Even though every article I write in this series is incredibly long, I always have to leave something out. Here are some of the other stories that were told about “online education” this year – stories I didn’t fit into part six in my year-end-series:

“Three Years In, Minerva’s Founder On For-Profits, Selectivity, and His Critics,” via Edsurge

It’s like Khan Academy, but for med school. Also via Edsurge

“Russian Underground Launches Online Courses in Card Fraud” via Info Security

“Schools Tap Secret Spectrum to Beam Free Internet to Students” via Wired

“Are Virtual Schools the Future?” via The Atlantic

“Boy, 8, drives to McDonald’s after learning how online” via WCTI12

Online Education and “Accessibility”: Students with Disabilities

I cut this from the main article... but I did not want to leave the story out altogether:

One of the myriad of stories told to explain and justify “personalized learning” goes something like this: what was once a practice reserved for students with special needs – namely “individualized education programs” – will now be extended for all students, thanks to new technologies that will allow “individualization” and “personalization” for all students.

That story co-exists with – is even told alongside – stories about the promise of vouchers, even though we know that voucher programs come with “hidden costs” for students with disabilities, as journalist Dana Goldstein described in The New York Times this year. By leaving public schools, that is, students must often give up their IDEA rights. (Don’t know what IDEA is? Don’t worry Neither did Betsy DeVos.)

That story co-exists with ongoing lawsuits against schools for failing to provide accessible technologies for students with disabilities.

In March, UC Berkeley announced that it would remove public access to more than 20,000 audio- and video-recordings of lectures, in response to a Department of Justice order that the school make its educational materials accessible to people with disabilities. Cathy Koshland, the vice chancellor for undergraduate education, said Berkeley would continue to work with edX to post open courses online. “Moving our content behind authentication allows us to better protect instructor intellectual property from ‘pirates’ who have reused content for personal profit without consent.” A weird claim, considering it was all openly-licensed.

edX had had its own run-in with the DOJ a few years ago over violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Its courses, according to a lawsuit filed by the National Association of the Deaf, discriminated by not providing captioning.

UC Berkeley had been posting video and audio versions of lectures online for decades – I wrote about that history a couple of years ago. And while much of this content pre-dated any interpretation of the ADA that could force schools to provide equitable access to these materials, even some of the more recent BerkeleyX material was still not ADA compliant.

To remove public access to content rather than make it accessible for people with disabilities was, to borrow a phrase from Wonkhe editor David Kernohan, “a very bad look.” But it was also a “very bad look” when the tech press and tech startups picked up on the story and used it to prove whatever point they wanted made: for Boing Boing, the story demonstrated the dangers of IP and DRM, for example. For a peer-to-peer file-sharing startup, it was an opportunity for a little PR. “20,000 World-class University Lectures Made Illegal, So We Irrevocably Mirrored Them,” the company LBRY claimed.

“You Are Not the Hero of This Story,” Washington State University’s Mike Caulfield retorted.

The headline is phrased in classic Hacker News style, and I get it. Hustlers gotta hustle. The post slug is even worse – the lectures have been “rescued”. UC Berkeley spent years of effort and millions of dollars producing and sharing these lectures, and somehow LBRY is the hero of the story.

If the company really loves creators as much as it says it does, maybe they could spend some time talking about the wonderful work that UC Berkeley has been doing in this area instead of portraying them as simply a point of failure in the story. Maybe they could talk about the quality of the content they are seeding to the network. And if they really want to help out the OER community, maybe instead of seeing people with disabilities as the villain of the story they could caption those videos and feed forward the love, like a good open citizen.

But both UC Berkeley’s actions and LBRY’s blog post are strikingly emblematic of the stories we are told about online education (and education technology more broadly). For all the talk about freedom and choice, online spaces are become less and less open and less and less accessible and less and less public spaces.

Audrey Watters


The Stories We Were Told about Education Technology (2017)

A Hack Education Project

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