That was quick

In an educational institution, both the students and the staff have a choice of accommodating oneself to the existing ways of being and acting, trying to change them, or just deviating away from them, still staying in the community, but on the verges. When one is accepted inside an organisation, rules, policies and procedures are laid upon the person. Often the person is as if relinquishing the rights of acting certain ways while bound in a certain organisational space. Because of these particular processes and dynamics, how can promoting diversity ever be possible? Diversity might find spaces within small cracks, but what about as an organizational vision, as an underlying purpose?

Marko Teras, “Of Diversity and Hospitality

A win of sorts: FutureLearn have quietly amended their Code of Conduct (although they still have “spam” in quotes as though they’re holding it in chopsticks, and this still makes me giggle.)

The final three points now read like this:

  1. I will not share my contact details on the FutureLearn platform.
  2. I understand that I am a FutureLearner, and do not have access to the same resources and services as a student attending the university that is running my course.
  3. As the FutureLearn community’s first language is English, I will always post contributions in English to enable all to understand, unless specifically requested to do otherwise.

#11 is more specific, #12 is more elegant, and #13 has introduced a new slightly odd detail to the requirement to speak English.

Two days ago, #13 read like this: “I will always post in English to enable all to understand (the FutureLearn community’s language is English).” The new phrasing of the first half, that the community’s first language is English, takes the good step of acknowledging that there are other languages around the place. FutureLearn is after all actively courting markets in which these other languages may be more important to their users than the English they’ll have to use if they want to sign up. But this is also the compromise that most Anglophone universities arrive at, as they go prospecting in the same markets for paying guests.

The requirement is still there that learners will always post in English to enable all to understand, and I’m still stuck on hoping that FutureLearn could be a little less upbeat about the positives for all of having to learn in your second or third language. The puzzling new bit is unless specifically requested to do otherwise. So now I’m trying to imagine the circumstances under which FutureLearn might specifically request their communities to break out in Klingon. Maybe this was their concession to international Talk Like a Pirate Day?

But the most interesting thing is the fact and the speed of the change itself. This is consistent with their stated commitment to soliciting feedback and acting on it quickly. Doug Clow, who works with many of those involved in FutureLearn and was involved in the alpha testing, has written a constructive and careful post commending their decision to build a new platform from scratch, and their timely launch.  As he points out, it’s too early to tell whether this new platform or the learner experience is any good:

But they’ve leaped over some major hurdles already. More importantly, can it develop in to something really, really good? I’m optimistic – on balance and very cautiously optimistic, with many caveats and all that. We’ll see.

The evidence of the Code of Conduct changes is that FutureLearn are serious about progressive product development, not just in terms of the coding of their platform, but the overall cultural coding of the community they hope to build.

But I honestly don’t think they’ve fixed their problem with the assumptions and virtues they’re attaching to English, so in case they’re listening, here’s how I’d put it.

“The FutureLearn platform delivers courses developed and assessed in English. We appreciate that there are many languages used in our community, and we suggest that English is used as the common language for postings and discussion to enable us all to participate.”

Marko Teras, my Finnish collaborator in the project of thinking about how Derrida’s ideas about hospitality might work well in higher education settings, has written an outstanding critique of student diversity initiatives, that captures for me the ethically messy nature of the business markets in which we’re now working. In these market settings, cultural and language diversity becomes both an irritant, a compulsion, and a problem to be managed with soothing performances of inclusivity and celebration. Rustichello puts it bluntly:

Rarely, and only in the most infantilising circumstances, are universities interested in the knowledge that international students bring with them. Usually this will involve some kind of national costume, or culinary style, just to make it clear their knowledge is domestic, in both senses.

And this is what universities sell to international students; the opportunity to comply with an approved system of knowledge. Education, framed as empowering and respectful of agency, becomes an alibi for an ongoing system of superiority and exploitation. To say it even plainer: universities sell colonial discourse to the victims of colonialism.

As Rustichello points out, we typically talk about higher education in Australia as an export commodity, that outperforms even beef.  But what this means for our everyday practices is that we are competing to attract students whose presence then unsettles us and disrupts our routines. Under these circumstances we develop increasingly circumscribed rituals of hospitable welcome, in which the very first thing that students learn about us involves the rules that we impose on them to preempt their delinquency. In doing this we expose our hospitality for what it is: something closer to a kind of guarded hostility, a wariness of all the ways in which they’re different to us. Nowhere is this clearer than when we require them to write in English, and then penalise them for their expression, or demonise them for what we choose to call cheating as they struggle to make sense of the rules of our home. (And let’s not forget the drama that attended the accusations of “foreign students” “cheating” in US MOOCs last year. In fact, just googling “cheating in Moocs” makes for very discouraging reading.)

What practical steps can be taken to deal with any of this?

Normality’s shadow

Research has shown that those students (all of us, really) remember a new word or fact best when they learn it and then relearn it when they are just on the cusp of forgetting it. Area9’s instructional software uses algorithms to predict each user’s unique memory-decay curve so that it can remind a student of something learned last week at the moment it is about to slip out of his or her brain forever.

Seth Fletcher, ‘How Big Data is Taking Teachers Out of  the  Lecturing Business‘, Scientific American, July 2013

Really, big data, is there no end to it?  Machine grading, adaptive learning, and now algorithmic lasering of the precise moment when a fact starts to slither down the unique memory-decay curve and prepares to be lost forever.  I don’t know how we managed before.

There’s a lot to be said about the predatory hovering of Stanford’s AI researchers over higher education, and I don’t think I’m alone in finding their attention to every mouse click students make both creepy and unethical. (If you’re not sure where you stand, watch this video.)

But it turns out that even without their algorithmic support we do sometimes hang on to things we’ve learned all by ourselves. Today I remembered a really retro fact: Robin Wood’s straightforward formula from the 1970s for the American horror film, that “normality is threatened by the monster”. I’ve stored it since the first time I heard it, along with an embarrassing trove of 70s pop lyrics, for which I’m sure Daphne Koller has an algorithmic explanation.

The elegance of Wood’s point is mathematical: X can be anything. So whatever monster shows up can represent whatever you think is threatening; and whatever town, teenager, family or whole civilisation the monster harasses, it’s whatever you think is worth defending. Once you get this, you’re ready to view any horror movie through the lens of your own anxieties.

MOOCs are this kind of monster: they stand for what we fear. We see them from the perspective of our version of normality, and our sense of what is monstrous. If you fear the end of lectures, or you want to protect Harvard for Harvard students, or you’re an adjunct worker trying to hang on to a job with no prospects or benefits that you might yet—astonishingly—lose to a volunteering grad student TA from Best Professor U, all this will shape what the monster means to you.

It’s been a rapid and crazy transit to this point. Less than six years ago, the people who talked about MOOCs had a modest, interesting vision of new ways that learning could proceed, and a subtle sense of humour. Education was looking at the same opportunities MMORPGs had introduced to gamers: the chance to meet and work together with whoever rocked up online, not just with the people sitting next to you.  This wasn’t a new fact, but MOOC was a new way to put it.  And it was worth celebrating and expanding, because there are people all over the place who don’t get to participate in higher education where they live, and coming together online really does make a difference to this.

But we’re not in Canada any more, and $43m of further capital speculation and 4 million students says that we can’t get back there, no matter how hard we’re all banging our ruby slippers together. If this is a bubble, as Ferdinand von Prondzynski suspects, it may drag significant higher education and corporate brands into difficulty when it pops. If it doesn’t burst, things are going to get really tough for smaller institutions, community colleges, regional education, and particularly for adjunct workers in all these places. We’re going to see much less diversity in the overall culture of post-secondary education, just as we have in other retail, entertainment and service industries where a small number of global brands have come to dominate, and this will do long-term harm to the resilience and capability of local education.

Of course, In the longer run in Australia, we could see the emergence of new boutique brands and new counter-narratives: slow education, local education, community-run education, bespoke education. Or we could just watch Australian public education manage long-term austerity budgeting by becoming a net importer of US content, a franchising system in which locally relevant learning amounts to a bit of beetroot on the burger:

With stakes like this, Australian educators need to speak more precisely and separately about each mass or open online initiative, their investors, their marketing strategies and their business goals.  We need to ask much tougher questions, as we would in any kind of serious RFP, and certainly we need to expect the US and UK MOOC CEOs currently touring Australia to understand where they are in convincing detail.  (Pop quiz: what percentage of Australian undergraduate students live on campus?  Most? About half? Less than 10%? Don’t know? Don’t sell us things.)*

And we need to have a think about the real lesson of the horror movie, which is the monster that our own normality has become. To get a sense of how bad things are in the US, do read Rebecca Schuman’s angry, detailed rebuke of the culture of professional servility that she has chosen to reject.  This is really brave writing, and if you still think things couldn’t get this bad for young academics trying to get their first job in Australia, you need to spend more time with your sessional staff colleagues, as they gear up for another semester being among the few postdoctoral academics in the world who are paid by hourly and piecemeal rates, and not even for all of the hours they work—which apparently we find much too complicated to work out.

It’s as Robin Wood pointed out at the end of his beautiful essay: the monster turns out only to be normality’s shadow after all.

* It’s less than 10%, which is why Australian academics spend the entire week before semester begins trying to help students sort out timetables that fit with their household schedules, their paid employment and the time of the last train back to where they live.

Business as usual

In an evolving market, the development of sustainable business models is always a challenge but I believe that if we build something great, a whole range of business opportunities could come our way.

Simon Nelson, CEO, FutureLearn, Feb 2013

Over the past year, MOOCs have opened the doors of access to quality education, and have captured the attention of educational leaders and students worldwide. Today, we’re excited to announce the next step in our mission to foster student learning without limits and expand the possibilities that MOOCs and online education can enable.

Coursera blog, May 29 2013

One of these statements is more candid than the other. Even if FutureLearn can’t yet tell us much about their platform, at least they’re clear that business opportunities are their horizon view. They’re also open about their parochialism: FutureLearn is a multi-institutional initiative to promote UK educational businesses in an “evolving market” already dominated by providers from “another continent”, as they put it coyly. It’s a joined-up national effort that’s at slight risk of overpromoting Britishness, but at least FutureLearn is prepared to say that educational globalisation isn’t just corporate social philanthropy on a global scale: it’s a matter of national interest.

Coursera, on the other hand, is still carrying on about the worldwide mission, using the aspirational language of venture philanthropy—all that fostering and expanding and enabling—to alibi their next move, which is equally parochial. After a loss-leading year of facilitating free and not-for-credit access to some signature higher education brands, Coursera is pushing into the market that will be most straightforward for them to monetize at scale: the massive, underresourced and evidently troubled US public education system. The prize is what comes next: being able to cover production costs at home is what enables US producers of anything to offer irresistible pricing to markets abroad. And as Ernst & Young so tactfully remind us, these emerging markets include the rapidly growing Asian middle class who are the gleam in the eye of higher education providers all over the place.

Education is a goldfield for opportunists, and MOOC providers are on it, head-to-head with LMS platforms who are also diversifying into hosted open learning. Both are able to exploit the fact that traditional higher education institutions acting competitively—which seems to be the only way we know how to behave—can only provide services at a scale calibrated to traditional staff-student ratios. And this is why the growth potential in these new markets is still tethered to the resourcing costs of academic labour.

The disruptive intervention by which commercial platforms have secured their startling competitive advantage is simple: they have done away with service labour costs.

That’s it.

Once content is created to be infinitely reusable, once the work of learning is managed by learners, and once assessment can be automated or outsourced to other learners, then normal service labour costs can be stripped back aggressively. Without these shackles, the opportunities for profit-taking in higher education are suddenly formidable again, which is why traditional textbook publishers and content retailers have perked up.

Why have higher education institutions allowed themselves to be so boxed in, that we end up auditioning to be let back in to our own field?  In part, it’s the science of distraction that explains the most basic card tricks. As those institutions, professors and graduate TAs who could best afford to engage in philanthropic volunteering made themselves available for free, so the risks of scarcity, exclusivity and closing opportunity were used to hustle others into joining up. Without having to produce so much as a single standard for quality, MOOC providers harvested the signalling value of their elite partners, and then used this to spin story after story about enhanced global educational equity, making any criticism seem like the wounded howls of the professoriate protecting their turf. Jonathan Rees has been right all along that this is about academic labour—just not that it’s primarily a threat to the tenured. What should really concern us is the astonishing prospect that things can get worse for our local adjunct colleagues, who now face being priced out of work by superprofessors with quizzes.

And now we have the low-frills version of the whole thing—the move that actually makes sense of the past 18 months. As the contractual details for the new product line make clear, after endless talk about quality education, what Coursera actually mean by quality involves video and audio standards and assessments that add up; timeliness of content delivery; and something else called “quality issues observed by Coursera”.

The nearest any of this comes to a definition of quality pedagogy is this:

“Course Criteria” means a rigorously designed Course meeting high academic standards that uses multi-media Content in a coherent, highproduction-value presentation (i.e.,not just simple lecture capture) to provide the End User opportunities for a rich set of interactions and assessment(s) (whether provided by automatic grading technology or by peer-to-peer interaction activities), resulting in a meaningful learning experience that significantly transcends static Content or plain videos.

This isn’t a quality standard, it’s PR. In fact, it’s transcendingly meaningless.

Trying to recover a sense of which way is forwards from here, I’ve been re-reading Richard Hall’s recent pieces on the enclosure of academic labour under austerity. His latest post has really helped me to see what any of this has to do with our students. Reviewing Andy Westwood’s analysis from earlier this month of the UK government’s proposed austerity budgeting, he questions whether we’re right to continue to frame educational participation only in the metaphors created by capitalism. This is really important for Australia, where we keep getting caught up in defending higher education against efficiency by talking about what our graduates do for national productivity. Hall argues—and I think he’s right—that this is a limiting vision for educational participation.

Perhaps the key is in refusing to see those social forces as human capital or means of production. Perhaps what is needed is a critique of the forms of political economy/political debate/politics of austerity that force us to view human lives and society as restricted by the idea of economic value. What is certainly needed is a recognition that the forces of production across capitalist society, which are increasingly restructuring higher education as means of production, are also increasingly ranged asymmetrically against the everyday experiences of young people.

It’s a vision, and it’s tough to operationalise. So here’s the question for those of us still labouring in higher education: in the smallest detail of our everyday working lives, what does it mean to practice this refusal effectively?

Related articles

This important development has been widely covered in the past few days.  Here are those I’ve found particularly helpful.

and see also this open letter to Coursera, if you missed it:

The value of bad ideas

I use a trick with co-workers when we’re trying to decide where to eat for lunch and no one has any ideas. I recommend McDonald’s. … Everyone unanimously agrees that we can’t possibly go to McDonald’s, and better lunch suggestions emerge. Magic!

It’s as if we’ve broken the ice with the worst possible idea, and now that the discussion has started, people suddenly get very creative. I call it the McDonald’s Theory: people are inspired to come up with good ideas to ward off bad ones.

Jon Bell, “McDonalds Theory

Here’s my theory: the MOOCs we’ve got at the moment really are just a bad idea. This is awkward, because so much money has now been sunk into them, it feels defeating even to imagine their failure. But there’s a bright side: what if MOOCs are the icebreakingly bad idea, whose gift is to inspire us to come up with something better?

MOOCs wouldn’t be the first bad idea to be taken seriously and attract major capital investment, about which people later look back and wonder: what were we thinking?  I once met the man who co-designed the Sinclair C5, an infamous battery-powered vehicle that was expected to transform the way people got around in crowded British cities in the 1980s. The design had been feted on news programs and TV shows, and the project had a major backer with serious money. But then the prototype was tried out on an actual road, and people noticed that the battery didn’t work in the rain and it was disturbing to change lanes on wet roads at 15mph in a low lying tricycle that barely reached the wheel arch of your average road haulage vehicle. Cartoonists had a field day.

Last month, the Sinclair c5 was voted the biggest innovation disaster of all time, topping a list of mostly entertainment technology formats or communication devices that failed, and pizza scissors.

Some of these had enjoyed brief success before being overhauled by a competitor or successor, but the C5 was distinguished by being panned from the moment it showed up on the road, when all the ideas that had seemed so convincing in prototype collided with the realities of scale and use. As Rodney Dale, who has written a loving history of the C5, noted sadly, the “seductive exhilaration which won everyone over to the C5 on the test track quickly evaporated by the feeling of vulnerability among real traffic.”

But the principles and the concerns behind the C5 didn’t evaporate. The problems it was attempting to address—and the commercial opportunity it was attempting to exploit—were real. Since 1984 we’ve found out more and more about the impact of excessive oil consumption on our environment and our global economy, and we’ve continued to explore alternatives to the ways in which we use and fuel private cars. It was a visionary idea, just a really awful design.

And this is where we are with higher education. Different systems all around the world are facing different problems, but the problems are real, and the systems we’re using to address them are underpowered and unimaginative. More lectures, bigger lecture theatres, overcrowded tutorials, staffing flexibilities that are appalling euphemisms for sustained and harmful exploitation of the academic precariat, standardised curriculum and unvarying assessment practices, inflexible approaches to student creativity, timed exams, grades and escalating student debt: all of these are the bad ideas we live with and defend. So let’s not romanticise our current situation just because the alternative that’s getting all the attention is an even bigger bad idea.

Where I work we’re now seriously asking the MOOC question: should we? why? with what? for whom? And what are the risks involved in us adapting those that are being made elsewhere?  Wouldn’t it be good to have some Stanfordy things in our curriculum, especially when it comes to the foundational material in the disciplines that genuinely need their students to cover at least some of the same ground no matter where they study? Obviously, the situation’s trickier for the humanities, but don’t the world’s MOOCs give us access to new areas of curriculum that we can’t supply ourselves, in such a small educational economy?

Provided we put aside the daft and insulting conceit that we’re lucky to gain access to the world’s best professors all of whom naturally work at the world’s elite institutions, I think the answer to some of these questions has to be: well, yes. We all benefit when students access new and different curriculum, for the same reason that we gain when those who can afford it travel as part of their study program. And we all have something to share in return.

But first, we need to move beyond the bad bits of the idea: that massive enrolment is a cunning alternative to overcrowding; that volunteer tutoring is sustainable or just; that recorded lectures solve the problem of lectures; that institutional research brand is a guarantee of individual teaching excellence; that timed exams and peer-reviewed short answer papers are anything other than roll call; and that any of these services are going to remain philanthropic once the testing phase is over.

The good ideas trapped behind this wall of nonsense are starting to emerge. This week I had a lovely day sitting about with the people who design our rooms and choose our carpet tiles and light fittings, and make our award-winning outdoor spaces, which really are appreciated by everyone. Talking together we started to imagine how new kinds of campus spaces and educational technologies should work together to support international collaboration among students in ways we haven’t been able to offer before; about facilities where students could meet and create their own digital materials or remix ours; and about the need to reform our outdated business rules in relation to wireless access. It was exciting, and fun, and offered one of the best conversations I’ve listened to on the value of courage in institutional planning.

But a caveat, before we throw open all the doors and windows to the winds of change blowing from the global north: bad ideas don’t always move aside like the Sinclair C5 to make room for the better ones that follow. Here in Australia there’s a lesson from the history of imported innovations that have had long term environmental consequence: the cane toad.  Cane toads were brought here in 1935 from Hawaii, in a well-intentioned effort to reduce crop damage without excessive use of pesticides, and we can recognise those principles as basically good.  The scientist who arranged their introduction to Queensland wasn’t blinded by greed or lacking in awareness. It’s just that, as the Australian Dictionary of Biography puts it with heartbreaking understatement, “the toad proved less useful than had been hoped, and itself became a pest.”

Let’s just keep this in mind: whatever problems we’re trying to solve, and whatever ideas we think are good, we are taking care of a complex and fairly fragile educational ecosystem here. And if a toad doesn’t prove as useful as you hoped, you can’t always get it to go home again.

Clinical strength solutions

How do you gain consumers’ trust? By listening to them and knowing exactly what they want. And by turning this knowledge into innovative and compelling products.

(Beiersdorf, brands overview)

The thing about jetlag in America is that it leaves you stranded in the middle of the night with nothing to do but watch middle-of-the-night American TV. And so last night I learned about “stress sweat”, which is apparently a much worse kind of sweat than the regular kind. To protect yourself (and others, as it turns out) you need a very special deodorant. Keen to know more, I hopped on line and found that research shows it’s also called “emotional sweat” and women are 30 times more prone to producing this when we’re upset or doing mental arithmetic. But happily, research also shows that clinical strength deodorant has got us covered, to the tune of being exactly 4 x more effective than regular deodorant at saving us from ourselves.

So, you know, that’s all right then.

By now crazy with jet-lag and not a little sweat anxiety, I wanted to know who had done the research that showed all the things. And of course, the answer is what you’d expect: research in this exciting new field is done by the companies who make the products that fix the problems that their research discovers. Neat.

Cheeringly, there are quite a few sceptics out there. Take a look at Creativity Online’s “Stress Sweat and Other Problems You Never Knew Existed“, for example, for a trawl through claims made about products that will solve the problems of aging hair, ugly armpits and invisible laundry stains that hadn’t really troubled us until we were told about them. Yup, read that carefully again: there’s a laundry detergent that will remove the stains you cannot see—which surely means they fall below the commonsense standard for a stain.

The manipulation of anxiety about intangible problems is a sign of hard times in the cosmetics industry. With consumers turning more and more to supermarket cosmetics or bulk online ordering of everyday items, companies have to work harder to find new niche problems that new niche brands can fix. As beauty-industry consultant Suzanne Grayson spells it out in the article: “”Everyone is looking to consumer research for ideas. It’s desperation time. Even companies that never were heavy into research like the upscale department-store brands, are using it, looking for kernels of disappointment [they] can latch onto.”

It’s marketing that escalates this disappointment into panic. The social crisis caused by stress sweating can’t be avoided, so there’s only one solution: the product that research has shown is four times more likely to save you from being sluiced right off the bus (or out of the boardroom, or wherever you are when disaster strikes) in a torrent of your own emotional sweat.

Nuts as this sounds, it’s not a world away from the overheated language in recent higher education reports. In Australia we had the Ernst & Young report that promised to outline our prospects as a “thousand year industry on the cusp of profound change” despite the fact that most of us in Australian higher education work in buildings that were thrown up in the 1970s. This week a UK think tank with uncomfortably close ties to Pearson suggested that we’re up for an avalanche and a revolution, all in one terrorising (if confusing) title: An Avalanche is Coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead.

Ferdinand von Prondzynski points out calmly that the report advocates very little real change, and its recommendations effectively endorse many of higher education’s standing inequities in resourcing and rank.  David Kernohan describes it more bluntly as paid advertorial for Pearson. Michael Barber, lead author and Pearson’s Chief Education Advisor, certainly takes a starring role in the report itself, popping up throughout in the third person, a bit like Shane Warne talking about himself:

One evening recently, Michael and his wife were trying to recall the names of the three Karamazov brothers. Needless to say, within minutes they had resorted to Google – much easier than getting the book itself from the next-door room.

It’s all very chatty, and in the end comes across as op-ed based on the narrow personal experience of the three authors: “Whenever Katelyn inserted an example from Duke, Saad responded with one from Yale. ”  Hooray!  But does anyone really think this amounts to coverage of the diversity and volatility of higher education’s global business activity, let alone its core functions in teaching, research and community engagement?

Very little in the rest of the report contradicts the awful impression this comment creates. The report’s main function seems to be to alarm elite institutions who haven’t cottoned on to stress sweat (“Yale, at any rate, does not appear to see an avalanche coming. Or if it does, it does not feel threatened by it”) and then console them with the promise that in the unbundled future, the signal strength of globally strong brands will still be important. So they’ll be OK, because in the end their “best professors” will be safely broadcasting MOOC TV from the ski lodge while the rest of us are swept away.

What kind of opportunity would such a purging of higher education represent to companies like Pearson, or any of the other edtech vendors and venture capitalists who have already invested heavily in the education market? The IPPR’s report recommends that after avalanche has reshaped the mountain, we will have reorganised ourselves into four university types—elite, the mass, the local, and the niche—and something called the “lifelong learning mechanism”.

At the heart of this two-tier system of elite university providers and mass university markets will be unbundled digital delivery of content, online platforms, locally supported tutoring and proctored testing.  And Pearson are standing by with the clinical strength solutions to all the problems. So at the very least, this report is a strong case for higher ethical standards in research and analysis of educational markets by vendor stakeholders. Pearson have an extraordinary conflict of interest here, which is a very weak basis on which to try to gain our trust.

And it’s not a radical proposition: it’s a reheat of every argument being had everywhere about MOOCs, college tuition, university branding, ranking and funding, graduate employability, the emerging Asian markets (which is truly an awful way to think about individual students), young people and technology, the campus experience, the global superstars. The whole minestrone.

What’s missing is a vision for change that any of us would be proud to be part of.