on digital literacy, use value and alienation

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

The abstract goes as follows.

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

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

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

ONE. On digital and democratic literacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Bauwens and Franco Iacomella argue that:

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

They see this produced through

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

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

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

TWO. On digital literacy and technological alienation

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

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

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

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

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

Marx (p. 324) argued that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Presentations on academic alienation, academic labour and academic activism

I have a number of presentations coming up that focus upon academic alienation, academic labour and academic activism. The connection between alienation and work, revealed in normative responses to the triple crunch of climate change, peak oil and austerity, leads me to question the ways in which academics enable the hegemonic reproduction of the University for value. I’ll be speaking about academic work/activism and the triple crunch here. However, the following abstract has been accepted for the Academic Identities conference 2014. I will be co-presenting with Joss Winn(from the University of Lincoln and the Social Science Centre).

A Contribution to the Critique of the Political Economy of Academic Labour.

In this paper we analyse ‘academic labour’ using categories developed by Marx in his critique of political economy. In doing so, we return to Marx’s mature writing to help understand the work of academics as productive living labour subsumed by the capitalist mode of production. In elaborating our own position, we are critical of two common approaches to the study of academic labour, especially as they emerge from inside analyses of virtual labour or digital work.

First, we are critical of efforts to define the nature of our work as ‘immaterial labour’ and argue that this category is an unhelpful and unnecessary diversion from the analytical power of Marx’s social theory and method. The discourse around ‘immaterial labour’ raised by the Autonomist or Operaismo tradition is thought-provoking, but ultimately adds little to a critical theory of commodity production as the basis of capitalist social relations. In fact they tend to overstate network-centrism and its concomitant disconnection from the hierarchical, globalised forces of production that shape our objective social reality.

Second, we are cautious of an approach which focuses on the digital content of academic labour to the neglect of both its form and the organising principles under which it is subsumed. Understandably, academics have a tendency to reify their own labour such that it becomes something that they struggle for, rather than against. However, repeatedly adopting this approach can only lead to a sense of helplessness. If, rather, we focus our critique on the form and organising principles of labour, we find that it shares the same general qualities whether it is academic or not. Thus, it is revealed as commodity-producing, with both concrete and abstract forms. By remaining focused on the form of labour, rather than its content, we can only critique it rather than reify it.

This then has implications for our understanding of the relationships between academics and virtual work, the ways in which technologies are used to organise academic labour digitally, and struggles to overcome such labour. It is our approach to conceive of ‘academic labour’ in both its concrete and abstract forms and in relation to a range of techniques and technologies. The purpose of this is to unite all workers in solidarity against labour, rather than against each other in a competitive labour market.

PhD Studentship: A critical evaluation of continuing professional development strategies for digital literacy in UK compulsory education

Starting October 2014, and available to suitably qualified UK or EU students.

Closing date for applications: Friday March 21st 2014.


In the last 18 months I’ve been working with Josie Fraser and Lucy Atkins on a co-operative project between Leicester City Council and De Montfort University called the Digilit Leicester Project. In September 2013, the project won one of five Reclaim Open Learning innovation awards, an international award supported by the Digital Media and Learning Hub, MIT Media Lab and the MacArthur Foundation.

In order to build on the success of this project and our work in translating the DigiLit Leicester Project’s outputs for the University, we can now offer a bursary (stipend) plus fees Ph.D. studentship to work with me and Chris Goldsmith. I hold a Chair in Education and Technology at DMU, and I have just convened the University’s Centre for Pedagogic Research. Both Chris and I are UK Higher Education Academy National Teaching Fellows. Chris has also led EU-funded pedagogic innovation projects, co-authored work on games-based learning with me, and been an integral member of the UK Changing the Learning Landscape programme at DMU.

Working with us will be challenging but it offers exceptional possibilities.

Project overview

The concept of digital literacy is increasingly recognised as a critical terrain for twenty-first century life. However, there are two key areas of concern for practitioners and school-leaders. First, there is a deficit of critical guidance on how to integrate relevant digital practices in classrooms, in order to support a diverse range of learners. Second, can a focus on pedagogically-grounded, self-evaluation of digital literacy underpin teacher professionalism? This project will undertake a critical evaluation of continuing professional development strategies for digital literacy in UK compulsory education, in order to develop a model for the transformation of professional practice across school settings and educational sectors.

How to apply

For details of how to apply see DMU’s Ph.D. Scholarships pages (check out Scholarship BAL FB3).

For a more detailed description of the studentship project please contact Professor Richard Hall on +44 (0)116 207 8254 or email rhall1@dmu.ac.uk

The co-operative university against indenture

Martin McQuillan has argued that the Coalition Government is placing borrowing at the heart of the UK’s higher education system. He notes that:

Against all expectations George Osborne’s Autumn statement announced that the cap on student numbers in England would be abolished from 2015-16. As an interim measure an additional 30,000 places would be made available for the next academic year 2014-15. The initial numbers would be available for universities; private providers would be able to access the unlimited market from 2015. This expansion, costed at £700million per year, would be funded by the estimated £12billion sale of income-contingent repayment loans taken out between 2003 and 2010, before the Coalition’s reforms.

For McQuillan, as for so many of us who struggle with this neoliberal, entrepreneurial turn, this has given a green light to further private involvement in the delivery and assessment of higher education, alongside the Russell Group’s increasingly aggressive lobbying for the removal of the cap on fees. This is education as bourgeois consumption for an elite that sits asymmetrically against those driven towards universities which are forced to compete via riskier, more volatile engagements in the finance (bond) markets. A life predicated on and disciplined by personal or institutional debt; the socialisation of production for the market rather than for society through debt and indenture; education indentured forever.

Either way, McQuillan argues that:

It would seem that Osborne has decided that it is more important to secure the ideological legacy of the Coalition’s reforms by creating an unlimited market funded by borrowing than by balancing the BIS budget.  However, with UCAS reporting that university applications are currently 4% down on this time last year, it is not entirely clear that the demand exists for increased higher education provision at £9,000 per year.

Andrew McGettigan has also been very clear about the balance between risk, demand and volatility in the near future, and the (deliberate?) unsustainability of current Coalition policy. He argued that:

How will the planned expansion of undergraduate places will be funded after 2015/16? We don’t have the details yet: setting out policies using gross, rather than net, proceeds is incompetent. If you sell the loans, you no longer receive the associated income stream. That should be obvious.

Beyond 2019/20, there are no more sale proceeds, but income will continue to be £1billion lower than previously estimated. What happens then? This is hit-and-hope policy making.

Higher Education deserves better – a clear, sustainable financing solution without gimmickry.

Hit-and-hope, gimmickry, or ideology posing as evidence-based policy. It is worth watching McGettigan at the House of Commons BIS Committee (17/12/13), not only for the points made about volatility and the sustainability of funding mechanisms when linked to marketization, but also for the notable absence of the Minister, David Willetts MP, and the Select Committee’s apparent lack of clarity on the detail of the mechanics of HE funding. Their questions to Toni Pearce of the NUS on why this matters for current students mapped out a terrain where indenture was seen by those in-power to be almost natural; almost a state of grace. So we witness complexity plus volatility plus risk plus hedging plus an inability to see beyond the inevitable shift of funding/risk from society to the entrepreneurial individual. This is the critical point that Pearce made at the start of her evidence to the Select Committee. This is the fundamental rupture between the market and the entrepreneurial individual, and the possibilities and hope that emerge from socialised, co-operative practice.

This is the ideological rupture that is everywhere to be seen.

On challenging this on the terms of money capital, or the rule of money, the Times Higher Education reported the Institute for Fiscal Studies, stating that current short-term policy-making based on secondary legislation:

“[] may work in the near-term fiscal numbers, but economically it makes little sense”.

“Selling the loan book will be broadly fiscally neutral in the long run, bringing in more money now at the expense of less money later on. Lifting the cap on numbers will cost money every year.”

Carl Emmerson, deputy director of the IFS, said that scrapping the cap on student numbers will increase the “long run cost to the public finances of student loans”.

The transfer of the risks of failure, debt and indenture to the individual in her contract with private providers raises the spectre of debtors prisons, like these in Colorado, or these in Alabama, or in this report from Harvard about student debt, where:

somebody literally asked the internet if they could go to jail to pay off their debts. That’s desperation. And I’m neither laughing nor impressed.

And we might collectively look at what is happening to our social relationships in this ideological quickening. As we read reports of students saddled with debts and whose assumed incomes have not met expectations or the assumptions made by their Colleges or peers. The collapse in real wages and the rise in inflation; the full economic impact of devaluation as the realities of paying down quantitative easing bite; the exponential growth in student debt as an investment vehicle in the face of the falling rate of profit; the lack of growth in de-developing nations like the UK; each of which impact these real-life student stories of debt-ridden hell.

These real-life stories of an indentured life covered in the project on student debt, and in 5 stories on student debt, and in Australia, and in South Africa, and in transnational banks targeting students in India, or the complex interrelationships between debt and mental health and well-being. As Marx wrote in Volume 3 of Capital, these stories reveal how interest-bearing capital is the most fetish-like form of social relations. Marx wrote:

In interest-bearing capital, therefore, this automatic fetish, self-expanding value, money generating money, are brought out in their pure state and in this form it no longer bears the birth-marks of its origin. The social relation is consummated in the relation of a thing, of money, to itself. Instead of the actual transformation of money into capital, we see here only form without content.

Thus we get the fetish form of capital and the conception of fetish capital. In M — M’ we have the meaningless form of capital, the perversion and objectification of production relations in their highest degree, the interest-bearing form, the simple form of capital, in which it antecedes its own process of reproduction. It is the capacity of money, or of a commodity, to expand its own value independently of reproduction — which is a mystification of capital in its most flagrant form.

In its capacity of interest-bearing capital, capital claims the ownership of all wealth which can ever be produced, and everything it has received so far is but an instalment for its all-engrossing appetite.

Debt, money and time, inextricably linked and inextricably dislocated from the realities of production of commodities, labour-power, and humanity in the present, in order to inexplicably subsume the future.

And what we are left with inside higher education are a set of keywords that enclose/describe the time and space, and space-time, of the University: debt; indenture; financialisation; hedge; entrepreneurship; consumer; customer-service excellence; securutisation; policing; competition; privatisation; marketization; organisational development; performativity; impact. These keywords in this space-time represent the chronic failing of intellectual leadership.

It is in the spirit of recovery then that Joss Winn has written about a co-operative universities mailing list, as one tactic in arguing for an alternative, and in defining an alternative set of keywords that might hold us as we work for something different. As we try to write and think about what it means to be co-operative, in-and-against a higher education that is increasingly kettled, we urgently need a conversation about the organising principles for collective work and for social solutions rather than for coercion and competition.

We need to talk about a university-life that is not framed by debt but by justice, and that is against business-as-usual in the form of indenture. As Joss notes:

If you are interested in discussing, researching, keeping up-to-date and even creating a co-operative university, there is a mailing list you can join.


The list was first set up by a group of us who attended the Co-operative Education Against the Crises conference earlier in the year. Since Dan Cook published his report and the Institute of Education hosted a seminar, people have been in touch via this blog, Twitter and email, asking me how to stay involved.

Please join the mailing list and introduce yourself.

The mailing list is hosted by Mayfirst/People Link, a politically progressive member-run collective of technologists.

Notes on the University and the association of capitals

ONE. Elsewhere on this blog I recently wrote about the domination of merchants in higher education:

The links between commercial educational providers and universities, educators and students as producers and consumers of educational services, data and products, demonstrate power and dependency. This complex interdependency is not reducible to fetishized ideas of money via cost-savings or emancipation based on learning for a life of capitalist work. It links to ideas of the reproduction of capital within limits or barriers, and the current condition inside-and-against education demonstrates how crises re-establish the limits and conditions existing in the system as a totality and in the circuits of productive, money and commodity capital. Moreover, we are witnessing the attempt by finance and commercial capital to synchronise production with their own circuits. This is an uncomfortable symbiosis, as those of us engaged in a higher education that is being restructured by the dictates of finance capital and a new market can attest.

What is becoming more clear is the formation of associated capitals, in the form of public/private education providers, finance capital, brokers of educational services, technology firms, venture capitalists and so on, engaging in a public policy space designed to leverage accumulation and growth. These associated capitals might form transnational activist networks; they might be working in competition. The key is opening-up new markets.

TWO. The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education is hosting a conference Moocs: What we have learned, emerging themes and what next? The conference states that it “will take a critical look at how online and open access learning has evolved during the last year, with a particular consideration of the development of Moocs in both the US, India and Europe.” The speakers at the event are from MOOC providers or are champions of MOOCs as mechanisms for creating a market for educational services and commodities from the global North, for driving down academic labour costs, and for identifying and extracting surplus intellectual capital both inside and beyond the University. The conference is about problem-solving, rather than developing a critique of the idea of “open” or “open learning” or the MOOC phenomenon in light of critical pedagogic practice. Its aims and the biographies of those who are speaking reinforce both hegemonic educational power and the idea that “open” must be used to colonise and monetise higher education. Its aims are to:

  • Evaluate critically case studies in the rapidly unfolding landscape of Moocs and open access learning;
  • Participate in discussions with practitioners of Moocs and new models of open access learning;
  • Consider how these transformations are already affecting higher education provision in the US, UK, India and elsewhere, and to examine institutional and student;
  • Further evaluate the potential for integrating Moocs into university degrees;
  • Consider existing and new revenue models for Moocs.

Recent analyses of the impact of venture capital, higher education bubbles and return on investment, related to Coursera and Udacity do little to assuage the overarching momentum to use “open” or MOOC or whatever as a lever in the struggle between social forces. In any case, the role of new markets like the Chinese in those spaces is still unclear. Any educational technology failures are less to do with pedagogic failings and more closely tied to the political economic realities of a restructuring of higher education for the market. Organisational change and technology are key levers in this process, and their transformational appeal was highlighted by Gartner’s statement that Worldwide IT spending is projected to total $3.7 trillion in 2013. One might also reflect on Gartner’s note that we are witnessing increasing “innovation in personal and competitive business ecosystems” that impact “the labor content of services and products.”

Ecosystems; associated capital; entrepreneurialism; competition; growth; new markets; labour arbitrage; higher education.

THREE. Andrew McGettigan has recently argued that we are witnessing market creation out of control in UK higher education. He notes

The government exploited the existing ‘designation’ process to allow students at over one hundred private higher education providers to access student support on terms equivalent to those enjoyed by students at established universities, with the exception that since 2012/13 those students have been only able to borrow up to £6,000 per year towards tuition fees (up from £3,375 in 2011/12).

The cost to the Government “has been £80m over budget. With 30 000 students registered that year for the HNC and HND qualifications offered by Pearson-Edexcel through private colleges (the equivalent of one or two years of undergraduate study), that represents an 150 per cent increase in such students on the previous year.”

McGettigan asks “why does this matter” and argues:

Private providers can currently recruit how they like and, once designated, their Home and EU students have the right to access the publicly backed student loans (EU students can apply for tuition fee loans only).

The loan scheme is subsidised – only 65p in the pound is expected back. Public money is therefore involved.

Many private HE providers are commercial, for-profit operations – some like, Greenwich School of Management or University of Law are owned by private equity – so public money subsidises private fees and potentially profits.

As we saw in the USA, the private sector expands rapidly when backed by public money. Where will this money end up?

Further, we have no understanding of the performance of graduates from private institutions – they may end up paying back much less and so be subsidised to a greater degree

It also transpires that in order to introduce some control to the budget, the public teaching budget will have to be reduced by £20m – this is likely to come out of the budgets of widening participation initiatives. And £25m goes from the Access to Learning hardship fund. That is, students at established universities will suffer as a result.

In education, the public and the private dance out of time. The private is used to speed-up change, and acts as a disciplinary lever on public goods and issues of equality. In this, the State demonstrates its commitment to profit through competition above all else.

THREE. A recent Ernst & Young Global Limited report on China’s productivity imperative noted that there is increasing doubt that China will provide the sanctuary for long-term growth in higher education from the global North. It reports as follows.

A gloomy global macroeconomic outlook, particularly for Europe and the United States. That has already had considerable impact on the Chinese economy as export growth to key markets in Asia, Europe, and North America has slowed significantly since 2010. The worst is Europe, where exports have recently started falling, causing revenues flowing to China’s industrial sector to slow. China’s productivity growth has also fallen. Growth in total factor productivity has dropped from an annual average of 4.7 percent in 2001-07 to 2.8 percent in 2008-10. Earlier rounds of market liberalization and privatization have largely run their course, and the mass reallocation of labor from low productivity agriculture to higher productivity manufacturing is coming to an end.

The report notes that “Raising productivity is critical for China’s economic future as the experience of other East Asian economies shows that capital-driven growth is not sustainable.” Thus, it argues that:

By harnessing the following sources of productivity, we believe that companies can maximize efficiency and drive a new round of profitable growth across the economy:

Take advantage of structural changes such as reforms to lower market barriers and the opening up of new industries to investment.

Maximize the benefits of information technology by making better use of data, improving communication, and enhancing speed and flexibility.

Exploit technological catch-up by combining different existing technologies and adapting them for China’s needs.

Increase the pace of talent development, deploy talent to the highest-value opportunities, and improve the way workers engage with each other.

Meanwhile, Phoenix Capital Research recently focused on The China Crisis You Haven’t Heard About, and stated

In the near-term, China will engage in capital investment (the substitution of capital, technology and information for labor) to drive economic growth. This means the Chinese Government throwing money at the manufacturing, information technology and healthcare sectors in its economy.

The global North’s increasing obsession with on-line learning as a lever for growth has to be seen in light of the use of organisational development and technology to drive labour efficiencies and to lower market barriers. Capital investment, the creation of a reserve army of labour with interchangeable and low-waged commodity and leverage skills, the extraction of rents, and the creation of an entrepreneurial class form a conjuncture with this need to create a global market for higher education goods and services.

FOUR. In Volume 2 (Chapter 16) of Capital, Marx discusses the turnover of variable capital including the impact of working class consumption on that process. He argues that capital advanced as wages ceases to be capital and instead forms the means of subsistence or social reproduction. The mass of commodities that is “annihilated” is consumed unproductively – it maintains labour power but does not produce surplus value. However, Marx argues that speculation both in the creation of a skilled labour force that is able to be thrown into the production process, and in the accumulation and valorisation of capital, tends to push consumption and wages up, and this in-turn tends to be followed by a crash. This restructuring of the flows of capital then reveal a deeper and more permanent problem or contradiction, namely how can capitalists sell their products when the mass of the population is impoverished?

In terms of higher education, we witness the mechanisms through which policy and practice becomes entangled with relationships to distant/new markets through on-line education, and to the idea of the student as an entrepreneur. Marx argues that credit markets, witnessed in the form of indebted study are critical in enabling the expansion of markets into social or public goods like education, and across new geographical terrains. In Chapter 16 of Volume 2 he points up the:

Contradiction in the capitalist mode of production. The workers are important for the market as buyers of commodities. But as sellers of their commodity – labour-power – capitalist society has the tendency to restrict them to their minimum price.

Further contradiction: the periods in which capitalist production exerts all its forces regularly show themselves to be periods of over-production; because the limit to the application of the productive powers is not simply the production of value, but also its realisation.

However, the sale of commodities, the realisation of commodity capital, and thus of surplus-value as well, is restricted not by the consumer needs of society in general, but by the consumer needs of a society in which the great majority are always poor and must always remain poor.

At issue is the relationship between credit markets and individuated debt, the student’s needs to prove she has the entrepreneurial skills to survive and reproduce herself in a global and stratified labour market, the collapse in real wages and graduate earnings, and the idea of the University as a competitive space scored through with a need to extract surplus value and generate profits. How is the indebted individual defined and conditioned socially through a marketised education? What might be our collective response?

In addressing this issue, just as Capital develops its productive power through association, co-operative forms mights also point towards labour’s self-actualisation. William Thompson’s, Inquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth, (p. 453) argued that socially significant wealth is not that which is accumulated either as real assets or appropriated as claims on future labour, in the form of legal titles, interest rates. Thompson (p. 443) argued that:

In almost all other systems, the productive forces have been considered with reference and in subordination to accumulation and to the perpetuation of existing mode of distribution. Compared with the conservation of this existing mode of distribution, the ever recurring suffering or welfare of the entire human race is not considered worthy of a glance. To perpetuate the results of force, of fraud, and of accident, this has been called security, and for conservation of this lying security, all the forces of production of the human race have been mercilessly sacrificed.

He stated that it was “the forces of production and their free development in the future” that offered hope for co-operative forms of distribution and for co-operative labour. Thus, the recent piece by the Social Science Centre in Lincoln offers a different perspective on what is co-operatively possible at a different, local scale.

FIVE. Technological and organisation changes focus upon reducing the amount of capital needed to produce surplus value. Thus, capitalists adopt techniques that keep labour and capital fully employed, and as a result we witness a history of innovations related to reducing production time or working time. However, in Volume 2 of Capital, Marx also looks at the ways in which capitalists attempt to use innovations in spatial organisation, transport and communications, to reduce circulation time and to increase the geography of capital accumulation.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels argue that the need to create and enable capital flows, accumulation and spaces for further valorisation, results in “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products [which in turn] chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.” One result is that bourgeois, transnational and cosmopolitan consumption triumphs over local, national cultures, and industries that are defined by productivity and intensity dislodge indigenous cultures.

One example of this process is the subsumption and enclosure of intellectual property produced commonly and embedded in technologies and processes as what Marx called “mass intellect”. Thus, Wikileaks recently leaked a secret draft of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement between twelve markets representing 40 per cent of the global economy. The leaked chapter on intellectual property rules demonstrates that the United States is pushing to make its Intellectual Property regime the standard for these markets. This focuses upon the adoption of existing US laws, to protect commodities like patents for pharmaceuticals or digital artefacts like movies or educational content. The Electronic Frontier Foundation fears that the IP section will limit on-line freedom.

In the Communist Manifesto it is argued that the Bourgeoisie, though its new powers of production and its commodities and its restructuring of laws, inscribes new, global markets into the circuits of production, and creates a world in its own image. This echoes Marx’s argument in the Grundrisse that the hegemony of the bourgeois mode of production rests on the expansion of a global system of valorisation, which in turn demands that commodities are not simply used but exchanged. This process of exchange demands the spatial transformation of productive forces, including transport and modes of communication. Thus, Capital drives beyond its spatial barriers and we see the “annihilation of space by time”, as circulation time and labour time are revolutionised to give quicker access to new markets.

In this process, the deployment of open, on-line tools are critical and pedagogical. They enable capital to reduce the friction of distance and speed that exists across educational and social spaces They also reduce the costs of educational service and commodity production by collapsing the relative locations of places and infrastructures. For instance, MOOCs enable concentrations of both cognitive labour and associated capital that then lead to efficiencies. Thus, universities working with private educational providers and technology companies form an example of agglomeration economies that enable the relocation of higher education in the global North to new markets. Public policy, in creating a local and global higher education market, draws in further educational functions. Moreover, flattened costs and precarious employment underwrite a more competitive landscape for all higher education providers, reinforced by the agencies like the World Bank and World Trade Organisation.

SIX. Thus, we might analyse the idea of the University, inside-and-against the organisational and technological innovations that drive the speed-up or acceleration of turnover time of educational services and commodities in a global market. These innovations include the subsumption of the University inside associations of public/private capitals, in order to secure their competitive place. These innovations also tend to reduce the friction caused by distance and localised working practices. We might then ask what is the popular response to this process? Does the Social Science Centre offer one such popular response? It states that:

while there are fewer existing networks of solidarity than might exist in larger cities, there is also an intimacy and a proximity that provide possibilities for associational networks that might be diffused in larger cities. Most of us work full-time and cannot give the time to the SSC that we would like to. Without the material basis on which to work and study full-time at the SSC, we have to think creatively about the form and nature of education practised within the SSC.

As a response, educators might question how we work through association or co-operation with the geographical and spatial-temporal implications of a critique of higher education policy and practice. We might highlight the dynamics of accumulation and the need to expand markets in established economies and to create new markets as a new form of imperialism (with privileged rights to sell goods via intellectual property laws). We might ask, how does higher education policy and practice demonstrate the flows of capital between the global North and “emerging markets”, in an attempt to allow production in the former to grow, whilst supporting the creation of competitor-economies? We might ask, where is it possible to find the courage to push-back?

On the domination of merchants in higher education

Merchants dominate producers now. Commercial capital and money-dealing capital dominate productive capital. The expropriation of surplus value from producers by merchant capital is a primary source of profit. In educational production, in the production of curriculum resources, in the funding of research centres, in the building of physical and technological infrastructures, in the deployment of learning analytics, in the management of the student loan book, do educators and/or students have hegemony? Do educators and/or students dominate the agenda? In the idea of open education or of the MOOC, who has power? When we are told that education must become effective or efficient or innovate, who is heard? In the deployment of organisational development or of lean systems thinking or of zero-hours contracts or of £9,000 fees, who has a voice and who is marginalised? 

It is worth re-thinking how merchant, credit and finance capital affect the inner workings of education, in particular as universities are being reconstructed as businesses. As they are being reconstructed as competing capitals, subject to the coercive logic of competition. And it is coercive. The coercive role of money as it is insinuated inside educational practice reinforces its own reification and more importantly fetishizes, for example, the student, or the entrepreneur or technology. As Pilling noted, Marx identified this idea of fetishisation as it flows through the bourgeois political economics of the kind that serves as analysis of the current crisis. He wrote:

under commodity production relations between men take the form of relations between ‘things’. The social relations are indirect relations, relations mediated through these things, and men simply ‘represent’ or ‘personify’ these things in the market place. Now Marx chastised the political economists for taking these forms ‘as given’ (by Nature) and not as social forms arising under definite historical conditions, forms which would therefore disappear under new social conditions. Those who accept the social relations of capital ‘uncritically’ in effect attribute to things in their immediate manifestation properties which, in point of fact, have nothing in common with this immediate material manifestation as such. The attention of Ricardo was directed almost exclusively to discovering the material base of definite social forms. These forms of social being were taken as read and therefore lying outside the scope of further analysis. It was Marx’s aim to discover the origin and development of these social forms assumed by the material-technical production process at a definite stage in the development of the productive forces.

In the current recalibration of education, we witness a media that denigrates public education and celebrates charter schools or academies, we witness a higher education for employment rather than for being, we witness a fetishisation of the student at the heart of the system, we witness think tanks related to global consultancies like McKinsey or PA or Pearson or to institutes like the IPPR calling for public/private partnerships and marketised open education. In each of these witnessings, we are unable to step away from the specificity of “broken education” (see, for example, this PA Consulting Delivering Education Reform paper), in order to critique the structures of domination, and who has power, and why. In pushing back against charter or free schools alone, or in pushing back against student-as-entrepreneur, or in pushing back against credit ratings for universities, we cannot possibly make sense of these individual aspects unless we develop a critique of how they relate to the generality of the reproduction of capital.

What we are witnessing for instance in the open education movement is its fetishisation as an open threshold of access, as low-cost of entry, as emancipatory, as freeing-up resources for “developing nations”. What we do not see is its co-option by commercial capital, in the form of global educational merchants like Coursera or EdX or FutureLearn, for the extraction of surplus value and for labour arbitrage and for commodity-dumping. Coursera states that it:

is an education company that partners with the top universities and organizations in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free. Our technology enables our partners to teach millions of students rather than hundreds. We envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education that has so far been available to a select few. We aim to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.

Coursera then mediates flows of educational products that it does not produce, in terms of the content or pedagogies of its partners or the data that is harvested from its students. One interesting point here is that for-profit educational merchant capital drives the specific development of capitalist, educational production that is separated from the sphere of production. It is not based on direct exchange between producers and consumers, but on mediated and just-in-time provision. So it is subject to the same drives to maximise the extraction of surplus value from producers and products without contributing to the circuit of production, except in forms that enable speed-up or mobility.

In the case of FutureLearn this means developing an organisation structure that is exclusive and excluding of certain providers or producers, based on maximising profits. Thus, David Willetts argued:

FutureLearn is not accessible for all of our universities. They have taken a view about the universities that they are going to allow into FutureLearn, so the other universities are going to need another route if FutureLearn won’t have them and there are other providers around and of course, part of what they will offer is help in some of the analytics as well. I think this is coming up the agenda, because clearly other universities outside the Russell will want to go down the MOOC route as well, and I completely understand that, and if I were in their shoes I would want them to do it. So there are other platforms that you may want to join, where including, and I am sure included in their terms, will be assistance in the analytics that you need to get your courses online. 

In response Tim O’Shea noted that:

I think you were correctly cautious about the idea that the Government would intervene to support a particular platform provider, because there is a diversity of platform providers in the US, there is actually three in Silicon Valley, there is FutureLearn here, and then there are some free platforms, like Course Builder, that is provided by Google, so I think for the government to intervene would be messy.

In facilitating corporate power, intervention may be denied but in creating an education market through secondary legislation, state intervention is critical. Thus, open education or the MOOC or whatever technological or organisational innovation has to be critiqued, not in terms of student costs or empowerment or democratising of learning, but inside-and-against the flows of capital and the attempt to reassert stable forms of accumulation. Thus Sarah Grossman in the Chronicle relates the profusion of commercial MOOCs to international competition, the needs of venture capital for spaces in which to invest surpluses, and to the extraction of surplus value through education at work:

Japan’s answer to Coursera and edX, Schoo, announced this week that is had raised $1.5-million from venture-capital firms, including Itochu Technology Ventures, the Anri Fund, and the Incubate Fund. Offering more than 130 courses, Schoo is aimed at a Japanese audience of mainly office workers in their late 20s and early 30s.

The market, defined by corporates operating as commercial capitalists, is divorced from the realities of educational production as a social activity, and is recalibrated around the individual production and consumption of educational services and products. Thus, students are recalibrated not as social learners but as individual entrpreneurs able to access educational services and products in a global market.

However, what is also clear in this process of commercialising education is Marx’s view in Volume 3 of Capital that where merchant capital is hegemonic, then limits emerge in the spaces for productive or industrial capital. Marx argued that:

Within capitalist production merchant’s capital is reduced from its former independent existence to a special phase in the investment of capital, and the levelling of profits reduces its rate of profit to the general average. It functions only as an agent of productive capital. The special social conditions that take shape with the development of merchant’s capital, are here no longer paramount. On the contrary, wherever merchant’s capital still predominates we find backward conditions. This is true even within one and the same country, in which, for instance, the specifically merchant towns present far more striking analogies with past conditions than industrial towns.

The independent and predominant development of capital as merchant’s capital is tantamount to the non-subjection of production to capital, and hence to capital developing on the basis of an alien social mode of production which is also independent of it. The independent development of merchant’s capital, therefore, stands in inverse proportion to the general economic development of society.

Independent mercantile wealth as a predominant form of capital represents the separation of the circulation process from its extremes, and these extremes are the exchanging producers themselves. They remain independent of the circulation process, just as the latter remains independent of them

So Marx argued that where commercial capital and money capital dissolve previous forms of production and destroy the communities on which they were based, then they in-turn they become the community. So the public University is declared to be beyond hope and is under global pressure to reform, or become revolutionised as an organisational form for the accumulation of capital, be that social, cultural or commercial/financial. David Harvey refers to this as the “solvent effect” that is also conjunctural with the development of a world market, alongside flows of commodities, virtual trade, new colonialism, and the increasing subordination in this current phase of capitalism of production to trade and commerce. The domination of commercial capital over production is witnessed in: working conditions of outsourced employees, generally in the global South, in call centres and factories that produce consumer goods; the labour rights of those mining the raw materials that go into the same consumer goods; and the proliferation of zero-hour contracts, precarious employment and the generaton of a surplus population (witness the growing number of Ph.D.s with no chance of tenure or the UK’s free schools that can require no teaching qualifications). Witness Apple’s sub-contracting of labour to Pegatron and Foxconn and the recent claims made about labour costs and labour rights related to Taskrabbit, or the claims about labour arbitrage related to teachers, the use of adjunct labour and MOOCs.

However, as Marx writes in Volume 3, this also re-focuses us on the act of production, rather than on the circuits of money or commercial capital, as the truly revolutionary social activity. Thus, David Wiley’s call at #opened13for open education to save students a billion dollars cannot be seen as revolutionary or democratising. It needs to be critiqued as fetishistic. What does it tell us about who has power in the open education movement? What does it tell us about the roles of merchants, in the form of commercial and money-dealing capital, in the open education movement? What does it tell us about open education as a discourse of power where money drives the agenda? What does this tell us about our social relationships and the production of a pedagogy that is truly critical?

The problem with reducing open education to a discourse related to money is that far from enhancing democratisation, it reinforces the impact of proletarianisation noted above. So when Willetts argues for MOOCs as opening-up new markets for UK business, or when educators give keynotes that focus upon saving student money, or where educators celebrate conferences with partners in the petrochemical industry, transnational finance capital, the Rand Corporation and Pearson (as well as organisations more acceptable to left-leaning academics), it is important to ask about the role of power in the relationships that frame that educational space. Where does power lie between finance, merchant and productive capital, and the individual producers and consumers of educational products? The domination of commercial or finance capital drives low prices in the sphere of production, and that restructures organisational forms through efficiency drives or technological innovation. Where educational corporations control most of the surplus value that is produced they can define production (processes, labour rights, shifting indemnities, who manages risk). One of the outcomes of this is labour arbitrage and a refusal to negotiate with labour, or an attack on trades unions. As employment is made precarious amongst individuated and separated educational producers, collectivisation is negated and ultra-exploitation or proletarianisation emerges.

So we need to move away from fetishizing the MOOC or the student or the money savings that can be made or the democratising of educational life, to examine how merchants dominate over our educational experiences, inside a new world market that has been opened-up by both the nation State and transnational organisations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. We need to examine how our modern condition as labourers inside higher education is being revolutionised by technology and new organisational forms like MOOCs, as a result of the evolutionary processes that enable capitalism to overcome the limits imposed by crisis. These limits are socio-economic (fossil fuel depletion, climate change and so on) and are recalibrated as sustainable business or green growth, and they are economic in the current depression.

At issue for educators is how do we read this evolution? Is it to be fetishized as a specific and superficial function of the present? So do we really think that it is technology that is opening-up emancipatory or democratic educational possibilities? Or are those technologies and organisational forms a result of capital attempting to overcome the limits imposed by a falling rate of profit and labour relations? Is open education, in fact, to be analysed in terms of the general rules of motion of capitalism? Where money and commercial capital hold sway, as they do in the current condition, overcoming spatial and temporal barriers through mobility enable Capital to dominate over production and consumption. How should educators react?

However, there is a moment of hope. As Harvey (pace Marx) notes, merchant capital is predatory but it is subordinate to the production of surplus value, even if it controls those who produce it. Therefore, that merchant class and its financial co-operators have to make an ideology, media etc. in its corporate image, in order to underpin its power. This connects to Britt’s 14 points on the rise of the fascist state. As Jehu notes:

The present crisis arises from the fact that there is a mass of superfluous capital that cannot, under any circumstances, become real capital — that is, cannot produce surplus value and, therefore, profit. This mass of superfluous capital poses the constant threat to the mode of production of a general devaluation of the existing capital as a whole. If a general crisis of devaluation is to be avoided, the state must run deficits, i.e., it must spend more than it takes in in tax revenue. State deficit spending is, therefore, not determined by the needs of society (and, in particular, by the needs of the social producers), but by the needs of the owners of capital, who, if they are to avoid a nominal devaluation of this superfluous capital, must hand it over to the state to be consumed unproductively in return for interest payments.

The question is how to reveal and critique the material conditions of the working class, including those of teachers, educators and students, as they are subordinate to autonomous commercial and/or finance capital. How is it possible to recuperate the autonomy of educational producers in a way that pushes back against the hegemony of venture capital or MOOC providers acting as commercial capitalists? Is it possible to develop forms and stories of co-operative production and consumption that are beyond the money-form or cost savings? Is it possible to critique the idea of public rather than open education, and as a result to liberate skills, knowledges and practices against their marketization, and where they do not act to drive down wages through speed-up, or labour mobility, or the creation of proprietary skills that can be commodified? Is it possible to push-back against the use of open education to create a reserve army, or surplus population, of skilled workers as a disciplinary tool on wages?

The links between commercial educational providers and universities, educators and students as producers and consumers of educational services, data and products, demonstrate power and dependency. This complex interdependency is not reducible to fetishized ideas of money via cost-savings or emancipation based on learning for a life of capitalist work. It links to ideas of the reproduction of capital within limits or barriers, and the current condition inside-and-against education demonstrates how crises re-establish the limits and conditions existing in the system as a totality and in the circuits of productive, money and commodity capital. Moreover, we are witnessing the attempt by finance and commercial capital to synchronise production with their own circuits. This is an uncomfortable symbiosis, as those of us engaged in a higher education that is being restructured by the dictates of finance capital and a new market can attest.

At issue is whether we can help students to develop the analytical tools that enable them to understand the interdependencies of this world and thereby to critique power. Can we help them to change the world in the face of capital as the automatic subject, and against the dominance of our educational lives by finance and commercial capital?

Critical perspectives on educational technology: some notes

Yesterday’s symposium on critical perspectives on educational technology made me think about the following issues.

FIRST. How do we understand the structuring effects of the educational and pedagogic structures in which we work? How do we understand the ways in which those structures prefigure the impact or effects of any intervention? How do we understand how the very structures in which we are hoping to promote or provoke transformation, in themselves work to restrict, discipline or kettle transformation. How do we move beyond the problem-solving perspective of educational innovation, in order to situate the use of educational technology inside transnational systems of domination?

SECOND. How do we understand how such transformation is itself kettled by the circuits of capital? In particular how do we understand the mechanisms through which our lived educational work falls under the treadmill logic of accumulation and the rate of profit? How do we work to understand how Capital as the automatic subject structures our struggle for emancipation or transformation? How do we work to describe and then to critique that struggle?

THIRD. If we are defining something, some intervention, or some innovation as valuable, then we need to describe and discuss what valuable/value means. Inside capitalism value has a specific description and sets of precepts that flow from it. Moreover it is dynamic and fluid. Capital is value in motion. So can we describe something else that is a different type of value? Can we do this based on co-operation or co-operative or social practice(s)?

FOURTH. Keith Turvey made me think about the ways in which commodities like a book of logarithm tables might be inscribed with historical meaning and social value, and how those shared commodities might be used as points of solidarity in describing the world. Through a process of participatory narrative design (of practices, knowledges and skills) we might define something that is spatially or socially or historically different. More importantly we might use specific commodities to explode the relationships and conceptions and organising principles that are congealed in them. So how might we disassemble a tablet or piece of software or network, to look at the labour and human rights revealed inside it/them? How might we look at how their production and consumption processes place us in-and-against nature? We need to analyse specific technologies in light of David Harvey’s re-reading of footnote 4 of Chapter 15 of Volume 1 of Capital. He argues that they reveal the following.

  1. Technological and organisational forms of production, exchange and consumption.
  2. Relations to nature and the environment.
  3. Social relations between people.
  4. Mental conceptions of the world, embracing knowledges and cultural understandings and beliefs.
  5. Labour processes and production of specific goods, geographies, services or affects.
  6. Institutional, legal and governmental arrangements.
  7. The conduct of daily life that underpins social reproduction.

FIFTH. I needed to be clearer in my argument. It was this: it is impossible to critique educational technology without addressing its place inside a global system of capitalism; this system is struggling to re-establish stable forms of accumulation and rates of profit, and this struggle is usefully analysed as a secular crisis; one systemic response to this crisis, catalysed by a transnational activist network that includes academics, has been to use technologies and techniques to open-up public education for the market because there is no alternative; detailing the use of specific technologies like Blackboard as a LMS, or Pearson as a publisher, or the use of tablet technologies, enables critical questions to be asked about the relationships between education, technology and the market in the reproduction of Capital as a social relationship;  asking these questions also enables us to ask whether there are alternative organising principles beyond the market, namely through co-operation, that might enable us to describe alternative forms of value and alternative societies; there are stories from South America and Latin America that are not to be fetishized, but which offer an alternative perspective; in light of the dehumanising effects of neoliberalism, the recent IPCC report on climate change, and the Royal Society’s People and Planet report, we need to ask whether there is another way.

SIXTH. I needed to make it clear that this is not just abstract, and that I try to enact critique in my work at the Social Science Centre or in alternative projects, and in my work on the Digilit Leicester Project, and in catalysing the DMU Academic Commons. These are political, they are about reflexivity and self-awareness,  and they are about the struggle/courage for different organising principles.

SEVENTH. These resources are useful ways forward.

Affinities on The New Cooperativism: http://bit.ly/187iT8R

De Peuter and Dyer Witheford on Commoning: http://bit.ly/Ve2cE9

Draft report on the contribution of cooperatives to overcoming the crisis: http://bit.ly/1gyzDtk

Lambie on Cuba: http://bit.ly/mIdVzV

Lebowitz on Co-Management in Venezuela: http://bit.ly/1awBnOF

Office Central de la Coopération à l’Ecole: http://www.occe.coop

The Schools Co-operative Society: http://bit.ly/z1YmCA

Joss Winn on Helplessness: http://josswinn.org/2013/07/helplessness/

The Republic of Ecuador. National Development Plan: National Plan for Good Living 2009-2013: Building a Plurinational and Intercultural State. http://bit.ly/GQJi0M

Student as producer: http://studentasproducer.lincoln.ac.uk/

Ds106: http://ds106.us/

Zibechi, R. 2013. Autonomous Zapatista Education: The Little Schools of Below. http://bit.ly/19XfrAF

Miller Medina, J.E. (2005), The State Machine : politics, ideology, and computation in Chile, 1964-1973. MIT Ph.D. Thesis. http://dspace.mit.edu/handle/1721.1/39176

Cleaver, H. 1979. Reading Capital Politically, University of Texas Press: Austin, TX, p. 161. http://libcom.org/files/cleaver-reading_capital_politically.pdf

On the Education (Information Sharing) Bill and accumulation

Earlier this month Tony Hirst pointed out some upcoming possibilities for the “distribution and application of open public data (that is, openly licensed data released by public bodies.” Of particular interest in the debate over opening-up higher education is the Education (Information Sharing) Bill, 2013-14. Tony notes that 

The bill allows for “student information of a prescribed description” to be made available to a “prescribed person” or “a person falling within a prescribed category”. If the bill goes through, keeping tabs on these prescriptions will be key to seeing how this might play out.

The Draft Bill notes:

13. The three clauses in this Bill are intended to make the sharing of information between Government Departments and schools, colleges and other assessment centres easier. This is expected to have the following effects: first, to enable parents and students to make more informed choices as to education and/or employment destination; secondly to help schools and colleges to assess their information, advice and guidance services; and thirdly, to inform Government about which qualifications and courses lead to sustained employment outcomes and higher income returns.

Last week in a piece On co-operation, accumulation and the University, I wrote about how spaces were opened-up through policy or coercion, as terrains for the accumulation of Capital:

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

It’s important to keep an eye on where the policy and processes for enclosure or commodification begin. I argued that it is

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

This Private Members’ Bill, sponsored by Andrew Selous (PPS to Iain Duncan Smith). Selous argues on his website that:

A few months ago, I got the chance to bring a private member’s bill before Parliament and it was an education issue that I chose to raise.  My Education (Information Sharing) Bill will publish for the first time, information on which vocational qualifications, GCSEs and A levels lead to the highest and lowest earnings returns.  It will mean that young people and their parents will get reliable information on which courses and qualifications are likely to lead to a job and higher earnings.  Pupils, teachers and parents will be able to see the earnings premium between say doing a GCSE in chemistry as compared with one in additional science.

The Bill will allow schools and universities to link earnings and employment information with the subjects and qualifications school children and university students have studied.  This already happens with further education colleges like Central Bedfordshire College and there is no question of individual student data being made public, it would be the overall information for earnings and employment for the subjects and qualifications concerned.

Schools, colleges and universities need the information the Bill will provide to assess their own effectiveness in creating routes to employment and good earnings. Critically they will really help young people and their parents to take much more informed decisions.  I think this is a poverty reducing measure.

The Bill will also show the earnings potential of apprenticeships.  At the moment only five per cent of students take an apprenticeship after their GCSEs and only three per cent after their A levels.  I believe that this low take up is in quite large part because pupils and parents do not realize that apprenticeships are leading to some of the highest paid and most prestigious careers in the UK and abroad.

Selous reminds me that in a Novara discussion on Finance, Financialisation and English Higher Education, Andrew McGettigan argued:

Data around the state-backed student loan company/book becomes critical. Loans unlike grants generate information via HRMC. Pattern-matching that links UCAS tariffs to retention data to loans and loan repayments will enable actuarial tables to be produced that in-turn differentiate HEIs and courses and entry grades. This will form the performance metric par excellence because it will have a present and future pound sign attached. Such information means that Government can monitor the spend of public money and possibly remove access to the loan book for certain HEIs or courses. The use of data linked to profitability is therefore disciplinary. As the PCJF analysis of linked FBI files showed, federal agencies were functioning as a de facto intelligence arm of Wall Street and Corporate America. There is reason, therefore, to suspect that data about student repayment and university performance will be shared across geographies-of-neoliberalism in the same way to discipline behaviour.

These data are increasingly problematic because modelling on graduate salaries uses historic data, and we lack complete datasets. Modelling suggests that there is no uniform premium but a polarisation/hierarchy of graduate classes based on social capital accrued. Moreover, our basic assumptions about employability and wages are under threat, and predictability of repayments is a problem.

The involvement of global private finance is key to the expansion of the sector and the competitiveness of individual universities as competing capitals. Thus, we see Goldman Sachs and the Ontario Teachers Pension scheme lobbying for investment with universities in for-profit joint ventures in foreign markets, funded by bonds or equity. Investment is not for efficiencies in-country (e.g. the UK), but to take the established UK HE model abroad and to monetise degree-awarding powers.

As I noted: “Whether we like it or not private finance and the disciplinary nature of both the student loan book and big data are restructuring academic labour and the idea of the university as a public or socialised good.”

The Digilit Leicester Project

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

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

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

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

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

Digilit Leicester has achieved the following.

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

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

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

MOOCs and neoliberalism: for a critical response

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

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

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

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

Hi George,

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

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

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

2. The faculty response to MOOCs is particularly important.

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

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

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





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take care.