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?

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.

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: