How Tech is Re-imagining Education and Leaving Us Worst Off

Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

I’ll accept that I might be overly cynical of most things corporations do these days but pardon me if I don’t roll out the red carpet for Google’s professional training certificates. According to Kent Walker, senior vice-president of global affairs at Google, “College degrees are out of reach for many Americans, and you shouldn’t need a college diploma to have economic security.” On this we agree Kent. I don’t think you and Google are the solution. Google isn’t trying to disrupt higher education for the good of helping America recover and rebuild. That’s good branding.

It’s a consequence but the purpose of the program is to create employees that Google needs. History has a precedent for this. Job training was the responsibility of employers before Reagan decided we could do without certain “intellectual luxuries.” Among many other things Reaganomics has handed down to us it gave corporate managers unparalleled influence over the future of public education.

In a bid to make America more competitive in the world, the purpose of schools became more about creating good employees than producing an educated citizenship or even decent human beings. Big business is reaping what it sowed. Higher Education became a luxury few could afford. In turn companies like Google find themselves needing to fill that gap by teaching people the skills required to keep their doors open.

We’ve established that Google isn’t rolling out these certificates out of the goodness of their heart. I don’t expect them to. Like any company they are in the business of making money. The fact that these certificates benefit Google, however isn’t the issue if they are also creating opportunities and adding to the quality of life for people who would not otherwise have the means to access these job opportunities. But this is where we get short sighted in our praise.

At only six months in length and a fraction of the cost of a typical four year degree, these certificates will give students an easier entry point and the necessary skills for high paying and high growth fields at places like Google. And that is all that they’ll get. Instead of an education that gives people options in how to apply what they’ve learned, they’ll be learning a particular set of skills shaping them into a rounded cog that companies can plug into their profit making machines. How Neat!

Employee bargaining power is at an all time low. Unions in the United States represent just 10.8 percent of workers. Giving employees far less power in how, where, and what employment they can find. We don’t have enough data right now on how widespread acceptance will be for these certificates or how this new disruption will play out. Current trends have shown that such certificates, including ones on Coursera, have led to success in gaining jobs, but what happens when an employee wants to move on?

They have experience now, yes, but no other company is under obligation to accept a Google certificate as enough. Our friend Kent said it himself, “In our own hiring…” Other companies might even need their own certification. Their cogs are a different shape after all. “As higher education becomes more out of reach, corporations will be the gatekeepers of financial security.

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

Digging into career advancement further let’s take a look at one of the hallmarks of corporate upper management: the MBA. How will that pipeline work? Google can call their certifications equivalent to an undergraduate degree, but as we said no one else is obliged to play along.

Higher degrees are not the only option to career advancement, but we can see a strong correlation especially when it comes to getting into the hallowed halls of the C-Suite. We shouldn’t take it at face value that rather than trying to make public education more affordable it is acceptable that only those who have the means can access higher education and become our government and business leaders.

I am not saying that Google’s certificates are this pigeon holed. I would be glad to be wrong in my reservations. But if you look at the pattern as a whole corporations disrupting higher education is likely to lead to this scenario. Higher education is about more than getting a job. Learning requisite technical skills is important. Both of these things can be true. We have the concept of trade schools. We need both.

Not everyone wants to be a business owner, CEO, entrepreneur, what have you and they deserve to have a career that meets their financial needs and which they find fulfilling. Equally we shouldn’t accept that only the wealthy and often White will have the privilege of “intellectual luxuries.”

In essence we are creating a divide. We are creating one class of people who work. They learn enough to be able to serve the needs of corporations. And another class who have the luxury of an expanded version of purpose in life. A purpose that extends past preparing for a job. They learn to think critically, to explore ideas, and to lead others. Google said that 58% of IT Certificate learners identify as Black, Latino, female or veteran, all groups that are underrepresented in the tech industry. Look at that; we already know how these classes will break down.

What happens if we try to project this forward? How do these certificates stack up to how we see future work trends going? What we know is that most certificates are still geared towards entry level jobs. Routine labor no matter how specialized is on its way out the door. If tech companies can find a way to automate these jobs (and they are trying), they will.

Tech companies know this regardless of what they say to the contrary. What happens when people can’t bridge that chasm from the routine non-creative roles to creative leadership roles? They have certificates, yes. They have experience. But only in a very strict lane that is heading down a road of non-existence. Should this be a problem that companies have to address? Not necessarily. At the end of the day a company’s job is to make profits. Profit and the good of the people are not mutually exclusive but neither are they inherently tied together.

The inability to bridge the gap between the work that computers will be able to do and the work that only humans can do is one of the main problems in looking at education only from the perspective of job prep. Not everyone will need college to develop these skills, but we can’t deny that it helps in the critical thinking skills department.

At some point, people will need to learn how to think creatively, come up with new ideas and problem solve. Not how to follow a set system, a methodology, or if-then scenarios. All those human qualities that computers can’t replicate.

Disrupt higher learning sounds great in theory. Finding ways to allow for people to have more job opportunities that are higher paying and more fulfilling is something we should be striving for as a society. My concerns are the repercussions of letting corporations continue to have the power and influence to sway the conversation their way. We aren’t thinking critically and taking it for granted that people getting a job is all that they need to lead a successful a life.

Life is about more than contributing to a bottom line. Choosing to leave an underlying problem of access to higher education unaddressed by offering people enough to afford surviving should not be the ideal we work toward. Google might need bodies to fill a department, but is that what we need?

Kingston Breton

If you love what you read let me know — as a writer your feedback means the world to me. Come follow me on Instagram or continue the conversation over on my blog, The Revision Files.



Somewhere off contemplating what Plato would think of our walk back into the cave.

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Kingston Celine

Somewhere off contemplating what Plato would think of our walk back into the cave.