic wars: They want to preserve the rent. The rationale they extend can be nuanced and well thought out, but it can't hide the fact that the key demand is for an unreasonable rent: If we give in to these demands, we will continue to deny good education to most of our citizens and end up having a broken society.

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