Silicon Valley goes to school – notes on Californian capitalism and the...

Silicon Valley goes to school – notes on Californian capitalism and the ‘disruption’ of public education


Neil Selwyn

Silicon ValleyThe entrepreneurial approach of Google, Facebook and their ilk is now increasingly touted as a means of addressing educational problems. But what does this mean for public education as we know it? Most importantly, is this something that educationalists should be welcoming or working against?

The rise of ‘Californian capitalism’

The British economist Will Hutton, wrote a passionate account of how a recent visit to Palo Alto had prompted him to reassess his views of how the world now works. After only a few days in the San Francisco Bay area, Hutton was led to conclude that the strain of ‘Californian capitalism’ that characterizes Silicon Valley institutions such as Google, Oracle and even Stanford University marks a significant shift in twenty-first century economics, politics, culture and society. As Hutton calls it, we all need to face up to a future that is based around West Coast ideals of the power of computing, entrepreneurialism and a risk-taking approach to investment.

Hutton’s argument centers on the observation that Californian capitalism is made distinct by the programming and hacking backgrounds of its main protagonists. He argues that an ability to write computer code (and preferably a familiarity with university-level computer science) is now a prerequisite to any aspiring entrepreneur becoming wealthy and influential, let alone being able to do good in the world and “enabling something momentous to happen”. This logic is certainly borne out by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Peter Thiel, Jack Dorsey et al. All of these high-tech billionaires are steeped in a Silicon Valley mindset where a faith in computational power and an ‘always-on’ networked way-of-life fuels a relentless focus on innovation and invention. This is a culture of all-night coding sessions, an endless succession of wildly ambitious start-ups (most of which quickly fail), accompanied by a mass of similarly computer-savvy venture capitalists and ‘angel investors’ eager to take a punt on the next ‘next big thing’.

While clearly motivated by the pursuit of profit, Californian capitalism needs to be seen as is a distinctly new attitude towards doing business. These are ventures that are based on big ideas, solving problems through coding, entrepreneurialism, openness, collaboration, learning through failure and a relentless ‘start-up’ optimism. There is also a sense of precariousness and the need to keep moving and experimenting – most evident in a constant desire to reinvest profits from past successes into new business propositions. This is a mindset that revels in the power of individuals rather than the state, and the creative potential of a manageable amount of renewal and disruption.

Perhaps most interestingly, Hutton’s article highlights the desire amongst many Silicon Valley protagonists to ‘make a difference’ as well as turn a healthy return to shareholders. While acknowledging the pitiful state of many public services in the state of California (as well as the aggressive tax avoidance strategies of companies such as Google), Hutton nevertheless enthuses over Silicon Valley’s “nobility of intent” and value-driven desire to engage with “immense” societal challenges. Beneath the speculative investment and high profile IPOs, Hutton’s report from this supposedly new frontier implies traces of an old-fashioned hippie (or perhaps even socialist) mentality …

 “… [where] successful entrepreneurship is about using frontier technologies to address human need and ambition. It understands it is part of society and owes a debt to the culture and public infrastructure that create it. Unless an entrepreneur is rooted in society, his or her chance of spotting needs and wants for which there is a market is very much reduced”.

The extra-curricular activities of the Silicon Valley set

Hutton’s analysis of Californian capitalism is certainly backed up by the words and deeds of the North American digerati. These sentiments are repeated continually the pages of Wired magazine, the TED talk circuit, the keynotes and blog postings from the likes of Jeff Jarvis, Clay Shirky, Chris Anderson et al. More tangibly, these sentiments are made manifest in the high-profile efforts of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to keep reinvesting in new areas of innovation and experimentation. The past five years have seen regular news reports of the latest ambitious pursuit of various new media billionaires. These have included Peter Thiel’s (PayPal) plans to develop a libertarian off-shore island in international waters; Google’s development of the driverless car; Elon Musk’s (Pay Pal) commercial space transportation company; Larry Page of Google’s quest to reverse the effects of ageing; and the many Silicon Valley companies financing the countercultural Burning Man festival.

In the popular imagination, the likes of Thiel, Page and Musk appear partly as Bond villains and partly as Howard Hughes type characters. These are well-resourced mavericks whose willingness to embark on audacious ventures is certainly impressive, even if their intentions and motivations are not wholly clear. Of course, these extra-curricular activities are not always as outlandish as the examples just outlined. The recent purchase of the Washington Post by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos marked an unexpected foray into publishing that nevertheless made strategic business sense for someone already involved in the book and e-reader industry. Mark Zuckerberg’s involvement in the founding of the political lobbying group (mainly concerning itself with matters of immigration reform and the oil and gas industry) is similarly as self-serving as it is publically-spirited. Conversely, the philanthropic activities of the major private foundations associated with the IT industry are much lauded – especially the work of the Gates Foundation in international development and others such as the Hewlett Foundation. All told, the vast resources and restless innovative spirit that fuelled the rapid development of the high-tech industry over the past thirty years is now making a significant impact in many other areas of society and politics.

While less celebrated than attempting to eradicate malaria or develop affordable forms of private space travel, one sustained area of interest for Silicon Valley ‘solutionism’ has been public education. Alongside global poverty, the environment and new forms of transportation, the reform of public education has constituted a notable focus for the extra-curricular attention of the Silicon Valley elite. While much of this activity is couched in the language of empowering future generations, education undeniably constitutes a major business opportunity for these private sector interests eager to extend and expand their ‘philanthro-capitalist’ remits. The acting deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education recently gave a conservative estimate that education represented a $5 trillion global marketplace. Clearly, then, there is a variety of motivations for private sector interests and investors – especially the followers of Californian capitalism just outlined – to become more involved with public education.

There are perhaps two main sets of concerns that need to be raised at this point. Firstly, there are many people working within public education who are yet to fully recognize the scale of these outside interventions. Moreover, while there might well be a number of potential gains from the increased educational activities of these outside interests, there are also a number of potentially problematic issues arising when the values and logic of public education meet the values and logic of the ‘Californian capitalism’ that Will Hutton describes. At the very least, these are issues that everyone currently working within education needs to be aware of and – most importantly – needs to be debating vigorously. As shall now be argued, the Silicon Valley view of what education should be and what education is for would appear to mark a distinct move away from the basic assumptions and values of many people working within the educational community at present. If nothing else, these shifts need to be more widely acknowledged and discussed, before the ‘Californication’ of public education becomes fully entrenched and unstoppable.

‘Education 2.0’ – the Silicon Valley approach to classroom reform

It perhaps not surprising that high-tech entrepreneurs feel uniquely qualified to get involved in the reform of public education. There has rarely been a time in regions such as North America, Europe or Australia when public education has not been in some sort of ‘crisis’ or being accused of falling short of acceptable standards. As such, public education can easily be seen as a long-standing ‘problem’ that has resoundingly failed to be solved by the state or other traditional educational interests. It therefore follows that the best chance of education being ‘fixed’ is through a heavy dose of outsider intervention and ‘out-of-the-box’ innovation. The justification for Silicon Valley-style involvement in public school and university systems therefore follows familiar lines. Firstly, ‘industrial era’ education is described as being variously ‘broken’, out-moded, and no longer ‘fit for purpose’. Secondly, digital technology is described as offering a ‘disruption’ to the established status quo and monopoly vested interests that are largely holding back the development of ‘twenty-first century’ forms of education provision. Finally, add a little ingenuity, imagination and sparkle of the sort that led to the development of Facebook, Google et al. and you might just have a perfect solution. As Sebastian Thrun, co-founder of online learning company Udacity Inc., bluntly put it: “Education is broken. Face it … it is so broken at so many ends, it requires a little bit of Silicon Valley magic”.

The recent involvement of Silicon Valley interests in education has been extensive and far-reaching. Most familiar are the well-established and vast global educational programs that all multinational IT companies boast – often under the guise of their philanthropic programs and ‘corporate social’ responsibilities. These activities range from the physical design and construction of ‘schools of the future’ to the development of teacher training programs, alternate curricula and – of course – the subsidized provision of computer hardware, software and infrastructure. Yet beyond these public-facing programs lies a range of other interventions and initiatives. Some of these interventions have been almost as ambitious and left-field as driverless cars and offshore islands. For example, Peter Thiel’s ‘Thiel Fellowship’ saw young people being paid $100,000 to drop out of college education and pursue their dreams by developing world-changing companies rather than “wasting their time at school and being burdened by incredible amounts of debt”. Other interventions have been notable primarily for their financial largesse. One of Mark Zuckerberg’s personal projects aside from Facebook is his ‘Start-up: Education’ foundation which oversees a number of educational interventions, not least Zuckerberg’s personal donation of $100 million to the Newark school district. These are certainly not commonplace actions in the usually under-funded and under-appreciated world of public education.

These headline examples notwithstanding, there are plenty of more modest examples of the Silicon Valley approach taking hold of the education reform agenda. Most insidious are the thousands of small ‘start-up’ companies – all offering niche innovative educational products and services. While vast in number, the lifecycle and impact of most of these ventures is inevitably of mayfly-like proportions. Nevertheless, the idea that a quick buck can be made from education persists, with hundreds of new ventures being pitched each year at meetings and festivals such as SXSW-Edu in Austin. Silicon Valley interests are also involved heavily as supporters and promoters of many recent educational technology developments such as ‘MOOCs’, ‘Digital Badges’, the ‘Flipped Classroom’ movement, the redesign of entire high schools along game-based principles and the now-popular notion of ‘twenty-first century skills’ – a mantra that has dominated discussions of education policy over the past five years. When taken as a whole, all these different activities constitute a substantial new agenda to reshape and redirect the nature of form of public education. As Kevin Carey has argued, the biggest would-be movers and shakers in education are no longer educators or academics, but hackers (and, of course, their financial backers).

Reasons to be cautious

Despite their affectations toward being ‘DIY’, ‘revolutionary’ and ‘disruptive’, all these examples could be seen as conforming to an emerging orthodoxy when it comes to changing contemporary education. Above all, these approaches are imbued clearly with many of the core values of Californian capitalism. In these terms, then, ‘education’ is framed as a discrete computational project – i.e. a set of variables that can be manipulated and programmed in a way that works around any ‘bugs’ in the system. As with most computational projects, there is a distinct preference for experimentation and learning through failure. Beneath the wildly ambitious start-up mentality is an expectation of low rates of success, tempered by the hope that perhaps one of the hundred flowers left to blossom might succeed. This knowing subversion of traditional business methods is coupled with a willingness to raise large amounts of funding and then play fast and loose with market forces – what some people have termed ‘punk capitalism’ or ‘cool capitalism’. These traits are combined with the ‘hacker ethic’ of extreme openness and a distrust of institutions and ‘experts’, alongside a libertarian belief in the values of personal freedoms and a hyper-individualization of action. All in all, this approach to education innovation, change and reform could be seen as marking a completely different approach to the top-down, heavily regulated and institutionalized monopoly of state-provided schooling and higher education. To any educational insider, ideas such as these are surely as terrifying as they might be thrilling. These are certainly different times for everyone involved in education.

Given the novelty and freshness of such thinking, it is little wonder that so many people have welcomed these attempts to ‘reboot’ education. Ideas such as the MOOC, the flipped-classroom and unschooling could well be seen as refreshingly imaginative takes on the age-old inefficiencies and inequalities that have beset public education systems and institutions. Yet amidst this rush towards reimagining education there are perhaps a few reasons to be cautious and circumspect. Two of the most serious sets of concerns relate to fundamental questions of what education is and what education is for – i.e. matters of educational governance and educational values.


i) A new governance of education?

First, then, is a need to question the extent to which Silicon Valley involvement might be undermining democratic processes of governance of education. The involvement and interest of major multinational, multi-billion dollar companies undeniably adds a touch of glamour and excitement to the usually dull backwaters of education policy and provision. The IT industry and new media interests therefore play a large part in setting the agendas for contemporary education – holding considerable sway over the definition of educational ‘problems’ and their attendant ‘solutions’. Put simply, politicians and policymakers will continue to listen when Bill Gates has something to say on the subject of education. Likewise, when Eric Schmitt (CEO of Google) goes around the world opining that computer programming and coding needs to be taught in schools, then many governments feel obliged to take note – as is evident in recent curriculum changes in countries such as England and Australia.

Thus is it not surprising to see Silicon Valley interests being increasingly involved in the formal and informal processes of education policymaking. This is being made possible by what Anthony Picciano and Joel Spring termed in a recent book as the ‘Swiss-cheese’ style of government that has grown up around education technology policymaking. Put simply, it could be argued that state and federal authorities have lost the ability to regulate (or even keep abreast of) what are now essentially “privatized government services”. Instead, companies such as Microsoft, Google and the like can be seen as shadow education ministries – holding sway over what goes on within classrooms and schoolhouses, with none of the accountability that one would expect of the equivalent public officials. Indeed, there is now considerable interchange of ideas, individuals and ideologies between government departments of education, philanthropic foundations, think-tanks, trade associations and the education divisions of big high-tech companies. The recently departed Director of the US Office of Educational Technology was previously Apple’s Director of Education. Tellingly, the Twitter message announcing her departure from public office was unequivocal in terms of its loyalties – ‘Homeward bound #siliconvalley #edtech’.


ii) New values for old?

Certainly, there are many advantages to the increased involvement of private sector interests in education.  Bill Gates, for one, has talked of a ‘virtuous cycle’ between technology entrepreneurs and classroom teachers. However, these relationships should not be seen as completely benign and altruistically motivated. Any private sector involvement in public education takes place for a reason – if not for the pursuit of profit, brand awareness or the engineering of future workforce skills, then certainly to engender education with different values and outcomes. A key question to consider, therefore, is to what extent these ‘new’ values and sensibilities are compatible with the traditional values and sensibilities of ‘public’ education.

For example, while one can celebrate the apparent freedom of the individual to ‘hack’ their way through education via experimentation, free-association and risk, questions need to be asked of whether loading all individuals with the responsibility for determining their education ‘success’ is the fairest means of ensuring that as many people as possible fulfill their potential. Furthermore, is education and learning something that one can afford to fail in repeatedly? Is the traditional educational philosophy of supporting learners to succeed no longer of merit? As a society, are we happy to treat education as an experiment which runs the risk of jeopardizing the life-chances of current learners in the hope of later eventual success? As Bill Gates recently reflected of many of his Foundation’s educational ventures, “it would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we won’t know for probably a decade”.

Questions also need to asked over the tendency to conceive education as a system of variables that can be manipulated and modeled like an especially complex computer-coding problem. Is this not an ultimately reductive approach to what is an infinitely complex and chaotic social situation? An associated concern here is what is being left out of the equations or algorithms – however complex – being used to model ‘education’? Furthermore, the willingness of many ‘eduprenuers’ to ‘unbundle’ education into thousands of separate constituent parts has the obvious consequence of supporting a commodity approach where learning is positioned as something that can be given a discrete value and exchanged. This might make sense in ‘freeing’ the consumption of education along market-led lines, but how does framing learners as ‘customers’ in this way fundamentally alter the relationship between educators and those being educated? Are we prepared to treat learning and education as a commodity like any other?

Serious questions therefore need to be asked of the forms of ‘education’ being advanced under the banner of the ‘innovation’, ‘disruption’ and ‘magic’ of the Silicon Valley approach. While they might not have been fully realized in every form of ‘industrial era’ education provision, there are a number of ‘public’ values that run the risk of being lost within the brave new world of Silicon Valley educational reform. Take, for example, the ideals of social cohesion, community, communal responsibility, collective good rather than individual gain. Take also, ideas of academic freedom and free dialogue, not to say the notions of equality of opportunity and even equality of outcomes. All told, serious questions need to be asked about what is being lost – as well as what is being gained – in our rush towards the rearranging and reshaping of public education along these new lines.


This is certainly not the first time that these concerns have been raised. During the mid 1990s, cultural commentators such as Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron drew attention towards ‘the Californian Ideology’, arguing that digital technologies were giving capitalist entrepreneurs “an inflated sense of their own resourcefulness in developing new ideas”. As Langdon Winner also argued during this period, much of the boom of the 1990s was being driven by an uncomfortable combination of cybernetic and libertarian philosophies. Now, twenty years later, these philosophies are coming home to roost in areas of the public sector such as education which are increasingly looking for quick, low-cost solutions in an era of austerity and cost cutting. As Joss Honn recently described, the surge of educational enthusiasm for an idea such as the MOOC is a clear example of “Californian Ideology made manifest through austerity measures”.

Whether one agrees or not with any of the concerns laid out in this article, it would seem reasonable to suggest that many of the new forms of education that come under the aegis of this Silicon Valley sensibility are based around decidedly different interests and ideologies than we are used to seeing in public education. These shifts in tone and emphasis may or may not be a ‘good thing’. Yet one thing should be clear – these are issues that require much more recognition, debate and scrutiny from within the educational establishment. So a number of difficult discussions now need to take place. Do those of us who have long labored within public education want to be working with – or working against – these new forms of education?  Are these reforms an either/or option, or can mutually beneficial compromises be reached? Are there any plausible alternatives, and how might they be developed? Regardless of the answers to such difficult questions, it makes no sense to simply ignore these reforms, or assume that they are wholly insignificant or even unthreatening. On the contrary, the Silicon Valley sensibility poses as significant a threat to current public provision of education as anything that has gone before it. This is something that the ‘education community’ needs to acknowledge and address as a matter of urgency.