The Myth of Efficiency: a #digped Discussion

The conversation curated and archived via Storify.

This Friday, August 31 from 1:00 – 2:00pm Eastern (10:00 – 11:00am Pacific), Hybrid Pedagogy will host a Twitter discussion under hashtag #digped to explore the changing political economies of higher education. The practicality and future of the university has fallen under scrutiny. “There is talk about the poor educational outcomes apparent in our graduates, the out-of-control tuitions and crippling student loan debt,” Debra Leigh Scott writes in “How the American University was Killed in Five Easy Steps”. Few who have pursued life in higher education can deny an affection for the college campus. From the quad to the cafeteria, from the library to the biology lab, universities are sites of charm, intellectual industry, and perpetual nostalgia. However, “Attention is finally being paid to the enormous salaries for presidents and sports coaches, and the migrant worker status of the low-wage majority faculty.” The nostalgia is wearing off, and many are proclaiming the end of higher education as we’ve known it.

We certainly recognize the dangers of the increasing corporatization at many institutions of higher learning, a move couched in the rhetoric of efficiency, shrinking budgets, and a “culture of scarcity”. However, as long as there are students eager to learn, teachers and learning institutions have a responsibility to them first and foremost. The question, then, is how do we address our concerns about the shape of higher education within a pedagogical framework? Can we make education more widely available (and more economically viable) without sacrificing good pedagogy?

Dozens of recent articles remind us that universities have been slimming down on their human capital for years, and not in healthy ways. According to most statistics, public and private universities in the U.S. now offer more classes taught by adjuncts than by permanent faculty. If this trend, independent of the move toward online learning, is motivated by a corporate obsession with “efficiency,” how can we ignore that the “more students/fewer teachers” promise of online education is the hook on which all of digital pedagogical practices are baited?

The anonymous author of “Terrors of a True Believer: MOOCs and the Precarity Problem” admits to both his love of open formations like Wikipedia and the open source community, and his dawning horror — “the midnight terrors of a true believer” — as he recognizes the cost of these formations. More students in more places may have access to education, but without an educational community surrounding them, their commitment to learning falls entirely upon themselves, and may wither under the anxiety that causes. “Far from being liberated to build their own lives, ordinary people increasingly find that, to paraphrase President Obama, they are ‘on their own.’” Availability and efficiency aren’t the only things a student needs for education to be productive; students require a lifestyle that makes learning important and meaningful.

Like the anonymous author (known as Frank Framington), we will address the “efficiency myth” not as a rant or diatribe against misbegotten technologies, but rather as a careful critique with an eye toward solutions and alternative approaches.

Here are some questions to consider in advance of the #digped conversation:

  • What changes do you see in the political economies of higher education?
  • How does the compulsion toward efficiency in online education flatten the experience of learning? How might online education work to make that experience more robust and engaging?
  • What effect does online education have on academic labor? What new models can we imagine to make the work of online education more sustainable?
  • What role do corporations play in higher education? Are these “strategic partnerships,” or do they undermine the work of learning institutions?

If you are unable to join us on August 31 at 1:00pm EST (10:00am PST), we will continue the #digped conversation every other Friday. If you have suggestions for future topics, feel free to add them to the comments on this entry or tweet them to @slamteacher.

[Photo by Bob Jagendorf]

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