The University, technology and co-operation

On Tuesday 15 October I’m presenting something on “The University, technology and co-operation”, at the Critical Perspectives on Educational Technology symposium at the University of Brighton, UK.

There are some notes on a co-operative pedagogy of struggle here.

My slides are here.

The Spotify playlist that accompanies the talk is here.


The Digilit Leicester Project

The Leicester Digital Literacies Framework (Digilit Leicester) Project is a two-year, whole-city, educational intervention that pivots around a knowledge exchange partnership between Leicester City Council and De Montfort University. It is led by me and Josie Fraser, with Lucy Atkins as the Research Associate. The project’s website is at: http://www.digilitleic.com/

The project runs from 2012-14 and is in-part funded through the Higher Education Innovation Fund. It aims to support staff development in the area of digital literacy, through the development and implementation of a self-evaluation framework for secondary school teachers and teaching support staff. The concept of digital literacy is increasingly recognised as a critical terrain for 21st Century life, with digital competence identified by The Council of the EU and the Department for Education, as well as agencies like NAACE and JISC.

The DigiLit Leicester Project is the first of its kind in Europe. No other research project has attempted to collect information about staff skills and confidence in digital literacy on this scale, and thereby attempted to connect teacher-agency, school development and City-wide transformation. One of the critical points about the project is its grounded nature: using a process of pedagogic self-evaluation to scale school and City-wide innovation and change.

The project is designed to ensure school staff and learners are getting the most from the significant investment in technology being made across the City as part of the Building Schools for the Future programme, and that the 23 BSF schools are able to make best use of technology to meet their aspirations for transforming educational provision. The Council’s Youth Engagement Project in 2010/11, and the recent Leicester Child Poverty Commission report also catalysed Digilit Leicester. At issue is what digital literacy means in practice for secondary schools, in terms of staff skills, practices, knowledge and confidence, and how that supports young people.

The project does not intend to provide a prescriptive list of skills, which all staff must master, or to reduce digital literacy to a discussion of tools. Instead, Digilit Leicester’s work pivots around a process of pedagogic self-evaluation through a toolkit. The framework is based on six themes: Finding, Evaluating and Organising; Creating and Sharing; Communication, Collaboration and Participation; e-Assessment and Feedback; E-Safety and Online Identity; CPD. However, in order to support teaching staff in making sense of their skills, practices and knowledge, the Framework incorporates four, differentiated levels: Entry; Core; Developer; Pioneer.

Digilit Leicester has achieved the following.

  1. A definition of digital literacy with staff in Leicester: “Digital Literacy refers to the skills, attitudes and knowledge required by educators to support learning in a digitally-rich world. To be digitally literate, educators must be able to utilise technology to enhance and transform classroom practices, and to enrich their own professional development and identity. The digitally literate educator will be able to think critically about why, how and when technology supplements learning and teaching.”
  2. The creation of a self-evaluation framework for educators. This aids staff in reflecting on their use of technologies to support teaching and learning. It has been worked on by 450 secondary school staff who have received individual feedback.
  3. The creation of a set-of targeted digital literacy resources.
  4. The production of an initial report, which includes information about the digital literacy framework and survey.
  5. A set of school reports for each BSF school with aggregated data that enable negotiated action plans. A City-wide report will follow in September 2013, which will highlight those pockets of excellence which exist across the City, in order both to share best practice and to identify where gaps exist.

This work has enabled a baseline for digital literacy to be drawn-up across the City. The next stage is to support innovation through targeted projects aimed at teachers, schools and the City working with DMU staff (e.g. in the Square Mile). This will then lead to a second iteration of the Framework survey, in order to see if the baseline has shifted. The Centre for Enhancing Learning through Technology team at DMU will be working to transfer the Framework into the University, to support innovation in professional development as part of the new DMU ELT programme-of-work.

The DigiLit Leicester project has received international acclaim, as one of five winners of the Reclaim Open Learning Innovation Challenge, an international contest sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation, the Digital Media and Learning Hub, and MIT Media Lab. Josie has written about our award and what the project means.


On co-operation, accumulation and the University

On Tuesday I heard a series of speakers, including Rachel Wenstone from the NUS, Malcolm Ryan as the ALT Conference co-chair, and Alan Ford from the University of Nottingham, speak about educational institutions as spaces for partnership-working between staff and students. This was, in Wenstone’s argument, to be enacted in-part through staff “training”, in Ryan’s through encouraging the student to become a change-agent (although student’s have a rich-history of leading change, witness the current Chilean experience, student activism in Kenya and the almost mythical 1968), and in Ford’s through internationalisation agendas. What emerged might be categorised as forms of entrepreneurial educational activity designed to reassert the hegemony of stories of growth and work, which are in-turn linked to a belief that there is no alternative: to internationalisation agendas that simply act as spaces for commodity-dumping or demand-management, or labour arbitrage; to re-training academics so that they become more productive; to the fetishised student voice. 

This narrative is predicated on the idea that business-as-usual, in the form of economic growth, demands that we submit our lives to the reassertion of stable forms of capital accumulation, and that we submit our views of partnership, or the student voice, or cultural sensitivity, to the dictates of expanding markets. Moreover, this narrative, amplified by the Guardian Higher Education Network’s discussion on HE and economic growth, ignores the political and economic realities of the crisis tendency of the capitalist mode of production. It also ignores global responses from the labour movement to that crisis, in the form of the lessons that are emerging from the current Mexican educational protests, or the waves of education strikes that are planned in the UK, or the precepts based on content, form and structure of education that emerged from the International Student Movement’s Joint Statement. Critically, the latter argued that: “all educational entities/institutions should be democratically structured, meaning direct participation from below as a basis for decision making processes.” This is not the change-agency, or partnership-working that infects most educational discourse in the UK. 

It is, therefore, increasingly difficult to understand the idea of education or the University without an engagement with the immanence of crises in capitalist modes of production, and more especially the systemic inability of Capital to overcome the limits to growth and reproduce itself. Thus, as is argued in a piece on debt and misery in Endnotes:

The differentia specifica of capitalist “economic” crises — that people starve in spite of good harvests, and means of production lie idle in spite of a need for their products — is merely one moment of this larger crisis — the constant reproduction of a scarcity of jobs in the midst of an abundance of goods.

Thus, the dynamic of this crisis is played out through student debt as a gateway to future employability, through the entrepreneurial turn inside universities as wealth generators, through the commodification of research, through the subsumption of student and staff academic labour in the name of the reproduction of the capital-labour relation, and the increasing workload pressures and threat of precarious employment across universities. Yet we witness the ongoing inability of the system to reproduce the capital-labour relation, even in the face of the abolition of non-marketised spaces (free education, free-at-the-point-of-use healthcare and so on), in order to find new demand for commodities and the circuit of capital. These spaces open-up a terrain for accumulation that is based upon the enclosure of place and the separation of people from the land. But as Endnotes states, this separation

has to be perpetually repeated in order for capital and “free” labour to meet in the market time after time. On the one hand, capital requires, already present in the labour market, a mass of people lacking direct access to means of production, looking to exchange work for wages. On the other hand, it requires, already present in the commodity market, a mass of people who have already acquired wages, looking to exchange their money for goods.

This perpetual separation spreads to the virtual space, and enables universities, through MOOCs or distance learning, to open-up new markets, Moreover, through the commodification of digital infrastructures, it enables new services to be turned into products and sold or to be rented out. In this way, although movements claim to be for “open” or “free” on the web, without a democratic control of that infrastructure, and without a social or communal definition of its value, it simply becomes a new set of spaces to be enclosed for the creation of value, or the dictates of competition, or the extraction of rent.

This is witnessed in the drive for technological or technique-driven innovations that can maximise profitability, through an increase in relative surplus value. This, in itself, drives the co-option of universities as competing capitals, as businesses that have been reconfigured financially and technologically for valorisation and productive labour. The need to re-establish profitability and stable forms of accumulation across a global system means that labour needs to be disciplined, for instance through training or entrepreneurial productivity or the threat of precarious employment or a renegotiation of contracts and labour rights. This is part of the cycle of capital that subsumes productive power, in order to enable accumulation and the production of relative surplus value. The latter depends upon increases in productivity that are technologically-driven, through mechanisation, automation, the conversion of services into products, or the forced co-operation of labourers in any production process. However, technological innovation drives unemployment or an attrition on wages, as the labourer’s skills are instantiated inside the machine. As Marx noted in Volume 1 of Capital (p. 627) the expansion of the system beyond its limits is driven

by methods which lessen the number of workers employed in proportion to the increase in production. Modern industry’s whole form of motion therefore depends on the constant transformation of a part of the working population into unemployed or semi-employed hands.

As Endnotes argue:

For Marx it is in and through this process of expanded reproduction that the dynamic of capital manifests itself as its own limit, not through cycles of boom and bust but in a secular deterioration of its own conditions of accumulation.

Thus, the mechanics of accumulation, demand for and types of employment, technologically-mediated changes in production that drive efficiencies, are all interconected. As new sectors, like education, are subsumed inside the logic of capital accumulation and valorisation, and as universities are restructured as competing capitals, the focus becomes ways of maintaining the rate of profit. Thus, it becomes natural that universities, like any other capital, would wish to “economise on labour”, through productivity gains and technical changes.

One might see the rise in internationalisation, including the MOOC agenda, as part of this shift from labour-intensive to capital-intensive production. As Marx noted (Capital, vol. 1, pp. 622-3)

On the one hand… the additional capital formed in the course of further accumulation attracts fewer and fewer workers in proportion to its magnitude. On the other hand, old capital periodically reproduced with a new composition repels more and more of the workers formerly employed by it.

Not only do labour-saving technologies spread across the system, leading to a relative decline in the demand for labour, but they are irreversible, making the drive for constant, entrepreneurial reskilling critical for anyone who wishes to survive in the system. However, more generally the technological determinism that drives the general, relative decline in labour demand also threatens to outstrip capital accumulation. In Capital, Volume 3, Marx argues that over time “moral depreciation” affects the gains made by technological innovation where the new machine:

loses exchange-value, either by machines of the same sort being produced cheaper than it, or by better machines entering into competition with it. In both cases, be the machine ever so young and full of life, its value is no longer determined by the labour actually materialised in it, but by the labour-time requisite to reproduce either it or the better machine. It has, therefore, lost value more or less. The shorter the period taken to reproduce its total value, the less is the danger of moral depreciation; and the longer the working-day, the shorter is that period. When machinery is first introduced into an industry, new methods of reproducing it more cheaply follow blow upon blow, and so do improvements, that not only affect individual parts and details of the machine, but its entire build. It is, therefore, in the early days of the life of machinery that this special incentive to the prolongation of the working-day makes itself felt most acutely.

One outcome of this process as it is generalised is de-accumulation and a secular crisis, whereby both workers and capital fall out of contracting sectors or industries and are unable to find new sectors in which to insert themselves. The drive for reskilling and empoyability in education sits inside this critique, but is also indicative of the inability of more and more workers to reproduce themselves by selling their labour-power. The vast numbers of Ph.D.s without work, the move towards on-line learning, the increasing rates of youth unemployment across the globe, are all indicators of this secular crisis. We increasingly see an educated class of workers who are unable sell their labour-power at the rate they need to pay down their debts, to act as consumers, and to eat/clothe/shelter themselves (i.e. reproduce themselves), that is assuming they can actually find work at all. In Marx’s terms (see Chapter 25 of Volume 1 of Capital) we are seeing the proletarianisation of ever-increasing numbers of educated young people:

who produce[] and valorise[] “capital”, and [are] thrown onto the street as soon as [they] become [] superfluous to the need for valorisation.

One caveat to that is that it is through the policy activity of the State, in converting the process of education into a service for Capital (through training in basic commodity or leveraged skills, or in creating spaces for skills that can be commodified), and then into a commodity for valorisation (like the creation of courses that must be purchased by students using a debt-driven fee, or the commodification of research as knowledge transfer or incubation, or the sale of student data to publishers), that education is transformed. Critical in this transformation is the subsumption of the circuits of educational practices and knowledges inside the circuits of capital. Education (c.f. low-cost degrees, student-as-consumer or entrepreneur, or MOOCs) becomes a series of individually-purchasable commodities, which open-up new markets and mass markets, as costs fall and production increases [pace Endnotes].

The process of academic proletarianisation, in the reduction of academic labour to low-cost production and consumption of courses or educational commodities, or precarious employment, or debt-driven partnership between staff and students, is that there are few escape routes outside of the system. This is more than the politics of having to sell ones labour-power in a market, in order to reproduce oneself. It is governed by the fact that specific process innovations inside education as a business-sector, driven by technological innovation, tends to lead to unemployment as labour is automated. The promise, witnessed in the UK Government’s new obsession with the digital as the backbone of new jobs and employability, runs up against the historical reality that innovation drives an attack on labour costs including rising unemployment, and that setting surplus labour or capital “free” forces them to look to sectors with decreasing labour requirements themselves (e.g. nanotechnology, cloud technology, biotechnology are each incredibly mechanised).

In part these decreased labour requirements are forced by the generalisation of productivity gains and technological innovation globally across the system. As the system has automated manufacture, and global demand for manufacturing labour falls, there is less need for co-operation between labourers to be enforced. Thus, valorisation is based not upon co-operation, as Marx argued in Capital Volume 1, but upon collaboration between individuals acting as entrepreneurs in a global economy. However, automation leads to a diminished scale of accumulation, and inevitably to crisis. As Marx noted in Chapter 16, central to an understanding of crisis was the relationship between stable forms of accumulation, technological innovation and labour-efficiencies, and the production of relative surplus value:

The production of absolute surplus-value turns exclusively upon the length of the working-day; the production of relative surplus-value, revolutionises out and out the technical processes of labour, and the composition of society. It therefore presupposes a specific mode, the capitalist mode of production, a mode which, along with its methods, means, and conditions, arises and develops itself spontaneously on the foundation afforded by the formal subjection of labour to capital. In the course of this development, the formal subjection is replaced by the real subjection of labour to capital.

However, for Endnotes, in the current secular crisis of capitalism, even the real subsumption of sectors that were previously unproductive and not directly part of the valorisation process cannot halt the:

Unprecedented weakness of growth in the high-GDP countries over the 1997-2009 period, zero-growth in household income and employment over the whole cycle, the almost complete reliance on construction and household debt to maintain GDP — all are testament to the inability of surplus capital in its financial form to recombine with surplus labour and give rise to dynamic patterns of expanded reproduction.

One outcome is generalised proletarianisation. As they go on:

the trajectory of surplus capital distorts the trajectory of surplus labour described by Marx, and not only in the ways that we have already described. Most importantly, surplus capital built up in international money markets over the last 30 years has masked some of the tendencies to absolute immiseration, through the growing debt of working class households. This tendency, which has kept the bottom from falling out of global aggregate demand, has equally prevented any possibility of recovery, which would be achieved only through the “slaughtering of capital values” and “setting free of labour”. For while asset-price deflation may raise the possibility of a new investment boom, the devalorisation of labour-power will, in this context, only lead to increasing levels of consumer default and further financial breakdowns. Thus it is not only its capacity to generate employment, but the sustainability of the recovery itself which remains in question today… Any question of the absorption of this surplus humanity has been put to rest. It exists now only to be managed: segregated into prisons, marginalised in ghettos and camps, disciplined by the police, and annihilated by war.

In understanding the changes that are impacting the higher education sector, developing a critique of the relationships between technology and technological innovation, new managerialsm and financialisation, and the impact of structural weaknesses in 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. Educational innovations like staff-student partnerships, students-as-change-agents, open educational resources, MOOCs, bring your own device, personal learning networks etc. have to be seen in light of the relationships between: technological innovation; the competitive demand to overcome the historical tendency of the rate of profit to fall; the disciplinary role of the integral State in shaping a space for further capital accumulation, against labour; the relationship between labour- and capital-intensity; and the subsumption of networks and network theory to the neoliberal project of accumulation and profitability.

Inside the University a critical question becomes what is academic labour for? Can it be reinscribed for co-operative practice, as against its subsumption inside mechanics for collaboration as neoliberal practices of enforced connection and coercian inside the market for valorisation. This is important where, as global student communiques remind us, co-operation is underpinned by a constant and immanent democratising of the organising principles and organisation of our society and our work. Collaboration inside the market can only offer a politics of subsumption in the search for outlets for profitable investment for supluses and new sources of demand.

At issue for academics and student is recovering the mechanisms through which their labour is made collaborative, as opposed to co-operative, and through which it is co-opted or coerced for valorisation. As Jonathan Davies reminds us capitalist modernity, and the reproduction of the capital-labour relation, is predicated upon control:

coercion is the immanent condition of consent inherent in capitalist modernity. As long as hegemony is partial and precarious, hierarchy can never retreat to the shadows. This dialectic plays out in the day-to-day politics of governance networks through the clash between connectionist ideology and roll-forward hierarchy or ‘governmentalisation’.

Moreover, Friedman reminds us that it is control that centres our (academic) labour in the process of valorisation, and in the subsumption of the processes and practices of education to services and commodities:

The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. Markets function and flourish only when property rights are secured and can be enforced, which, in turn, requires a political framework protected and backed by military power… the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

How and where might we contest the idea that education, and that the University, must reproduce forms of entrepreneurial activity that reassert the hegemony of stories of growth and work? Can this contestation be done inside the University? Or is the game up? Is the only possibility to fight for alternatives beyond formal institutions as we liberate knowledges, skills, technologies and practices from inside? Is it possible to do anything other than “re-appropriate (‘detonate’), ‘occupy’, these moments of space-time through ‘a new pedagogy of space and time’, which can be characterised as the production of critical knowledge in everyday life” (Neary and Amsler, p. 108)?


Educational technology and the crisis

I wrote this as I listened to a Jon Hopkins’ Boiler Room mix.

On Tuesday 10 September, I will be taking part in a conversation about technology-enhanced learning and the crisis. This emerged from some work at the Alpine Rendez-Vous 13 Crisis Forum earlier this year.

ONE: we need to talk about capitalism.

Michael Roberts’ work on the next recession has highlighted that: “the key indicators of sustained recovery in capitalism would be rising rates of profit, a sharp pick-up in business investment and substantial falls in unemployment”. Roberts discusses the structural, secular crisis of capitalism in a podcast here, and his analysis is amplified by Phoenix Capital’s view “that the forecast we’ve maintained for well over two years has been validated: the US is in a DE-pression and both Washington and the Federal Reserve have wasted trillions of Dollars. The reality is that what’s happening in the US today is not a cyclical recession, but a one in 100 year, secular economic shift.” On measures of unemployment, labour participation, and industrial production, Phoenix argue that “We’ve spent literally trillions of US Dollars on Stimulus and bailouts[,] and production is well below the pre-Crisis highs” with “the same percentage of the US population are working as in 1978.” For Phoenix this is a structural, secular depression, with an inability of actors in the system as a whole, rather than in sectors of the system, to re-establish stable forms of accumulation and profit. As Jehu notes over at Re: The People, technical, monetarist mechanisms like quantitative easing do nothing for growth “Since surplus value is only produced by living labor, the purchase of dead labor at a markup in the form of assets does nothing whatsoever to increase the mass of profits.” The same is true of the dead labour embedded in technologies that are imposed for efficiencies or productivity gains or for surveillance in the workplace or for the extraction of rents.

TWO: we need to talk about labour-power.

The reproduction of capitalist social relations is coming at a huge price for those who labour globally in the system, including students. Jehu states that monetary policy in the EU is simply “an attempt to obstruct the working class majorities of the member nations from democratic control over their economies.“ It is this democratic deficit that is apparent in the global North in the secular crisis of capital, as those with economic power seek to reinforce their position through mechanisms of indenture, like increased student debt (indenturing the futures of current and as yet unborn generations), the mechanics of accumulation through bailouts and quantitative easing, and the privatisation of previously socialised, historically-accrued value, like healthcare, resources like water, and education. Elsewhere, the horrors of labour in the global South go unreported in those markets they sustain. These realities emerge from the social relationships that are stitched into “our” technologies.

THREE: we need to talk about technology.

It is only against these political economic realities that the place of the University and of technology inside the University can be understood. Such an understanding demands that we critique technology as part of a totality of objectified human experience. We might start with Marx’s formulation in footnote 4 of chapter 15 of volume 1 of Capital that:

Technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life, and thereby also lays bare  the mode of formation of his social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them.

Thus, technologies that are produced and consumed at the limits of “man’s modes” of recasting and reforming social relationships offer critical insights into how capital co-opts research and development inside educational institutions (schools, colleges, universities, MOOCs), in order to restructure education for value formation and accumulation. It is impossible to make sense of the use of technology inside education without political economic critique.

FOUR: we need to talk about technology and resistance.

In his twelfth thesis on the secular crisis, Harry Cleaver noted that the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, across both the system a whole and for competing capitals in different sectors of the global economy, is countered by capital through attempts to insert technology or new techniques into production. He states that:

the rise in the organic composition of capital understood as occurring only with a capitalist reorganization of technology that raises productivity and imposes “more work”, [and] we can recognize that this always involves a change in the power relations between capital and the working class. Because the fundamental change involved in such reorganization of technology is the substitution of embodied dead labor (whether in the form of machines or information) for living labor, this tendentially undermines capital’s ability to organize its society through the imposition of work.

There is little sense or point in arguing that technology, as it is imposed inside capitalist social relations, can be emancipatory. It is designed: for personalisation that shapes entrepreneurial pedagogy or activity; or for the extraction of rents; or for an increase in relative surplus value by lowering labour costs or increasing productivity; or for workplace discipline (including of the unwaged labour of students); or for competition between universities as businesses. As Cleaver argues in his fourteenth thesis:

What we really need to do, is not merely to recognize the antagonistic subjects driving the “secular crisis” but to explore the “logics” of these emergent and diverse subjectivities. Such exploration can help us go beyond the appreciation of how they rupture capital to that of articulating and strengthening their development.

Revealing technology’s as a crack for the extraction of value, commodification and privatisation enables Capital’s expropriation of our social relationships for profit to be resisted and pushed-back against.

FIVE: we need to talk about recovering subjectivity.

Resistance and pushing-back are tied to the negation of the marketization of our lives and the negation of technological determinism. This is tied to our ability to fight for a rekindled subjectivity. We need to discover and strengthen how technology might be used to liberate subjectivity (knowledges, practices, organising principles, ways of knowing the world), and, in the words of Cleaver’s fifteenth thesis, to create spaces and places and alliances and allegiances for:

the fabrication and utilization of material connections and communications that destroy isolation and permit people to struggle in complementary ways.

Struggle is everything, and the struggle has to be collective. Not personalised. Not entrepreneurial. Not commodified. As Zibechi notes of the Zapatista Little Schools:

Collective work is one of the cements of autonomy, whose fruits usually spill into hospitals, clinics, primary and secondary education, in strengthening the municipalities and the good government juntas. Not much that has been constructed would be possible without the collective work, of men, women, boys, girls and the elderly.

For the point of education, in the face of this secular crisis, and of socio-political crisis, and of socio-environmental crisis, has to be the organising principles for collective work. It has to be for social solutions rather than for coercion and competition. It has to be for new forms of communal wealth rather than for enclosure and private profit. Thus, in the face of these dualities the point of educational technology has to be re-cast in terms of a critique of liberation.


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.


MOOCs and neoliberalism: for a critical response

George Siemens published a post over on his blog titled Neoliberalism and MOOCs: Amplifying nonsense. George’s key points in my opinion were that:

“Numerous quasi-connected fields that thrive on being against things have now coalesced to be against MOOCs”

“The more prominent argument emerging is one of classifying MOOCs as neo-liberalism. This is disingenuous.”

I wrote a comment-as-response. It was long. I have decided to republish it here.

Hi George,

There are several moments in what you post/your slides where I feel we need a wider discussion.

1. Critiquing MOOCs is now more fashionable than advocating for them.

Either way, we need to talk about techno-determinism (revisiting Andrew Feenberg’s work would be a good place to start: http://www.sfu.ca/~andrewf/pub_Questioning_Technology.html) and the reality of technology/technique-as-fetish. MOOCs/whatever need to be critiqued from inside the system of production/consumption in which they emerge. This is deeply political, and has a politics that is amplified by an overlay of crises: socio-environmental; economic; inter-generational etc.. This is why a critique of MOOCs/whatever as they are subsumed inside capital’s drive to reestablish profitability post-2008, and the systemic need to seek out new spaces for that profitability (public education, healthcare etc.), is key. The idea of the MOOC (as learner-focused, enfranchising, entrepreneurial etc.) is secondary to the co-option of the idea for the extraction of value. The fetishisation of the learner or learner-voice sits inside this systemic narrative/critique and needs to be politicised.

2. The faculty response to MOOCs is particularly important.

This is important. MOOCs/whatever risk being co-opted inside a process of global labour arbitrage. We need to discuss that, and not hide behind narratives that either seek to save or restore the traditional university/college/school (whatever that is/was), or that state that traditional educational institutions are vested interests that won’t change.

3. The more prominent argument emerging is one of classifying MOOCs as neo-liberalism. This is disingenuous. First, I don’t think anyone actually knows what neoliberalism means other than “that thing that I’m thinking about that I really don’t like”. Second, if we do take a stance that neoliberalism is some combination of open markets, deregulation, globalization, small government, low taxes, death of the public organization, and anti-union, then MOOCs are not at all neoliberalist.

I think you are wrong here. A number of academics/activists have done wide-ranging work in defining neoliberalism. It is more than a thing I don’t really like. It is a global pedagogic project aimed at subsuming the whole of social life under the treadmill logic of capitalism. It is a project that seeks to deny sociability and to enforce individuated entrepreneurial activity. Under global agreements like GATs it enables transnational activist networks/elites to marketise the idea of the public good in the name of private profit, and to diminish our collective ability to emerge from the current set of crises. There are a number of people/projects seeking social, co-operative responses to this, and critiques of MOOCs/whatever generally end with “what is to be done?”, rather than simply saying “no”. I have blogged about this extensively, and can point to a number of academic critiques that are more than “I don’t like this.” The issue is how/why MOOCs are being co-opted, and we witness this in the UK in the Coalition Government’s pronouncements and those of the private sector/IPPR. In my opinion the co-option of MOOCs inside a specifically-defined neoliberal restructuring of HE is clear. See:

http://www.richard-hall.org/2012/09/02/networks-the-rate-of-profit-and-institutionalising-moocs/

http://www.richard-hall.org/2012/12/05/for-a-critique-of-moocswhatever-and-the-restructuring-of-the-university/

http://www.richard-hall.org/2013/05/20/on-the-secular-crisis-and-a-qualitative-idea-of-the-university/

http://www.richard-hall.org/2013/05/29/on-the-university-and-revolution-from-within/

This also denies the extensive work done by Christopher Newfield amongst others in critiquing MOOCs and education policy in California. http://utotherescue.blogspot.co.uk/

4. The argument is simple: Much of today’s economy is knowledge-based. In a knowledge economy, we need to be learning constantly. Universities have failed to recognize the pent-up demand for learning as the economy has diversified and society has become more complex and interconnected.

Again, I fundamentally disagree. The argument is complex, and the presupposition that the economy is knowledge-based is also wrong. It may well be that knowledge/immateriality is some of what education produces, and the global economy as it has been restructured post-1970s oil crisis has been painted as a knowledge economy. However, this does no favours to the billions in the global South and in the global North who are unemployed, low-skilled, engaged in dangerous manual productive labour, engaged in menial service work, whose work is militarised etc.. This view disenfranchises those who labour globally to enable our rarefied view of the economy as knowledge-based – witness those mining rare earth metals in the global South or laboring in poor conditions in Foxconn factories. It also doesn’t enable us to engage with the crisis of over-production/under-consumption in the real economy, or the dislocation between immaterial labour (or knowledge work) and what has been termed the real economy. William Robinson amongst others would argue that the economy has been globalized and stratified, and the complexities that you allude to merely reinforce the hierarchical power of transnational elites (http://www.richard-hall.org/2013/02/22/the-university-and-the-globalised-learning-landscape/).

Your argument here is also determinist of one view of activity/life, as ostensibly economic. I would argue that we need to restore sociability and to push-back against a view of education that is about economic value or entrepreneurial activity. The demand that you highlight also needs to be critiqued rather than simply accepted (from whom and why?)

5. The reason MOOCs are being classified as neoliberalist is because entrepreneurs see the changing landscape and have responded before many universities.

As Stephen Ball notes neoliberalism is revealed through the following. • The economisation of everyday, social life, in order to realise new opportunities for profit. • Reconfiguring governance through an appeal to the entrepreneurial self, with the State as regulator and market-maker. • The State acting transnationally in concert with supranational bodies like the IMF, the European Central Bank and the World Bank, imposes the control that a free market desires, and removes impediments to the logic of the market. • There are several active waves of neo-liberalism: proto (the intellectual project of Hayek and Friedman); roll-back (of Keynesianism); and roll-out (of new state forms, modes of governance and regulation). • The creation and extraction of value is predicated upon mobility and connectivity. • The (networked) structures that enable neoliberalism are polymorphic and isomorphic.

Entrepreneurial activity, effectively a pedagogic project designed to transfer the risk for the creation of value/management of risk from the public to the individual, is a cornerstone of critiques of neoliberalism (Robinson, Lambie, Ball, Lipman, Newfield, Hoofd etc.). If MOOCs emerge from entrepreneurial activity then given the accepted analyses of neoliberalism they fall within that frame. They therefore need to be analysed in terms of the ways in which they are co-opted inside the global system of value production/extraction/subsumption.

6. Don’t blame the ill motives of others for what was caused by inactivity on the part of the professoriate and higher education in general.

Is that what is happening? I guess that the emergence of MOOCs has enabled a critique of education and technology inside this current phase of capitalism. It has also enabled the idea of the university/public education to be critiqued. That is a wholly good thing; nothing is sustainable. However, this is not limited to us-and-them inside the academy. As Newfield notes again-and-again about California, the University is subsumed inside a much wider political context that we need to understand in order that we can take action.

MOOCs/whatever need to be critiqued and alternatives developed in light of that politicisation. That doesn’t mean negating this MOOC or that ds106 or this social science centre or that college. It also means that we do not fetishise them…

7. In your Slide 41: the task of education is not to enculturate young people into this knowledge-creating civilization.

We need to talk about this in light of critical pedagogy. As the edufactory collective have shown, we need a robust and democratic discussion of what education is for – who has power to enculturate and why? What is this knowledge-creating civilisation? I return to the work of Amin and Thrift (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.0066-4812.2005.00488.x/abstract) that: our work is political; that there must be better ways of doing things and resolving crises; that we must help people to out power; that we need to be reflexive. The quote on this slide feels like it is about enclosure and closing down deliberation, in the name of the knowledge economy. In engaging with immanent crisis we need a better way.

Take care.


Critical Pedagogies Symposium: educational technology and the enclosure of academic labour

I’m pleased to be presenting at a symposium titled Critical Pedagogies: Equality and Diversity in a Changing Institution, in Edinburgh in September. I’m going to speak about “Educational technology and the enclosure of academic labour inside public higher education”. My presentation links to the following symposium topics:

  • Teaching within and beyond the classroom space; teaching as activism; virtual learning environments;
  • Effects of neoliberal policies and philosophies in institutional life; Education as commodity.

Abstract: across higher education in the United Kingdom, the procurement and deployment of educational technology increasingly impacts the practices of academic labour, in terms of administration, teaching and research. Moreover the relationships between academic labour and educational technology are increasingly framed inside the practices of neoliberal, transnational activist networks, which are re-defining UK higher education as a new model public service. This paper highlights the mechanisms through which educational technologies are used to control, enclose and commodify academic labour. At issue is whether academics and academic staff developers have a critical or ethical lens through which to critique the nature of the technologies that they use and re-purpose inside the University, and whether such a critique might enable technologies to be deployed for the production of socially-useful knowledge, or knowing, beyond monetization in the knowledge economy.


The University and the globalised learning landscape

In a post on Globalisation and the University, I picked up on William Robinson’s work on the mechanisms by which a transnational capitalist class, acting through a transnational state apparatus, and supported by a neoliberal political society, hatched from within national capitals. I made the point that it is impossible to understand the role of the University without developing a critique of its relationships to that transnational capitalist class, both in the ways that it is being restructured by political society and national state apparatuses across the global North, and crucially as an integral element in developing the hegemony of that transnational capitalist class throughout civil society. Effectively the University is shaped by the national policies that are catalysed for transnational capital, like privatisation, tax-exemption and indentured study. However, it also helps both to broaden the flexible, transnational capital accumulation from territories in the global South, and to deepen the mechanics of accumulation from previously socialised goods in the global North like healthcare and public education. These spaces are in-turn enclosed, folded into the circuits of globalised production, and then commodified for private consumption and gain.

A separate point that Robinson makes in his Theory of Global Capitalism surrounds the idea that technology, entrepreneuialism and innovation, despite their centrality to the processes of globalising production and consumption and to catalysing the flows of capital accumulation, are merely dependent variables in any social change. Capitalists and governments innovate and apply technologies and techniques because of the internal dynamics of the system of capitalism. These dynamics include competition, making the organic composition of capital as efficient as possible through squeezing labour, maintaining the increase in the rate of profit, and class struggle. Technologies are used inside capitalism to lower costs, to drive productivity, to discipline labour and to gain competitive advantage over other capitals/businesses/universities. Technological change is the result of social forces in struggle and the need to overcome the temporal and spatial barriers to accumulation.

In the transnational phase of capitalism then, technologies are used: to drive down labour rights across the globe; to polarise wealth and access to global income, as well as global, social mobility; to destroy the circulation time of commodities on a global scale; to escape the national (taxation) barriers to accumulation; to replace and rationalise human labour by labour-saving machines; to support the power of globally-mobile finance capital over labour; to coerce militarily those areas of the globe that act as a barrier to accumulation, for instance through the coercive use of drone technology; and to maintain the hegemonic power of a global elite, including the secular control of that elite over the consumption of media, politics, and social life in the global North. This secular control is based on the tenets of liberal democracy that are increasingly limited by 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, least of all inside the University, 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.

Technological innovation goes hand-in-hand with strategies for capital accumulation and the explosion in proletarian work, unemployment and underemployment across the globe. Much of this immiseration remains hidden from those in the global North who perceive that capitalism and the market offers the only workable solution. This ignores the fact that, as an article on the Network of Global Corporate Control demonstrates, the relationships between 43,000 transnational corporations

[identifies] a relatively small group of companies, mainly banks, with disproportionate power over the global economy… a core of 1318 companies [representing] 20 per cent of global operating revenues and… the majority of the world’s large blue chip and manufacturing firms… representing a further 60 per cent of global revenues’… a “super-entity” of 147 even more tightly knit companies … controlled 40 per cent of the total wealth … Most were financial institutions.

In the face of these objective realities I wonder what we are to make of engagements like the Changing the Learning Landscape programme inside UK Higher Education, which aims at strategic change in the use of technology in order: to change students’ prospects and life chances; to promote systemic and institutional change; and to support collaboration and partnership-working. In particular, I am interested in the extent to which the agency of students, staff or institutions is constricted through the restructuring of the University as a competing business, and the use of technology inside that business for accumulation as opposed to emancipation. In the restructuring of the University inside globalised capitalism any such agency risks being reduced to a competition over the least precarious forms of employment. This is the living death that is capitalist work refocused upon the objective realities of labour arbitrage.

This then makes any analysis of the ways in which students and staff engage with technology much less about their subjective reality as visitors or residents, and much more about their objective, material reality as a producer or a consumer inside globalised, transnational production processes. Inside a view of the student/teacher as visitor/resident there is limited scope for dissent, pushing back or resistance to the proletarianisation of work. There is only acceptance of capital’s domination over the lifeworld of labour and a reduction of discourse to specific technologies or to the ability of individuals to maintain a boundary between work and personal life, a battle which autonomous Marxism’s critique of immaterial labour, cognitive capital and the social factory tells us that capital will win unless we find cracks to exploit or mechanisms for exodus from the processes of accumulation and proletarianisation.

Therefore, any focus on institutional change needs to critique the relationships that emerge between student and teacher as producer and consumer, inside the globalised, material realities of transnational capitalism. They form representatives of global labour as it is being restructured inside globalised production processes, and the University is a site of that restructuring in the name of transnational capital accumulation. In this way, I wonder whether critiques of the possibilities of digital literacy, with a focus on the identities of student/teacher as producer/consumer, might offer a better way of revealing the globalised relationships of student, teacher and University. It is an understanding of the globalised production/consumption axis that offers a more meaningful critique of the fetishised idea of the digital student than the model of visitor/resident which in fact risks further fetishising of students or student life or digital technologies, and cannot break from the logic of capitalist exploitation. Without a deeper political context, rooted in production/consumption and the dynamics of capitalism, visitor/resident can only ever serve the reproduction of exploitative and polarised social relationships.

I wonder then whether a focus on critique of the productive and consumption-led capabilities and attributes of digital literacy, which are themselves openly/transparently grounded in craft skills that are understood as situated inside capitalist re-production processes, might be a more useful crack for pushing back against capital. A digital literacy that reflects on practices that are situated in complex, virtual/physical space-time, might then enable an enriched understanding of the individual’s asymmetrical relationship to transnational capital. This relationship includes the objective reality of indentured study, the coercive nature of technologies in monitoring performance, the restructuring of study in the name of economy, and the looming global energy/climate crisis.

Each of these objective realities demands that we reconfigure our thinking about the relationships between student, teacher and University, in terms of production/consumption and the material reality of capitalism. It is here that the power of global capital over global labour might be resisted through a focus on ideas like student-as-producer, using globalised platforms like wikimedia or ds106, not as fetishised commodities, but as sites for solidarity actions that reinforce the ability of counter-hegemonic forces to work together against the processes of accumulation. It is inside-and-against ideas like student-as-producer that we might resist the real subsumption of learning and teaching agendas, and pedagogic innovation programmes, for the hegemonic power of elites.

One of the key issues then is the extent to which programmes like Changing the Learning Landscape can be used as a space to resist the co-option of pedagogy for neoliberal agendas related to employability, enterprise and recalibrating the macroeconomic context for growth. How can such programmes resist the fetishisation of both technologies and students? How can they push-back against the competitive dynamic for constant change and innovation, to focus on the ways in which the production processes inside the University can be revealed and co-opted for a different, socialised form of wealth? How might they enable a contributional, productive economy, which is deliberative, participatory and inclusive? How might they enable students/teachers to open-up the University as a site of political power and civil society to transparent critique?

In fact, how might ideas like digital literacy and student-as-producer, technologies/platforms like wikimedia, and sites of struggle like the University, be opened-up pragmatically through programmes of work like Changing the Learning Landscape, to enable critique of the idea that the student/teacher as scholar might become an organic intellectual? How might they truly connect the University to the idea of the public good through a globalised learning landscape that is not enclosed but which is developed as a Commons through solidarity actions? In Robinson’s terms, how might an organisational critique based on ideas like student-as-producer be connected to a dissatisfaction in civil society with the objective, material reality of transnational capitalism? Grass-roots social movements, environmental crisis, global student occupations, global protests against austerity and the power of finance capital all make it increasingly difficult for ruling elites to maintain hegemony. Hence, in-part, the enforcement of indentured study and the reality of pedagogic cultures based on enterprise.

The challenge is to take these social struggles that exist inside-and-against the University and infuse them politically, using globalised technologies, in order to open-up a counter-hegemonic space or global commons. It is only through the politicising of academic (student/teacher) labour through solidarity actions that truly transformational change that addresses social need and marginalisation beyond the market can be realised. Universities are critical sites in the globalisation of this struggle, as is the student/teacher as producer/consumer of material relations that are beyond the subjective. It is through the technological mobilisation of these social forces that the legitimacy of the transnational capitalist class might be challenged, in order that global production might be redirected sustainably for the majority of the world’s population that are neither visitor nor resident, but whom are impoverished and pauperised, as opposed to being for the minority of high-income, high-status groups in the global North. This means developing models that replace the restructuring and reorganisation of global society for capital accumulation, including the realisation of pedagogic models and ideas of public education that maintain (counter-)hegemony.


Making the Cloud work for you: institutional risk and governance

On Thursday I am presenting at BETT13 on “Making the Cloud work for you”, with a subtitle of “institutional risk and governance”.

My presentation is here: http://slidesha.re/11OHwoK

These are my notes for those slides, which are a mix of a case study of learning and teaching a De Montfort University and an approach to personal/institutional risk.

SLIDE 3: thinking about the pedagogic development of cloud-based technologies has amplified issues around the following [risks].

  1. How does the use of cloud-based technologies affect how an institution maintains a level of curriculum control or control of curriculum change-management processes? Control might be required for quality assurance, curriculum transparency or accountability. Where academic autonomy and the use of technologies in the curriculum is devolved, how do cloud-based technologies affect ad hoc curriculum design/delivery, as opposed to strategic control. How do staff digital/technical literacies affect this approach? What are the implications where staff are operating beyond a hosted/in-house LMS?
  2. How do institutions support/nurture in-house skills development? Do they focus on what is of quality or is distinctive or is interesting, and then outsource or migrate that which is deemed boring (depending on risks to data etc.)?
  3. How do institutions analyse and prepare for elasticity of demand and new service-provision, where technologies or techniques are in the cloud? How d they focus on developing technologies that will enable emerging and future web applications?

SLIDE 4: this is DMU’s Core/Arranged/Recommended/Recognised technology model. This is defined as follows:

Core: integrated corporate systems, including the Blackboard VLE, the staff/student portal, library management systems, MS Lync, streaming media (the DMU video server), dropbox facilities like Zend, and the DMU Commons (our.dmu), are available to students/staff to use with the devices and services of their choosing, and extended through tools that the institution arranges, recommends or recognises.

Arranged: accounts are created on key plug-ins or extensions beyond the core, like plagiarism detection tools (Turnitin), external blogs and wikis, like Campus Pack, and synchronous classrooms (WizIQ, WebEx).

Recommended: recommendations are made with supporting training materials, for connecting key, web-based tools into the core/arranged mix. This might include using RSS to bring in content from Twitter, SlideShare, iTunes or YouTube, or supporting SKYPE.

Recognised: the institution is aware that students and staff are experimenting with other technologies and maintains a horizon-scanning brief, until and unless a critical mass of users require the recommendation of specific tools.

SLIDES 6-11: whether or not one buys into the critiques of how neoliberal policy is opening-up higher education, it is clear that HE is seen as a marketised space into which services can be sold. Lipman defined this as a $2.5 trillion market in education that is restructuring the reality of education and training. This has ramifications for those who work in institutions that are, at least in-part, publically/charitably-funded, governed and regulated. How value is defined in that restructured space, beyond the rule of money, needs to be assessed, including which services will be outsourced to the cloud and why. This is more important because, as Macquarie Capital Equities Research House argues, the market for cloud-based solutions is growing and becoming more aggressively competitive. Witness Google’s Knowledge Graph and the application of big data/semantic web to web-based service development. The rate of profit is critical here in how it affects the restructuring of businesses that operate “the cloud” and which will be looking for new markets, and for those universities which are being recalibrated through HE policy as businesses and which need to extract value from their operations. UK Government policy, the pronouncements of UK Vice-Chancellors like Malcolm Gilles, and reports from think-tanks like Educause create a cultural space inside civic society that helps to reframe educational policy around deterministic uses of technology.

SLIDE 12: Stakeholders inside universities might reflect on how technology is deployed inside hegemonic, fiscal “realities”. These include the following.

  • The drive for public-private partnerships, or private finance initiatives that drive efficiencies, value-for-money etc.. This underpins ideas of service re-engineering, outsourcing of services to lower-wage/cost spaces, and consultancy for new services. This is about disciplining labour and extracting surplus value from outsourced services.
  • The generation of discourses of efficiency/productivity that are rooted though analytics, big data, the reduced circulation time of information-based commodities, changes in production through outsourcing, and workload/workforce monitoring.
  • The legitimation of further innovation and R&D, through discourses of value-for-money, commercial efficiency, business process re-engineering (c.f. European Vision 2020; HEFCE 2012).
  • The need to maintain technological innovation, in order to stay one step ahead of competitors. This connects to Marx’s idea of the moral depreciation of technologies/machines, and the need for constant innovation/value-creation.

Each of these pressures act on universities, and catalyse the need to consider cloud-based migration.

SLIDES 14-17: the second big risk is to users and institutions of placing data in the Cloud, especially where that data is stored on services hosted by a corporation based in the USA, or where hardware is physically located in the USA. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology have both raised concerns over the Justice Department’s use of courts in the USA to subpoena access to data that has left a user’s device and is stored in “the cloud”.

SLIDE 18: universities might wish to consider the following cases, which affect the storage of corporate assets (research data, personal information, communications, assessments and evaluations etc.) in the cloud.

  • Twitter: the EFF/American Civil Liberties Union reported on the U.S. Department of Justice’s subpoena to Twitter for Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir’s tweets regarding Wikileaks. The Salon reported:

The information demanded by the DOJ is sweeping in scope. It includes all mailing addresses and billing information known for the user, all connection records and session times, all IP addresses used to access Twitter, all known email accounts, as well as the “means and source of payment,” including banking records and credit cards. It seeks all of that information for the period beginning November 1, 2009, through the present.

  • LinkedIn: opens-up attempts to crack a service, and to enable hackers to aggregate data for future cracking of other services, for instance by confirming guesses about passwords. This enables the comparison of hacked data against pre-computed versions and broadens “guessable” data. How does this affect the recommended technologies that staff/students use? In June 2012, ComputerWorld noted:

More than 60% of the unique hashed passwords that were accessed by hackers from a LinkedIn password database and posted online this week have already been cracked, according to security firm Sophos.

  • Facebook, Google and Twitter: there is now an obligation to identify “trolls”, and internet companies will have to surrender the details of those posting libellous messages. How does this affect staff and student professional development/identities?
  • Leveson: Jeremy Hunt’s private Gmail account, which was used to conduct official business was subject to Freedom of Information, according to the Information Commissioner.

This raises issues of: cloud-based service availability and resilience; confidentiality/privacy and personal/institutional data; copyright/copyleft/content distribution; data security/back-ups control/deletion.

SLIDES 19 and 20 demonstrate how important it is to protect critical assets or data from providers and to think about service resilience, even when dealing with a behemoth like Amazon Web Services which has suffered outages.

SLIDE 21: demonstrates just how ubiquitous cloud services are, and how deeply interconnected they are to broader geographies of transnational finance capital and corporate governance. Thinking through what transnational corporate governance means for your institutional data/services/technologies is critical.

SLIDES 22-23: some final governance issues for institutions and their staff.

  • Risk-management operates at a range of scales: does it matter if someone accesses your stuff? [c.f. Dropbox; subject to FoI] If so, canyou build Chinese walls or local alternatives?
  • What about corporate governance, including access to services that are marketised? [e.g. the recent Google-Verizon issue, which flagged the possibility of a two-speed internet, especially for multimedia distribution/consumption. See also the potential costs of accessing data in a marketised HE space.]
  • Does it matter if the academic who is responsible for the curriculum/assessment that is managed in the Cloud, in non-institutional services gets hit by a bus? [What should be managed in-house or hosted via a contract?]
  • Do we understand that data is being transferred into a service and that we have responsibilities? [T&Cs; Intellectual Property; protected characteristics; indemnities for libel].
  • How do we work-up the digital literacies of our staff/students in these spaces?

Against a bill of rights and principles for learning in the digital age

It is interesting that the drive to MOOC-ify both the forms of (higher) education and the idea of pedagogy, has quickly forked to the idea of a Bill of Rights for Learners. Downes has already noted that “if you ask me it’s pretty top-down and manipulative”. I know that in this brave new world, we are all defined as learners, but I find it intriguing that there is the idea of a Bill of Rights for learners that is not written by learners, in the traditional sense. It is written by people that I would define as educators with more/different social and cultural capital than, say, the 18-year old historians that I have had the privilege to work with. Thus, the preamble notes that this is produced by those who are “passionate about serving today’s students”; this is education-as-service industry, which leaves it ripe for co-option by those with an agenda of student-as-customer or consumer, rather than as co-producer. I also find it intriguing that there is an open invitation to help redraft/improve this Bill of Rights on the P2P site. I’m wondering how that will engage with those institutional learners across the globe, rather than engage specific groups in technologically-rich countries/educational settings.

Anyway, the draft made me think about the following issues.

  1. For whom does this declaration speak? Whom does it give power? Whom does it give a voice? Who is silenced and why?
  2. There is a specific presumption about what globalisation means. How a group of educators from the Global North are drafting/writing a Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age, witha cursory mention of globalisation and no focus on politics or disenfranchisement in the global South or even inside countries in the North. The idea that access is ubiquitous is developed alongside a depoliticised notion that equality of opportunity is enough, when inside the iniquities of an education system designed around capitalist work, this is never enough. A starting point might be the work of Glen Rikowski on the relationships between education, training and capitalism.
  3. How techno-determinism drives a view of constant, specific innovation, of emancipation achieved through access to capitalist work (embedded in the draft), and the underpinning idea of education for individual entrepreneurialism. The draft is almost solely focused on the flowering of the individual and how that has historically been denied institutionally through outmoded educational practices (whatever they are). In this way it resonates with the neoliberal ideal of the production of the entrepreneurial subject, separated or atomised out but given equality of opportunity to access the technological tools and debt-driven opportunities that signal the possibility of entering that productive process. Technology is merely an enabler or reinforcer of those possibilities, and yet here it is reified so that the ideals claimed for leaning are subsumed under its “potentially awe-inspiring opportunity”.
  4. How the focus on the learner, rather than communities of scholarly practice, is almost a disciplinary tool. For who can deny that empowering the learner is the aim of education? Who would dare say that #learnersrights should not drive this agenda? Yet this risks becoming a form of tyranny that dispossesses the voices of those who commit their lifetime to educating. Whither dissent when this is claimed as a unifying bill of rights for learners? Moreover, it risks separating out learners and teachers, for instance as opposed to the Social Science Centre’s focus on teachers and students as scholars as a community of shared educational practice and inquiry. The teacher appears forgotten in this Bill of Rights other than having responsibilities, of which the learner appears to have none, for s/he has only #learnersrights.
  5. Downes makes the point that History is forgotten in the Bill of Rights, that he authored a ‘Cyberspace Charter of Rights‘ in 1999. Before that we have: communiqués from occupied California that featured student/teacher manifestos for education and society; a whole history of redefining education as a social and socialised good back to 1968 and of redefining the relationships between education, educational forms and society; a raft of work on critical pedagogy as transformational, democratic praxis which emerges from the work of bell hooks, Henry Giroux and others; and the outpouring of what “learners” demand from education in the face of the discipline of austerity. Any Bill of Rights needs to understand its historical moment. At issue is whether this one does in any way that isn’t deterministic and presentist.
  6. The Bill cannot escape the structuring logic of capitalism. Work, value, money, the place and role of employers, and affordability are written throughout its DNA, and yet these come loaded with issues of power and politics that are at best hidden from view in the document. In this way its claims for emancipation are tied to problem-solving the worst excesses of capitalism, through affordable access, or transparency of data-mining and privacy, licensing laws and commodifying personal data etc. It is also interesting that financial transparency appears ahead of pedagogical transparency, and that money/work is a critical factor throughout. Where is the politics? Where is the power? Is financial transparency and the meaningful payment of educators really a defining moment of emancipatory education? Really?
  7. There is no mention of the implications and impact of crises of austerity, climate change, and liquid fuel availability here. All that is offered is “there is no alternative”. How does this Bill of Rights helps learners, teachers, or society manage disruption and become resilient in the face of crisis? How does it enable us to solve problems communally, beyond being the individual becoming fit-for-work?

The Bill of Rights reminded me that in being “inside”, we are able to be/define “against” and move “beyond”; to define meaningful alteratives. I take that as the important outcome of this Bill.

Thus, the Bill of Rights reminded me ofthe University of Utopia’s anti-curricula and the Third University’s precepts for alternative teacher training.

Addendum

Kate Bowles over on Music for Deckchairs has written the most eloquent critique of the original draft, based upon her view that the idea and forms of higher education are worth fighting for, and that democratic accountability isn’t just the province of the open web.

For me, there are two gaps. The first is a failure to understand or include what it takes for public education institutions to operate within the legislative constraints that are the ultimate protection for student rights, including student diversity. These can’t just be upturned because we want to, and to be honest, I don’t want to. There’s a whole lot wrong with higher education, but at some point we have to say that the work of making it possible is serious, complicated and driven by people who really mind about equity.

The second is a failure to recognise that it’s going to take a whole lot more than a motherhood statement to deal with the emerging problem of missionary zeal in North American higher education circles. I am really so tired of hearing that MOOCs will parachute in global superstar professors to save the world’s unserved populations.

In a separate comment, she made the point that “More and more it looks like offloading cheap copies in markets where we think proper educational credentials won’t really matter anyway.” Back in January 2010 I tried to make a case that educational institutions, publishers, tech-firms etc. operating inside global capitalism were using HE internationalisation agendas to open-up global markets for cheap commodities/for commodity dumping, both in order to overcome under-consumption in domestic markets and to maintain an increase in the rate of profit. With domestic demand falling for traditional, institutional HE places, especially for UK Russell Sector universities, the move to offshore/outsource and open-up new markets becomes paramount. With DBIS amongst others recalibrating the form of the traditional university as a business this is the logic of the structuring dynamics of capitalism applied to education and it flows through capital’s circuits into the spaces in which MOOCs/tech innovations operate. This is exactly why any Bill of Rights has to start with a deep critique of political economy and education’s place inside that structure.

So my final word for the moment has to be about the way in which this current debate has opened-up a debate about internationalisation, power, technology for entrepreneurialism etc.. What I would hope we can address is the extent to which declarations or bills of rights are a form of cultural hegemony or enculturation that reveal the ways in which civil society is restructured in the name of the individual rather than in the name of society. It is interesting that the original Draft contained no mention of “politics”, one of “society” and four of “community”/”communities”. The key is to address that restructuring process and the ways in which power-to make the world is co-opted by others power-over the spaces in which we operate. As Kate Bowles notes:

Reading the coverage that this has been given, here’s what I keep coming back to: the inestimable Henry Jenkins (just to show that I don’t have a problem with Americans), in his Border Crossings: Cultural Workers and The Politics of Education:

Visions always belong to someone, and to the degree that they translate into curricula and pedagogical practices, they not only denote a struggle over forms of political authority and orders of representation, but also weigh heavily in regulating the moral identities, collective voices and the futures of others.