The robot and the muse

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

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

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

Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream, 1899

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

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

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

The robot and the muse
The American Federation of Musicians protesting against recorded music at the movies in 1931, via

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stolen peaches

Sometimes you find out about things that are so compelling that you know you’re the last to hear about them, and so it is this week with System D. As Robert Neuwirth explains this in Foreign Policy, it’s the French term used to describe the global shadow economy of the débrouillardise: “the ingenuity economy, the economy of improvisation and self-reliance, the do-it-yourself, or DIY, economy”.

System D is the aggregated economic activity of every unlicensed, irregular, back-of-the-truck roadside trader, every lemonade stall, home hairdresser, and sex worker, but it’s also the way that essential services are provided in many developing economies, including garbage collection. Neuwirth cites convincing research that at $10trillion, it’s the second largest economy in the world, behind the US. In 2009, the OECD estimated that 1.8 billion people were working in System D, and they predict that two-thirds of the world’s working population will be working off the books in System D by 2020.

While these big numbers have been sinking in, I’ve been following Michael Feldstein’s latest thoughts on future directions for massively open education. His question, I think, is about whether models of massified openness driven by rhizomic thinking can scale educational opportunity in anything other than an idealistic sense. This is really practical: is entrenched social disadvantage best tackled using the theoretical vocabulary of still-elite educational practices? He argues that instead of focusing on the mass capacity of the new staggeringly large open online courses, we should shift our attention to what makes openness both radical and capable of raising expectations for learning experiences under any circumstances.

This gets to the heart of the awkward relationship between principles of radically open education, and the political economy of education as a service provided by the state or by for-profits, whose survival depends on continued public and political faith being placed in their conjoined roles as formal teaching and accrediting institutions.

The sustainability of this whole set up depends on it remaining unthinkable that the two roles could be separated. This is why traditional institutions have very little to gain from open and informal learning achieving real traction. We might allow a whole lot of self-managed, ad hoc, pop up learning to occur via the workplace, and we might even say that we’re now preparing graduates for that future, but only because that comes once the employee is already a locked-in member of the graduate debt economy.

But the warning sign that might require us to change our position, at last, is the diminishing consumer confidence in formal college credit as a means to career of choice. It’s a bit like one of those long and slowly widening cracks in the ice cap that must turn itself into a breakaway movement sometime soon. The underlying collusion between colleges and employers to monitor and manage this risk involves a deal that suits one a bit more than the other: so long as higher education keeps producing graduates, then employers will keep demanding college education as a minimum standard for careers and social advancement in the on-the-books economy.

The stakes here are highest for educational institutions. Until now, the deal has shielded us from the possibility that informal, self-managed, modularised learning could provide employers with the kind of graduate training that they’re looking for.  We’ve comforted ourselves with the fact that no one would want their teeth cleaned, let alone extracted, by a self-taught dentist. And as a result we’ve decided to take on both the teaching and the accreditation of the expansion of higher education all by ourselves, with minimum outsourcing except to the mass choir of adjuncts assembling in the cloud.

And this is exactly how higher education workers find themselves sliding into System D, by daily achieving the near-impossible. System D didn’t originally indicate the black economy of off-the-books labour, so much as the kinds of activities that characterised day-to-day survival within formal employment as conditions become untenable. Like “down in the weeds” it comes to us from restaurants. Here’s a much older description of le debrouillard in action, from Orwell in 1933:

A DEBROUILLARD is a man who, even when he is told to do the impossible, will SE DEBROUILLER— get it done somehow. One of the kitchen PLONGEURS at the Hotel X, a German, was well known as a DEBROUILLARD. One night an English lord came to the hotel, and the waiters were in despair, for the lord had asked for peaches, and there were none in stock; it was late at night, and the shops would be shut. ‘Leave it to me,’ said the German. He went out, and in ten minutes he was back with four peaches. He had gone into a neighbouring restaurant and stolen them. That is what is meant by a DEBROUILLARD. The English lord paid for the peaches at twenty francs each.

This passage was later taken up by auteur chef Anthony Bourdain, writing about “the razor’s edge of volume versus quality” in commercial kitchens.

It may feel wonderfully fulfilling, putting one’s best foot forward, sweating and fiddling and wiping and sculpting impeccable little spires of à-la-minute food for an adoring dining public, but there is another kind of satisfaction: the grim pride of the journeyman professional, the cook who’s got moves, who can kick ass on the line, who can do serious numbers, and “get through.” “How many’d we do?” is the question frequently asked at the end of the shift, when the cooks collapse onto flour sacks and milk crates and piles of dirty linen, smoking their cigarettes, drinking their shift cocktails, and contemplating what kind of felonious activity they will soon take part in during their afterwork leisure hours.

It’s familiar. At the hot, tough end of the Australian academic year, as grades are shovelled into data systems and last-minute miracles are pulled off by academics and professional staff to get every graduating student to the point that s/he can walk across the stage, just as the demands from research and governance simultaneously heat up, this is how System D feels.

It’s not the black economy, or even the precarious economy, and it’s certainly not the world of opportunity imagined by rhizomic thinking. It’s the economy of the stolen peaches: Thomas Docherty’s unseen, clandestine university, where everyone is regularly and secretively putting in the extra time needed to make things work better than they should.

How can we change this?

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?

The mosquito and the raindrop

From Lindsay Tanner’s “adapt to eLearning or die” speech to Australian higher education, to Adrian Sannier’s soothing evolutionary metaphors to spin Pearson’s arrival as a predator in the LMS ecosystem, all sorts of people are drawing on the history of everything-until-now to figure out where we might be going with edtech.

It’s evolutionary thinking, baby.

I’m now trying to figure out how to make sense of the latest move that joins up Pearson and Knewton to deliver content, platform and analytics. The slightly offputting company vision of jacked in kids learning through a secret sauce mix of tracking and psychometrics has quite a bit in common with Club Penguin’s new predictive text feature, that finishes and cleans up your children’s sentences for you so that even poor spellers and the potty mouthed can pay to play in Disney’s branded social network. (And thanks to Audrey Watters for both of these.)

But by adding reporting and analytics Knewton’s going a step further, presenting itself as a transformative horizon of accountability that will meet the needs of educators, parents and government (memo to Knewton: when talking to educators, remember that it’s not universally accepted that these are the same needs) and so it fits well with Pearson’s self-concept as the most benign big fish in the sea.

Worrying about where actual educators come in all this, especially since sitting through the Knewton video, I’ve become distracted by two metaphors for cooperative co-existence, and a fable. What they’ve helped me to think through is that not all partnerships are mutual, and that in the long term, not all partnerships arrive at the same destination, even when they set out to work together.  Sometimes, instinct is just too strong.

So this isn’t just cautionary thinking for Pearson and Knewton, but for the rest of the educational ecosystem, and particularly for educators, as our role in this kind of threesome is far from clear.

The first story involves the orchid and the wasp. Philosophers Deleuze and Guattari use this to try to explain how the apparently fixed identity of anything gives way to the more important business of what it is that thing is actually used to do. It’s attached to another part of their thinking, involving the rhizomatic way that meaning can get about with a central distribution point, a metaphor that Dave Cormier brought into the conversation about open education in 2008. The rhizome gets a lot of attention including from Michael Feldstein and his readers, but the story of the orchid and the wasp less so.

Its explanatory value involves the way that the wasp and the orchid evolve in cooperation. By producing a reasonable facsimile of the markings of a wasp, for example, the orchid persuades the wasp to come a little closer to take a look, and as a result this fragile species that likes to grow in out of the way places (presumably off the flightpath of regular bee traffic) lives on. The wasp is still a wasp, but is lured into collaborating with the reproductive needs of the orchid, so it’s also part of the orchid world. At the heart of the bargain is a bit of deception and possibly some waspish disappointment, but no real harm.

The second metaphor is the mosquito and the raindrop. Mosquitoes thrive in rain, but how exactly do they survive the impact of raindrops that are in general 50 times heavier than they are? Apparently, there’s been an urban myth that mosquitoes do this by thinking ahead and navigating around the rain, but this has now been disproved by researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology, to whom we all owe this immensely touching scrap of slow motion photography.

What they’ve found is that mosquito survival depends on their offering no resistance at all to the raindrops. As a result the raindrops, which really do have momentum and somewhere-to-be, simply push them aside:

High-speed videography of mosquitoes and custom- built mimics reveals a mosquito’s low inertia renders it impervious to falling drops. Drops do not splash on mosquitoes, but simply push past them allowing a mosquito to continue on its flight path undeterred.

In other words, the mosquito has evolved to survive in the rain by making itself very inconsequential as far as the raindrop is concerned. The raindrop isn’t really involved in the deal.

And then there’s a third metaphor, which isn’t a truly evolutionary story, but a fable: the scorpion and the frog.  In this well-known tale, the frog agrees to give a ride across a river to the scorpion on the grounds that—as the scorpion argues—it makes no sense for the scorpion to kill the frog as they will both drown.  The frog goes along with this, although its motives in doing so aren’t all that clear. When the scorpion stings the frog after all, the frog complains, to which the scorpion’s reply is simple: it stung the frog because that was its nature.

So I can see why it makes sense for powerful companies to promote competitive evolution in the market system as a form of coexistence that can pay off for everyone, but stories of species collaboration aren’t always so reassuring: there’s the orchid’s self-serving deception, the raindrop’s indifference born of superior size and power, and the helpless dishonesty of the scorpion. The wasp does well out of it, the mosquito makes the best of it, and the frog comes off very badly indeed.

The fact that each of these relationships is constructed in the awkward space between mutuality and sharing helps explain why external partnerships alarm risk-averse educational institutions looking to make be-all LMS contract decisions. It’s like going on holiday with a couple: so much could go wrong.

So if we’re also going to thrive as the combination of platforming and vendor concentration places extreme pressure on the smaller and more specialised edtech players, we’re going to need to do more than watch nature do its thing. Specifically, it makes sense to remember the power that lies in the fact that we’re the clients, we have relatively large budgets, and we have urgent reason to invest in protecting the health and diversity of the global edtech ecosystem—especially in Australia, where the goal of our startups is already to make it to America.

So one way we might do this is to create better opportunities for educators to become much more actively and routinely invested in supporting small edtech startups—but how to do this without becoming either the mosquito or the raindrop? That’s going to take some smart thinking.