Content, it’s us

I’m starting to believe, more and more, that given THE INTERNETS, content should be something that gets created BY a course not BEFORE it.

Dave Cormier,  ‘Content is a print concept‘, June 2016

So the narrative course ended, and while students are writing about it, I’m writing to thank two people who have shaped the way that I approach things.

First of all, my edtech mentor Jonathan Rees. No, really.

Last year, Jonathan wrote a short staypiece about his digital lightbulb moment at the Digital Pedagogy Lab summer institute, that led to this:

I’ve been using Slack in my hybrid Introduction to Digital History class for three weeks now. The class is centered on group projects and the Slacking has already begun.  … There is just something so darned friendly about this set-up that I think it promotes communication. Learning is occurring (including learning how to use Slack) and I’m not at the center of it at all.

I’d been exposed to Slack only in conference organising. It did seem a friendly environment for banter and backchannel, but I couldn’t think what else to do with it. Jonathan urged me to reconsider, emailed me to explain his reasoning, and invited me into his course Slack. He’s outspoken about the hot mess that edtech has become, he’s scrupulous about good history teaching, and you can see how he’s pulling it all together here. So I filed it away under #thinking.

Then this semester, the remarkable students who signed on to think about critical narrative professionalism with me said: oh hey, what about Slack? I said: mumble, mumble, banter, GIFs, backchannel, can’t we just tweet and blog like old times, or words like that. So they set it up anyway, invited me in, and turned me into the person whose skates suddenly point in the right direction..

Here are the reasons Slack has worked for me, with these students, in this context.

First, they’ve owned it, and Slack makes this easy. Anyone can set it up, anyone can create channels or private conversations. This means the group can easily decide how to handle chit-chat, where to keep critical information, how to bundle things so they don’t get lost. There are spaces to vent, and spaces to think, and spaces to deal with admin.

Second, Slack handles sharing and finding content particularly well. URLs unfurl like tiny flags to show you what you’ll see if you follow the link; files behave as they should; everything does what you want it to. I finally started using IFTTT properly and now when I save something relevant from Twitter into Bottomless Bucket Pocket it skips on to Slack where it sits in the right spot, sending a notification to let everyone know it’s there.

Which leads to the third thing. The app works. Notifications work. Everything works across devices. So provided everyone takes the time to get themselves sorted out at the start (this bit is important, as not all students will know to do this), Slack resolves the increasingly messy issues involved in using Twitter as a course communication channel. It saves us from the great leap backwards of using the LMS, the internal student messaging system or email—all of which are awful—to communicate. And it does all this without being Facebook.

But the real gain has been in pedagogy, particularly in relation to content. I’ve argued against the curriculum-as-bookclub model of weekly readings before:

The capacity to assign the right sort of readings turns out to be a habitual signal of academic expertise, one that we don’t even notice ourselves reinforcing. I know there’s a risk of disingenuous countersignalling in choosing to avoid this when I teach. But for me the alternative is riskier: that we focus our entire teaching strategy on replicating our own expertise in the minds of others, and we close off the possibility that learners may engage more effectively by finding their own resources to share and then seeing how others respond.

I invited students to work together to thicken up the ideas around which this course has coalesced: whether Michael White’s work in narrative therapy can extend to professional self development. Thanks to training from Maggie Carey at Narrative Practices Adelaide, I’m using White’s models for narrative conversations to explore ways of thinking about decision-making and personal agency in the junk labour market. This means that the relevant literature is all over the shop: social work, family therapy, psychology, nursing, theatre, organisational communication.

After some workshop exercises to introduce Michael White’s work, I asked students to find three credible sources on narrative to use in a short piece of writing. Fairly organically, and easily supported by Slack, they pooled what they found, creating a small and diverse collection they could all use. They found things I wouldn’t have chosen, and things I didn’t know about. They repurposed things that were familiar to me, and brought people who matter to me —like Elan Morgan—right into the room.

Road sign saying Synergy
Synergy, San Francisco, 2015. photo credit: Kate Bowles

And then they shared their writing, creating a new collaborative practice that directly addressed the way we treat student writing as the waste product of assessment. 

I think Jonathan’s right: there’s something about this environment that encourages agency, and that’s the basis for its promotion of communication. Not only did Slack encourage participants to lend each other found content from the start, but as writers and thinkers they became resources to each other, and to me. I cannot look back from this moment and say that anything I’ve been involved in previously has been more effective than this.

Which brings me to the second overdue thank you, to Dave Cormier. In 2008, Dave put forward ideas about community as curriculum that remain at the heart of how I work:

Suggesting that a distributed negotiation of knowledge can allow a community of people to legitimize the work they are doing among themselves and for each member of the group, the rhizomatic model dispenses with the need for external validation of knowledge, either by an expert or by a constructed curriculum. Knowledge can again be judged by the old standards of “I can” and “I recognize.” If a given bit of information is recognized as useful to the community or proves itself able to do something, it can be counted as knowledge. The community, then, has the power to create knowledge within a given context and leave that knowledge as a new node connected to the rest of the network.

I’m neither persuaded nor antagonised by the rhizome metaphor that became the more well-known consequence of this, but I believe in community. Like Dave, I think that a course is something continuously remade by the people who come along. This year’s narrative professionalism course wasn’t the same as last year’s, and next year’s will be different again. Each time, I have been profoundly changed in my own thinking by what students have done, and I’ve been really honoured to share this journey with a teaching colleague who feels as I do.

At the institution level, the course isn’t successful. It’s still new and small. Nothing much meets the test of our internal audit processes, and nothing we did is visible to our analytics systems. No content has been accessed, no online lecture watched, no quiz attempted, no forum participated in. But stories have been exchanged, interviews have been shared, guests have come in and talked to us about their values and their lives, and they’ve asked to come back because they were so surprised by what came up for them too. (If you’re following the work of Michael White, you’ll recognise the idea of the pivotal moment here.) I believe it’s helped the group develop a more confident sense of how to move forward to the kinds of work that will work for them, but I’m not here to make them more employable, or claim credit for what they go on to do. That’s on them.

So this is a thank you story. But it’s also a story about the everyday nature of artisanal change in universities—slow, handmade, sometimes bumpy looking, always worth trying again—that I want to advocate for whenever the options put to us belong in car commercials. Innovation isn’t always about technology, efficiency, speed, scale; remediation isn’t always about targeted interventions. Far more often, change emerges in small experiments that we try with our own hands, encouraged by colleagues near and far. And at its most radically disruptive—of every business and audit model—change becomes visible in the content we make together uniquely, transiently and compassionately, in that passing moment in our lives.

Thank you to Courtney, Paul, Angus, Olivia, Oliver, Liz (and Will), Trent, KK, Primrose, Paris, Amy, Charlotte and Michaela, Jonathan, Dave, Elan, Sue, and above all to Maggie Carey.

Making change

So why are most universities monolithic, conservative, bureaucratic and resistant to change? F. M. Cornford’s splendid little monograph Microcosmographia Academica (1908) examines the “enemy of inertia” and finds that “there is only one argument for doing something; the rest are arguments for doing nothing”. While change is theoretically deemed to be a “good thing” by “change managers” – commonly known as vice-chancellors and deputy vice-chancellors – those managers often encounter resistance from ordinary academics.

Steve Olivier, ‘How to manage rapid change

Ordinary academics: resisting the pace of change since 1908.

Colleagues, if you’re writing something in this vein—a strategic planning document, maybe—and academics are your probable readership, please think about what we do for a living. We’re an evidence-based profession, you can throw facts at us. As researchers, we’re continuously called to account on the rigour and robustness of our projects. Our teaching is subordinated to many, many levels of quality assurance to check that we’re not just making stuff up. We’re performance managed, and surveyed, and our grant applications and publications and methods and results and even our grammar are pushed through the mincer of blind, competitive and often pretty harsh peer review.

So if you really want to engage us in changing the way that we work because the bottom line just fell through the floor (and as we pay our bills and manage our savings in the same economy that you do, we do actually know how these things happen) we can help you better if you deal with the following in clear language, with real evidence. We can handle both spreadsheets and dashboards, whatever works best for you.

What specific and demonstrable problem does your change solution solve? What is the scale of the problem, and its likely trend direction—not in generalised terms but in our specific situation? What will have changed about the problem by the time your solution hits the ground?

Will your change solution make things better, or just different?

Does your change solution have potential unintended consequences, and what’s the likelihood that we’ll all be struck by them in about a year’s time? Will we have to do this twice?

Is your change solution one that you previously implemented—with success or not—in a completely different context than this one? What evidence for change comes from the situation that we are all in now? Why does your pre-loved change solution seem suited to the new environment in which you intend to roll it out?

What does your change solution reveal about your own values and goals in business, and about what matters to you as a thinker? Why do you hold these views? How carefully have you been able to evaluate the existing values, goals and practices in the situation that you’re proposing to change?

And when you tell the story of your change solution, and the way your intelligent and experienced colleagues respond to it, what sorts of anecdote do you choose for evidence (which, by the way, is not evidence)? Are you the hero of this narrative? Are you its victim?

I recently saw a lecturer informing students of the introduction of the grade point average system with the words: “Don’t shoot the messenger, blame senior management.”

Well, I recently saw a lecturer helping a student work through the complexity of a puzzling assignment, and I recently saw a lecturer eating at her keyboard, and I recently saw a full professor tweeting her tattoo to students, and I could go on and on, but I wouldn’t use these tiny snippets of everyday lecturer behaviour to prove a case for change. I’d just say that these are people doing what they do in their workplaces, building relationships, making change happen and tending to it afterwards, and as far as possible trying to keep safe all the people in their care—students, colleagues, even you—as we navigate the uncertainty of our market, and of the evidently fluctuating demand for the services we offer.

We use many of the same business tealeaves as you, sometimes at closer range and with more direct experience. We engage daily with the market and we reflect constantly on the feedback it gives us. We’re the frontline staff at the client interface, as you would put it: we’re talking with students, journals, conferences, scholarly networks, publishers, industry research partners and community clients, and this means we are also listening closely to them about what they think is important for us to do. We read budgets, plans, policies and we’re widely networked into global conversations about innovation, markets, economies, employment. We have useful thoughts on all of this.

And sometimes we are your market, as our own teenagers grow up and we wonder how to advise them about options after high school. The problem is that we have seen the often patchy ethics of higher education’s market sensing, sales techniques, and failure of responsible debt counselling from inside the whole recruitment process. We know our children are your sales targets, and there really is no loyalty contest here.

If we seem resistant to your ideas, maybe it’s because we’re thinking carefully about something that drew us here in the first place, a vision that now only persists in your marketing, sort of. We care about people, and we care that they’re not exploited as consumers or as workers. We’re all aware of the new cruelty in human performance management that is the spreading oilslick of your rapid change agenda; we understand that in the race for global prestige, ruthless churn in staffing is a positive for you. In a profession where meaningful job security and manageable working hours are the vanishing privilege of a minority, we’re learning that we need to take care of each other. Because you don’t seem to have a plan beyond the impressively contradictory strategy of mixing competitive reward schemes with mindfulness programs.

But as it happens, this isn’t just another predictable resistant-to-change #headdesk grumble about your lazy stereotyping, and your 1908 evidence base. Because you’re right: all of us who continue to work in higher education need to get stuck in to the question of the near future of our profession, the sustainability of values that we hold, and our obligations to the many who mind what we do, especially those whose taxes pay our bills (that’s also us, by the way). We have the capacity to help, and certainly the incentive.

Next week, I’ll be joining the #dlrn15 conference at Stanford University on Making Sense of Higher Education: Networks and Change. Fellow conference organisers and plenary panel conveners Bonnie Stewart and Dave Cormier have written some prior thoughts about the immense challenges of imagining, conserving and extending equity in higher education, and the practicalities of using strategic planning to advocate for change at human scale. I’ll be convening the plenary discussion on innovation and work in higher education, with Lee Skallerup Bessette, Petra Dierkes-Thrun and Jeffrey Keefer. Travelling Australians will be there, including keynote Professor Marcia Devlin.

If you’re in the area, there are a few spots left but late registration closes on Monday evening. If you can’t be there, the Virtually Connecting team will be on the ground making it possible for those excluded by conference travel and costs to meet with participants (and each other) and have their voices heard too. You can follow along on Twitter with #dlrn15, and we have a Slack channel.

If you have specific questions or comments about digital networks, innovation and the impact on work in higher education, you can also put them here, and they’ll be heard.

for KA and LM

Update: Anna Notaro was also provoked by the stereotypes in Steve Olivier’s article, and her excellent reply is here. Mike Hamlyn made the very fair point that it’s important to remember that managers in the roles Steve Olivier describes were once academics too. I completely agree with this, and especially that it isn’t helpful to combat stereotypes with stereotypes. The issue isn’t managing, or being managed, but being managed on the basis of bad (or no) evidence, really outdated stereotypes, and a limited focus on the purpose of change, relative to its pace.

On personality

A reply to Martin Weller

But then along come MOOCs, and they’re all about the personality.

Martin Weller,  ‘The role of personality in education

Martin Weller, Professor of Education Technology at the Open University, is asking important questions about about the pros and cons of stripping authorial personality from higher education course and content design.

In a sector shaped by the persistent anticipation of audit, personality is a bit of a handful. The hallmarks of personable teaching—improvisation, creativity,  anecdote, all the idiosyncratic connections that an individual gets to make between one thing and another—are flatly at odds with the ideals of standardisation and repeatability that assure the student experience. These ideals matter, especially when the same course is franchised to external partners. On the other hand, even connectivist MOOCs lean hard on celebrity as a selling point. But then again, too much creative personality, too much popularity, introduces a kind of cultishness to learning that we really have been trying to move beyond.

MOOCs hothoused this dilemma, but didn’t invent it. We already have celebrity academics with their own TV shows; there’s no end of scholarly charisma being retailed across small islands, archaeological digs, and in TV science labs. And on campus, we struggle with personality across student surveys and intellectual property policies: we haggle over the idea of the individual as creator of educational content whose expertise is the guarantee of student experience, while setting up procedures to assure the depersonalisation of content production so that students are protected from the vagaries of charm.

Personality: can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

As it happens, Martin was himself the personable frontman for one of the many MOOCs I’ve failed to complete. And I’m using the term “frontman” carefully here, because this was the question I asked on his blog: what does gender have to do with personality in MOOCs in particular? (At least one answer, shared by Pat Lockley: “Online Students Give Instructors Higher Marks If They Think Instructors Are Men.”).

In 2013, Carl Straumsheim at Inside Higher Ed totted up the numbers of xMOOCs led by male and female faculty. The difference was exactly as you would expect. When the world’s elite institutions first hustled to get their star talent up on the small screen, just in case there was a rankings bounce to be had, the faces that appeared were male. Women showed up in team-taught MOOCs, but as with television news reading, it took a while for women to be allowed to front the cameras alone.

The article wasn’t immediately popular with IHE readers. Here’s a comment:

As the article notes, there are likely numerous reasons for the gender disparity, none of them pointing to persistent discrimination in the way faculty are selected to teach these courses. That more men than women win Nobel prizes doesn’t mean that the Nobel selection committee practices gender discrimination.

And another:

The first sentence is histrionic, you didn’t even get the headline right (the courses aren’t masculine), and the author has his own gender gap in the ratio of females to males quoted. This is not a very auspicious beginning to today’s edition.

And yet another:

“More female professors are experimenting with MOOCs, but men and STEM classes still dominate course offerings.”

So? And this is a problem why?

Women dominate in the student body, admin, staff, programs like psych, education, nursing, dentistry, english, anthropology, veterinary science, biology, microbiology, theater, music, film, etc. Since women dominate almost all aspects of higher education, doesn’t the principle of “diversity” demand that men dominate at least one, or maybe two, of the hundreds of programs found in higher ed? This may be a naive and is there no room for men in higher ed anymore?…

These comments tell us something about the struggle that higher education still has with gender. We tend to examine this problem through outputs and consequences—how many women make it to senior levels, how many are stuck in long-term casual work, how the historic feminisation of some low paying professions results in the underrepresentation of male academics in those disciplines, and so on.

But the part we find hard to explain is how this persists in such a systematic way–how anyone, let alone a whole marketing team, gets to imagine faculty as typically male, or how we still end up with all male conference panels. It’s much easier to make an example of Tim Hunt or Matt Taylor than it is to recognise the discrimination that’s engrained in the norms we associate with professional success.

There are two parts to this discrimination. The first is that higher education rewards chronic overwork because it makes good business sense to use competitive recruitment and selective promotion to motivate everyone to work longer hours than they’re paid for. This is exactly the message of a ghastly bit of career advice that popped up in Science Magazine this week, that has been deservedly criticised for its valorising of overwork and family neglect as the price that higher education is entitled to demand. Here’s how Eleftherios Diamandis did it:

I worked 16 to 17 hours a day, not just to make progress on the technology but also to publish our results in high-impact journals. How did I manage it? My wife—also a Ph.D. scientist—worked far less than I did; she took on the bulk of the domestic responsibilities. Our children spent many Saturdays and some Sundays playing in the company lobby. We made lunch in the break room microwave.

My colleagues and I managed to publish numerous papers, and I was invited repeatedly to present at national and international conferences. I was able to demonstrate, in the department’s annual report, scientific productivity comparable in quantity and quality to the full-time academics in the department. I made sure these activities were noticed.

I made myself visible by participating in every research seminar—not easy, considering the hour-long drive and how busy I was at the company. Each time I entered the lecture room, I made a point of passing in front of the department chair before sitting down. At the end of every seminar, I made sure to ask a carefully crafted question or two.

Quite apart from how awful all of this is, the high school maths is that a full-time employee working 16 to 17 hours a day is saving their employer the cost of hiring a second employee, and someone doing this as an extended job audition while hired only as an adjunct really is handing over the candy.

And although both men and women are driven to overwork in higher education, Diamandis’ example slots tidily into 2014 research by Youngjoo Cha and Kim Weedon showing that familial caring responsibilities still make it much harder for women with children or other dependents to exploit overwork culture to further their own careers. As Cha and Weedon map out with great care, this means that the rise of highly compensated corporate overwork (including in academia) therefore contributes directly to the gendering of the pay gap in the labour market as a whole.

Research metrics drive the culture of academic overwork, since research performance is the sweet spot where institutional and individual self-interest converge. But Australia and the UK are now actively developing measurement frameworks to boost the status of university teaching, and this is where we get back to Martin’s problem with personality. If we are going to include peer observation of teaching in an evaluation framework—and as a peer reviewer of teaching, I think we should—we need to be really scrupulous in critiquing the association of charismatic performance and apparent popularity with effective teaching. Otherwise, as Martin suggests, “we risk highlighting the extrovert academic, the jokester, the good looking one.”

As Martin demonstrated, accidentally but usefully, there is every chance in the current situation that the A-list charmer who gets highlighted first will turn out to be male. And further, it turns out that there are things that we say and believe about men who are highly successful leaders of large teaching enterprises like MOOCs, including in the way that we joke about their appeal (“loveable, cuddly“), that we simply don’t say about successful women.

If we’re going to measure the art of teaching with any kind of sophistication, we need to work out urgently why this is still the case.

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.

Stolen peaches

Sometimes you find out about things that are so compelling that you know you’re the last to hear about them, and so it is this week with System D. As Robert Neuwirth explains this in Foreign Policy, it’s the French term used to describe the global shadow economy of the débrouillardise: “the ingenuity economy, the economy of improvisation and self-reliance, the do-it-yourself, or DIY, economy”.

System D is the aggregated economic activity of every unlicensed, irregular, back-of-the-truck roadside trader, every lemonade stall, home hairdresser, and sex worker, but it’s also the way that essential services are provided in many developing economies, including garbage collection. Neuwirth cites convincing research that at $10trillion, it’s the second largest economy in the world, behind the US. In 2009, the OECD estimated that 1.8 billion people were working in System D, and they predict that two-thirds of the world’s working population will be working off the books in System D by 2020.

While these big numbers have been sinking in, I’ve been following Michael Feldstein’s latest thoughts on future directions for massively open education. His question, I think, is about whether models of massified openness driven by rhizomic thinking can scale educational opportunity in anything other than an idealistic sense. This is really practical: is entrenched social disadvantage best tackled using the theoretical vocabulary of still-elite educational practices? He argues that instead of focusing on the mass capacity of the new staggeringly large open online courses, we should shift our attention to what makes openness both radical and capable of raising expectations for learning experiences under any circumstances.

This gets to the heart of the awkward relationship between principles of radically open education, and the political economy of education as a service provided by the state or by for-profits, whose survival depends on continued public and political faith being placed in their conjoined roles as formal teaching and accrediting institutions.

The sustainability of this whole set up depends on it remaining unthinkable that the two roles could be separated. This is why traditional institutions have very little to gain from open and informal learning achieving real traction. We might allow a whole lot of self-managed, ad hoc, pop up learning to occur via the workplace, and we might even say that we’re now preparing graduates for that future, but only because that comes once the employee is already a locked-in member of the graduate debt economy.

But the warning sign that might require us to change our position, at last, is the diminishing consumer confidence in formal college credit as a means to career of choice. It’s a bit like one of those long and slowly widening cracks in the ice cap that must turn itself into a breakaway movement sometime soon. The underlying collusion between colleges and employers to monitor and manage this risk involves a deal that suits one a bit more than the other: so long as higher education keeps producing graduates, then employers will keep demanding college education as a minimum standard for careers and social advancement in the on-the-books economy.

The stakes here are highest for educational institutions. Until now, the deal has shielded us from the possibility that informal, self-managed, modularised learning could provide employers with the kind of graduate training that they’re looking for.  We’ve comforted ourselves with the fact that no one would want their teeth cleaned, let alone extracted, by a self-taught dentist. And as a result we’ve decided to take on both the teaching and the accreditation of the expansion of higher education all by ourselves, with minimum outsourcing except to the mass choir of adjuncts assembling in the cloud.

And this is exactly how higher education workers find themselves sliding into System D, by daily achieving the near-impossible. System D didn’t originally indicate the black economy of off-the-books labour, so much as the kinds of activities that characterised day-to-day survival within formal employment as conditions become untenable. Like “down in the weeds” it comes to us from restaurants. Here’s a much older description of le debrouillard in action, from Orwell in 1933:

A DEBROUILLARD is a man who, even when he is told to do the impossible, will SE DEBROUILLER— get it done somehow. One of the kitchen PLONGEURS at the Hotel X, a German, was well known as a DEBROUILLARD. One night an English lord came to the hotel, and the waiters were in despair, for the lord had asked for peaches, and there were none in stock; it was late at night, and the shops would be shut. ‘Leave it to me,’ said the German. He went out, and in ten minutes he was back with four peaches. He had gone into a neighbouring restaurant and stolen them. That is what is meant by a DEBROUILLARD. The English lord paid for the peaches at twenty francs each.

This passage was later taken up by auteur chef Anthony Bourdain, writing about “the razor’s edge of volume versus quality” in commercial kitchens.

It may feel wonderfully fulfilling, putting one’s best foot forward, sweating and fiddling and wiping and sculpting impeccable little spires of à-la-minute food for an adoring dining public, but there is another kind of satisfaction: the grim pride of the journeyman professional, the cook who’s got moves, who can kick ass on the line, who can do serious numbers, and “get through.” “How many’d we do?” is the question frequently asked at the end of the shift, when the cooks collapse onto flour sacks and milk crates and piles of dirty linen, smoking their cigarettes, drinking their shift cocktails, and contemplating what kind of felonious activity they will soon take part in during their afterwork leisure hours.

It’s familiar. At the hot, tough end of the Australian academic year, as grades are shovelled into data systems and last-minute miracles are pulled off by academics and professional staff to get every graduating student to the point that s/he can walk across the stage, just as the demands from research and governance simultaneously heat up, this is how System D feels.

It’s not the black economy, or even the precarious economy, and it’s certainly not the world of opportunity imagined by rhizomic thinking. It’s the economy of the stolen peaches: Thomas Docherty’s unseen, clandestine university, where everyone is regularly and secretively putting in the extra time needed to make things work better than they should.

How can we change this?

Going underground

It’s Deleuze week here among the deckchairs, a problem I’m keen to sheet home to Michael Feldstein. I’m not normally a Deleuze reader—even in the brief moments of my life when I’m not thinking about what’s wrong with the OpenClass marketing strategy (see below)*—but the coincidences are piling up, including that a colleague has just pointed me to the 1990 conversation between Deleuze and Antonio Negri, on “Control and Becoming“.

And in a genuinely rhizomatic sort of way, I’ve been following links between other people’s conversations, particularly the rolling edupunk houseparty that seems to involve something called “DS106”.  For the uninitiated, this is all a bit “Area 51”, but I’m getting the hang of it—I think.

Listening to Dave Cormier talk on Livestream yesterday about the principles of rhizomatic educational practice, I started to wonder whether the rhizome is a popular metaphor at the moment precisely because so many educators are bored and annoyed with the command and control principles of our institutional lives.  Everyone loves the surreptitious, subtle, self-perpetuating rhizome under these circumstances. It imagines the recuperation of education from its bureaucratic life, offering self-authorising, disintermediated, straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth learning opportunities, and it makes us feel good on the days in which filling out the forms, fighting with administration, and losing a sense of career traction are making us feel bad.

That is, until the point that we get to grading. And at this point, all of us working in formal, accredited, standards-sensitive educational institutions have to figure out whether one person’s rhizomatic experience was demonstrated with more grace, more facility, more all round goodness than the next person’s.

Student readers, look away now.

The secret conversation among educators is that the increasingly fervent application of quality assurance processes to protect grading consistency in any area involving the exercise of judgment has reached epidemic proportions of ridiculousness. We moderate and standardise and fuss, particularly over any deviation from last year’s results. With the rise in distributed learning, especially any involving offshore partnerships, we build complex data queries to ensure that there is no risk of locational advantage, no grading bias, no unexplainable bump in the smoothness of our statistical curves.

But despite the increasingly scientific efficiencies of our QA processes, we have all talked about throwing a pile of papers down the stairs and grading according to the step they land on, because we might as well.

Maybe because they suspect us of doing exactly this, our institutions are fanatically attracted to the twin weapons of grading rubrics and learner analytics. Working together they promise that there is no chance of irrational, autonomous, discretionary thinking, and now we’ve got that out of the way, we can centrally and neutrally identify students at risk of not achieving the standardised learning outcomes, so that we can target our resources towards preventing them from drifting further. Our investment in retention might not be as benign as we make it appear, but the language of quality makes it all sound like a particularly good thing to be doing.

(As an aside, my favourite risk analysis tool is the hilarious Skip Class Calculator, launched last year and the funniest thing to come out of student-driven analysis of higher education performance since Rate My Professor introduced its chili pepper hotness rating.)

Edtech vendors didn’t invent this mania for quality assured grading; they’re simply providing the tools that will service our belief in its efficiency. This is why companies like Instructure are going out of their way to promise us that the first and only waymarker on the 2012 horizon, is their shiny analytics tool. But the idealised vision in which any teacher, using the same rubric, would come to the same conclusion as any other teacher about a piece of work, is ours. To aim for anything less would surely be unfair, we say, ignoring for a moment that the logical consequence is the infinite substitutability of all teachers for each other.

But wait, there’s more. If the rubric is sufficiently grainy, then left alone in a room with it the student ought to be able to grade her own work.  So it’s only logical that your be-all LMS will take on this task for you, and shoot the result on to the analytics department.

This is where find myself clinging to Deleuze while not really embracing the rhizome. I don’t disagree at all that the rhizome is a powerful metaphor for a certain kind of educational freedom, and I’m moving closer and closer to the view that we need to find better ways to champion informal and community-based learning, things being as they are in higher education. But while we’re still drawing a salary to provide a service, we can’t simply sidestep the calculation that students have to make every day as they decide whether to go on acquiring debt in pursuit of a qualification accredited on the basis of our grading systems.

So I’m more convinced by what Deleuze had to say in 1990 about the rise of the control society and the peril of life seeming to become more open while in the same process becoming more amenable to surveillance:

One can envisage education becoming less and less a closed site differentiated from the workspace as anoth­er closed site, but both disappearing and giving way to frightful con­tinual training, to continual monitoring of worker-schoolkids or bureaucrat-students. They try to present this as a reform of the school system, but it’s really its dismantling. In a control-based system noth­ing’s left alone for long.

And in the end that’s why I’m unconvinced that automation of the grading process addresses the real problem of grading.  Like the firing squad and the general, one of Deleuze’s less celebrated rhizomatic metaphors, just because the firing squad can now take aim without the general’s specific authority, this doesn’t make the process good. Fixing this is going to take some much tougher and more imaginative institutional reforms, and some really visionary and creative edtech.

* OpenClass: like everyone else who clicked on the link on the Free. Open. Easy. Amazing (Not) website a few weeks back and then wondered, Alice-like, what actually might happen, this morning I’ve had a marketing email inviting me to join a webinar where all my “burning questions” about OpenClass will be answered—providing I can join them at 6am Sydney time. Never mind, Australia. “This is just the beginning”, they’re assuring us, in bold. And in case you’re wondering, it’s all going terrifically well for them. 1000 institutions have signed up—given that they’re offering a free LMS to a global market bristling with frustration at their competition, this seems a surprising total.

What is it that makes today’s North American edtech marketing announcements so familiar, so unappealing?

The mosquito and the raindrop

From Lindsay Tanner’s “adapt to eLearning or die” speech to Australian higher education, to Adrian Sannier’s soothing evolutionary metaphors to spin Pearson’s arrival as a predator in the LMS ecosystem, all sorts of people are drawing on the history of everything-until-now to figure out where we might be going with edtech.

It’s evolutionary thinking, baby.

I’m now trying to figure out how to make sense of the latest move that joins up Pearson and Knewton to deliver content, platform and analytics. The slightly offputting company vision of jacked in kids learning through a secret sauce mix of tracking and psychometrics has quite a bit in common with Club Penguin’s new predictive text feature, that finishes and cleans up your children’s sentences for you so that even poor spellers and the potty mouthed can pay to play in Disney’s branded social network. (And thanks to Audrey Watters for both of these.)

But by adding reporting and analytics Knewton’s going a step further, presenting itself as a transformative horizon of accountability that will meet the needs of educators, parents and government (memo to Knewton: when talking to educators, remember that it’s not universally accepted that these are the same needs) and so it fits well with Pearson’s self-concept as the most benign big fish in the sea.

Worrying about where actual educators come in all this, especially since sitting through the Knewton video, I’ve become distracted by two metaphors for cooperative co-existence, and a fable. What they’ve helped me to think through is that not all partnerships are mutual, and that in the long term, not all partnerships arrive at the same destination, even when they set out to work together.  Sometimes, instinct is just too strong.

So this isn’t just cautionary thinking for Pearson and Knewton, but for the rest of the educational ecosystem, and particularly for educators, as our role in this kind of threesome is far from clear.

The first story involves the orchid and the wasp. Philosophers Deleuze and Guattari use this to try to explain how the apparently fixed identity of anything gives way to the more important business of what it is that thing is actually used to do. It’s attached to another part of their thinking, involving the rhizomatic way that meaning can get about with a central distribution point, a metaphor that Dave Cormier brought into the conversation about open education in 2008. The rhizome gets a lot of attention including from Michael Feldstein and his readers, but the story of the orchid and the wasp less so.

Its explanatory value involves the way that the wasp and the orchid evolve in cooperation. By producing a reasonable facsimile of the markings of a wasp, for example, the orchid persuades the wasp to come a little closer to take a look, and as a result this fragile species that likes to grow in out of the way places (presumably off the flightpath of regular bee traffic) lives on. The wasp is still a wasp, but is lured into collaborating with the reproductive needs of the orchid, so it’s also part of the orchid world. At the heart of the bargain is a bit of deception and possibly some waspish disappointment, but no real harm.

The second metaphor is the mosquito and the raindrop. Mosquitoes thrive in rain, but how exactly do they survive the impact of raindrops that are in general 50 times heavier than they are? Apparently, there’s been an urban myth that mosquitoes do this by thinking ahead and navigating around the rain, but this has now been disproved by researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology, to whom we all owe this immensely touching scrap of slow motion photography.

What they’ve found is that mosquito survival depends on their offering no resistance at all to the raindrops. As a result the raindrops, which really do have momentum and somewhere-to-be, simply push them aside:

High-speed videography of mosquitoes and custom- built mimics reveals a mosquito’s low inertia renders it impervious to falling drops. Drops do not splash on mosquitoes, but simply push past them allowing a mosquito to continue on its flight path undeterred.

In other words, the mosquito has evolved to survive in the rain by making itself very inconsequential as far as the raindrop is concerned. The raindrop isn’t really involved in the deal.

And then there’s a third metaphor, which isn’t a truly evolutionary story, but a fable: the scorpion and the frog.  In this well-known tale, the frog agrees to give a ride across a river to the scorpion on the grounds that—as the scorpion argues—it makes no sense for the scorpion to kill the frog as they will both drown.  The frog goes along with this, although its motives in doing so aren’t all that clear. When the scorpion stings the frog after all, the frog complains, to which the scorpion’s reply is simple: it stung the frog because that was its nature.

So I can see why it makes sense for powerful companies to promote competitive evolution in the market system as a form of coexistence that can pay off for everyone, but stories of species collaboration aren’t always so reassuring: there’s the orchid’s self-serving deception, the raindrop’s indifference born of superior size and power, and the helpless dishonesty of the scorpion. The wasp does well out of it, the mosquito makes the best of it, and the frog comes off very badly indeed.

The fact that each of these relationships is constructed in the awkward space between mutuality and sharing helps explain why external partnerships alarm risk-averse educational institutions looking to make be-all LMS contract decisions. It’s like going on holiday with a couple: so much could go wrong.

So if we’re also going to thrive as the combination of platforming and vendor concentration places extreme pressure on the smaller and more specialised edtech players, we’re going to need to do more than watch nature do its thing. Specifically, it makes sense to remember the power that lies in the fact that we’re the clients, we have relatively large budgets, and we have urgent reason to invest in protecting the health and diversity of the global edtech ecosystem—especially in Australia, where the goal of our startups is already to make it to America.

So one way we might do this is to create better opportunities for educators to become much more actively and routinely invested in supporting small edtech startups—but how to do this without becoming either the mosquito or the raindrop? That’s going to take some smart thinking.