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I’m in an experiment—get me out of here

Sophia Woodman

This pandemic, and the responses of universities to it, are providing a fascinating on-going natural experiment for thinking through what higher education is/should be for. During the UCU strike in February and March this year, I was reading more than was healthy about plans in some quarters to turn universities into platforms through which students consume information, ‘teaching’, food, entertainment, accommodation, sport—in other words, everything. And how during such processes, universities can hoover up data about these students to enable ‘smarter’ responses to their needs—including for mental health interventions.

For some time, university leaders have been warned that EdTech is going to make them redundant, because students as ‘digital natives’ will opt for the customized, individualized, efficient (and cheaper) ‘learning’ the EdTech companies are offering. Generally, the proponents of digitization assume that the best (or only?) way for universities to take on this challenge is to compete with the EdTech companies at their own game—to give the customers what they want. And of course, the EdTech companies are only too happy to help with these processes of transforming the university; platformization involves various forms of public-private partnerships. Just like other big tech firms, EdTech companies will be big winners from the coronavirus fall out.

We don’t know yet how this experiment will play out, but it seems peculiar to me that university managers would be willing to accept the above ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ premise. I’m completely convinced by Raewyn Connell’s arguments in her marvellous, witty and readable new book, The Good University: what universities actually do and why it’s time for radical change. She argues that knowledge production has to be cooperative, and that cooperation is built into the DNA of universities. Intellectual labour, she writes, is inherently collective and requires cooperation, not just among academics and students, but also with what she calls the ‘operations staff’ who enable the working of the university. The ‘banking model’ of education on which the EdTech vision sketched out above is based is obviously contrary to the idea of a knowledge commons where multiple ‘knowledge formations’ are constantly being constructed and transformed through collective efforts, processes that are fundamentally at odds with the university as business, which seeks to extract profit from such efforts.

I know my most inspiring times in the classroom have been those in which students and teachers are learning together, and the end points are not fixed. So, in the coming months, we’ll see. Watch this space.

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Sophia W.

I teach in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh, and am interested in the politics of everyday life, in China and elsewhere.

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