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.


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.

On the entrepreneurial university and the social factory

In the Economic and Social Manuscripts Marx described how by developing the body of the factory, or machinery organised into a system with labour subsumed under that system, capitalists worked:

  • to annex labour-power inside machinery that freed them from the organised power of workers to remove their labour;
  • to annex the labour of those whose labour-power was less costly and so enabled further extraction of surplus value, in this case of women and children, thus augmenting “the number of human beings who form the material for capitalistic exploitation”;
  • to confiscate further the worker’s disposable time, by extending the hours of labour;
  • to increase productivity, as a means of systematically getting more work done in a shorter time, or of exploiting labour-power more intensely;
  • to deskill the worker to embed that technical content inside the form of the machine, so that the capitalist might be emancipated from the restraints that are inseparable from human labour-power.

Marx writes that

The lightening of the labour, even, becomes a sort of torture, since the machine does not free the labourer from work, but deprives the work of all interest. Every kind of capitalist production, in so far as it is not only a labour-process, but also a process of creating surplus-value, has this in common, that it is not the workman that employs the instruments of labour, but the instruments of labour that employ the workman. But it is only in the factory system that this inversion for the first time acquires technical and palpable reality. By means of its conversion into an automaton, the instrument of labour confronts the labourer, during the labour-process, in the shape of capital, of dead labour, that dominates, and pumps dry, living labour-power. The separation of the intellectual powers of production from the manual labour, and the conversion of those powers into the might of capital over labour, is, as we have already shown, finally completed by modern industry erected on the foundation of machinery. The special skill of each individual insignificant factory operative vanishes as an infinitesimal quantity before the science, the gigantic physical forces, and the mass of labour that are embodied in the factory mechanism and, together with that mechanism, constitute the power of the “master.”

One hope for emancipation from this living death is that because capital depends on the exploitation of labour-power, in order to extract surplus value and maintain increase in the rate of profit, it needs different ways to relate to labour. In early industrialisation the factory enabled efficiencies in production and highlighted the mechanisms through which the social content of labour might be developed. The factories therefore offered ways in which the combination of labour might enable an amelioration of working conditions through trades unionism and collective bargaining. It was the ways in which labour might understand its power, and its power revealed socially as mass intellectuality, that could offer a way out. Developing and hoarding individuated skills was only a means to diminish our individual selves, and merely reinforced our dehumanisation, ostensibly through our alienation from others and ourselves.

In more recent work by autonomist Marxists, this analysis of the factory and the social content of work has been extended to develop the idea of the social factory, in which our individuated selves, or ourselves located inside family units, provide the very privatised matter upon which consumption and production can be extended. Thus, inside the idea of the social factory the whole of our lived experience is a space that can be contracted for, privatised and commodified, in order that surplus value can be legitimately extracted from it. As well as in our working existence, in our leisure we become alienated from ourselves, and unable to become fully human. What it is to be human is commodified inside a system where we have very limited power to be anything at all. Our every action, “like”, friendship, relationship simply offers a space for new services and products to develop. Moreover, the normalisation of working in/at/from home, and the bleeding of boundaries between work and home, including the technologies used in those spaces, thus enables capital to normalise the power of capitalist work over life.

The idea of the social factory enables a critique of gender relationships and the family in enabling labour-power to be reproduced for capital. This forms an extension of the mechanisms through which a surplus can be extracted because the family is developed as a space inside which production/consumption for profit can be nurtured, but also because the family, rather than “work”, nourishes the worker so that s/he is fit to return to work each day. Moreover, the social factory is a space inside which the general intellect and the application of science to production and consumption can be rolled out beyond the limits of formally contracted work, in a less collectivised space. Moreover, our leisure time is converted into cognitive work as our (inter)actions are mined in order that they provide opportunities to create new services or products. In this our engagements with a range of technologies fold our personal lives into the world of work, as we work to bring our own devices into the workplace, thus opening-up and merging our personal data, relationships and practices to the desires and will of the workplace. As a result of our atomised and often contractual relationships, the threat of non-compliance, strikes or work-stoppages is reduced.

There is an increasing critique of the relationship between the social factory and cognitive capitalism, in particular in the individuation of everyday experiences and relationships that are increasingly seen as contracted or contractual. One of the key markers of Marx’s work on machinery and on labour-power, in its English, factory deployment was the focus on social content of meaningful work. This enabled the worker to be seen as a social being and to see one route for amelioration of the worst excesses of capitalism to be through combination. It also offered ways of seeing the social content of labour as a crisis for capital, although capital would use information generated across the social factory to depress wages and exert control.

It is inside this critique that we might now turn to the idea of the entrepreneurial university and, in particular, the relationship between entrepreneurialism in education and technology. This relationship is critical if we are to address how the individual and the social content of labour are being developed inside-and-against the institution, and if we are to point towards a possible set of educational alternatives. In a recent essay Ronald Barnett has argued that the discourse surrounding higher education and the idea of the University is limited and limiting. He has written that the idea of the entrepreneurial dynamics of the University rests on a shared vocabulary.

A vocabulary quickly emerges among politicians, state officials, university rectors and vice-chancellors of the “global economy”, “competition”, “success”, “customers”, “surplus income”, “multiple income streams” and “knowledge transfer”. The entrepreneurial university is, as we may term it, an endorsing philosophy. It notes that the university is caught up in the burgeoning knowledge economy and sets out a mission that further encourages movement that is already under way.

Barnett then argues that critiques of this position from a public-good or neoliberal/financialisation perspective lack positivity and form dystopian, unhopeful spaces. He argues that “The whole debate is hopelessly impoverished” and lacks imagination, ignoring both the mechanisms through which imagination, innovation or creativity are opened-up as immaterial labour or cognitive capital for profit, and the deeper structural limitations of any alternative based on hopeful imagination inside capitalism. Imagination or creativity risk becoming liberal sops that connect to a discourse of economic growth, and inside the reality of austerity politics their very foundation needs a political economic critique.

So Barnett argues that we need to overcome “a fear of imagining” where “universities have convinced themselves that they are boxed in, unable to think or act in ways that are going to contribute to the world’s well-being.” He believes that “we should not be too pessimistic: some universities across the world are becoming systematically imaginative and encouraging of imaginative ideas.” Only he cannot give any examples of his “feasible utopias”. Does he mean the imagination shown in the global occupations? In the raft of alternatives to the enclosure of the university by austerity politics and the rule of money, in California, or in the edufactory collective, or the knowledge liberation front, or in protests in Dhaka, Addis Ababa, London etc.? What does this mean for the relationships between students, academics and administrators? What about the relationships between universities and the State, where consent and coercion are being redefined?

One way to begin to look at this problem of the idea of the university, is in the deployment of technology inside universities, which has emerged alongside an almost total lack of meaningful, mainstream critique of technologies and techniques, in particular inside educational technology communities. In this is witnessed the mis-engagement with the idea of social learning and socialised critique. The vogue for bring your own device, for personal learning networks as personalised brands, for promoting technologies and creativity, and now for entrepreneurialism, are presented as strands inside an emancipatory discourse. In particular, these vogues are connected to: technological innovation and the desperate need for the next innovative idea; individuated views of how the educational system might be made to work better, so that those whom it has failed might be redeemed; work-based efficiencies being spread into our everyday lifeworlds, in order that we might become better producers/consumers; narratives of economic growth and recovery. In the politics of austerity against which technological innovation is asymmetrically placed, there is an increasing stress on the role of the individual to reduce their social needs and to increase their contractual, commodity-based portfolio. In this new set of narratives the deployment of innovative technologies, increasingly linked to ideas of entrepreneurialism, as seen to be unquestioningly central.

Thus, we see the drive for technology-driven entrepreneurialism inside the university, increasingly connected to the narrative of economic growth. However, the assumptions that underpin this relationship then demand a further set of questions, in particular inside higher education which is increasingly being seen as a motive force for catalysing an entrepreneurial, business-focused life-world.

  • Does an entrepreneurial university experience reinforce the transfer of risk for failure and indebtedness from society as a whole to the individual, underpinned by a new fee structure? Does it reinforce the individuated inequities of human/social capital? Does it reinforce the demonization of those deemed not entrepreneurial in their practices or techniques?
  • Does an entrepreneurial university experience further remove individuals from the social content of their labour? Does such an experience reinforce the contractual, atomised nature of our relationships that are increasingly based on private property?
  • Does a focus on individuated entrepreneurialism reinforce precarious forms of labour? Does its recreation inside higher education reinforce the politics of austerity?
  • Does a focus on educational entrepreneurialism enable society as a whole to address the crises of austerity, climate change and liquid fuel availability?
  • Do technologies, and ideas like bring your own device, personal learning networks, MOOCs and learning analytics, bear systemic analysis, so that educators can understand whether they individuate further our experiences, reduce them to contractual, privatised worlds, and further remove their social content, or not?

In this process we might remember that for all our focus on technologies like ipads or raspberry pi as emancipatory/entrepreneurial in their ability to enable digital literacies or creativity (whatever that is) to flourish, they are still manufactured from components and minerals that are themselves produced in environments that immiserate others. We might ask, to what extent is our entrepreneurialism afforded at the personal expense of other human beings?

In asking these politicised questions I am interested in remembering the social forms of our labour, identified inside the factory and reinvented in the social factory, and the social content that is held therein. It is in the process of socialising our labour, and in catalysing and releasing that labour as mass intellectuality that we might begin to offer alternatives that move us away from business-as-usual and the poverty of the politics of austerity. It is in the revelation of the mechanisms through which universities contribute to the idea of contractual, privatised entrepreneurialism and become key agents in structuring the dynamics of the social factory that might enable alternative forms of sociability to be developed, against-and-beyond the university. These need to be more than simply in the name of business-as-usual or the vagaries of imagination or hope. It is against this view, situated very specifically inside the current global crisis of capitalism, that the purpose and reality of technology-fuelled, entrepreneurial education needs to be addressed.

For a critique of MOOCs/whatever and the restructuring of the University


In analyses of the circuits and cycles of capitalism, interpretations of crises underpin our individual and collective responses to them. In classical interpretations, overproduction/under-consumption or the tendency of the rate of profit to fall have dominated discussions of what might be done to move beyond crises. Critical here is recognising that the discourse of crisis is framed by how capital can overcome the barriers to the production and accumulation of surplus value. Typical mechanisms have been: the implementation of new technologies that revolutionise the production process; new working patterns that increase the productivity of labour; or the destruction of unproductive capitals or institutions, so that the surplus value that is tied up inside them can be released and further accumulated. Inside such analyses, the relationships between civil and political society and the mechanisms through which the battle of ideas can be waged is critical. It is here that the historic idea of the University, and the responses inside capitalism to declining profitability, might be developed.

In the UK we are witnessing the restructuring of higher education as one response to the financial crisis of 2008. Thus, the discourse is of individual student choice, new public management, value-for-money, impact etc.. The reality of this approach is that it tends to work towards individuation and the market as the touchstones of effective and efficient higher education. This then acts as one negation of the perceived historic role of the University. In reflecting on the aspirational and social democratic role of the University post-the 1963 Robbins Review, John Holmwood has recently argued for the university’s “wider social and political value in contributing to culture and an inclusive democracy”. Martin Weller has also argued for the incremental and developmental change emerging inside education, rather than buying into a (generally techno-determinist) view that education is broken.

Such public, developmental arguments for the University and the institutions of education, sit uneasily against the market mechanisms now being foist upon higher education, from consumerisation and student fees, to pay-to-publish, to impact metrics and research excellence frameworks. Each of these mechanisms negates the perceived public, democratic role of the university in the face of the discipline of the market. This is important because, as Karl Polyani argued, “To allow the market mechanism to be sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment… would result in the demolition of society” because through that mechanism the economic system lays down the law to society, and the capitalist economic system takes primacy over the system. In the face of the neoliberal incantation that there is no alternative, higher education is being torn by the mechanisms that Wolfgang Streeck describes for democratic capitalism, namely

a political economy ruled by two conflicting principles, or regimes, of resource allocation: one operating according to marginal productivity, or what is revealed as merit by a ‘free play of market forces’, and the other based on social need or entitlement, as certified by the collective choices of democratic politics. Under democratic capitalism, governments are theoretically required to honour both principles simultaneously, although substantively the two almost never align.

At issue is how these conflicting principles are affecting higher education, and how the idea of the University as a historic structure is being negated by the primacy of market principles. The arguments over Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are important here because their logic points towards the revolutionary potential of capitalism to overcome barriers and release surplus value for reinvestment and accumulation.


Inside the logic of MOOCs is emerging a technology-enabled business model that, for example: enables the student or facilitator to become entrepreneurial or enterprising at lower cost than in traditional educational forms; separates out the structures of the university, like teaching, assessment, student support, careers-matching etc., in order that they are commodified for profit; enables teaching assistants to be used to drive down the costs of academic labour, which are traditionally high inside the University; disciplines the social, co-operative and time-consuming nature of the accumulation process inside universities; and enables capital to release social capital previously accumulated inside the university for its own accumulation and profit. Thus, for instance, we witness how Coursera is “officially in the headhunting business, bringing in revenue by selling to employers information about high-performing students who might be a good fit for open jobs.”

Critical in analysing how and why MOOCs form one attempt by capital to negate the institution of the University, as a function of its internal, market-driven dynamics, is a political economic analysis of their impact. Thus, Anna Fazackerley in the Guardian clearly connects the relationship between investment banking and higher education for profit.

Financiers are hearing stories about a global revolution in online learning in the US, and they are eager for that revolution to catch on over here. But so far they have been disappointed. “UK higher education is extremely good, but the scale of ambition is low,” says Robb. “I was talking to an investor the other day who said: ‘At the moment no university is looking at anything big enough for us to write a cheque’.”

Peter Scott, also writing in the Guardian, argued that market discipline and the power of finance capital in particular is opening-up higher education and corporatising its management, thus disciplining the traditional academic behaviours in the face of hegemonic narratives of what the University as a corporate body should be.

Against this background of investment banking and market discipline, it is interesting to reflect on Clay Shirky’s argument that:

the fight over MOOCs is really about the story we tell ourselves about higher education: what it is, who it’s for, how it’s delivered, who delivers it… The possibility MOOCs hold out is that the educational parts of education can be unbundled. MOOCs expand the audience for education to people ill-served or completely shut out from the current system.

We might ask, for whom and for what is this unbundling taking place? Shirky goes on to make the crucial point that:

In the US, an undergraduate education used to be an option, one way to get into the middle class. Now it’s a hostage situation, required to avoid falling out of it.

Yet, across the global North we are witnessing the weight of negative prospects that are equally acting as disciplinary mechanisms on the form and function of the University as anything other than a vehicle for entrepreneurial activity.

  • The Bank of England’s Andrew Haldane has stated that debt and an indentured future, in which our labour is securitised, now dominates our foreseeable future: “If we are fortunate, the cost of the crisis will be paid for by our children. More likely it will still be being paid for by our grandchildren.”
  • Zerohedge has reported on The Social Depression Within Europe’s Recession, in particular looking at the rates of suicide, crime, homelessness and poverty in the Eurozone as austerity bites, and destroys the social capital upon which middle class lives were built.
  • RT reports that “The number of American youth who are out of school and unemployed has hit a half-century record high, with 6.5 million teens and young adults staying at home without the skills required to find employment.”
  • Zerohedge highlights the rise in student loan repayment delinquency rates, and Mike Shedlock’s analysis of student loan debt versus graduate earnings reveals that “as student debt piles up, wage growth for college grads certainly doesn’t”. This reinforces the view that a squeeze on profits has been replaced by a squeeze on wages (see the graph on page 6 of this link which takes wages as a proportion of GDP between 1955-2008). This has been accelerated after the financial collapse, as Zerohedge has again shown in its analysis of how labour’s share on national income has collapsed in the USA.

The political economic background against which the University’s mission and role is played out is one of indenture, collapsing real wages, unemployment and depression. It is against this background that the political economics of MOOCs might be addressed, as one form of the negation of the historic role of the University, and as a mechanism through which capital can extract rents (through access rights or accreditation) or release (social or human capital as) surplus value for the market. One important strand that emerges from any such analysis surrounds the meaning of academic labour and the role of academics as organic intellectuals.


In The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism,David Harvey argues that the sustainability of modern capitalism is beholden to rising effective demand and consumerism. In particular, he notes that the creation of new spaces inside and against which surpluses can be invested and returns taken out is critical. Thus, he notes:

The production of space in general and of urbanisation in particular has become big business under capitalism. It is one of the key ways in which the capital surplus is absorbed… The connections between urbanisation, capital accumulation and crisis formation deserve careful scrutiny.

Whilst Harvey is thinking about physical space as a motive for consumption and production, this might also be applied to the mixed physical/virtual spaces inside which higher education is folded. This is important for analysing technologically-driven innovations as one possible negation of the idea of the University, because higher education in whatever form is inscribed inside the totality of capitalism. Thus, the idea of the neoliberal University needs to be addressed against the circulation of capital, and in response to potential blockages that might induce a crisis by constricting capital flows. I want to hint at these as ways in which innovations like MOOCs might be analysed, in order to reflect on higher education and the idea of the University inside neoliberalism. The issue then will be what is to be done?

ONE. How do we understand the historic university as a potential blockage to (human, social, financial etc.) capital flow, and MOOCs as one response to overcome it? For Harvey, overcoming blockages involves analysing the following seven factors, which I have edited in the current context.

  1. Assemblage of the Initial Capital: e.g. universities as congealed intellectual and social capital/value that is socialised in form and needs to be commodified, marketised and privatised.
  2. The Labor Market: e.g. how a global market impacts a commodified higher education
  3. The Availability of the Means of Production and Scarcities in Nature: e.g. the impact of open access and service-driven rents.
  4. Technological and Organization Forms: e.g. the impact of new forms of higher learning or higher education like MOOCs or autonomous social science centres on universities.
  5. The Labor Process: e.g. the impact on academic labour’s historic autonomy of automisation, lean management etc..
  6. Demand and effective demand: e.g. the place of informal education, and the relationship between student debt, time and profitability.
  7. Capital Circulation as a Whole: e.g. the impact of the idea that there is no alternative to an entrepreneurial higher education that serves the market.

TWO. What is the relationship between the University and crises of under-consumption fuelled by a lack of credit? Under-consumptionist arguments have focused on the recessionary impact of falling wages, and labour’s lack of access to a surplus through which effective monetary demand for the commodities that are produced across the economy can be maintained. Crucially, this also includes the services and commodities produced or represented by education. Inside the market, as is witnessed by governmental economic strategy/fiscal stimulus, the key is that entrepreneurs are persuaded to invest. Mechanisms for doing this include lowering costs to re-start demand, or opening-up credit, or persuading people to take out loans or to stop hoarding money as savings. The marketisation of higher education, the role of investment banks and publishing houses in developing alternative services using technology, and the nature of the MOOC as an alternative (set of) business model(s), sits inside-and-against this background of demand for and consumption of commodities/services, in order to maintain the rate of profit.

THREE. What is the relationship between the University and the productive extraction of surplus value? Simon Clarke has argued that capital needs to create the conditions for the renewed production of surplus value through the control of labour power and the means of production in appropriate proportions. It does not do this by stimulating appropriate levels of consumption. This is important in terms of higher education because the University is a large store of human, social and finance capital, which might be commodified and released into new, gobalised markets. At present the UK Government is manufacturing this process by opening-up the sector through financialisation and indenture so that previously socialised surplus value can be accumulated by corporations or entrepreneurs. The key here is to overcome the limits of profitability inside capitalism as a whole, with higher education as one department or tentacle of the system of capitals. Innovations in the provision of higher education as a service or commodity need to be related to this point about surplus value.

Isaak Rubin, in his classic Theories of Surplus Value, argued that to understand the mechanics that underwrite the totality of capitalism a critique of value was central. He argued that value is a social relation among people, which assumes a material form and is related to the process of production. The theory of value is related to the working activity of people. In this, ‘The subject matter of the theory of value is the interrelations of various forms of labor in the process of their distribution, which is established through the relation of exchange among things, i.e. products of labor.’ Thus

The social form of the product of labor, being the result of innumerable transactions among commodity producers, becomes a powerful means of exerting pressure on the motivation of individual commodity producers, forcing them to adapt their behaviour to the dominant types of production types among people in the given society.’

Where educational relationships form one strand of a production relation that is framed by commodities, then those relationships tend to take the appearance of relationships between the things for which and through which people relate. Hence, in the current moment we see the ‘reification’ of MOOCs as the seat of productive relations between people. This process underpins the creation of social capital and subsumes people under the capital-relation, just in a different space. Whilst the University as a public good might act as a barrier to the reification of educational goods or services, where that barrier is torn down through marketization or securitisation or massification, the social form of things appears as a condition for the process of production. Thus, the MOOC is declared to be revolutionising education.

As a result, we need to analyse the MOOC as a reified, entrepreneurial space inside which education as commodity is produced and consumed, and through which surplus value in a range of forms can be extracted and accumulated more easily. Value is crucial because as Rubin highlights it connects commodities and the relations of production that create them, to technological and labour-driven productivity, alongside the social nature of that productivity.

FOUR. What is the relationship between the University and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall? Basu and Vasudevan have written about Technology, Distribution and the Rate of Profit in the US Economy: Understanding the Current Crisis. They highlight that we need to understand the role of technology in maintaining the rate of profit:

Marx’s discussion of technological change, accumulation and profitability gives a primacy to technology in driving profitability. Capitalist competition compels a process of technical change that deploys increasing capital intensity and mechanization as a means of extracting a larger surplus from labor. This pattern of labor-saving technological change is critical to Marx’s formulation of the law of tendency of the falling rate of profit.

Thus, in the current crisis of capitalism we witness a persistent decline in capital productivity that exerts an inexorable downward pull on profitability. For these authors there is a mix of productivity, labour market discipline, and the imperative to reduce circulation time, that catalyses innovation in the forces of production, in-part through technology.

[T]he pervasive adoption and growth of information technology would have almost certainly played an important role in shaping the particular evolution in the nineties when capital productivity showed an upward trend. New forms of managerial control and organization, including just-in-time and lean production systems have been deployed to enforce increases in labor productivity since the 1980’s. The phenomena of “speed-up‟ and stretching of work has enabled the extraction of larger productivity gains per worker hour as evidenced the faster growth of labor productivity after 1982. People have been working harder and faster. Information technology has facilitated the process. It enables greater surveillance and control of the worker, and also rationalization of production to “computerize” and automate certain tasks.

Critically, much of the research and development that underpins privatisation or marketization, or the creation of new services and products, is driven by state-subsidies, including those from inside the University, and with ready access to global markets and off-shoring certain elements of production such state-subsidised privatisation allows a further cheapening of investment capital alongside making labour more intensive. The interrealtionships between MOOCs, finance capital and the University need to be addressed in the face of the global relocation of production of certain services, the need to overcome declining rates of capital accumulation, and the need to increase capital intensity, as barriers to the maintenance of the rate of profit.

FIVE. What is the relationship between the University and the hegemony of Transnational Activist Networks? See my previous on MOOCs and hegemony/hierarchy and the rate of profit. As Heinrich has argued ‘Capital has become totally vendible, within and across borders. There are no crown jewels any more. With the exception of “national-security” companies and other such oddities, every asset is now fair game. During the recent crisis, the U.S. authorities all but begged sovereign wealth funds to buy U.S. assets.’ The negation of the historic University and academic labour inside it has to be seen against the hegemonic power of neoliberal networks that form geographies of accumulation.

SIX. What is the relationship between the University and capital’s desire to annihilate circulation time? The time for capital to complete one circuit is given as Production time + circulation time = Labour-process time + idle time (pauses in production, time in which means of production are held in stock) + circulation time. Critical then in the turnover of each capital and in the extraction of surpluses is the ability of capitalists to minimise the idle part of production time by enforcing just-in-time processes, innovating technologically, and in enforcing labour productivity patterns like shift work. Circulation time is also decreased through the use of high technology, by ensuring that the means of production are supplied in a reliable manner, by extracting rapid payments and by delaying their own payments to suppliers. Thus, in education we see the equivalent of theHigh Frequency Trades or algorithms and ghost exchanges that exist in high finance, in the use of data-mining and learning analytics, in the use of technologies to monitor working practices, in squeezes on academic labour through productivity drives, in work-based learning strategies, in the drive to quicken the accreditation process (why take a degree in three-years if you can do it in two?), and in describing cultures that prioritise being “always-on”. The key is to drive down idle time and to maximise the speed at which capital can be turned-over. In this space slowing down is a revolutionary act.

Crucially, as Marx points out in Volume 2 of Capital, capitals seek to reduce the circulation time in order to reduce the period for which their capital is unproductive, and thereby increase the rate of profit (since the same capital can now produce more surplus value). Economic sectors with a long total circulation time i.e. those requiring large fixed-capital investments which pay back only slowly, appropriate some of the surplus-value produced by those sectors lighter on their feet. In The Grundrisse, Marx argues that the circulation and accumulation of capital cannot abide limits. When it encounters limits it works assiduously to convert them into barriers that can be transcended or by-passed. This focuses our attention upon those points in the circulation of capital where potential limits, blockages and barriers might arise, since these can produce crises of one sort or another. A longer circuit-time has a negative effect on the expansion of capital, and it is against this dynamic of agility, flexibility and speed that the business models of MOOCs, and the reaction of universities to them, might be analysed.


One might argue that MOOCs are one form of capital’s attempt to overcome barriers to the creation and extraction of surplus value and profitability. In this way they are seen to be revolutionary but only on capital’s terms, and certainly not on those of academic labour or of students. However, it might also be useful to see them in terms of a negation of the historic idea of the University, in its social democratic form. In such an analysis, we might reveal marketised imperatives that are driving higher education inside the totality of capitalism. Neither MOOCs nor the University mean much outside such a systemic analysis, and any understandings developed without such work will tend to degenerate into platitudes about student participation, agency or marginalisation inside the traditional classroom, or assertions that education is somehow broken.

At issue then are Shirky’s questions: what is higher education and who is it actually for? How is higher education delivered and who might be involved in delivery? One of the interesting points that the MOOC debate raises is then around academic exodus from the marketised University. In addressing this previously I argued that the University/MOOC/whatever, cannot be separated from its social environment because the University does not have an autonomy of action. In reality, what the University/MOOC/whatever does is limited and shaped by the fact that it exists as just one node in a web of social relations. Crucially, this web of social relations centres on the way in which work is organised. The fact that work is organised on a capitalist basis means that what the University/MOOC/whatever does and can do is limited and shaped by the need to maintain the system of capitalist organisation of which it is a part. Concretely, this means that any University/MOOC/whatever that takes significant action directed against the interests of capital will find that an economic crisis will result and that capital will flee from it. Our forms of education and the social relationships revealed inside them are situated and alienated inside capitalism.

The implication of this is to question how academic labour might take an activist stance where it is politicised inside whichever space it finds itself. Thus I argued

the interstices between academic and public, and between accreditation and informal learning, and between the private and the co-operative are surrounded by political tensions, and culturally replicated structures of power. Any process of academic activism demands academic reflexivity in understanding how academic power impacts the processes of assembly and association and historical critique.

We might bring this to bear on the idea of the MOOC as one negation of the University, in order to attempt to argue for what higher learning inside a system that promotes alternative value-forms might be. This is not to fetishise or celebrate the University/MOOC/whatever. Rather it is an attempt to critique the participatory traditions and positions of academics as organic intellectuals, and how they actively contribute to the dissolution of their expertise as a commodity, in order to support other socially-constructed forms of production. How do students and teachers contribute to a re-formation of their webs of social interaction in whichever spaces are comfortable for them? These spaces might include networks of free universities or co-operative universities, but they need to be deeply politicised critiques of the ways in which the historic university and historic ideas of higher education are being co-opted for the market. Only in so-dong might the negative prospects outlined above, of indenture, collapsing real wages, unemployment and depression, themselves be negated.

Education and enclosure: the lessons of historical agency

Yesterday, Brian Lamb tweeted that:

“I inexplicably find debates on CC-NC fascinating now… But I need a clearer sense on what “enclosure” means in practice, not just theory.”

The educational technology field is rife with emergent discussions of the connections between the idea of the Commons and that of enclosure, and the place of commodities or resources inside them. Thus, we see it in responses to the debates on MOOCs and open badges, in the alleged power of networks and network governance, in deterministic work that alleges the emancipatory potential of technology in-and-beyond the classroom, and in the relationships between habitus and hegemony that are revealed in work on the nature of soft/hard power and social media. The ideas of enclosure and Commons in educational discourse tend to reveal a set of deeper, more ideological positions that pivot around either emancipation, consent and freedom as witnessed in the open nature of the Commons, or the coercive, commercially-focused and closed-off world of enclosed, proprietary software and environments. This is a deeply political terrain.

I have previously written about the metaphor of the Commons and its relationship to enclosure as it is revealed through educational technology, taking on-board Nick Dyer-Witheford’s communist critique of the crisis of capital being reinforced through ‘a circulation of the Commons’ in which mass intellectuality or alternative forms of value can be developed and exchanged against the profit motive. Here the ideas of free and commoditisation are important. However, I have also written about the impact of such circulations and value-forms on individuals, in particular using the visitor/resident model as a pivot for an understanding of the complex relationships between the individual, specific (virtual/real) space, and technology. The interplay between the individual and the spaces in which she exists reflects the dominant forms/structures of the social relationships of the time. I picked this up in reflecting on the realities of eighteenth-century political history and how they might help us to understand the idea of a technological Commons.  In addressing the “practice” of actually existing enclosure in eighteenth-century politics, I wanted to address three questions that seem pertinent to education and technology.

  1. Against the neoliberal constraint on what can legitimately be fought for, how do we tell stories that reclaim our common history and our social relationships? How do we protect the richness of the technological ecosystems that help us to do this work?
  2. In the rush for technology-as-progress, can we identify how that progress is shaped in our stories of struggle? How do we recognise struggle in our use of technology?
  3. How do we struggle-in-common against the enclosure of our networked public spaces? How do we develop a politics of digital literacy? How do we develop a political digital literacy?

This idea of stories of struggles over the form and content of our social relationships is then important both historically and in terms of understanding how and why technology in education is co-opted. In this I was and still am attempting to reconnect my earliest research on property, the common and political power in Augustan Yorkshire, electoral mechanics, and profiling actual voters, to the idea of the Commons and enclosure in education. What do the actual historical struggles over the Commons and enclosure tell us about how we might view autonomy and agency in the present? Revisiting these historical struggles helps me to identify struggles-in-common over access to resources, be that physical land/cultural rights or immaterial spaces/rights held privately or in common.

In addressing Brian’s point about the actual practices and structures that are related to resources, the first question I posed above made me think less about enclosure and more about the complexities of individual agency and the structures that bind/coerce it or that enable it through consent. In terms of the use of technology in education I am forced to consider how we might uncover: what agency might actually confer on an individual or association or network; the structures of social relationships or the rules that bind individuals as agents; and the co-option or subversion of available techniques and technologies. By contrasting the structural critiques of enclosure/Commons with the realities of actually existing political action, it might be able to work through what it means to apply a CC-NC license, or to engage in a MOOC, or to create an open badge, or to scale-up learning analytics, or to build a personal learning network, or whatever. The purpose of this is to signal some mechanisms through which those engaged in curriculum innovation or educational technology might begin to re-frame how they might work practically with the ideas of enclosure/Commons, as they interact with the reality of personal and political agency, using one historical interpretation as a means.

So I just want to make five points about understanding historical practices as they actually existed, in relation to individual agency inside the structures of the Commons/enclosures. N.B. a useful historical starting point is E.P. Thompson’s Customs in Common, and Neeson’s excellent book on Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700-1820.

FIRST: property and power in the real/virtual spaces inside which we actually operate.

Inside early modern capitalism landholding gave power, just as it does under late-modern capitalism. In the eighteenth century it was a mark of status, and the right to vote was generally based on land-as-property. The over-riding view of those men who voted for county or shire MPs has been that they voted by right of forty shillings worth of land held in fee simple, after taxes and local charges were accounted for, but that leases for lives, rent-charges, mortgages and annuities, and certain offices like clerical benefices were also a means of enfranchisement. These men were viewed as the bedrock of the county community precisely because of the eighteenth-century elevation of property to a sublime position within society. A share in the land of the county would show a higher political consciousness and entail a recognition of the importance of property and liberty. However, recent investigations have shown that one cannot make assumptions about who the voters were, or the nature of their right to vote. For a fuller understanding of the basis of political action in the early eighteenth century, there is a need to reconstruct the lives of individuals and communities. One might say the same about networks, the Commons and enclosure in educational spaces. The fundamental issue is about how one can develop an understanding of deeper, socio-political structures that inform our debates over agency, participation, association and motivation in education. What presuppositions about property and liberty are folded into our assumptions about MOOCs, networked Commons or proprietary software?

SECOND: mobility and motivation.

One of the problems with analysing the structures of and relationships between Commons/enclosure and agency relates to the geography of specific spaces. In analysing historical behaviours, there is a need to implement methodologies that integrate multiple, nominal data-sources, so that the relationships between the static and mobile members of a population can be addressed. Historically, in looking at the Commons there has been a tendency to introduce a bias in favour of those who were relatively immobile and whose behaviour it has therefore been easier to trace. This also creates a tendency to look at agency as emerging from a particular place or its immediate hinterland, and this ignores the possibility of a more divergent set of influences on an individual and her actions in enclosed or common spaces. The same may be true of educational networks or Commons or enclosures, and the spaces from which mass intellectuality might emerge. The complexities of landholding and mobility highlight the parameters of our knowing about power and social capital. The more one knows and comes to understand about individuals in the past, the less confidence one can have in generalisations based upon aggregate analyses of behaviour. Just because both John and Jane Doe act in a specific way, does not mean that their underlying motivations and agency are the same. Context-situated approaches indicate the worth of longitudinal studies, which highlight the complexities of peoples’ lives and how we might take a more holistic approach to understanding behaviours that are more nuanced.

THIRD: the complexity of space and time, and the depth of social relationships.

Divergent socio-economic influences were important in analysing political action in the eighteenth century because an individual voter might own freehold land against which he voted, but he might also be a tenant of an individual or a manorial court, or a local corporation. Eighteenth century tenures were often mixed and taken up from several sources, usually in order to create a larger, more unified block of land that itself gave a large measure of political autonomy. How individuals operated in specific spaces, and then accrued their social/economic capital into a measure of political power was/is subject to no simple, deterministic rules about the Commons or networks. The primary sources for understanding eighteenth century voting behaviour were poll books or canvass sources that could be linked. However, these still remain relatively skeletal, containing few nominal data. Only by locating specific voters in time and space can the electoral historian move beyond essentially unhelpful interpretations based on aggregate analyses. This second process addresses these issues by forging a methodology which can help examine politics at a local level. The historian needs to be able to recreate particular communities, to divine the types of forces which were impacting upon the electorate. Many voters were ductile and dependent, factors brought into sharper focus by the politics of their locale. However, the fact that such distinct contexts existed inside regions indicates the complexity of pressures which impacted upon the electorate. In many areas local elites were not a separate group, they were tied into a deeper nexus of community obligation. The key to our understanding of the relationships between structural forms and individuals in any context lies in reconstructing the depth of such ties.

FOURTH: the relationships between Common/enclosed space and time.

The relationships between common land, which was managed under specific rules for specific communities and the rights over which were defended earnestly, and between freehold land, or leasehold land that was rented, were complex. This also then suggests that we might wish to look at the inter-relationships between the networked Commons and enclosed or proprietary software/networks, and institutional networks, in a more nuanced way. Historically, the proximity of freehold land to major townships stimulated a demand for such land in those areas, as a sink for capital. Whether the rents and revenue produced by landownership helped to alleviate the problems of trade/economic fluctuations is unclear. However, for instance in the textile towns of the West Riding of Yorkshire, many clothiers saw the ownership of freehold land as important, and this indicates that these were independent men of relatively substantial means. One might ask then how is social capital or power developed and applied differentially inside and across open or closed networks, and who has the power to define how open or enclosed those networks and their resources (thinking of CC-NC) might become?

FIFTH: on power and autonomy.

Many of the voters in Hanoverian elections either owned, rented, and/or held-in-common substantial assemblages of land. Moreover, if any voters rented they were often wealthy and influential enough to act independently of their landlord. Very few men were compelled to poll as their landlords did. That so many owned their land, and that landownership was so fractured, made political control awkward. It simply was not possible for local landowners to brow-beat such men to the polls. This is not to say that some voters were not compliant out of ideological or socio-economic need. There is also a point to be made about the fact that politics was nothing without a clash of interests from those with status over political capital. However, the relationship between the politicians and a large subset of the electorate was fragile and conditional. Once the politicians drew the battle lines they were involved in a wider nexus of responsibilities. With this in mind it is hardly surprising that politicians had to expend so much energy and money to gain an election. A lack of awareness about the rights of the electors and local customs could hamstring a campaign just as it can our view of them. It was these local socio-economic and socio-cultural factors that emancipated individual voting communities, and which moderated the voters’ choices at the polls. In making sense of the Commons/enclosure inside education, it may be that local socio-economies and local customs/social relationships need to be related to the political structures/technologies that coerce, co-opt or give consent to specific forms of action.

Brian’s comment that “I inexplicably find debates on CC-NC fascinating now… But I need a clearer sense on what “enclosure” means in practice, not just theory”, is important then for two reasons. First, the content of our educational practices (CC-NC or whatever) reveals the complex structures of coercion and consent inside which we ask our students and staff to operate. Second, understanding other stories of coercion and consent, located inside-and-against the dichotomy of Commons/enclosure might offer us alternative ways to crack and push-back against the increasing privatisation of education.

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

Economic forecast soothe our dereliction

Words of euthanasia, apathy of sick routine

Carried away with useless advertising dreams

Blinding children, life as autonotomes

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

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

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

ONE. The Background to the survey states:

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

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

Technology reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from those relations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

escaping the caduceus of technology-fuelled privatisation and student debt

When the culture’s drowning in a bad dream/Save myself, save myself and

When the old religion is the new greed/Save myself, save myself and

They sabotaged the levee, killed gris gris/Save myself, save myself and

When the vultures copyright the word free/Save myself, I got to save myself

Willy Mason. 2007. Save Myself.

I: assertion and the rate of profit

In a recent Blackboard Inc newsletter we were informed that:

Education is changing and universities face multiple challenges to remain competitive. Attracting students is only part of the challenge, retaining them requires engagement. With growing attention on course quality and higher student expectations, making sure that students are getting the most out of their education experience has become increasingly important.

It’s not enough to simply deliver great courses, they demand more. Students live in a world of social media, instant access to information and on-demand service. They expect faster responses to assignments, interactive course materials, grade tracking, and integrated learning resources.

This narrative has emerged from a relatively narrow set of evaluative spaces, that are not framed through significance testing or modelling, but rather on the structural need for capital to seek out rents or profits from new educational spaces, based on either the reduction in the circulation time of commodities or the creation of new services, applications or information flows.

This also underpins the cultural re-framing of education as a space from inside which efficiencies are required, and from where impact becomes a pivotal, abstract currency. Thus the JISC re-frames its newsletters around efficiency, effectiveness and impact. Cost reduction through a range of services and benefits realisation form the background noise of this new normal. Witness the supporting your institution pages at Witness this month’s jisc-announce message about e-infrastructure

The point here is not that evidence for investment should be divorced from an analysis of cost, but that it forms the dominating background noise, against which it becomes almost impossible to define a new form of value or to judge social worth. So we hear noise from Blackboard Inc. or Pearson Inc. about efficiencies/impact/value and our analysis is reduced to money, and then we forget to question why and how those corporations are lobbying in the USA over access to public schools. Witness this report from the Portland Press Herald that “Documents expose the flow of money and influence from corporations that stand to profit from state leaders’ efforts to expand and deregulate digital education.”

The terrain for corporate profits is further reinforced through state-subsidised infrastructural investments. Thus, in terms of our e-infrastructure, we are reassured that

The investment will build Janet6 the next generation of the UK’s national research and education network, adding value across the sector from high-end research to universities, colleges and schools. It will also enable research to stay competitive on both a national and international level, and support the £60bn contribution that higher education brings to the UK economy.

Value, competition, the UK economy: this is the background noise that drowns out everything else inside the need to crack new markets for new services to overcome the historical tendency of the rate of profit to fall. And this is important because we are told in this article on Pearson ‘Education’ – who are these people? that

The U.S. spends more than $500 billion a year to educate kids from ages five through 18. The entire education sector, including college and mid-career training, represents nearly 9 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, more than the energy or technology sectors.

Critical here is an understanding of who, exactly is trying to develop and sell services into this space, based on the rate of profit. The answer given is that public education is having policy developed and implemented based on evidence and a series of mythologies that form the background narrative of people less focused on education:

In other words, Pearson’s chief operating officers, who are also heavily invested in the company, are busy trading stocks and racking up dollars and pounds while the corporation’s financial situation is shaky. And their solution is to sell, sell, sell their products in the United States.

The current vogue for the private sector to use evidence to drive an allegedly neutral cultural and political space for policy, is amplified through analytics and big data. These tend to frame the expectations of the voiceless student as a cipher for an untheorised view of impact, efficiencies, personalisation, scaling, and service-led innovation. There is no space to discuss structural inequalities that amplify issues of autonomy or agency, or the ways in which consent is addressed. In this process, openness or transparency or accountability is no substitute for political engagement. Thus, this article on Lies, Damned Lies and Open Data argues that

Now we must renew the much larger battle over the role of evidence in public policy. On the surface, the open data movement was about who could access and use government data. It rested on the idea that data was as much a public asset as a highway, bridge, or park and so should be made available to those who paid for its creation and curation: taxpayers. But contrary to the hopes of some advocates, improving public access to data—that is, access to the evidence upon which public policy is going to be constructed—does not magically cause governments’, and politicians’, desire for control to evaporate. Quite the opposite. Open data will not depoliticize debate. It will force citizens, and governments, to realize how politicized data is, and always has been.

II: the fallacy of problem-solving

Thus, the issue becomes one of what, structurally, is that evidence/data to be used for? Is it to be used for problem-solving, or to tweak the ways in which, for example, higher education is to be structured, funded and governed, in the name of impact, efficiencies and extant value-forms? Is technology inside the academy to be used to drive privatisation agendas that are in the name of competition and profiteering, because privatisation and the free market is the only available lever for driving efficiencies inside a higher education that is recalibrated around money?

Or is it to be collected and used to question whether the free market, and technology-firms that sell solutions inside that market and for whom the bottom line is the bottom line, are the only possible ways of reconstructing higher education as a public good. Is it to be collected and used to question the funding, regulation and governance of public higher education, and to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy of the market and the corporation? In fact, are the power relationships and political positions that frame the space in which big data, learning analytics and evidence are collected and used for policy, our first reference point for a more meaningful definition of the use of technology inside higher education? This demands a critical approach to unravelling the neoliberal, transnational advocacy networks that make up so many of the private corporations now enmeshed inside our education systems.

In this we might ask whether it is possible to move beyond problem-solving analysis to a critique of the structural foundations upon which our evidence base emerges. This demands that we re-engage with the ways in which technology is used by corporations, non-governmental advocacy organisations, and governments, in order to re-frame cultural and educational positions, in the name of consumption and the rate of profit. In this, we are left with questions around: who consents to the adoption of technological solutions inside universities and why? On what basis are those assumptions taken as read? To what extent does money, in the form of value, efficiencies or impact, shape or coerce education and pedagogic practice, so that other social or co-operative forms of value are marginalised? How are technologies and allied services co-opted as allegedly neutral ciphers in this process?

III: the evidence and practice of student debt

The risk is that the background noise of the rule of money, which drives the recalibration of educational contexts, is amplified by the reality of student debt. Witness this recent New York Times piece on debt collectors cashing in on student debt, which is regarded as a new oil well:

With an outstanding balance of more than $1 trillion, student loans have become a silver lining for the debt collection industry at a time when its once-thriving business of credit card collection has diminished and the unemployment rate has made collection a challenge.

One student in the article highlights that “I will never have my head above water”, and recounts that she faced

a crushing reality: she still owes too much money and makes too little to pay it off. A marketing coordinator for a law firm, she filed for bankruptcy last year because she could not afford her mortgage, car payment and student loans. She lost the house, but still owes $115,000 in student loans, both private and federal. Under income-based repayment, she pays $325 a month on her federal loans; she also pays $250 a month on her private loans.

This individuated, anti-social fear of debt, or of the disciplining of sections of our society through what is becoming known as “delinquent debt” is also witnessed in this article on the United States of student debt where “Just like mortgages and the housing industry, student debt has become an important condition for sales of the commodity higher education.” In part, this is less about intergenerational justice and the legacy of the baby boom, and more about class and the loading of an indentured future onto segments of the working population for whom access to services funded by the public purse is now closed. As Zerohedge recently argued

[there are huge numbers of] impressionable wannabe college grads for whom college is the only hope out there, no matter the cost. Sadly, the cost is rising exponentially, and as we showed recently, total Federally-funded student loan debt outstanding is now at all time highs. Luckily, the cost of the debt is at record lows. Sadly, the principal will still need repayment, as cohort after cohort of unemployed students will soon find out, and also find out that there is no discharge of student debt in bankruptcy: it is, indeed, the proverbial gift that keeps on taking.

Worse still, as this post from Zerohedge reminds us, it is private (rather than public) debt, and excessive leveraging of debt that tends to push capital into structural crises. The leveraging of private debt through excessive student loans, whilst giving a short-term financial fix for some leaves a deeper structural legacy related to crises of demand. So we end up with an inflated set of financial assets that bear no resemblance to the value of real assets in the real economy, and in the process of deleveraging the ponzi scheme leaves those individuals with high levels of debt at most risk. We are therefore reminded of the need for debt jubilees because

[We’re going into] a never-ending depression unless we repudiate the debt, which never should have been extended in the first place.

IV: escaping the caduceus of technology-fuelled privatisation and student debt

*caduceus (Ka-doo’-seus): originates from the Greek “karykeion”, itself derived from “karyx” meaning a herald’s badge or staff. The caduceus was worn or displayed by Roman surgeons, official messengers, and by military emissaries to signify a cessation of hostilities on the battlefield. It symbolized the herald of the gods, as well, Mercury in Rome and Hermes in Greece, who carried a winged wand on which were coiled two serpents, symbolizing male and female. Legend was that Hermes came upon two serpents at war and, in his beguiling manner placed a staff, which Aesculapius had given him (also a symbol used in Medicine), between them wereupon entwining with it, they ceased warring and began loving one another thus expressing unity, fertility, and peace. The caduceus is also a recognized symbol of commerce and negotiation, in which balanced exchange and reciprocity are recognized as ideals.

This is the world that we now enter. Where bailouts meet austerity, where the realities of a quadrillion dollars of debt underpin politics in the United States, where student debt and therefore student education forms part of a coming sub-prime crisis, and where in spite of the rhetoric about higher education and employability, the realities are youth unemployment and long-term falls in real wages, or precarious employment.

And I haven’t even mentioned a future framed by oil, rising oil prices, or carbon. Yet, these matter because as Roger Pielke Jr argues:

We can simplify these four factors even further. Population and income together are simply GDP, or aggregate economic activity, and the production and consumption of energy reflect the technologies of energy supply and demand. The resulting Kaya Identity — as his equation has come to be called — simply says:

Emissions = GDP x Technology

With this simple equation before us, we can see the fundamental challenge to reducing emissions: A rising GDP, all else equal, leads to more emissions. But if there is one ideological commitment that unites nations and people around the world in the early 21st century, it is that GDP growth is non-negotiable. Right now, leaders on six different continents are focused on efforts to grow GDP, and with it jobs and wealth. They’re not as worried about emissions.

The concern then is that these factors become reinforcing. That the drive for GDP and growth recalibrates the University around the rule of money. That inside this space an agenda of privatisation based on evidential assertion or problem-solving theory is presented as de-politicised and normative, and enables technology firms, working with private equity, transnational finance, think tanks and politicians to lever open public education for profit. That student debt becomes a key power source for this drive to privatise in the name of efficiencies, scale, value-for-money and impact, and in fact generates a pedagogic and structural view of student-as-consumer that further recalibrates higher education and the use of technologies inside that sector. That agency and autonomy are framed through consumption, revealed in-part through technology and technique. That these factors amplify the neoliberal feedback loops that target public education as a source of profit. That in our refusal to critique these loops, or question the background noise that forms our new normal, we consent to our own coercion inside techniques for further value extraction.

A starting point for pushing back or for dampening this background noise is the need to analyse the structural nature of the evidence that is presented to us, in order to question power and the political positions that technologically reinforce a student experience that is drive by debt. Debt and technology, entwining and beguiling education, like a caduceus.

So taking that Blackboard Inc. newsletter with which I started, we might ask the following questions, and begin the hard-work of defining more co-operative alternative solutions.

  • Why education is changing, and whether competition and the free market are really the best mechanisms for addressing the challenges that are faced by universities?
  • How attracting, retaining and engaging students might be geared to solving societal problems related to abundance and scarcity of resources as outlined by Pielke Jr., rather than preparing them as consumers for a debt-driven existence?
  • In the face of global, structural crises, and the prevalence of student debt as a mechanism for the accumulation of surplus value, how might we challenge the neoliberal ideas that underpin “course quality and higher student expectations”?
  • Do we really understand what students demand beyond their role as consumers of social media, instant access to information and on-demand services? How might we engage students in a world beyond faster responses to assignments, interactive course materials, grade tracking, and integrated learning resources geared solely for employability and servicing debt?
  • Is it possible to imagine a world that uses technology to be against-and-beyond the increasing velocity in which our educational experiences are circulated as commodities?

Networks, the rate of profit and institutionalising MOOCs


In an excellent article on Technology, Distribution and the Rate of Profit in the US Economy: Understanding the Current Crisis, Basu and Vasudevan scope the connections between falling capital productivity, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, and technological innovation. Specifically they argue that the period preceding the current financial crisis in 2008 witnessed a significant and sharp fall in capital productivity and hence in profitability, and that this counteracted the rises that were accrued from the widespread implementation of information technology, techniques of new managerialism and the tendency towards financialisation in the previous three decades.

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. I am trying to develop the argument that we need to examine educational innovations like open educational resources, MOOCs, bring your own device, personal learning networks etc. 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; and the subsumption of networks and network theory to the neoliberal project of accumulation and profitability.

This is an on-going discussion and this post is a starting point for some ideas that will develop over time, in particular in trying to understand how technologically-mediated innovations might be analysed alongside critical pedagogy, in order to demonstrate alternative positions.


Historically technological innovation has been seen as a response to economic stagnation or to crisis, not simply to act as a brake on wages but also to renew capital productivity. However, for the period immediately prior to the financial crisis of 2008 this does not appear to have been the case. Basu and Vasudevan argue:

The investment-seeking surplus generated by the enormous and growing productivity of the system is increasingly unable to find sufficient new profitable investment outlets [my emphasis]. Monopoly capitalism faces a tendency toward stagnation as a consequence of the gap between the growing economic surplus and existing outlets for profitable investment. There is a continual need to find new ways to profitably invest its surplus and new sources of demand. But rather than invest in socially useful projects that would benefit the vast majority, capital has constructed a financialized “casino”. Capitalism in its monopoly-finance capital phase becomes increasingly reliant on the ballooning of the credit-debt system in order to escape the worst aspects of stagnation.

This then underpins a structural weakness at the heart of the global system of capitalism, which has seen a tendency to overproduction and a decline in the return on capital investment in manufacturing and productive sectors of the economy. This in-turn has underpinned both an attrition of real wages since the 1970s and the flight into precarious and immaterial labour and the valorisation of virtual or cognitive labour, alongside the ideas that promote creativity and enterprise as levers of economic renewal. Historically this has also witnessed debt-driven investment in education, through: a turn to vehicles like increasing student fees and the bond markets; opening-up the sector to marketised solutions, outsourcing and hosted services, shared services, and human capital controls (in student numbers, in legitimating certain groups of foreign students, in restructuring labour etc.); and, a focus on shackling the subjectivity of labour to governmentality through performance measurement and surveillance. Thus, higher education continues to witness the implementation of technologies for value extraction, command and coercion.

In this process, technologies for sharing, for service-driven innovations, for ubiquitous computing, for personalisation etc. are seen to be strategically critical. This reflects Marx’s emergent mature work, in which technological innovation is linked to capital accumulation and increasing profitability. Developing a technological lead drives competition between businesses or between different capitals, and this drives the production/consumption cycle and hence profitability. Competition compels other capitalists towards technological innovation and increasing capital intensity, in order both to extract a larger surplus from their own labour-force, and to discipline that labour-force under the threat of restructuring or unemployment. This is an on-going pattern of technological change driven by a need to extract surplus value and decrease dependency on variable labour costs.

For Basu and Vasudevan, the period leading up to 2008 was critical in recalibrating the economies of the global north around the widespread adoption of technologies and new managerialism. They argue that

The pervasive adoption and growth of information technology would have almost certainly played an important role in shaping the particular evolution in the nineties when capital productivity showed an upward trend. New forms of managerial control and organization, including just-in-time and lean production systems have been deployed to enforce increases in labor productivity since the 1980s. The phenomena of “speed-up‟ and stretching of work has enabled the extraction of larger productivity gains per worker hour as evidenced the faster growth of labor productivity after 1982. People have been working harder and faster. Information technology has facilitated the process. It enables greater surveillance and control of the worker, and also rationalization of production to “computerize” and automate certain tasks.

Critically the fall in cost of hardware and software infrastructure meant that productivity gains were achieved with smaller increases in capital outlay. In terms of UK HE, a large part of the initial development costs for innovation and development in educational technologies was state-subsidised through project-funding, transformation programmes, and investments in national infrastructure. This lowered the cost of capital investment for individual universities or colleges as competing capitals. One result is that labour-productivity has been increased without necessitating increasing capital intensity, and thinking about the sector as a whole, rather than individual universities as businesses, this has also been catalysed by globalisation and outsourcing services that are of low value and jobs that are of low surplus value extraction.

The twin problems for capital of this approach are of declining rates of accumulation, as the increase in the organic composition of capital tends to diminish the rate of profit where there are fewer employees to exploit and more technology or techniques to manage, and a fall in local capital intensity or productivity through what Marx called moral depreciation. 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.

As a result, the drive under the treadmill logic of competition becomes to deliver constant innovation across a whole socio-technical system, in order to maintain or increase the rate of extraction of relative surplus value, and to tear down the barriers of under-consumption. This implication is crucial inside a higher education sector that is being recalibrated for enterprise inside a competitive system, and where technological innovation is perceived to drive profitability.

Historically, we have witnessed a technological recalibration of the higher education sector under the drive for productivity and efficiency, and in the name of an enhanced student experience that is managed through techniques like the national student survey. The subsumption of universities-as-businesses, or as competing capitals, further amplifies this process. However, it also disciplines the investment decisions of those individual businesses, which are no longer underwritten by the State as a backer of last resort, and this threatens a new vulnerability that is manifested in capacity utilisation, a squeeze on production/product prices, and the need to maintain profitability. The growth of financialisation in the sector, in order to protect investments, might temporarily alleviate any weakness of demand for the products of the university. However, in the medium-term, individual universities are constrained by the structural weaknesses of the global economy that are loaded towards financialisation and the ongoing process of deleveraging private debt as public liabilities, the need to become profitable in a market, and new forms of competition from private providers. These new forms of competition might be rival organisations with degree-awarding powers, or they might be partnerships of accrediting organisations operating through MOOCs, or they might be hedge funds providing venture capital for technologically-driven innovations.


In their paper Why does profitability matter? Duménil and Lévy argue that profitability and stability are linked, and that the rate of expansion of a capitalist economy is underpinned by the general rate of profit that can be generated, the capital that can be accumulated is then re-invested for further surplus value extraction and profitability. This underpins investment decisions and technological innovation. Thus, as Basu and Vasudevan note:

It is equally important to untangle the drivers of profitability, to decompose the rate of profit into its underlying determinants. The trends in labor productivity, capital productivity, and profit share are important in unraveling the role of technology and distribution in determining the trajectory of the profit rate.

In untangling these drivers in the global economy, the role of networks and networked learning has been emphasised as a driver for economic renewal and growth. Jonathan Davies has written extensively, critiquing network governance, and has pointed out that the idea of the ‘network society’ is complex and contested, and that it rests on some simple claims.

  1. That modern capitalist society is too complex, fragmented and disordered for effective command management.
  2. That universal education enables us to challenge power, undermining our traditional commitments to family, faith, flag and fraternity.
  3. That the universal welfare state and rising prosperity liberate us from narrow and selfish economic concerns, creating the conditions for a more sociable and trusting personality to emerge.
  4. That ubiquitous communications technology provides the infrastructure for clever, critically-minded, prosperous and sociable people from all walks of life to connect with one another in pursuit of their ever-changing projects and goals.

As Davies notes, these precepts form the building-blocks of ‘horizontalism’; the belief that we live in a world of networks, that networking is a good thing to do, and that we can only understand the world if we apply network-theoretical concepts.

In this view, not only does the network apply to government-citizen partnerships, knowledge transfer, community engagement and so on, but also to projects of opposition to governmental agendas like those related to austerity. Thus, opposition is often framed by the idea of the multitude as distributed, decentred, swarming sets of resistances that form flows or circuits against a capitalist project that is represented as an Empire of accumulation. Thus, whilst the network forms a space for accumulation and profitability, it is also a counter-hegemonic space designed for organising resistance, for developing solidarity through occupation, for developing militant responses to the creation of the edufactory, for general assemblies, or for the work of groups like Anonymous.

Yet as Davies argues, ‘network governance is part of the hegemonic strategy of neoliberalism – the visionary, utopian and profoundly flawed regulative ideal of late capitalism.’ Network governance in this view is a problem-solving strategy, designed to make the capitalist project function more smoothly, rather than emerging as a strategy designed to critique the power-relations that exist inside capitalism, in order to overthrow them. Thus, the network is directed towards functionalism, for unearthing practical solutions to practical problems, based on a normative bias towards trust-based relationships nurtured inside networks that are often technologically-mediated. Thus, connectionist [or cybernetic] capitalism is described in terms of autonomy, rhizomes, spontaneity, multi-tasking, conviviality, openness, availability, creativity, difference, informality, interpersonal connections and so on. This underpins the idea that postmodern capitalism is weightless or infinitively creative, diverse and immaterial.

Crucially, Davies asks questions related to the relationships between governance networks and network governance. The latter is an ideal-type that rests upon the post-structural claim that the network is proliferating in form and underpins our everyday activities, based on ethical virtues like trust and empowered reflexivity. Network governance is seen to be a rupture with the past. The idea of the governance network refers to recurring and/or institutionalised formal/informal resource exchanges between governmental/non-governmental actors. This is the space that claims a democratic, decentralised opportunity to deliver change and choice, masked as new public management. Thus, for Davies the central question becomes why governance networks do not live up to the promise of network governance, which is important in delivering for and in communities? Why do hierarchies and management for command proliferate and dominate?

In this argument the network is placed asymmetrically against the realities of hegemonic power that is catalysed and reproduced in the political and economic centralisation that is so characteristic of crisis-prone capitalist modernity. The reactions of central governments and finance capital to the post-2008 crisis bear witness to this process. For Davies then, the research evidence in the public policy, sociology and public administration spheres point to the fact that

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’.

Technologies are central in this clash, for whilst it is possible for some people to connect globally and ubiquitously, those same technologies form the medium of hierarchical power. The challenge then becomes to analyse how those technologies interact with the everyday reality of interpersonal connections, and to uncover the power relations that they embody. Critically this is a historical project, because network governance theory misreads past and present, ignores that networks are prone to resolving into hierarchies and incremental closure, that they reproduce and crystallise inequalities, and that distrust is common. In this way, the emergence of technologically-mediated network governance enables capital to develop and enculturate ideal neoliberal subjects.

Critical in this argument is coercion and coercive practices. For Gramsci, this rested upon the idea of the integral State, which is the product of the formal institutions of civil society and of political society. This formation underpins the creation and reproduction of instruments and artefacts of hegemony, like technologies and educational organisations, which themselves enable social resources to be harnessed in the name of accumulation and profitability. However, in order to maintain a hegemonic order that is always contested and resisted, instruments of coercion and consent are required. These instruments include techniques of surveillance and workplace monitoring or analytics, alongside pedagogies of debt and indenture, and state-backed violence against dissent. This latter point is critical because, as Davies notes, contracts have to be enforceable. Violence is integral to the commodity form and the realisation of exchange value. As a result, coercion is immanent and in dialectical relationship with consent in a continuum from direct repression to the governmental management of subjectivity.

This is the world that frames the network in education. This is the world that frames the use of technology inside education. Education is developed inside a world of hierarchy and the dialectical interplay of consent and coercion, where, as Perry Anderson noted, without state-enforced coercion and the threat of violence, ‘the system of cultural control would be instantly fragile, since the limits of possible action against it would disappear’. The network is conditional on the threat of disciplinary violence and the immanence of governmentality that, in turn, disciplines subjectivity. More brutally, for those who believe in the emancipatory potential of educational technology, and the power of connectivist networks, Friedman offers the timely rejoinder that:

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.


I want then just to write a few words about the current fetish for MOOCs, in order to open-up an avenue of thinking about hegemony and hierarchy in higher education, and the possibilities for academic labour to utilise technology to critique responses to the current crisis of capitalism that is recalibrating the sector. In this project, it becomes important to highlight, as Stephen Ball and Jonathan Davies have, the importance of network analyses that focus upon the production, reproduction and contestation of power, and the processes through which alliances, like Ball’s neoliberal transnational activist networks, that emerge from shared ideologies and resource interdependencies further reinforce asymmetric power relations. For Davies, critique needs to unearth the relationships between consent and coercion, between power and command structures, between network-like institutions and more formalised, traditional institutions, in order that the claims that are made for networks as delivering new forms of sociability that transcend structures of power and domination can be better understood. There is hope that in this process of critique the power of academic labour to produce alternative value forms, and forms of social organisation and governance for higher education, might be offered up.

Networks are important in connecting people, ideas and materials that are revealed in the relationships between technology and formal/informal institutions, and which underpin the reproduction of capitalist social relations and the need to maintain the increase in the rate of profit. However, beyond organising resources, there is a disconnection between the hoped-for humane, trust-based ideals of networked learning and the hard realities of hierarchical power. This resolves itself inside procedural problem-solving that locates, for example, MOOCs within the everyday realities of capitalism, and which in turn hope to experience them as less coercive or institutionalised than traditional educational institutions, and capable of resolving the student/teacher as a subject. The theorising of MOOCs has to-date rested on this kind of problem-solving theory, essentially based on student/teacher autonomy and participation, rather than as a transformational critique of the structural inequalities realised inside capitalism, through which the realities of wage labour make such autonomy practically impossible.

Thus, much of the discourse around MOOCs focuses upon ideas of openness and monetary freedom, and the creeping institutionalisation of alternative forms of education. David Kernohan has written about networked learning communities in which ‘Some courses are open as in door. You can walk in, you can listen for free. Others are open as in heart. You become part of a community, you are accepted and nurtured.’ Chatti focuses upon the management of networked learning in order to leverage ‘knowledge worker performance and to cope with the constant change and critical challenges of the new knowledge era’ Graham Attwell has highlighted the increasing institutionalization and rental/profit-based creep in the MOOC debate. Cathy Gunn aligns her argument with this institutional co-option of MOOCs or open courses, and she believes that ‘change in current traditions of higher education for many institutions will most likely require disruptive innovations outside of the academy first and we can see the evidence of the first seeds of that through the open course movement.

The mechanisms by which capital adapts and colonises work that takes place at the margins and then subsumes it inside the processes of self-valorisation are not new. However, for MOOCs this reality is amplified by the reflections of the team of teachers and researchers associated with the MSc in E-learning programme at the University of Edinburgh who began the development of a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) for the Coursera platform.  They argued that:

while MOOCs and the open education movement generally may not achieve everything – the democratisation of education, or the freeing of the world’s knowledge – they can achieve something. They can open up good teaching and interesting curricula to new groups of learners; they can help draw students into higher education who might otherwise not have ventured there; they can engage unprecedented numbers; and they can be a vehicle to continue to push at our collective notions of what constitutes the educational project.

Critically, this focus is then on new markets and technological approaches to opening-up new domains for profit or rent, with a secondary gain that appears to be just beyond reach, namely democratisation. An interesting side-effect of this normalisation or institutionalisation of alleged innovations like Coursera is the recent concern over the weakness of peer-assessment inside the MOOC experience by Audrey Watters.

This educational commentary then tends not to reflect on or to develop critiques of the network inside education policy and practice, or on the power of networks to reinforce hierarchy and hegemonic power-relations. This depoliticisation and lack of a political economy of MOOCs or other educational technology innovation is emerges from George Siemens’ argument that

MOOCs, regardless of underlying ideology, are essentially a platform. Numerous opportunities exist for the development of an ecosystem for specialized functionality in the same way that Facebook, iTunes, and Twitter created an ecosystem for app innovation.

This dismisses the political processes and practices that run through MOOCs, and their users’ political positions, in order to claim a neutral ‘platform’ for innovation. Siemens identifies that MOOCs

are significant in that they are a large public experiment exploring the impact of the internet on education. Even if the current generation of MOOCs spectacularly crash and fade into oblivion, the legacy of top tier university research and growing public awareness of online learning will be dramatic.

However, this significance needs to be understood inside-and-against the logic of capital’s drive for innovation in the name of the rate of profit, and its tendency to subsume labour practices inside technologically-mediated forms of coercion, command and control. This is the space against which Siemens’ claim that ‘The value of MOOCs may not be the MOOCs themselves, but rather the plethora of new innovations and added services that are developed when MOOCs are treated as a platform’ needs to be analysed. It is the ways in which MOOCs and the services, analytics, content, affects, relationships, immateriality etc. that are derived from them are then valorised that might offer a glimpse of how the neoliberal educational project is being defined and how it might be resisted and undone.

How those “services” are reclaimed in order to reproduce the structural and systemic inequalities of capitalism might also form a central strand in the development of a political economy of educational technology. This is crucial because it is about the on-going circulation and exchange of commodities inside the social factory as a central space for the production and consumption of cultural artefacts. This is central to the practices of MOOCs, for as the Change MOOC notes:

When a connectivist course is working really well, we see this greate cycle of content and creativity begin to feed on itself, people in the course reading, collecting, creating and sharing. It’s a wonderful experience you won’t want to stop when the course is done [sic.].

At issue then is how to connect the participative nature of pedagogic or educational ideas like MOOCs and the on-going aspiration for educational technology to become transformative, to the dialectical interplay between networks and hierarchies as they are resolved inside the hegemonic realities of capitalism. How might such an analysis enable alternative political projects to emerge that challenge orthodoxy and promise more than simply lifelong learning or work-based learning or learning for enterprise or learning for employability or education for growth? An approach might emerge from a historical and comparative analysis of radical education projects like the Social Science Centre that are geographically and politically grounded in a different set of spaces from network/task/informational-centric innovations like MOOCs.

A different approach might also be to align explicitly the tenets and precepts of critical pedagogy as a struggle for subjectivity, as an act of protest and resistance to dominant forms of educational structure (including MOOCs) that is designed as emancipatory practice, with the opportunities opened-up by technology. This demands that educators and technologists inside-and-beyond the university are less defensive about their work and their practices and develop alternative forms as overtly political projects. For as Amsler notes:

Any education that seeks to demystify popular ideologies; expose the subtle ways that power works through language, bodies, and representations; facilitate the imagination of radically different modes of life; and produce knowledge to orient political action represents, in various forms, a broad faith within critical pedagogical politics that there is something inherently transformative about criticality. And it is the possibility to practice such forms of education, which is, in the ascendance of the uncompromising force of market logics throughout public life, being contracted, cramped, enclosed, or foreclosed. Indeed, the need for the critical attitude has become urgent in the face of declining levels of popular support for nonutilitarian education, and a wider tolerance for complexity and otherness within the public sphere is on the decline. The overarching mood in education, including in universities, is therefore one of crisis; the broad response, one of defence.

It is through the critique of normative positions, including network governance, in response to the crisis of capitalism and the restructuring of education as a neoliberal subjectivity, that new subjectivities might emerge. The landscape for this is deeply historical and needs further political economic analysis. Whilst some emergent analysis has been attempted of innovations like MOOCs, in terms of hybrid pedagogies, the current crisis in the forms and management of the University in the global north would benefit from a deeper understanding of how educational technology and innovations are co-opted for the valorisation of capital. We might then be able to develop spaces that are networked, in which we can ask how academic labour might be reclaimed. This requires an engagement with critical pedagogy that moves higher education beyond simply addressing the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

A few notes on Pearson and the privatisation of academic labour

The formation of Pearson College enables the education corporation Pearson Education Inc. to leverage: its learning management system and on-line content produced by academic labour; the partnerships that it has with established academic institutions in the UK, like the University of Sunderland and Royal Holloway College; and its connected educational think-tank; in order to gain fees/rents/profits from an emergent HE market.

The possibility that for-profit providers like Pearson College might gain UK degree-awarding powers was signalled in the UK Coalition Government’s response to its white paper consultation, which noted a desire to enable greater diversity and competition by widening access to University Title.

This quickens the process of destabilising academic labour inside universities, and furthers the questioning of the idea and purpose of a higher education that is publically-funded, regulated and governed. Mechanisms for: separating academic labour from other forms of labour inside the university; for surveilling it through mechanisms like the National Student Survey or the REF; and for commodifying and reifying it for-profit.

Critically, the mapping of academic labour onto new terrains opened-up by Pearson College is also tied to the possibility that the HE administration, teaching and accreditation/examination processes might be separated, enclosed and commodified. Pearson Education runs a for-profit examination board, Edexcel and this underpins the idea of accreditation for-profit, which is also developing elsewhere in terms of massive on-line open courses like Coursera (which wishes to tear down the limits of time, geography and money). Here there is a separation of the teaching process from that of examination or of assessment for learning, and the commodification and enclosure of each process.

Ravitch has written critically about the role of Pearson in the privatisation and monetisation of public education in the USA, stating that

tests are the linchpin of the attack on public education. The politicians throw about test scores as evidence that our entire public education system is a failed enterprise.

This has ramifications for academic labour inside a more competitive and enterprising UK HE market, as the government uses secondary legislation to lever open the sector for privatization. Witness the mass outsourcing of services at London Metropolitan University.

As for-profit providers are encouraged into the sector often using the promises of study at a distance using technology as a catalyst, an architecture is opened-up that threatens the public funding, regulation and governance of HE. The profitability of HE partnerships for companies like Pearson Education highlights how educational technology is developed as a way-in both to the extraction of value from universities, and to the recalibration of the purpose of universities to catalyse such extraction further. Partnerships and leverage are enforced, in-part, because academic labour is shackled inside the demands of performativity revealed in the research evaluations or student satisfaction scores. Engaging with external partners like Pearson for service-driven efficiencies make sense for universities that are being recalibrated as businesses.

Thus, the role of Pearson cannot be disconnected from other recalibrations that affect academic labour inside the University, including: outsourcing of services; securitisation and bond financing; learning analytics as a cybernetic mechanism for surveillance, monitoring and the extraction of new forms of value; the militarisation of academic space; the role of venture capital, joint-ventures, think tanks, policy makers etc., as neoliberal transnational activist networks, acting inside education.

Pearson College also signals the possibility that a surfeit of new, for-profit providers will cheapen the costs of academic labour that does not develop proprietary knowledge or skills. This risks driving down labour costs and increasing precarious academic work based on post-graduate rather than tenured staff. Flexibility, redundancy, productivity, privatisation, restructuring, value-for-money, all underpinned by technology, risk becoming the new normal for academics involved in teaching and research. As the discipline of the market enters HE in the guise of for-profit, technologically-rich operations like Pearson College, the spaces that are available to develop critiques of the recalibration of the University are reduced. There is no alternative.

The point, then, is whether academics can develop new forms of labour in new, collectivised spaces, in order that the complexity of their labour as a process inside HE might be unravelled and re-stitched against technologically-enabled, new public management.

However, even here there is a risk of replicating the systemic inequalities that are promoted through hegemonic positions. As Hoofd argues, all forms of activism and innovation risk their own subsumption inside structural regimes of domination. In fact

the current mode of [neo-liberal] late-capitalism relies on the continuous extension and validation of the infrastructure and the optimistic discourses of the new information technologies. Discourses that typically get repeated in favour of what I designate as the emerging speed-elite are those of connection, instantaneity, liberation, transformation, multiplicity and border crossing.

Thus, even those educators who claim to be hacking or co-creating ‘new spaces’ with students, or developing and deploying personal learning environments or massive online open courses as opposed to institutionalised systems, are operating inside structures that were created with the goal of facilitating global capitalism and which contribute to refining technologies of surveillance and control. Hoofd argues that ‘The idea that subjectivities from social movements are in any way less produced by neo-liberal globalisation is highly problematic.’

Pearson, MOOCs, badges, Coursera, PLEs, PLNs [insert your own innovation], therefore, are each developed inside the logic of capital. Whether they can form a front against the logic of alienation is another issue. In 1966 Marcuse wrote that

The incessant dynamic of technical progress has become permeated with political content, and the Logos of technics has been made into the Logos of continued servitude. The liberating force of technology – the instrumentalization of things – turns into a fetter of liberation; the instrumentalization of man.

Our response to the reality of Pearson College might then be the same as our response to Coursera or to Change MOOCs or to bring your own device or to [whatever]. We might ask whether and where it is possible for counter-hegemonic networks to develop. We might ask whether and how academic labour might form a rupture in the existing logic. We might ask whether and when it might become possible to reclaim academic labour for democratic engagements in general assemblies, for militant research strategies against their control by capitalist agendas, and for doing, working or labouring in public, rather than for enterprise.

Two projects on digital literacies and some matters arising

I’m currently working on two Higher Education Innovation Fund projects that connect DMU into cultures/practices or discourses around what has been termed digital literacy. The first is called EARS2 (Electro-Acoustic Resource Site) and is a partnership between the Music, Technology and Innovation Research Centre and the Centre for Enhancing Learning through Technology, both at DMU. The second is a knowledge exchange partnership between Leicester City Council, with Josie Fraser as lead, and the CELT team, and focuses upon the digital literacies of secondary school teachers in the City. There is some emergent work in this area that has been undertaken with librarians across Leicester as part of the LCC Connect project.


  • The project is based on the idea of finding mechanisms for presenting aspects of listening/appreciation, understanding of concepts and creativity, interactively within a single learning environment – in our specific case related to the body of music known as sonic art or electroacoustic music.
  • A proof of concept will be fully developed, based on drupal, with a wide variety of multimedia tools made available within the system.
  • The project builds upon the internationally acclaimed EARS Pedagogical Project, and aims to translate this for young people at Key Stages 3 and 4.
  • The key is the development of a holistic system that addresses users at their own level, and that focuses on musical, acoustical and relevant technical terminology and related theory and skills.
  • At issue is how to engage more inexperienced users in the relationships between appreciation <-> understanding <-> creativity
  • The drupal-based repository will provide a node-based framework for managing a hierarchical structure of web-based learning objects, and support teacher-led, pre-programmed and ‘à la carte’ routes for progression. Progression will include a timeline/historical dimension, but its navigation will be concept driven.
  • For example, the use of sounds from the real world as musical content can be found in a few examples in traditional acoustic music, but it becomes a fact of life with the birth of musique concrète in 1948. It evolved into a ‘household word’ when sampling in music became ubiquitous and could be applied musically on anyone’s PC. Therefore the concept of sound sources from the real world as musical material will be related to today’s sampling culture as well as the genres that use such sounds and will furthermore be linked to opportunities to organise sounds musically in terms of the system’s architecture.
  • Central to the project is the translation of electro-acoustic concepts to the curriculum at Key Stages 3 and 4, and this will involve work with practitioners in schools and colleges in the East Midlands and with European partners.

 A Framework for Digital Literacies across Leicester City Secondary Schools

The aim of this project is to transform educational provision across the city in all secondary schools through the strategic implementation of a digital literacy framework. The project will develop a generic structure incorporating best practice and a toolkit which will enable educators and learners to share an understanding of what constitutes digital literacy and how it can be translated into educational practices.

The aim is that implementation of the developmental framework within the city’s secondary schools will enable the Council to:

  • Improve learner outcomes and raise standards at city-wide level
  • Create a networked learning infrastructure
  • Develop resilient learning strategies
  • Share knowledge more effectively
  • Increase confidence, capacity and capability at a time of reducing budgets
  • Maximise investment in ICT infrastructure, realised in Building Schools for the Future
  • Ensure that user behaviours relating to the use of ICT contribute to reductions in energy consumption

The project is ambitious. It is intended not only to transform education across the city but also to serve as an exemplar both nationally and internationally. As such, outputs will be designed to be customisable, adaptable and able to be re-purposed.

Schools will be supported in the development of an online presence and identity, particularly in relation to social and collaborative web-based environments. 

Beyond the project, the new model will be cascaded to the city’s primary schools. Hence, we hope that the project will generate social benefits for both learners and educators by enabling the Council to move the whole City a step forward in digital literacy skills.

Matters arising

The following issues are live for these two projects and connect them to broader, critical and political narratives. 

FIRSTLY. The development of digital or web or worldly literacies or competancies or skills is contested, in terms of their definition, scope and purposes, and the complexities of constructing narratives and authorship/identity.  There are also issues of how technologies are deployed to enable learners to move in excess of themselves in appreciating and making their own creative artefacts and their own life-world. 

SECONDLY. In this process of using technology to enable students to produce or make their own work, makerspace projects offer ways of viewing the production of hacked curriculum spaces, which connect social tools to resources and activities for personalised learning. Here, the development of individual self-efficacy inside social learning environments highlights the importance of understanding whether structured, personalised opportunities enable a movement from apprenticeship to journeyman to mastery in new learning situations. Critical in this process of making is the ability to work across disciplines, and to make sense of the world through hacking or cracking established pieces of work. 

THIRDY. A connected strand that is important here is the ability for learners to collaborate on-line, and to gain credit for the outcomes that they have achieved or the skills they have developed. The Mozilla Badges initiative forms one mechanism through which a student’s developing repertoire of skills might be recognised and represented. Learners might (collaboratively) create their own badges or collect those created by peer-groups, including on established social networks like Edmodo.

FOURTHLY. These approaches might enable the idea of student-as-producer, as a demand for re-forming the role of the student inside education as a maker or producer of their own lived experiences, to be critiqued. In this process, listening, comprehending, making and remixing, might enable students and staff to emerge as social beings rather than simply emerging as institutionalised agents.

FIFTHLY. These ideas of student-as-producer and a pedagogy of excess are geared to individual mastery inside social spaces that require communal problem-definition and solving, and political transformation. By integrating these concepts technologically inside and against the established social relationships that exist in, and are framed by, both institutions and more network-centred spaces like MOOCs, it might be possible that students will be able to develop their own literacies, skills, capabilities, social practices, whatever. The challenge is to work with teachers and students to frame a set of activities and governances in both the digital and real-world space that make sense to the student as she engages with understanding, listening, practicising, making, cracking and re-mixing.

SIXTHLY. A central issue will be defining the inter-relationships between the forms and content, governances and practices, which emerge in the range of real/virtual spaces for these projects. The allied questions that move this forward are then: what does political agency look like in these spaces? And how can such agency be enabled?

Call for Proposals: TEL, the Crisis and the Response

Call for Proposals: TEL, the Crisis and the Response

The Alpine Rendez-Vous

The Alpine Rendez-Vous (ARV) is an established atypical scientific event focused on Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL). The ARV series of events are promoted by TELEARC and EATEL associations. These took up the legacy of the FP6 NoE Kaleidoscope and Prolearn, and the FP7 NoE Stellar, which sustained them along past years. The goal of the Alpine Rendez-Vous is to bring together researchers from the different scientific communities doing research on Technology-Enhanced Learning, in a largely informal setting, away from their workplace routines. Although originating in Europe, the ARV is open to other continents’ researchers and proposals. ARV is structured as a set of independent parallel workshops located at the same time in the same place. Workshops may last two to three days each, half of the workshops taking place in the first part of the week and the other half in the second part, possibly with a “common day” in the middle. The Alpine Rendez-Vous of 2013 will take place from January 28th to February 1st, in Villard-de-Lans, a village in the middle of Vercors. Breaks and meals are organized in a way that promotes informal encounters between participants from the different workshops.

An informal group concerned about the relationships between TEL research and change, discontinuity and dislocation in the wider world have had a workshop proposal accepted and are now calling for proposals and participation.


The TEL research community has undoubtedly been successful over the last fifteen or twenty years in extending, enriching and even challenging the practices and theories of education within its professions and within its institutions, and through them has engaged in turn with the institutions and professions of industry and government. These have however been largely inward-looking discourses best suited perhaps to a world characterised by stability, progress and growth. These are all now problematic and uncertain, and call for new discourses within the TEL research community and across its borders. The world is now increasingly characterised by challenges, disturbances and discontinuities that threaten these dominant notions of stability, progress and growth. These represent the grand challenges to the TEL research community, challenges to the community to stay relevant, responsive, rigorous and useful.

Earlier discussions (eg purpos/ed,  & e4c, education-for-crisis, had outlined the emergent crisis in broad terms and identified different perspectives and components, including

  • economic and resource crises, including long-term radical increases in economic inequality within nations; youth unemployment across Europe, the polarisation of employment and the decline in growth; sovereign debt defaults and banking failures; mineral and energy constraints;.
  • environmental and demographic crises, in particular, the implications of declining land viability for migration patterns; refugee rights and military occupations; nation-state population growth and its implications for agriculture, infrastructure and transport
  • the crisis of accountability, expressed in the failure of traditional representative democracy systems especially in the context of global markets, the growth of computerised share-dealing; the emergence of new private sector actors in public services; the growth of new mass participatory movements and the rise of unelected extremist minorities both challenging the legitimacy of the nation-state and its institutions
  • socio-technical disruptions and instability, exaggerated by a reliance on non-human intelligence and large-scale systems of systems in finance, logistics and healthcare, and by the development of a data-rich culture;  the proliferation and complexity of digital divides;  the dependency of our educational institutions on computer systems for research, teaching, study, and knowledge transfer
  • the dehumanisation crisis, expressed in the production of fear between people, the replacement of human flourishing with consumption, the replacement of the idea of the person with the idea of the system, the replacement of human contact with mediated exchange, the commodification of the person, education and the arts

and specifically, in relation to TEL;

  • TEL and the industrialisation of education; marginal communities and the globalization and corporatisation of learning; futures thinking as a way to explore TEL in relation to resilience; the political economy of technology in higher education and technological responses to the crisis of capitalism; the role of openness as a driver for innovation, equity and access; digital literacies and their capacity to shift TEL beyond skills and employability in an increasingly turbulent future; connectedness and mobility as seemingly the defining characteristics of our societies; the role and responsibility of research and of higher education as these crises unfold, the complicity or ambiguity of TEL in their development; is the current TEL ecosystem and environment sustainable, is it sufficiently responsive and resilient, how extent does TEL research question, support, stimulate, challenge and provoke its host higher education sector?

TEL is at the intersection of technology and learning and encapsulates many of the ideals, problems and potential of both.  Education and technology permeate all of the perspectives outlined above, some more than others. It is possible however that they could ameliorate some of their consequences or amplify and exaggerate others. TEL has been a project and a community nurtured within the institutions and organisations of formal education in the recent decades of relative stability and prosperity in the developed nations of Asia-Pacific, North America and Western Europe. Some of the critical challenges directly relate to the perceived missions of the TEL project and its community. Contemporary formal education in schools, colleges and universities is increasingly reliant on TEL. The TEL community is however currently poorly equipped either to resist the progress of these crises today or to enable individuals and communities to flourish despite their consequences tomorrow. The transition movement, the open movement and the occupy movement are all parts of wider responses to differing perceptions and perspectives of the underlying malaise.

The Call

The proposed workshop will enrich conversations by bringing in new perspectives and will explore how the different communities can learn from each other, perhaps bringing about more open, participative and fluid models of education. It brings together researchers seeking to articulate these concerns and responses, and develop a shared understanding that will engage and inform the TEL community. It is timely, necessary and unique, and will contribute to a clearer and more worthwhile formulation of the Grand Challenges for TEL in the coming years.

One of the outputs of the workshop will be a special edition of a peer-reviewed journal; other options, such as an open access journal, a book or a website, are possible if there is a consensus.

Please submit an individual or collective two-page position paper, or propose a structured discussion or debate on the role and place of TEL in the light of our analysis. Contributions will be selected by the organisers on the basis of individual quality of the papers and the overall balance and coherence of the programme.


Submission by 17 August 2012


  1. Doug Belshaw, Researcher, Mozilla Foundation
  2. Helen Beetham, Consultant, JISC
  3. Hamish Cunningham, Professor, University of Sheffield
  4. Keri Facer, Professor, University of Bristol
  5. Richard Hall, Reader, De Montfort University
  6. Marcus Specht, Professor, Open University, Netherlands
  7. John Traxler, Professor, University of Wolverhampton, (corresponding organiser)