Technology “yes,” solidarity “no.”

23 01 2013

Little did I know it while I was marking MLK Jr. Day by going to work (Thank you, State of Colorado), but it turns out this is Cathy Davidson Week at More or Less Bunk. Her thinking played a vital part in this post, and she’s one of the many extremely well-meaning co-authors/signees of the new Bill of Rights and Principles for Learners in a Digital Age.

The document contains many laudable ideas that I wholeheartedly endorse, like the right to privacy. However, it also contains this clause, which I don’t:

“The right to be teachers

In an online environment, teachers no longer need to be sole authority figures but instead should share responsibility with learners at almost every turn. Students can participate and shape one another’s learning through peer interaction, new content, enhancement of learning materials and by forming virtual and real-world networks. Students have the right to engaged participation in the construction of their own learning. Students are makers, doers, thinkers, contributors, not just passive recipients of someone else’s lecture notes or methods. They are critical contributors to their disciplines, fields, and to the larger enterprise of education.”

I know exactly what they mean when they say that teachers “no longer need to be the sole authority figures,” but there are already far too many college teachers for the number of jobs available in this digital age of ours. In the hands of the wrong people, this statement is inevitably going to be deliberately misinterpreted. “If students can be teachers,” the administrative hatchet-person or the edtech profiteer will say, “why should we pay you to teach at all?” Or to rephrase that as a variation of something Davidson might say, “Since you can be replaced by a computer, why shouldn’t we do so? After all, isn’t college too expensive as it is?”

It is hopelessly naive to think that this won’t happen to even the best teachers at all levels of academia. In fact, it already is. As Bob Samuels noted earlier today:

“At recent regent meetings, the faculty have simply sat back while outside corporations, governmental officials, and educationally clueless regents have bashed and downgraded everything we do. Even though the managers of the online programs argue that any change has to be faculty-driven, it is clear that the distance education agenda is being pushed by outside forces.”

To ignore those outside forces in a statement like this is to live under a rock. Unfortunately, the 70%+ of faculty employed on a contingent basis in higher education today have no rock under which they can hide.

Since I’m tenured and probably old enough to ride out this wave until retirement, I doubt I’ll be affected by the suicidal tendencies of some of my more technologically-oriented Twitter friends. It’s the reaction of the people early in their careers now, the grad students and newly-minted but underemployed Ph.Ds, that I don’t understand.

You think it’s hard to find a tenure-track job in the humanities now? Wait until MOOC-ification gets into high gear and it becomes widely acceptable for students to essentially teach themselves. Why you all aren’t screaming bloody murder at every opportunity is completely beyond me.




8 responses

23 01 2013

1) Because most of us who have or are working towards a PhD in the humanities are good at lying to ourselves, especially about the likelihood that we will the one to get whatever job there is.

2) Since education, especially graduate education, depends on new knowledge being generated, interpreted, and so on, under the new models, education will fall off until future generations will be stuck listening to old lectures and wondering why nothing new happens except in corporations, where all novelty is aimed at profit making.

23 01 2013
Leslie M-B

I had the same reaction to that paragraph about students being teachers. On the one hand, my students have been learning from each other for years, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not the majority player in teaching.

Our dean just asked for volunteers to explore credit-bearing MOOCs at Boise State. I immediately volunteered, not because I’m eager to teach a MOOC, but because I want to be part of the discourse about MOOCs at this institution.

23 01 2013

Ahh… coincidence: I was just over reading the document. My comment included the line, “Call me cranky, but what is a meaningful document without hearing from the opposition. If I were organizing this MOOCow shindig, I’d include Jonathon Rees” (+ link here)

…and then sold tickets…

23 01 2013
Jonathan Rees


Not sure I like the term “opposition.” Reminds me of what happened to the Anti-Federalists. How about “Informed Skeptics?”

23 01 2013

I must have been in a parliamentary frame of because “loyal opposition” was the expression that came to mind.

23 01 2013
Music for Deckchairs

Hi J
I think the manifesto itself is an interesting instance of what’s wrong with the whole situation, that’s throwing good thoughts after bad. A Bill of Rights is culturally limited, unenforceable feelgoodery. I wish it wasn’t, I wish we had any sense of how to constrain the massive profiteering that will go on once all this becomes legitimate. But we live in a world that can’t even meaningfully protect human rights about which there is no dispute at all, and to which most nations are signatories. Still, day after day, those rights are overwhelmed.
So will a Bill of Rights protect students, in a situation in which there is very little international consensus as to what their rights should be? Chances are it will put some educators on their best behaviour, who were already there. It will enable some venture capital backed companies to seem to be aligned with these values (and they might be, or they might not be, but they have practical business obligations to those who have invested in them not to set fire to the money).
Educational technology has created a global marketplace for branded kool aid way, way ahead of the regulatory instruments for insuring standards and safety.
Audrey Watters has a terrific piece on her thoughts and misgivings about this. For me, the value of the document is the conversation that it’s prompted, including here.

24 01 2013
Visions always belong to someone | Music for Deckchairs

[…] So it would be easy to walk past this moment, muttering.  It’s really too obvious to point out the cultural provenance of the plan, and Audrey Watters (who was in the room) has done a great job mapping out what and who was missing. Richard Hall has provided a powerful critique of the failure to acknowledge the power in play here. Everyone’s noticed the lack of a student voice. Advocates for adjuncts have questioned the lack of presence from feet-on-the-ground educators; and Jonathan Rees has pointed out the huge risk of advocating for disruption while losing sight of academic labour issues. […]

29 01 2013
MOOC providers are not our friends. « More or Less Bunk

[…] first version of my post about the Bill of Rights and Principles for Learners in a Digital Age had a long paragraph about Sebastian Thrun in it. It argued that despite his fervent denials, Thrun […]

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