Unexpected idea in the packing area

When a public service is to be `improved’, evidence be damned, make it more like private business. Empower consumers with choice; free staff through casualization; motivate the boss with money. The apotheosis of this trend is the mooc, or, as we know it in supermarkets, the self checkout (a euphemism for suicide whose time has come).

The self checkout is attractive to supermarkets for obvious reasons: it cuts labour costs, it makes staff compliant, and it shifts work onto the customer, while telling them it is more convenient.

The reduced labour cost is clear: fewer people means fewer pounds, but also the division of labour is taken to its logical extreme. Division of labour reduces cost because an employer need only hire people who can do one small part of the work, instead of people who can do everything. In the words of Harry Braverman, `dividing the craft cheapens its individual parts’. Where an academic once wrote their own course, taught it to classes, explained it to individuals, and examined it, they can now expect each part to be assigned to different people, with a healthy dollop of automation and self-service on top.

The bar-code scanner on the production line checkout is the supermarket version, but the self checkout divides labour into pieces so small the customer does them for you, and still gives you money. This is sold to the customer as a great convenience, removing the need to talk to the demoralized, underpaid staff on the mini production line. Even Taylor never thought of improving efficiency to the point of not having workers at all.

Braverman goes further in his discussion of the degradation of work. He talks of the separation of conception and execution, of the end of the possibility of one person seeing a task through from beginning to end, of conceiving it as a job on a human scale. The Taylorization of work is reaching its height in the mooc, where the tasks of writing a course, lecturing it to classes, teaching it to individuals, and examining it, will be first divided, and then, like the self-checkout, subcontracted to the customers.

This is being sold to the punters as a great boon, the opportunity to only hear canned talks from the best superprofessors at the finest universities (of which there will only be ten). Going to university need no longer include going to university, meeting other students, or, best of all, dealing with demoralized staff trying to hold on to their jobs until pension age.

Given enough time, the only university staff seen by students will be the avatars of superprofs, not necessarily live ones, proving eternal truths with slightly out of date jokes, and historical examples that weren’t at the time. The staff with the power over students, until they too are replaced by the self checkout, will be those desperate enough to take casual jobs doing the marking, not an obvious recipe for diligence and rigour.

Now that it is clear that moocs are to be frozen in amber, the last great possibility of surprise has been removed. There is a story of Joseph Brodsky discovering that students he was teaching had never heard of Ovid. His response was `you have been cheated’. The students denied the possibility of surprise, at their own ignorance, or at the implications of their new knowledge, are being cheated.

The final insult is to be told that this is an improvement, because students can choose what they want to study, and how, and when. It is in the nature of self-service (another fine double meaning) that we can only choose from what we know to be available. The complete course, devised, taught and examined by the same people, allows student and academic to digress, to follow up other leads, and for this to be reflected in the examination, where outside reading, and extra reflection can be (literally) recognized, and rewarded.

The freezing in sparkless amber of a set of facts can only lead to a shrivelling of teaching, examinable only on the bare curriculum, with imagination an indulgence and general knowledge a distraction.

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6 Comments on “Unexpected idea in the packing area”

  1. CIP says:

    I don’t think the caricature you construct really fits the MOOCs I have been in. Like a textbook or any other form of recorded knowledge, a MOOC has a static character. That hardly prevents revision – MOOC lessons are not carved in stone, and it certainly doesn’t prevent alternative versions from being created. A casual survey of the existing MOOC courses would show you that there are already a number of courses in the most popular subjects, such as computer science, statistics and various facets of economics. Competing courses in history, writing and literature are out there too.

    I’ve been fortunate enough to complete a MOOC in molecular biology by a top world expert, and some of the tools and ideas that were introduced were new even in the research arena.

    • The point is that the mooc is not claiming to replace the textbook, or other written knowledge, but the lecture or other spoken lesson. Print is a very good way of storing knowledge, for its permanence, and the possibility of random access, but clearly it cannot respond to questions raised by a student. In a lecture, a student can raise an issue, or ask a question, and have an answer immediately. If the question is deep, or interesting, enough, a competent academic can change the course of the lecture on the spot and follow up the class’s interest. This is the one thing we can guarantee will not happen in a mooc.

  2. Reblogged this on jbrittholbrook and commented:
    Good stuff. The reference to Taylor makes up for the lack of reference to Humboldt. We might even think of the Tayloring of the university as its de-Humboldtification. Here’s a quote from Taylor on “scientific management”:

    “It is only through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced cooperation that this faster work can be assured. And the duty of enforcing the adoption of standards and enforcing this cooperation rests with management alone.”

    It does seem many believe the university can benefit from such Tayloring.

  3. […] learn all that much if you’re too busy doing someone else’s job. Michael Carley, in a post I desperately wish I had written myself, captures the inevitable downward spiral of digital […]

  4. Another relevant point: I’ve never seen a self-checkout that doesn’t, in fact, require a great deal of attention from employees, because it regularly malfunctions in some way, or a particular product (alcohol, cold medicine) requires an i.d. check, or whatever. I occasionally suspect employees of hovering in an attempt to prove their indispensability, but, for the most part, they really need to be there. And a self-checkout that doesn’t, in fact, let you check out by yourself is far more frustrating than another system that works as promised. There may be a slight saving in labor, but I doubt it’s as large as whoever invented the thing expected/predicted.


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