frieze magazine

keeping kids out of school and free from compulsory, curriculum-based, standardized education opens up an entire world of possibility – not only for the kids but for the parents too. i get so excited when i read articles like this one from frieze magazine . i hope you enjoy it too….

one of three essays from the frieze magazine article by a co-founder of the public school


The External Program, Los Angeles

Sean Dockray
An artist based in Los Angeles, USA. He is the co-founder of The Public School, Telic Arts Exchange and The External Program, an online education project due to be launched this autumn. 

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.

Perhaps there is a parallel here to Marx’s double freedom, whereby we are free to sell our labour and we are free from any control over the means of production. Our free access comes with institutions that are increasingly inaccessible, dominated by an unproductive administrative class, whose primary activity involves firing people and establishing lucrative intellectual property arrangements. Look at one of the massive open online courses (moocs, as they are known) with one teacher to 100,000 students (competing for visibility and grading each other’s work for free) to see the establishment of solid pyramidal structures, managed for profit by businessmen, lawyers and technicians.

A few years ago, the University of London decided that the name ‘External Programme’ sounded ‘out of date’, and so it was changed to the ‘International Programme’. This was a fortunate event for us at The Public School because it gave us a readymade name for our own new online learning project – the External Program, abbreviated as exP. The Public School was initiated in Los Angeles in 2007 as ‘a school with no curriculum’, which simply meant that the classes offered would not come from an institutional mission or disciplinary parameters, but from an open process where anyone could propose something that they wanted to learn about or teach. It was an engine for bringing small groups of people together, face-to-face.

In the past, The Public School has not only resisted moving into online education, some reasons for which are implicit in this essay, but has conceived of itself as an inversion of that very form. Rather than using the Internet to eliminate the classroom by broadcasting teaching outwards, The Public School uses the same technology as a platform for students and teachers to collectively develop a curriculum and organize classes, bringing people together into physical classrooms. The impulse to document seemed to reinforce the idea of a centre or origin, and so class documentation has been generally eliminated in favour of the idea that a group can collectively produce knowledge themselves without appealing to a higher, or central, authority.

Something now seems a bit self-satisfied by this position. After all, millions of people around the world are actually engaging with these forms of online learning. But they are forms that tend to exploit one’s paranoia about future employability and teach marketable skills or inculcate the viewer-student into the new religion of entrepreneurial, technological innovation. Where is the online educational space for learning for its own sake? For the development of critical thought? For the articulation and circulation of new concepts, languages and political possibilities? Contemporary distance education, bedeviled by the question of accreditation, seems totally incompatible with these questions. Instead we witness the survival of 19th- and early-20th-century colonial concerns over standardization, filtered through the Internet economy.

We are launching our External Program this autumn not simply as another player in the landscape of online education, but as a quasi-institution devoted to the study of its own conditions, and to ‘externalization’ in all its forms: the remote student body; passwords and profiles; contingent faculty; outsourced assessment systems; the move toward cloud computing; militarization of campuses; student loan debt; stress, depression and anxiety.

Gilles Deleuze observed in his ‘Postscript on Control Societies’ (1990) that ‘perpetual training tends to replace the school’ and that ‘young people strangely boast of being “motivated”’. This could not better describe our present moment in which one of the new, popular televisual genres that have emerged over the last few years is the video lecture – the elementary building block of online education. Interestingly, these videos are not simply broadcast out from the institution to the citizens beyond, but with growing frequency are consumed within the institutions themselves. Perhaps the reason that the original External Programme seems ‘out of date’ is precisely because it is no longer external or exceptional, but rather it describes the new normal condition of the university itself.