Will entrepreneurship save education?

About a week ago, in response to the edupunk panel at SXSW, Jeff Jarvis tweeted,

Entrepreneurs will save education, not educators. That's my thin conclusion from #edupunk vs. #hackedu

Jarvis's tweet set my brain on about a dozen different paths at once--and I wish I could have captured them all, as I'm guessing all those neurons firing at once composed a book or two on the topic of entrepreneurs in education, the role of entrepreneurship in education, and entrepreneur education. This post attempts to make sense of some of the issues raised by Jarvis's "thin conclusion."

First of all, if you're not familiar with edupunk, check out the links in my BlogHer post on edupunk last year. Then, if you're still interested, check out "edupunk" coiner Jim Groom's five-part conversation with Professor Gardner Campbell, in which Groom and Campbell discuss and debate the usefulness of edupunk as a metaphor and movement.

Here's the deal: Jarvis's comment irks me for a number of reasons, but its irksome nature is in line with some potentially heretical (in the circles in which I run, anyway) thinking I've been doing over the past year or so.

Reason #1: I come from a family of educators and I'm an educator myself. 'Nuff said.

Reason #2: I've heard too many bad ideas floated at the intersection of "education" and "business." One example: Back in 1999, when I was a cub reporter for a newspaper named after a smelt that climbs out of the water to mate, I was sent to listen to Delaine Eastin, who was at the time California's state superintendent of public instruction, give a talk to the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce. As I jotted down notes in my little reporter's notebook, I found myself shaking my head in a very not reporterly way. Eastin proposed that local businesses might better support K-12 public schools by "adopting" individual campuses. In her example, a coalition of automotive businesses might provide significant funding and lend a certain degree of expertise to a school, and in exchange the school would, for example, teach automotive math (whatever that is), offer more advanced automotive shop courses, and have students read technical manuals in their literature courses. (As someone with two degrees in English, I believe I actually may have choked on my own vomit at that final suggestion.)

Reason #3: I don't like the arrogance of tone. I get that Jarvis is both a professor and entrepreneur, but the idea that educators will not play the primary role in "saving" education is ridiculous. If anything, the schools are where they are today because of too much involvement by bureaucracies and non-local initiatives (e.g. state-mandated testing, or No Child Left Behind) that limit teachers' autonomy in their own classrooms. As we're seeing at charter schools across the country, when teachers and parents are given greater authority over what their students learn and the methods by which young people are taught, good things happen. Does this mean entrepreneurs need to be left out of the evolution of American education? No. (See Reason #4.)

Reason #4: Jarvis in many ways has a point. I'm a huge fan of open source solutions in education. One thing some of us cheerleaders for open education fail to acknowledge is that in many cases the open source delivery methods--if not the content--are being developed in large part by people who are, have been, or I suspect one day will be entrepreneurs but who want to contribute to the public good through this project or that. (Automattic's development of WordPress, for example, comes immediately to mind.)

The older I become, the more accepting I am of the utility of entrepreneurship in education, even though I know as a left-leaning educator I'm supposed to be suspicious of profit-making enterprises. There are too many examples to discuss here, so I'll pick just one: When I hear edubloggers lament the popularity of attempts to monetize blogs, I want to counter with questions:

First, what's wrong with wanting to be paid for what one contributes to the world? (This question, of course, assumes a blogger is actually contributing something to the world, which alas is too often not the case.)

Second, how much might high school or college students learn about the way search engines, blogs, business, and systems of labor work by attempting to create a blog that brings in, say, $10 or $100 by the end of the semester? Students might--just to provide a few examples--learn how to focus research on a niche, think about the audience for their writing, develop products or services that would stretch their knowledge and skills, or learn the perils (and promise?) of affiliate marketing. They could discuss the ethics of outsourcing writing to folks on the other side of the world when many Americans are in need of work--just about any work--or the ethics of contracting with stay-at-home moms (one demographic that may be of interest to BlogHer readers) to have them write articles for $3 a pop, even though such a rate of pay likely means those moms are making less than minimum wage in some states. They might learn how writing a thoughtful blog on a niche no one else is covering--but which might be of interest to many--can suddenly make them "experts" in the eyes of the reporters who call them for comments on developments in their niche. This could, in turn, lead them to reflect on sources of information online and off, on expertise, and on their interest in exploring their niches for potential career paths.

I'm barely scratching the surface of this issue. If you'd like to read more about the intersection of entrepreneurship and education, I recommend the following resources:

What are your thoughts about the intersection of education and entrepreneurship?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox.

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