Corporate Money and Education

If you’ve been reading me for a while, you know that I’m an open source kind of person.  I like to use open source software whenever I can.  I’ve donated to OS projects and paid for some outright because they’re good.  But it’s not just about the money.  It’s a philosophy about how software is created through collaboration, and that anyone can change that software as needed, hopefully in a way that contributes to the improvement of that software.  That being said, I am often willing to pay for and use propriety software.  I pay for Apple software, for example.  I pay for Weebly for school.  Honestly, I’d pay for Google docs.  Often I do this when it’s something I don’t need to alter or for which there isn’t a good open source alternative.

But what I’m starting to get the heebie-jeebies about is corporations making money (and lots of it!) off of schools.  Most schools’ budgets are stretched pretty thin, but many of the products sold to schools are way expensive.  Microsoft, Blackboard, student information systems, even Apple, charge schools a ton of money to use their products.  They often sell you their products by suggesting it will help you teach better, make your life easier in some way, or help you students learn.  As you might imagine, I see this a lot in Computer Science.  The two biggest robotics competitions both require the purchase of not just equipment (which I don’t have a huge problem with), but also software.  I’m going to pay $1000 to get software.  They also sell curriculum packets for a ton of money.

I give Microsoft some credit in that many of their products for CS education are offered at no cost, but often to go further, one has to purchase a more robust package, for a few hundred dollars.  Google, of course, provides many things for “free” but they’re not open, and they’re selling off your info in one way or another.

And then there’s the publishers, many of whom sell not just books to you and your students, but online “experiences.”  And I’ve seen other companies that sell whole curricula to schools.

Now, I get it.  Building curriculum is hard, and sometimes you get thrown into teaching something you’ve never taught before and you need some materials, stat.  But I just don’t trust companies to not have some kind of self-interest.  Microsoft, for example, wants employees, so it’s willing to give away some products in exchange for potentially loyal employees.  Nothing wrong with that, but I don’t buy that their desire to create more computer scientists is about “bettering the world.” It’s about bettering Microsoft, which may or may not be bettering the world with their products.  Ditto Google.  The textbook publishers just seem desperate, like they know they’re not going to last and so they’re trying to squeeze blood out of a turnip.

I know that some of my students might go off and work for Microsoft or Google or some other giant corporation where they’re going to be very successful.  But I worry about conflicts of interest.  I’m not teaching CS for Microsoft’s benefit.

I also hate corporations that sell products/curriculum with the suggestion that they want to help students learn when it’s clear that what they really want to do is make money.

I’m not opposed to companies making money.  Audrey Watters recently posted about some good education startups.  Many of these companies are filling gaps left by larger corporations.  I happily support some of these companies.  Yes, they want to make money, but many of them are also hoping to help teachers and students. They started as tools for education, not as general software companies who saw an opportunity in the education market.  I know education can’t be (and maybe shouldn’t be) completely separate from the corporate world, but a little distance wouldn’t hurt.

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4 Replies to “Corporate Money and Education”

  1. I think you’re being too demanding of the corporations. If Microsoft’s goal was really to train good software engineers (when it induces schools to buy it’s software), that wouldn’t be all that bad a goal, even if ultimately it was so that they could have good people to hire. In general, the people they’d like to hire will be people others like to hire, too (less true if people are being trained in obscure and rote ways, but that’s the problem of education in general, if its focus is too narrow, you turn people into inefficient robots and that’s just not a useful use of a person any more).

    What I find problematic is when Microsoft’s goal is to improve their current bottom line, and see the schools as just one more customer that they can sell to. I think there’s a big business out there providing educational support. Technical stuff is among the worst, ’cause there’s the least home grown expertise. Teachers, in general, are better at evaluating whether, say, a reading curriculum is worth paying for, ’cause they know curricula. They’re more likely to be tricked by the value of a CS curriculum. Of course school boards have the potential to be tricked by everything.

    My worry is that a lot of the current focus of the educational reform movement is to exacerbate these problems by favoring the purchase of big curricula from big vendors (who then make a lot of money) while devaluing the teachers in the classroom (and, hopefully, pay them less of the total spent on education). This has the effect of “pyramiding” education, making it valuable for businesses since they can make a lot of money off re-selling a curricula.

    (of course textbook publishers have been in this business for a long time — their power needs to be broken by making more open source textbooks available).

  2. bj, you’re probably right, but I think you’re second point is exactly what creeps me out. It seems to me that that’s generally what corporations are doing–improving their bottom line by selling to us. The thing is, they’re not honest about that. They make claims of student improvement and learning, instead of saying, hey, this will make us money. In many cases, the product may indeed improve student learning, but that may or may not be their primary goal. And, I, too, feel that buying curriculum whole hog devalues the teacher, who often knows her students, and her subject better than the big vendors.

  3. Laura, in contrast to robotics (which is indeed awfully expensive–there is travel involved as well I understand), the big national computer science competition for high school students is totally free to participants.

    They even often free instructional resources for preparation. No travel is required until students get to the very highest national and/or international level, and there is corporate support providing for it at that point.

    http://train.usaco.org/usacogate

  4. Mary, thanks for that link. I definitely want to look into programming competitions. There are students not interested in working with robotics.

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