Posted on Sep 18, 2022Read on

Open Education Serves Its Own Milieu

Note: This is very tech-centric, partially due to tech being more or less the only industry that really embraces open-education, but mostly due to it being the industry I’m familiar with. That said, I’m quite certain it’ll be similar for pretty much any other field.

There’s a certain milieu that leads to the “young 20-something PhD equivalents who have already started and sold multiple companies” that silicon valley VCs fall head-over-heels for. It’s characterized by the presence and encouragement of competitive math, competitive programming, startups, international science fairs, and similar extracurricular communities that encourage highly “accelerated” learning relative to public education. The milieu accelerates a youth’s learning far, far faster than any school could in the absence of such a milieu.

While life isn’t a race, it most certainly is a competition. And those who start within the milieu and whose personal circumstance meets some necessary conditions to take advantage of it - namely the absence of extreme poverty and strong parenting - are leagues “ahead” of those who don’t. So far ahead that, assuming they stay on their current trajectory, it’s extremely difficult for anyone who started outside the milieu to compete - they will always be “10 levels higher”.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say these individuals “had it made”. They work incredibly hard because the milieu does not help on its own - its benefits must be realized by hard work. I’m not trying to be defeatist about it either - those who don’t come from the milieu absolutely can become extremely high-performing experts in the tech industry too. What I am saying is that the milieu converts into very real advantages and is the seed of just as much educational inequality as we see in the wealthy east-coast elite and the Ivy League schools.

At a surface level, it might seem that this is not the case. It represents a transition to “meritocracy” where, in principle and in reality, the end result of one’s efforts are all that matters - minorities thrive in it, even ones who aren’t particularly wealthy. The milieu is actively supportive of anyone who’s able to “shine through the cracks” and show some grit. It also represents the beginnings of a departure from the industrial-era education system - a departure from the “assembly line for talent”, which provides very little freedom or encouragement for the kinds of learning that, not only is needed to solve the difficult problems we face as a species, but is deeply emblematic of the milieu. 

This is good. The milieu has spawned “open education”, examples of which include KhanAcademy, OCW, EdX, Coursera, and even a fully-fledged CS-degree-equivalent course complete with homework / projects crammed into a single github repo. For computer science in particular, we’re at the point where anyone with basic English proficiency and an internet connection can acquire the skill set equivalent to a CS degree at a top school for free. And at the same time, American software companies are starting to care very little about degrees. The milieu liberates its members from the assembly line they are placed upon at birth. 

So where does the educational inequality come from? It springs from the following fact: the milieu is a relatively small, densely connected, and often insular network that can be very alienating to outsiders. It is overwhelmingly urban, male, white and asian. Its presence is strong in very few geographic regions. It is not present in black or latino communities. It is not present in rural areas. It is not present in the slums. It is not present in the second and third world.

But the very people who benefit the most from open education are those who grow up within the milieu - the individuals who not only are encouraged to take full advantage of open education, but know that it exists in the first place. The individuals who are surrounded by others doing the same. The individuals whose parents, teachers, and/or mentors effectively support them when the going gets tough. The individuals for whom the endeavor does not engender cognitive dissonance with the milieu they find themselves within. The result is educational inequality. The result is that the people who “win” the meritocracy are overwhelmingly from similar backgrounds - in particular, backgrounds characterized by the milieu.

Of course, there are a small handful of people who are intrinsically motivated enough to pull through despite none of the factors I just listed being present. Indeed, these are precisely the stories that motivate the milieu’s existence. They often go something like this: a brilliant kid who lives in an Indian slum learns to code, gets a job at Google, and moves their entire family from poverty to the US with only a dial-up internet connection and a 10-year old PC. But they’re so rare that it’s disingenuous to suggest this is even close to the norm. Most of the time, those who “make it” spent a significant portion of their teenage years totally immersed in the Milieu in some way or another.

We must be honest that, despite all of the open education and opportunities that come from the milieu, it is not nearly as “neutral” as we often claim it does. We must recognize that open education platforms are disproportionately more beneficial to the very communities that created them. Don’t get me wrong, open education is good. It’s a giant leap forward. But the above makes a strong case for the following: open education isn’t the materials made freely available and easily discoverable via the internet, it’s the milieu that produces and consumes that content.

So if we really want “open education”, it is not sufficient to open and distribute instruction, content, practice, and materials - we must also open and distribute the milieu itself.