At Nick Carr’s recommendation, I spent a good part of my last weekend of Spring Break reading Tim Wu’s The Master Switch. It’s an amazing piece of work, highlighting the historical cycling between openness and monopolistic control in radio, television, telephones, film and, of course, the Internet. I was incredibly impressed despite having read two other amazing books on communications technology relatively recently: The Information and Network Nation. [The current issue of the always terrific Lapham's Quarterly is on the same subject.]
Dedicated blogger that I am, I spent the whole time reading Wu thinking, “What are the ramifications of these concepts for education technology?” It was so useful to learn about the Kronos effect (the tendency of large companies to eat up smaller companies in order to forestall technological innovation which threatens their monopoly position) at just about the time Blackboard decided to buy out a couple of open source rivals. And thanks to Wu, I now think I finally understand what net neutrality is.
For my purposes though, I want to quote a very ordinary paragraph from Wu about the early film industry (p. 89, w/o the footnotes] and then explain why I think it’s actually really important for those of us in academia:
[William W.] Hodkinson [the founder of Paramount Pictures] believed in what is sometimes called craft, or authorial filmaking, wherein one creator did nearly everything, writing, directing, producing, and casting his own film. He was, in fact, among the original backers of a tradition that we identify now with directors like the Coen brothers, Peter Jackson, Woody Allen, and Francis Ford Coppola. In contrast [Adolph] Zukor [who took over from Hodkinson at Paramount] saw not craft but the latest methods of production as the true stock in trade. He would come to promote the “central producer” model, concentrating most of the decision-making authority in the producer rather than the director. With streamlined production and virtually guaranteed audiences, films could be grander and more elaborate than ever. It was a new idea for a cultural industry: there was no need to settle for the meagre profits of the nineteenth-century model still ruling the stage: with the twentieth-century methods of production, one could have a balance sheet to match.
That’s right, I’m not saying that professors are like Woody Allen because we’re all neurotic (although I certainly am). I’m saying that we are all Woody Allen because we are all auteurs. Our classes are a reflection of our visions. We write the script. We get to cast the books. We control what the audience sees and hears. I’d argue that this is by far the most satisfying aspect of working in academia because no matter how helpless the new age of austerity makes us feel, at least we can control our own classrooms.
Teaching online threatens that kind of control. For example, the university’s choice of an LMS determines what our students see and hear. In fact, it controls the entire nature of our interactions. More importantly, if Lasell College can tell professors exactly what parts of the LMS they must use, whatever control we have left is totally at the mercy of our employers. And while this post from Audrey Watters is a little bit over my head, the questions she suggests that administrations might start asking scare me to death because all the data that electronIc classrooms can provide might actually answer them:
What are students reading? What are they buying at the bookstore? What are they checking out of the library? How much time are they spending on course materials? How often do they interact with other students? What does that interaction entail? How often do they interact with faculty? What does that interaction entail? How do students respond to feedback? How’s attendance? How are grades — not just at the end of the term, but in an ongoing and real-time basis? What classes do students want to take? What classes should they take? What classes should the university offer? Can it build a recommendation engine to help make suggestions to students? What faculty should it hire? And what are those faculty doing?
While the privacy concerns she raises here certainly bother me, what scares me even more is the prospect of higher education being totally commodified. This would be triumph of commerce over art. While market forces certainly affect traditional education too, this level of commodification would be completely impossible in an all face-to-face world.
On the other hand, if there’s a lesson in Wu’s book it’s that technological walled gardens never last. Perhaps there’s another kind of online education, one that might make me want to rethink my attitude towards the whole practice. Imagine a world where professors could still be auteurs in their own electronic classrooms. They get to pick the LMS. They get to pick what bells and whistles they’ll use in class and can import new ones from outside the LMS if the ones on the Internet at large are better. They control the nature of the interactions between themselves and their students and can decide for themselves how and whether those interactions will be recorded.
“Boy, if life were only like this.”