Music for Deckchairs

"In shadowy, silent distance grew the iceberg too": an Australian blog about changes in higher education

The robot and the muse

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It’s that time of year. Predictions and lists everywhere, like the snow currently falling over Google, WordPress, bitly … (memo to northern hemisphere: look down very carefully and like Gulliver you will see the tiny little people from the other half of the world running around doing their Christmas shopping in shorts).

It happens like this every year, but higher education has a particularly worried tone at the moment, which is no wonder considering the lack of restraint in the headline predictions. Universities are under attack.  Will the internet kill education?  Will schools kill creativity?  Is contentless education the end of knowledge? Will anyone pay the inflated prices we’ve been able to charge for an in-person education if top-tier institutions are prepared to credentialise theirs online for a modest (although undisclosed) fee? Who will occupy MLA if not @occupyMLA, who seem to have spent too much time doing their grading in bed to build consensus around their cause?

It’s all very nerve-wracking, and it creates a climate in which frantic listmaking seems to make sense.  Among the blizzard of best-of this-and-that thinking, Audrey Watters’ series on the edtech trends of 2011 stands out, for tracking trends that are as much about higher education as they are about technology.  In a similar way, Dave Cormier’s seven black swans for education list takes a broad look at the ways in which education should brace itself for the possibility of surprise coming from more than one direction. Together they remind us that it’s difficult to get a fix on the horizon for higher education by looking only at what’s in the boat:

Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream, 1899

As Dave Cormier explains so well, end-of-year round-ups get us thinking about what we mind about, and they do this equally well whether our values are threatened or encouraged by the situation we find ourselves in.

For many of the writers I’ve followed this year, but for none quite so consistently as Jonathan Rees, something vital to the virtue of learning is threatened by the rise of online education.  His views are critical to anyone interested in edtech: he’s not a technophobe (far, far from it), he’s really committed to higher education, and he’s the only person I’ve seen who has invited a student to join the conversation.  And while I’ve disagreed up hill and down dale with his views on elearning since he first started carrying on about online charlatanism, I think he’s absolutely right to counter that all of this excitement has something fundamental to do with working conditions and hiring practices. While there might still be genuine reasons to believe in the transformative capacity of elearning where it’s resourced, supported and done well for the right reasons, it’s more important than ever to recognise that these disruptive values may not be what is currently driving its expansion across higher education.  Quite the opposite.

So for Jonathan Rees, who is very fond of historical technology metaphor, here’s a cartoon from the 1931 campaign to protect the 140,000 professional musicians who were making their living in American theatres.

The robot and the muse

The American Federation of Musicians protesting against recorded music at the movies in 1931, via paleo-future.blogspot.com

Of course there are good reasons not to rustle up quaint historical precedent to prove that change is inevitable and resistance is stupid (or change is stupid and resistance is heroic, whichever). It’s often a cheap shot to use the past in this triumphalist way, just as much as it is to use nature to prove the inevitability of market competition.  But I’ve returned to this surviving trace of a specific lost campaign again and again to think about the nature of the values that it champions:

Here is a struggle of intense interest to all music-lovers. If the Robot of Canned Music wrests the helm from the Muse, passengers aboard the good ship Musical Culture may well echo the offer of Gonzalo, to trade “a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of ground”. Are you content to face a limitless expanse of “sound” without a sign of music?  Monotony in the theatre – corruption of taste – destruction of art. These must inevitably follow substitution of mechnical music for living music.

Were they wrong about recorded music bringing on the monotony, corruption and destruction of art?  Well, perhaps not. But they were right to suspect that the era in which musicians had been able to make a living from accompanying live performances and silent movies was coming to an end.

Are we in the same position? Is the Muse of Education threatened by the Robot of Educational Technology? Just as in 1931, this oversimplifies a tangled weave of innovation, business speculation, consumer demand and freak opportunity. Technology isn’t exactly designed in a vacuum, and is capable of doing most of what we might wish for. So the edtech that we have tells us a great deal, symptomatically, about the wishlist that higher education has revealed to its would-be suppliers through the way that we speak about growth, mobility and risk—and perhaps the lesson from the current emphasis on analytics is that we should be careful what we wish for.

But there are problems that edtech isn’t well-placed to solve.  The chronic dependence of higher education worldwide on precarious labour is at last the sustained focus of concern among those who are fortunate enough to have secured tenured employment, not just those who are stuck in traffic on the freeway between one hourly paid gig and another, or who are up late in their kitchens working online for an institution in a whole other timezone.  (Or, in the case of one of the most gifted adjunct teachers I’ve ever had the privilege to work with, who are heading off to work as a department store Santa.)

At the end of 2011, casualisation and contingency are straining the relationship between universities, their staff, and their students, and draining our culture of respect, trust and collegiality. If this problem doesn’t become critical to universities in 2012, then perhaps we will also get what we deserve.

Author: Kate

Education technology, shared governance and casualisation in Australian higher education

2 thoughts on “The robot and the muse

  1. Your post expresses much that I have been thinking about and trying to figure out how to explain to colleagues who are clueless about MOOCs and other real game changers, mistrust online without knowing enough about it but might mistrust even more if they knew more. I wish more ground-bound academics would take the time and effort to inform themselves that Jonathon has. Being the blogger and general social media mouthpiece for the New Faculty Majority and thereby speaking for more than just myself constrains me. Just sharing this post will cover a lot of that ground.

    I’ve worked both areas, including now following MOOCs, and understand but have reservations about both positions without being entirely in accord with either. Dan Allosso’s post, http://histsociety.blogspot.com/2011/09/notes-from-grad-school-career.html probably comes closest to expressing my position.

    Like this

  2. Thanks so much, Vanessa, for the link to Dan Alloso’s post. You put things very clearly: there isn’t a single explanation for higher education’s current unease, but in ways that we need to get better at explaining, adjunctification and technology are linked–even if they’re symptoms rather than causes.

    I don’t share Jonathan’s focus on disciplinary integrity, but I find it very valuable. And as someone who teaches primarily online, by choice, I also don’t share his views that the moment we engage students through some kind of online interface, we’ve slipped into robotic mode. But I think he’s absolutely right that these two changes are being driven by pressures coming from the market for higher education. Institutions are defending themselves against volatility with “flexibility”, an interesting euphemism that does double duty in talking about both hiring practices and teaching delivery modes.

    Perhaps the rhetoric of flexibility itself is what needs closer attention.

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