Everyone Loves a Can with a Heart on it.
09
Dec
2013

Ghost Towns of the Public Good

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Written by
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Crushed” by KayVee.INC; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Contingency CFP

This article is part of a series addressing the problem of contingency in higher education. The goal is to examine our role as pedagogues in a system wherein education does not always result in opportunity. The discussion is ongoing — see all articles in this series or the original call for papers that prompted them and consider adding your voice to the conversation.

I never really got tenure as a concept, and after almost ten years of e-learning I finally found a job which didn’t feature a ticking clock time bomb as its soundtrack. Sadly, in this sound of silence, came a new friend, a broken camel’s back and I’d broken-become-beladen with an LMSanthropy which was destined to push me away. Perhaps I have commitment issues, perhaps I’d spent so long searching for a brand that I’d grown tired of red-hot metal LinkedIn endorsements. I’ve never had so many valued skills, but found less demand for them. Part Bitcoin, part bit part. Be your own bubble.

Pop! I’d seen glorious projects I’d made die, in one instance the biggest open education search engine in the world — something you’d assume would be celebrated and honoured — slowly grind itself into obsoletion. You’d sneak out of the academy, flirt with organisations that felt so fresh, and find the same thing. You’d see stuff you built for free be replaced with a Kickstarter funded project because they had the funds, and they knew how to kick you in the teeth and when you’re down. Often, even after leaving one institution, I’d find myself returning to fix things because I’d not been replaced. A sense of parental care drove me to maintain things I used to get paid to do. Time, though, made me a horrible father: sometimes I would sit round and watch things die, or just leave and hope something would save them. Sometimes you had to let code fly the nest. Sometimes you took a stand. Sometimes you’d finish building before flirting with the next project.

So each contract was a sudden burst of joyous activity, and you could forget, maybe for a few beautiful months that it would die. Marrying the mayfly — doomed before it started — but you just thought if you believed it would work, that this time it could be different. But sooner or later someone would say three little words: no money left. All you could do was hope you’d made good enough memories. Maybe maybe maybe if you just worked harder, it would get through to higher management and they’d love it enough to give it more money. So work days stretched as hope faded, and you could rage — and how we would rage — against the coming of the night. Each failure, marked with more scar tissue (see the aforementioned spinal SnapPage), was another soul-sucking investigation into why it had happened again. You hoped those memories would be enough to counter how everything would become seen as a mistake, how we didn’t make it sustainable, how there wasn’t the demand, how they’d love to work together again, how they’d tried hard, how come it had to end.

The answer: because it just does.

Maybe one day we’d get a contract for longer than a year, and then, we could show them. We could spend a year building something excellent. Then as programmers we’d have time to understand marketing, or promotion, or sustainability, or community development so we could make sure the project would have enough supporters that it’d not die.

And once or twice, we got close; we built a glorious bridge to allow people to make the land so often promised. The interface made sense, the tool was useful, it would actually work and achieve real benefits.

People would ignore the bridge

People would cross the water on stilts made of razor blades as you looked on

People would swim over in lead costumes as you looked on

People would drink the sea just to walk across as you looked on

Every scar from every other memory made no sense as uglier, functionally poorer, cumbersome systems won out. You couldn’t defeat the millions of a VC, you couldn’t get round the manna-funded-marketing of eponymous foundations. Kickstarter finished things for you.

The reason: because money just does.

And so like every fairy tale, the bridge has its use as the roof of a home for a troll, embittered by years of tiptoeing traduced by one giant stride, of waiting patiently for anyone to be interested in e-learning and then watching the MOOC sweep away all before it like low-cost locust conquistadors. Or always being the tortoise that never beats the hare. Big companies just can’t listen, and they don’t need to either. What good is a teacher’s voice when lost in translation through a system which doesn’t hear them. So you try to build something different, you try to placate the LMS hatred which seems to be everywhere. By when? Yesterday, or in under six months.

You could dream of someone “tweeting your project into a top ten things”, one day you might even make a national paper. What good is forever if you can be replaced in an evening? Why stay when the first few months work best? Why not just drift…

Because our solution never taught millions, but you never asked it to

Because our solution didn’t work on wondergadgetnamegoeshere, because they are brand new

Because our solution doesn’t work for you, but you never tell us why

Because you don’t know anyone using us as if we all have I <3 Microsoft in our Twitter bios

Because the contract is six months as the institution is still uncertain

Because e-learning is old enough to draw a pension and it still remains a pilot or an experiment

Because outside of blogs and tweets we never ever really spoke to each other did we?  We never even told each other what we wanted or what we could do. We ended up taking shots and stabs in the dark and expected no one to get hurt. Tenuretemporary are the words of those divided and conquered, and the cliches of University life. Conversations always turned to money, as if dollar signs replaced full stops, so much did funding dominate conversations. Even talking about an idea meant you’d need to know how to pay for it. You can run the bath for your eureka moment, but you’d better believe the water will be ice cold till you pay your way.

If you believe in a public good, or a public service, then how can that be married to a deadline, or funding? Innately we become volunteers, sporadically paid, occasionally valued, while the temples fill with traders.

How does a six month developer build for a future they’ll never see. How does a year long project not become another experiment — where experiment is just a justification for myopia, seeing everything through six-month eyes. Another gold rush, another ghost town, with ghost suburbs, ghost malls and ghost schools. It doesn’t take an expert to see the neglect inherent in short term projects once the beans are counted. And we wonder why no one wants to use e-learning software? When you ask why it doesn’t do X — the answer is no funding. Always no funding.

So why stick around to make such temporary things, when you can set yourself free to listen, to grow, to develop, to build sustainably? Everytime the money runs out, all that lost momentum starts to leave voids in need of filling. University work becomes more hole than thing. Unfinished sympathies. Nature abhors a vacuum, and silence is just a space noise hasn’t found.

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