Research Findings

The algorithmic university and the struggle over academic labor

November 5, 2020

The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has another casualty that has gotten little widespread attention—in person teaching and learning in higher education. As self-isolation and quarantines have suppressed the transmission of the virus, the turn toward remote work using new teleconferencing technology threatens to also sweep away many of the barriers to the spread of another epidemic—the digital automation and deskilling of teaching in higher education. The pandemic has created the ideal circumstances for “edtech” venture capitalists, textbook publishers, Learning Management Systems (LMS) companies, and online education advocacy groups to expand the widespread deskilling and automation of teaching in colleges and universities.  

This rationalization of academic labor has had profound effects on US public community colleges and universities. In the past decade, on-line education (OLE) in the US has been making slow and steady gains. The widespread reliance on teleconferencing platforms such as Zoom to move nearly all higher education into OLE during the pandemic has accelerated the reorganization of the academic work of higher education. 

The massive collection of online data has expanded the use of predictive data analytics to surveil, self-discipline and increase the productivity the academic labor of students and faculty. To counter these dangerous developments faculty and other academic workers must shift our organizing tactics, strategies and objectives. Organized academic workers are the only protection against the virus of on line education.

From unbundling to the rationalization of academic labor

The accelerated reliance on conferencing platforms like Zoom and LMS such as Canvas that drive OLE is not a neutral process. The emergence of OLE coincides with decades of relentless neoliberal assaults on higher education through adjunctification, austerity, privatization, entrepreneurialization, and shifting costs to students and their families through skyrocketing tuition and fees paid for by massive personal debt. These represent the external factors placing relentless pressure on higher education to make it more effectively produce self-disciplined labor.

Alongside these external factors is the equally critical internal factor of the fragmentation and rationalization of academic labor by OLE that threatens to undermine the very craft once thought insulated from attack—the human skill of teaching. 

The technologies of learning management systems, AI, and telecommunication technologies such as Canvas and Zoom rationalize academic labor by subtly shifting the assessment of comprehension of content knowledge to measurement of proficiency in task completion.

In the midst of rising costs and declining revenues neoliberal edtech “disruptors” have advocated “unbundling” (for example, fragmenting) higher education at the level of systems, institutions, non-academic services, instructional, and professional into separate “primary” (teaching and research) and “support” activities (administrative and support services).

To date, all but the professional and instructional components have been mostly unbundled leaving teaching and other academic services such as counseling, advising, financial aid, tutoring, library support, LMS tech support, and admissions as current targets for rationalization. We currently see relentless pressure to expand OLE and integrate telecommunications and AI grading chatbots, for example, in an effort to physically unbundle higher education from place-based to online. 

The American Council on Education has found insufficient evidence of the purported “cost savings” used to justify OLE once the fixed technology and staffing costs are included. A study by Education International found that LMS companies are pre-empting opposition to the high capital costs by covering the start-up costs in exchange for half or more of students’ fees to recoup their investment.

The rationalization of teaching essentially seeks to fragment, deconstruct, and redistribute its three key elements of design, delivery and assessment of teaching into as many as nine components no longer under the control of faculty. Higher education researchers Sean Gehrke and Adrianna Kezar describe this unbundling of teaching as “the differentiation of instructional duties that were once typically performed by a single faculty member into distinct activities performed by various professionals, such as course design, curriculum development, delivery of instruction, and assessment of student learning.” This has only been made easier by the nearly complete dismantling of the three pillars of faculty academic labor: research, service, and teaching by transforming nearly the entire faculty in contingent “just in time” adjuncts like myself.

Rather than “unbundling,” The Analogue University suggests we understand what is happening in the rationalization of teaching as a strategy to discipline and better control faculty academic labor in order to produce more unwaged students who are self-disciplined and productive waged labor. Productive self-disciplined students are destined as labor power to meet the growing demand for precarious “platform” or “gig” work.

Tactical defiance and strategic rigidity

The labor of faculty and students are linked. Teaching faculty’s labor is intended to produce disciplined student labor power for exploitation in the capitalist system. To the degree that faculty refuse to discipline and students refuse to be disciplined teaching becomes unproductive to capital and ruptures the circuit of the reproduction of labor power.

However, resisting the rationalization of academic labor will require devising new tactics, strategies, and objectives to circulate the struggle among more academic workers. To date, because there has been little attempt to assess the current composition of academic labor the outcome is of yet uncertain. With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic and global online-ification, OLE has now become central to the struggle over academic labor.

The struggles of academic workers continue to follow ineffective tactics and strategies because they lack an analysis of the current technical composition of academic labor in what Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades call “academic capitalism.” We commonly mark the connection between worsened academic working conditions to overcrowded classes, the lack of available courses, the rise in tuition, fees, and housing costs, and the push to online-ify more and more of higher education against the wishes of faculty and students. The predominant approach is to attack the neoliberal strategy for channeling the tax burden downward while increasing the costs to students paid by growing lifelong debt and work to repay it.       

What is missing from this analysis is an effort to connect struggles over paid academic labor of faculty with those of students’ unpaid labor of schoolwork and many students’ similarly contingent service jobs. Understanding and identifying the commonalities of precarious academic labor of the supermajority of the professorate and students is the first step toward recomposing the power of all academic labor.

These connections need to be informed by an analysis of the role of higher education in capitalism in which faculty academic workers, according to higher education researcher David Harvie, “co-produce new labor power” of new waged workers who “will in turn be employed to produce value and surplus value.” Harvie uses a class analysis that makes explicit how reforms such as “datafication,” OLE, and performance measurements are each “a concrete expression of capital’s social drive to enhance the quality of human labour power” while driving down the costs to reproduce it. The shift to OLE, datafication, and performance-based measurements are in reality a shift to continuous assessment and control of work both inside and outside of higher education. 

Academic workers need to identify new forms of tactical defiance and strategic rigidity that can develop into various forms of organization and refusal complementing the organizing of adjunct faculty. For example, at the level of governance faculty have immense power to diffuse, disrupt or slow online-ification by “rebundling” academic labor so faculty remain in charge of designing, delivering, and assessing their own unique yet limited OLE courses.  As long as academic senates still retain powerful roles in campus governance, numerous tactics could be used to expand faculty intransigence and rigidity to slow down the process of online-ification and protect academic workers. Edtech ideologues admit that deeply entrenched faculty resistance is the greatest threat to further expansion and openly call for removing faculty control over OLE either by breaking shared governance and faculty unions or coopting faculty through stakeholder engagement and professional development. Faculty should be escalating their tactics and deploying strategies to make this potential impediment a reality. Shortcode

Read More

Robert Ovetz. “The Algorithmic University: On-Line Education, Learning Management Systems, and the Struggle Over Academic Labor” in Critical Sociology. 2020. For a free, pre-publication version of the article, click here

Image: mohamed_hassan via Pixabay (CC by 2.0)

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