Educational technology, hacktivism and the war on public education

I

In 2006, John Denham, Labour MP and former cabinet minister, argued in the Chartist that

All public services have to be based on a diversity of independent providers who compete for business in a market governed by Consumer choice. All across Whitehall, any policy option now has to be dressed up as “choice”, “diversity”, and “contestablity”. These are the hallmarks of the “new model public service”.

This morning Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, widened the space through which public or socialised goods could be enclosed, marketised and commodified within education as a new model public service, as he scoped a space for technology in education that was primarily economic, de-politicised and privatised.

Gove’s focus was laid bare from the very outset o his speech at BETT. He began not by championing teaching or teachers or the education sector, but “by congratulating all the companies in this Hall. British companies are world-leaders in the field of educational technology…” This is central for Gove as a member of the UK Coalition Government, precisely because that Government is closing down all public discourse that threatens or questions private profit maximisation or the extraction of value by corporations from our previously accrued social goods. Progress is to be realised by the privatisation and marketisation of public assets, and education is a pivotal terrain for making concrete and securing this neoliberal agenda. Thus, the only discourse that gains public space is framed by employment, labour (or capitalist work), commerce, industry and economics. This is now central to our educational culture. There is no place and no space for a critique of state subsidies for private gain or the politics of our education system, or how our education might enable other, dissenting or marginalised possibilities to be deliberated.

II

For Gove, the imperative behind linking markets and technology is key because “with each new gadget, each huge leap forward, technology has expanded into new intellectual and commercial fields.” More importantly and ominously, Gove re-framed the Coalition’s attack on education as a social good, originally signalled in HE through the Browne Review and in primary/secondary education through its White Paper, by folding into it the progressive, reductionist logic of technology. He argued:

Almost every field of employment now depends on technology. From radio, to television, computers and the internet, each new technological advance has changed our world and changed us too. But there is one notable exception. Education has barely changed. Our school system has not prepared children for this new world. Millions have left school over the past decade without even the basics they need for a decent job. And the current curriculum cannot prepare British students to work at the very forefront of technological change.

So there we are. Technology is revolutionary. Technology enables progress. Technology enables growth. But our schools and our teachers have failed our children as workers. And as a result millions of students lack basic skills. And we risk economic stagnation as a result.

And yet as Christopher Newfield argues in his work the new proletarianisation, it is difficult to sustain this positivist view argument for the generalised, emancipatory potential of technological skills, because under capitalism technologies are used to promote consumption, production gains or to increase the rate of profit. The logic of their use and deployment is for productivity gains, or for workplace monitoring and surveillance and management and stratification, or to catalyse the creation of value by opening up/harnessing new markets, or by stimulating innovations that further valorise capital. Thus, Newfield highlights three different types of knowledge or skill:

  1. Type C is ‘commodity skills’, which are ‘readily obtained’ and whose possessors are interchangeable. This category includes most ‘pink collar’ work that involves skills like ‘typing and a cheerful phone manner’.
  2. Type B is ‘leveraged skills’, which require advanced education and which offer clear added value to the firm that hires such skill, and yet which are possessed by many firms. Computer programmers or network administrators are examples of essential employees who worked long and hard to acquire their knowledge, and yet who are relatively numerous. Ironically, they may have entered the field because it was large: its size may have signalled to them when they were picked a major in college–and to their stability-minded parents–something like ‘the high-tech economy will always need computer support specialists’. Yes, but not any particular computer support specialist, and not at a very high wage.
  3. Type A consists of ‘proprietary skills’, defined as ‘the company-specific talents around which an organization builds a business’. The knowledge manager must nurture and cultivate only the skills that directly contribute to the firm’s propriety knowledge, and stamp out (or radically cheapen) the first kind of knowledge worker, whose skills are interchangeable commodities. Only the star producers–those who create proprietary knowledge–enable the firm to seek rents, and only they are to be retained, supported, cultivated, and lavishly paid.

Yet Gove’s speech re-enforces one of the entrenched myths of educational technology discourses in that it alleges the democratic-yet-neutral tendencies of technology, where all have the opportunity to profit from becoming the Type A workers that Newfield analyses. In Gove’s view, technology, coupled to re-skilling teachers and defining a new ICT curriculum for business, will enable economic equality of opportunity. However, in discussing Education and Inequality, Sean Reardon, argues for the United States that:

It is well known that economic inequality has been growing in the U.S. since the 1970s. Less well known, however, is the fact that inequality in educational success has also been growing. The difference in average academic skills between high and low-income students is now 30–40 percent larger than it was 30 years ago.

So family background has become increasingly determinative of educational success, and educational success, in turn, has become increasingly determinative of economic success. The American dream has moved farther out of reach for lower-income children.

What has caused this rise in educational inequality? Contrary to popular rhetoric, our schools are not worse than they used to be. The average nine-year-old today has math skills equivalent to those of the average eleven-year-old 30 years ago. Nor have test scores or college completion rates for students from low-income families declined; they simply haven’t risen nearly as fast as those of high-income students. Although there are striking inequalities in the quality of schools available to children from low- and high-income families, these inequalities do not appear larger than in the past. Furthermore, if schools were responsible for widening educational inequality, we would expect that test-score gap to widen as students progress through school. But this does not happen. The test-score gap between eighth-grade students from high- and low-income families is no larger than the school-readiness gap among kindergarteners. The roots of widening educational inequality appear to lie in early childhood, not in schools.

Reardon argues that “Stagnant incomes have left the poor and working-class without the resources to give their children the improved educational opportunities and supports that the children of the rich enjoy.” Marx saw this when he wrote that “Technology reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from those relations.” Moreover, this disengagement with the politics and reality of poverty and class, means that we prioritise “the [perceived] affordances of educational technology” (participation, horizontal organisational structures, opportunity etc.) over-and-above the implications of increasing proletarianisation in the service-sector and the routinisation of work that is based on outcomes and technologically-mediated prefomance, and which is reinforced by the reduction of social mobility under capitalism. As Paul Mason highlights, this is amplified through the idea of the disenfranchised graduate loaded with debt and with no future.

III

Pace Gove, some commentators have tried to re-shape the discussion about digital skills or literacy or computer science, to which his speech contributed. Josie Fraser, in her post Computer Science is not Digital Literacy argues “for ways in which young people can become active in creating and critically engaging with technology [as citizens]”. Pat Parslow’s post on Digital Literacies, schools and the Guardian argues prosaically for users as “confident explorers of the ‘digital space’, able to learn new systems without attending courses (or at least, without having to attend too many).” However, the dominant space for a discussion of digital literacy or an ICT curriculum is economic and not social. The recent Guardian article Pupils need to understand computers, not just how to use them, notes that

Michael Gove, has “sat up and listened”, says Ian Livingstone, one of the founders of the gaming company Games Workshop. He co-authored an influential report for the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts on the future of the UK gaming industry, which concluded that it was losing its edge on the rest of the world.

In this drive for “edge”, education is subsumed under the dictates of profitability, competitiveness and the commodity form. There can be no other way. And this logic is further revealed in the Coding for kids campaign, which has no politics in its statement of intent. The campaign was catalysed by an e-petition to the UK Government, which was justified in Emma Mulqueeny’s, Teach our kids to code e-petition, through the assertion that digital technology, the reproduction of our social world and economic growth are connected:

It is not yet awesomely cool to be able to build digital tools that shape the way the rest of us operate in our worlds, both social and work-based. Not in the UK anyway. And I could see this having a profound effect on our worldwide digital economy and reputation in the very near future

Mulqueeny goes on to celebrate Rushkoff’s assertion that “the difference between being able to code and not being able to code, is like being the driver or the passenger”, further demonstrating how technology is used to define what is contested within the positivist and progressive claims about its affordances for economic agency. In this case, coding skills, rather than their subsumption under the deeper structures of capitalist society that disenfranchise the many, are at issue. Thus, we never get to a deliberation of whether coding and hacking and open source might be used as a means of re-imagining our world.

The polyarchic parameters of this discourse are re-produced by Gove at BETT, as he attempts to constrict what we can discuss in terms of technology-in-education, reinterpreted by some as “digital literacies”. What we can discuss legitimately is kettled and cordoned and enclosed by economics and not politics. This notion of what it is legitimate to discuss is critical, and Gove uses it to further the mythology of a neutral, positivist technological paradigm being fused under education. He argued that

technology will bring more autonomy to each of us here in this room. This is a huge opportunity. But it’s also a responsibility. [So] We want to focus on training teachers. Universities, businesses and others will have the opportunity to devise new courses and exams. In particular, we want to see universities and businesses create new high quality Computer Science GCSEs, and develop curricula encouraging schools to make use of the brilliant Computer Science content available on the web.

This amounts to a form of what Christopher Newfield (in a separate blog-post) call “subsidy capitalism”, which “means that the public, directly or indirectly, does not participate in the investment, research, and development decisions that remake society year in and year out. It hands over resources and all decision rights at the same time.” Gove’s focus on business defining the curriculum/teacher training mirrors Newfield’s point that:

There is a profound cultural limitation at work here: American leaders see the agencies responsible for social benefits as categorically less insightful than the financially self-interested private sector, even though the latter are focused entirely on their own advantage. As it is now, the future emerges in erratic bursts from the secret development operations at companies like Google (e.g. this radio report on the sudden appearance over Silicon Valley of The Cloud). We are having an increasingly difficult time imagining a collective future that emerges from common activity.

Thus, for Gove there is a lack of a meaningful commentary about poverty or equality and their relationship to educational attainment and wealth, and no focus on the educational research that highlights the links between class and educational outcomes. This sets a direction of travel for public policy that disables our ability to imagine a collective future, and is further reduced by Gove’s eulogising of a few, self-made men like Zuckerberg and Schmidt, without a meaningful discussion of these cultural leaders’ approach to the production of our common wealth or social goods.

IV

The risks of this approach and the domination of corporate power over our digital lives, and our digitalised spaces and time, has been analysed by Cory Doctorow, in Lockdown, The coming war on general-purpose computing. Doctorow highlights how the information economy is realised through the subsumption of our everyday engagement with technology and digitised content under private property and copyright law. Thus, our activity is reduced to “a tedious enumeration of every permutation of things people do with information—and what might be charged for each.” The result of this commodification of our virtual lives is a need to “control how people use their computers and the files we transfer to them.”

This is the world onto which Gove’s speech about educational technology, teacher training, the ICT curriculum and the value of student’s as workers, needs to be mapped. In this world, states Doctorow, the following practices occur and are contested.

  1. Human rights activists have raised alarms over U-EFI, the new PC bootloader, which restricts your computer so it only runs “signed” operating systems, noting that repressive governments will likely withhold signatures from operating systems unless they allow for covert surveillance operations.
  2. Sony loaded covert rootkit installers on 6 million audio CDs, which secretly executed programs that watched for attempts to read the sound files on CDs and terminated them. It also hid the rootkit’s existence by causing the computer operating system’s kernel to lie about which processes were running, and which files were present on the drive.
  3. Nintendo’s 3DS opportunistically updates its firmware, and does an integrity check to make sure that you haven’t altered the old firmware in any way. If it detects signs of tampering, it turns itself into a brick.
  4. On the network side SOPA, the U.S. Stop Online Piracy Act, bans innocuous tools such as DNSSec—a security suite that authenticates domain name information— because they might be used to defeat DNS blocking measures. It blocks Tor, an online anonymity tool sponsored by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and used by dissidents in oppressive regimes, because it can be used to circumvent IP blocking measures.
  5. The Motion Picture Association of America, a SOPA proponent, circulated a memo citing research that SOPA might work because it uses the same measures as are used in Syria, China, and Uzbekistan. It argued that because these measures are effective in those countries, they would work in America, too!

What is clear here is the contested and deeply politicised terrain on which the use and development of educational technology is played out. Yet, it is missing from the Coalition Government’s education agenda. In fact, their explicit attempt to reduce this discourse to economic utility, and to ignore the impact of poverty and economic inequality, and to forget or marginalise the political structures and organisation that is impacted by and revealed through technology, demonstrates further that this educational space is now open for enclosure under private property, and for further subsidy capitalism.

V

The crack in this revealed assault on education as a public good is Gove’s final statements connecting “an open-source curriculum” and “Disapplying [sic.] the ICT programme of study”. Gove talks here about freedom, and enabling teachers “to cover truly innovative, specialist and challenging topics.” This might be seen as an attempt by capital or corporations to enter, control and enclose what has previously been seen as open source or as the terrain previously set-out and negotiated by hacktivists. However, it does open up a space for educational technologists working with programmers and educationalists to challenge the dominant logic of how we construct and re-produce our educational worlds as commonly-defined, social goods. This does not disavow coding for kids, or digital literacies, or the reproduction of teacher training. It just doesn’t do it simply for corporations or for profit maximisation. And where it is for those ends, that realisation must be critiqued and deliberated both inside and beyond the formal curriculum.

For we exist in a world that faces socio-environmental crises, and which is in the midst of a global crisis of capitalism. It is simply not good enough that our discourse as educators is focused upon employability or economic growth. The agenda for our development of digital literacies, or for an ICT curriculum, or for redesigning our teacher training, lies beyond the demands of transnational finance capital or of commerce or of industry, as realised by the state-under-capitalism, for marketised skills. Testing and deliberating global solutions demands an engagement with politics, and with politics as they are revealed through technology. Overcoming global problems demands that we do not simply outsource solutions, but that we use and engage with technology co-operatively and socially, in order to consider whether the society we have built and re-produce is indeed the one we need.

In this those engaged in the operationalisation of technology-in-education might consider their activist stance. Is Gove’s industrialised, economically-driven and enclosed world really the best we can hope for or create? Given those advances in bio-engineering, in microcomputing, in shared services etc. that he advances, is it really all we can do to hope for the further commodification of our existence, and the production of an educational experience that is shackled to that end? If the answer is yes then we are all impoverished. The crisis demands that we consider how the actions we take and the technologies we deploy contribute to poverty and the stratification of society; how they contribute to state subsidized capitalism and proletarianised work; how they re-produce inequality; and how they disable us from acting co-operatively in society. But we might also consider how to re-engage our actions and the technologies we deploy asymmetrically; to refuse and push-back against marketisation, to realise the possibilities of the hacker ethic, and to use technology to describe more social forms of value.

If Gove wants “an open-source curriculum”, then we should give him “activism 101”, “protest 101” and “hacktivism 101”.


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