Ten points on the 2012 UCISA Survey on Technology-Enhanced Learning

Economic forecast soothe our dereliction

Words of euthanasia, apathy of sick routine

Carried away with useless advertising dreams

Blinding children, life as autonotomes

Manic Street Preachers. 1992. Natwest-Barclays-Midlands-Lloyds.

The 2012 UCISA survey on TEL leaves me with some matters arising from its sector-wide description of the implementation of technology in higher education.

NOTE: I am grateful for the work of UCISA and especially Richard Walker, Julie Voce and Jebar Ahmed in pulling these data together. We need these kinds of surveys, in order to help us to shape a politics of educational technology.

ONE. The Background to the survey states:

UCISA is aware that a number of issues relating to VLEs are having a significant impact on Computing/Information Services. They also represent cultural challenges for both academic staff and students in how they engage with their learning and teaching. Issues relate to choosing a VLE, its implementation, technical support and a whole range of support, training and pedagogic issues relating to its use.

This made me think about the poverty of our collective critique of machinery, technology or techniques in higher education; the one space where such a critique should develop. In Capital, Volume 1, as he developed his argument about how machines recalibrate both work and the relationships between capital and labour, Marx wrote:

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.

TWO. The maturity of our understanding of technologies in the curriculum is increasing. Witness the reduction in staff confidence in the use of technologies as a barrier to change. So why does the sector insist, generally, on using the term TEL, which places technology before learning? Is this because it is easier to discuss technology or techniques that then connect to abstracted educational currencies like participation, retention, progression, which are in turn forms of separation, rather than to address the real subsumption of those technologies under a more humane, critical pedagogy? At present it feels like higher education is being calibrated as an educational space in which learning is formally subsumed under the need for technologically- or technique-driven value. The idea of separation is important here, in terms of: individual rather than collective or co-operative staff skills/literacies/strategies; supporting individual students and their engagement and participation on-line/in the classroom; individuated assessment and accreditation regimes supported by individuated analytics and surveillance, in the name of employability. In this the idea that individual students/academics might becomes in excess of themselves in a collective space is lost.

THREE. The Executive Summary flags the key institutional concern as finance with “the Browne review heralding the new economic climate and budgetary challenges”. It is possible that these are simply new economic norms, as neoliberalism recalibrates the university as a space for-profit. However, the Summary then argues for the following imperatives in the use of TEL, emerging from the HEFCE Online Learning Taskforce report:

student choice in the deregulated market place, with student expectations driving an improved level of service provision by higher education institutions, particularly through the use of technologies to support application and course selection procedures. The 2012 Survey sought to capture progress in these areas too, particularly the growth in online services offering more flexible opportunities for learning, such as through the development of mobile learning provision.

This is a deeply political statement, reflecting: the drive towards new public management in education linked to choice agendas; the fetishisation of student expectations and the hegemony of student-as-consumer (c.f. page 15 and reported student petitions/feedback that act as encouragement/pressure); the use of technology for work-based and distance learning; and the development of flexibility in educational provision as a means of replicating inside higher education those precarious working patterns that shape the landscape of capitalist labour. The report does not or cannot critique the extant political economy and structural constraints of the use of technology inside a neoliberal university sector. It can only reflect the perceived needs of the sector in responding to the rule of money, so that analysis/description pivots around money and efficiency. This is our collective loss refracted through the survey.

FOUR. The report states that “The key change since 2010 has been the emergence of corporate strategies.” This is interesting given the lifting of the fee cap to £9,000, and the ways in which discourses of competition and efficiency drive techno-determinism. Witness this Guardian article in which it is argued that “The use of innovative technology in higher education will ensure the UK remains a leader in world-class teaching, education and research”, and this Educause article that links the consumerization of technology, education and work. However, also witness this legal briefing on the relationship between universities and students-as-consumers, in which it states “Education institutions which are utilising e-learning, e-commerce and information technology to provide innovative ways for students to participate will have to be aware of the methods they employ in the provision of education products online and digitally in order that they can comply with the new [EU Consumer Protection] law.” Corporate strategies as a driver for TEL is correlated to the rush from universities to align themselves with MOOCs like Coursera and their engagement with overseas markets, and the business needs of those universities to maintain an increase in the rate of profit. In this, technology as a lever for competition and efficiency is central, so corporate engagement becomes normalised.

FIVE. In spite of this corporate agenda, and the threat/opportunity of MOOCs, the Executive Summary argues that “fully online courses have decreased as a proportion of TEL activity over the years and remain a niche area of activity.” Are (some) universities being redesigned around, firstly an external space that is defined by partnerships or collaborations or governing networks that are themselves geared towards extracting rents from global markets, and secondly, niche activities that are delivered in hybrid form inside the university? The first factor responds to governmental agendas for export-driven demand. The second is articulated in the focus on NSS scores and the survey return (page 13) that states “Another key development from the 2010 Survey is the rise up the rankings of creating/improving competitive advantage as a driver… with Russell Group universities returning the highest mean score of the mission groups for this factor.” This is underwritten by the idea of the student-as-consumer and business efficiency, with technology as a lever for competitive change.

SIX. Hosting/outsourcing: the Executive Summary argues that “The establishment of outsourced support for TEL services remains quite limited though across the sector.” I wrote about this here. It is part of a structural readjustment policy that disciplines (non-academic) labour and diverts income in the form of rents to corporations. As for the uncritical idea that it is green, read this or this or this.

SEVEN. “Mobile technologies top the list of challenges which institutions face, followed by staff development, legal/policy issues and e-assessment. Staff development, strategies/policies and support staff are seen as the primary remedies – echoing similar responses to the 2010 Survey.” Which reminds me that it is easier to distance the self from the reality of austerity and to engage with technological innovation inside neoliberal higher education for the student-as-consumer, than it is to imagine new forms of sociability or socially-defined value that might be against/beyond the university as it is geared for value-extraction and the reproduction of capitalist social relations. Which leads me to…

EIGHT. A/the critical statement in the while report emerges on page 6. At issue is “how the sector can maximise the value of its strategic investment in learning technologies.” Hence the scope of the survey appears to be fiscally-driven or focused on value as it relates to “new trends in TEL service delivery and provision” that are budgetary, about outsourcing, about institutional collaboration in delivering TEL services, about mobile services, about reviews of institutional VLE provision, and finally about the impact of TEL tools on the student learning experience and pedagogic practice. As Ruth Rikowski argues, this is important because:

‘value’ is the essential ingredient upon which all forms of capitalism rest, and furthermore, that today value is being extracted from knowledge, particularly in the industrialised world. Once the human race becomes more conscious of this, it can then endeavour to create a better, kinder, fairer social and economic system that does not depend on the extraction of value from and exploitation of human labour.

NINE. The survey notes that “Pearson’s eCollege was not returned in the results” in the questions on commercial platform uptake. The role of for-profits like Pearson, interrogated in the USA by Diane Ravitch, in the UK by Andrew McGettigan and me, now takes us beyond arguments about which VLE vendor a university “partners” with. It now becomes a question of whether universities can withstand the structural readjustment imposed by the levelling of the fiscal terrain through secondary legislation related to shared services and VAT exemption or research and innovation funds, alongside the demands for efficiencies in service-provision allegedly provided by for-profits, and the ability of corporates with massive stock market capitalisation to open-up the sector further. This is where the feedback in the survey about competition, especially from the Russell Sector, is the warning cry. Technology here represents the canary in the mine. The next survey will need to be less about Pearson’s specific eCollege and more about the impact of marketisation on the fabric of higher education and the idea of the University. The detail of how corporations like Pearson are able to lever profit and rent from universities, or to subsume those very universities inside their governance structures will be at issue. At this point the question might turn to how technology might be used to push back, by fighting against outsourcing or for locally-hosted open source, or how it supports an exodus away from what the university has become.

TEN. Impact is raised as a question 3.21. In April I argued that attempts to reclaim impact are important because

research [and pedagogic] impact is [are] a crucial site of struggle in the commodification of the University and its subsumption under the logic of capitalist expansion. The ways in which academics might go into occupation of terms like impact, in order to redefine its use against that prescribed by the regulatory logic of the State or transnational advocacy networks, is important in moving beyond the use of the term simply as the impression of academic activity. Impact as impression objectifies activity and relationships and people’s subject positions through behavioural demands. What can be measured is part of a neoliberal discourse related to efficiency and consumption.

This final point is crystallised because the UCISA report argues that “the evaluation of pedagogic practices is less well established across the sector than impact evaluation on the student experience”. The question then is how do we move beyond the ideological restrictions of technology shackled inside the claims made for the student experience, to re-frame that experience collectively and for new forms of impact that serve as a critique of the profit motive? Politicising the claims we make and the surveys we undertake might be one point of departure.

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