You will do what you are told, until the rights to you are sold #altc2011

An excellent #altc2011, and particularly an excellent John Naughton keynote address, was soured for me by the announcement of the themes for next year’s conference – concerning “a confrontation with reality”. That kind of language sets my teeth on edge, as the “reality” we are expected to confront is not the usual, empirical, kind of reality that we can verify with our senses or with data. There are no questions about the educational technologist’s disregard for gravity, statistical methods, or electromagnetic forces.

The reality we are expected to confront is the one that is being imposed on us. The one where there’s not enough money to actually try and improve anything, and we’d better be careful to somehow justify what we are doing. The one where we’ve all “run out of money”, “maxed out our credit card”, and need to enter an “age of austerity”. All to support the need for the continuation of the bad choices and gaping inequalities that make up the society that existed before the “mysterious” and “unforeseeable” collapse.

Nothing in the paragraph above is true, unless we accept that it is. Economic conditions are a choice, not a force of nature. The market is an aggregation of choices, not an unseen hand. In confronting this “reality”, we must first accept it, then conform to it. I don’t think we can accept it – it is a narrative, and there are other narratives to choose.

One narrative is that universities will be funded at levels at least comparable to currently, and in many cases more generously. This has the advantage of being empirically verifiable. Sure, there are a lot of issues relating to sustainability of structures, our government having for some reason decided to remove certain cost-saving continuity measures that allow for long-term planning, but there’s just as much money in the system. And there is no reason to believe that institutions will suddenly decide to spend money on different things – the “student at the heart of the system” is just as likely to want a stable and well-resourced department, or access to the latest technology, as they are now.

This is shock doctrine stuff – and our eagerness to submit to these new rules in the name of “reality” is being used as a weapon against us by those who think things would simply be better if their companies earned more money from the UK higher education system. When John Naughton talked about the dissolving value chains of information industries, it’s not universities who need to be worried – we’ve dealt in an environment with an abundance of information for more than 200 years. It’s publishers and monopolistic software companies, whose business models are predicated on scarcity.

Which leads me on to ownership, one of the key themes that I took away from the conference. I was struck in a couple of presentations that the idea of saying that we have a VLE which is “owned” by the institution, whereas the ePortfolio is “owned” by the student, is flawed. In strict financial terms, both are owned by the software companies we lease them from, or are in the public domain. If we are talking about who controls them, who administrates them, the answer is the institution. Student “ownership” of platforms (both in HE, and in social media) extends only as far as personalisation – tweaking colours, images and fonts. This would apply equally to an institutions “ownership” of an iTunesU presence. Their control only extends as far as deciding how much of their intellectual labour they want to donate freely to a computer manufacturer, and which logo to put amongst all of the shiny apple ones.

The concept of ownership is being shifted – think of what I bet you call “your” iPhone, leased from your network at a high monthly rate, tied to one approved source of software and subject to terms and conditions variable by the manufacturer. In return for this amazing deal, you give Apple access to your personal data and access to your personal reputation. Where do I sign?

Do institutions “own” their students? Have a look at your prospectus – the experiences of students are simply marketing narratives, demonstrating an institutional skill in landing graduates attractive jobs, convincing them they are satisfied with their course and the “facilities”, and filling the grassy wasteland in front of the only attractive building on campus with a handful of the blondest, thinnest ones for a front cover. We are asking them to spend thousands of pounds so that they can ensure our statistics look good enough to get more students to spend thousands of pounds…

Ethics. Every student we pump through this system with the illusion of choice is a student that never had the freedom to learn from their mistakes, to define their own reality, to consider anything other than a well-paid graduate job. And we are pumping them into a system that is so divorced from humanity that it is actually sheared from our emotional and environmental needs. And it is not as if this system is even working on it’s own terms. How can we even talk about “putting students at the heart of the system” when the system is wounded, toxic and violent. We should be taking students out of the system – a way out from the “reality” where we learn enough to be economically useful, are exploited by various non-human entities and then left to starve when we stop making them money. Pragmatism does not come in to the equation.

There is a genuine need for a space outside of confrontation and capitulation – a space of redefinition and reflection. If we can resist the need to buy in to the narrative that is being sold to us with greater and greater degrees of panic, higher education can actually offer capitalism not what it wants but what it needs.


This post represents my own views and not those of my employer. It is available under a CC-BY license.

4 thoughts on “You will do what you are told, until the rights to you are sold #altc2011”

  1. Brilliant post. The ‘realism’ that was mentioned today is otherwise known as ‘naive realism’. But there is a deeper (and more necessary) realism (‘critical realism’ is one approach to it) which isn’t getting a look-in!

  2. A conference is what its participants and those who submit proposals to it mak it. By choosing “a confrontation with reality” as a title we are intending to encourage the “critical realism” that Mark Johnson refers to.

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