C is for Commodification

16 07 2017

cocacola(Or P is for Profit)

Let’s say you identify a large and untapped market for a product that you manufacture. Unfortunately the market is in one of the world’s most economically depressed areas. In order to capture and monopolize the market you need to be able to deliver your product at the lowest possible cost to the maximum number of consumers. The smaller the unit of sale, but the more of them, the better. Aggressive marketing will be needed, of course, to persuade a sceptical and precarious client-base to sign up – and stay signed up. And those who are delivering the product should be paid as little as you can get away with: if they are relatively untrained, so much the better.

Soft drinks and cigarettes have been marketed to developing countries like this for decades. Now it is the turn of education. A recent report in The New York Times describes how a chain of low-cost private schools called Bridge International Academies has co-opted the practices of commodification to profit from the dire state of education in many parts of the developing world. As The Times reports:

It was founded in 2007 by [Shannon] May and her husband, Jay Kimmelman, along with a friend, Phil Frei. From early on, the founders’ plans for the world’s poor were audacious. ‘‘An aggressive start-up company that could figure out how to profitably deliver education at a high quality for less than $5 a month could radically disrupt the status quo in education for these 700 million children and ultimately create what could be a billion-dollar new global education company,’’ Kimmelman said in 2014.

Notice the key collocation that captures the essence of the business model: ‘to profitably deliver…’

The way they do this is to employ untrained teachers, give them a crash course, pay them less than public school teachers to work longer hours (which include recruitment drives among the local population), and then ‘deliver’ them their lesson plans by means of e-readers – lesson plans which are written by teams of content writers in the US who have never been near the local context. As the NYT describes it:

The e-reader all but guarantees that every instructor, despite his or her education or preparation level, has a lesson script ready for every class — an important tool in regions where teachers have few resources. But scripts can be confining, some teachers told me. And in some of the 20 or so Bridge classrooms I observed, pupils occasionally asked questions, but Bridge instructors ignored them. Teachers say that they are required to read the day’s script as written or risk a reprimand or eventual termination, and they do not have time to entertain questions. Bridge says that ‘‘teachers are required to reference the day’s teachers’ guide and to diligently work to ensure all material is covered in each lesson.’’

The Times correspondent was lucky enough to witness a lesson (reporters are discouraged from entering Bridge schools):

Inside the Bridge school in Kiserian, an hour’s drive from central Nairobi, students wore the same green uniforms and sat at attention behind the same rough wooden desks I saw in Kawan­gware. In front of a blackboard, a preschool teacher, Gladys Ngugi Nyambara, a thin woman also dressed in bright green, held a Bridge ‘‘teacher computer’’ that contained a recently downloaded lesson script on recognizing the ‘‘F’’ sound in common English words. Nyambara held up a picture of a fish and saw these words on the e-reader’s screen: What is this? (signal) Fish.

She gestured toward the class with the picture and delivered the line as precisely as she could. ‘‘What is this?’’ She snapped her fingers. ‘‘FEESSH.’’ She surveyed the 26 expectant faces in front of her. Her eyes went back to the script on the gray rectangular tablet. Listen. Say it the slow way. FISH. She followed the prompt. ‘‘Listen, class. This is a FEESSH.’’

There was a pause, and the teacher leaned over the e-reader. Our turn. Pupils say it the slow way. (signal) Fish. ‘‘Class, your turn.’’ She snapped her fingers again. ‘‘What is this?’’

After some uncertainty over whether to use ‘‘this’’ or ‘‘that,’’ the children began to dutifully respond. ‘‘This is a FEEEESH.’’

Nyambara pressed on, repeating the call-and-response five more times. ‘‘This is a FEESH. Now class?’’ Snap. ‘‘This is a FEESH,’’ responded the children, their voices moving from uncertainty to singsong, pleased to be catching on.

Needless to say, the delivery model has attracted some major corporate players who are already heavily invested in the economics of digitally-mediated commodification, Bill Gates, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Pearson being just a few. As The Times notes, ‘the company’s pitch [is] tailor-made for the new generation of tech-industry philanthropists, who are impatient to solve the world’s problems and who see unleashing the free market as the best way to create enduring social change.’

Hands Up

Contrast this with a project that is the polar opposite of Bridge in spirit, intent and educational philosophy, but which also addresses the needs of children (without disempowering their teachers) in very difficult circumstances. Nick Bilbrough’s initiative to use simple technology (Skype, Zoom) – not to deliver commodified lesson ‘MacNuggets’ at a price – but to freely create opportunities for learners to interact and be creative using English, supporting them and their teachers in such deprived situations as the Gaza Strip and Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, is called the Hands-Up Project.

Because it is not designed to make a profit, it has not attracted the attention of Bill Gates or Pearson, needless to say. But watch any of the videos that Nick has posted on his blog and you cannot help but be moved by the level of engagement – not to say the level of English – of these children.

How can we enlist more support for this project, without ‘unleashing the free market’ and the forces of commodification, I wonder?