For all to understand

UK universities should eagerly seize the opportunity to widen their impact and support the OU by contributing material to FutureLearn rather than getting locked into one of the US platforms. This is an arena where the UK has huge worldwide potential.

(House of Lords, Grand Committee, July 24 2013)

So FutureLearn has finally launched, to much hoopla. The Code of Conduct, which all users are required to accept in order to sign up, contains 13 items, and they’re mostly standard, although #12 manages to be both demoralising and confusing: “I understand that I am a FutureLearner and therefore do not have any privileges that a student of the university running the course would.”  OK, then.

Then there’s something about promising not to give your contact details to anyone, which I’m not sure is FutureLearn’s business. And being British (see above), FutureLearn puts quotes around “spam”, which does bring Monty Python to mind::

But much more serious than the clumsy overreach on contact details, or the disconnect between the chirpy “FutureLearner” and the entitlements that go with the badge, is the final vow that “I will always post in English to enable all to understand (the FutureLearn community’s language is English)”.

There’s so much wrong with this, it’s hard to know where to begin.

No one’s denying that English is a major global language. In the delicate world system of fragile and robust languages, English is an apex predator. It’s unthinkable that we could reverse the cultural damage it has done already, and instead we are left to make the best of a situation in which business, diplomacy and education is conducted in English even between people for whom English is a second or third language.

This is one of the most difficult hurdles for students who travel to Anglophone universities to study in a language other than the one in which they think and dream. English language testing is politically and economically problematic, and time and again students wash up in classes for which they are underprepared, and that they struggle to complete. Even when they are successful in learning in English, we know that language operates to constrain what can be thought. By requiring so many learners to forego the nuance and capacity of the languages in which they are skilled, we also require them to think less capably, and to approach problems in a more formulaic way than they might if they could bring the full range of their own language expertise to bear on the questions that we ask.

There are straightforward reasons why we have to do this, and mostly we leave it at that: a necessary deficit, that improvements in translation software might gradually help us address.

But FutureLearn have taken this a step further: in celebrating English as a community virtue, their code of conduct requires students not to post in other languages at all, even though it’s in the nature of online participation in massive courses that learners are mostly talking to each other.  It’s simply unthinkable that a university would require this.  In fact, there are benefits to this happening even in front of the baffled monolingual English speakers. In the MOOCs I’ve enrolled in, it’s been genuinely engaging to watch small groups of specific language learners form and tackle the subject material together, translating and retranslating into many other languages. That’s the point of global education, isn’t it?

And it’s also a valid introduction to the realities of the professional futures to which many of our students aspire. I have two colleagues who speak Finnish.  Listening to them talk to each other is a constant reminder that there’s a bigger world than the one I see out of my window; from them I learn about the ideas and concepts that are particular to English, that other languages haven’t found valuable to develop. This is exactly how we figure out that our perspective is not inevitable or superior, after all.

So why have FutureLearn added their English-only clause? None of the explanations are flattering. At best, they didn’t realise that the instinctual response could be, as Audrey Watters put it briskly: “Fuck. Empire.”  It’s hard to believe that this could really be a strategic effort to propagate world English, even as part of the “trade follows the MOOCs” position that FutureLearn and its government backers have adopted, because English really doesn’t need that kind of help.  But there’s another explanation, that raises an interesting possibility.

Researchers noticed several years ago that online forums offered considerable efficiencies over other sampling methods, by forming massive spontaneous self-transcribing focus groups that have implicitly foregone their right to give consent to being quoted. Although there are now ethical protocols in place to limit the exploitation of online discussion on social networks as data, there are no real sanctions on users who do this.  Certainly there are commercial researchers busy analysing what people say about their products or their companies online, and in all of this it’s very helpful to minimise the number of languages used. The situation with MOOCs and research isn’t yet clear, given the tendency of MOOC terms and conditions to boil down to “We owe you nothing.”  Nor, as it happens, is the situation in universities, in relation to the privacy of communications that may or may not one day spit out profilling data for retention-driven analytics.  Coursera are using their massive MOOC enrolments for research purposes, and certainly forum participation has become a researchable thing. So why not get everyone to write in English in the first place, to streamline the complexity of your later content analysis?

These things matter to anyone concerned with privacy, but they also matter because the stakes are so high for fragile languages. There’s so much to regret about the harm that’s been done by the civilising project of world English.  FutureLearn, broadcasting from the heart of Empire, really should know better.

UPDATE: One of the great things I learned about language today was about the 19th Century “Treachery of the Blue Books”, passed on by Mabon ap Gwynfor*:

One of the inevitable results of the report was its effect on the nation’s mind and psyche. It was at this time that ordinary Welsh people began to believe that they could only improve themselves socially through education and the ability to speak and communicate in English. It was Samuel Smiles’ philosophy that held sway education and the knowledge of English would allow the lowliest among the Welsh to improve their lot and make something of their lives. As a result of the ‘Treachery of the Blue Books’ the Welsh people began to harbour a complex about their image in the face of the world, and the influence of the Report has not completely waned even to this day.

* who blogs in Welsh.

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