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Will Udacity’s Nanodegrees lead to Perelman’s Micro-Vouchers?

September 17, 2015

In 1993 Lewis Perelman wrote a thought provoking book titled “Schools Out” which described how computer technology could eventual lead to a fragmentation of public education through the creation of “micro vouchers” that would enable students to take courses where they wanted to and when they wanted to. That same year, libertarian writer David Boaz wrote a book titled “Market Liberalism: A Paradigm for the 21st Century” that included a chapter by Perelman titled “The Learning Revolution” that provides a blueprint for what is transpiring today in education.  Some excerpts from Perelman’s essay make eerie reading in today’s world:

The productivity-focused goals of the new paradigm of national learning policy that should replace intrusive and irrelevant “national education goals”(NOTE: This was G.H.W. Bush’s initiative to address “failing schools”) can be summarized in four simple words: More, Better, Faster, and Cheaper. That is, policy needs to ensure the rapid development of HL (Hyper-Learning– a term Perelman coined to define the faster, more focussed instruction that technology could provide. See elaboration on this, below.) systems that enable citizens of all ages to learn more about everything; to learn better, especially those things that are relevant to productive work; to learn faster, with less waste of time; and to do all that at lower and steadily declining cost.

Perelman offered an action plan to make schools achieve the goals: de-credentialize; commercialize; capitalize; and bypass. The section on commercialization is particularly relevant, because it is one concept that conservatives and neo-liberals– both of whom believe in the magic of the marketplace– embrace. In this section Perelman introduces the concept of “micro vouchers”. Some excerpts from this section:

In recent years many politicians, business leaders, and families have begun to appreciate the essential importance of breaking up the socialist monopoly of the government-controlled education system. “Privatization” of public education is much needed and should be a national goal of the new president (i.e. Bill Clinton). But “school choice” is an inadequate strategy for achieving the benefits of a market economy in the learning sector or for unleashing the growth of the strategically crucial HL industry…

Instead, the new administration should be committed to commercial privatization of the entire education sector, based on a strategy of mi- crochoice using the financing mechanism of microvouchers.

To illustrate the idea of microchoice: If our choice of television channels worked the way school choice is proposed to, changing channels from HBO to CNN would require unplugging the TV set, taking it back to the store, exchanging it for a different model, and moving to a new neighborhood. In reality, of course, choosing among dozens or hundreds of video options requires no effort more strenuous than pushing a button. Similarly, modern HL technology can offer the individual even more choices of “teachers” and “schools” than of cable TV channels. HL’s broadband, intelligent, multimedia systems permit anyone to learn anything, anywhere, anytime with grade-A results by matching learning resources precisely with personal needs and learning styles.

Microvouchers that use modern electronic card–account technology can enable individual families or students to choose specific learning products and services, not just once a year or once a semester, but by the week, day, hour, or even second by second. Unlike vouchers for school or college tuition, microvouchers will create a true, wide-open, location-free, competitive market for learning that has the elasticity to efficiently and quickly match supply and demand.

After acknowledging that over 90 percent of funding for U.S. public education is supplied by state and local governments, Perelman suggests “the new president” could take two major steps “…to commercialize the government-controlled education sector and to pro-mote the development of the American HL industry that must replace it.” The two steps were the replacement of the current Federal funding mechanisms with “Federal micro vouchers”. Perelman envisioned the micro vouchers being

…allocated directly to households, in proportion to individual or family need, to be used for the purchase of any service or product that is demonstrably relevant to learning and development needs. The instrument of expenditure would not be paper stamps or vouchers but electronic account cards similar to credit or bank cards. The HL microvoucher program should leave families free to decide how best to distribute the account resources between adults and children and generally among the members of the household. That provision would recognize that the needs of disadvantaged children in many (perhaps even most) cases may be serve best by immediately improving the economic opportunities and status of the parents, as well as by developing the parenting skills.

All of this came to mind today when I read “Udacity Says It Can Teach Tech Skills to Millions, and Fast”, an article in today’s NYTimes by Farhad Manjoo, who, based on his thumbnail picture, was probably in elementary school when Perelman was writing about micro-vouchers. How? Udacity, one of the first organizations to offer MOOCs, has determined that while MOOCs face major obstacles in providing full-fledged degrees, they can provide “nano degrees” that meet the unique and specific needs of businesses. And what is a nano degree?

The nanodegree works like this: Last year, Udacity partnered with technology companies to create online courses geared toward teaching a set of discrete, highly prized technical skills — including mobile programming, data analysis and web development. Students who complete these courses are awarded the nanodegree, a credential that Udacity has worked with Google, AT&T and other companies to turn into a new form of workplace certification.

“We can’t turn you into a Nobel laureate,” Mr. Thrun told me. “But what we can do is something like upskilling — you’re a smart person, but the skills you have are inadequate for the current job market, or don’t let you get the job you aspire to have. We can help you get those skills.”

And how does Mr. Thrun envision them being funded? By students who are willing to pay a relatively modest tuition to get a credential that may, or may not, lead to employment. And so far it seems to be working for Udacity:

So far, Udacity’s new model shows a glimmer of success. A year after the program’s start, the company has 10,000 students enrolled in its nanodegree courses, and the number is growing by a third every month. Udacity charges $200 a month for the courses (students can take as little or as much time as they want to finish). When they successfully complete a course, Udacity gives back half the tuition. The company says that a typical student will earn a nanodegree in about five months — in other words, for around $500.

Because students take several months or longer to complete their degrees, it is too soon to tell exactly how many will finish. So far, Udacity estimates the graduation rate to be about 25 percent. Thousands of workers have earned degrees, and hundreds have found new jobs as a result.

I linked these nano degrees with Perelman’s micro vouchers because I see a connection between them. Thrun’s nano degrees seem analogous to Perelman’s micro-vouchers and both models are predicated on the notion that the market place should dictate what courses are offered and where students might get their education. Both rely more on technology than human interaction, and both aspire to the same four, simple goals set forth 22 years ago by Perelman: More, Better, Faster, and Cheaper… and Perelman’s claim that this would be advantageous for children raised in poverty notwithstanding, I remain unconvinced that this will provide more opportunity for them, be a better way for them to master the content we expect all students to learn, or enable them to learn more quickly. In the final analysis, the students who WILL benefit from opportunities like nano degrees will be those whose parents and districts spent money on… a lot more money than was spent on the children raised in poverty.

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