For now, our own

In open online spaces, opening doors is not enough.

Maha Bali, ‘Reproducing marginality,’ September 2016

We so easily forget our bodies.

Mary Freer, ‘This body goes to work,’ August 2016

Over the last week I’ve been skirting a significant conversation begun by Maha Bali (“I don’t own my domain, I rent it“) and continued by Audrey Watters (“A domain of ones own in a post-ownership society“). Never far away is Andrew Rikard’s Edsurge post “Do I own my domain if you grade it?”

The question for me is how the idea of “own” works as a metaphor. It’s complicated enough as it is: my own, to own, owned, owned. We own our mistakes, we own our work, we own our politics, and none of this is quite like the way we own our homes—which for most of our working lives means some version of renting, in a funhouse world in which access to credit, like debt itself, has become an asset.

Conceptually, home ownership makes an ironic pass at all this, promising dominion over property that is actually quite a temporary thing in geohistorical time. Home ownership offers a misleading sense of permanence in relation to our provisional space in the world. A home that’s owned is always haunted by both its past and future. Far from sheltering us against the churn of things, it’s a daily reminder that we’re not here for long.

And inside our own homes where we might think of ourselves as free to do as we please, we remain legal subjects, subordinated to the local laws or ways of being to which our citizenship is bent. We house our human bodies, our social selves, our presentability. Our houses face the street; and behind the scenes, who knows what.

As legal subjects, we have modest rights to allow our homes to fall into disrepair, although these are limited by heritage considerations, public health and safety and so on. Zoning laws fence us in. Meanwhile there are all the social obligations of habitation to keep up: from the pragmatics of rent, rates, taxes, body corporate fees and utilities, to the labour of being a considerate neighbour, maintaining a yard, planting a tree that will outlive you. All this takes some skill, some literacy. No one really remembers how we learned to pay bills, or manage our garbage, but we do.

The implication that ownership of things is the beginning of practice of civic participation is something we both assume and overlook when we use ownership as a tech metaphor, without thinking ahead to use. It’s as if the ownership of a domain becomes an end in itself. Domain names are fetishised, like novelty license plates. They’re collectable and tradable, despite having no inherent functionality except to indicate an empty lot where something might be built, or a lot where something has been abandoned, that might be recaptured at a price for a new project. But achieving naming rights in the use of a domain doesn’t come with the skills you need to know what to do next, how to build what people will find if they search at those coordinates.

This is where I’ve come to in the conversation about whether personal domain ownership is a useful or socially equitable project for higher education. Maha’s post set off a deep and thoughtful exchange among some of higher education’s most experienced and engaged champions of student and personal blogging. Really, go read through those comments, they’re a model for the conversations we should have when we think about bringing tech innovation as a requirement into the lives of others.

As companion pieces, I read Maha’s further post on how things get paid for in Egypt; Audrey’ post on the impact of student debt on credit score; and two articles by Tressie McMillan Cottom, on the $20 principle and on preferential student recruitment as reparations for slavery (spoiler: it’s not reparations.) Then I fell into this exchange on Twitter about the critical importance of making small barriers to educational participation visible, kicked off by Robin deRosa reminding her students  to bring a credit card and working laptop to class.

To lower these barriers while keeping them visible, which is very much Robin’s project, we have to get much better at noticing them. We need to be scrupulous in attending to the assumptions that lie behind our metaphors, our proposals, our sense of being agents for change largely on the side of the good. We are teaching people with different life experience than our own–different educational capital, cultural capital, actual capital. I teach students for whom a missed shift at work may mean a lost job in a sinkhole local economy; a required online textbook with a digital key may prevent joining the class at all; a credit card may already be maxed or cut up; a laptop may be both so cheap and so broken that it’s hard to see through the cracked screen. All of these are actual barriers to participation that actual students have discussed with me in the last four weeks.

And it’s easy to say that we have policies or options for students who can’t do what we expect, and measures to show that they are in a tiny minority; but in reality we rarely check what disadvantage and/or risk comes with our Plan B. We don’t think nearly enough about students for whom the language of digital making is unfamiliar, or the demands of content generation are disempowering and demoralising. We don’t adequately accommodate the students who have poor internet access, exhausted data plans, or have to do everything through a second hand phone.

So when we say that it’s a good thing for students to own their domain, we need to ask what we mean by owning, and what we think home might be as a metaphor–especially given that the metaphor for our times is not home ownership, or even post-ownership; it’s homelessness.

It’s the global political scale of this homelessness, the mobility of whole populations for whom the modern projects of both nation and property have entirely fallen apart, that presses an anxiety of ownership on the rest of us. Having a home is more than a matter of shelter, it’s the presentation of a certain kind of survivorship, assessed in cultural competence, the assertion of literacy, the visible privilege of know-how. And like home ownership, domain ownership is the practice of insiders, survivors, using the skills and languages that flex their cultural power by asking to be taken entirely for granted, not just in terms of what appears on the screen but increasingly in terms of the coding that lies beneath it.

This weekend I walked past a house that I like. It’s in a gentrifying Sydney neighbourhood, defying the trend. It’s been taken over by an unpruned wisteria draped over its rotting balcony; curtains are never pulled back from its verandah doors. Who knows what’s inside? Who lets their property, in Sydney of all places, fall into this unproductive, vegetative state? But now there’s a notice stapled to the fence. Development is planned. The house will be demolished and replaced. There will be a plunge pool. This abandoned property will retake its place in the proper, and properly owned will become an asset to the whole neighbourhood in house price uplift.

Ownership can never be less of a public spectacle than this. It’s whole point is to be knowable by others, to turn exclusivity of access and control towards a model of social order and a vision of security that will miraculously extend to all, including those who are most obviously excluded. Owning and gentrifying are inseparable economic forces. So when we talk about securing a domain of one’s own, we’re also talking about this privatising vision of the proper—and we’re at risk of missing the fragile, important lesson that just as with homes, the security of ownership is always measured against the temporality of the bodies walking past.

Note: This blog is parked with Reclaim Hosting, for whom my admiration is unreserved. None of the questions I’m asking here are a criticism of their model.

In Palo Alto


I’m still in Palo Alto, and I’m none the wiser about the street sign program that asks locals to look up and think about the meaning of their city.*  I’ve now found eight different examples, and they’ve started to take on an anxious tone. The whole place feels like it’s worrying about something.

Would you say that things in your city are better or worse than they used to be? Do you ever find yourself longing for “the good old days”?

What sort of people are needed to make a city?

If you had to decide who could live in your city, what sort of people would you choose? Is there a particular sort of person you feel would be a ‘good fit’ for your city?

What, if anything, do you think living in your city says about the kind of person you are?

Thought experiment: replace city with university. University-as-a-city. What if we had to ask these questions as we move around our workplaces? Would this make us more or less likely to notice the people who find our universities inhospitable, difficult places to be?


Would you recommend your city to others?  Do you think of it as a good place to make a living? What sort of jobs do people in your city have? Are there good options for housing?

From the PPalo Alto Weeklyalo Alto Weekly, some answers to these questions. In 2012 the median household income was 33% higher than the rest of the county of Santa Clara in which it sits–rising from a 22% income gap in 2000. Of the 440 new housing units added since 2014, 78% were developed for those on “above moderate” incomes. The cost of a rental apartment is twice the county average. And this is the kicker: the median home price is $2.67 million.

People write in to the Palo Alto Weekly. They attend community meetings. They aren’t sure whether property owners should be able to subdivide and use “infill development” (granny flats) to solve the housing problem. “Granny units come with real live people living a full life in them, noise, social life, their friends visiting, air conditioning units and all.” But on the other hand, seniors who downsize can’t afford to stay in the area at all; and young workers who are living the employment dream find themselves priced out of their home town housing market, and still living at home with their parents.


People seem unsure about what’s causing the housing problem, especially in relation to the abundance of employment. Even young lawyers are leaving town in search of affordable real estate. How is this happening?

“A lot of us work in tech, and we can’t really leave because this is where the tech is.”

But there’s another view of the growth of tech employment around Palo Alto.

“Tech companies that keep importing people into this area, instead of growing in other areas that could use the jobs, are the ones causing the problems. Stop building, and they will stop coming.”


In her keynote yesterday on California’s history and future of technology imperialism at the #icdeunisa conference in Sun City, South Africa (yes, that Sun City), Audrey Watters maps out very carefully what all of this has to do with those of us who work in education, and she’s right that this brackets education technology with the longer history of Hollywood prospecting in foreign markets for profit.

So far this year, some $3.76 billion of venture capital has been invested in education technology – a record-setting figure. That money will change the landscape – that’s its intention.

She also tells a little known story about a proposal to change the landscape in a more literal way: to subdivide California into six smaller states, that would have created the wealthiest state in the US: Silicon Valley.

We in education would be naive, I think, to think that the designs that venture capitalists and technology entrepreneurs have for us would be any less radical than creating a new state.

As I read this powerful piece, I find myself wondering about the other stakeholders in this kind of subdivision, the ones on our side of the fence. In any higher education system that prides itself on competitive advancement, there are also those who profit from the concentration of resources, and excuse themselves from having to look at what happens elsewhere when they do. Venture capitalists and technology entrepreneurs are their natural kin, and we shouldn’t forget this.


Searching for a grocery store, we meet an older Palo Alto resident using a walker to get about. She seems to have groceries, so we ask her where they come from. She tells us that the seniors’ home takes them all to Trader Joe’s on a special bus. What does it mean that there are no corner stores here, nowhere to pop out and buy a loaf of bread?

In a main street store in Palo Alto there’s a cardigan on sale for $850.

And outside the Apple Store, what looks like a Halloween display turns out to be the most muted form of industrial protest I have ever seen. A smartly-dressed representative of the Carpenters 22 hands out a leaflet explaining that Apple are using non-union labour from Canada to get some things built in the valley, despite explicit promises not to do this. Inside the store, the Apple employees look out at us. There is nothing to see here.


Circuits art piece detailIn the middle of Palo Alto’s leafy, strollable downtown, there’s a large sculpture made of the usually hidden parts of all the stuff that makes it possible for us to do what we do. I’ve been looking at it for a couple of days, thinking about the #dlrn15 theme of making sense of higher education in terms of networks, and change practices.

What circuits isolate us from each other, all those of us who work in different ways in higher education? Can we imagine using this circuitry differently? This evening the first #dlrn15 participants showed up for a small pre-conference World Cafe event, to establish some common touchpoints, some problems and some provisional solutions that are worth thinking about and working towards together.

As I’m partly responsible for encouraging the focus on the experience of working in and with higher education, I was really glad to host that part of the discussion. We heard from adjuncts, students, administrators, professional staff and regular faculty, and we came to rest on a smallish, fixable problem: that it’s genuinely hard for institutions to see small innovative gestures and practical triumphs, and as a result strategic planning misses the opportunity to align with what is already valued and demonstrated to work. This is the question we developed as a starting point, and the always impressive David Jones took us a long way towards an elegant technical solution.

How do we notice and learn from small, continuous changes in the way we work, and feed these into institutional decision making?

Tomorrow we’ll think about how to answer it.

*Update: Paul-Olivier deHaye has found the answer. It’s part of Palo Alto’s wide ranging public art program. The artist is Anthony Discenza, and the text of all the questions is here.

What next for the LMS?

All of a sudden it’s LMS week* in mostly-US higher education. Nudged by the imminent Educause annual conference, there’s a whole pop-up festival of reflection on why we still have enterprise learning management systems—and why we have the ones we have.

Audrey Watters, D’Arcy NormanPhil Hill, Michael Feldstein, Jared Stein and Jonathan Rees have all contributed to this thoughtful and detailed conversation; anyone who thinks universities just woke up one day trapped inside a giant LMS dome really should read each of these at least. And Mike Caulfield has nailed one of the key problems: LMS features that don’t deliver the function associated with the name—in this case, the wiki tools in an LMS that rhymes with Borg.

As Audrey Watters rightly points out in her look over the wall at what lies beyond the LMS, the natural mode of LMS development is incremental, calibrated to the traditional operations of education institutions. The bottom line is this: content goes in, grades come out, and the whole thing can be flushed and repopulated with new learners the next time it runs. The LMS is particularly efficient at delivering sequential learning, and so it’s learner-centred in the same way that IKEA is customer-centred.

But the LMS story isn’t centrally about user experience. It’s a story about corporations, their investors, and their attention to higher education as a market. This week, George Kroner and his colleagues at the Edutechnica blog revisited their 2013 analysis of four countries in the global LMS marketplace, to see how the market share of key players has shifted over the past 12 months.

This is the state of things as a bar chart:

LMS 'global' market share data, Edutechnica blog
LMS ‘global’ market share data,

It’s a flattening visualisation that distorts the dollar value of the Australian market to an extraordinary degree, and it’s triggered a rerun of last year’s polite shoving between George Kroner and Allan Christie, General Manager of Blackboard’s ANZ operations, as to what counts as the Australian higher education market.

Put simply, it is generally accepted that there are 39 universities (38 public, 1 private) in Australia. (Allan Christie)

In short, I do not consider the list of the 39 universities to be a complete representation of higher education in Australia. (George Kroner)

The thing is, the entire Australian market is a hill of beans in comparison to the US. This is why we don’t belong on this misleading chart, but it’s also why our LMS market behaves the way it does, and so strongly favours the existing near-duopoly. In all but three of our generally agreed major institutions, one well known LMS has the advantage of incumbency, and the other well known LMS has the advantage of not being the incumbent, which is unpopular with its users in the same way that politicians are: generically. In a small system where everyone knows everyone, the influence of other institutions’ decisions is direct and intense. It tethers aspiration to conformism, and cautions against risk. Look at the neighbours, we say, they bought a Kia. Or the other one. Either way.

But this year, the disputed inclusion of Australia’s non-university providers is newly significant. The constitution of higher education in Australia is the subject of a substantial reform bill currently under Senate investigation (submissions to the Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment have just closed, and you can check them out here.) If the Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill passes, it will change the relationship between the generally agreed 39, and the less well understood mix of others who can award degrees but until now have been excluded from Commonwealth funding.

No one’s sure exactly how Australia’s universities will adapt to all this, or how the non-university providers will be able to take advantage of their access to funding previously reserved for university places. But it’s likely that over the next few years LMS selection in the whole higher education sector will be sensitised to the attraction and retention of students who have grown up online, who are facing higher levels of education debt, and who will be vigorously encouraged by price signalling into comparison shopping. They will encounter a university system with more feedback mechanisms, more features, more special offers, and more personalised interventions of all kinds. Even if we’re not yet at the stage of installing lazy rivers, our online environments will become potentially distinctive campus amenities just like our libraries. Their quality, efficiency, and accessibility will become important in new ways, both to students looking to move quickly through degrees and sub-degree programs, and to university leaders looking for ways to expand and secure new markets, while keeping the overheads from teaching as low as possible.

Meanwhile many senior executive decision-makers setting the strategic direction for the use of these systems will still come from the generation whose own undergraduate experience (and perhaps whose academic careers) avoided online learning altogether. This is one reason, I think, why they have a view of LMS use that is far more utopian than most academics or students. It’s also the reason that universities underestimate by a very long way the proportion of academic staff workload that should now be reserved for LMS resource development, not just in exceptional circumstances like LMS change implementation, but all the time.

The result of this failure over many years to recognise the time needed to use an LMS well means that we end up with the situation Audrey Watters describes:

The learning management system has shaped a generation’s view of education technology, and I’d contend, shaped it for the worst. It has shaped what many people think ed-tech looks like, how it works, whose needs it suits, what it can do, and why it would do so. The learning management system reflects the technological desires of administrators — it’s right there in the phrase. “Management.” It does not reflect the needs of teachers and learners.

This is right, but it’s not the consequence of essentially bad design. The LMS is specifically good at what universities need it to do. Universities have learning management systems for the same reason they have student information systems: because their core institutional business isn’t learning itself, but the governance of the processes that assure that learning has happened in agreed ways. Universities exist to award degrees, to the right people at the right time, and to do this responsibly they have to invest in the most robust administrative processes: enrolment management at one end, and lock tight records management at the other. Actual student learning is something they outsource to their academic faculty, who still achieve this with minimal management oversight except through feedback surveys.

But as we move towards a more competitive system, with tighter budgets and higher expectations for quality, we should probably notice that the LMS is also a performance monitoring system for teaching. Minimally this is being introduced through the development of institutional threshold standards for online learning practice, while the attention of analytics tools is technically towards the evidence of student engagement with learning. As more routine teaching shifts online, there is nothing whatsoever to inhibit the development of LMS analytics for staff performance evaluation—including of casual and sessional staff.

This is why even academics who find the LMS a pretty hopeless teaching environment need to keep an eye on its strategic development, and especially to pay close attention when institutions engage in the process of selecting a new LMS. Because behind all the blither about the transformation of the student learning experience, an enterprise level management system is exactly what it says on the tin.


* LMS week: it’s like Shark Week, only longer.


Seriously, Mister Jones

The good or bad faith with which power is exercised is irrelevant; raising the question on these terms will not be effective. Power cannot be shamed into limiting itself in this way. It seeks to limit us.

Jason Wilson,  “Moderation, speech and the strategy of silence”, Detritus

You know something’s happening/and it’s happening without you/yes it is/Mister Jones

Bob Dylan, “Ballad of a Thin Man”, this beautiful live version

I’ve been thinking a bit more about Steve Wheeler’s invitation to discuss whether jokes are a good way to promote discussion of serious topics, and I’m going to take him seriously for precisely one minute and add something to what I wrote yesterday.

Three reasons, all personal, why I wouldn’t make those jokes myself. First, since I’ve been writing about the relationship between illness and overwork, I’ve been contacted by people working in education from all over the map, all saying that they recognise in themselves or their colleagues some aspect of the neglect of self that this involves: the sense of panic, despair and exhaustion; the relationships stretched to snapping point; and sometimes full blown illness. They really do have their heads in their hands, like the photo Steve used of himself in his prank. And I have to say that those of us whose illness is physical, especially of the kind that scares the underpants off everyone around us, fare much better in terms of other people’s cheap jokes than those who are wrestling (often in secret) with mental health. Because mental health still fuels the metaphors of everyday life. It’s ground right into the language of joking around, and I really can’t imagine how it feels to have to navigate this.

Secondly, at the end of last year, when I was still flapping about like a bird that has flown into a plate glass window with “cancer” etched on it, I came across Francesca Milliken, who was just at that moment starting her own blog about her daily experience of living with clinical depression in its most depleting extreme.  I’ve followed her writing ever since, and I’m really a huge fan, because of the clarity and courage with which she lays out what she’s here to say. And that’s why jokes about clinical depression can’t sit well with me, because when you say it, I see this person. And this one. And this one.  And this one.

Thirdly, I’ve followed Audrey Watters since I first started writing online, for her frankly indispensable service to education blogging. Through her and many other women tech writers or activists, I’ve learned that joking about online threats to bloggers truly doesn’t work for me either. Because:

So for these three reasons, it just doesn’t seem to me that there’s a serious issue on the planet that’s worth trivialising what other people have to live with, when we have instead an opportunity to care for each other, and to speak without clutter about the fact that the things in Steve Wheeler’s post are serious.

Should this cramp Steve Wheeler’s style?  No, of course not. I’m not his mother.

But I now realise that what troubled me about his prank goes a bit deeper; it connects to the very odd political culture in Australia at the moment. So I’ve been thinking back to Jason Wilson’s beautiful essay on the proposed repeal of the 18C provisions in Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act. These provisions set out that we have a high standard in Australia that makes it an offence to offend, insult or humiliate others on the basis of race. And now, with the considerable hubris of its thumping political majority, our new conservative Government is proposing that these amount to a sanction against “hurt feelings”—even though this suggestion has been robustly tested in law and found to be as daft as it sounds.

When I first read Jason’s essay last year, the bit that really stayed with me was this simple advice: power cannot be shamed into limiting itself.

It came back to me yesterday because it’s such a solid and intelligent caution against letting frustration be the compass to your reactions when dealing with conservative thought.  That’s one compass that will always be spinning, because it is in the very nature of privilege to be able to maintain a dizzying range of positions all at once.

And that’s exactly why privilege also cannot be shamed into recognising itself.

This is the painful lesson played out again and again in coordinated Twitter activism, for example. #notyourAsiansidekick, #CancelColbert, #destroythejoint: these campaigns build solidarity among the exhausted and frustrated, but rarely achieve reflection or change in the expression of privilege itself. In fact, mostly the opposite: they trigger a doubling down on the original whatever, often in the form of a patronising explanation of what was intended and how life woks, in case the sophisticated nature of privilege has somehow slipped by those who criticise its operation.

None of this is new, or personal. It’s the well established set of routines that continuously polish the dance floors on which privilege performs. When I read yesterday that Steve Wheeler, oddly enough choosing Bon Stewart’s own words from her comment on this blog, is prepared to “own the post and be accountable for it”, I found myself humming Bob Dylan.  And then suddenly I remembered a very old article by film theorist Laura Mulvey. In “You Don’t Know What You’re Doing, Do You, Mr Jones?” (1973), Mulvey riffed on the lyrics of “Ballad of a Thin Man” to rebuke a complicated pop art joke based on making the bodies of women into furniture — a joke that as it happens was recently reprised as some kind of racial satire, and then defended all over again. Because, you know, joke.

So none of this is new. It’s the platform from which conservative thought launches its banal, recurrent manifesto: the double-back-flip vision of privilege as victim. It’s how people for whom the dice of privilege have been loaded to win every game get to advise others to stay hopeful that this is not actually how things are. And this is how privilege continually serves up to others, as Tressie McMillan Cottom puts it in her outstanding essay on hope as the ruse of progressive thought, “the cornbread that turns to shit in your mouth.”

So this is how privilege gets to feel responsible, heroic, misunderstood, and sorry for itself, all at once.

And at the moment, for some quite weird reasons, we’re seeing this dredged up conservative woundedness all over the place—in politics, in corporate leadership, in entertainment, and online.

To me, both Jason Wilson and Tressie McMillan Cottom are right about the practical mechanics of it. Jason Wilson talks about the strengthening of power through “pantomimes of accountability”, in a way that matches up to Tressie McMillan Cottom’s description of the “solicitors of hopefulness” policing the same agenda. Never having to say you’re sorry means that the privileged continually get to define just how much they’re willing to share, how much accountability is just enough, how much hope will do.

But even though Mister Jones is all around us, in recurring multiples like Agent Smith, there are signs of change happening without him. There are people everywhere writing back, stepping up, and giving their own human time to indicate that they care for each other, and will risk their own convenience to make a stand. (Looking at you, Bill Ryan.) And of course, these include all the people who wrote in good faith to express concern about Steve Wheeler’s apparent disclosures of trouble, those who missed his joke, to whom I just want to say: don’t change a thing because you really are part of something good, and we’re all here with you.

So there’s every reason this morning for optimism because there are so many of us ready to say: enough, we’re done with this. The serious fault lines of privilege aren’t between one online writer and another, one educated blogger and another. They’re the daylight between all of us and the people whose lives are being trashed by the global economy, by environmental damage, by incarceration, by the staggering cruelty of refugee camps, by preventable disease, by both underemployment and overwork, and by the sense that there is nothing the powerful are prepared to do about this beyond snarking at each other for the win.

And the repeal of our Racial Discrimination Act is now actively in the public consultation phase. Australian readers, you can write in and say what you think.

Pieces of the sky

None of this is inevitable — not MOOCs, not funding cuts, not the death of the giant brick-and-mortar research university or the death of the small liberal arts college, no matter how gleefully the libertarians in Silicon Valley rub their hands as they craft their hyperbolic narratives about the end of the university and the promise of education technology — all their stories about innovation and doom and profit.

Audrey Watters,  minding the future, 15 Oct 2013

Normality’s threatened by the monster” movies sell us a proposition about the human response to threat. Whether we’re facing sharks, aliens or legumes, they tell us that the drama will be extended by people who don’t get it. Some fail to act because they find the risks too preposterous to accept; more venally they engage in a cover up in order to protect their own short-term business interests. Then there are crowds who get so excited and optimistic about change that they welcome the end of the world by partying on rooftops with placards.

Over the last couple of days I’ve found myself skirmishing with Jonathan Rees in a way that makes me wonder which of these groups he thinks I belong to. Round and round we’ve gone, more or less like this:

It’s the most we’ve disagreed since we first clashed over whether doing stuff online is the end of the world as we know it.  And if you’re called revisionist by a historian, you need to pay attention.  But I think what we disagree on is what we’re defending.  Jonathan and I both occupy tenured positions.  That we have jobs at all is thanks to the willingness of our adjunct colleagues to keep our institutions running. There’s so much wrong here I can no longer see the difference between Coursera and my local university. Both claim transformative effects, both seek to maximise market share using minimum labor costs. Jonathan, who is a labor historian and activist, takes a different view, that he expresses much better than I can. But the business bottom line is that he and I depend in our day jobs on labor that is exploited, and people that are harmed by this, in complex, awful, obvious ways.

So there’s that.

Then I went back to the post that Jonathan threw up as evidence that I’ve been some kind of MOOC apologist, and found there isn’t anything I’d say differently now. This is what I think:

  1. Sebastian Thrun’s argument that there will be 10 universities left in 50 years time reduces education to content in a way that fails to understand how limited and provisional content is proving to be. As Patrick Masson points out over and over, the Internet is the only MOOC we’ll ever need, if content is the thing.  Audrey Watters’ inspiring response to Thrun’s miserable vision also clearly explains why we should resist this banal reduction.
  2. Content is culturally distinctive and locally relevant, but neither of these make it economically sensible to produce locally. Sometimes I think you have to live in import-dependent cultural markets to get why this is so important.  Australian filmmakers certainly know a thing or two about Sebastian Thrun’s prediction. So we need to take seriously the public good arguments for the preservation of locally relevant educational content, but we can’t do this simply by forcing a diet of local produce on the consumer. Just as we have had to with movies, we need to plan for market failure, because anything else really does involve heads and sand.
  3. To preserve the opportunity to learn locally against the logic of market and massification, we need to co-produce regionally and internationally. Leading Australian universities who’ve taken the FOMO route and partnered with VC-funded providers suggest that Coursera has pitched its exclusive club strategy well; and FutureLearn is following the same path. But this isn’t the only model. It now makes sense to get together those who have most to gain if we change the way status itself is calculated and horse-traded: the world’s small-economy regional education providers.
  4. To understand what locally relevant learning could mean in transnational partnerships we might look at the ways in which UNESCO have framed cultural diversity as critical to the health of the world’s overall cultural system.  Of course, the US hasn’t lobbied enthusiastically for the protection of cultural diversity, but France and Canada have both played a leading role in encouraging us to think beyond the nation as the most important player here.  Let’s work together with people who think as we do.
  5. The world’s knowledge isn’t a resource, it’s the ocean that connects us. This means that it’s much more than just a source of fish for powerful nations to trawl and trade. We all share cooperatively in its health, and we are all responsible for its depletion.

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.

Yesterday I sat outside watching smoke haze from catastrophic bushfires drift over the place where I live.  The fires are a very long away from here, but the burned gum leaves are falling in my yard.  They’re visitations from a terrible struggle that someone else just went through, somewhere else, not me.  But in falling here they make clear, like pollution or rising sea levels or global finances, that we’re in this time together.

I was waiting to connect to a small live online conversation with educators from Canada, New Zealand and the US, who are all working together in an online course for open educators that’s the first put out by a Canadian start-up, Wide World Ed.  It’s six weeks of talking and thinking, and it’s not all that M, nor entirely O. It’s also not necessarily C.  But it’s online, and that’s how come I’m in it.

Maybe in the rush to market we’ve all forgotten how to acknowledge that live online presence of other people still feels magical and strange, like falling leaves from somewhere else.  As I listened to the sounds of someone typing at a keyboard after midnight on the other side of the world, I realised that I’m still a believer in what this can mean for locally relevant education.

I just no longer think universities are the best or only way to let this happen.

This is written in gratitude for all the other writers like Jonathan who help me make sense of MOOCs, but especially Melonie Fullick, who was on it very early.

For all to understand

UK universities should eagerly seize the opportunity to widen their impact and support the OU by contributing material to FutureLearn rather than getting locked into one of the US platforms. This is an arena where the UK has huge worldwide potential.

(House of Lords, Grand Committee, July 24 2013)

So FutureLearn has finally launched, to much hoopla. The Code of Conduct, which all users are required to accept in order to sign up, contains 13 items, and they’re mostly standard, although #12 manages to be both demoralising and confusing: “I understand that I am a FutureLearner and therefore do not have any privileges that a student of the university running the course would.”  OK, then.

Then there’s something about promising not to give your contact details to anyone, which I’m not sure is FutureLearn’s business. And being British (see above), FutureLearn puts quotes around “spam”, which does bring Monty Python to mind::

But much more serious than the clumsy overreach on contact details, or the disconnect between the chirpy “FutureLearner” and the entitlements that go with the badge, is the final vow that “I will always post in English to enable all to understand (the FutureLearn community’s language is English)”.

There’s so much wrong with this, it’s hard to know where to begin.

No one’s denying that English is a major global language. In the delicate world system of fragile and robust languages, English is an apex predator. It’s unthinkable that we could reverse the cultural damage it has done already, and instead we are left to make the best of a situation in which business, diplomacy and education is conducted in English even between people for whom English is a second or third language.

This is one of the most difficult hurdles for students who travel to Anglophone universities to study in a language other than the one in which they think and dream. English language testing is politically and economically problematic, and time and again students wash up in classes for which they are underprepared, and that they struggle to complete. Even when they are successful in learning in English, we know that language operates to constrain what can be thought. By requiring so many learners to forego the nuance and capacity of the languages in which they are skilled, we also require them to think less capably, and to approach problems in a more formulaic way than they might if they could bring the full range of their own language expertise to bear on the questions that we ask.

There are straightforward reasons why we have to do this, and mostly we leave it at that: a necessary deficit, that improvements in translation software might gradually help us address.

But FutureLearn have taken this a step further: in celebrating English as a community virtue, their code of conduct requires students not to post in other languages at all, even though it’s in the nature of online participation in massive courses that learners are mostly talking to each other.  It’s simply unthinkable that a university would require this.  In fact, there are benefits to this happening even in front of the baffled monolingual English speakers. In the MOOCs I’ve enrolled in, it’s been genuinely engaging to watch small groups of specific language learners form and tackle the subject material together, translating and retranslating into many other languages. That’s the point of global education, isn’t it?

And it’s also a valid introduction to the realities of the professional futures to which many of our students aspire. I have two colleagues who speak Finnish.  Listening to them talk to each other is a constant reminder that there’s a bigger world than the one I see out of my window; from them I learn about the ideas and concepts that are particular to English, that other languages haven’t found valuable to develop. This is exactly how we figure out that our perspective is not inevitable or superior, after all.

So why have FutureLearn added their English-only clause? None of the explanations are flattering. At best, they didn’t realise that the instinctual response could be, as Audrey Watters put it briskly: “Fuck. Empire.”  It’s hard to believe that this could really be a strategic effort to propagate world English, even as part of the “trade follows the MOOCs” position that FutureLearn and its government backers have adopted, because English really doesn’t need that kind of help.  But there’s another explanation, that raises an interesting possibility.

Researchers noticed several years ago that online forums offered considerable efficiencies over other sampling methods, by forming massive spontaneous self-transcribing focus groups that have implicitly foregone their right to give consent to being quoted. Although there are now ethical protocols in place to limit the exploitation of online discussion on social networks as data, there are no real sanctions on users who do this.  Certainly there are commercial researchers busy analysing what people say about their products or their companies online, and in all of this it’s very helpful to minimise the number of languages used. The situation with MOOCs and research isn’t yet clear, given the tendency of MOOC terms and conditions to boil down to “We owe you nothing.”  Nor, as it happens, is the situation in universities, in relation to the privacy of communications that may or may not one day spit out profilling data for retention-driven analytics.  Coursera are using their massive MOOC enrolments for research purposes, and certainly forum participation has become a researchable thing. So why not get everyone to write in English in the first place, to streamline the complexity of your later content analysis?

These things matter to anyone concerned with privacy, but they also matter because the stakes are so high for fragile languages. There’s so much to regret about the harm that’s been done by the civilising project of world English.  FutureLearn, broadcasting from the heart of Empire, really should know better.

UPDATE: One of the great things I learned about language today was about the 19th Century “Treachery of the Blue Books”, passed on by Mabon ap Gwynfor*:

One of the inevitable results of the report was its effect on the nation’s mind and psyche. It was at this time that ordinary Welsh people began to believe that they could only improve themselves socially through education and the ability to speak and communicate in English. It was Samuel Smiles’ philosophy that held sway education and the knowledge of English would allow the lowliest among the Welsh to improve their lot and make something of their lives. As a result of the ‘Treachery of the Blue Books’ the Welsh people began to harbour a complex about their image in the face of the world, and the influence of the Report has not completely waned even to this day.

* who blogs in Welsh.

Visions always belong to someone

The awkwardly titled Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in a Digital Age that was released this week has generated a ton of coverage, which is interesting given its niche provenance. An apostolic group of North American educational stakeholders, including some very high profile names, got together and co-authored a fairly wordy document about the values and entitlements that we might protect in the name of online learners.

What I’ve found useful is that most of the people involved in it have been very open about how it happened. Here’s Sean Michael Morris, for example, quoting the email from Sebastian Thrun that got the group together:

Just had a crazy idea. What if we got the 8-10 most interesting people
together for – say – 3 days, to dive into online pedagogy. The goal
would be to brainstorm about this, and exchange experiences. Perhaps
develop a master plan? No NDAs, no proprietary information – just for
the goods of humanity.

I think for me this crystallises the discomfort I feel when I read the document (and I’ve read it over and over). International online pedagogy is neither radical, disruptive, nor new. Neither is learner-centred pedagogy.  We do this all day long, where I’m from.  Sometimes we fail, and when we do, students let us know. So we don’t need a master plan for all this because we didn’t just invent it.  When we work online from an institutional base, we’re already accountable to a whole library of strategic plans, standards, instruments for measuring standards.

Over the past 8 years I have been closely involved in writing both elearning strategic plans, and strategic plans for teaching and learning in general, and I can report with grim conviction that all of these are focused on ensuring the quality of the learner experience. They’re typically a bit less exciting than this document because they’re also institutionally obliged to be structured in terms of goals, targets, actions and measures. The main difference is that while institutional strategic planning tends to kick off with motherhood statements, most get written out again, because planning is inseparable from accountable reporting.

There’s a great deal to be critiqued about the fetish for accountability in higher education, and Rustichello’s post on this is the best thing I’ve ever read on the ruse of it all. But without some nod in the direction of accountability, all you have is vision, and no plan at all — let alone a master plan.

And in higher education, vision without a plan is exactly what you think it is: brand personality.

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.

For me, there are two gaps. The first is a failure to understand or include what it takes for public education institutions to operate within the legislative constraints that are the ultimate protection for student rights, including student diversity. These can’t just be upturned because we want to, and to be honest, I don’t want to. There’s a whole lot wrong with higher education, but at some point we have to say that the work of making it possible is serious, complicated and driven by people who really mind about equity. (OK, I reserve judgment on marketing, but having sat in the room for hours and hours and hours with higher education policy makers, and listened to the way that they champion learners’ rights, I think we have to be very careful arguing that their diligence is entirely wrong-headed.)

The second is a failure to recognise that it’s going to take a whole lot more than a motherhood statement to deal with the emerging problem of missionary zeal in North American higher education circles. I am really so tired of hearing that MOOCs will parachute in global superstar professors to save the world’s unserved populations.

Here for example is Coursera’s Andrew Ng explaining to the Times Higher Ed how it will still be possible for the unserved to get access to paid certification that in the very same interview he is selling on the basis of its second rate status (because Coursera also have to protect the degree-awarding reputation of their elite partners):

“So if you’re a poor kid in Africa, and don’t have a credit card, we want you in the signature track anyway.

“This is about education, it is not about making money, and so if you can’t afford it we still want you to benefit from it. This is not the sort of decision that a normal company would make. But we are here to educate everyone.”

This is just so awful it makes my head spin.

So a master plan to save us from this, that didn’t include voices from Africa, China, India, Brazil from the outset, let alone from the indigenous cultures or speakers of the world’s fragile languages who are presently being crushed by the clear-felling juggernaut of digital English, can’t be what it claims on the tin.

It’s a small symposium of really interesting North American-based educators with relevant experience, values I mostly share, and good ideas. I’d have been entirely happy to read their account of how we might develop some modest, achievable pledges that online educators could make, just as many academics are quietly signing up to make their scholarly work open access on principle. But I wish they’d left it at that, because the idea that they’re planning for the rest of us isn’t just hubris, it’s exactly what’s currently causing cultural harm around the world.

Reading the coverage that this has been given, here’s what I keep coming back to: the inestimable Henry Giroux (just to show that I don’t have a problem with Americans), in his Border Crossings: Cultural Workers and The Politics of Education:

Visions always belong to someone, and to the degree that they translate into curricula and pedagogical practices, they not only denote a struggle over forms of political authority and orders of representation, but also weigh heavily in regulating the moral identities, collective voices and the futures of others.

And that’s why I can’t join a cheer squad for the idea that the fragile relationship between online educational opportunity and global cultural diversity is best served by a master plan from California.

Update: an earlier version of this post attributed entirely the wrong Henry. Apologies to both, and warm thanks to Tim McCormick for pointing this out so nicely.

It’s not you, it’s me

So, I signed up for a Coursera MOOC, and almost immediately the experience turned into Lucy and the Chocolate Factory.

Lucy enrols in a MOOC

It’s a scene that suckers itself onto almost any stressful situation.  Lucy and Ethel take a job putting chocolates into wrappers.  It’s a conveyor belt scenario, and the task itself is simple; the challenge is to keep pace. Lucy’s enjoying herself, messing about.  But one stumble leads to a recovery problem, and before they know it Lucy is eating chocolates or stuffing them into her cleavage in an effort to keep up. Eventually she crashes in shame, covered in chocolate.

Minus the chocolate and cleavage elements, that’s my experience of a Coursera MOOC.

I chose the course because it was on a topic I wanted to know a bit more about, and I was curious about the professor, who has significant influence in the world of education technology. To those of us outside the US, there are few opportunities to see US edtech innovators in action. As their cultural assumptions about the nature of higher education and the student experience are rapidly becoming critical to us, I think it makes sense to try to figure them out.

But really, I signed up because I wanted to know how it might feel to be part of a course whose enrolment was larger than the population of the town where I grew up.

So I watched the first few videos, and despite being mildly irritated by the pop-up quizzes designed to check that I was really paying attention, I sat up a bit straighter, and I stopped checking my emails while listening. Game-based learning 1, multitasking 0.  I also spent time reading the forums when I signed up, and I could see the process of small learning communities pooling effectively.

But already the first chocolate had fallen off the conveyor belt, for work-related reasons.  I couldn’t justify taking the time to watch a longer video because I had other more urgent stuff to do. And things went quickly to pieces: the content kept coming down the chute, and within a week it was unimaginable that I could find double, then treble the time to catch up.

So as it turns out, I’m not only a college drop-out from way back, I’m now also a freshly minted Coursera drop-out. And so I’d like Dr. Chuck to know that it’s not him, it’s me, because I really do think that there’s an unacknowledged professional risk being taken here by the professors Coursera have recruited to help get this thing off the ground. A significant number of their first cohort students are their colleagues, dropping in like me to have a look around—this is a jury of their peers in a grand way. And it takes a certain amount of courage to load-test a new platform and pilot a new way of teaching, all in public.

So thanks to you, Dr. Chuck.

But the real value for me is that in watching myself fall behind so early and so catastrophically, I learned two things about how to design better online courses. First of all, I’ve figured out it’s time to let go of the pastiche of seat time that we affect by structuring online courses around weekly participation, just because face to face classes have weekly meetings. We make each individual week of an online class far too complicated—too much to prepare, too many tasks, too many new ideas and insufficient time simply to think about the material and perhaps chat about it with a few other people in the course—and this removes all prospect of rescue from people who miss a step along the way.

This isn’t learning, it’s Tetris.

Secondly, if students are depending on a grade, rather than just hanging out for a personally signed certificate from a celebrity academic, then we need to understand much more about the psychology of panic and its impact on how people communicate. Even the most badly prepared student who maintains an attendance record in a face to face class will be hearing something, thinking about something, each week, that might help make sense of the eventual assessment challenges.  The student who fails to connect online is missing out much more substantially, and is struggling alone with the burden of guilt. They’re avoiding communication, and after a while avoiding any environment that even reminds them of the course they’re failing to keep up with. Even the fanciest analytics or progress tracking plug-in that sprays out automated emails reminding students to call home isn’t going to work for someone who’s singing la-la-la, can’t hear you.

So communication in large classes needs to be authentic, multi-channel, persistent and friendly, and course design needs to back up the forgiving tone with practical options for recovery. In plain terms, we need to keep open opportunities for students who fall away to rejoin wherever they can, and to backfill later. This is the best way to tackle the tyranny of compounding time debt, but it’s confronting for us because we’re trained to think of learning as sequenced and cumulative—a virtuous progression of dependent ideas building to an assessable position of competence.

The good news is that our students are absolutely ready for a more intricate and flexible approach to course design. They’ve been learning since high school how to follow unpredictable and often circuitous routes through the realm of information and ideas, exactly as we do. So as the world’s most conservative institutions stampede towards MOOC partnerships, the rest of us have an opportunity to make a few practical and significant adjustments, right here at home.

This isn’t just about flipping the classroom: it’s about flipping the calendar, the curriculum and the whole conveyor belt approach to learning that has shackled content delivery to credentialising to this point. And this is where things will come unstuck, because no one currently running a higher education institution can responsibly hope that this shackle will snap. So even if institutions who fear missing out are currently prepared to loan some of their surplus resources to pro bono work in the MOOC economy, and even if many innovative and exciting teachers are involved, at the moment this is still just missionary outreach.

It’s not yet the real change we need.

Punctuate this

Here’s how timezones work.  Australia perpetually wakes up a) ahead of everyone else and b) the last to know what happened overnight.  And so it is with today’s discovery that while we were sleeping, Blackboard executives were tearing off their business suits and putting their underpants on over their tights in order to jump out of the phone box as crusaders for openness in education.

Specifically, in the flurry of press releases about the acquisition of MoodleRooms and Australia’s own NetSpot, Blackboard has announced that it will work to “eliminate vendor lock-in for all LMS options, commercial and open source.”

The irony of this doesn’t need much discussion, surely; and in any case, ed tech writers are all over it, which is a big help for those of us whose day job is something else altogether. I found everything I read today—on both sides—informative and reasonable. For me, the key to unlocking the whole puzzle came from an unconvinced Audrey Watters, pointing out the political gain from openwashing, both in her Hack Education post and in this lovely tweet:

Openwashing: n., having an appearance of open-source and open-licensing for marketing purposes, while continuing proprietary practices.

For sure, it’s early days, and we don’t yet know exactly how things will turn out. We can certainly respect the reputation and track record of the colleagues they’ve brought in from other companies. (Australians are forgiven a self-congratulatory cheer here, as Adelaide and Perth are stamped on the map of global edtech influence. Just think, only yesterday we were a backwater from which startup entrepreneurs were desperate to escape, and now America’s corporate hot shots come all the way to Perth—Perth!—for top secret business meetings.  Maybe we’ll get a space program after all.)

But once we get over ourselves, I think we’ll see that Audrey’s right: for the ordinary educational user there are some uncomfortable parallels with the promotional fuss that surrounded Pearson’s Open Class* last year.  And just as greenwashing reveals something about what consumers want to hear, so openwashing tells us that in the market for educational technology “open” has moved beyond being geeky, cool and insiderish. Now it speaks to the technologically uninitiated—to people like me, who don’t expect to see a piece of code in their lifetime—and it comes bundled with appealing ideas like independence, integrity, collaboration and community. These are things that educators really care about, and we want to hear that our educational technology partners share our commitment to these principles.

So, you know, be careful what you wish for.

But while it makes sense for Blackboard to appear to us as the new open, their more complex communications problem involves providing a convincing account to their market as to how this came to pass.

Ray Henderson has chosen to present this as an evolutionary jump, for which the technical term is a “punctuated evolution”—that moment when the appearance of stasis gives way to sudden change. Biologists who study the fossil record argue a bit about whether there is a separate mechanism that causes these jumps, or whether they’re speeded up versions of business as usual, but the issue that Henderson is tackling head on here is the important one of perception. The thing about punctuated evolution is that it creates the impression of a decisive response to the situation that you’re in.

Rightly or wrongly, Blackboard has acquired a reputation for not doing much with its LMS; stasis doesn’t seem too strong a term. And the strategy of shifting to a “student lifecycle end to end” (or vice versa) focus on campus services, so thrillingly presented in its corporate videos last year, hasn’t really changed the popular view that Blackboard is the universal shorthand term for everything that’s wrong with online learning, including the flaws that are common to most LMS. Perhaps unfairly, this means that over the past few years Blackboard has presented the largest target to a significant anti-LMS backlash.

To erase this deeply scored impression, Blackboard has to stage a dramatic and public change of heart, both mea culpa and brave new world. I think this is why the press releases and public communication have talked up the potential for market resistance, misgiving and scepticism, rather than played them down; and it’s perhaps also why the news wasn’t leaked or launched at a trade fair or conference where there was too much risk of the key messages becoming confused or diluted.  This is a very carefully controlled strategic move. But in the end, Ray Henderson seems to me to be pulling out evolutionary metaphors for much the same reason that Adrian Sannier did when Pearson launched OpenClass: to emphasise the inevitability of change. In IT, things simply turn out as they should.

As educators, we’re supposed to be sceptical of exactly these sorts of claims: it’s our job and our skill to know that whenever something that consists entirely of human design is presented as a force of nature, we should look twice. We’ve heard a lot today about exciting new business partnerships between large and small edtech companies—those with deep pockets, and those who now presumably fit into those pockets—and it’s easy for us to forget that our role in this is to set the agenda that aligns technology to educational principles. To build strong partnerships with global companies that meet our peculiar local needs requires considerable self-belief—not so easy in higher education at the moment.  But that’s the expertise we bring to the partnership.

So in that spirit, I’m highlighting the passage in Ray Henderson’s open letter that seems to me to spell out a far more important principle than Blackboard’s mission to save us all from the scourge of vendor lock-in. Here’s what he wrote:

I think it’s important to consider what the market gets from this evolution at Blackboard. Rather than another LMS-oriented company, it gets a firm focused on helping institutions to solve the hardest problems in education, comprehensively. The range of technologies that must be pulled together to create a solution for institutions today is both more comprehensive and more complex than ever before. Rather than presenting obstacles by imposing a limitation on which products we support, we’re showing our commitment to institutional partnership by broadening our coverage, expanding options and reducing the requirements to change that show we’ve listened to our constituency about what they need from their partners.

Proposing to help us address the hardest problems in education, comprehensively; now that’s a bold offer.

We should hold them to it.

*OpenClass: Free, Open, Easy, Amazing, and Apparently Vanished Like Amelia Earhart going fabulously, according to excited marketing communication just received:

OpenClass is brand new: Pilots in several schools began only in the 2011-2012 academic year. OpenClass is gaining rapid momentum – since launching in October, there have been more than 3,000 installations of OpenClass!


The robot and the muse

It’s that time of year. Predictions and lists everywhere, like the snow currently falling over Google, WordPress, bitly … (memo to northern hemisphere: look down very carefully and like Gulliver you will see the tiny little people from the other half of the world running around doing their Christmas shopping in shorts).

It happens like this every year, but higher education has a particularly worried tone at the moment, which is no wonder considering the lack of restraint in the headline predictions. Universities are under attack.  Will the internet kill education?  Will schools kill creativity?  Is contentless education the end of knowledge? Will anyone pay the inflated prices we’ve been able to charge for an in-person education if top-tier institutions are prepared to credentialise theirs online for a modest (although undisclosed) fee? Who will occupy MLA if not @occupyMLA, who seem to have spent too much time doing their grading in bed to build consensus around their cause?

It’s all very nerve-wracking, and it creates a climate in which frantic listmaking seems to make sense.  Among the blizzard of best-of this-and-that thinking, Audrey Watters’ series on the edtech trends of 2011 stands out, for tracking trends that are as much about higher education as they are about technology.  In a similar way, Dave Cormier’s seven black swans for education list takes a broad look at the ways in which education should brace itself for the possibility of surprise coming from more than one direction. Together they remind us that it’s difficult to get a fix on the horizon for higher education by looking only at what’s in the boat:

Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream, 1899

As Dave Cormier explains so well, end-of-year round-ups get us thinking about what we mind about, and they do this equally well whether our values are threatened or encouraged by the situation we find ourselves in.

For many of the writers I’ve followed this year, but for none quite so consistently as Jonathan Rees, something vital to the virtue of learning is threatened by the rise of online education.  His views are critical to anyone interested in edtech: he’s not a technophobe (far, far from it), he’s really committed to higher education, and he’s the only person I’ve seen who has invited a student to join the conversation.  And while I’ve disagreed up hill and down dale with his views on elearning since he first started carrying on about online charlatanism, I think he’s absolutely right to counter that all of this excitement has something fundamental to do with working conditions and hiring practices. While there might still be genuine reasons to believe in the transformative capacity of elearning where it’s resourced, supported and done well for the right reasons, it’s more important than ever to recognise that these disruptive values may not be what is currently driving its expansion across higher education.  Quite the opposite.

So for Jonathan Rees, who is very fond of historical technology metaphor, here’s a cartoon from the 1931 campaign to protect the 140,000 professional musicians who were making their living in American theatres.

The robot and the muse
The American Federation of Musicians protesting against recorded music at the movies in 1931, via

Of course there are good reasons not to rustle up quaint historical precedent to prove that change is inevitable and resistance is stupid (or change is stupid and resistance is heroic, whichever). It’s often a cheap shot to use the past in this triumphalist way, just as much as it is to use nature to prove the inevitability of market competition.  But I’ve returned to this surviving trace of a specific lost campaign again and again to think about the nature of the values that it champions:

Here is a struggle of intense interest to all music-lovers. If the Robot of Canned Music wrests the helm from the Muse, passengers aboard the good ship Musical Culture may well echo the offer of Gonzalo, to trade “a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of ground”. Are you content to face a limitless expanse of “sound” without a sign of music?  Monotony in the theatre – corruption of taste – destruction of art. These must inevitably follow substitution of mechnical music for living music.

Were they wrong about recorded music bringing on the monotony, corruption and destruction of art?  Well, perhaps not. But they were right to suspect that the era in which musicians had been able to make a living from accompanying live performances and silent movies was coming to an end.

Are we in the same position? Is the Muse of Education threatened by the Robot of Educational Technology? Just as in 1931, this oversimplifies a tangled weave of innovation, business speculation, consumer demand and freak opportunity. Technology isn’t exactly designed in a vacuum, and is capable of doing most of what we might wish for. So the edtech that we have tells us a great deal, symptomatically, about the wishlist that higher education has revealed to its would-be suppliers through the way that we speak about growth, mobility and risk—and perhaps the lesson from the current emphasis on analytics is that we should be careful what we wish for.

But there are problems that edtech isn’t well-placed to solve.  The chronic dependence of higher education worldwide on precarious labour is at last the sustained focus of concern among those who are fortunate enough to have secured tenured employment, not just those who are stuck in traffic on the freeway between one hourly paid gig and another, or who are up late in their kitchens working online for an institution in a whole other timezone.  (Or, in the case of one of the most gifted adjunct teachers I’ve ever had the privilege to work with, who are heading off to work as a department store Santa.)

At the end of 2011, casualisation and contingency are straining the relationship between universities, their staff, and their students, and draining our culture of respect, trust and collegiality. If this problem doesn’t become critical to universities in 2012, then perhaps we will also get what we deserve.