In 1858, a message from Queen Victoria to us President James Buchanan was the first official telegraph to cross a cable laid under the Atlantic; it was a message applauding its own transmission. Within decades, a worldwide system of cables was woven beneath the oceans, connecting a quarter of the earth’s landmass – the British Empire was at its pinnacle. Queen Victoria launched another imperialist project in 1858 when she chartered the University of London’s External Programme, the earliest correspondence learning institution in the world.
Like contemporary online education initiatives – such as mit and Harvard’s partnership, edX – the External Programme was invested with the promise of levelling social and economic hierarchies. Charles Dickens characterized it as the ‘People’s University’, ‘extending her hand to the young shoemaker who studies in his garret’. What the institution offered were study materials and a degree from London, regardless of where one lived, contingent on passing an examination based on those standards established in the English capital.
Today, edX has become a model – in spite of the fact that it has only offered one class, ‘Circuits and Electronics’ – for the adoption of online education into many universities’ business plans. A recent Wall Street Journal article on massive online courses noted that: ‘The substitution of technology (which is cheap) for labour (which is expensive) can vastly increase access to an elite-calibre education.’ Based on this logic, the University of Virginia fired its president in June for being sceptical about moving online too quickly; board members said they needed a leader who ‘embraced strategic dynamism rather than strategic planning’. In this ‘dynamic’ educational landscape, the faculty is ‘unbundled’ into a package of services – curriculum writing, instruction, advising, examination and assessment – that are provided by licensed content, inexpensive adjunct faculty or graduate students and private contractors. If the university has been the last institutional bastion for the Left, that position is being absolutely eliminated by this neoliberal restructuring of education – unsurprisingly under the banner of increased access.
This text was originally published in Frieze magazine (http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/new-schools/) alongside contributions from SOMA, Lucky PDF, Islington Mill Art Academy, MASS Alexandria, and The Silent University in a feature put together by Sam Thorne.