EdHist Round-up #1

Bringing you the best and worst on the history and future of education from the interwebs, presented without comment but with judgement. Please send in your suggestions.

we cringe …

quotation marksEducation today provides excellent preparation for a job – in the 19th-century. This is not terribly surprising, as both our curriculum and our modes of delivery were developed in the 19th-century. There’s only one problem: We live in the 21st-century. It takes 5 milliseconds to communicate with someone in Europe, not 5 weeks. It takes half a dozen robots to assemble an automobile, not 100 factory workers. Everything has changed – except education.

David Helfand, President and Vice-chancellor of Quest University in Squamish, British Columbia in the Globe & Mail, 5 Feb 2014


quotation marksEven before the online revolution, full-time professor jobs were already on the decline as colleges and universities came to rely on an army of inexpensive adjunct instructors. […] But large-scale online education initiatives may do even more harm to the profession of full-time college teaching.

David R. Wheeler on the CNN Opinion site, 3 Feb 2014.


quotation marksChildren in nurseries will soon be learning through Moocs (Massive Open Online Courses) as the internet revolution changes the face of learning, according to the man who first pioneered their use in higher education. Today’s two- and three-year-olds have been born with keyboards “pinned to their fingers” …

Transportation has changed completely from the 1600s – from ox carts and carriages to rocket ships… [but] education has not changed really since the introduction of the text book. Even that – and the introduction of the blackboard in 1862 – had been controversial, as folk worried about the monks being put out of business…. The blackboard was criticised because it meant teachers had to turn their back on a class, thus threatening classroom discipline.

Dr Anant Agarwal, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, quoted in Richard Garner, ‘Online learning is ‘the blackboard of the future’, The Independent, 18 Feb 2014

we cheer!

quotation marks

A couple of months ago, my brother Fred and I went back to the house we grew up in … my brother’s room too has become a shrine to the Fred that was — it’s almost untouched since he moved out to attend the Air Force Academy. But it’s pretty weird to visit the room now. Fred didn’t stay in the Air Force Academy. He dropped out after his sophomore year, became an environmental activist, then an emergency room nurse, and he’s now a nurse practitioner in Maine.

Visiting his old bedroom was like stepping into the past that felt disconnected from the present. But not totally disconnected. You could find glimpses there of the kid he was, of the person he was supposed to become — of my parents and grandparents’ vision of his future. A future predicted in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s worth asking, I think, whether this is the future that came to be.

The room was the history of that future …

I want to talk about the history of the future of ed-tech this morning. The future that wasn’t. The future that isn’t quite. The future that isn’t quite yet. The history of all of this …

[…read the rest, it’s great!]

Audrey Waters, ‘The History of Future Ed-Tech’ 4 Feb 2014 on Hack Education, transcript of her keynote at the EdTech Teacher iPad Summit


quotation marksAnybody who pays attention to the vast literature on educational technology should be familiar with the term unbundling. Educational reformers use it to connote the kind of division of labor and specialization that Frederick Taylor adored. Why should anybody provide content for their classrooms, they ask rhetorically, when the best professors in the world can be piped in via the     Internet? This practice, the argument goes, will allow professors in less prestigious colleges to concentrate on giving students the individual attention they deserve.

Jonathan Rees in the AHA’s Perspectives on History, Feb 2014


quotation marksAnd then suddenly there he is, on screen for less than a minute: an Aboriginal man in worn military uniform, a barefoot woman wrapped in a blanket sitting on rocks behind him, and grog bottles in a basket at his feet. The video is talking about “these ancient Aboriginal tribes in Australia”, to demonstrate something about oral cultures and their capacity to remember complex stories of kinship, which will later reattach to a thought about basketball fans and their ability to remember stats. I feel a kind of panic: wait, did we just go there? And sure enough, we’re right at the heart of the terrible history of empires built for trade behind a facade of civilising pedagogy, only now “we” seem to be re-enacting exactly the encounter that I’m looking at on my laptop screen…

[read on, at the link below; an excellent post.]

Kate Bowles, ‘History’s gifts’ 15 Feb 2015, Music for Deckchairs


MOOCtopia#2: authority and the institutions of education

Davidson 2.1

We are a bit behind on Cathy Davidson’s History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education MOOC, but no doubt, to your endless delight, we can reveal that the transcripts for all those who are not signed up are available here.

In week two we heard about the “filters” through which we view history (on which more to come) and we also heard about institutions.  Those we have, says Davidson, we have inherited from the “industrial age”:

People always talk about learning for the future and learning the future together, but often when they talk about education, they’re extremely conservative about wanting to change the institutions of education … Today we are going to be looking specifically at the third information age [mass printing in the industrial age], and some of the big ideas that thinkers were interested in, in that time period. We are going to see how those ideas translated into actual structures, the apparatus of learning of the industrial age, that we’ve pretty much inherited today.

However, although she critiques the “institutions of education” and “the apparatus of learning of the industrial age”, it strikes us that Davidson herself relies very heavily on the credentials and authority conferred by exactly these structures – which are in turn used to reinforce a kind of branding of the course and the “movement” that participants are invited to join.

In the first week of the course Davidson was keen to emphasise that this MOOC would be different to other MOOCs. It would not be a top-down “doc on a laptop”, but rather we would – true to HASTAC’s motto – “learn the future together”. Yet despite these pronouncements of democratic engagement, Professor Cathy Davidson herself is central to the construction of this course. Not only do we find her image blazoned across each video preamble – in week two we found her listening to an iPod in a state of semi-ecstasy – but throughout the lectures she continually performs her authority by appealing to the credentials conferred by the very same “apparatus of learning of the industrial age” that she is keen to replace. We hear over and over again of her positions in high ranking elite universities (TWO Chairs, her time as Vice-Provost), her book publications (twenty!), what she found in the archives, her various awards, her membership of the National Council of the Humanities, and of course her founding role at HASTAC.

The centrality of these ‘traditional’ institutional forms to this performance of authority highlights a number of aspects of the “learning together” message that are troubling.

The first is concerned with the question of “who gets to speak?” While “difference” is proclaimed as a key element in the course, participants must do the work of bringing this “difference” to the table themselves, rather than expecting to see it included in the course framework or even to build the core part of the course together. As Kate Bowles argues in an excellent dissection of Davidson’s uncredited use in her first lecture of the 19th century etching of Bungaree, an Aboriginal man and – following complaints – its subsequent removal from the course materials: “removing the image just confirms who gets to deploy authorial entitlement here: who decides, and who is decided for.” Here, the process of “unlearning” and “disrupting” of dominant narratives that is repeatedly invoked by Davidson and by many course participants, is itself co-opted and then erased in a process not dissimilar to that which characterised the appropriation by European science of the identities, knowledges and land of men like Bungaree in the first place.

This leads to a second concern tied up with the places of authorial speech. As widely noted, Coursera and EdTech are dominated by consortia of elite universities from across the world, but centred in the United States. Not only do we see the authority of institutional markers enacted, but the global dynamic that places the U.S. in a position of cultural dominance is reinforced. While there’s work being done in physical locations outside the United States, U.S. institutions still appear to be leading or dominating the discussion. As Kris Olds and Susan Robinson detail in their excellent blog, GlobalHigherEd, the geographies of MOOCs are far from flat. And there is a temporal dimension to these uneven geographies as well. Those institutions who have long held status, power and money, are able the better to continue to reproduce it – sometimes, as we see here, in the language of contestation and change.

In the “Future Ed” course, this issue of speaking position is replayed in the material selected for each video. The historical narrative Davidson offers is focussed on examples from the United States, such as with the emphasis on the novel as an example of print culture, rather than the newspaper, or even the novel as it appeared in other contexts. Questions of time and cultural context are elided here. Not only did very few people across the world have even basic literacy at the end of the 19th century, but individual reading always sat alongside other practices that shaped and conditioned it: public posting of notices, group reading, oral cultures, song, and multi-lingual exchange, not to mention the control by states and religious groups of publication and education well into the present (one might think of internet censorship in China). If Davidson seems vaguely aware that many of these extra-American dimensions are being excluded or downplayed, not only does it fail to influence the universalising narrative we see in the videos, but once again, it is participants who are asked to do the work of revision.

There is an inherent tension to all education.  It prescribes, at the same time as it enables; it relies on authority, even as it facilitates challenges to it. Failing to recognise either part of this paradox puts the whole undertaking at risk. Institutions of education are at their best when they acknowledge this tension, and work to bring these two, seemingly contrary forces, together in dynamic and creative exchange.  Despite its pronouncements, it’s not yet clear that this is something the “Future Ed” MOOC achieves.

MOOCtopia: history and the futcha of higher ed

schools at war

After exchanging messages back and forth for the last year or so on the use and abuse of history in discussion about the future of higher education, via the great open-source think tank/churn machine that is Twitter, we made the slightly rash pact to enrol on Cathy Davidson’s History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education Coursera MOOC.

The language in which MOOCs are presented, both by their founders and proponents, and in media reports, seemed to us to be particularly replete with temporal imagery. Hailed by their champions as the education of the future, MOOCs are frequently positioned against a certain construction of the past.

Davidson’s MOOC seemed a good place to consider this trend, because it explicitly purported to tell us (mostly) about the history and future of Higher Education. We saw this as an opportunity to engage with an example of the ongoing construction of the past (and future) in ed-tech rhetoric.

You can get a flavour of what we were expecting here in the course description and in the introductory video.

In the framing of the course higher education is cast as something whose features ‘were designed specifically to prepare workers and leaders of the Industrial Age’ – the Fordist era of the Model T.  But since public access to the internet was made available in 1993 (on April 22 to be precise) everything – so we learn – about ‘our lives, our work, our occupations, our culture and our entertainments’ has changed. Our education, it is suggested, needs to catch up.

Now there seems a lot to take issue with here. But even if we set aside the minor quibble that the Fordist era of the Model T is not quite the same thing as the ‘Industrial Age’; even if we hesitate to point out that workers in the Fordist era rarely undertook higher education so it’s hard to see how its practices were designed specifically for them;  and even if we pass over the conflation of various kinds of 19thC primary, secondary and higher education, the claim that a revolution occurred on 22 April 1993 seems somewhat far fetched. Although the internet has brought huge changes to certain sectors of life and created whole new fields of economic, cultural and social activity, it strikes us that the jury is still out on whether it has upset the structures of economic and political power that condition our lives or merely re-enforced them. The shock of the old still remains.

Unfortunately the first week’s lectures did not really address these issues.

Instead we learnt that the kind of history we will be doing is called “purposive history”. History, Davidson tells us, is never static, and we remember certain details of the past in order to change our present.

Cathy Davidson might call this an ‘activist’ view of history, but most historians would simply call it bad history.

We are not for a second going to claim that we are not selective about the pasts we choose to remember, or that the questions we ask of the past and its actors are not informed by our concerns and occupations in the present.  If we did that historians of the last 40 years would rise up as one and slaughter us. The pasts we remember and the pasts we write are always the work of memory and of power.

But to imply – as Davidson does – that we should mine the past for certain details in order to change the present; that we should selectively remember for the purposes of change; or that we should transpose the past into the conditions of the present, is not only fundamentally ahistorical. It also does a disservice to people in the past who fought for change, as well as to historians who have thought long and hard about these questions and developed tools to acknowledge and accommodate them.

And then there’s the question of power. The premise of Davidson’s notion of ‘purposive history’ seems to be that, given history is always selective, we should choose together what history we want and then shape the future in the light of that image. But the question of who “we” is, and how much agency “we” really have in this process is elided in the MOOC’s rhetoric of inclusiveness, openness, and DIY. Considering that Davidson is calling this a “movement” and uses the word “activism”, the lack of attention to power relations, and to how these have shaped the nature of the university, undermines the attempt.

There is, moreover, a kind of purposive agency and teleology attributed to past actors. Was mass schooling really designed as a response to industrialisation, or did it evolve, as some have argued, from a collection of existing practices brought together – as a convenient “assemblage” rather than the deliberate crafting of an institution?

Bad history, we will acknowledge, is the stuff of politics. This is perhaps all well and good if you are an activist or a crusading policy maker or a business or an institution trying to shore up its status and power (which is exactly what many champions of the MOOC are), but it is not ok if you are an historian or a scholar. We would do well to remember this when we consider education futures and those who champion them.

This is not – of course – to say that thinking about the history of education is not useful or pertinent to current questions about the changing role of the university. But let us ask better questions – questions about the role that university has filled in society, about how it has changed, and the product that it sells. Let us as about the social and economic conditions of its survival, of the work that pedagogic practices have performed, how they have changed, and – yes – how educationalists in the past have dreamed of its future.