You might not have caught it, but on September 5 The New York Times ran a story titled “So Bill Gates Has This Idea for a History Class…” The story talks about Gates’ ongoing partnership with David Christian, an Australian academic who’s “Big History” series caught Gates’ attention. With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the “Big History” concept has turned into a major initiative across America, as Gates has been pushing high schools and colleges to adopt the course, described in the article as “a multifaceted historical account of any given subject through a friendly user interface.” Apparently these efforts have been crowned with some success.
I haven’t seen any of the “Big History” course ware or the original course series dvds, so I can’t judge, but the description on face sounded interesting. In this day and age, we’re always trying to make our courses more cutting edge, more innovative–especially if “we” are young faculty anxious to make an impression on the job market. My first thought, then, was that there could be a couple things to learn from the project.
So, I was very interested to see Brian Sandberg’s blog post today, titled “The Problem with Bill Gates and ‘Big History.'” Sandberg’s critique comes down to two major points, connected by Gates choosing the what and the how of courses “based on what he personally finds intriguing”: 1) “This is education reform as entertainment,” and 2) “This dangerous model of educational ‘reform’ threatens to reduce education to a delivery device for corporate interests and whims, removing researchers and experts from curricular decision-making processes.”
I’d be interested to read more reactions to the NYT story, and to Gates’ initiative in general. Of course, the Foundation’s support of the Common Core system does not inspire confidence. But having observed technology-heavy curriculum development, I can assure you there there is no such thing as a “pure” curriculum development process free of external considerations. As soon as you lock onto a delivery system, a brand, a publisher, you’re in some way limiting innovation and development. Heck, even in non-technology driven curriculum development I’ve seen similar dynamics at work. So, on face, a tycoon’s enthusiasm for a particular type of curriculum or course doesn’t phase me one way or another, at least initially. On the other hand, having been a spectator to the collapse and/or scaling back of MOOC efforts at various schools around the country, and also having observed or read the rather ridiculous results of corporate-driven education policies, I’m not a believer either.
Ultimately, innovation costs money. It’s a sad fact of life, but patrons are as important these days as they were during the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras. So, before choosing sides in the “Big History” debate, I’d like more data and information.