January 23, 2018

Power structures

Some discussion this week on this George Siemens article. (See Graham Attwell, Stephen Downes.) He asks if the power structures in our education system are willing to fully embrace the network and the adoption of the PLE. He believes they will not, and I agree.

Most of what George writes is eminently sensible. To explain the causes for this phenomenon, however, he takes his cue from Evetts, Mieg, and Felt. They  conclude (for $66, btw) that industrial corporations are the source of the resistance:

Education - moving from the high ancient ideals of developing better people to the development of employees for corporations…

The idea that our educational systems are in thrall to the corporations and designed to serve them, strikes me as neo-Marxist fantasy. It is a specter that has nothing to do with the real world and cannot be examined in any real sense. Apply the map of 'power structures' on anything and you can conjure up  gruesome power relations - sex, gender, football - and construe them whichever way you want. Evetts and company would need to provide some kind of concrete evidence of such a proposition, but it is almost certain that they can do it only at the level of ideology. 

And if corporations are controlling the whole thing then our educators are either witless or complicit. It looks like an easy abrogation of responsibility from educators to blame those sinister men in neck ties. Nor are 'control, accountability, manageability' the invention  of corporations - those have a much longer history than that. (It pretty much describes 2,000 years of confucician imperial examinations, for example.)

I also think I would know if the subjugation of our educational system was on the corporate agenda. I am an active, conservative, pro-business, life-time student of the discipline who has worked with people from the corporate world for decades and never heard nor seen the slightest reference to it in that milieu. (And what % of the US population actually works for a corporation anyway? 15%?) How could it have developed such a powerful hold over education if no-one talks/writes about it or even mentions it?

The real causes of resistance 

The cause of institutional resistance to the PLE is simpler, and more direct, and lies much closer to home: the academic class itself. Even the most liberal educators will turn conservative if you threaten their status or their futures. They have plenty of reasons of their own to resist change. There is nothing sinister or conspiratorial about this. People do resist change.

But an even bigger cause, to my mind, is the issue of complexity. Our institutions are not configured to make deep, transformational change en masse. In terms of process, such a widescale change in education would involve a massive level of complexity that no-one really understands and is all but untenable in institutions that were designed to teach, not to change.

The historical roots of our educational systems are long and tell a hierarchical story. That's just the way it was. I am as much a proponent of flattened organizations, autonomous learning, and a full embrace of the network as anyone, yet I am an unrepentent capitalist. I also believe that most educators would like to see change if it didn't threaten them, if they unbderstood it, and if it were manageable. No conpiracies. Sometimes what you see is what you get.

The effect on e-learning

All of this explains the patchy state of e learning. On a recent visit to the US, I asked Curt Bonk about the state of e learning and he replied 'What is the state of human development?' Touche. Often, e learning is being used simply as a new way to automate old processes. This has sometimes relegated it to the level of a weak compromise between the old ways and the network's true potential. (In other cases, it's being done rather well.)  The new learning medium needs new messages. If we want to see the true benefit of the network we have to embrace it fully. This requires that we understand what it can and cannot do.  Probably no-one has done more in terms of advancing that understanding than George Siemens, through his work on connectivism. I guess I just don't agree with him on what is causing the bottle necks.

Ken Carroll

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  1. Henning says:

    When I worked at the Chair in Cologne our group was very early and massively implementing e-learning prototypes. What we did included:
    – Regular live streaming of all classes (audio/video and slides including annotations) with parallel chat for feedback
    – (Multipoint-)Videoconferencing between different sites
    – CDs with the lesson recordings (again A/V, slides), interlinked with exercises and a glossary + a search function
    – web based exercises
    – distributed student teams (ca. 5 per site) who colloborated via multipoint-video, application sharing, and whiteboarding
    and some more.

    Although this was an undeniable popular service it also revealed some interesting adverse effects – especially the CDs. Most striking for me: It lifted a formerly private environment into a much more public sphere.

    This is also why this technology does not fit with the content and teaching style of the chair I am currently working for, which heavily relies on direct personal interaction, group dynamics, cases, real-live examples, and above all frank discussions. Consider the minefield out there where you get legal threats when a company finds out you have a teaching slide without a “TM” on a product name (this is no joke).

    And if you turn to those who actually do heavily apply elearning technology you find some groups beside the enthusiasts (like my old prof):
    1) those who “automate” teaching to have more time for making money (“I won’t be in class – buy the DVD”).
    2) those who use elearning as a cheap method to gain data for publications. There is just no simpler way of collecting large data sets for research than by abusing your students as data cattle. On the one hand students are more than willing to fill out every questionnaire you hand out to them (regardless of length, style, and subject) and on the other hand they will most probably answer in the way you tought them. But great statistical methods you can apply! Try that in the real world.

    Not only does one have to be critical about those who “resist” change but sometimes also about those who embrace it.

    And I am deeply convinced that one cannot CPoddify the complete specrum of teaching – especially not in the academic sphere.

  2. Ken Carroll says:


    Fascinating stuff. I agree that we could not or should not try to CPodify the entire academic sphere. I guess I’m saying that we simply do not know how to embrace the network in all its glory or where the boundaries are for academia.

    And your point about critiqing those who do embrace change is as important as critiqing those who resist it, is excellent.


  3. Donald Clark says:

    Siemens ‘capitalist conspiracy’ theory is laughable and doesn’t deserve any serious analysis.

    Resistance, as you rightly say Ken, is within the academic class itself. I’ve been trying to implement a system within my local school and find nothing but reactionary attitudes from teachers towards:

    opening up the process of learning
    allowing parents to see what is being taught
    setting assignments
    marking assignments
    reusing content
    reusing lesson plans
    The teaching profess
    etc etc

    The previous comment is interesting as it exposes the real root cause. Teachers/lecturers fear being exposed. Their methods are antiquated and the recording and distribution of these efforts exposes their weaknesses. They’re scared because there is no area of human endeavour more inefficient than education.

    In addition,educational organisations are far too flat, making organisational change and efficiencies impossible.

  4. Henning says:

    This has nothing to do with “fear of being exposed” or “inefficiencies”. It has to do with effective teaching.

    Do you really deny that there is value in tight face-to-face interaction and that certain types of content and teaching styles that are better suited for being recorded and distributed than others? If you indeed do, well, than please check the rich body of literature on media richness and CMC first.

  5. Henning says:

    Another aspect: “Being exposed” is something that is less critical for the teacher than for the students.

    In one of those former Cologne classes with an audience of about 60-80 students (1st semester, all pretty young, being about 20 years of age) there was a nerdy looking girl with big glasses, always sitting in the front row and often making not-so-witty (sometimes downright annoying) comments about Linux being the superior OS (unrelated to the actual subject of the class).

    One day she came up front to sketch an answer to a question the professor had posed. What the camera guy and most of the other students in the room did not realize at that moment – she fell down and it looked somewhat goofy.

    What happened a few days later was that the minute of the second of the incident in the video file was posted in an online forum and soon after scarching and offending comments were filling that thread (“Linux-Girl fällt auf die Schnauze”). It was too late – the lesson had been transmitted and put up for download so it was circulating.

    As you might expect, that girl never again attended class.

    Teaching is all about making mistakes – even studid or annoying ones. And social feedback needs an offline channel. It is part of the learning game which in my humble opinion should go way beyond distributing canned teaching food. Efficiency clearly is the wrong god when it comes to education.

  6. Judy Breck says:

    It has seemed to me lately that education is going to have to go through a process of “unbundling” — as I wrote about here:

    As I said in that post, this description by Nicholas Carr from his book “The Big Switch” describes a devastating process for media:

    “The publisher’s goal [in print] is to make the entire package as attractive as possible to a broad set of readers and advertisers. The newspaper as a whole is what matters, and as a product it’s worth more than the sum of its parts. When a newspaper moves online, the bundle falls apart. Readers don’t flip through a mix of stories, advertisements, and other bits of content. They go directly to a particular story that interests them, often ignoring everything else.”

    Ken, I think your insight about “complexity” is in the same vein at least of “bundling.” For sure, education needs to come unglued from some habits of the pre-digital past.

  7. Hi Don –

    While you may find the short paper laughable and not deserving analysis, I’m surprised at your statement of capitalist conspiracy. I conclude that you didn’t read the post thoroughly or failed to understand what I said.

    In no way is my post an attack on or defense of capitalism or education as it is today. My post was a simple observation that the design of education is at odds with the discussion of PLEs. PLEs will need to be systematized to be used within the current education system…or the education system will need to change. Any value statements (political or economic) are ones that you bring to the reading.


  8. Ken, a great post; I’m sorry to have been slow in reading it.

    Your question about people working for corporations is a favorite theme of mine (partly because I’m amused by the notion that we’ll all be self-employed and using only 2.0 tools by, oh, St. Patrick’s Day).

    Using 2005 figures from the U.S. Census, at least 85% of U.S. workers are employees (and that’s only if you count all 19.5 million “non-employers” as individuals and assume they’re not also employed by someone else).

    Of the 115 million employees (people who work for someone else), just about half work for organizations with more that 500 employees, and another 15% work for organizations of 100 – 499.

    500 employees is not General Motors, of course (not yet). In my state of Maryland, the largest employers are two university systems, Fort Meade (an Army post), the National Institutes of Health, and Wal-Mart.

  9. standuke says:

    Re: ‘control, accountability, and manageability’, I’d say one man’s meritocracy is another man’s technocratic hell. We have standardized curricula and exams to make sure that people don’t get away with claiming credentials they didn’t earn. These standards may serve emperors or corporations, but they can also serve feminists who want to fight the ‘old boy network’, or Marxists who want to make sure everyone is uniformly enlightened. Regardless, as we layer on course after course, exam after exam, and as people gain expertise in gaming the system, we eventually reach a point where the pursuit of exams and credentials overwhelms the beauty of learning. Suddenly what started as a meritocracy looks an awful like the system it was supposed to replace.

    Re Henning’s observations, I agree completely that spontaneous discussion, or inexpertly recorded lectures will fare poorly if they are simply archived and delivered on the web. Just as a professor’s lecture notes shouldn’t be bound and published without revision, neither should we expect everyday lectures to stand up to ‘publication’, on the web, CD or any other medium. I have a close family member who has been teaching Organic Chemistry for ~40 years, and his lectures have been recorded…. guess what? They’re unusable. The resolution of video is too low to read the text on the blackboard. Sound is erratic. The cameraman points the camera in the wrong direction. People cough. Production values matter, and just recording a professor’s lecture won’t yield a more professional product than simply photocopying his notes. On the other hand, I think if you take an individual who has been giving a set of lectures for 20-30 years, present the lectures in a polished way, and offer them in the context of an ‘personalized learning environment’, they could have some value.

    I do think a ‘lecture once/tutor many’ model could benefit students, even in a university. Traditionally the tutor is the ultimate PLE and the value of individual tutoring has been recognized at the highest levels of education. Oxford and Cambridge universities in England continue to use tutorials, and Harvard earned its reputation as America’s foremost university back when it had a tutorial system. Under a tutorial system, students attend lectures, but meet with tutors individually or in extremely small groups for their ‘hands on’ education. The beauty of the tutorial relationship is that it allows instructors to push students in a way that is impossible even in a small classroom.

    In today’s world there is no reason not to carefully prepare recorded lectures/powerpoint presentations and arrange for tutoring students on their own. This system could offer substantial flexibility to professors who prefer to meet with students individually or in small groups. It takes a lot of time to prepare all those lectures, and there usually isn’t a lot of interactivity in a classroom with 15-20 students. For the time being, though, I have a feeling that using recorded lectures would be a humiliation few instructors or institutions could bear…

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