Educational technology, academic labour and a pedagogy for class struggle

On Friday I’m presenting at the Critical Pedagogies: Equality and Diversity in a Changing Institution, Interdisciplinary Symposium at the University of Edinburgh.

There is a fuller paper here.

My slides are here.

I intend to make the following points.

ONE: on social control and the wage.

In an article from 2005 on the universities in the crisis, George Caffentzis argued that:

In the University two forms of unwaged labor for capital is [sic.] appropriated:

1. the development of new “forces of production” through scientific research and what Marx called “the power of knowledge objectified”;

2) the reproduction of labor power and so reproduction of the hierarchy of labor powers of different qualities (selection, division and stratification).

Thus capital appropriates science and education as a costless part of the cycle of its own reproduction.

Caffentzis notes that from the student protests of the 1960s in the USA, there had been a move to control universities through fiscal realism, but also by redefining the university for work, as a means of production. In this process, technology or the the power of knowledge objectified was critical across commodified disciplines. Thus, he argued:

Discipline over students is not accomplished with the old schoolmasterish ways (grading) but through connecting in a very explicit way work in the university with waged work: the job. The “new vocationalism” is not only to be found in the community colleges but it is also in the higher levels of the system where law, medicine, psychology, business administration, become the dominate departments. The social control jobs are used as social control: control through work if there ever was any!

Social control, validated through the subsumption of academic credibility to capitalist value, is critical in this process, and connects to what we now see as the drive for the entrepreneurial university or the student-as-entrepreneur. In this guise the student and the academic are more than consumers, they are willingly able to subsume their lives and their curricula to the creation of value. This includes the reinvention and reproduction of their selves inside the very processes that manufacture value. Caffendtzis argued:

What goes on at the university is work, namely schoolwork. It is work done to prepare to do more work. Its essence is selfdiscipline both in a specific and a general manner. The specific aspect of being a student is the learning of certain technical skills that can lead to greater productivity in specific jobs that require these skills. The general aspect of being a student, however, is infinitely more important: being self-regulating, self-controlled, etc.

Thus, as Nick Riemer argued about the ongoing strike at Sydney University:

vice-chancellors and their deputies now enthusiastically enact the values of competition, league-tables, performance indicators and similar managerial fetishes with all the fervour of recent converts.

Caffentzis connects this managerialism and techniques for control to the wageless labour of students. He argues that this unwaged nature veils such work as a form of “personal choice”, so that where it is refused/violated/plagiarised it is pathologised. This unwaged status, which is also linked to high levels of student debt that has to be paid down, matters because as unwaged workers students are used to reduce labour costs outside the University. This chart of the generational spread of student debt hammers home the point that the links between labour inside/beyond the University, the politics of the wage, and institutional restructuring need to be developed if an oppositional space is to be created. For Caffentzis, by being unwaged and depoliticised/separated from academic labour, “Capital can restructure the schools and increase intensity and productivity requirements at little cost.” This unwaged labour of students has pedagogic implications for academics and the definition of their disciplines through their teaching and their research. Is it possible to escape the discipline and reproduction of capital’s social relationships inside and beyond the University?

TWO: on academic labour.

In a recent blog post, Joss Winn has argued that we need to end the reification of the content of academic labour in its administrative, teaching and research functions, and instead “focus our critique on the form of academic labour”. He notes that in doing so:

we find that an academic contract or a non-academic contract refers to the same dual qualities of labour: commodity-producing concrete and abstract labour. By focusing on the form of labour, rather than its content, we can only critique it rather than reify it. What is there to reify when we uncover the capitalist mode of production and the inhuman role and purpose of labour?

To focus on the form of labour, rather than its content, unites all wage workers in solidarity rather than setting us against each other in terms of skills, experience, opportunity, achievements and recognition. Such a critique of ‘academic labour’ can only lead to the negation of academic labour, first conceptually, and then, through further critique and struggle, in practice towards a different form of social wealth, which is not driven by the imperative of the production of value at all costs.

One possibility for widening this space for solidarity may be through the connections between work inside/beyond the University and its unwaged/waged nature, and the subsumption of work inside the University for entrepreneurial, value-driven activity, outlined by Caffentzis. Is it possible to use the subsumption of the University inside the treadmill logic of capitalism and for the reproduction of its social relationships, to demonstrate solidarity between student-academic-worker, and the shared forms of exploitation? If so, is it possible to liberate the content of academic labour from the University and for social ends, inside new co-operative spaces? What might such liberation mean for pedagogic development and the place or critique of technology inside the University?

THREE: technology and the enclosure or control of academic labour.

Do academic collectives have a critical or ethical lens through which to critique the nature of the technologies that they use and re-purpose inside the University, beyond a limiting focus on enhancing the student experience? How might critical insight about the ways in which educational technologies enable the enclosure of academic labour for value formation and accumulation be catalysed? To what ends might such a critique be put?

Against a backdrop of the enclosure and marketization of activity and relationships inside the neoliberal university, educational technology is an important domain through which value-driven strategies play–out. This process is complex and is related to the ways in which some educational functions prove profitable and can be privatised. For example, some vocational training can be provided at low-cost using part-time or precariously employed, post-graduate lecturers engaged with the resources of on-line open education or distance learning. Publishers are able to leverage their market capitalisation and access to content and learning management systems to sell services into education. Private equity funds are engaged in the purchase and development of established learning management systems and related educational applications, in order to sell services into tertiary education.

Thus, technologies are insinuated inside a broader system of enclosure, which underpins accumulation by dispossession as a way in which surplus academic labour or rents can be extracted from individuals and institutions. In terms of surplus academic labour, academic management is able to bypass agreements on contracted staff teaching hours by moving more work on-line and then counting it as administration rather than formalised contact hours with students. Equally, the development of discourses around innovation and teaching excellence that are explicitly linked to work that is undertaken on-line catalyses a competitive environment between individual staff, and this in-turn acts as a lever to extract surplus labour. In this way, constant innovation can be normalised or routinized within the administrative load of academic staff, and performance can be monitored and disciplined. In terms of rents, for-profit technology providers are able to utilise and mine institutional data, especially where services like learning management systems and widgets or plug-ins are hosted for the institution, in order to develop and sell new services.

Such services, often related to personalisation and workflow efficiencies, are driven by institutional competitiveness in the HE market and the need to appear innovative and efficient in service delivery, and they enable the extraction of profits from fees on products that are contracted for. Technology has become a crack through which private corporations can enter the publically-funded, governed and regulated education sector, using public/private partnerships and outsourcing in service-delivery. Is it possible to struggle against control inside the curriculum?

FOUR: technology and the curriculum

In a recent Guardian comment piece, the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne made a clear connection between economic growth, the digital economy, the need for entrepreneurial digital skills and education. He stated:

it is vital for our economy that British students are once more taught how to program code and master the tools of the digital age.

From September 2014, the new national curriculum will require that students aged between five and 16 are given the skills they need to build apps and write computer programs. The curriculum will cover theoretical ideas and practical problems, software and hardware systems – and it certainly won’t be an easy ride. Students will be given a thorough understanding of logic and set theory, and they’ll need to master difficult concepts such as algorithms, programming languages and the architecture of the internet.

Osborne has also championed the Make Things Do Stuff campaign focused on making for the digital economy. This clearly connects us back into discourses around unwaged labour, and around the development and commodification of proprietary skills (those of entrepreneurs in this narrative), as well as those that are leveraged and more basic or interchangeable. It also highlights Winn’s point about the stratification or reification that emerges if we discuss academic labour as rarefied or special.

Using technology as a cipher for opening-up education for business imperatives, amounts to a form of what Newfield calls ‘subsidy capitalism’, in which ‘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.’ The new public management focus on business defining the curriculum, and by association recalibrating teacher or academic training and development, reflects Newfield’s point for the USA 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… We are having an increasingly difficult time imagining a collective future that emerges from common activity.

This is the deeply politicised and increasingly enclosed world onto which educational technology and academic labour needs to be mapped, beyond simple economic utility. It is from inside this enclosed space that educational technology is interpreted and implemented by educational technologists, staff developers and technicians, and then adopted by practitioners and students. In taking a more meaningful stance, Feenberg (1999, p. 87) argues for

[a] critical theory of technology [that] can uncover that horizon, demystify the illusion of technical necessity, and expose the relativity of the prevailing technical choices.

At issue is reclaiming a politics of technology in education, against a determinist or essentialist position, or one that covets entrepreneurial digital skills. It is important, therefore, to develop examples of how technology impacts academic labour based on problems of performance, efficiency and scale, and to highlight how a broader, political, contextual analysis might be developed. This might be based on a revelation of the relationships between academic labour and: cloud computing; learning management systems like Blackboard; approaches to coding for kids; corporate publishers like Pearson; surveillance and monitoring technologies, including the relationship with PRISM; and technologies that emerge from the militarisation of the university.

FIVE: for a critical pedagogy?

Elsewhere I have written about the relationship between educators and consumers in the global North and the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is in-part impacted by the mining of Coltan. I wrote that:

Thus, for instance, the ‘Raspberry Pi‘ is connected to the desire to engage young people in programming through affordable, flexible, mobile devices that reveal the inner workings of the machine as it relates to programming. Yet, there has been little discussion of the component parts that make up the machinery, and how they are sourced. The machine uses a broadcom corporation bcm2835 SoC (system-on-a-chip). According to a company engagement report made by the Triodos ethical bank in 2011, broadcom was uneligible for ethical investment during that financial year because of their performance regarding conflict minerals, co-operation with repressive regimes and on human rights.

This position has been made more complex in a 2012 Triodos report, which argued that:

In 2012 Triodos reconsidered its position on the sourcing of columbite-tantalite, or coltan. This highly heat resistant mineral is capable of holding high electric charges and is therefore used in electronic devices, such as mobile phones and laptop computers. Coltan is frequently sourced from the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Since the 1990’s an extremely violent conflict has taken place in the DRC that has already claimed more than 5 million lives. Because of the role mining of coltan plays in financing this war, electrical equipment and ICT manufacturers that source coltan from the DRC have in the past been excluded from the investment universe. In recent years so-called conflict minerals (next to coltan these include tin, tungsten and gold) received increased attention from companies, and from investors and regulators. The recently adopted Dodd Frank act in the US, forces American listed companies to report on the use of ‘conflict minerals’ in their 2014 annual report. Yet a boycott is not always good, especially not for local populations. In other parts of Congo where the conflict is less prominent, the boycott led to increased poverty among local people. In reaction to this problem, the electronics industry initiated the promising Conflict Free Smelter Programme (CFS), covering many conflict minerals. We now include companies that source coltan from conflict-free parts of the DRC when they participate in the CFS program in the Triodos Sustainable Investment Universe. In 2012, Triodos Sustainability Research engaged with 36 companies on this issue. The replies of 25 companies satisfied our criteria and these companies are selected for sustainable investment. Nine companies are not selected and with two companies dialogue is pending.

Broadcom, which supplies the bcm2835 chipset for the Raspberry Pi has been listed by Triodos as follows.

Broadcom Corporation designs, develops, and supplies semiconductors for wired and wireless communications. Broadcom performs well on social issues. An important sustainability issue in the semiconductor industry is human rights, in particular related to the use of Coltan. Broadcom adheres to the EICC Code of Conduct requirements and has obtained declarations from its suppliers that any metals used in manufacturing Broadcom products are not derived from minerals mined or processed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which could fuel the civil war.

The Broadcom-Raspberry Pi case is important because it highlights how connections can be made between the content of academic labour in the definition of curricula, the technologically-mediated forms that such labour takes, and the realities of labour rights across the globe. As technologies like the Raspberry Pi gain ground in the classroom, there is a need to understand the ethics or humanity of their manufacture, and to frame these processes pedagogically and socially. This demands that the development of entrepreneurial digital skills and the deployment of entrepreneurial technologies or techniques are seen in terms of the processes that enable the reproduction of social relationships across global capitalism.

One outcome of such a critique framed pedagogically might be to open-up spaces for solidarity between those who consume or make in the global North, using technologies that are mined for and produced in the global South. What decisions are made by educators and universities about technologies and their socio-environmental, humanitarian, and political impacts? What power do students and academics have to affect and change the technological decisions inside and beyond the University? How does this (lack of) power affect the curriculum and its (un)democratic forms or pedagogies?

Thus, the Enough Project has developed the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative which

draws on the power of student leadership and activism to bring about peace in Congo. By encouraging university officials and stakeholders, both of whom are large purchasers of electronics and powerful spokespersons, to commit to measures that pressure electronics companies to responsibly invest in Congo’s minerals sector, students are voicing the demand for conflict-free products from Congo.

This role stretches beyond student activism to the ways in which the curriculum might be reimagined critically and socially, and in ways that take account of Winn’s call for the “negation of academic labour, first conceptually, and then, through further critique and struggle, in practice towards a different form of social wealth, which is not driven by the imperative of the production of value at all costs.” In defining the mechanisms through which educational technology is used to commodify and control academic labour, as well as in further stratifying forms of labour, and in distancing consumers in the global North from the realities of their consumption in labour rights across the globe, it becomes possible to push back where the curriculum and its pedagogic forms are reimagined at the level of society rather than the commodity.

As Cleaver argues in Reading Capital Politically, this demands that we restate and redefine this through class struggle across the whole of society with the focus of that struggle against Capital. For Cleaver, the possibility of struggle and emancipation lies in the autonomous organisations that exist within and between both the factory and the community, with a focus on the forms of labour and the exertion of “working class power… at the level of the social factory, politically recomposing the division between factory and community.” For critical educators deploying critical pedagogic responses, the question is how to use technology politically to recompose the realities of global struggles for emancipation, rather than for commodification. Overcoming global problems demands that universities do not simply outsource solutions, but that they act as public spaces for the co-operative and social use of technologies in the name of socially-useful knowledge.


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