Going underground

It’s Deleuze week here among the deckchairs, a problem I’m keen to sheet home to Michael Feldstein. I’m not normally a Deleuze reader—even in the brief moments of my life when I’m not thinking about what’s wrong with the OpenClass marketing strategy (see below)*—but the coincidences are piling up, including that a colleague has just pointed me to the 1990 conversation between Deleuze and Antonio Negri, on “Control and Becoming“.

And in a genuinely rhizomatic sort of way, I’ve been following links between other people’s conversations, particularly the rolling edupunk houseparty that seems to involve something called “DS106”.  For the uninitiated, this is all a bit “Area 51”, but I’m getting the hang of it—I think.

Listening to Dave Cormier talk on Livestream yesterday about the principles of rhizomatic educational practice, I started to wonder whether the rhizome is a popular metaphor at the moment precisely because so many educators are bored and annoyed with the command and control principles of our institutional lives.  Everyone loves the surreptitious, subtle, self-perpetuating rhizome under these circumstances. It imagines the recuperation of education from its bureaucratic life, offering self-authorising, disintermediated, straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth learning opportunities, and it makes us feel good on the days in which filling out the forms, fighting with administration, and losing a sense of career traction are making us feel bad.

That is, until the point that we get to grading. And at this point, all of us working in formal, accredited, standards-sensitive educational institutions have to figure out whether one person’s rhizomatic experience was demonstrated with more grace, more facility, more all round goodness than the next person’s.

Student readers, look away now.

The secret conversation among educators is that the increasingly fervent application of quality assurance processes to protect grading consistency in any area involving the exercise of judgment has reached epidemic proportions of ridiculousness. We moderate and standardise and fuss, particularly over any deviation from last year’s results. With the rise in distributed learning, especially any involving offshore partnerships, we build complex data queries to ensure that there is no risk of locational advantage, no grading bias, no unexplainable bump in the smoothness of our statistical curves.

But despite the increasingly scientific efficiencies of our QA processes, we have all talked about throwing a pile of papers down the stairs and grading according to the step they land on, because we might as well.

Maybe because they suspect us of doing exactly this, our institutions are fanatically attracted to the twin weapons of grading rubrics and learner analytics. Working together they promise that there is no chance of irrational, autonomous, discretionary thinking, and now we’ve got that out of the way, we can centrally and neutrally identify students at risk of not achieving the standardised learning outcomes, so that we can target our resources towards preventing them from drifting further. Our investment in retention might not be as benign as we make it appear, but the language of quality makes it all sound like a particularly good thing to be doing.

(As an aside, my favourite risk analysis tool is the hilarious Skip Class Calculator, launched last year and the funniest thing to come out of student-driven analysis of higher education performance since Rate My Professor introduced its chili pepper hotness rating.)

Edtech vendors didn’t invent this mania for quality assured grading; they’re simply providing the tools that will service our belief in its efficiency. This is why companies like Instructure are going out of their way to promise us that the first and only waymarker on the 2012 horizon, is their shiny analytics tool. But the idealised vision in which any teacher, using the same rubric, would come to the same conclusion as any other teacher about a piece of work, is ours. To aim for anything less would surely be unfair, we say, ignoring for a moment that the logical consequence is the infinite substitutability of all teachers for each other.

But wait, there’s more. If the rubric is sufficiently grainy, then left alone in a room with it the student ought to be able to grade her own work.  So it’s only logical that your be-all LMS will take on this task for you, and shoot the result on to the analytics department.

This is where find myself clinging to Deleuze while not really embracing the rhizome. I don’t disagree at all that the rhizome is a powerful metaphor for a certain kind of educational freedom, and I’m moving closer and closer to the view that we need to find better ways to champion informal and community-based learning, things being as they are in higher education. But while we’re still drawing a salary to provide a service, we can’t simply sidestep the calculation that students have to make every day as they decide whether to go on acquiring debt in pursuit of a qualification accredited on the basis of our grading systems.

So I’m more convinced by what Deleuze had to say in 1990 about the rise of the control society and the peril of life seeming to become more open while in the same process becoming more amenable to surveillance:

One can envisage education becoming less and less a closed site differentiated from the workspace as anoth­er closed site, but both disappearing and giving way to frightful con­tinual training, to continual monitoring of worker-schoolkids or bureaucrat-students. They try to present this as a reform of the school system, but it’s really its dismantling. In a control-based system noth­ing’s left alone for long.

And in the end that’s why I’m unconvinced that automation of the grading process addresses the real problem of grading.  Like the firing squad and the general, one of Deleuze’s less celebrated rhizomatic metaphors, just because the firing squad can now take aim without the general’s specific authority, this doesn’t make the process good. Fixing this is going to take some much tougher and more imaginative institutional reforms, and some really visionary and creative edtech.

* OpenClass: like everyone else who clicked on the link on the Free. Open. Easy. Amazing (Not) website a few weeks back and then wondered, Alice-like, what actually might happen, this morning I’ve had a marketing email inviting me to join a webinar where all my “burning questions” about OpenClass will be answered—providing I can join them at 6am Sydney time. Never mind, Australia. “This is just the beginning”, they’re assuring us, in bold. And in case you’re wondering, it’s all going terrifically well for them. 1000 institutions have signed up—given that they’re offering a free LMS to a global market bristling with frustration at their competition, this seems a surprising total.

What is it that makes today’s North American edtech marketing announcements so familiar, so unappealing?

7 thoughts on “Going underground

  1. Hey there.

    I uh… don’t understand this post. Not in the ‘i can’t believe ur saying this’, but more in the ‘i don’t get the point ur making’. Are you saying that RL doesn’t have enough grading or it has too much?
    That it is betraying its principles or not?

    While i read your post again hope for a reply… i have two things to add. Rhizomatic learning is fantastically incompatible with the standards agenda. it is the opposite of it. This is the last solution i tried to deal with providing ‘grade structures’. Does this help or not? http://wikieducator.org/User:Davecormier/Books/Educational_Technology_and_the_Adult_Learner

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  2. Well hey, welcome to the deckchairs, Dave — I think we’re worrying about the same thing. Yes, I think rhizomatic learning is entirely incompatible with the standards agenda, and so I’m trying to find the place where believers can stand, as we get pulled in two directions. The grade structures you link to are really interesting, thanks so much for the link.

    They’re similar to ones that I’ve devised, and I still find myself stuck on actually implementing them, because in the end what it comes down to is a very strange judgment about individual effort. In a sense, the problems get more and more painful the more we adopt the kinds of reflective learning experiences that I think we both believe in. And this is where edtech is exposing our faith systems a bit, by building us the tools that we seem to them to value.

    To work backwards up to your first question: I’m saying that in a head to head between RL and grading, RL risks being recruited to become a kind of brief carnivalesque tolerance of acting up before authority resumes in the morning. And I think the more I read about RL the more I want it to be the standard. So, what to do?

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  3. Just for clarification, where have you found/heard/read that 1,000 institutions have signed up for OpenClass? I can only find that 1,000 schools are in Google Apps for Education, not specifically signed up for Pearson’s (Note: NOT Google’s) product.

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  4. Hi Trey

    All my information came from the proforma email I was sent unexpectedly by OpenClass on Nov 8, which said this:

    “Thanks to you, and to the thousands of others who have signed up, OpenClass has had an unbelievably successful debut. Since our announcement at EduCause 2011, over 1000 institutions have installed OpenClass – and the response on Twitter and in the press has been overwhelmingly positive.”

    Thanks for the question. Your information suggests either that the 1000 GAE schools hopped as one into OpenClass, or that one figure was presented for the other, or that there are two different cohorts here, both coincidentally numbering 1000. I’m really puzzled by this, which is somewhat consistent with my whole OpenClass experience. What do you think?

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    1. Sorry for the slow response here.

      I have been unable to find any solid data for how many schools are specifically signed up for GAE; even the GAE website is very non-specific (http://www.google.com/apps/intl/en/edu/customers.html), it looks like the site functionality is still being rolled out (ie. the “case studies” section is either missing or blank).

      My guess on the Pearson side is that either a) they are including everyone from GAE as a “signed up” or a participating member (which would akin to writing an app for the Apple App Store, and saying X million people have now adopted your app because its available in the App Store), or b) they have seen interest from that many institutions, and – including alpha and beta releases – there are emails to Pearson regarding OpenClass with around 1000 different *.edu (or *.com for for-profits) in them.

      Either way, I find it very hard to believe that the 1000 number is truly accurate. If it were accurate, it would likely be a new record for mass adoption of an LMS, would it not?. And if that’s the case, why don’t we see that number plastered on every piece of marketing material OpenClass has? Combined with the other marketing shenanigans we have already seen from Pearson regarding OpenClass, I just have a feeling this number is fairly contrived and/or massaged. But in the end, it’s speculation either way, because we know Pearson is not going to release its list of adopters.

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  5. I think the question that you’re asking about “marketing shenanigans” is the one that’s starting to bother me, and if this is an unfair characterisation, I’d love someone to clear it up. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it seems to me in the present LMS market, there’s very little need for a hard sell, given the tide of disaffection towards the well-established competition.

    I’d really welcome a comment on this.

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