Press one to graduate (and Clay Shirky again)

I love rights. They’re a great measure of how much western civilisation thinks of you.

If you’re a low-paid worker, an immigrant, disabled, or just unlucky enough to be poor your rights are an unaffordable luxury. They are an extravagance, a throwback to a bygone age, a toxin that destroys your profitability.

If you are a member of the global 1% (and if you are reading this you most likely are), your rights are inviolable and must be staunchly defended. Especially your consumer rights, and your right to choose to give large corporations money. Those ones are especially important.

Recently, a group of wealthy educators (though not the ones that actually do any educating), leavened with a few writers, commentators and others came together to defend a new bunch of consumer rights – your rights in the emerging market place of high-capacity online learning.

There is much to agree with, both in the initial draft and the document as it currently stands. You can still contribute to the google doc should you wish, and many others have done so. But it remains, at its heart, equivalent to the rights you have to return your malfunctioning MacBook and have it replaced. Or it would if it actually conferred any rights.

It disappeared on later drafts, but one of the telling phrases on the original Bill of Rights was “the right to have great teachers”.  Language like this echoes that of people like Joel Klein at NewsCorp:

“Last, to shake up the system, we must change how we use technology to deliver instruction. (This is what I’m now seeking to do at News Corporation.)… [O]ne of the best things we could do is hire fewer teachers and pay more to the ones we hire. And, as in any other field, technology can help get us there. If you have 5,000 math teachers, many of whom are underperforming, significantly improving overall quality is nearly impossible. But if you get the best math professors in the world—who are great teachers and who deeply understand math—and match them with great software developers, they can create sophisticated interactive programs that engage kids and empower teachers.”

Those “many of whom are underperforming” teachers are your adjuncts. Also known as regular folks doing a difficult job well for too little money. And this kind of idea is being smuggled under the cover of reaching new groups of students.  Automating marking, signature track typing-style recognition, superstar lectures streamed online… all of these ideas represent a way not to employ an adjunct professor.

Simultaneously, “adjunct” professors (or part-time hourly-paid early-career teaching-only-contract staff, as we call them rather less snappily in the UK) are asserting their own right to withdraw their labour. Adjunct Project’s “Quit” initiative feels like the beginning of the HE equivalent of Colony Collapse Disorder, where hives become unviable as masses of worker-bees disappear without explanation.

Across the world, academic tenure has shifted from an expectation, to a dream, to an unheard of state of employment for anyone under 40. And unsurprisingly, young academics are tiring of being exploited and patronised (“many of whom are underperforming”), and moving elsewhere. Out of academica. Into a career where they can one day aspire to rent their own home.

This is the aspect that Clay Shirky (yes, him again) misses entirely when he defends himself against detractors in The Awl. He’s comparing MOOCs to mass education (specifically mass lectures) without contemplating that mass education is only like that because we are unwilling to invest in human resources to provide a better experience.

And the MOOC difference. It’s cheaper. Initially. While the venture capital lasts. And that’s it.

There’s no increase in the quality of the experience, it’s not a better product. Just a subsidised one.  If you want a comparison from another industry, it’s what happened when call centres realised they could replace swathes of staff with an automated attendant.

In that case, as with what is happening in education, it was a cost (salary) saving that drove the change. Swathes of skilled and knowledgeable staff could be replaced by an inflexible system and scripted (but untrained) low-paid offshore staff.  But this led to a drastic lowering of customer satisfaction – these days the trend is to bring back the old-fashioned call centre – with major airlines and banks promoting the chance to speak to a real person to solve complex queries.

The almost one hundered million google results for “speak to a real person” bear this out. There is a demand for human intelligence in solving complex banking and ticketing queries –  it is bizarre to believe that there would not be a demand for human intelligence in supporting learning.

So what of the humans in question – the adjuncts? If we are not spending the money on proper jobs for educators – if we literally cannot afford to grow the professors, provosts and vice-chancellors of the future -what exactly are we spending ever rising student fees on?

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