The appeal of the frontier narrative and MOOCs

Following on from the translation I made of Bernard Stiegler’s reflections on how digital (media) technologies can perform a valuable pedagogical role, I wanted to highlight that Martin Weller has given a very cogent and pointed critique of the fairly common narrative of ‘disruptive technology’ in relation to MOOCs.

This brings together two aspects of my own research: the ways in which those involved in computing R&D look to the future and anticipate the kinds of technologies they may want to produce (and the kinds of politics that produces); and what can be seen as the progressive commoditisation of our capacities to think and feel by certain applications of digital media.

Firstly, as Martin identifies in his blogpost, there is a widespread discourse of the necessity of breakthrough, disruption and revolution  in the mythology of the aspirational technology sector located in Silicon Valley. This has some obvious foundations in the need to continually destroy and re-create new markets in a finite global system of capital (as David Harvey cogently diagnoses). It also has an interesting basis in alternative discourses of progress on the counterculture movements in that same region of the US, with Stewart Brand (founder of the Whole Earth Network) a significant exponent of libertarian thought in the growing ICT industry that translated into the creation of WIRED magazine as the purveyor of this techno-economic orthodoxy (for more on this see Fred Turner’s brilliant book).

Martin offers the insight that the rather clunky, and somewhat messianic, narrative of the need for an external agent to intervene in a slow, inefficient, outmoded (and so on) sector, central to the disruptive technology spiel, allows sharp and charismatic entrepreneurs to step in as the pseudo-saviour, i.e. Sebastian Thrun of Udacity and others of his ilk. Criticism of the West Coast (capitalist) mythology is not new, of course, Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron offered a critique of the ‘Californian Ideology‘ in the 1990s, and Stiegler has criticised the ‘American model’ of  laissez faire ‘cultural capitalism’ led by the ‘programming industries’ of new media (“functionally dedicated to marketing and publicity” [p. 5]) in his The Decadence of Industrial Democracies. Indeed, we can look back to Adorno and Horkheimer’s stinging critique of the Culture Industry as a formidable progenitor. What we can perhaps take from that line of argument is that arguing for a supposed ‘greater’ choice is actually a deception, the ‘choice’ is merely to consume more.

Others, who set themselves up as more thoughtful commentators have also weighed in on the side of the need for a disruption/revolution. Martin highlights that Clay Shirky has also parroted the, now well-worn, technological deterministic ark of argument. As with others, Shirky suggests that ‘education is broken‘ and must therefore be fixed by shiny new technology, in the form of MOOCs . Some proponents of this line of argument suggest that this would bring wider access to university level learning. There are a few (also well-worn but compelling) critiques of this line.

An obvious initial critique, as Martin argues in his blogpost, is that the ‘education is broken and so it requires a technological fix’ argument has gained so much traction because it is neat and easy to digest by journalists. A simple story with a clear solution is always going to trump the slightly messy, perhaps convoluted, and multiple stories that approximate the truth, for which there are unclear and troubling political solutions that require quite a lot of explanation and working through.

Furthermore, the existing evidence of engagement with MOOCs also somewhat contradicts the rosy picture painted by their evangelists. Completion rates for MOOCs tell a mixed story (as Martin has pointed out in other blogposts) and this perhaps speaks to the negotiation (by both students and course designers/leaders) of legitimacy and value for these courses – this is a sector still very much in flux. Those who are passionate about providing equal and wider access to university level education are torn by the desire to offer courses that open up (frequently excellent) materials for anyone to access but this is, of course, only a fraction of what we as university lecturers and students do when running and participating in courses.

We’re all, of course, increasingly proficient at consuming content online and MOOCs leverage that behaviour. What such systems are not so good at is providing something analogous to tutorials. The stand in for this is peer discussion/ support, which, of course, come with their own social and cultural issues around facilitation and particular participants becoming overbearing etc. So, these (socio-)technological fixes are not necessarily a like-for-like stand-in for all of those significant but hard to define benefits of university study within the physical context of an institution. Which is not to say that whatever MOOCs turn into cannot be of value, its just that its neither a direct alternative nor a replacement but rather a new/emerging form of pedagogical practice.

We can also look to the somewhat obvious Marxian critique of the constant clarion for technological revolution that, far from bringing in egalitarian and widespread access to a better form of living, education and so on, it ushers in the creation of a new proletarianised class of knowledge worker, trained, in this case, by machines (the machine learning version of xMOOCs is the example here) and held even further away from access to critical debate and the means of production.

After all, in a ‘mature’ market for technology, devices (and sometimes services) become cheap through mass production and availability. This slashes profit margins and consumer-users become savvy at backwards engineering and ‘modding’. Customers taking power into their own hands is rather undesirable for the corporate technology producer, unless they can co-opt those developments into the next iteration of the product. Thus, constant ‘innovation’ brings with it the maintenance of a premium for the ‘latest’, ‘must-have’ etc. device/service and necessarily excludes those who cannot pay.

One can easily imagine, then, how a stratification of the market would rapidly take hold. Cheaper, gigantic and formulaic courses (with automated marking of assessments) would be seen as lesser ‘products’ than more exclusive courses (with human tutor support). Those with power and money, in this case, would most-likely still send their children to (very expensive) physical universities with small classes, lots of attention from staff and all of the accoutrements of elite institutions.

Leaving that rather depressing argument aside, the framing of this form of consumer market for higher education is very Anglo-American, where degrees have already become a form of currency – for which there isn’t really an alternative. I cannot help wondering what other forms of education are being ignored (and therefore probably saved). The system of apprenticeship in Germany, for example, where more than half of school-leavers enter apprenticeships, which are really valued in society – with a majority of apprentices staying on with their host companies, is very successful and neither needs or could support a Silicon Valley style ‘disruption’.

Where does this leave us with regard to Stiegler’s argument that it is precisely the forms of collaboration that are opened up by digital media that can and should be used to transform higher education? Well, the innovative media supports being created in the guise of MOOCs and so on are neither the envisioned radical break(through) claimed in the silicon valley rhetoric or a pedagogical nosedive. As with all forms of technicity, MOOCs are pharmacological – they have the capacity to be both ‘poison’ and ‘cure’. If we take seriously Stiegler’s challenge that we need ‘to drive a dynamic for the rethinking of the relationship between knowledge and its media [supports] (of which MOOCs are a possible dimension) with the universities and academic institutions’ then we also need to take (very) seriously Martin’s arguments that designing open education courses/experiences is hard. I’m certainly not going to attempt to offer ‘easy’ or glib answers to such a problem here…

If we want the kind of collaborative learners that Stiegler gestures towards do we simply hope that they are self-selecting? Almost like postgraduate education is, with motivated students seeking out the opportunities to learn and contribute to the production of knowledge. That, of course, is a relatively small minority of the student population. Equally,we might consider the example of the proactive producers of peer-to-peer knowledge using platforms like Wikipedia, who are self-selecting and a minority relative to the number of ‘passive’ users of the platform. If the degree remains the only currency for employability within certain sectors and for particular kinds of roles then we retain the significant tension between the ideals of the pursuit and production of knowledge, traditionally at the heart of higher education, and the purchasing of a passport for employment (often in an unrelated field, probably in the financial sector) which the university degree has become in the UK.

It seems to me that it is not the university side of higher education that is broken in the UK (although it is always worthwhile striving for the ideals that underpin it), instead it is the preparation of skilled employment that was once provided by a valued system of apprenticeships and polytechnic institutions that has been not only broken but decimated. The renewal of these complimentary forms of further and higher education, with the new media supports we are using throughout all areas of life, seems to be an immediate and pressing concern.

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