In structure and content, fledgling Z Education Online is a radical school that aims to ‘realize a new world’
By Scott Harris / [email protected]
There are a few clues right from the outset that Z Education Online isn’t a typical distance learning opportunity.
First, there’s the list of classes available, with offerings including Participatory Society, Anarchisms Past and Future, Critical Perspectives on Corporate Media, Liberatory Lit: Imaginative Writing for Social Change and Family, Children and Sex: Elaborating a Kinship Vision.
Then there’s the structure of the school and its decision-making process, which emphasizes self-management of both faculty and students, and remuneration for faculty based in part on the duration and intensity the various faculty members themselves feel they’ve put into the classes they teach.
Best of all, there’s the tuition, which ranges from just $50 to $100 for a 10-week course.
It’s all part of a new radical online educational initiative being developed by the Massachusetts-based Z Communications (that’s zee, not zed), an alternative media group which over the past two decades has developed an impressive range of resources and tools for progressives.
Since 1987 they’ve published the independent political monthly Z Magazine and in 1994 added ZNet, a mammoth online clearinghouse of left politics that attracts some three million visitors each month, with regular contributions from the likes of Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and Mumia Abu-Jamal.
But, explains Chris Spannos, one of just five staff at Z Communications and himself an instructor at Z Education Online (ZEO), it was the popularity of yet another Z initiative that was the impetus behind starting ZEO.
“Our other big educational component is the Z Media Institute, which happens every two years,” he explains. “We take between 60 and 70 student applications and they all come here to Woods Hole, Massachusetts on Cape Cod and engage in a very intensive nine-day session with probably about 30 faculty members, mostly Z writers from around the world, so a very international participant base between student and faculty.”
While more than 700 students have attended ZMI since it started in 1994, taking a range of courses on radical politics, media training, organizing tactics and developing vision and strategies for social change, Z staff saw the need to make such offerings more widely available.
“Because that happens once every two years we decided this Z Education Online would provide more opportunity for education along the lines that we propose in all the other projects under Z Communications as a whole: vision and strategy, radical political theory, democratic workplace organization, mainstream media critiques, how to win as alternative media, alternative media structures, what it means to be alternative media, US foreign policy, economics, political economy, anti-racism, the whole gamut. We’re trying to propose a strategy and an analysis to realize a new world.”
A recent overhaul of the ZNet site made if possible to offer courses similar to those taken by a couple dozen students once every two years to anyone with an internet connection anywhere in the world on an ongoing basis.
“Being online makes it easier in a sense of opening up opportunities that didn’t exist,” Spannos says. “You don’t have a campus that everybody goes to—people come here to ZMI once every two years, but they can be anywhere to participate in Z Education Online.”
ZEO classes are offered through an open source course management system called Moodle, which was specifically designed for online learning and is used by many mainstream universities and colleges, including nearby MIT.
Through Moodle, faculty interact with registered students through a range of applications, posting weekly lectures in the form of essays, audio or video files, presenting students with questions and reading lists to guide their learning, and interacting with them though forums, live chats and wikis.
But while there’s a range of technical options available to faculty through Moodle, what they choose to use and how they go about structuring the class is up to them alone, as are almost all of the decisions about the class. It’s part of a conscious attempt to structure the school around an idea developed by Z founder Michael Albert and his collaborator Robin Hahnel of an alternative way to conceptualize work and the economy, which they termed participatory economics, or parecon.
“We tried to organize ZEO in such a way that would be close to the vision that we hold ourselves. So we have this vision of a participatory society, a participatory economics, and underlying that philosophy are the ideals of self-management, where people have a decision-making say in proportion to the degree that they are affected. Solidarity, where people care about each other, equity and diversity, the diverse outcomes for society in our media projects, diverse content in our education, diverse curriculum.”
The commitment to the parecon ideal of worker self-management also means that which courses will be taught are proposed by the faculty—right now made up primarily of long-time Z contributors—and if a course suggestion is rejected by Z staff working on ZEO, that decision can be appealed to the faculty as a whole and overturned.
“So there’s these interesting facets about how we’re approaching the educational model that we’re embarking on that’s very different than university courses and how curriculum is chosen for that,” Spannos says. “I don’t know of a single university where anybody can propose a course and be accepted or rejected but then have an appeals process to the rest of the faculty and it being approved. Basically the faculty are the decision makers.”
Students, too, are encouraged to organize into a council of their own to put forward suggestions for improvement to the courses and the school as a whole, and one suggestion, the need for regular “office hours” to give students the opportunity to interact with their instructors, has already been implemented.
Following an initial free trial run which attracted about 600 students, the first regular 10-week session of the school began on October 13, with approximately 150 students now taking part in 10 courses on vision and strategy, international relations, media and arts. The goal is to offer four 10-week semesters a year with an expanding list of course offerings. Spannos says the next semester will start early in the new year, likely in February or March.
While Spannos, who is teaching an introductory course on participatory society, admits it’s a modest start, he sees great potential in the project to someday provide large numbers of people with the tools and knowledge to be critical and active citizens.
“We have a pretty diverse range of courses and the idea is that we hope this will grow, we think there’s lots of potential and we hope it develops more and more. We’re still learning new ways to enhance the user experience—both for the faculty and for the students—to provide some form of interaction online that you usually would get more of on campus somewhere face-to-face with everybody else. Overcoming that hurdle in online education, as new as we are at it, it’s a challenge, but there are little tricks that we’re getting better at,” he says.
“It’s only our second time so how it will actually develop, it’s a little too soon to tell, but we’re hopeful.” V
For more information on Z Communications and Z Education Online, visit zmag.org.