Technology for teaching in public

I’ve been asked to contribute a chapter to a book on teaching in public, specifically concerned with how we can use technology to do this. Now, I could probably knock out something on the commons, open educational resources, web 2.0 and that stuff, but a) it’s been done, and b) I want to make it a bit more theoretical. I’ve been reading quite a lot about the neo-luddite movement,  which isn’t about machine breaking, but about critiquing the role of the machine in modern society. (So put that sledgehammer down THIS MINUTE!)

Anyway, I’ve just been reading about Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and that crowd, who began to protest about the effect that mechanisation was having on culture and the general intellect, and developed a philosophy that I understand (bear with me, I’m new to this)  is sometimes referred to as American Transcendentalism, evidently to distinguish it from more religious forms of transcendentalism.  Like the neo-luddites, they weren’t particularly anti-technology, but recognised that the changes it brought weren’t always beneficial.

I really haven’t got very far with this, but I’m dimly beginning to make some connections with Marx’s notion of mass intellectuality. We often hear claims that universities aren’t producing graduates with the skills that the economy needs, (although no-one seems to be able to describe those skills in any detail), but the kind of critique of industrial thinking that the ne0-luddites and the American Transcendalists were indulging in seems to be a profoundly useful counterweight to the idea that there are a set of tips and techniques that ensure national well being.

The problem is of course, is that if this is done in public, then it is vulnerable to critique  that if universities cannot directly benefit the state, or at least demonstrate how they are doing so, then there is no logical reason for the state to pay for them. Not that there’s anything wrong with critique and debate of course. But just as the Devil has all the best tunes, that’s an argument that has simplicity on it’s side. The rebuttal of that argument is complex, involving well rehearsed arguments about blue-sky research, the value of critical graduates, (both of which the state does benefit from) and  accepting that there might indeed be alternative funding streams . On the bright side, I guess the use of open shared technologies promotes the creation of far more ideas.

But I accept that I need to think a lot harder about this, and find some evidence of how universities are engaging with open technology.

The neo-Luddite turn in the academy?

Following on from my last post, I’ve been reading a bit more about technologies, or rather trying to engage with some of the ideas that underpin them. Before we get started it’s important that I clarify that by “technologies” I’m not specifically referring to computers, e-learning, or stuff like that. I’m not excluding them either. I am using the word in the older sense of  the applying of scientific, or pseudo-scientific theories to practical problems.

The problem as I set out in the last post was that we tend to be overfond of using corporate technologies, and modelling ourselves on business techniques. This weekend I’ve been reading a book called the Hacker Ethic by Pekka Himanen. There’s a fascinating discussion of personal development (or self-help) literature in the book, that compares the modern pursuit of status, which can be defined through the acquisition of money, power, or both, with the mediaeval pursuit of God. Both are, Himanen argues, ultimately unattainable in that they miss the point, which is to explore and develop the passions that drive us as human beings. These days, I suppose,  we are invited to share in the values of Capital.  He further draws attention to the similarity of modern self help books to the monastic rules that were used to guide monks along the path to God. I’m not going to repeat the arguments in the book here. If you’re interested in this stuff you can read it yourself. What I am going to do though, is speculate on the implications of this line of argument for the modern university.

If we follow a rule too closely, we are essentially engaging with a performative technology. Put more simply, if we do this, that, the other, that, this and then the other again, and do it all in the right order then we will achieve our “goals”. One could reverse this and see technologies as essentially a modern version of a monastic rule. (The rule of St.  Bill of Gates, or St. Stephen of Covey!)

As an aside, I was recently browsing through the business section of a bookshop and noted a whole shelf devoted to a series of works inviting me to manage the “Richard Branson”, “Philip Green”, or “insert corporate worthy of your choice here” way. There were about a dozen such titles and I remember wondering at the time how much of the success of these people was down to chance. I’m not suggesting that they didn’t work hard for their success, or even that they haven’t applied the “technologies” rigorously. I’ll bet though that other people have applied them even more rigorously and are not the subject of such works. I doubt any of the books discussed that issue. (I haven’t read any of them. When I noticed the title of an adjacent volume “Are you a badger or a doormat?” I decided that this sector of the publishing world had taken leave of its senses and left the shop). Of course the only lesson to be drawn from this story is that such books are written for profit which is achieved by the promotion of adherence to “rules” by customers.  I suspect the author of the last named work cares more about their royalty cheque than about which domestic article or wild animal you personally identify with!

To get back to the point, Himanen’s take on this kind of thing is that these are effectively modern hagiographies, which any properly critical pedagogy should take with a large pinch of salt. As he points out, the Rule of St Benedict abjures the disciple to sit quietly and listen to the words of the master. Which brings me at last to the Luddites. (About time too!) I’ve been involved with educational technology long enough to have heard almost every colleague refer to themselves at some point as a Luddite. In my doctoral thesis I made a slightly flippant remark that people are being unfair to themselves when they do this, as there haven’t (to my knowledge) been many outbreaks of organised machine breaking in universities. (But, if you do know of one, please, please  let me know through the comments!). I stand by that, because I think academics who characterise themselves so, are doing themselves a huge disservice. Most of us in HE have comparatively high levels of IT literacy even if we think we don’t.

On reflection my comment was unfair to the original Luddites, who were actually protesting, not against machines as such, but against the creation of new rules (or technologies) that would totally change their way of life. It wasn’t that a machine could make better stockings. It couldn’t. All it could do was make acceptable stockings. We still think the label “hand-made” is an indicator of quality, (often in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.) And the factories imposed new rules which reduced the stocking maker to the status of a cog in the machine. Now consider this quotation about a particular form of academic development that I also used in my thesis.

We should not be telling our students things, we should be ‘managing their learning’ and enabling them to develop ‘transferable skills’;. This is a matter of technique and procedure; who the teacher is, what s/he knows and what s/he cares about are or should be unimportant (Cameron, 2003, quoted in McLean, 2006, 143-4)

I suspect Cameron would have been at one with the Luddites in a philosophical sense. She shows, quite rightly, the same concern for the replacement of a skilled craft with technological rule based approaches that achieve something, (managed learning, transferable skills) that might be valuable, but are nowhere near as valuable as a critical engagement with an academic discipline. The other point about such approaches is that they profoundly undermine the Humboldtian concepts of Lehrerfreiheit and Lernfreiheit.  Respectively they refer to “freedom to choose what to teach”, and “freedom to choose what to learn”). If you have to manage your transferable skills, by completing a personal development plan, which by the way, will be assessed where is your academic freedom? If you have to spend your time teaching students how to do this, where is your academic freedom?

Rhetorical self indulgence aside, does this kind of neo-Luddism  have anything positive to offer the academy? I think it does. Before I expand, I must reiterate that neo-Luddism is not anti technology, in the sense that it calls for a return to quill pens and parchments. ICT is an essential part of modern life, and a neo-Luddite agenda would exploit it to the full. Anyway, what does neo Luddism offer us? First it asks us to take a properly critical look at the “rules” and the technologies we use to pursue them. Second, it asks us to define what we would replace the rules with. I haven’t addressed that in this post, but like Himanen, I would argue for passion (for a discipline), activities that support the development of that passion, and for freely sharing of the outputs of those activities. Third, I think it asks us to look at how sustainable we can make our work, which I think we can only do through sharing our discoveries. These are perhaps matters for future posts, but I’d like to leave you with a final thought. Have you ever seen an organisation chart where the chief executive’s box is drawn at the bottom of a page? No?  The reason for that is that information like water, tends to flow downhill, and this is true of any organisation. Remember St. Benedict’s advice to the disciple? “Sit quietly and listen” Those who are able to restrict information can choose what they tell you.

Now, I ask you. Is that any way to run a university?