Thursday, 8 May 2014

The Institution of Status

Education only appears to be about learning; really it's about status. Learning is seen as the route to acquiring increased social status. But we have many ways to learn today. MOOCs are only the most recent manifestation - and it seems, at least for now, they have failed. Why? Well, it might have something to do with the focus of the MOOC on learning, and its failure to address anything to do with social status. In educational technology the failures are more important than than the successes. As I've commented before (see, the only people whose status is increased by a MOOC are those academics who put on the courses. Stephen Downes and George Siemens seem to have done ok out of it too.

I think we've got to throw the spotlight onto the way people find ways of acquiring responsibility, commitments, obligations - and in so doing express new rights and privileges. Educational institutions, when things work well, provide opportunities for learners to do this. New responsibilities and commitments arise from acquiring new skills, and very often from the recognition of skills that students already possess. As rights and responsibilities change, so too do the communications people have with each other: particularly the communication between teachers and learners. It is the changes in the positioning between teachers and learners that we really know that somebody has learnt something. But in fact, what happens is that their network of responsibilities and commitments change. In the process, the student becomes a master.

Institutions have always done this. Indeed, not just educational institutions. The networks of status, of apprenticeship and its relationship to learning are the characteristics of all kinds of social institution: we see it in hospitals as nurses and doctors rise through the ranks and become part of the fabric of the institution; we see in industry; we see it in the church (another classic example of an institution which is not about what it says it is!), in the judiciary, and we see it government. In each case, however, it is not only the expression of skill which gives rise to status. Just as in the economy where individuals may increase their status through the possession of 'status symbols', short-cuts to social status can work within institutions - usually to their detriment. The point about this is that people really want status - possibly more than anything else. It is status that is so closely tied to the meaningfulness of peoples' lives. It may be that what manifests as financial greed is really driven by status-hunger which in turn sits on ontological insecurities that result in behaviour becoming one-dimensional (financially motivated) in the quest to find meaning. What feeds the status-hunger are mechanisms that probably go back to personal relationships and attachments: not just the wife or husband and children, but also the parents. Status goes deep.

The really remarkable thing about technology is that it does provide people with new ways of increasing their status, or hooking into existing status-enhancing mechanisms which bypass institutions. But it's not MOOCs. Artists and open source software developers have been the most effective groups of people to embrace this (these are different ways of acquiring status). YouTube has been remarkable in raising the profile of innovators in the arts. Artists have always had a slightly ambivalent relation to institutions, so this new means of self-promotion has been well-suited. Artworks express commitments and responsibilities in themselves: a commitment to deep engagement with materials, technique, form and idea. Often such works are collaborative, expressing deeper social connections, which the technology can them amplify (the Virtual choir is a good example). Tools like Github and Sourceforge have also been platforms for status raising among software developers. Typically open source platforms are ways into different kinds of institutions and different ways of expressing commitments and responsibilities. The Apache Foundation is an obvious example of such an institution. Ultimately, the ability of being able to demonstrate something with a URL which makes people go 'wow' is a powerful status-enhancer.

There's none of this on MOOCs. But why shouldn't there be? I'm increasingly interested in the idea that technology might be able to provide a way where academic researchers can engage in status-enhancing practices which mirror the YouTube artist. Open Virtual Research Environments like MyExperiment ( provide the opportunity for ordinary people to inquire and explore ideas and make discoveries which can be connected to the work of others. Something like this is happening on (grateful to Keith Smyth for this) - but more focused and rigorous research work is also possible. Such work is also an expression of the commitment and responsibilities of individuals. Recognition of new research findings bring new responsibilities and commitments. All without going near an institution.

Not that I am against institutions. But I do think we should understand them better - this is the best way we can avoid the pathologies that unfold in them. Universities are institutions of status. They portray themselves as institutions of learning and in so doing mask their real function behind a veneer of the 'search for knowledge'. Yet anyone who's had anything to do with Universities knows that they are rarely good places for thinking; they can be remarkably unreflective places! What gets in the way? Well, it's the noisy professor's ego, or the idiot manager, or simply the 'system' that doesn't compute. This isn't new. We know from history that it can be dangerous.

But there are new things we can do about it.

No comments: