The word “Luddite” doesn’t mean what you think it means.

26 07 2012

Before I left Korea, I mentioned that I had started re-rereading E.P. Thompson’s monumental The Making of the English Working Class. As an Americanist, I read it originally not for the content, but for Thompson’s incredibly influential insights into the the mechanics of class formation. Since so many people throw the word Luddite around at anyone who questions whether technological change in higher education is always a good thing and the Luddites come up a lot in that book, I thought it might be nice to go back and look at the original Luddites again.

As I suspected, the Luddites were indeed a lot more complicated than their current caricature suggests. Here’s Thompson quoting a contemporary newspaper summarizing the philosophy behind their machine breaking in the cloth industry (p. 532):

“The machines, or frames…are not broken for being upon any new construction…but in consequence of goods being wrought upon them which are of little worth, are deceptive to the eye, are disreputable to the trade, and therefore pregnant with the seeds of its destruction.”

In other branches of the English textile industry, where the goods produced on machines were superior to those produced by hand, Luddites opened up negotiations to transition themselves into other work. They resorted to machine breaking only with those employers who refused to bargain with them.

Now I’m not advocating breaking anything, however maintaining quality and helping displaced workers transition into other jobs strikes me as ideas that ought to be celebrated rather than mocked. Instead, too many MOOC enthusiasts deny that professors operate under any of the constraints that other workers face at all. Leave it to Marc Bousquet to summarize everything I’ve been writing about online education on this blog over the last few months in just a few short sentences:

Well, the good intentions and featured best practices of Siemens and Downes exist in political and institutional realities. If institutions really wanted to sustain participatory learning, they would already be doing so, for instance, by reducing lectures and high-stakes testing, investing in teaching-intensive faculty and the like. Instead, driven less by cost concerns than a desire to standardize and control both faculty and curriculum, administrations rely more than ever on lectures and tests.

Heck, you could break my underlying philosophy on this subject down to the first sentence and a half there. Universities that are being run like businesses don’t care about the difference between good MOOCs and bad MOOCs. All they see are dollar signs. As a result, you’re going to get the least expensive, lowest quality option every time. Or as Tim Burke explains it:

MOOCs are damn interesting, you betcha, but seriously, if you think they’re about to solve the labor-intensivity of higher education tomorrow with no losses or costs in quality, you have a lot of learning to do.

He or she who foots the bills runs the show, and as long as that remains administrators, Coursera or the Gates Foundation the difference between a connectivist and a non-connectivist MOOC is really no difference at all.

But let’s stipulate that I’m wrong about about this. Suppose that all MOOCs end up being as interactive and noble as George Seimens describes here. This is where the other aspect of the actual Luddite philosophy applies.

Even if MOOCs turn out to be a very high quality product, their effect upon the employment prospects of existing and future college professors would be exactly the same. It’s their massiveness rather than their interactivity that makes this so. Scale online teaching up and good teachers with years of experience and small fortunes invested in their educations will be unemployed by definition.

High quality or low quality, if MOOCs are the future it’s high time that we professors to start looking out after our own interests during this technological transition now before it’s too late. That’s not akin to machine breaking. It’s just common sense.

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3 responses

26 07 2012
RAB

I’ve always respected the Luddites, and am one!
Thanks for the Bousquet comment–he’s always good.
Strong post!

12 11 2012
Mean Mr. Market. « More or Less Bunk

[...] it or not, I am not a socialist (not that there’s anything wrong with that). And for the 600th time, I’m not a Luddite either.* I simply think there are some places where market forces should [...]

18 03 2013
“Our house was our castle and our keep.” | More or Less Bunk

[...] Working Class. I already wrote about that book last summer when I read it again, but that was a post about what the word “Luddite” really means. A recent Guardian piece reminds me that [...]

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