Technology, Not Tenure: The Politics of the Digital Turn in #HigherEd

An absolute must read in the Chronicle of Higher Education for those interested in digital change within higher education:

Last year, a former Princeton University president, William G. Bowen, delivered the Tanner Lectures at Stanford, continuing a long tradition of college leaders’ using the top floors of the ivory tower to speak difficult truths about academe.

When the dot-com craze was sweeping the nation, back in 2000, Bowen—an author in the 1960s of the original “cost disease” diagnosis of labor-intensive industries­—kept his eyes on the evidence. He didn’t yet see reason to believe that colleges could use technology to save money. But another decade of progress changed his mind. “I am today a convert,” he said. (The lectures were published this year by Princeton University Press as Higher Education in the Digital Age.) Bowen’s random-trial-based research suggests that “online learning, in many of its manifestations, can lead to at least comparable learning outcomes relative to face-to-face instruction at a lower cost.”

With MOOC mania showing no signs of abating, such strong conclusions from an esteemed scholar have drawn notice.

Less attention has been paid to what Bowen said next. Increasing labor productivity is one thing in theory, something else in practice. Less face-to-face instruction can mean fewer faces on the faculty side. It also means routinizing aspects of the student learning experience and thus reducing the day-to-day academic discretion of individual professors.

Bowen was a university president long enough to know how faculty are likely to respond, and what mechanisms of structural power and appeals to tradition will be employed to divert productivity gains to “gild the educational/research lily.” “I wonder,” he said, “if the particular models of what is often called ‘shared governance’ that have been developed over the last century are well suited to the digital world.”

Nor does Bowen believe that this an issue of academic freedom: Freedom of expression “should not imply unilateral control over methods of teaching. There is nothing in the basic documents explaining academic freedom to suggest that such control is included. It is not.”

These are the battle lines of early-21st-century higher education. Or at least they will be if the professoriate chooses to fight for traditional totems and privileges.

It’s an infuriating set of arguments being proffered by the “Director of Education Policy Program” at a think tank which has Eric Schmidt as the chairman of the board of directors. But I think he’s correct about the ‘battle lines of early-21st-century higher education’:

Total academic freedom in the classroom is just ridiculous. If an organization is focused on doing something, like education, it ought to have theories and standards and practices about that something. As the University of Chicago’s longtime president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, said in another lecture-series-turned-book-length provocation, the system of letting students choose among classes taught by wholly autonomous professors “denies there is content to education, so the organization of the modern university denies that there is rationality in the higher learning. The free elective system as applied to professors means that they can follow their own bents, gratify their own curiosity, and offer credits in the results.”

Hutchins was concerned with curriculum back in 1935, but the same laissez-faire approach is applied, then as now, to the practice of teaching. Student evaluations provide little useful information other than an inverse correlation to academic rigor. Teaching varies as professors see fit, which is widely, and so learning varies as well, and far too much.

Digital technology in contemporary higher education is janus faced. It risks being a means through which an unprecedented disciplining of academic labour can be enacted while simultaneously holding out unprecedented possibilities for expanding the autonomy of networks of academics vis-a-vis the institutions within which they operate. It’s for this reason that I think there is an incipiently political dimension to digital scholarship. The technology which is increasingly implicated in the politics of higher education is also reshaping the circulation of research, as Dave Beer has pointed out:

What I would like to suggest is that this blog post, like other social media content, will be subject to the politics of circulation that defines contemporary media. The data that is produced as a by-product of contemporary cultural life does not just stop when it is produced, rather data fold-back into our everyday lives in variegated and often unseen ways. Similarly the destiny of this blog post will be shaped by the material infrastructures that it has been placed within. In this sense, academic knowledge is being opened up to social media’s politics of circulation. As such, these transformations in the communication of research are likely to have profound implications for the way that we encounter and discover knowledge. All of which will then, in turn, implicate the knowledge that we go on to produce. There is the potential then for social media’s politics of circulation to influence both the communication and production of knowledge.

Using social media to communicate academic knowledge is not a problem in itself, it actually opens up vast new possibilities, but it forces us to ask what will happen as more and more researchers use social media and other open-access outlets for their work. How will we cope with the din? And, most importantly, who will get heard? If we don’t understand the politics of data circulations that define contemporary media cultures then we may also find that academic practice is reshaped without sufficient reflection and reaction.

The way in which digital technology is being deployed, in a partly rhetorical fashion, as part of a project to discipline academic labour is a distinct process from the politics of circulation described by Beer. But the unpredictability of this circulation potentially throws a spanner into the works. All the more so if digital scholarship is embraced with the aim of securing the agency of scholars in a rapidly changing knowledge environment. The available options are radically expanding. The only one that is untenable is passivity and a retreat into comfortable certainties:

We can no longer imagine that we are communicating research in an environment in which our ideas, or data, amble continually forward in a slow linear stroll. Rather our findings, even those published in old fashioned journals – which now have blogs and Twitter feeds attached and whose publishers are looking to increase impact factors through predictive recommendation and the like – are also being introduced to the chaotic maelstrom of contemporary media. The result is that our research will take on this vitality and will be caught in the currents, which might be simultaneously unnerving and invigorating. Some ideas will be washed away, unnoticed, others will find a significant audience, others may have a profound and surprising journey through networks. The outcomes will be unpredictable, but all will be a product of the politics of circulation that defines contemporary media forms.

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