Say what you will about edtech, at least it’s an ethos…

Luke Waltzer’s recent post on educational technology and digital humanities brings up some important points that needed to be articulated. It seemed to me that educational technology was being subsumed by the idea of digital humanities, which is something that didn’t sit too comfortably with me given I’m not a Ph.D. and we all know the only difference postsecondary institutions cannot tolerate when it comes to tenure is a diversity of degrees. What I have enjoyed about edtech is that it allowed me to thrive despite the degree, and also provided a freedom that was not so rigidly defined by a field, area, or discipline. For the last several years I helped constitute the field, because so few really cared to. Simply rolling with the punches, testing out possibilities, and writing about the process openly was all it took. But what Luke brings to the fore, and makes all too clear for me is that edtech seemed constantly embraced with the crisis that faces higher ed. A crisis of resources, funding, and the ghettoization of academic labor more generally. On top of that there was a sense in edtech that if you could reinvent the means of delivery and sharing with open source publishing platforms, you could start to challenge and problematize some of the larger issues in higher ed that are made all too apparent with systems like BlackBoard. Luke illustrates this beautifully:

Blackboard is itself an embodiment of the university culture that Neary and Winn rightly find so troubling: students cycle through a system that structurally, aesthetically and rhetorically reinforces the notions that education is consumption, the faculty member is a content provider, the classroom is hierarchical, and learning is closed. Less and less though do we have to convince listeners that open source publishing platforms and the many flowers they’ve allowed to bloom can create exciting possibilities in and beyond the classroom; we can show them link after model after link after model after link.

And it seems that through a critique of course management systems and LMSs, we could enter a larger discussion about the university, open education, sharing, teaching, etc. And while not necessarily experts on any or all of these things, the playing field seemed level. Opportunity to converse and dialogue about all these issues seemed ripe. What’s more, the question of empowering students through their space and online identity was made not only possible, but rather easy with these new publishing paradigms. What we started to realize is that a few motley edtechs could try and manifest a real and meaningful break from the institutional drug addiction that was the LMS, providing a new conceptual space to imagine teaching, learning, publishing, and even playing—devoid of any one idea of scholarship as a top-down approach.

In fact, being in educational technology gave me the opportunity to approach the idea of scholarship a bit differently. I learned how to present differently, publish differently (namely to my blog—often and regular sharing my work freely), and think differently about how I, as instructional technologist, was more than just staff (or maybe staff as somehow always already less is the issue more generally ), I was a thinker in my own right. But being a thinker didn’t necessarily mean I should have to reproduce the same “proof” of my value as a professor at UMW. Why should I? I’m not a professor, I’m something else. But the recent move to theorize alternative academic careers (ed tech being one of them) suggests that we very well may need to meet the same standards as professors, and in many ways become them without the same benefits of tenure, autonomy, and built-in pay grades. What’s alarming about this to me is that the idea of alternative academic careers as a movement (#altac for short on twitter) is a direct result of the disinvestment of higher ed, and the disappearance of jobs in the humanities more generally. So, by creating the idea of #altac, we reinforce a traditional approach to how we do our work, and as we all know, it ultimately re-inscribes the same realities of answerability for those of us outside of the sacred sphere of tenure. So, in short, it demands the same work and production out of this emerging breed of hybrid, administrative (often contract labor—like myself) which given the nature of the market will lead to many of the same demands on this new field as there are on professors currently, with none of the security. A popular trend for the neo-liberal university, get more for less. And what makes it even worse, the vision is being consecrated in the name of creating a new field of discourse rather than preserving the vestiges of an established one.

Fact is, I really do believe that the market will make my position that much less valuable in the near future. The more educational technology, and all the other #altac careers, becomes overly professionalized, the more we’ll find that we are working in a more controlled field with fewer options and an eroding sense of freedom. I guess it’s the natural flow of capital, especially given the fact that grad schools are still producing Ph.D.s by the boatloads even though well paying jobs in academia are fewer and further between. All of which brings me to my last point, and one Luke delineates brilliantly—while the humanities are worse off than ever financially (SUNY Albany to cut its language, classics, and theatre departments?) there is actually a fair amount of “legitimacy, funding, and visibility” for the digital humanities right now. And what’s more, there are even a few tenure-track jobs! Which is great for the field, but seems to distort the state of the humanities within the academy more broadly. How can the digital humanities exist outside of the crumbling infrastructure of funding and support for humanities that abounds in the U.S. right now?

I don’t know, I’m with Luke, this is a hard issue, and almost impossible to separate myself from personally. I too want to see something more than a new manifestation of the old university in digital clothes, but at the same time the push for reform and change from within seems to be the most anemic of all approaches. And as much as I want to side with open education, and the approach of OERs and open content, I see the problems abound there as well (but I’ll save that for another post). What I want to see is some real experimentation outside the order of academies and institutions. A networked approach to learning and sharing that is centered around empowerment of the learner through learning. This can’t be impossible, there has to be a way at this that is different. More and more I think an approach to deschooling, or unschooling, my wife and I are currently working on (or not depending how you look at it) may be one way to think through my confusion, because frankly I’m tired of arguing and fighting with digital humanists and OER folks. Let them do their thing, there is no crime in that and there are great things happening in both fields I’m sure. What is clear to me is that I need to find another way, and Luke’s frame makes for a powerful and poignant snapshot of where we are in the ed tech movement, and where we need to go. And Stephen Downes’s recent post in the Huffington Post points out this direction rather clearly:

But if we focus our attention on the needs of learners, all learners, they are not served either by cutting the system to the barest of bare bones or handing of the reins over to the private sector. There is no secret sauce or pixie dust that will repair an unsustainable system. If we want to ensure that learning is provided to all, we need to rethink the basic premises of the education system.

I think this is right, and one way at this is doing it personally through my own attempt to rethink how my kids should be “educated,” and how these new technologies and peer-to-peer pedagogies (both local and distributed) might help us rethink the basic premises of the education system. I understand this is a privilege, but I also understand it’s one that comes with both a certain amount of sacrifice and honest interest in what could be a real alternative. A sense of wonder that is not predefined by expectations and the refusal to acquiesce to mediocrity in public education at the expense of possibilities—all the while recognizing how vital a solid public alternative is, and must be, for any pretense to democracy—the great  lie underlying the American educational system right now.

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6 Responses to Say what you will about edtech, at least it’s an ethos…

  1. Marc says:

    Groom, do mean besides pacifism?
    Have you read Higher Education?…somewhat damning examination of the university system…although not together different than my current impression. Basically indicting the whole research at any cost, even education…system..
    well anyway, maybe I need to get back to my cocoa puffs.

  2. Zack says:

    Interesting post. In my district – public community college – Instructional Technologists (Distance Ed Coordinators, Instructional Design and Development Coordinators, etc.) are faculty under the collective bargaining agreement, and as such earn tenure and have a level of autonomy not afforded classified staff at our institutions.

    Different set of circumstances to be sure, but some of the same issues. It seems that folks want to talk endlessly about the LMS, which to me is something like spending all day talking about the mechanics of riding a bus. Here are the seats, here is the aisle, here’s how you get on the bus, here’s how you pay, here’s how you signal that you want the bus to stop. Certainly the bus has its place, but true education is maybe more like the conversations and interactions that take place between bus riders, or the destination, or the journey, or alternative modes of transportation, or an alternate route, or staying home and phoning it in. Perhaps the LMS is so attractive merely because it is something that folks can get their hands around. Little boxes, little boxes….

  3. Sam says:

    You all seem to have desires of a certain type of world… a world that has implications. Unfortunately, these discourses are started without asking certain basic questions that are fundamentals of the political economy. For instance, should we have a neo liberal economic system or not? If we should, then things are just fine; as private entities hold most of the capital and they are using it to generate more capital from places that are not yet developed. If you disagree then we need to adopt a different political discourse, we different rules for economists and political leaders to follow; otherwise the system is functioning the way it should. In the long run the market is suppose to become efficient, and profit is to move to zero; I think we are at that place now. At such a point, the economy is essentially a social economy, where people work just to sustain themselves.

    Given that should we continue the systems they way they have been going up until this point. Should we pursue growth, or has that idea run out of steam completely and is making our lives unnecessarily miserable. Unfortunately, these basic questions do not enter our discourse because politicians and business interests have wrestled them out of the political arena and wrestled the philosophers and academics out of there as well.

    Should representative, liberal democracy be maintained or not or should we switch to a more democratic model? Should we break up polities into smaller and smaller pieces and focus on self-sufficiency for the polity? Is academic knowledge even worth pursuit, considering at some point it just becomes an arbitrary creative enterprise for which there are no consumers… or much fewer than would justify its costs? If we are in the neo liberal model, we should do this right away.

    Learning can not be divorced from the economy as it is a direct part of the political economy. The people, that is the citizens in a polity, subsidise education for a reason. Now what is the reason? Is it the same reason that we subsidise art, because that’s really what’s left worth subsidising… business can take care of itself.

  4. L Hanley says:

    Thanks for the can of worms!

    It’s a kind of pmc (professional-managerial class) common sense that professionalization = higher status (and higher status = more money, more security, etc.). Neo-liberalism, and its higher ed spawn – – academic capitalism, have pretty much destroyed this link. A PhD in the Humanities doesn’t guarantee anything these days except the exciting opportunity to earn an hourly wage in pre-carious work within a hyper-managed environment. Maybe Digital Humanities 2.0 emerges here as a kind of existential hero – – it gets what it wants only to discover that what it wanted is anything but fulfilling.

    Still, I’d want to resist any politics that casts the battle in similarly existential terms: one good (or a band of good) technologist/humanist vs. a corrupt institution. (I call that the Shane/High Plains Drifter scenario.) There’s tendency within post-Illich stuff to draw lines between “good” Rousseau-ians and “bad” institutions. I’m not romantic about marching through institutions – – but it is interesting to me how “re-institutionalizing” has become a backgrounded motif within much DH discourse.

    I prefer Joe Hill to Ivan Illich – – e.g. that good ol’ American tradition of the Wobblie, a radical, horizontal, syndicalist struggle to build a new society within the shell of the old. (This is an alternative to the current neoliberal “neutron bombing” of education.)

    And, after much mental sudoku, it seems right and just to note how your post reminded me of a tome from those great philosophers of post-industrial American culture, the Dickies:

    “They caught me once while I was out messin around
    They put me in cemented wedges but I didn’t drown
    I’m back on the streets and running for my life again
    But I know they’ll tear it down and they’re gonna start
    To close in”

    – -“Infidel Zombie,” Dawn of the Dickies (1979)

  5. Hey Jim, I just posted a comment to Luke’s and your posts, here: http://lukewaltzer.com/on-edtech-and-the-digital-humanities/comment-page-1/#comment-522… a little more coal over the fire 😉 !! -Antonio

  6. Pingback: Untangling Open Education from the Current Model |

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