So there I was, minding my own business, when I discovered that the Frankfurt School was responsible for giving gay men and women in Ireland the right to marry.
“Well now,” says I, “what else might they be responsible for, these gnomes of Frankfurt.” It turns out they have been the source of the “ideas” for education policy in the United Kingdom for decades. From Dialectic of Enlightenment:
Cultural education spread with bourgeouis property. It forced paranoia into the dark corners of society and the soul. But since the real emancipation of mankind did not take place with the enlightenment of the mind, education itself became diseased. The greater the distance between the educated consciousness and social reality, the more it was itself exposed to the process of reification. Culture became wholly a commodity disseminated as information without permeating the individuals who acquired it. Thought became restricted to the acquisition of isolated facts. Conceptual relationships were rejected as uncomfortable and useless effort. The aspect of development in thought, all that is genetic and intensive in it, is forgotten and leveled down to the immediately given, to the extensive. Today the order of life allows no time for the ego to draw spiritual or intellectual conclusions. The thought which leads to knowledge is neutralized and used as a mere qualification on specific labour markets and to heighten the commodity value of the personality. And so that self-examination of the mind which works against paranoia is defeated. Finally, under the conditions of modern capitalism, half-education has become objective spirit. In the totalitarian phase of domination, it calls upon the provincial charlatans of politics, and with them the system of delusion as the ultima ratio: forcing it upon the majority of the ruled, who are already deadened by the culture industry. The contradictions of rule can be seen through by the healthy consciousness so easily today that it takes a diseased mind to keep them alive. Only those who suffer from a delusion of persecution accept the persecution to which domination must necessarily lead, inasmuch as they are allowed to persecute others.
Scot L. Newstok has proposed the term `close learning’ to refer to university education as we presently understand it:
“Close learning” evokes the laborious, time-consuming, and costly but irreplaceable proximity between teacher and student. “Close learning” exposes the stark deficiencies of mass distance learning such as MOOCs, and its haste to reduce dynamism, responsiveness, presence.
Or, in summary, “to what are they being given access?”
The argument about access to higher education, the ground on which much of the mooc stooshie is being fought out, is based on ideas about social mobility, and meritocracy: in short, going to university will let you make more money and escape the harsh grinding poverty (intellectual and financial) of whatever benighted hole spawned you.
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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).
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The final session began with reports back from the workshop session, followed by talks from John Holmwood, Tom Hickey and Martin McQuillan.
John Holmwood talked about the trajectory of higher education from the Robbins (`social democratic’) to the Browne (`neo-liberal’) report, describing the changes in policy. He rejected the claim that there is a need for cuts in education spending, mentioning the Aubyn report showing that UK higher education is the best value for money in the world, and the Wolf [?] report on aspiration to university.
Tom Hickey discussed the UCU response to the current situation and asked what connection there is between trade-unionism and the vision of a university. Like John Holmwood, he noted that the public strongly supports access to education. On the subject of organization, he pointed out that autonomy is dangerous in a system of privatized universities, and that UCU is the only organization distributed throughout the sector. He proposed that UCU put forward a vision for universities, defending self-managed scholarly activity.
Martin McQuillan took his topic from Tamson Pietsch’s idea of the enclosure of the epistemological commons. He gave an account of the forms of management of English universities such as companies limited by guarantee (which can be taken over). Other models are available, such as the University of California system, or private universities backed by private equity, as in continental Europe. He gave two examples of dangers for university education: `open access’ which is put forward as giving the public access to taxpayer-funded research, but will mainly benefit those (business) who previously paid for data; and MOOCs, which as well as being criticized for their pedagogy, but which are also run by private bodies which want to monetize lectures. The ideological drive is to justify private profit as a public good.
Having just come back from the Convention for Higher Education at Brighton, I am putting up summaries of discussions. These are broken up by session, to avoid having a very long account, and to make it easier to comment. Panel speakers are named, because they had already agreed to have their names used, but not contributors from the audience. Apparently, videos of the talks will be online in the near future.
In the first session, I estimated about sixty people were present. The speakers in the first session were Caroline Lucas MP, Luke Martell from University of Sussex, and Peter Scott columnist and one-time Vice-Chancellor at Kingston.
Caroline Lucas spoke mainly about the political context of the public university and especially the effects of fees on applications and access, and how the idea of studying for love of learning rather, and the words `public good’, have largely disappeared from discussions of higher education. She also mentioned the UCU proposal for an education tax on large corporations, which would allow the abolition of fees.
Luke Martell talked about resistance to privatization at Sussex and the balance between trade unions and students in the campaign. He described an initially negative response from the trade unions to the campaign, with academics complicit in marketization, and considered the limitations of information or propaganda activity as opposed to occupation and other forms of action. He was especially critical of the one day strike.
Peter Scott gave his view that we must take back the claim to be radical, which is currently made by the government. He said that supporters of the selective, academic (in the bad sense) system have not come to terms with mass higher education, and that while higher education needed reform, to deal with inequities that were in the system, it did not need this reform. Noting that the question is what is the trajectory of the reforms, he pointed out that Browne introduced a paradigm shift in the sector (this was developed further by John Holmwood on the second day). In answer to the question `what is to be done’, he said we need clarity about values, and that we should celebrate the mass system of higher education, end league tables, and weigh all forms of impact including social critique.
In the discussion at the end of the session, the issue of role of trade unions in universities was raised, and the problem of the depoliticization of unions and the lack of concern amongst academics about outsourcing. There was a comment about a general lack of radicalism amongst staff, even those organized into trade union branches. A participant from Brighton said that the Sussex occupation had shaken his faith in trade unions, and that he was supporting the `pop-up union’. Luke Martell shared this disillusion with trade unions but pointed out that they do have important resources and mobilizing capacity. It was noted from the floor that while class had been raised as an issue of access and widening participation, the white maleness of the panel (Caroline Lucas had had to leave early) did not inspire confidence in its ability to deal with the diversity of university students and staff. The von Prondzynski review of governance in Scottish universities was mentioned in the context of the role of academics in governance. A colleague visiting from the US mentioned the role of debt in higher education and how it destroys any idea of education. Finally, it was stated that unions are best placed to resist the changes in the sector, but cannot do so in a narrow way, and the question of how to politicize `support staff’ was raised.
Venue: anywhere with wifi that lets you use Google
Date: whenever you feel like it
Instructions to candidates: You may not use any external information, unless you can get away with it, nor should you use your free hand to shoo the cat, pick cornflakes from your navel, or scratch unhygienically. Answer any questions which appeal to you. Pictures of kittens will only be considered as a tiebreaker …
It may be time to keep certain people away from computers, lest they corrupt the youth. The starry-eyed carny barkers for iTat have decided that no university is complete without a MOOC, a Massive Open Online Course. A number of British universities have joined Futurelearn, a consortium led by the Open University which will “offer a best-in-class educational experience that will delight students”. The main reason for offering MOOCs seems to be that they are popular, especially in America. The main feature of a MOOC is lectures, mostly by star professors, recorded and made available online as part of a course taken by `students’ who are not present at the university and who have no contact with the person who is `delivering’ the course.
The argument put forward in favour of MOOCs is that they allow millions of people who would not otherwise have the chance to `access’ higher education. By integrating tests of knowledge and understanding into the course, it is possible to assess students and give them something of the university experience, for free.
Clearly cost is an issue here. As Moshe Vardi, editor in chief of the Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery (so not an obvious opponent of the use of IT in education) puts it:
It is clear, therefore, that the enormous buzz about MOOCs is not due to the technology’s intrinsic educational value, but due to the seductive possibilities of lower costs. The oft-repeated phrase is “technology disruption.” This is the context for the dismissal (and later reinstatement) last summer of Theresa A. Sullivan, University of Virginia’s president, because she was not moving fast enough with online education. The bigger picture is of education as a large sector of the U.S. economy (over $1T) that has so far not been impacted much by information technology. From the point of view of Silicon Valley, “higher education is a particularly fat target right now.” MOOCs may be the battering ram of this attack.
Higher education is one of the few public goods yet to have been taken under private control and run for profit. MOOCs offer a cheap way of selling something which can be passed off as a university education, without the inconvenience of dealing with students or, probably, academics. Individual profit and loss accounts for teaching staff are already here. Once a university realizes that it only needs its star teachers to give one show, perhaps for a cut of the advertizing revenue, why should it bother hiring permanent staff?
The aim, in the pursuit of lower costs (i.e. profit), is to remove the essential elements of a university education and replace them with an inferior substitute for one of them, the ersatz lecture.