Rat in a cage.

20 10 2013

I’m a terrible labor historian. My dissertation was actually about management labor policy rather than labor history itself. Furthermore, I almost never teach labor history anymore since it only gets about nine people in it. When I do, the students tend to come out further than the left than I am, which is probably the result of the reading rather than me. I do, however, know the historiography, which means I remember my David Montgomery well: Worker’s control of the shopfloor matters a lot.

Those of you who follow the remarkable Music for Deckchairs know that Kate and I have been arguing about MOOCs again, which is really quite remarkable as I thought we had reached the point that we pretty much agreed on this subject. I certainly agree with all of this:

To achieve most of the things that are good under these difficult conditions, some of the time we need to be online, because we need get out there to think together, and to find our fellow travellers. We do need to stop calling anything a MOOC, let alone everything. This hopeless label now actively prevents us from thinking about differences between a whole range of things because they have “online” in common, even as we try to reclassify them with enigmatic qualifiers like “x” and “c”. In this field, “x” really can be anything, so let’s just say that the problem is MOOC itself. It can’t be recuperated because in the past 12 months it’s been associated with too many toxic enthusiasms: educational colonialism, brand fetishism, and AI as a substitute for the subtle gift of time that humans share with each other.

I think our problem boils down to what lessons do we take from the breakdown of MOOC fetishism into the post-MOOC world. Kate, it seems to me, has something of a back to the future approach. Lord knows the original conception of a MOOC is better than what current and former members of the Stanford CS Department have been peddling the world, but I’m afraid that when you take even that comparatively benign Canadian concept and put it in the American context it will inevitably become weaponized. After all, being crowdsourced out of a job is no difference from losing your job to a superprofessor from the victim’s standpoint. That’s why I’ve become such a stickler for keeping technological innovation of any kind under the control of the faculty. If we’re not the ones controlling the experiment, then we will become the ones who are being experimented upon.

The experiment I’m talking about only marginally has to to do with MOOCs, or even education technology in general. I’m talking about the ongoing experiments designed to make higher education operate on a permanent austerity footing worldwide. Consider what’s happening in Great Britain. As Christopher Newfield explains in the course of reviewing a book about higher ed reform there for the LA Review of Books:

By the end of the book, the reader’s overwhelming impression is: first, the Cameron government has not freed up the higher education market but repeatedly intervened in it; second, the main financial effect will be higher costs to both British society and British students; third, the government’s real purpose was not to improve educational results but to make education resemble business; fourth, their desired outcome was to enable businesses to insert themselves between teacher and student, universities and their programs, to collect a toll.

There’s no better way to insert yourself between professors and their students than to mediate every point of contact between them through expensive, unnecessary educational technology. Yes, that technology might look cool. Yes, that technology might actually BE cool. However, what happens if they move your cheese or just make the consumption of that cheese so onerous that it no longer tastes good at all? As Kate points out, we both have tenure, which means that we’ll be the ones eating the same bad cheese for a very long time.

Is it any wonder then that I prefer escaping from the cage first before we decide which cheese is most satisfying for everybody involved?




4 responses

20 10 2013

Once disorientation in my first Canadian outing, in 2010, wore off, I had similar thoughts and wondered how many were already drooling over the commercial prospects and planning colonization (or weaponization as you put it). The slide away from faculty governance was already well underway and with it having much say in major changes. Was it due to abdication of responsibility (exemplified by acceptance of tier system abuses), corporate takeover or a combination of both?

MOOCs (and the iterations so increasingly varied as to make the original term meaningless) are way less scary than learning/learning management analytics and adaptive learning. It’s the product of that meetup that worries me far more… or would if I am still around

20 10 2013
Jonathan Rees


Don’t forget assessment. Who gets to decide what learning is? If that question is answered solely on the basis of what technology can measure then we’re all domed.

20 10 2013

Loving the idea momentarily that we might all be domed — that’s a little techno-dystopian slip right there.

But in all seriousness, I think the issue here is how we now get forward to a future that we craft. To me, we’re not best occupied defending one behemoth against another, as they clash in the skies overhead. But we might in interesting ways start to wonder what to make from the pieces.

I don’t think this is back to the future, so much as wondering what the future can now hold, that is more just.

28 10 2013

I recommend the Stefan Collini review of the same. The last paragraph really sums up my own feelings.


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