Death By A Thousand Buzzwords

So, my workplace has three convocation days before the beginning of the term. Or, as I call them, “three days of doing nothing useful” where most of us would like it much better to be finalizing our preparations for the classes we will meet on Monday. During these days, we get exposed, courtesy of our multiplying administrators, to the latest trends in corporatizing public education. Today was not exception. We got a keynote speaker who was supposed to enlighten us on the latest trends in innovation and networks as related to higher ed. I should have made a bingo card with all the buzzwords flying around:

  • MOOCs – check! (never mind that deliver no credits, people will take the course and test out of credit classes that way)
  • flipped classrooms – check! (you mean we don’t lecture ALL the time?)
  • obligatory and laudatory references to the Gates Foundation and TED talks – check! (again just read this)
  • unquestioned mention of the greatness of the Khan Academy – check! (never mind this)
  • Awesome generational generalizations – check! (The Millenials, they like the technology, you know, and you have to entertain in 5 minutes increments)

Although, frankly, I was a bit disappointed by the lack of references to black swans and long tails.

Also, please update your vocabulary: data are now called analytics. That sounds much cooler. And technology will save education… but not from the technocrats, I’m afraid. And beware of the cave people (Colleagues Against Virtually Everything, how clever) – a label I will proudly claim – and the true believers (those who embrace all the latest trends… our speaker saw no irony here).

The other irony is that our speaker spoke of the use of these technologies to increase critical thinking on the part of our students, without a shred of critical analysis on his part. I suspect these kinds of talks are proliferating across the higher education world and they are highly problematic. Here is why.

Generational generalizations

I have already blogged about this. These presentations are usually based on “how the millenials” behave, how they use technology, etc. But speakers like these are not talking about millenials as an age cohort. They are talking about a category of individuals who have money to keep up with the latest devices and technologies (such as gaming platforms), and the time to spend online. This involves a certain level of affluence. In this context, generation substitutes for class and actually allows for the elision of class altogether.

It has been successful in fueling some political divide and conquer where it’s all the Boomers fault (the current US campaign is full of it) :


Because to reintroduce class would involve asking some disturbing questions and looking back as decades of sociological research on social stratification in general and within the education world in particular. That means talking about student debt and for-profit racketeering operations. In our talk today, inequalities were only mention to indicate that higher education was the only social ladder available in the context – another one of my pet peeves – of education reduced to job training.

But generations are not homogeneous groups. They are socially-constructed categories of analysis that push other to the back ground, not only class, but also race and gender. For instance, our speaker discussed gaming as educational strategy. No mention of the fact that even though women represent 47% of gamers, they have to deal with an enormous amount of misogyny and men and women do not entirely game the same. Some nuance beyond the “wow… 47% of gamers are women” stats would have been useful.

At the same time, once generations have been produced as category of analysis, they are then reified into a set of traits that apparently cannot be changed so we might as well adjust to them.

Salvation by networking technology

This one goes beyond education and is at the heart of Evgeny Morozov’s critique of the cyber-utopians. Founders of technology companies see social problems as problems that can all be solved by technology. That is the essence of TED talks. If we unleashed social networking technologies across societies, with the right hardware / software / tech skills, solutions are at hand. Technocracy, buzzwords and hype go together. Give every child an iPad.

It seems absurd when I put it that way, it is amazing how easily accepted this has become.

But there is a bigger problem, I think.

None of this is politically neutral or benign

Because these trends in innovation are rooted in technology and analytics, they are presented to us as objective and neutral. This neatly depoliticizes them. TED talks have that approach as well, which is why they canned a talk on social inequalities as too political and controversial.

Most of these trends in education / higher education talks avoid any discussion of social class, inequalities, stratification, gender and race. Instead, they reduce students to either the networked individual who should receive a customized education or the upper middle class generational archetype who is intensely tuned to latest trends in information technologies. Issues of costs are reduced to technological discussions (e-books can be rented for cheap, MOOCs are free, etc.). Online classes, in this view, are populated by the neoliberally-imagined student as consumer who knows exactly what she is doing and wants, has a clear educational plan and an instrumental / consumerist approach to education-as-job-training.

And you can what / who is neatly disappeared from the stage. Yeah. That is never really mentioned clearly but that is what is at the root of so much technological innovation supposed to salvage education.

There is also no mention of the different ways in which all these technologies require extensive surveillance processes and data mining on the students. But the students don’t mind, we have been told. They love it. After all, they post pictures of themselves drunk on Facebook, so, it’s all good.

And the bottom line of the speech was one power point slide after another (after the speaker had promised no death by power point) of corporate logos of a range of products that have already made the rounds for those of us who keep track of that, including non-critical mention of a certain site that where students can anonymously rate professors which should have ended the credibility of our speaker right there. And isn’t that what it’s all about? Selling brands.

The speech gimmicks

The speech techniques that such speakers deploy are themselves problematic. Here again, you could have a bingo card of items you are guaranteed to get in such speech: the little interactive activity to ensure everybody is paying attention, except you couch making people clap their hands and cross their fingers in neuroscientific terms and it sounds a lot cooler than just “clap your hands”.

Somewhere, you are going to have the amusing yet insightful anecdote about the speaker’s children which will lead to a generalizing from “kids these days” to something about the Millenials and how cool it is that they get stuff on the Internet where we had to trudge to the library and use typed cards and microfiche (how quaint).

Then, you will also get the sad and moving story that will pull at your heart strings, usually at the end so you leave the speech with an emotional high so you’ll forget that a whole lot of stuff you heard was nonsense.

And then, today, we got something that was disturbing. somewhere earlier in the speech, the speaker asked those of us who were using mobile devices (yours truly, guilty as charged) to give it or swap with the person next to you. The point was to show how attached we are to these devices and how long it would take before we all freaked out and started yelling “gimme back my iPhone”. To amuse the crowd, the speaker told us a little story of how he had done this exercise with another group and a young man went pale when he had to pass his device to the person next to him. Turns out the person next to him was his boss that everybody had nicknamed ‘Satan” because he was vile and mean. How amusing! The speaker thought the young man was totally addicted to his device when in fact, it had to do with something else entirely!

And the something else entirely is what is also always missing from these talks: power. The little, seemingly innocent exercise would lead to pretty nasty consequences in the context of power differentials. But in the world of these speakers, power dynamics do not exist. Networks have erased them. The professor now uses technology that erase his presence in the context of “content delivery” (as opposed to teaching). It’s as if colleges and universities are not ruled by strict hierarchies overlaid over class, race and gender stratification.

One would think that the Satan incident would have put an end to this activity, but apparently not since we had to do it this morning. Fortunately for me, I was seated next to a friend.

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