Outsourcing education and other issues

by Yule Heibel on July 21, 2005

Just when you thought that certain service sectors — like teaching, maybe? — are “safe” from outsourcing, you read that Outsourcing of education is India’s new catch:

Two New Delhi-based Indian companies – Educomp Datamatics and Career Launcher – are early entrants to this new outsourcing business. Many more are expected to join the race, industry experts said.

Career Launcher has imparted tuition to more than 800 students in the US since it began operations 10 months ago and Educomp – which started around the same time – has taught about 600 students.

“While the US faces a severe shortage of quality mathematics teachers, in India we have surplus skilled manpower. We just took the advantage of the available market,” said Santanu Prakash, chief executive officer of Educomp.

At present there are two platforms of imparting tuition through the Net – direct interaction with students and working as backhand office for some tutoring companies in US, industry experts explained.

The service is given through a software called “White Board” in both voice and text platforms. The student and teacher can see each other over the computer and talk on the headphone.

These companies provide their high-end technology driven education service and charge 20 to 35 dollar per hour to students ranging from kindergarten to the graduation level. [More…]

At the same time, we have other ventures that promise Adaptable personal e-learning from beginning to end. The article describes Alfanet, a company that “concentrates itself on the recently emerging market of e-learning, an area that will undoubtedly take advantage of the new technologies related with the internet, human interaction, and machine learning.” (From their website, but buried in a frame.) Ok, this is a European company, based (I believe) in Spain, and English is not their first language, so I’ll let the convoluted prose pass. For now. But, hello? Is it a market or an area that’s taking advantage of the new technologies? And either way, who benefits? Surely the market or the area, but not, it seems, the students. From the IST article’s description, Alfanet sounds like a template, which can be a simple and even very boring tool, yet it’s marketed as a magic bullet (for markets?, areas?, or …students? There are no magic bullets for students…). Listen up, if you’re “doing” e-learning development, can you please remember who your customers are? Put the students first, not “markets” or “areas.” Sheesh.

Lynn is a small city on Boston’s North Shore, the outer terminus of the Blue Line subway and a stop along the Rockport/ Gloucester and Ipswich commuter rail. Lynn was a fair resort town in the early 20th century, but fell on hard times while its neighbours further to the north clawed their way to real estate Parnassus. Swampscott and Marblehead became pricey ‘burbs, and while Beverly maintained a seedy-ish downtown core, it could boast of its mansion-bedecked Gold Coast in Beverly Farms and beyond. Lynn, on the other hand, became a racially diverse town, and many of the good white folks (sic) fled its public school system for private schools, or they moved away from Lynn altogether. (Salem — “witch city” — located between Beverly and Marblehead, north of Lynn, was the other North Shore town that became racially diverse. Almost every other town along the Rockport/ Gloucester and the Ipswich lines — the two diverge in Beverly, their last common stop — stayed lily-white.) Now Lynn’s public schools are eyeing online Advanced Placement courses in a bid to bring a higher level of challenge to the undoubtedly bright students in the system. Lynn has two high schools, and has some AP courses already, but online AP could allow them to offer more, and they might partner with The Virtual Highschool to bring more courses into the system:

If the city decides to go in that direction, it would join communities such as Boston, Brockton, Lawrence, Fall River, Worcester, Springfield, New Bedford, Somerville and Ware, where students will begin taking AP courses online next school year.

The communities have opted to offer the courses online because they can no longer afford to hire needed teachers to offer AP subjects in the classroom. Instead, a federal grant is allowing Massachusetts students to take free courses from Maynard-based Virtual High School. [More…]

What really interests me here is the concern expressed in the article by Trevor Packer, the executive director of the College Board’s Advanced Placement program. While high schools in the wealthier suburbs offer AP classes that allow students to have face-to-face contact and allow them to develop their speaking skills, the online version neglects that aspect of a student’s education entirely. Packer says he worries “about the loss of dialogue between a student and a teacher that is at the heart of classroom discussions.”

“Who speaks?” Who gets to speak? As usual, John Taylor Gatto has some interesting thoughts that relate to what we might call a missing component of active literacy in online delivery of “content” based on templates and checklists:

[The 1918 NEA Report “Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education”] assured mass production technocrats they would not have to deal with intolerable numbers of independent thinkers—thinkers stuffed with dangerous historical comparisons, who understood economics, who had insight into human nature through literary studies, who were made stoical or consensus-resistant by philosophy and religion, and given confidence and competence through liberal doses of duty, responsibility, and experience.

The appearance of Cardinal Principles signaled the triumph of forces which had been working since the 1890s to break the hold of complex reading, debate, and writing as the common heritage of children reared in America. Like the resourcefulness and rigors of character that small farming conveyed, complex and active literacy produces a kind of character antagonistic to hierarchical, expert-driven, class-based society. [More…]

(See also my September 4, 2004 entry on hearing a phone-in conference and interview with Gatto.)

On the one hand, simple electronic delivery of content can lead to independent thinkers taking it in, free from the coercion of group-think that occurs in classrooms or peer-groups. But on the other hand, if that content is packaged in such a way as to discourage critical thinking and dissent, it’s no good. And even if it does allow for critical thinking, to bring it out in a student might require a teacher who asks questions at the right time. Either way, e-learning is not another one-size-fits-all, let’s-make-a-template quick-fix.

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