Performance information and data-driven academic anxiety

ONE. Performance information: signalisation and dressage

Data is the bleeding edge. Follow the data to see where education is being cracked for value. Follow the data to see who is doing the cracking. Follow the data to see who is engaged in this process of enforced, public and open, educational data production. Follow the data to see who is then enclosing and commodifying that open and public data for profit. Follow the data to see who is selling and re-selling new services back into open and public spaces, and charging rents for them. Follow the data to see the transnational networks of dispossession that are using secondary policy, processes of entrepreneurialism, debt and indentured study, financialisation, and the assault on labour rights, to lever value.

And I am reminded of all this because Martin Eve pointed me to this University of Nottingham video on performance information. Not learning analytics. Not management information, but performance information. The disciplining of academic labour, where that labour is the work of both staff and students. Sold back to us as what students want, because their expectations have changed. Sold back to us in terms of progression and retention. Sold back to us as the new-normal.

Performance information sold back to us. The new normal. Dashboarding for success. For a moment I forgot myself and I read that as “waterboarding [academic labour] for success”.

TWO. I remember…

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of student debt, big data and academic alienation, arguing that “the mechanisms by which established hierarchies maintain their power through financialisation and information-sharing need to be described, and alternative positions developed.”

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of globalisation and the University, arguing that “the key is to understand how technology-driven innovations relate to the globally-hegemonic fraction of transnational, finance capital. This is critical because these innovations are not outside the circuits or cycles of globally mobile capital. Thus, these innovations further reduce the technical constraints or barriers to the reproduction of capital and its valorisation/accumulation processes, just as they revolutionise the transportation, interaction, production and consumption of individuals with (intellectual or cognitive) commodities/products.”

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of circuits of affect and resistance, arguing that “social relations are increasingly structured by technically-mediated organisations like schools and the University, which then re-inscribe socio-political hierarchies that are increasingly technological, coercive and exploitative. This coercive and exploitative set of characteristics is driven by the competitive dynamics of capitalism, and especially the ways in which the socially necessary character of the labour-power expended in producing a particular commodity or innovation or technology is diminished over-time. This reduces the value of knowledge and specific immaterial skills in the market, resulting in a persistent demand to innovate, to become entrepreneurial or to hold and manage proprietary or creative skills.

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of the domination of time and the liberation of a pedagogical alliance, arguing that “flows of management information like psychometric test outcomes and workload data, performance metrics like retention and progression data, and enriched use of technologies to manage research and teaching, attempt to reduce all academic activities to flows that take place in real-time, through structures that are always-on, with feedback and inputs that are “just in time”. As a result the University, like any other capitalist business, attempts to abolish time. Technologies and techniques are designed to accelerate production, to remove labour-related barriers, and to destroy the friction of circulation time.”

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of money, labour and academic co-operation, arguing that “This is a clear manifestation of the subsumption of academic research, in particular about progression into higher education and about pedagogic practice, for policy that is based on re-engineering society for market principles. Whilst networks exist (here from policy maker to think-tank) to promote those privatised principles in spaces that were/are publically-regulated, funded and governed, a critical question is whether it is possible to nurture networks that push-back against this hegemonic position? ”

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of research and the circuit of impact, arguing that “Inside the University, impact signals compulsion that is itself self-harming behaviour, and then enforces dressage in the name of power. This point was made at Governing Academic Life by Michael Power, in his focus on the role of impact in acting as a form of governance over academic labour. He argued that impact was an open and public closure of what can be discussed and produced, in order that a governance/command structure for value production could be imposed. Here metrics and investment interact to forms a circuit of capital rooted in academic production, with that productive power of research being disciplined through signalisation that then imposes a form of dressage… we are witnessing the attempt by finance and commercial capital to synchronise production with their own circuits. This is an uncomfortable symbiosis, as those of us engaged in a higher education that is being restructured by the dictates of finance capital and a new market can attest.”

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of the proletarianisation of the University, arguing that “This is the relationship between labour-power and subsumption/accumulation across areas of work that were previously regarded as beyond the market. What is revealed in this process is the dispossession of individual and collective autonomy and time. The autonomy that is dispossessed relates to what can be produced and the process of production. The time that is dispossessed is both the present and the future that is foreclosed as it is alienated. This alienated labour-power is scrubbed clean of its usefulness beyond that dictated in the market by metrics, impact and satisfaction. What emerges is the substitution of that alienated labour-power for that which was previously locally-bargained, with control over the means of production residing transnationally rather than at a local level.”

THREE. What a mess.

This matters because we are now being taught about innovation spillovers by HM Government, and the explicit value of education to the wider economy. We are told that:

the share of hours worked by highly skilled employees is positively linked to almost all of the measures of productivity, profits and trade performance. Expenditure on training is associated with increased labour productivity at the enterprise level. Purchases of goods and/or services from the Education sector (comprising schools, and further and higher education institutions) increases labour productivity at the sector level, total factor productivity at both the sector and enterprise level, and the ratio of exports to output at the sector level. Exposure to spillovers from education purchases is negatively correlated with labour productivity but positively and significantly correlated with all the other performance variables. (p. 15)

And we already know that we have transnational corporations working with HMG or HEFCE to open-up UK higher education in the name of efficiency, like Pearson or Goldman Sachs.

And we already know that Universities UK are driving data-driven change in the name of a smarter, stronger sector.

And we already know that RAND Europe and Ranmore consulting have been working with HEFCE and the Leadership Foundation for HE, for example on impact metrics and the REF.

And we already know of the work around Britain’s “Emergent Corporate Universities”: Academia in the Service of International Capital and the Military Industrial Complex.

Happy days.

FOUR. Data and anxiety: does it really have to be this way?

In her excellent essay on the anxieties of big data, Kate Crawford argues:

Already, the lived reality of big data is suffused with a kind ofsurveillant anxiety — the fear that all the data we are shedding every day is too revealing of our intimate selves but may also misrepresent us. Like a fluorescent light in a dark corridor, it can both show too much and not enough. Anxiety, as Sianne Ngai has written, has a temporality that is future oriented: it is an expectation emotion, and the expectation is generally of risk, exposure, and failure. British group Plan C in their blistering manifesto “We Are All Very Anxious” argue that anxiety is the dominant affect of our current phase of capitalism, engendering political hopelessness, insecurity, and social separation.

The current mythology of big data is that with more data comes greater accuracy and truth. This epistemological position is so seductive that many industries, from advertising to automobile manufacturing, are repositioning themselves for massive data gathering. The myth and the tools, as Donna Haraway once observed, mutually constitute each other, and the instruments of data gathering and analysis, too, act as agents that shape the social world. Bruno Latour put it this way: “Change the instruments, and you will change the entire social theory that goes with them.” The turn to big data is a political and cultural turn, and we are just beginning to see its scope.

Overcoming anxiety with anonymity then becomes the thing, as Tiqqun argue. This is the very ability to define a subjectivity beyond the hegemonic control of data as experience:

Establishing a zone of opacity where people can circulate and experiment freely without bringing in the Empire’s information flows, means producing “anonymous singularities,” recreating the conditions for a possible experience, an experience which will not be immediately flattened out by a binary machine assigning a meaning/direction to it, a dense experience that can transform desires and the moments where they manifest themselves into something beyond desire, into a narrative, into a filled-out body.

In her outstanding Ph.D. thesis on “The State Machine : politics, ideology, and computation in Chile, 1964-1973”, Jessica Miller Medina highlighted how the Allende Government in Chile attempted to utilize technology and data (through cybernetics) to create a new representation of society beyond the market, using different, co-operative organizing principles. The key for Miller Medina was to describe

not just a technological history but a history of the changing social networks that connected these technologies to the function of the state and its management (p. 17).

Moreover, her work reminds us to see the technological and technocratic ideas of Gartner and Willetts as means to “solidify a particular articulation of the state that was supported by new claims to legitimate power” (p. 96). Thus, she quotes Allende (p. 252) arguing for democratic renewal:

We set out courageously to build our own [cybernetic] system in our own spirit. What you will hear about today is revolutionary – not simply because this is the first time it has been done anywhere in the world. It is revolutionary because we are making a deliberate effort to hand to the people the power that science commands, in a form in which the people can themselves use it.

To use data beyond the market and beyond financialisation. To use data for co-operative performance beyond the market and beyond financialisation. To resist the co-option of data for impact and performance management. If you work in UK HE, good luck with that.

 


for a political economy of massive open online courses

I have an article coming out in a special issue of Learning, Media and Technology next year, on open education. It’s entitled “For a political economy of open education”.

Abstract

In understanding the changes that are impacting the global higher education sector, developing a critique of the relationships between technology and technological innovation, new managerialism and financialisation, and the impact of the secular crisis of global capitalism, is critical. Moreover, it is important to critique these changes historically and geographically, in order to understand how political economics shapes the space in which higher education policy and practice is recalibrated for capital accumulation and profitability.

This article will argue that educational innovations like MOOCs might usefully be examined in light of the relationships between: technological and organisational innovation; the historical tendency of the rate of profit to fall that is affecting competing educational providers; the disciplinary role of the State in shaping an educational space for further capital accumulation; and the subsumption of open networks to the neoliberal project of accumulation and profitability. Such an analysis then enables a critique of the claims that are made for open networks in delivering new forms of sociability that transcend structures of power and domination.

As a result of this political economic critique, the article will situate the emergence of MOOCs inside-and-against Capital’s drive to subsume labour practices inside technologically-mediated forms of coercion, command and control. It will argue that the ways in which MOOCs and the services that are derived from them are then valorised might offer a glimpse of how the neoliberal educational project is disciplining academic labour and how it might be resisted.

NOTE

I have written about MOOCs and political economy here.

I have written about MOOCs and neoliberalism here.

I have written about MOOCs, networks and the rate of profit here.

I have written about MOOCs and the restructuring of the University here.


on the academic commons

Joss Winn reminds me that Karl Marx’s Inaugural Address of the International Working Men’s Association, “The First International” in late October 1864, included the following statement about the political importance of collective work, association and combination, as a bulwark against the economic and political power of Capital. 

One element of success they [Labour] possess — numbers; but numbers weigh in the balance only if united by combination and led by knowledge. Past experience has shown how disregard of that bond of brotherhood which ought to exist between the workmen of different countries, and incite them to stand firmly by each other in all their struggles for emancipation, will be chastised by the common discomfiture of their incoherent efforts.

I think about this in academia today because Joss is running his final WordPress workshop (related to the Lincoln University Academic Commons). The Lincoln Commons, alongside the work of ds106 and collective work at University of British Columbia was the inspiration for the DMU Academic Commons, which is rooted in collective organising principles, in terms of its decision-making and production/consumption/distribution.

[The DMU Commons is] open, and will encourage generosity, respect, tolerance and sharing. Our DMU Commons will enable permeability and fluidity in collaboration, supporting autonomy in our shared production of DMU as a University committed to engaging with useful social reproduction. Our Commons will help shape DMU as a “knowing University”, where thinking is shared in public, in order to enable society/communities to solve problems, develop alternatives and innovate.

I have discussed the idea of the academic Commons under this tag, although I have been more specific about it, in terms of:

There are examples of student-led, staff-led, public/University spaces, curriculum, journal/publishing, and project sites on the DMU Commons, here.

Current blog-posts and updates are accessible from our aggregator, here.

These developments owe much to the work of Joss Winn and at DMU, Owen Williams.

This earth was made a common treasury/For everyone to share/All things in common.

Bragg, B. 1985. The World Turned Upside Down

 


For a political economy of open education

Tomorrow I’m speaking on a panel at The Centre for Disruptive Media at Coventry University. The panel is on “Open Education: Condition Critical”.

The purpose is to explore “opportunities to critically and creatively experiment with different ideas of what the university and education can be.”

Event details are at: http://criticalopeneducation.eventbrite.co.uk

My slides are at slideshare.net/richardhall.

I will make the following points in my 10 minutes on a political economy of open education.

ONE. It is worth checking out the following pieces on open in education.

TWO. I want to make three points. First, that a political economic analysis of open education reveals a revolutionising of the means of production and the disciplining of academic labour. Second, that open education is a crack through which we might analyse the interests that drive value production and accumulation, and their relation to power. Third, that we need to ask what is to be done, not in order to recuperate open education but to abolish it? How might we re-imagine the basis of education for an alternative form of sociability that is based on mass intellectuality and open co-operativism?

NOTE: here ds106 serves as a reminder of the relationships that might point towards an alternative.

THREE. Audrey Watters has written about the co-option of open/openness as a form of “Openwashing: n., having an appearance of open-source and open-licensing for marketing purposes, while continuing proprietary practices.” She argues that “I think the answer is more transparency about our politics. I think, in fact, the answer is politics.” This is a call to critique the interests that drive educational/technological innovation, and their interrelationships. Elsewhere Sarah Amsler has echoed this in a focus on critical pedagogy and the fearless university, when she talks about ‘a little more of a politicised relation to truth in affairs of education, knowledge and academic practice’.

FOUR. This form of political analysis stands in relation to value, and an engagement with value production and accumulation is central to any understanding of the condition of open education. For Marx in Capital Volume 2: ‘Value emerges as a form of sociability (as capital) from the unity of three circuits. It is formed of moments of the circulation of money, of production, and of commodities. The self-expansion of value is “the determining purpose, as the compelling motive.”’ How does open education emerge from the interrelationships and flows of money/debt/equity, the production of teaching and learning services, and of data/content? How does the unity of these three circuits reinforce hegemonic power? We might speak of openness as hope or emancipation or humanity, but as Anselm Jappe notes: ‘Accumulated value, and the power that flows from it, means that other forms of human or humane value in the production of commodities are marginalised.’

FIVE. A critique of open education from the standpoint of value is important because the idea of open [whatever] has been co-opted by those with power as and export/industrial strategy related to financialisation and marketisation. This is witnessed in statements by UK Government Ministers that “conventional universities no longer hold all the cards on how the higher education market develops”, and also by UK Opposition Ministers that “our goal is bold and simple: to build a bigger knowledge economy.” These policy statements are then amplified by entrepreneurial activity that is enacted through new combinations of technologies and practices to inject novelty into the circuits of capitalism. As Will Davies highlights, this focus on enterprise or entrepreneurship in policy and practice pivots around the creation of a new productive environment that accommodates power: first in expanding the time-scale for returns (debt and the future); and second in expanding the arena for competition (into the public sphere and into pedagogic practices). Thus, we witness Vice Chancellors like Martin Bean at the UK Open University stating that: “There is some fantastic work being done, but we need to keep our foot on the accelerator of innovation to think bigger, not just about reaching new audiences, but about revolutionising the traditional learning and teaching experiences.” Entrepreneurial activity underpins the production and circulation of value through commodity-dumping in new markets and by making established, public spaces productive.

SIX. This local policy/practice infrastructure is “enriched” by a transnational framework that seeks to create open markets in services and open access to procurement [see, Council of EU: http://bit.ly/1vOSUxF]. This framework then looks to reduce [through arbitrage] the labour content of services and products [see, Gartner: http://gtnr.it/17RLm2v]. Whilst other educational service providers look to create or co-opt “an ever-wider range of bigger and more complex standalone products and services to participating in more open, interoperable educational ‘ecosystems’, centered around learners [and learning outcomes]” [see, Pearson’s Five Trillion Dollar Question: http://bit.ly/1iaRaMp]. A Bain and Company note on a world awash with money highlighted the market/finance opportunities of a liberalised educational trading space. Opportunities focused upon: developing exportable services to increase revenues and profits [e.g. MOOCs and OERs]; upgrading low-tech products into premium consumer goods and services [e.g. curriculum components like assessment, and learning analytics]; making services bound by physical geography more portable and global [mobile commodity-dumping]; enabling leading universities in the advanced economies to accelerate the training of home-grown specialists in emerging economies; and importing “highly-skilled professionals from companies in developed markets, businesses in the emerging markets will not need to wait a generation for their own education systems to produce a skilled workforce”.

SEVEN. This open educational framework is then used by transnational joint-ventures, in order to leverage surplus value in ways that traditional universities could not do alone. In part this is achieved through the commodification of vast arrays of data, and the creation of new services, which in turn reflect the need to make academic labour productive of value. For example, Coursera partners include: venture capital: Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, New Enterprise Associates, GSV Capital, International Finance Corporation, Learn Capital Venture Partners; educational publishers like Laureate Education; and transnational bodies like the World Bank. These transnational joint-ventures or associations of capitals demonstrate the interrelationship between profitability and investment. Here open education is a technical response of global capital to lower levels of profitability, the need to increase global consumption of educational services, and the demand to make previously marginal sectors of the economy explicitly productive. Thus, the impact of educational innovation is: first, as a means of leveraging the ratio of the total surplus-value produced in society to the total capital invested; second, a redistribution of surplus value from businesses that produce commodities or services like universities to those that market them or that lend money to make academic labour productive; and third, as a means of revolutionising the means of production and disciplining labour.

EIGHT. It is impossible to understand the role of open education without developing a critique of its relationships to a transnational capitalist class.

NINE. What is to be done? Is it possible to re-imagine the basis of education for an alternative form of sociability that is based on mass intellectuality and open co-operativism? The idea of re-producing the general intellect as mass intellectuality, or an alternative form of sociability that is beyond the market because it subsumes the market inside, and that is beyond financialisation because it liberates time, is critical. For Marx, the general intellect was: “the accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the general productive forces of the social brain, is thus absorbed into capital, as opposed to labour, and hence appears as an attribute of capital, and more specifically of fixed capital [machinery].” A central concern is how to enact, produce and circulate contemporary space/time, so that the future is not foreclosed, and so that liberation-is-praxis. Liberation demands personal and public struggle, and leads us to question, pace Harry Cleaver, whether the idea of open education might be used to recompose the possibility of educational and societal struggle in more autonomous educational organisations and spaces that exist within and between both the university and the community. Here there is a focus on the forms of academic [i.e. staff and student] labour in order to politically recompose the division between the university [as a factory of ideas] and the community. Is it possible to use the idea of open, public education to abolish the university that is, and to re-produce the university of utopia as an alternative form of sociability?

TEN. There are important examples of struggles for alternatives.

In labour rights: 3cosas; the Australian Actual Casuals; Leeds Postgrads 4 Fair Pay.

In campaigning for the public university, and in the College of Debtors in Defiance, and in remaking the University.

In educational and co-operative spaces like the Social Science Centre, and Open Data Manchester, and in the FLOK Society project, and in the idea of the Commons and communing and commonism.

These examples remind us that it is possible to challenge a false idea of material abundance (rooted in normalised ideas of growth, accumulation and debt), alongside a false idea of immaterial scarcity (reinforced in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Transatlantic Trade and Investments Partnership), and the pseudo-abundance that destroys the biosphere, and the contrived scarcity that keeps innovation artificially scarce. As Bauwens and Iacomella argue ‘we need a global alliance between the new “open” movements, the ecological movements, and the traditional social justice and emancipatory movements, in order to create a “grand alliance of the commons.”’

ELEVEN. We might ask whether educational practices that are rooted in open co-operativism provide a better alternative political economy and set of possibilities for struggle. Open co-operatives:

  • emerge from democratic governance and regulation of transnational worker co-operatives;
  • connect to the circuits of p2p production and distribution;
  • embody and critique/develop the open, democratic, autonomous, social focus of co-operatives;
  • define an alternative framework for the common ownership of products, assets and commodities;
  • enable a reclamation of public environments for the globalised, socialised dissemination of knowledge (e.g. copyfarleft);
  • connect a global educational commons that is rooted in critical pedagogy;
  • offer possibilities for the conversion, dissolution or creation of established/emergent/new educational institutions, which are themselves both transitional and pedagogic.

A focus on open co-operativism as a pedagogic process, rather than fetishizing open education as an allegedly emancipatory outcome, might enable a little more of a politicised relation to truth in affairs of education, knowledge and academic practice.


CAMRI presentation: Against educational technology in the neoliberal university

I’m speaking at the University of Westminster’s Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI) on 25 March 2015 about the relationship between capitalism, educational technology, and the proletarianisation of the University. How lovely.

The working title is: Against educational technology in the neoliberal university

The working abstract is…

In the Grundrisse, Marx argued that the circulation of productive capital was “a process of transformation, a qualitative process of value”. As capitalists sought to overcome the barriers to this transformatory process, they worked to revolutionise both the means of production via organisational and technological change, and circulation time via transportation and communication changes. Reducing friction in the production and circulation of capital is critical to the extraction of surplus value, and Marx argued that in this transformation “Capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier [and]… the annihilation of space by time – becomes an extraordinary necessity for it.” Higher education is increasingly a space which is being recalibrated so as to increase the mobility or fluidity of intellectual production and circulation. Thus, technology, technical services and techniques are deployed to collapse the interfaces between space and time, and to subsume academic labour inside processes for valorisation.

However, this collapse also reveals the stresses and strains of antagonisms, as the friction of neoliberal higher education reform deforms existing cultures and histories. Through such a deformation, it also reminds us of alternative historical and material re-imaginings and alternatives like the Chilean CyberSyn project, the Ecuadorian National Plan for Good Living, the Hornsey Experiment, and so on. This paper argues that inside the University, the deployment of technologies, technical services and techniques enables education and academic labour to be co-opted for value-production. As a result, academics and students are defined as entrepreneurial subjects with limited power-to produce a world beyond value. A question is the extent to which pedagogical and transitional alternatives might be described, and whether in the process it is possible to uncover ways in which education might be used for co-operation rather than competition, as a form of resistance.


Technology and co-operative practice against the neoliberal university

I’m presenting at the CAPPE Neoliberalism and Everyday Life conference on Thursday in Brighton, on Technology and co-operative practice against the neoliberal university. My slides are available here. I will be arguing three points.

ONE. Technology reveals an entrepreneurial reconfiguring of the idea of the University, which is increasingly witnessed in/catalysed by the policy/practice statements of politicians like David Willetts and Liam Byrne. The roll-out of innovations like the FEER amplify this narrative. However, critiques of the pedagogic pathology of entrepreneurialism are emerging (e.g. in Will Davies’ new book on the Limits of Neoliberalism), related to the expansion of the market and the use of debt to foreclose on the future. These critiques force us to question the ways in which entrepreneurial techniques are being used to recalibrate the University and the relationships between students/staff and students/debt, as higher education is restructured for value. Moreover, they reveal a deeper relationship between transnational frameworks, technology and higher education.

TWO. Technology is a crack through which we might analyse the interests that drive value production and accumulation, and their relation to power. Technology is one mechanism for managing the structural crisis of capitalism by opening the public sector to capital accumulation on a global terrain and across time. It also enables labour arbitrage to take place on that same scale, catalysed by transnational activist networks. Technological innovations might usefully be seen as responses to: lower levels of profitability across global capitalism; increasing global, educational consumption; and making previously marginal (and public) sectors of the economy explicitly productive. Technological innovation is therefore: a way of leveraging the ratio of the total surplus-value produced in society to the total capital invested; a mechanism for the redistribution of surplus value from businesses that produce commodities or services like universities to those that market them or that lend money to make academic labour productive; a way of revolutionising the means of production.

NOTE: it is important to see technological change is the result of social forces in struggle and the need to overcome the temporal and spatial barriers to accumulation. This needs to be seen in terms of the production and accumulation of value in order to reproduce power-over the world. This is the power of transnational capitalism over the objective material reality of life, and which is reinforced technologically and pedagogically. To argue for emancipation through technological innovation is to fetishise technology and to misunderstand how technology is shaped by the clash of social forces and the desire of capital to escape the barriers imposed by labour.

THREE. What is to be done? A re-imagination based on mass intellectuality and open co-operativism. Here I ask Inside the University, can educational technology be (ref)used politically to recompose the realities of global struggles for emancipation, rather than for value? Is there a co-operative crack through which “mass intellectuality” might be liberated or emerge? I look to some of the work that Joss Winn and I have done on open co-operativism and mass intellectuality to suggest the following discussion points for the co-operative, public university as an associational network.

  • Can the co-operative, public university be configured along the lines of the democratic governance and regulation of transnational worker co-operatives?
  • Can the co-operative, public university connect to the circuits of p2p production and distribution?
  • Can the co-operative, public university reflect the open, democratic, autonomous, social focus of co-operatives?
  • Can the co-operative, public university define a framework for the common ownership of products, assets and commodities?
  • Can the co-operative, public university represent a reclamation of public environments for the globalised, socialised dissemination of knowledge (e.g. copyfarleft)?
  • Can the co-operative, public university help to connect a global set of educational commons rooted in critical pedagogy?
  • Can the co-operative, public university be based on Winn’s ideas of conversion, dissolution or creation, as a transitional and pedagogic project?

Friction! co-operation and technology in the neoliberal university

On Thursday I’m presenting at Friction: An interdisciplinary conference on technology & resistance at the University of Nottingham. I’ll be speaking about co-operation and technology in the neoliberal university. The abstract is appended below and the slides are here.

Abstract

In the Grundrisse, Marx argued that the circulation of productive capital was “a process of transformation, a qualitative process of value”. As capitalists sought to overcome the barriers to this transformatory process, they worked to revolutionise both the means of production via organisational and technological change, and circulation time via transportation and communication changes. Reducing friction in the production and circulation of capital is critical to the extraction of surplus value, and Marx argued that in this transformation “Capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier [and]… the annihilation of space by time – becomes an extraordinary necessity for it.”

Higher education is increasingly a space which is being recalibrated so as to reduce friction and thereby to increase the mobility or fluidity of intellectual production and circulation. Thus, technology, technical services and techniques are deployed to collapse the interfaces between geography, space and time. However, this collapse also reveals the stresses and strains of antagonisms, as the friction of neoliberal higher education reform deforms existing cultures and histories. It also points to alternatives like those emerging from analyses of the Chilean CyberSyn project or the Ecuadorian National Plan for Good Living.

This paper argues that inside the University, the deployment of technologies, technical services and techniques enables education to be co-opted as an institutional means for production and control. As a result, academics and students are defined as entrepreneurial subjects. A question is the extent to which the friction that emerges from this neoliberal pedagogic project can be used to describe alternatives, and whether in the process it is possible to uncover ways in which education might be used for co-operation rather than competition, as a form of resistance.


The implications of Autonomist Marxism for research and practice in education and technology

I have a new article out in Learning, Media and Technology, with the fun title of “The implications of Autonomist Marxism for research and practice in education and technology”. The article is available (if you subscribe) here. Sadly, the article is only available behind a paywall, although there are 50 free copies here. I was approached by the editor to write a theoretical piece for Learning, Media and Technology. I accepted because that is the kind of thing that academics do. Martin Weller writes critically about open access and open scholarship. Wherever possible I will try to find ways to publish openly, as I did with this article on digital literacy.

The abstract is appended below.

Abstract

This article considers the relevance of Autonomist Marxism for both research and practice in education and technology. The article situates the Autonomist perspective against that of traditional Marxist thought – illustrating how certain core Autonomist concepts enable a critical reading of developments in information and communication technology. These include notions of the ‘social factory’, ‘immaterial labour’ and ‘cognitive capital’, the ‘general intellect’ and ‘mass intellectuality’, and the ‘cybernetic hypothesis’. It is argued that these perspectives are particularly useful in enabling a critique of the place of education and technology inside the circuits and cycles of globalised capitalism. The Autonomist approach can be criticised – not least for its apparent network-centrism and its disconnection from the hierarchical, globalised forces of production. Nevertheless, this position offers a powerful ‘way in’ to understanding education and technology as key sites of struggle. It lays bare the mechanisms through which technology-rich educational settings are co-opted for work, while also suggesting possibilities for pushing back against the subsumption of contemporary education for capitalist work.


on digital literacy, use value and alienation

With Lucy Atkins and Josie Fraser, I’ve just had a paper published on Defining a self-evaluation digital literacy framework for secondary educators. The abstract for this paper connects educational policy to classroom practice, in order to support the creation of a framework that amplifies teacher-agency and the idea of radical collegiality. This is important in enabling teachers to engage in a conversation about reclaiming the spaces that are infused by pedagogy technology. In the face of UK Coalition Government and opposition Labour Party attacks on the professionalism of teaching staff, which further reproduce anxiety-driven performance management, this repositioning of digital literacy as a crack through which teacher professionalism might be reclaimed seems important.

The abstract goes as follows.

Despite the growing interest in digital literacy within educational policy, guidance for secondary educators in terms of how digital literacy translates into the classroom is lacking. As a result, many teachers feel ill-prepared to support their learners in using technology effectively. The DigiLit Leicester project created an infrastructure for holistic, integrated change, by supporting staff development in the area of digital literacy for secondary school teachers and teaching support staff. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate how the critique of existing digital literacy frameworks enabled a self-evaluation framework for practitioners to be developed. Crucially, this framework enables a co-operative, partnership approach to be taken to pedagogic innovation. Moreover, it enables social and ethical issues to underpin a focus on teacher-agency and radical collegiality inside the domain of digital literacy. Thus, the authors argue that the shared development framework constitutes a new model for implementing digital literacy aimed at transforming the provision of secondary education across a city.

We argue that in moving beyond audit-based frameworks to one that is framed through trusted self-evaluation, it is possible to connect educational practices to pedagogy and continuing professional development. We speak about embedding self-review into the heart of a digital literacy project, and then deliberately connecting them to co-operative, practitioner-led development opportunities that are negotiated across a City. In focusing on the development of co-operative practices that are rooted in pedagogic practice, we argue that it is possible to strengthen radical collegiality, and thereby push back against policy directives that marketise and commodify the curriculum and reduce its meaning to entrepreneurial skills and employability. This focus on teacher-agency and co-operation, which pivots around a custom self-evaluation framework, demonstrates that city-wide pedagogic transformation through teacher empowerment is a radical possibility.

There are two ways in which this argument might be enriched. First, through a focus on the ways in which technologies and hence digital literacy might be used to democratise the classroom and to discuss alternative social forms. Second, on the contradictions between digital literacy formation and the ways in which technologies are alienating.

ONE. On digital and democratic literacy

One of the key contradictions that emerge from inside capitalism is that of the commodity framed by value. I have written elsewhere about how educational skills, services, practices, data and so on, are being commodified and accumulated by third parties or associations of capitals, through the control of information streams or access to software that is protected by patents or through the enclosure of the digital commons, and so on. However, in the literature there is little analysis of how digital skills, practices and knowledge might be developed, shared and re-purposed co-operatively inside and across the classroom, in order to describe an alternative world away from education for employability or entrepreneurship.

One way in which a dialogue around alternatives might emerge is through a focus on the social use value of those digital skills, practices and knowledge as opposed to their exchange value. The latter posits the market as the only mechanism through which students or staff can access or develop digital literacy as an individual use for them. Yet, there are examples in the Telekommunist Manifesto and from venture communism of how approaches to policy and practice of digital literacy rooted in peer production and copyfarleft might enable the social use of digital technologies to be amplified over-and-above their individuated, entrepreneurial accumulation and exchange. As Dmytri Kleiner argues in the Telekommunist Manifesto (p. 8):

We need venture communism, a form of struggle against the continued expansion of property-based capitalism, a model for worker self-organization inspired by the topology of peer-to-peer networks and the historical pastoral commons.

This means that inside and beyond the classroom, spaces are needed that refuse their co-option for the market and for the accumulation of wealth and power by an elite. This includes the ways in which public education is co-opted for a rentier class that harvests data, and sells and re-sells services, or the ways in which technologies are used to maintain alienating structures of domination over teachers and students who can be individually or as a fraction of a social class labelled as luddites or laggards or failing.

This labelling does little for the generation of social solutions to social problems, and risks exacerbating the disconnection between how people think and act with digital technologies, and how they engage in a broader political process. This disconnect is amplified through technological change that removes our collective power and autonomy, when all that teachers and students are left with is: the next upgraded mobile tool or tablet or bring your own device policy; the obsession with personalisation through access to data and information about performance or always-on social networks; the latest fetishized technological solution to engagement or emancipation; the monitoring and surveillance, including auditing, of performance through external frameworks; or whatever. Students and teachers are simply left with compensatory consumption and the outsourcing of solutions to social problems, and as they approach higher education they face increasing levels of debt and alienation. In part this is because those spaces that should be enabling students and teachers to develop creative alternative uses for skills, practices and knowledge are subsumed under exchange value and the desperate search for entrepreneurial truth.

Thus, we might question whether those digital literacies might be developed, in order to frame an alternative peer-produced pedagogy of care, which drives: collective uses for skills, practices and knowledge; social value rather than the desire to use education to accumulate money or private property; and associated educational forms, perhaps as open commons? In turn one might hope that it is possible to find ways to act co-operatively and to share resources that maintain their associational, not for-profit strength. As Kleiner argues (p. 28):

While copyleft is very effective in creating a commons of software, to achieve a commons of cultural works requires copyfarleft, a form of free licensing that denies free access to organizations that hold their own assets outside the commons.

This is the production of a pedagogic space that is against the ideological power, culture and democracy of money. This is the use and production of a digitally-infused education that denies the one per cent their ideological and practical pedagogic support. This builds upon the work of the peer-to-peer foundation in finding ways to generalise forms of peer production, peer governance, and peer property, in order to overcome three critical issues that fold education and digital contexts into their logics.

The first is that ‘The current political economy is based on a false idea of material abundance. We call it pseudo-abundance. It is based on a commitment to permanent growth, the infinite accumulation of capital and debt-driven dynamics through compound interest.’

The second is that ‘The current political economy is based on a false idea of “immaterial scarcity. It believes that an exaggerated set of intellectual property monopolies – for copyrights, trademarks and patents – should restrain the sharing of scientific, social and economic innovations. Hence the system discourages human cooperation, excludes many people from benefiting from innovation and slows the collective learning of humanity. In an age of grave global challenges, the political economy keeps many practical alternatives sequestered behind private firewalls or unfunded if they cannot generate adequate profits.’

The third is that ‘The pseudo-abundance that destroys the biosphere, and the contrived scarcity that keeps innovation artificially scarce and slow, does not advance social justice. Although people may have a formal legal equality of civil and political rights, serious and increasing material inequalities make those rights more nominal than real. At the other extreme, the polity explicitly grants human rights to the artificial legal construct of the for-profit corporation, a pathological institution that is solely beholden to its shareholders, and is constitutionally unable to take into account the common good.’

Michael Bauwens and Franco Iacomella argue that:

The peer-to-peer vision relies upon the three major sectors of society – the state, market and civil society – but with different roles and in a revitalized equilibrium. At the core of the new society is civil society, with the commons as its main institution, which uses peer production to generate common value outside of the market logic. These commons consist of both the natural heritage of mankind (oceans, the atmosphere, land, etc.), and commons that are created through collective societal innovation, many of which can be freely shared because of their immaterial nature (shared knowledge, software and design, culture and science).

They see this produced through

future political and cultural alliances… as a confluence of various global forces: 1) those working against the enclosure and the privatization of knowledge, which are simultaneously constructing new knowledge commons; 2) those working for environmental sustainability, including the protection of existing physical commons; and 3) those working for social justice on a local and global scale. In other words, we need a global alliance between the new “open” movements, the ecological movements, and the traditional social justice and emancipatory movements, in order to create a “grand alliance of the commons.”

The question then is what is the role of digital literacy and digitally-enabled educational spaces in creating such a co-operative dynamic? Is it possible to use copyfarleft against the use of Intellectual Property Rights as new sources of monopoly power for rentiers? Is it possible to liberate digital technologies infused as social use values through critical pedagogy, in order to open up new areas of class struggle? Is it possible to develop and protect the social and associational use value of the critical, educational, open Commons , in order to talk through alternatives? Is it possible to open out educational possibility through the knowledge commons or free access to higher education, rather than let them be structured through the market?

One critical context is a more critical understanding of how technological intensity, including the use of digital tools and the development of digital skills, tends to make labour redundant. Just as we embrace the range of technological possibilities of the open commons or of digital production, we also need to face the reality that capital uses technological and organisational innovation to discipline labour and to impose consumerism. Capital controls and deploys technology to squeeze value out of labour, be that through new pedagogies for the entrepreneurial self, or to leverage strategies for employability or internationalisation. At issue is how might we embrace digital literacy through a more democratic pedagogy and a co-operative classroom to enable its social use.

TWO. On digital literacy and technological alienation

For Marx (pp. 327, 330), the worker suffers a four-fold alienation.

First from the product of his labour, which becomes “an alien object that has power over him”.

Second in his working activity, which he perceives as “directed against himself,” as if it “does not belong to him”.

Third from “man’s species being,” which is transformed into “a being alien to him”.

Fourth, from other human beings, and in relation to their labour and the object of their labour.

Marx (p. 324) argued that

…the externalization of the worker in his product means not only that his labour becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently of him and alien to him, and begins to confront him as an autonomous power; that the life which he has bestowed on the object confronts him as hostile and alien.

In this view all labour under private property, rather than that which co-operatively shaped an associational and open society, is alienated because one has to work in order to live. This is an external, non-authentic life shaped by wage slavery and the spectacle of consumerism. Digital life is central to this focus on the consumption of skills or content or practice, rather than on open production and sharing. This is the logic of commodifying the social and the personal, in order that it can be marketised or monetised. Education is not immune from this process, as the prevalence of merchants across the compulsory and post-compulsory sectors attests.

At issue here is the extent to which the digital literacy agenda, or that of coding for kids, or MOOCs, or the generation of digital practices, is each connected to the forces of production of capitalist society. So how do they reproduce spaces for value creation and accumulation, or surveillance and performance management, rather than for personal or societal growth and mutuality? As Marx noted in the Grundrisse, this is connected to the objective conditions of living labour, which are increasingly framed by the need to be entrepreneurial, in order to survive a marketised life.

The objective conditions of living labour appear as separated, independent values opposite living labour capacity as subjective being… The objective conditions of living labour capacity are presupposed as having an existence independent of it, as the objectivity of a subject distinct from living labour capacity and standing independently over against it; the reproduction and realization, i.e. the expansion of these objective conditions, is therefore at the same time their own reproduction and new production as the wealth of an alien subject indifferently and independently standing over against labour capacity. What is reproduced and produced anew is not only the presence of these objective conditions of living labour, but also their presence as independent values, i.e. values belonging to an alien subject, confronting this living labour capacity. (pp. 461-2)

How is digital literacy used to reproduce the objective conditions inside which the teacher and student must labour? How does digital literacy appear as a natural value of entrepreneurial education confronting and alienating the teacher or student?

This then forces us to rethink how digital skills, practices and knowledge developed in the classroom and developed by social labour:

appear as the productive forces of capitalism… Collective unity in co-operation, combination in the division of labour, the use of the forces of nature and the sciences, of the products of labour, as machinery – all these confront the individual  workers as something alien, objective, ready-made, existing without their intervention, and frequently even hostile to them. They all appear quite simply as the prevailing forms of the instruments of labour. As objects they are independent of the workers whom they dominate. Though the workshop is to a degree the product of the workers’ combination, its entire intelligence and will seem to be incorporated in the capitalist or his understrappers, and the workers find themselves confronted by the functions of the capital that lives in the capitalist. (Marx, Capital Volume 1, p. 1054).

How do digital literacies, through the skills, practices and knowledge developed, and the frameworks that are used to measure or self-evaluate them, appear to be external to the teacher and student, and structuring of their labour and identity? How do they dominate the teacher and student so that they must be entrepreneurial or risk becoming unemployable? How do they invalidate and make anxious certain behaviours and performances? How do they structure and reinforce perceptions of professionalism? Again, we might ask how do we work against the use of digital literacy for exchange value, in order to liberate their social and mutual use value? As Marx argues in Capital Volume 3 (p. 959):

Freedom, in this sphere, can consist only in this, that socialized man, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature.

How do we shape critical, digital spaces for collegial forms of continuing professional development that are productive of an alternative, radical pedagogy? How do we use such a radical approach to CPD, in order to shape a different social life?


Technology and co-operative practice against the neoliberal university

I’m presenting at the the CAPPE Neoliberalism and Everyday Life conference next September, at the University of Brighton. My abstract is below.

Abstract: Neoliberalism is a global pedagogical project aimed at the dispossession of free time so that all of life becomes productive, and education is a central institutional means for its realisation. This project aims at marketising all of social life, so that life becomes predicated upon the extraction of value. In part the deployment of technologies, technical services and techniques enables education to be co-opted as an institutional means for production and control. This occurs inside both formal and informal educational institutions and spaces, like universities and MOOCs, as one mechanism to offset the tendency for the rate of profit to fall and to re-establish accumulation. This pedagogic project also tends to recalibrate and enclose the roles of staff and students as entrepreneurial subjects, whose labour is enabled through technology. This is achieved through learning analytics, big data, mobility and flexibility of provision, and so on. This paper will analyse the relationships between technology, pedagogy and the critical subject in the neoliberal University, in order to argue for the use of technology inside a co-operative pedagogy of struggle. This demands that we ask what education is, before we ask what it is for, or the place of technology-enhanced learning in the university. The article considers whether it is possible to uncover stories of how and where education might be used for co-operation rather than competition, and what technology-enhanced co-operative education might look like?