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The Glass Forest

Let me start with two fairy tale images. First, imagine a huge wild boar with a foaming mouth and sturdy tusks and tiny, bloodshot eyes that look simultaneously shrewd and insane.

Now imagine a forest of living glass trees, each bough branching into thousands of delicate twigs that split the sunlight into rainbow halos. A single human touch can cause one of these trees to implode into a pile of transparent splinters.

These images come from two different stories about capitalism, each of which contains some truth and each of which can be profoundly misleading. In the first story, corporations are dangerous, amoral beasts that will trample or root up anything that comes between them and a profit. Their hunger makes them untrustworthy and ungovernable. One can hardly blame a forest ranger for wanting to trap them and pen them up.

In the second story, corporations constitute a fragile ecosystem that is easily damaged and hard to repair and inherently beautiful and worthy of protection. In this story, corporations depend on a delicate equilibrium of forces for their very existence. The forest ranger who protects glass trees must think carefully about every move she makes.

I find both of these stories useful. I think the credit crisis was caused in part by under-regulated wild boars doing insanely reckless things. The ecosystem of educational technology business, though, seems to me somewhat more like a glass forest. First, the pace of disruption is accelerating. Many apps and videos and tools and texts and even classes are now free. A company that wants to sell anything, whether to student, parent, teacher, school, college, or corporation, must have a product that is not just useful but significantly more useful than the tens of thousands of useful things that are free. Free stuff is great for its users, but it is also flattening corporations, destroying jobs and careers in publishing and journalism as well as college teaching, and making everyone in any job a little jumpy. And the free stuff is not always a perfect substitute for the stuff we used to pay for, either. A group of blogs is not the same thing as a corporation with forty news bureaus around the globe. It is great that anyone can publish a book, but it is sad that fewer and fewer authors get any true fact-checking or editorial assistance. Textbooks may be grossly overpriced and are often sold using questionable techniques, but that doesn't mean that it would be good if no one were able to make a living producing educational content of any kind. Making money in education requires more nimbleness than it used to. And raising money for education businesses is not easy. There have been a number of large, high-profile education investments by venture capitalists in the last two years, but many meritorious ideas are still going unfunded, and the enthusiasm of venture capitalists for a sector can erode quickly. Regulatory changes can also swiftly crush large numbers of trees into glass powder. Blackboard and the big textbook publishers may look like boars, but even they have to run harder and harder just to stay in the same place.

Of course corporations are not either wild boars or glass trees: they are composed of people, and those people have complex and often contradictory motives and beliefs. Very few of the entrepreneurs I have known have been motivated purely by money. Most of the successful ones are also motivated by a desire to change the world and by a private fascination with a particular kind of intellectual challenge. Many educational technology entrepreneurs, both for-profit and non-profit, are educators and students frustrated by the tools and services available to them: they set out to solve a problem for themselves. They are their own paradigmatic customers. At the same time, entrepreneurs are not fragile, immobile glass constructions, and they can move quickly. We should feel free to deploy either narrative, the glass forest or the wild boars, but we should be aware of the limitations of each, and hesitant to impugn the motives of others without a lot of specific evidence.

One good example of the interplay between these two stories about capitalism is the debate over the recent announcement by FlatWorld Knowledge. FlatWorld Knowledge just announced that it would no longer distribute free versions of its college textbooks, and some people are very disappointed and have suggested that FlatWorld is a tooth-gnashing evil boar that has betrayed the open educational resources movement. Stephen Downes expresses a more nuanced view. But Flatworld looks a lot more like a glass tree to me. They are producing high-quality textbooks that will cost less than those from most other publishers, and it would be a shame if they don't find a model that rewards all of their stakeholders, including authors and employees and, yes, even investors as well as students and teachers.


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