Democratic capitalism for online education

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

With the COVID-19 outbreak leading to widespread school closures, online education is more important than ever. But have you ever considered the fact that in online education, every student also generates teaching materials? As students take courses, their data are constantly being used to train and improve the machine learning models that underpin education services. However, while teachers can expect to be paid for their valuable work, students using online platforms receive no remuneration. What if this were to change?

A tool for solving this problem exists, and it has already been tested. Louis Kelso, the creator of the Employee Stock Ownership Plan, also developed the Consumer Stock Ownership Plan (CSOP), a method of corporate financing that enables consumers to buy an ownership interest in companies that consumers typically rely on. The CSOP, pioneered in the late 1950s and early 1960s to help farmers acquire essential chemical fertilizer at near production costs, is ideally suited for the digital age, for two reasons:

First, consumers rely heavily on a few dominant online platforms, as is also the case in online education. Platforms such as Zoom, Google for Education and Microsoft Teams are the backbone of this sector. During the COVID-19 pandemic, these platforms have been serving millions of schoolchildren and professionals. We argue that students (or their parents) should be allowed to buy an ownership interest in the online education platforms they use, rather than just paying for courses.

Second, by participating in courses, students provide the data that fuel AI models, thereby paving the way for exponential improvements in educational materials and generating profits for companies such as Zoom, Google, Microsoft. With the CSOP, students would benefit from their data not only directly, through data ownership, but also through dividends.

Providers benefit from learners’ data

It’s no coincidence that we are bringing up this topic in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. We recognize the essential role of online education in the toolbox of educators as they seek to mitigate the impact of social distancing and continue teaching.

But there’s more. Our careers have taken us to the intersection of AI, education and economics, and with this background, we are seeing a worrying trend that is eerily similar to what we are experiencing in the gig economy, but with far graver consequences for our society and democracy. Take Uber, as an example from another sector: As they serve their customers, Uber drivers generate the high-quality data that are fueling the development of autonomous vehicles. In a not too distant future, however, these human drivers will be replaced by their digital successors.

“Policymakers and elected officials, who are accountable to voters and understand cultural factors and educational requirements, should be the ones to establish guidelines for education.”

As we write this blog post, we are witnessing a chilling example from the education sector in the discovery that Zoom is secretly leaking user information to Facebook. Students and lecturers are unwittingly serving as the raw material for training ever more sophisticated artificial intelligence, although they have no stake in the systems they are helping to build and improve.

Artificial intelligence, in itself, is not a problem. In fact, we enthusiastically embrace the promise of mass personalized education. One of us has ADHD and would have benefited tremendously as a child from personalized digital instruction. And educators would surely welcome a helping hand from a digital assistant, as long as such resources don’t pose an existential threat to the educators’ livelihoods. That’s all very well, as long as learners, too, are taken into account.

Regulating the providers of educational resources

Let’s not forget that economic power means democratic power. A CSOP not only provides a framework that allows users to maintain capital ownership; it also serves as a foundation on which governance structures can be built.

Replacing Uber drivers with fully autonomous vehicles does not directly impact our society and democracy. Education, in contrast, profoundly shapes our value systems and worldviews. Education should not be in the hands of a few engineers employed by the dominant online education platforms. It is irresponsible to expect someone who is an expert in writing backend code to suddenly come up with educational reforms. Instead, policymakers and elected officials, who are accountable to voters and understand cultural factors and educational requirements, should be the ones to establish guidelines for education.

“The aim is to ensure that a new generation of innovators can thrive, while citizens retain control of education.”

Education is an essential component of any working democracy, and it must remain free and equitable. Left unchecked, artificial intelligence creates a “winner take all” economy. Powerful data-hoarding companies can consolidate their positions and fend off potential competition by rapidly improving their services at scale and automatically analyzing customer – or learner – data to exploit new opportunities. Potential competitors lacking access to data simply can’t keep up, even with an army of engineers.

Therefore, the way forward is to prevent data monopolies by ensuring personal ownership of data and preventing the concentration of data in a limited number of hands. The aim is not to punish brilliant entrepreneurs and investors whose innovations have democratized education and who, through their success, have naturally grown into quasi-monopolies. The aim is to ensure that a new generation of innovators can thrive, while citizens retain control of education.

Why do we need a Consumer Stock Ownership Plan (CSOP) for education?

Louis Kelso was a visionary who understood the importance of democratic capital ownership for a healthy, prospering society and economy. In the case of education, we already have capital to invest: our personal data. We and our children are not only consumers of online education; we also generate essential raw data. The CSOP provides a method that is ideally suited for a world with a limited number of dominant platforms.

While a CSOP encourages the concentration of data, which is the essential ingredient for automatically improving online services at scale, it also prevents the concentration of data ownership, opening the door to innovation and competition.

“We and our children are not only consumers of online education; we also generate essential raw data.”

What concrete steps could online education platforms take? We suggest converting existing subscription-based business models to a CSOP. At first, not much will change. But as time goes by, subscribers will reap the benefits of their investments. Perhaps more importantly, consumers – or, in the case of children, their parents or guardians – who also have a stake in the business will be able to help shape the curriculum. As a result, online education platforms may experience an increase in customer loyalty, and openness to further innovation in online education will grow.

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