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Jane Austen and the Belly of the Beast Part 2: Language and Power (2015)


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Jane Austen and the Belly of the Beast Part 2: Language and Power (2015)

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Commodification, Technology and the Open Agenda in Higher Education.

How Neoliberalism destroys the great university system and common good.
Presentation at the 4th Summit of the International Society for Information Studies (IS4IS)

Commodification, Technology and the Open Agenda in Higher Education.

How Neoliberalism destroys the great university system and common good.
Presentation at the 4th Summit of the International Society for Information Studies (IS4IS)


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Jane Austen and the Belly of the Beast Part 2: Language and Power (2015)

  1. 1. Jane Austen and the Belly of the Beast Part 2: Language and Power Commodification, Technology and the Open Agenda in Higher Education John Casey, City of Glasgow College Wolfgang Greller, Vienna University of Education Presentation for ISIS Summit Vienna 2015: THE INFORMATION SOCIETY AT THE CROSSROADS
  2. 2. • Ideology, technology, power, & economics: Universities and the crisis in neoliberalism • Tensions between the concepts and cultural forms of the university and economics • Culture and money in Jane Austen – Higher Education as a comedy of manners? • ‘Belly of the Beast’ – to be trapped in a bad place • 2nd in a series of ‘working sketches’ Introduction
  3. 3. Contentions • Knowledge as economic product • Mass production/education – the factory model • Technological Solutionism and the illusion of mass-produced personalisation • (Economic) viability against search for wisdom • Transferring cost to the people, corporate business models, reduced labour costs
  4. 4. Pressure points Political pressures on universities to abandon their culture: • Austerity cuts • Competition (funding, ranking, privatisation, internet) • Commodification of individual (teachers/learners) • Widening access, participation goals • More bureaucracy as control mechanism • = More for less!
  5. 5. Language: A Monoculture? • Technology, education, open education • Narrow, controlled, self-censoring • Social media: an amplifier and multiplier • Education and Technology • An endless TED talk? • Language of Fear – of being left behind • Technological Solutionism • Youthful deliriums…
  6. 6. The Open Agenda • Open education: rapid, diverse and massive • Technology, venture capital, markets, competition • Opportunities and contradictions • Outsourcing learning to cut even more costs • Shift from service provider to certification body • ‘Open’ as a contested space… • Brand equity projection* • New markets… - data as new currency
  7. 7. The Open Agenda and the Developing World: • Colonisation via knowledge economy: transporting Western values, language and branding – using ‘openwash’ • Cf. television expansion in the 1990s: cheapest tv productions as fillers between ad spaces • Cf. genetically modified seeds sold to developing world to capture markets and ‘greenwash’ The Open Agenda
  8. 8. Language Neo-liberal language now used by public sector: • Business model, efficiency, market, customers, brand, ranking, sustainability, economies of scale, etc. • Shift from teaching, student support services, and delivery to focus on outcomes and accreditation (code name “personalisation”)
  9. 9. Language: fear & greed • “Digital Natives & Immigrants” • “Higher education in 50 years will be provided by no more than 10 institutions worldwide” • “Education is broken”… a meme for selling tech • "The next big killer application for the Internet is going to be education.” • “The [UK] government aims to ‘drive competition and innovation’, through a more market-based approach to higher education, allowing students to choose between a range of providers.”
  10. 10. Power
  11. 11. “An avalanche is coming”
  12. 12. Summing Up: The Future • To develop alternatives we should know from where we are starting. • There is a role for public institutions and government…rolling back privatisation • Democratising HE – lessons from the 19th century? • The radicals of the early 19th century held that education should be ‘accessible to the public and transparent to the public gaze’

Editor's Notes

  • Preamble: This presentation is part of a series that examines how university education is reflecting the crisis in neoliberalism, and the ways in which this emerges in the context of the open education agenda. We argue that a critical analysis of the open education agenda provides a useful way of understanding how ideology, technology, power and economics manifest themselves and interact in what is a politically ‘contested space’.

    The reference to Jane Austen is to stress the importance of cultural forms (like universities) in a period of change and challenge, and how they become areas of contestation. Jane Austen’s works express much of the battle between manners vs. socio-economic change in her times: this is referred to as comedy of manners (ref =

    (In Jane Austen’s works) there appear detailed references to the economic status of the protagonists and this is used in the plot as a counterpoint to the character’s motives. Although often accused of being unconcerned with the wider social and economic changes of her time (Industrialisation and Colonialism), her work shows the impact of the new order on the traditional rural gentry by charting its economic effects, and the comedy arises from characters trying to pretend that traditional privilege and ‘culture’ still matter in the new world of the money economy. There are strong parallels here with the current state of the universities and neo-liberal technology-driven societies.

    The “belly of the beast” is a phrase to express being trapped in a bad place.

    These sketches are outlining a larger body of work, it’s the second part, the first was held at Goldsmiths Teaching and Learning Conference, London, 2014
  • Our contentions in this space are based on the concept of knowledge functioning as a commodity and economic product.

    If knowledge is perceived as a product that can be “produced” in a way similar to manufacturing processes, the idea is to have more and more of it, thus leading to mass production and mass education in a factory model.

    In this model, technology is being used to solve problems that do/don’t exist, and to produce “economies of scale”: e.g. technology as the catalyst for empowerment of “less-able” or disadvantaged learners (e.g. geographically remote or working students). This attitude has been named Technological Solutionism (Evgeny Morozov, 2013)

    Mass education in a factory model doesn’t go down well in academia, so, with the help of technologies, the system tries to create the demand and the illusion of mass-produced personalisation, which, quite naturally, leads to new inequalities in information delivery and the fragmentation of knowledge – again leading to the need for more technological solutions in a never-ending cycle.

    The viability of university education today is measured against economic values: employability, competences, sustainability, efficiency. These economic viability criteria lead to the demise of humanitarian goals: philosophy, philanthropy, wisdom.

    It is noteworthy to say that “effectiveness” in reality means: transferring cost to the people (Chomsky, 2014) = economists call it efficiency, because system reduces labour costs (multiplied by the number of users), e.g. tuition fees, download/print costs, BYOD policies, etc. Universities are held to think in corporate business models, and labour costs are being reduced through the increased use of a “precariat” – people with insecure jobs.
  • Cultural change of universities is guided by substantial pressures being put on them from neo-liberal politics.

    Austerity: Alan Greenspan (1997 before Congress): “economic success is based on greater worker insecurity” – transferred to universities with temp staff in endless loops (adjuncts, project workers, etc.)

    This is paired with the introduction of competition in virtually all areas of higher education, including research. Especially in the open education sector, competition is coming from private enterprises, albeit that many of them are university spin offs, which shows that the transformation process to business is well under way.

    Commodification = applying monetary value to something, e.g. tacit knowledge, volunteerism, etc. In the neo-liberal landscape this leads to the establishment of celebrity experts surrounded with stardom and brand value (example: Sebastian Thrun).

    Pressures to widen access and high participation rates are ambivalent in their interpretation. The selling point, of course, is creating opportunities for disadvantaged people, but it also refers to the mass production ambitions of the knowledge economy, ignoring the inflationary value of the degree. Under the financial system’s curatorship it brings more people faster into the student loan scheme with long lasting debt and decreased income prospects.

    Finally, it has been recognised that an increasing requirement for bureaucracy and transparency (Byung-Chul Han, Korean philosopher) is being used as control mechanisms with additional layers of management being installed.

    In sum: Less public funding available but need to scale up and compete. Technology is offered as solution – values and quality of higher education are sacrificed.
  • The language used in discussions about technology is relentlessly upbeat (particularly in social media) and excludes dissenting views as ‘backwards’, or ‘out of date’. This also generates a fear of being left behind by giving a false sense of progress. Pressure groups and think tanks use this strange combination of optimism and fear to drive continual investment in technology and, of course, in academia research into technology for learning (look at the huge EU expenditure in this area – with little to show?). This fits closely with the neo-liberal conviction that there can be a tech fix to any problem and the creation of tech fixes to problems that do not exist outside the machine world (e.g. interoperability standards for content or learning design, tagging ontologies) – see David Harvey ‘A short history of Neoliberalism’.

    The old stereotype of youthful expertise with technology is constantly recycled despite evidence to the contrary (cf. average facebook user is 40 years old! -, and this adds to the fear index for decision makers. Thus the use of language in this area becomes dominated by neo-liberal memes (see propagated and amplified via the old and new media channels. In this atmosphere, there is a strong pressure to self-censor and fit in.

    Social media play a central role in defining and controlling ideas amongst the ed tech community.

    So here are some specifics:
    Education and technology discourse often resembles the optimism of a religious cult – trend setters, experts, celebrity academics and other “cool” idols introduced as role models like in the entertainment and sport industries of the pop culture. The TED talks are a good example of this (see e.g.

    Universities and academics are confronted with a language of fear – of being left behind, overtaken by their students, not trendy in their methods, not entertaining enough to motivate learners, and so forth…

    If there is a problem (e.g. student motivation, lack of literacy, etc.) – tech will fix it! “To solve everything, just click here…” – Technological Solutionism

    Youth are consistently portrayed as being tech experts and demanding more e-learning – when the research evidence and experience points the other way.
  • Open Education is a space where existing organisations and interests seek to dominate and control. It is not a neutral space. It is governed by technology, venture capital, markets and competition. Even the concept of “open” is highly contested and commercially interpreted.

    Question is: will Open Education movement lead to the advertised “democratisation of HE” or will it be the start of a two-tier education vis-à-vis to full fee-paying on-campus students? A return to restricted access to university for the elite?

    Coursera have come under fire in recent months for undermining academic jobs, not providing adequate accreditation, and, in this latest controversy, not adhering closely enough to the “open” part of the MOOC acronym. Search for a business model is undermining the philosophy of openness (John Daniel, former VC of the UK OU): open education much older concept.

    *Brand Equity projections: is a typically American phrase , but nicely describes how the open educational space itself is seen as a way of projecting existing power relations and maintaining differentiation with other brands. For the classic way of making your University brand work in this space you only need to examine how well MIT have done this in 2001 (OCW) and more recently Stanford with “highjacking” the MOOC brand.

    (– this is a phrase used by the Rice University Connexions open education project – see: What Makes an Open Education Program Sustainable? The Case of Connexions by Utpal M. Dholakia*, W. Joseph King, Richard Baraniuk:

    New Markets – mostly users in the developing world (Edx, Open Learn etc.) providing new sources of valuable persona data for analysis (part of the socialisation of work under neoliberalism – where all aspects of an individualised life is monetised i.e. there is no private area) – long tail economy based on data-currency.

    New Markets – part of the re-colonisation of the developing world by western education systems; see the world bank project with MOOCs in Africa:
    It shows how some folks see this as a business opportunity and open is not a nice 'fluffy' space where existing power relations do not extend to.
  • In the 90s, US tv companies started swamping foreign markets with cheapest tv series. It didn’t matter what the content was, what mattered was the ads in-between programmes. Led to Thai kids wearing baseball caps and South Koreans becoming fans of Chicago Bulls, etc. This was called “global citizens” but were in fact Coke and McDonald colonies. Now, facebook “free” Internet plans for India etc. are criticised for much the same strategies.

    ‘openwash’ – an open-data fig leaf to obscure the passing of personal and private data wholesale - See more at:

    Effect of MOOCs etc.: today already Nigeria and other countries complain about brain drain of teachers, medical personnel, etc. Study content is often not relevant for the region. (cf.

    This also has disturbing similarities to “greenwash”, like the dumping of genetically modified seeds into developing world agriculture – driving many farmer into poverty and suicide
  • Outcomes and accreditation = not the learning of individuals in the foreground, but compliance with the labour market. Also: diy learning, aka personalisation = low cost (staff savings).

    Tech driven: social networks, peer learning, flipped classrooms, OERs – works to some extent.
  • Some quotes:

    Marc Prensky 2001
    Sebastian Thrun 2012
    … variously circulated
    John Chambers, CEO of Cisco 1999 (NYT)
    UK Government 2013 – (not so) secret formulation of privatising the HE sector by allowing commercial providers onto the stage.

  • This slide provides an early mapping of the relative influence (size) of the players and the connections between them.
    You will see the learners / students are represented by a very small circle – if we could have made it smaller we would!

    You can see that the post-1960s “grassroot democracy” of universities is rapidly eroded by lobbies, quangos, think tanks, celebrities, gov. committees and their reports, local authorities, corporate management and private companies. Amplified by (social) media by presenting an out-of-date image of university education and highlighting technology experiments as the (only) way forward: cf. 3D hype in Second Life.
  • Pressure groups, like publishers, work with think tanks to shape policy and opinion in relation to technology, open education and the role of the private sector – this video is an example from the Institute for Public Policy Research: “An Avalanche is Coming” by Sir Michael Barber (ex UK government minister for education and Chief Education advisor to the publishing giant Pearson). It is both a classic example of the fear genre surrounding education and technology and illustrates how power and influence works to determine public policy and public expenditure in education and technology. (ref:

  • There is still a role for institutions in both blocking and enabling change for those interested in developing a more democratic and humanist future for education and society.

    It is one of the contradictions of neoliberalism that we have been persuaded that the power of the state has withered away – when in fact the reverse is true – it has never been stronger and is being used to further the interests of capital (privatisations, deregulation, anti union laws, subsidising the finance sector, and so forth…)

    Radical 19th Century Quote about the people who opened up education = Quinn, M. (2012) Utilitarianism and the Art School in Nineteenth-Century Britain, Pickering Chatto. Not much has changed from the radicals behind the campaigns to expand education in the 19th century and this should still be our aspiration  - the democratisation of HE and education generally. Along with healthcare education is a key battleground for the future.

    Academics need to work that open education and open content is not hijacked by private capitalist interests!