Digital Technologies in the Public University: More Money-Making or Access for All?

Reading the introduction to Promises and Perils of Digital History by Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig last week, I was intrigued by their mention of neo-Luddite Marxist critic David Noble, which led me off on a tangent which ties in with the pieces on pedagogy we’re reading this week.

Because universities have traditionally hierarchized individual authorities as sources of knowledge and because DH aims to break this hierarchy down, I was interested to see that Cohen and Rosenzweig introduce Noble by aligning him with another neo-Luddite, conservative American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, who, writing in 1996, didn’t like digital technologies because their equalizing power make “no authority […] privileged over any other” [Himmelfarb qtd in Cohen and Rosenzeig 1]. Although the equalizing power that Himmelfarb is afraid of is something DH embraces, Noble doesn’t engage with this but instead warns us against technology’s power to serve as a tool to mass-market higher education. In “Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education” (1998) Nobles warns that

…the trend towards automation of higher education as implemented in North American universities [in 1998] is a battle between students and professors on one side, and university administrations and companies with “educational products” to sell on the other. It is not a progressive trend towards a new era at all, but a regressive trend, towards the rather old era of mass production, standardization and purely commercial interests. [Nobles para 1]

Noble takes issue not with technology itself but with what capitalists use it for. In the 1980s and ‘90s, he writes, universities were the focus of “a change in social perception which has resulted in the systematic conversion of intellectual activity into intellectual capital and, hence, intellectual property” [Noble para 8]. Research, he argues, was being commodified, and knowledge turned into “proprietary products” that can be bought and sold. As these changes took place, universities were implicated “as never before in the economic machinery” [Noble para 9]. Universities began to allocate funds for science and engineering research – because research had become a commodity – at the expense of education. Then instruction too was commercialized and shaped in a corporate model where costs were minimized by replacing human teachers with computer-based instruction. I think back to the wave of MOOCs that attempted to capitalize on the growing global demand for university degrees and certification around 2012 and what a poor substitute these were for seminars. These were Mills indeed. Then came learning management systems, writes Noble, and educational maintenance organizations contracted through outside organizations. Noble expresses concern that faculty lost the rights to their work as they uploaded syllabi and course content to university websites only to see their scholarship outsourced (I trust that Noble’s concern about ownership of intellectual property is concern that scholarship not be freely shared and not concern that faculty lose power over capital they ‘rightfully’ own). It was also unclear, writes Noble, who owned student educational records once students had uploaded their work to digital sites [para 30]. This is an important question and I hope that FERPA protects student privacy in digital media better now than it did in 1998. Having said that, I think of the query we recently began to write to Voyant about what it does with the corpora we upload, and the question appears to be just as pertinent now. Noble saw students as “no better than guinea pigs” in a massive money-making experiment gone totally wrong [para 30].

In 1998 it seemed to Noble that the technological revolution in higher education was all about corporations (including universities that had become de facto corporations) exploiting the capital that universities had come to contain. And “behind this effort are the ubiquitous technozealots who simply view computers as the panacea for everything, because they like to play with them” [Noble para 15]. Ha. A big problem with Noble’s neo-Luddite position is that he marks a division between people who use computers and those who don’t, as if these were two species apart. It’s important to keep in mind that Noble was writing in 1998. I wonder whether his position towards Digital Humanities would have changed by today (Noble died in 2010) in view of the turn towards free open source digital resources and in view of DH’s growing impact on scholarship, publishing, peer review, tenure and promotion, noted by Matthew Kirshenbaum in “What is Digital Humanities and What’s it Doing in English Departments?” (2012) and taken up by Stephen Brier in “Where’s the Pedagogy? The Role of Teaching and Learning in the Digital Humanities” (2012).

To get a sense of how present pedagogy was in digital humanities work in 2012, Brier looked for the key words pedagogy, teaching, learning and classroom in a summary of NEH grants for DH start-up projects from 2007 to 2010, and found hardly any instances of these key terms. This does not mean that no NEH start-up grants were destined to pedagogical DH projects, writes Brier, but does suggest that “these approaches are not yet primary in terms of digital humanists’ own conceptions of their work.” To start a conversation about the implications of digital technologies in higher education, Brier focuses on the City University of New York, the largest public university system in the United States and one which has grown tremendously over the past five decades in large part, writes Brier, thanks to its readiness to undertake radical experiments in pedagogy and open access.

One of these projects, the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) project, came into being to continue the mission that CUNY’s Open Admissions policy, dismantled by the CUNY Board of Trustees in 1999, aimed to accomplish, namely, to ensure that all high school graduates be able to enroll in college and get a college degree. WAC aims to do this by having writing fellows teach writing skills to students who need these. WAC brought digital technologies into the classroom in a natural way, writes Brier, because most writing fellows were interested in developing these.

Brier then points us towards The American Social History Project/Center for Media Learning/New Media Lab, which he co-founded in 1981 and which is deeply committed to using digital media for teaching history in high schools and at the undergraduate level. He goes on to discuss the Interactive Technology and Pedagogy Doctoral Cerfificate Program at the GC, the Instructional Technology Fellows Program at the Macaulay Honors College, Matt Gold’s “Looking for Whitman” project, the CUNY Academic Commons and the GC Digital Humanities Initiative. Now we also have the MA in Digital Humanities and many other initiatives that have come into being since 2012. Given the wealth of initiatives for educational reform developed with digital technologies within CUNY, I like to think that Noble would reverse his Marxist critique of digital technologies in the university were he alive today to witness the equalizing power for educational change digital technologies clearly provide.

2 thoughts on “Digital Technologies in the Public University: More Money-Making or Access for All?

  1. Steve Brier

    In light of Sabrina’s mention of David Noble’s book and his attitudes toward technology in the university I thought it would be interesting for the class to read a review of Noble’s book (which came out in 2002) that the late Roy Rosenzweig and I published in The Nation in 2003. I’ve added it to the Files under the Group site.

  2. Patrick Grady O'Malley

    Sabina, I recently read that Marx’s writings as a correspondent with the New York Tribune have never really been analyzed. They largely focused on European core nations, but some in the periphery too. Wouldn’t it be cool to do textual analysis on these to see how the news that he wrote about informed his more scholarly writings?

    And I agree with you about the said state of corporate education. There was a Simpsons episode where math class was brought to you by “Pepsi” lol. But in all seriousness, its a cold-hearted industry and is becoming more and more acceptable thanks to the work of our genius Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. Not only is she trying to privatize the education system (corporately), she has also been slaughtering protections for student loan borrowers. What would Marx think of that?!

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