Sunday, 9 November 2014

Martin Bean's Leaving Message from the OU: "Universities risk digital irrelevance": Is he right?

There's something a bit reassuringly old-fashioned about Martin Bean's plea for more technological innovation in Universities. It's as if the old-JISC (OJISC) is still with us (of course now we have New-JISC (NJISC) which doesn't even have access to an academic library: a rather more self-serving beast!). Bean cites the example of businesses which have failed to keep pace with technology (Jessops and Borders): his warning is "we risk the sector becoming irrelevant and even irresponsible." Heaven forbid! An irresponsible education sector!

A few years ago, I would have applauded Bean in his plea for innovation. Frankly I am grateful that this kind of ed-tech scaremongering prompted OJISC to fund things like #CETIS which provided me and others with academic thinking space in education. Now, I am not so sure. We've got to look at what's actually happened in education, and particularly what actually happened with the technologies in which we invested so much hope for a better future. We have seen a Illichian pathology cycle (Illich describes this in "Tools for Conviviality"). First we have the new innovation (the micro, web, Skype, the VLE, etc). These excite and liberate teachers to do new things. It allows them to slip under the radar of staid institutional processes: "liberty!" teachers shout!.. but then... "Hang on a minute..." says the manager, "we need to find a way of controlling this! (and maybe we can profit from it!)". It spells trouble. Remember all those liberating technologies... suddenly they become tools for institutional control and manipulation - introducing new 'efficiencies', restructuring, replacing face-to-face interactions with "functionally-equivalent" online tools.

And that's only the beginning.

What about the analytics?! Wham! We suddenly have the kind of naive Taylorist scientific management techniques which until this point have eluded education. Vice Chancellors think this is great and award themselves huge salary increases. The technology gives them Faustian knowledge of their institutions: they know how much everyone works, how much everyone is rated in research assessment exercises (just wait until we get to that!), when everyone comes in, goes home, eats lunch and what they do at the weekend (thanks Facebook!).

The information isn't the problem. It's the hubris it encourages in people who are not scholars but accountants and lawyers. Suddenly all those chips on the shoulders of the non-academic managerialista express themselves through the silicon chips and algorithms of the university's information machine. "We can make the educational sausage machine run more efficiently! Look! We could 'process' these kids with cheaper/fewer staff!" Suddenly all sorts of personal issues and psychological flaws express themselves in the managerial adhocery. "Who's running our institutions?" we must ask... "And what the fuck are they doing to them?!"

Institutions are in trouble. Accountability is compromised, boards of governors stuffed with the filthy rich, lawyers, lords and the clergy (for God's sake!!!) and dissent suppressed. If recent academic departures from the University of Essex are anything to go by, knowledge, culture and science are at risk. These people are on-the-make - if not financially, then through the status enhancement that close association to atavistic institutions grants them. Dammit, it's a wide open goal for corruption: so many institutions have student bodies full of kids not really knowing why they are in university - they've simply become victims of education - so they're compliant; and the staff? The employment prospects of many teachers in new universities (watch these particularly) was never fantastic, so these people are scared to lose their jobs: they will never speak out against the management. So the management can do what it likes; it can charge top-dollar; the students will continue to put up with it; the QAA can be satisfied with committee minutes which have no effect on the ground, and meanwhile the managerial high priests award themselves more pay, whilst squeazing the pay of those who the institutions are meant to be about (scholars).

Of course, the innovator's passion for statistics has had the most damaging effects with regard to government regulation of education and research. The masters of research assessment exercises like the REF are not scholars, but privately funded publishers and vested interests in leading academic departments (who tend to operate "research hegemonies"). Then of course, there are the online indexes like Scopus: the credit-rating agencies of research quality - all operating without having read a word of it, let alone understood any of it. Then we have the credit rating agencies of institutions themselves: the Time Higher Educational Supplement being the most dominant. They know their business and the value of their league tables, consultancy and other associated benefits of being the go-to place for assessing academic credit-worthiness.

And when defending all this indefensible managerial claptrap, what do Vice Chancellors say? "It's in the interests of increasing students' learning" Well, exactly what does that mean?  Where is this "student learning" you are increasing? How are you increasing it? What do you mean by "increasing"? Nobody can give an answer: its the essential obfuscating mystification at the heart of the corruption of institutions.

If by more innovation, Martin Bean means "more of the same" (and, with his support for MOOCs, he seems to), I think he's wrong. His message will only spell more power for the managerialists. It's a message which is designed to spell fear for those 'dusty' academics (particularly the sociologists, but also historians, ecologists, artists, philologists, philosophers) whose skills of thoughtful critique and challenge we need now more than ever. His innovative spirit has taken him to where he is. It's taken me and my colleagues to where we are. But now, the world's changed. The big story in education is not now technology; it's the hubris of managerialism and its relationship to knowledge and civil society. Technology is in the mix like a dusting of radioactive fallout. We need to understand what has happened to us, to academics, to knowledge and to our institutions. If innovation is required, it is innovation in technologies which help us to clear up the mess we've made and to hand institutional power back to teachers and students.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Mark, you are so right about this. You've only got to look at the reading materials for our upcoming "strategy workshop" to get where our VC is coming from - modelling our university on business models laid out in Harvard Business School papers from the 1990's. Nothing about education whatsoever. Interesting that we've all been told to cancel lessons and assessment activity to attend the workshop...