Educational technology and the war on public education

On Tuesday I am presenting at the University of Brighton’s Centre for Applied Philosophy, Politics and Ethics, at their conference, ‘The Problem of “Dirty Hands” in UK Universities‘.

I’ll be developing some ideas around the theme of educational technology and the war on public education. My slides for the event are at: My argument will be as follows.

ONE. Educational technology is a site of struggle inside the University, through which the relationships between management and (immaterial) labour are reinforced and re-produced. More broadly the deployment of educational technology is a form of state-subsidised privatisation and is a space through which the marketisation of education can be rooted.

TWO. Through educational technology, labour inside the University is at risk of coercion, measurement and surveillance, in order to meet the marketised demands of competition and profit-maximisation. Educational technology is a way in which hegemonic positions can be protected and developed inside education

THREE. Academics and educational technologists/staff developers are complicit in the ways that educational technologies are deployed at the heart of the University through teaching and research. At issue is whether these same groups have a critical (ethical) lens through which to critique the nature of the technologies that they re-sell beyond a focus on the student experience? How might critical insight about the ways in which educational technologies enable the co-option of University teaching, research and development for value formation and accumulation be catalysed?

FOUR. Uncritical, technologically-mediated behaviours inside the University are conditioned through the politics of education, which reproduces polyarchic governance through a form of the shock doctrine.

  • Polyarchy is an elitist form of democratic engagement that describes what is manageable/appropriate in a modern society, and what is acceptable and what can be fought for in terms of organisation and governance. It rests on universal, transhistorical norms based on the tenets of liberal democracy and capitalism, and which make it unacceptable to argue for other forms of value or organisation. Thus, it is not possible to address the structural dominance of elites within capitalism, or the limited procedural definitions of democracy or participation or power. This political enclosure is reinforced technologically and inside systems of education.
  • The Shock Doctrine focuses upon exacting political control by imposing economic shock therapy. In terms of higher education this focuses upon:

i.    structural re-adjustment through enforced competition and coercion (fee structures and student indenture; internationalisation; distance learning);

 ii.    a tightening/quickening of the dominant, economically-driven, anti-humanist ideology (student-as-consumer; HE-as-commodity);

iii.    the transfer of state/public assets to the private sector (consultancy; outsourced services);

iv.    the privatisation of state enterprises/elements in the name of consumer choice, economic efficiency or sustainability (state-subsidised privatisation)

FIVE. In response to this ideological or political enclosure, the space for the implementation of educational technologies is legitimised by organisations that support/influence universities. Thus, the HEFCE focuses on technological deployments for cost-reductions, business-process re-engineering and efficiency gains, which themselves might underpin radical transformation of the university as a “business”. HEFCE states that it works with key partners like JISC and the HEA in supporting institutions in technological transformation. The JISC’s Transitions Group has reported the importance of the HE/FE sector for economic growth, and it connects and relates changes in these sectors that are political, financial, technological and competitive. These changes mean that JISC must operate within “stringent new financial realities”, in order that it is “better geared to achieving a large impact”. Thus, recent JISC-Announce emails clearly connect technological innovations to a discourse of “cost savings”, “value for money”, “value and impact”, and organisational efficiency and effectiveness. This legitimation of a discourse that connects educational innovation to fiscal “realities” is also revealed in the HEA’s values, which highlight the importance of value for money and place it alongside the HEA’s other organisational values of student learning and institutional innovation.

SIX. The recent Coalition Government budget for 2012 further tightens control of the technological policy and practice of universities through its focus on: universities working in the “business” of education; on VAT and shared services, and the need to treat “commercial universities” “fairly”; and by creating a research investment fund that “will attract additional co-investment from the private sector”. This reinforcement of the deep connections between commercial and financial leverage, technology, and education-for-employment are part of an on-going governmental discourse about the value/purpose of education, outlined for instance by Michael Gove at BETT.

SEVEN. It is from inside this space that educational technology is implemented by educational technologists, staff developers and technicians, and then adopted by practitioners and students. Thus, the following serve as examples of how technology is often implemented based on problems of performance, efficiency and scale, without a broader, political, contextual analysis or questioning.

  • Cloud Computing is argued for from perspectives of scale and organisational/labour efficiency, with a limited critique of: the geo-political and legal issues that arise, in particular related to national security legislation; the ways in which the cloud enables the separation and surveillance of proletarianised work, and the re-production and redistribution of commodity- and leveraged-skills to low-wage societies through outsourcing (and cutting labour costs for in-house work); the attempts that are being made to commodify and sell the idea of cloud computing in terms of green IT or sustainability, despite the lack of evidence that the cloud is ‘greener’, with industry wrapping itself around this concept as a space for further service-led innovation; and the privatization of public, academic services through outsourcing/consultancy/rent.
  • Blackboard is utilised as a Learning Management System in particular across the global North, and, as with other providers in the marketplace, the Company provides services that are rented by/licensed to Universities that are funded in some cases by the State. In 2011 it was reported that Blackboard had an “expanding footprint in the defense sector”, and that as a result “The Pentagon gets a manageable software program that helps instructors in subjects like military logistics and infantry tactics get a handle on the coursework flow of thousands of occasionally far-flung active duty military personnel. Blackboard, on the other hand, has a neat little honeypot that has, in many ways, saved the company.” Moreover, in 2011 Blackboard was acquired by Providence Equity Partners, a private-equity company. Providence was advised by, amongst others Goldman Sachs, on its acquisition of SRA International, a company that “is dedicated to solving complex problems of global significance for government organizations serving the national security, civil government, health, and intelligence and space markets.” Should those links between the investment banking/finance, defence and education sectors be discussed in the context of a University’s mission or in the sector’s aim to work for the public good?
  • Mobile learning is championed across the sector and by various funding bodies in supporting personalisation and anytime/anywhere learning, with limited critique of this in relation to the human/labour rights abuses that have been revealed in the factories where mobile technologies are manufactured or the mines from where raw materials are produced, and in spite of the threat of the enclosure of content on the open web due to the commercial, competitive imperative to create a market for mobile applications. How should revelations around human/labour rights, especially in the global South, affect institutional policy?
  • The implementation of communications-solutions like MS Lync often underpins an integrated systems architecture that connects communications and information-management capabilities across an institution. However, the development of such architectures also makes possible institutional surveillance of academic practices and labour, and the disciplining of marginalised practices, like the utilisation of open source solutions like Linux, or of practices that are defined outside technocratic norms. Framing discussions about the implementation of specific technologies as politically-neutral instances of problem-solving removes the imperative, for instance, to engage with trades unions about the management and monitoring capabilities of such tools as an aggregated whole. How often do academics or educational technologist discuss labour rights and safeguards when deploying a technology or designing an architecture?
  • The coming fetishisation of learning analytics and data-mining, linked to diagnostic and summative assessment, alongside progression and retention agendas, is in-part technologically-driven, and connects academics to the daily measurement of their practices and to impact measures for teaching. Do educational developers or technologists or academic staff consider the means by which their everyday existence is incorporated inside the means of re-production of capital? Do they consider how technologies further objectify our social relationships as commodities from which value can be extracted through, for instance, the monitoring and harvesting of personal data, the enclosure and control of spaces or applications of consumption, the use of venture capitalism to support specific social networks, and the technological augmentation and capture of affectivity?

EIGHT. These examples serve to highlight the risks in any uncritical, techno-determinist deployment of technology. So we might ask, what is to be done? This is important in the face of governmental/funding policies that are in-turn constricted by transnational global capital, and in particular by the compression and enclosure of time and space wrought by technologically-transformed, finance capital. It is natural that those who work inside universities would escape into problem-solving tactics like ‘social inclusion’ or ‘equality of opportunity’, which are liberal themes so often connected to discourses that emerge around emergent, assistive or participative technologies.

NINE. However, everyday scholarly activities are becoming increasingly folded into the logic of capital through, for instance, indentured study and debt, internationalisation, privatisation and outsourcing. As a result, the internal logic of the University is increasingly prescribed by the rule of money, which forecloses on the possibility of creating transformatory social relationships as against fetishised products and processes of valorisation.

TEN. Yet the University remains a symbol of those places where mass intellectuality can be consumed, produced and more importantly contributed to by all. Academics then have an important role in arguing against the conversion of intellectual activity into intellectual capital and hence private property, catalysed through processes of virtualisation that are driven by the commodification of research and teaching and the emergence of commercially-viable, proprietary products that can be marketised. The capitalist processes of deskilling and automation, fetishisation of products, and proletarianisation of labour are at the core of this process.

ELEVEN. This struggle is given life in the range of radical academic projects and occupations in the UK, which are an attempt to re-inscribe higher education as higher learning dissolved into the fabric of society. In some cases these projects are working politically to re-define issues of power. In most cases they see the institution of the school or the university as symbolically vital to a societal transformation. They form a process of re-imagination that risks fetishisation or reification of radical education, but which offers a glimpse of a different process that shines a light on the University as one node in a global web of social relations. This also focuses upon rethinking in public the role of academics in society, facilitated through educational technologies but realised in concrete experiences on solid ground.

TWELVE. Thus, in the mass of protests that form a politics of events against austerity academics need to consider their participatory traditions and positions, and how they actively contribute to the dissolution of their expertise as a commodity, in order to support other socially-constructed forms of production. In the critique of knowledge production, revealed through the production/consumption of specific educational technologies, the University can grow in excess of its symbolic role. Thus, students and teachers might reconsider how they engage with these technologies, in order to contribute to a re-formation of their webs of social interaction. How do students and teachers contribute to public dissent against marketisation, domination and foreclosure?