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It is in the nature of crises that the future is rendered both unbearably present and totally unimaginable. The suspension of normal life creates an illusion of discontinuity, but emergency measures have enabling conditions and lasting effects. This is particularly true of technological changes such as the distance learning currently being implemented by universities across the country.
Arguing about the long-term implications of distance learning may seem frivolous. There is no doubt that moving classes online was necessary to ensure the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff by slowing the spread of the virus. But unless these changes in our working conditions are resisted now, this emergency transition has the potential to become permanent. Without serious resistance at the point of production—the classroom—these changes may threaten the interests of students and teachers alike.
There are many ways to restrict faculty autonomy, surveil classrooms, increase workloads, decrease wages, and further entrench systemic inequities even without Zoom, of course. But implementing technology that facilitates these efforts will only amplify attacks on the university already underway. Distance learning figures into a decades-long trend of greater administrative oversight of university teaching by promising not just a change in protocol but a wholesale material reorganization of learning. In short, online learning is the fulfillment of managerial desire.
Traditional classrooms have inherent value that is lost in distance learning environments. Anyone concerned with education rather than bottom lines knows and values these qualities. We form relationships with our students that are not quantifiable and that depend on physical proximity. We can see when students are tired and when they’ve been crying. They often walk out of class with us or casually chat if they are early. In a world dominated by outcomes, efficiencies, and goal maximization, it can feel unprofessional to invoke the importance of emotional bonds, but anyone who fondly remembers their favorite class in college knows that it involved far more than the mere relaying of information.
Teaching and learning is not a simple matter of rote knowledge transmission—experts passing information to non-experts by whatever medium is available. That conceit, what Brazilian educator and philosopher Paolo Freire called the “banking” model of education, conceives of students as identical, replaceable workers. In reality, love of knowledge is bound up with other forms of community that are not cultivated in the disembodied world of muted faces in a Zoom meeting. You can’t share a joke if you can’t hear everyone laughing. You can’t share food through a keyboard. Students can’t bond with each other by way of knowing looks. Imposing the logic of factory production on education does the same thing as imposing the logic of factory production on any form of work: it transforms creative expression into dull, repetitive drudgery.
For reasons that range from class feeling to the apparently dematerialized conditions of intellectual production, however, it is often difficult for teachers to see distance learning for what it is—diminished control over working conditions. Teachers at all levels are currently working to maintain some sense of normalcy for their students and to prevent a lasting disruption in the progress of their learning. Burdened as they are with adapting to this new regime—learning new software, restructuring entire curriculums, answering mountains of emails, and attempting to communicate with parents and each other remotely—little time is left for considering the forms of control that are being quietly smuggled into working life in the form of technological change.
Diminished control is indeed precisely what is happening when classes go digital. As Anna Kornbluh, associate professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has pointed out, distance learning entails a redefinition of the very idea of a classroom—one that has been sought by university administrators for decades. The classroom is the last field of university life that has not been ceded to administrative oversight. As a result of the steady replacement of former faculty members by professional educational managers within the administration itself, faculty are excluded from most aspects of a university’s operations. Decisions about where to spend money are made by people who have never set foot in a classroom, who tend to see management as a desirable end in itself, who view education from a demand-side perspective that prioritizes non-classroom amenities such as athletic facilities, and who evaluate departments in terms of the marketability of degrees.
Administrative bloat is difficult to quantitatively demonstrate across institutions, but there is no shortage of evidence that a self-fuelling process of administrative empowerment is underway at most universities. One study of the University of Nebraska system found that the number of hires in “technology” and “communications” (read: marketing) had nearly doubled over ten years, while the number of full-time faculty held steady and part-time faculty increased only slightly.
While numbers vary from institution to institution, the market logic of professional education managers is consistent. The most superficial survey of writing by educational policy reports, from the department of education to non-profit think tanks, shows a near total lack of interest in education itself. One finds business plans, management models, outcomes based funding, incentives, maximized goals, “midelevel responsibility managers,” and, of course, a lot of “success.” This language is repeated by chancellors and university regents across the country. For example, the 2019 Strategic Plan published by the board of regents of the Montana University System identified three main goals: stronger business-university partnerships for workforce training, remove barriers to access to postsecondary education and expand distance learning programs. What is missing—what is presumably expected to disappear for lack of marketability—is the critical thought that prepares students for a lifetime of informed and politically engaged citizenship.
Distance learning promises not just a change in protocol, but a material reorganization of learning. The deceptive logic of university regents, educational foundations, and the Department of Education, among others, is that online learning costs less and thus makes university education more accessible to “underserved” communities. The false populism of these “access” arguments precludes real discussions of educational inequality and makes other misleading suggestions about costs and motivations. In truth, it is not inexpensive to purchase and implement effective distance learning technologies, especially if you are going to provide the laptops and stable internet connections necessary to use them. In addition to the software and hardware, distance learning presents a whole host of costly administrative, legal, and technical issues. It shifts resources away from faculty, libraries, student clubs, tutoring, and counseling services. And in the end, even if access may be increased, we must ask: access to what? Graduation rates are higher when students have a low student-to-faculty ratio, easy access to support such as tutors and, importantly, enough stability and financial support that they do not need to work full time. Needless to say, these are not the affordances of online learning.
In the same way that arguments for increased access obfuscate the true socioeconomic nature of educational inequity, the apparently simple and sensible claim that online education will save money diverts attention from what is really at issue: power. Technological change requires increased spending in the short term, which owners and managers are usually willing to invest because it results in aggregate savings over time. But consider how those savings accrue. Mass-produced online education allows universities to accumulate more capital by charging a greater number of students lower fees. This is unlikely to occur at expensive, private colleges, but cash-strapped public universities are vulnerable to these profit-driven models. In order to implement these changes and make them cost effective, political resistance by faculty also needs to be eliminated. Distance learning technology is thus an end goal as well as being the thin end of the wedge—increasing surveillance capacities, quietly introducing fundamental changes into working conditions, and setting the stage for eventual layoffs of already precarious faculty.
In the short term, university faculty are experiencing a major productivity increase as they learn new software and reorganize courses for remote instruction. This amounts to a de facto wage cut that also has the potential to usher in a whole host of technologically enabled incursions on faculty autonomy. Sweeping technological alterations of the classroom are likely to become permanent features of the educational landscape. Humanist arguments about the value of face-to-face education aside, such an alteration would have serious, negative implications for both working and learning conditions that cannot be resisted unless faculty acknowledge the real and potentially comprehensive consequences of major technological shifts. In order to prevent the rapid degradation of our working lives and the concomitant debasement of our students’ education, we need to recognize that we are workers, subject to the same processes of deskilling as anyone else.
Whatever the potential merits of online learning, then, they will not be realized in the hands of university administrators pressed by austerity measures and other economic concerns (now provided with the excuse of crisis-related costs, such as housing refunds) and obsessed with limiting the autonomy of faculty. For them, technology represents an opportunity to further transform education into a commodity and wrest control of its production from those who actually do the work—sacrificing academic freedom, cutting wages, and abandoning reasonable workloads in the process. Indeed online learning permits academic managers to achieve several time-honored goals of entrepreneurs.
First, it encourages the division of labor; elements of curricular design and the structure of assignments and assessment could become the province of specialists instead of teaching faculty. Efforts to deskill teachers and sever them from their students dovetail with new opportunities for surveillance and control afforded by digital technologies. When courses go online, student evaluation is more easily standardized and subject to increased oversight, thus increasing the chance that administrators, rather than faculty, will determine what grade a student receives. Any number of features—all of which will certainly be referred to as “enhancements”—will be made available for evaluating the productivity of faculty members, holding them to pre-determined “learning outcomes” and penalizing them when said benchmarks and outcomes are not achieved. All of this combines to undermine the living partnership between student and teacher that is the sine qua non of meaningful education. It devalues knowledge that is specific, concrete, and rooted in human relationships in favor of whatever can be standardized, measured, and quantified.
These strategies are neither new nor limited to education. During the early twentieth century, Frederick Winslow Taylor, godfather of today’s management consultants, devised a series of strategies to appropriate workers’ knowledge, decrease their autonomy, and increase productivity. “What we are all looking for” he wrote in The Principles of Scientific Management (1911), “is the readymade, competent man; the man whom someone else has trained.” Taylor’s project, simplified and parodied in images of impossibly sped-up assembly lines, had far less to do with rote, bodily discipline and technological upgrades than it did with the consolidation of class power. Time studies and assembly lines were a means to an end that went beyond mere productivity increases and immediate economic gains. The real object was an appropriation of knowledge that would empower managers to make decisions about the production process formerly controlled by the workmen.
This control is a major prize. In the late 1940s, for example, steelworkers won a contract that guaranteed an incredible amount of control over working conditions. Section 2-B of the steelworkers’ contract severely restricted management’s ability to change work rules without the approval of local membership. The only way that management could “change or eliminate any local working condition” was if “the basis for the existence of the local working condition is changed or eliminated.” In other words, if technology upgrades allowed for a job to be done with fewer workers, layoffs were allowed because the basis for the local work rules concerning the number of men required had been eliminated. The definition of these changes in working conditions was aggressively contested and the management often lost. But it remains telling that the one loophole was a technological upgrade, and it bears repeating that technological change was slowed by a culture of stubborn and effective organizing. Legendary contract clauses aside, in industry after industry, technology has been the Trojan horse to smuggle managerial control into the workplace. In the case of education, retaining this control is not just about protecting ourselves, the workers, but about protecting our ability to give something meaningful and unique to our students.
Resistance to these measures in education requires the same tactics employed on the factory floor to regain control and force management to negotiate: rank-and-file action in the form of slowdowns, work stoppages, constant grieving and, perhaps, some sabotage. But for the intellectuals who comprise educational labor forces, it also requires a radical shift in our habits of thought. As labor historian David Montgomery has argued, it is practically ingrained in us that “an economy based on highly sophisticated technology must be characterized by a detailed division of labor and by a professionally trained management, which monopolizes its planning . . . and supervisory functions [leaving] only the most trivial decisions” to workers in the arrogant belief that management “alone can comprehend the whole complex process.” For people who tend to identify as highly trained experts themselves, it may seem natural to accept these arguments. But that temptation must be resisted.
The virus will eventually pass through the population as we build what epidemiologists call herd immunity. In the meantime, we need to inoculate ourselves against encroaching standardization with strategic resistance to managerial demands. This means organizing around the technology question, including via the very online spaces we are now using. Those of us with older students can make the pitfalls of distance learning and managerial control part of the conversation. We can explain why classes should not be recorded and demonstrate the political possibilities of a classroom free of the administrative gaze. The opportunities available to us in this time of crisis have nothing to do with the so-called “affordances” of distance learning technology and everything to do with strategies of resistance.
Besides overturning the very structure of higher education virtually overnight, COVID-19 will also accelerate a number of troubling longer-term trends—including less public funding and a migration of courses online.
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