Why edtech is a labor issue.

26 10 2011

I still don’t feel like directly discussing that awful Harvard “Facebook in the classroom” article, but I will mention that the response to it that I liked the best came from Worst Professor Ever, who noted:

I know it seems cool to “disrupt” education if you’ve never had to stand up there and teach. But if you have, I think you can appreciate the irony of computer use being “disruptive” not in the newfangled positive sense of the word but in the old-fashioned sense, as in, not enabling good teaching to happen at all.

The explanation for that seemingly bizarre observation is pretty simple when you think about it: those who want to disrupt education aren’t really interested in educating anyone. They’re just interested in making money from education. Last time I checked, the monetary position of education at all levels worldwide wasn’t all that great. Where then, you may ask, do these people expect schools to find the money that they aim to make?

My answer to that question would be labor cost savings.

Coincidentally, I’ve been re-rereading Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works (start with the blog) to help me put all this into perspective. What Bousquet reminds me is that my concerns about the employment implications of educational technology are hardly original. They are also, if you remember that administrators are also managers, easily understandable.

“Technology,” Bousquet writes on p. 58 (and remember the book was published all the way back in 2008):

“fuels…an academic-capitalist fantasy of unlimited accumulation, dollars for credits nearly unmediated by faculty labor…This is really a version of one of the oldest fantasies in industrial history, the fantasy of profit without workers. If only the investor could build an entirely mechanized factory! With the push of a button, cars and snowboards and washing machines would come out the other end! The same dream animates academic management: with a mechanized higher ed, a line of tuition payers could be run through automated courses that provide them with the “necessary information,” and out the other end would emerge nurses! engineers! sports psychologists!”

If you doubt that administrators are more interested in saving money than the quality of education, Bousquet explains (p. 204) where adjuncts come from:

“Under the current system of academic work, the university clearly does not prefer the best or most experienced teachers; it prefers the cheapest teachers.”

Back in the day, Bousquet was (I wonder if he still is?) convinced that universities will keep a small cadre of tenured professors around to display in their promotional materials. He writes (p. 83):

As education is stripped down to the provision of information in a larger market share, price competition in that sector intensifies and the rate of profit plummets.

A few full-time Ph.D.s, in other words, can separate state universities from Trump University. However, if education technology means that all the professor has to do is run a computer program, the need for Ph.D.s in just about everything will dry up. Keeping those figurehead professors around for show will seem pretty expensive pretty fast.

What can we do about this? That’s easy! Don’t let education get stripped down to being just the provision of information. It’s a no-brainer that technology can impart specific information to students more “efficiently” than professors can, so competing on their terms would be like tilting at windmills. Instead, professors have to change the terms of the debate.

I’ve covered some of this before: Teach skills, not facts. Lose the multiple choice tests. Kill all the textbooks – not so that we can replace them with edu-tainment, but so we can teach using the 21st century tools that help us do our jobs better, not render our services obsolete.

But once you understand that there’s an entire system designed to degrade the conditions under which you work, you can do more. You can work to combat the conditions which that system depends upon. Technology that makes our lives easier is at best a band-aid and at worst the instrument of our own demise when there’s a class struggle going on out there.


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28 10 2011
What if I don’t want to teach out of your e-textbook? « More or Less Bunk

[…] textbooks in online classes. Yes, universities can afford a lot of shiny toys if they can manage to hold classes without professors, but it seems that e-learning providers can still make a pretty penny if they can break into the […]

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