Thursday, January 10, 2013

Real Academics and Virtual Education

To protect their service, students and vocation academics must better assert themselves as a unique and valued class of labour – independent of institutional employ.  One of the pressing reasons we must do this is the rapid expansion of electronic education in all its dimensions and forms, including MOOCs, course sales, and virtual institutions.

Unions cannot protect labour if in response to economic and technical realities institutional employers and governments must (or simply choose to) alter the means of production and thereby eliminate or erode faculty (and other) employee positions.

Unions Are Impotent
With many other occupations in a similar position this impotency is demonstrated as robotics are introduced to the automotive industry or electronic mail to the postal sector.  Certainly the unions involved are very powerful but in such circumstances functionally moot as a response to the elimination of jobs and reduction in employee wages and benefits.

Absent protection of what is our livelihood academics cannot effectively steward the civic enterprise we serve - higher education.  The threat comes from the distinct possibility that its provision will become even more centralized in hands of the relatively few institutions (and their faculty employees) still required by a fully evolved virtual higher education system.

In 50 years of technological advancement in e-education how many institutions will be required to service the globe?  Is it the 4000 or so that exist in the US now?  And how many academics will be required?

Of course as the cost of such technology inevitably goes down perhaps instead there will be a wealth of those who on some measure are qualified and prepared to offer the service independently of institutional employers.  We are already seeing many examples of such academic entrepreneurialism.

I encourage academics to take this sort of path, but under the protection and direction of the professional or cooperative service models.

But no matter the direction the rapid introduction of technology to higher education has moved the sector into a pioneering age of academic labour organization and competition in means of service.

Virtual Employers and E-education
As a logical point, unions only make sense where there is an employer.  But what will this employer look like in an era of technologically advanced higher education? 

The fact that academic labour is perhaps more difficult to replace with technology is a citadel from which we will eventually be flushed.  One can expect in time it will be possible and probable that all education be conducted by AI in AR and VR learning environments wherever and whenever the student intends.

I have little doubt that machina can and will replace us.

Until that technology is sufficiently developed, adopted and adapted we mere mortals will be required.  An advantage to academics of this technological progression is it underscores the fact that academics are the only essential labour in the sector, as physical institutions are reduced and replaced by binary in advance of their faculty employees.

Across society technological advancements continue to displace the need of physical proximity for meaningful human interaction in everything from business and healthcare to sex and learning.  The entrenched notion of brick and mortar in higher education is no exception.  Universities and colleges are being archived, reduced to their essential functionary nature as mere legal entities - like a corporation, professional society, religion or cooperative - designed to facilitate the service provided by academics.

The question is what to do about academic labour that is already exploited and of insufficient quantity during this inevitable progression.

If we are not careful in this time of transition between real-world and virtual-world higher education the latter will be reared from the ethos and practices of the former. 

A troubling consideration is that as an historical accident public and private institutions – not academics – are seen as the principal service provider and so exercise considerable control over higher education.  From this original position they will proceed to design and control the virtual era to come.  They are after all currently the only channel through which to access (accredited) higher education.

The sector (world-wide) might well be reduced to an even smaller number of iconic institutional providers – on or off line.

In this employment stunted future where unions can provide no protection the number of academics that would be displaced or otherwise subject to negative modification in their labour circumstance is substantial.  Consider how even now the number of graduate students who pursue a career in academe is declining.  If higher education were concentrated in a small cadre of institutions then these numbers would be further reduced, placing the generation and dissemination of knowledge in the hands of sanctioned (not de facto) elite few.

If electronic higher education and underfunding continue to trend, the triad model of institutional service providers, government funding and union labour representation could decimate academic labour, not to mention the effects it would have on quality, variety and innovation in education and research or the commerce and control of knowledge.

Professional and Cooperative Alternatives are Potent Responses
These alternative service models are appropriate, effective response to the realities of higher education that protect not only academics but students and society.

Relying on more detailed earlier argumentation I maintain that the cooperative and professional alternatives can:

1)      Deliver more academics to the service of students and society.  [Any qualified academic is free to open a professional or cooperative practice and offer their expertise to the public for a fee.  Consider on any measure the variety that would be made possible.]
2)      Drive a service market that is less monopolistic than the current and open to many entrepreneurial arrangements for the provision of higher education – from (say) cooperative institutions to solo professional practices.  [Consider the variety of financial and operational models that would be made possible.]
3)      Define academic labour as the core service provider and proper steward of higher education.  [Consider the fundamental truth that academics are the final authority in all matters of knowledge generation and dissemination in higher education.]
4)      Differentiate research programs, paradigms and funding schemes on a scale not currently available.  [Consider alone the increased variety of strategies and models of response to RFPs, grants, and other sources of funding that would be possible.]
5)      Develop a student-teacher relationship that is more informed, customizable and so effective on any metric.  [Consider the variety in pedagogy, evaluation, teaching techniques, and life-long learning relationships that would be made possible.]
6)      Do all of this using the progressive technology of e-education to its full potential independent of corporate institutional employers.  [Consider the variety of traditional real-world, physical, in-person learning environments that would be possible – not to mention the virtual ones.]
7)   Decrease the cost of higher education to students and government by 50-75%, without the need to convert the service to mass virtual education. [Consider the value of being able to maintain face-to-face education relationships with low academic-student ratios.]

Notice that unions are not relevant.  This is employer-free living.  It is a livelihood we have a right to and one that is not only possible but preferable.  It is a means of earning a living that is protective of academics and our charges.

Notice also that technology which will continue to transform higher education (and society at large) is no longer something academics need fear and resist, or society need embrace as a saviour.  It becomes what it is, a tool, used in the personal management of an academic practice operating within a larger professional or cooperative higher education model, as described.

Technology will define higher education in many ways.  Do not let it define our labour.

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