Psst. Good deal on 'almost authentic' learning!

Barrie Jo Price's picture

By Dr. Barrie Jo Price,
University of Alabama*

As more and more conversation is floating around about the “commercialization of education”, it becomes apparent that there are many different definitions and associations made with the phrase. Some educators think about how students are becoming absorbed by consumerism, and other educators speak of how students get drawn to ‘educational labels’ from certain institutions much in the same way they are drawn to handbags with labels or golf shirts with a particular logo. Still other educators, when presented with this phrase, engage in passionate discussions of how students’ expectations of immediacy and ‘on-demand’ associated with other parts of their lives have seeped into their educational expectations and behaviors.

If one steps back from these discussions, it is easy to see how they all would occur and how they have relevance for us as educators. Today’s world seems to spin on economic props (or spirals out of control as those props wobble). Why would one not expect education to be included in that spiralling environment? Some of today’s (or yesterday’s, depending on the market) billionaires achieve their positions in their companies and in society in astonishingly short periods of time. Companies are now created in the hopes that, within a couple of years, they will be bought out, not necessarily to last for decades. Accelerated everything, anything money can buy, money equates to standing in the community: these are all part of societies around the world.

Anytime there is a cultural shift in the society in which education is embedded, that shift shows up, eventually, in education. While it might be widely accepted that this is true, there might be conversations such as mentioned above when deciding what might be considered as evidence of this relationship.

One way in which I think I see this shift and ‘commercialization’ of education lies in this description. In the U.S. today (and perhaps elsewhere), handbags with particular labels are sold at amazing prices ($2000 USD, for example), and these handbags are coveted by all kinds of women. As is always the case, when there is demand, there is a ‘good deal’ available (read that: black market) and ‘knock off’ products. And there are millions of dollars being spent for ‘knock off’ bags (bags with the designer labels but not authentic). In major cities around the world, there will be guys with a sheet spread out with an array of bags arranged for display. A “knock off” $2000 bag will be offered for $200 or even less. It is usually accompanied by “Psst….Almost authentic”, whispered by the purveyor of these ‘almost authentic’ bags….at least until the police come by, at which time they and their bags mysteriously disappear into the crowds.

No, I am not saying that these guys have “almost authentic’ diplomas spread out on the ground. However, I am saying that, like the trend to ‘more is better and faster is better’ and ‘almost authentic’, education is impacted by the times and by demand. My area is computer-mediated communications including online learning, so perhaps I am more sensitive to these things than a traditional professor, but I am concerned at what I see as the increasing availability of ‘almost authentic’ learning in online environments.

Almost all universities offer online learning, which I think is a terrific avenue for some students. However, as with the bag vendors in the streets, there are also commercial vendors offering ‘quick and easy’ online diplomas. Literally thousands of students are defrauded of their ‘tuition’ money each year; many remember the case of Dixie and Stephen K. Randock Sr., of Colbert, Washington, USA and how they fabricated diplomas, with revenues growing from $5,000 in 1999 to $1.65 million USD in 2005, turning out more than 10,000 fake diplomas for unsuspecting customers in 131 countries (NYTimes, “Diploma Mill Concerns Extend Beyond Fraud” by Diana Jean Schemo, June 29, 2008

Another aspect of this shift to ‘almost authentic’ might be found in Internet sources found by students. Without knowing how to evaluate information found on the Internet, students are susceptible to ‘almost authentic’ information, coloring what they write, what they say, and what they think/learn. Therefore, students should be taught how to evaluate sources, how to use ‘authentic’ information. Books such as The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki help us as educators today understand the shifting nature of what is ‘authentic’ in information. Information bubbles up from a ground swell rather than being filtered downward through formal institutions. This provides new challenges for all learners, including life-long learners who are teachers. To tell students not to use information from any blog does not seem to be the answer, though we certainly do not want them to succumb to those who offer short cuts and faux labels on information. Teach them to say ‘no thanks’ to any offer that begins with “Psst. Good deal on almost authentic information”. No buyers here!