Death Star Library

So Downes (and via Downes, Jim Groom) are hankering after the “subversive” roots of a MOOC movement that currently feels as edgy and relevent (and as exploitative and dull) as Starbucks. Reminding us that the original gameplan was to shake up those nasty elite institutions and bring new (and non-broken) education to the delighted and grateful masses.

Which might be true. In North America.

Some of us live in countries where Higher Education was free to those who could benefit, in living memory for someone in their mid 30s.

Here in the currently free nation of the United Kingdom (to give one example), the corporate hype behind MOOCs looks (and smells) the same as the hype that is pushing us to build a system just like the one that spat you out. The original wave of MOOCs (your connectivism stuff… well the ideas at least) felt like a reconnection with the earlier ideas of a system that could offer education to all. They felt like the tradition of university outreach and public lectures that have informed the UK system since before America. As in, before the European discovery of America.

We see the outsourcing of key activities, the enroaching managerialism, the flashy marketing that our institutions are beginning to undertake as just another wing of the ideology that brings us Udacity and Coursera. Maybe because other universities in other countries sold out so long ago it is easier for us to see.

What we had – what I benefited so much from – in the 80s and 90s has been under sustained attack ever since, by a shared ideology surmising that this education lark would be a nice little earner with a few little tweaks here and there. Every reform since then has been about making it easier to funnel government and student money to the private sector. Student experience is getting worse. Staff experience is getting worse. But that is not the point, it seems.

And when we see these VC-backed ex-academics, telling us that in 15 years there will be five institutions of higher education left, when we see journalists and analysts jumping on an easy answer that does away with academia almost entirely, when we see the very notion of “superstar lecturers” being taken seriously – we see the completion of this cycle.

It is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that your bad experience makes the system worthless. Your bad experience sucks – this is both true and lamentable – but it doesn’t make the system wrong. It makes the influences and ideas that are slowly colonising the system a great risk that allows the same experience to be repeated again and again. This is modern neo-liberal education policy writ large – my experience was unsatisfactory, therefore the system is unsatisfactory, therefore the attractive shiny and hyped to the gills idea that is suddenly everywhere is the future. And education is fucking broken. Yes.

Modern-day universities suck. But why they suck has more to do with the same people that are selling us the new model than the people who are trying to maintain the old one.

Work needs to be done. But I am unable to agree that the answer lies in trying to subvert what already exists, because there is already an entire industry that has been trying to do that for 20 years, and they have already succeeded in destroying a lot of what was great about the old system. When we see academic conditions fall again and again, when we see new PhDs earning less than they would tending bar, when we see learners treated like numbers, we know that it could be better because in living memory it has been better. Maybe it is our memories we need to share with you.

Even the Death Star had a library. It was on Deck 106.

23 thoughts on “Death Star Library”

  1. It’s almost like arguing we need to bring the manufacturing industry back to America cause all those plants that created steel and cars and actual things were good. I don;t disagree with that at all, I just know they are not coming back anytime soon. And the way I look at education these days, my push for rainbows and unicorns often feels like a way of confronting the harsh reality that the future of public education will look nothing like what we have known in the 70s and 80s in the US when it comes to public funding. I’m not saying I don;t want to see it, I’m also not saying I won;t fight for it, I’m just saying the means by which ideas and possibilities for the commons is so quickly eaten up by special interests of all kinds is really scary and disheartening.

  2. Thanks Jim, and I understand where you are coming from.

    “Rainbows and unicorns” are not just a way of confronting harsh “reality” – they are the only way of doing so. As soon as we slip, as soon as we start to accept their nightmarish vision of “reality”, as soon as we give their narrative credence, we are lost.

    This is why the digital storytelling is so important, and that’s why I didn’t like you describing it as “my retreat”. It’s more real than a million “THE HIGH COST OF HIGHER ED” infographics – because it’s inside and against those very infographics… which are far more powerful than the critiques they represent.

    Even if Deck 106 is just a library on the Death Star, it’s a library. And libraries give us power.

    1. What ds106 was or wasn’t for me when I started the class doesn’t take any of its power as a model (or lack thereof) away from the many people who helped define the experience. That’s what I am having a hard time getting my head around, what experience of university are we defining here? Yours? Mine? Someone else’s? That’s the very thing you caution me against in the post above, so why the privileging of yours? It seems the one education experience you had and we “are losing” is a pretty comfortable stance to take? What does that look like, and for whom? You take a shot below at Downes when defining the internet as a model, but seem to completely disregard how close your off-handed response is to the educational systems you are defending (is the internet mostly male? —where is that stat from?).

      Now, let me be clear here, I am not defending the dismantling of public education because it is broken—I think my blog would reinforce that pretty regularly. [And I have struggled with the useful idiot vision as you know.] Rather, I am mourning the fact that saying you want to save public education doesn’t mean the machine still can’t eat it. I’ve been pushing hard here in Virginia to bring this very discussion about funding and public institutions to the table recently on a state-wide level, so I haven’t given up hope, yet I don’t really see any of the venerable organizations and movements to “reclaim” education having any impact at all. And when experiments like EDUPUNK, ds106 and the MOOCs get co-opted, folks are accused of more “creative destruction” that is somehow fucking with the great populist movement to save education somewhere? Really? Where is it? I want to join!

      I understand the polemics, but like Martin, I want to do something that matters. I want to frame an issue that means something, and I guess in that regard I have to thank you because you are making me push myself to define just what that is. I can’t go one. I’ll go on.

      1. I also want to frame an issue that matters – which is why I find myself in the ridiculous position of disagreeing with people like you and Stephen on the internet, in the hope that somewhere in these comment threads we can define what this is and what we can do about it. Clearly we are on the same side, against the encroaching corporatisation of … actually pretty much everything, but especially education. And we are all of us, in our own ways, trying to offer an alternative to that.

        Your opening point about ds106 being a redefinable polysemous experience is wonderful. I completely agree with you. It’s done different (and amazing things) to different people. One of the things that would help me in working through all this “stuff” I appear to have stirred up would be to properly reflect and write up “my” ds106 – I kind of suspected I needed to wait until I had finished the course, but you don’t simply finish ds106…

        Essentially, I only really know one thing that is going any length to “saving public education” – disputing the narrative that it is beyond redemption. It’s somewhat alarming for me to think that pointing and laughing at the excesses of EduBusiness hype is maybe the most useful thing that we (and also the likes of Brian and Alan, who do this brilliantly) are up to. But there’s a story that needs reframing, and all I’ve ever tried to do is reframe it. If I start from the assumption that public education is lost, no matter where I end up I am reinforcing the message that public education is lost – which does $edubusiness a lot more good than it does anyone else.

        I’m just starting to work this out – as you can probably tell – so please accept my apologies for taking it away, rethinking it, and eventually blogging about it.

        And what a perfect Beckett quote – thank you for pushing this discussion forward.

        1. “disputing the narrative that it is beyond redemption”

          That sounds like a similar solution to the academic malaise we have been offering up for the last 20-30 years that has enabled the gutting of highered. We need organizing, policy, money, and power as well, making fun of edubusiness is not a solution, it’s a past time.

  3. Yes, yes, yes, but, David, why repeat “education is broken”? When I look around me at work, I see good people trying to work with what they’ve got. I see local communities (my own is a good example) that are so much better off because of the expansion of higher education and the building of new institutions. Stop with the institutional self flagellation. We may hate some of what we see around us, but *we* are ‘the university’ and it was built by publicly minded people like us, too. Despise the system that threatens our achievements, not the product of our own making.

    Other than that, a very welcome post 🙂

  4. I appreciate your noting the complexity of this issue…I’m seeing more of that in the literature; George Veletsianos hit on as much in his speech at Sloan’s ET4Online Conference. Problem is, the narrative around MOOCs engages simplicity at the core of this “disruptive technology.” Whether it’s a TED talk, a Friedman op-ed, or even an article in Nature (though the article was not peer reviewed), the narrative sells the existing system as bloated and out-of-touch, with these easy fixes a group of people in a shared hallway conceptualized thanks to Sal Khan. Such narrative is becoming reality when legislation engages ed-tech entrepreneurship to the extent of accreditation.

    That said, I disagree with Downes (and I feel like I must be missing something, because my Twitter is full of “here here” about his blog). Distance education has always been about providing scalable education to the masses…from correspondence to radio/tv to Internet and now the facilitated MOOC. To equate the cMOOC to the subversion that broke the institution’s back seems wide-eyed. Reading the early lit on the xMOOC, it’s referred to as distributed learning, a term harkened in the 1990s, and only gets the MOOC monicker months later after Siemens himself linked the two on his blog. The early writings of Thrun (and to an extent Ng and Koller) don’t treat the cMOOC at all, like they didn’t even know it existed. The xMOOC is a direct descendent of smart machines, complex systems and the science of AI/Machine Learning, not pedagogy and distance education and connectivism. It’s a stepbrother, commonalities shared because of the shared sociocultural period.

    1. Rolin, You make an interesting distinction between xMOOCs rooted in systems theory/cybernetics/AI and cMOOCs being pedagogically driven. I’ve always assumed (because I haven’t studied it in enough depth) that the pedagogy of connectivism was also derived from the lineage of systems theory. George Siemen’s early article on connectivism certainly refers to chaos theory and network theory.

      “Connectivism is the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, and complexity and self-organization theories.”

      I’d be interested in any further thoughts you have on this. Cheers.

  5. @Joss – “Education is broken” is used ironically, it was a failed viral marketing attempt by a start up called Degreed (that numbered David Wiley amongst it’s backers, and he really should know better.). The full tag was “Education is broken, somebody is to do something” and for reasons lost in the mists of beer myself and Brian Lamb find it hilarious.

    It’s kind of a shorthand for the lack of understanding that the “education reform” movement use in their attempts to disrupt.

  6. @Rolin I agree (and I read Morozov on a similar tip just this afternoon). In darker moments I wonder where this narrative has come from, as I hear it everywhere and it is insidiously creeping into government HE policy.

  7. You are depicting universities as noble endeavours that have in recent years been colonized by some neo-liberal mechanism of privatisation. I don’t disagree with that characterization; its clear for all to see.

    But my argument is also with universities, because from my perspective they themselves are instruments of colonization (as anyone who is *not* from Britain would tell you).

    To be colonized by Oxford and Eton is as bad as being colonized by Madison Avenue and Stanford.

    My work with MOOCs is *not* about ‘bringing new (and non-broken) education to the delighted and grateful masses.’ From my perspective, they’ve had more than enough of that.

    I view connectivism, and the MOOC, and the rest of the work I’ve done as providing (mostly) examples and (partially) means to help and enable people to provide their own education for themselves.

    1. Thanks Stephen – you make a great point regarding colonisation. What would a non-colonial education system look like?

          1. That internet has long since sailed. Today’s average internet user is a Chinese schoolgirl txting her friends who follows norms that would seem alien and outlandish to you.

          2. Nearly a year late to the party. I have taken this thread to be about power relations in education and learning in the context of the Internet (whatever that is). I find your characterisation of the average Internet user to be credible Stephen but I am interested in the missing voices from public discourse that might shape future education and learning. Whilst I realise this blog post and comments are unlikely to be influential in that shaping, I note that I am only the second woman to comment.

  8. I’ve tried to argue before that when people say education is broken, they often mean education funding is broken. And if that were the case we could discuss different options, which might include the free market option, but at least we’d know what we’re arguing about. The whole education is broken thing is a way of hiding this & making the commercial option seem like the only solution. I was at the Hewlett OER meeting last week and nearly came to blows with well meaning ed techers who kept saying it.
    But I don’t understand why you’re having a go at Jim & Stephen – the whole point of moocs to me was to allow experimentation, and it’s that aspect they seem to be trying to recapture (or retain).

    1. @Martin I always think of that godawful video (you know the one where students hold up signs that say “I Facebook through my classes”) when I hear “education is broken”, I see it as a component of a neoliberal society that demands and expects unlimited choice and personalisation.

      I’m having a (very mild, and tempered with a lot of respect for the amazing things they have done) go at Jim and The Downes because they are in some danger of becoming useful idiots and I know they would expect us to pick them up on it.

      1. That video was created by Michael Wesch in one of his anthropology classes and I’ve always thought it typical of the entitled attitude people who are already *in* the university system display. Here it is:

        Interestingly, among the othert tidbits, the students report they spend two hours a day in class and three hours studying. That five hours hardly represents “years of committed study in a collegiate environment.”

        Interestingly, those numbers are similar to my own – indeed, I maybe spent even less time in class, and certainly almost no time at all studying, at least in my first three years. But that said, I enjoyed my university education immensely. The bulk of it was spent – no, not in the college pub – in the offices of the student newspaper.

        1. Good point – and I think maybe it is the ability to define one’s own experience of an institution that I am grasping for. When I think back to my experiences (and I could only afford three years before they ratcheted the prices up beyond what I could afford) I realise that a lot of the time I was learning I didn’t realise I was learning.

          The “two hours + three hours” point is maybe answered similarly.

          Thanks for prompting me to realise this!

  9. “Modern-day universities suck. But why they suck has more to do with the same people that are selling us the new model than the people who are trying to maintain the old one.”

    I hesitate to get really involved in MOOC debates because I am one of those who have been “off the bus in the first place” but I have to say that I absolutely agree 100% with the above comment.

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