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?

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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.

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.

Visions always belong to someone

The awkwardly titled Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in a Digital Age that was released this week has generated a ton of coverage, which is interesting given its niche provenance. An apostolic group of North American educational stakeholders, including some very high profile names, got together and co-authored a fairly wordy document about the values and entitlements that we might protect in the name of online learners.

What I’ve found useful is that most of the people involved in it have been very open about how it happened. Here’s Sean Michael Morris, for example, quoting the email from Sebastian Thrun that got the group together:

Just had a crazy idea. What if we got the 8-10 most interesting people
together for – say – 3 days, to dive into online pedagogy. The goal
would be to brainstorm about this, and exchange experiences. Perhaps
develop a master plan? No NDAs, no proprietary information – just for
the goods of humanity.

I think for me this crystallises the discomfort I feel when I read the document (and I’ve read it over and over). International online pedagogy is neither radical, disruptive, nor new. Neither is learner-centred pedagogy.  We do this all day long, where I’m from.  Sometimes we fail, and when we do, students let us know. So we don’t need a master plan for all this because we didn’t just invent it.  When we work online from an institutional base, we’re already accountable to a whole library of strategic plans, standards, instruments for measuring standards.

Over the past 8 years I have been closely involved in writing both elearning strategic plans, and strategic plans for teaching and learning in general, and I can report with grim conviction that all of these are focused on ensuring the quality of the learner experience. They’re typically a bit less exciting than this document because they’re also institutionally obliged to be structured in terms of goals, targets, actions and measures. The main difference is that while institutional strategic planning tends to kick off with motherhood statements, most get written out again, because planning is inseparable from accountable reporting.

There’s a great deal to be critiqued about the fetish for accountability in higher education, and Rustichello’s post on this is the best thing I’ve ever read on the ruse of it all. But without some nod in the direction of accountability, all you have is vision, and no plan at all — let alone a master plan.

And in higher education, vision without a plan is exactly what you think it is: brand personality.

So it would be easy to walk past this moment, muttering.  It’s really too obvious to point out the cultural provenance of the plan, and Audrey Watters (who was in the room) has done a great job mapping out what and who was missing. Richard Hall has provided a powerful critique of the failure to acknowledge the power in play here. Everyone’s noticed the lack of a student voice. Advocates for adjuncts have questioned the lack of presence from feet-on-the-ground educators; and Jonathan Rees has pointed out the huge risk of advocating for disruption while losing sight of academic labour issues.

For me, there are two gaps. The first is a failure to understand or include what it takes for public education institutions to operate within the legislative constraints that are the ultimate protection for student rights, including student diversity. These can’t just be upturned because we want to, and to be honest, I don’t want to. There’s a whole lot wrong with higher education, but at some point we have to say that the work of making it possible is serious, complicated and driven by people who really mind about equity. (OK, I reserve judgment on marketing, but having sat in the room for hours and hours and hours with higher education policy makers, and listened to the way that they champion learners’ rights, I think we have to be very careful arguing that their diligence is entirely wrong-headed.)

The second is a failure to recognise that it’s going to take a whole lot more than a motherhood statement to deal with the emerging problem of missionary zeal in North American higher education circles. I am really so tired of hearing that MOOCs will parachute in global superstar professors to save the world’s unserved populations.

Here for example is Coursera’s Andrew Ng explaining to the Times Higher Ed how it will still be possible for the unserved to get access to paid certification that in the very same interview he is selling on the basis of its second rate status (because Coursera also have to protect the degree-awarding reputation of their elite partners):

“So if you’re a poor kid in Africa, and don’t have a credit card, we want you in the signature track anyway.

“This is about education, it is not about making money, and so if you can’t afford it we still want you to benefit from it. This is not the sort of decision that a normal company would make. But we are here to educate everyone.”

This is just so awful it makes my head spin.

So a master plan to save us from this, that didn’t include voices from Africa, China, India, Brazil from the outset, let alone from the indigenous cultures or speakers of the world’s fragile languages who are presently being crushed by the clear-felling juggernaut of digital English, can’t be what it claims on the tin.

It’s a small symposium of really interesting North American-based educators with relevant experience, values I mostly share, and good ideas. I’d have been entirely happy to read their account of how we might develop some modest, achievable pledges that online educators could make, just as many academics are quietly signing up to make their scholarly work open access on principle. But I wish they’d left it at that, because the idea that they’re planning for the rest of us isn’t just hubris, it’s exactly what’s currently causing cultural harm around the world.

Reading the coverage that this has been given, here’s what I keep coming back to: the inestimable Henry Giroux (just to show that I don’t have a problem with Americans), in his Border Crossings: Cultural Workers and The Politics of Education:

Visions always belong to someone, and to the degree that they translate into curricula and pedagogical practices, they not only denote a struggle over forms of political authority and orders of representation, but also weigh heavily in regulating the moral identities, collective voices and the futures of others.

And that’s why I can’t join a cheer squad for the idea that the fragile relationship between online educational opportunity and global cultural diversity is best served by a master plan from California.

Update: an earlier version of this post attributed entirely the wrong Henry. Apologies to both, and warm thanks to Tim McCormick for pointing this out so nicely.

The revolution might be televised

The first time I watched the awful EPIC2020 videos I was so irked by everything about them that I never went back to look carefully at the details of their campaign to reform higher education. But now I have, and I’m beyond irked. I’ve been boosted into the realm of appalled fascination. They’re going to “shatter the paradigm that the future will be anything like the past as well as facilitate discussion and accelerate actions to bring about the transformation of the education of the world.” I can’t look away.

So now I know that EPIC stands for “The Evolving Personal Information Construct”, a kind of analytics-driven micromanagement of all aspects of our lives, monitoring and continuously improving our social and emotional networks, our physical health, and our career prospects. Happily, though, the EPIC dashboard will never give me information I cannot immediately understand, because it “will know everything that you know and understand everything that you need to know to optimize your life. EPIC will connect you with everything and everyone that is important to your success.”

Normally at this point, you’d be tiptoeing backwards out of the room. But what EPIC2020 are saying about the need for revolution in higher education is suddenly appearing all over the place; there’s a line up of people waiting to throw rocks at the very idea that stability in publically funded institutions could be a sign of responsible, capable governance.

So, reluctantly, I’m taking their crazy big picture thinking more seriously than it deserves, because they’re right on two points. The sudden partnership between venture-funded educational startups and traditional elite universities has thrown down a big challenge to less flexible models of higher education, especially outside the US. And the fact that we’ve typically bundled content, learning and accreditation under the broad heading “education” doesn’t mean that we’ll be able to keep them all contained in this way indefinitely.

What happens if we untangle them, and allow content production (and the consequent advantages of content ownership) to rest with those institutions that can afford the highest quality production values? Robert Bruner, Dean of the Darden School of Business at UVa, is one of the few to be candid about the costs involved:

The production of an online course is rapidly moving beyond the use of a stationary video recorder capturing a professor in a lecture hall. It is already clear that there is an arm’s race on the basis of quality. Look for three camera shoots and creative directors coming to campuses soon. You’ll need scripts, a production crew, interactive capabilities, and a sound studio.

Australia knows a thing or two about being left behind in the cinematic arms race; global free trade in media content has been an uneven experience for us. So we can see the risk to locally relevant educational content in this model. It will always be cheaper for us to import than to produce, just as it is for television. If we think education is a culturally significant environment, whose future lies in media production and broadcast rather than personal delivery, then protecting content diversity will become an urgent political priority in the education portfolio. We will need imaginative funding strategies and smart transnational partnerships to help local educational content stay viable, just as we do with transnational co-production treaties in film and television production.

I was thinking about all this because I’ve finally signed up to a Coursera MOOC.  I did it partly because there’s a short course that interests me, led by someone I’m curious to know more about—but mostly because I want to know how it feels to be part of this borderless, classless, cashless education revolution.

In one way, I loved the zany spontaneity of it all. I didn’t have to fill out any forms, or find any of my professional paperwork, or fish out my credit card or even my PayPal password.  Two or three clicks, and I’m in. Of course, there’s some small print in their terms of service. It’s mostly unexceptional stuff about copyright, and something called the Coursera Honor Code, which asks me not to sign up with more than one account—presumably because that will stuff the analytics.

In fact, the integrity of my singular identity is something they’re going to want to be sure of, because they’re reserving the right to do quite a bit with identifying data about me, particularly in relation to third parties and contractors. They’re also helping themselves to “fully transferable, worldwide, perpetual, royalty-free and non-exclusive license” to use any content I might generate or upload, although my use of their content is significantly more restricted.

But still, it’s free.  And so I wanted to know how this works for either the university involved, or the platform service provider. Jim Groom’s excellent post on the mysteries of the Coursera business model sent me rummaging through Jeff Young’s coverage for The Chronicle to the 42 page contract between Coursera and the University of Michigan. It looks like they can afford a wait-and-see approach, because if this succeeds, it’s going to succeed on a huge scale: mass education is an emerging media market everyone wants a piece of.

So here’s their fairly open-ended plan: among their eight potential strategies, listed as Schedule 1 to the contract, they reserve the opportunity to offer human teaching and grading services together with secure assessment facilities, and they might charge tuition. (To anyone working at a university, these horizons of possibility could ring a few bells.) They’re also looking into passing on student details to recruiters, and may undertake some employee screening and training themselves. And if that doesn’t bring it home, they’re also prepared to sell university-branded certificates “to the end user”. In other words, they’re not proposing entirely revolutionary ideas, so much as pushing public education onto a profitable, commercial footing.

And it’s when they say that they’re open to selling their audience to advertisers, via “appropriate and non-intrusive visual elements on the Course webpage”, that things start to feel really familiar. Put this together with course content that’s made up of “60% recorded lectures and 40% videoed interviews”, which amounts to 100% stuff to watch, and the basic model here isn’t education at all.  It’s television.

So while I still think the person involved is someone I’d want to watch on TV, with 32,963 students currently enrolled, I’m not sure whether I joined a class or sat down on the couch.  Let’s see.

Embrace the brand

Anyone searching for a word to wind up academics could give this one a try: brand.  “Brand” is the new “customer” for awfulness of metaphor when it comes to explaining the profile and values of a higher education institution. It’s the term—and the attitude to public communication—that has already white-anted our confidence in politics, so why universities are presently gulping the Kool Aid when it comes to brand profiling is beyond me.

OK, don’t write in: I know that universities operate in a competitive marketplace, that public communication with stakeholders is critical, etc. etc.  I just think that we’re not operating according to a shared, or even particularly clear, understanding of what marketing experts mean when they say “brand” with such breathtaking lack of irony. It’s a small but grown-up word that you can slip into a busy sentence without fuss, but it opens up into a vast corporate universe of discourse that promises coherent tonality of message across an entire higher education institution as a reasonable expectation in this lifetime.

I don’t think so.

The problem is the disruption of the brand in classrooms and lecture theatres, in the corridor, in our offices, and increasingly in the cloud.  We really do teach critical thinking, that’s not just what it says on the door.  And this means that we speak candidly about the challenges of institutional life in large organisations just like the ones in which we work. This is the job we were hired to do, as part of the way in which we prepare students for leadership roles in careers that haven’t been invented yet, such is the rate of churn in the global world of work.

As a result we’re often way off message, in terms of brand curation. In fact, to marketing professionals, universities can seem more like campsites or carnivals than corporations run smoothly from HQ.  Even as we try to achieve some measure of coherence around standards and quality control, we haven’t yet reduced ourselves to the kinds of all-together-now customer service promises that characterise the quick service restaurant industry: if you don’t get your degree in the time we say you should, we won’t give it to you for free or upsize it to a higher qualification.  We’re not selling content or even customer experience; we’re here to help you figure out the experience you can create for yourself, using your abilities, resources and values in partnership with ours.

This is why universities can’t easily borrow the marketing strategy that fits other large customer-centred operations. Firstly, there’s no single speaking position from which to make statements about what we all do, or what we hope to stand for when we speak; secondly, we’re not trying to engage an audience with our brand message in the usual way.  Engagement means something a little different to us, and the confusion about “audience” is the pivot point of this divergence. Engaged students aren’t audiences to the spectacle of their own educational experience, they’re the co-creators of it.

So I’m interested in today’s enthusiasm for Dan Klamm’s “6 Best Practices for Universities Embracing Social Media“.  This apparently straightforward set of guidelines is itself wrestling with intra-organisational diversity. Klamm sets out the basic problem like this:

Within a university, there are many departments and academic units, all with unique messages and distinct audiences. … From the residence life office to the parking department to the dining halls, each unit can have its own social media presence (in a way that is coordinated across campus, of course).

This diversity is actually very difficult to wrangle back into the bag. Klamm recommends social media guidelines that will “ensure consistency and appropriateness of all social media activity” but that remain miraculously open-ended enough to avoid constraining individual innovation including by the “staff member who wants to try something outside-the-box”, while at the same time nodding in the direction of the marketing department with this:

A university’s social media presence is an extension of the school’s brand. What is your brand all about? Is it playful and joking or conservative and buttoned-up? It’s important that a consistent voice is implemented across all of the school’s major social media platforms — a school with an ultra-serious Facebook page and an offbeat and sarcastic Twitter account will just look like it’s having an identity crisis.

Double back flip, with pike and twist.  And this is the heart of dilemma facing us. For university brand managers trying to harness organisational tonality across platforms originally developed for different purposes that have now slumped together as “social media”, the risk of letting academics out of the box is precisely that we’re the ones who find the identity issues in higher education interesting. We aren’t so worried about a marketing crisis, but we’re passionate about reserving our capacity to speak sensibly about how public communication works, and why our students need to understand that it matters. In fact, we’re the ones helping our students professionalise their own online presence, and in many cases we enjoy being their first audience.

Funnily enough, though, this is business as usual, rather than a whole new situation. Higher education at its best is a rich form of participatory culture, and has been all along, not just since Gen Y and their prosumer expectations. Our shared engagement with public cloud media has simply made more visible education’s transformative capacity: a conversation between individuals who were previously strangers, and who have agreed to put aside a little time to learn together, in the context of their respective lives, and in a way that helps us all more fully appreciate the experience of being human.

So, memo to the student communications team: as we’re figuring out the social media guidelines and the digital communications strategy, let’s keep this element of the brand in view, as it’s the one we really do embrace in our practice, every day.

UPDATE: A correspondent suggests that I’m dismissive of what’s good about branding in universities, and I thought I’d say that I’m not.  It’s not only important but simple courtesy that a university establishes its own distinctive sense of purpose and says clearly and simply what this is so that all concerned (prospective students, industry partners, politicians, employees) can make their informed choices about engaging with that institution on the basis of its values and goals. But the goal of harmonious brand tonality across the institution might be a limiting one in our case, and (my interest) it may be one of the hardest points on which to achieve consensus between academics and other professional staff.

Actual results may vary

Here’s another quick finding in the tealeaves of educational technology prediction. Providing you can get through the argot of the deals, mergers, acquisitions, takeovers, and patent showdowns, sometimes you find yourself face to face with the poetry of the safe harbor statement. It’s hard not to read it over and over to check that it still says what you think, and that it says it so beautifully.

The safe harbor statement is a get-out clause currently derived from the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995, although it also seems to have been in the Securities Act of 1933 where it’s expressed with even more affection for good language, as you might expect.

In these strange days for higher education, the safe harbor statement protects us all from the exuberance of edtech futurology by pointing out that more or less nothing about the future is known, and no one can be held accountable if things don’t turn out the way the LMS suitors (or anyone else in a suit) said it might. It’s a metaphor from the world of risky seafaring and ambitious, perhaps even mercenary, navigation towards the uncharted future.

At the moment, it’s attached specifically and prosaically to the need to limit the value of what’s called “forward-looking statements” in being able to predict anything at all about how things will unfold from here on in; typically it shows up as a footnote to the announcement of a deal with a truly breathtaking price tag.

Today I’ve been looking at one attached to the news that Hellman & Friedman LLC have bought SunGard Higher Education for $1.775 billion, in order to merge this with something else they own, Datatel Inc.  In case you’re wondering, SunGard HE “collaborates with the higher education community and provides software and services to help institutions find better ways to teach, learn, manage and connect” and Datatel “is a provider of innovative technology products, services, and insight to higher education.” This is carefully unclear about what they actually do for us, which is more plainly explained here.

But if you only read the press release, you might think that the result of their union will be more innovative and better ways to teach, learn, manage and connect, plus insight to higher education. Or the other way around.

Just don’t get too excited, because none of this may turn out to be the case:

Statements in this release other than historical facts constitute forward-looking statements. You can identify forward-looking statements because they contain words such as “believes,” “expects,” “may,” “will,” “would,” “should,” “seeks,” “approximately,” “intends,” “plans,” “estimates,” or “anticipates” or similar expressions which concern our strategy, plans or intentions.  … We assume no obligation to update any written or oral forward-looking statement made by us or on our behalf as a result of new information, future events or other factors except as otherwise required by applicable law.

This primer in how to identify the language of optimistic promises doesn’t give much else away, except that forward-looking statements are the opposite of historical facts.  So they clearly aren’t written with the same pen as going-forward statements, of which we’ve been hearing so much lately.

But what should we make of the fact that they seem to start to fade as you look at them, like the Cheshire Cat? Shouldn’t we be just a tiny bit worried that the press release that tells us something shatteringly good just happened involving Blackboard and the QM program, for instance, also mutters that of course “Actual results may differ materially from those indicated by such forward-looking statements as a result of various important factors, including the factors discussed in the “Risk Factors” section of our Form 10-K.  … These forward-looking statements should not be relied upon as representing the Company’s views as of any date subsequent to” etc etc?

Of course, we know why the small print exists, and at $1.775 billion of business activity, fair enough too.  Universities use it all the time in their audit reporting.  But bringing it out from the contractual backstage to the realm of the publicity campaign, where it can tip a bucket of cold seawater on itself, is a bit like l’Oreal having to admit that using their makeup won’t make anyone look like Julia Roberts, even Julia Roberts. We’re not fools. But why do the promotional airbrushing in the first place, if you’re only going to have to explain to your customers later that this miracle may not occur in their very own bathroom?

So we do understand that neither forward-looking nor going-forward statements can tell us exactly what educational technology will do to the future university—we’re just going to have to wait and see.  This is exactly why we’re the ones quietly asking why it wouldn’t make sense for everyone just to stay off the Kool Aid and moderate the predictions a bit.

A few more candid statements—”We’re not sure exactly how this will work out because we’re a really big business in the middle of dramatically upsizing and you’re a very small customer in a remote educational outpost well beyond our major market, so while the following features might be on our roadmap we might have to let some of them go, and in the end, we’re not educational specialists, we’re here to sell you stuff”—wouldn’t stop us buying the product, but it would make us feel much less patronised and annoyed while doing so.

But as this isn’t likely to happen, on my reading of the tealeaves at least, then perhaps those of us who actually work in universities, rather than just sell things to them, should also start using the safe harbor statement as often as possible.  Competitive research grant applications, writing deadlines, statements of learning outcomes, strategic plans of any stripe, and all of the promises we make about the deadset value of a university degree in today’s competitive employment market: all should come with the rider that at the time of writing, we simply believe things have the potential to work out in this way.

But really, who knows what the future holds?