Hyper-Interface Culture and the New Age of Education: A Critical Look Under the Hood of the Harvard – MIT Partnership

Since Harvard and MIT announced a partnership that will invest $60 million into a new platform to deliver free online courses, the academic world has been a flutter. But criticisms and critiques have it all wrong. The joint venture points to a narrower, more stringent future for higher education in America, the furthering of a class system that furtively divides and signals a crisis in education that we’re not debating, namely that our current (analog) models are unsustainable.edX

Comments and opinions about the Harvard – MIT venture range from those in the business of online education, best exemplified by George Siemens, of Athabasca University’s Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute, that sees the Harvard-MIT partnership as merely the elites re-capturing an online presence in a growing and lucrative market, to David Brooks, of The New York Times, who, comparing this move to how newspapers and magazines retooled themselves around the web, worries about students that do not have “the intrinsic motivation to stay glued to their laptops hour after hour” but suggests that, likewise, “Online learning could extend the influence of American universities around the world,” though he is not won over by the partnership, wondering, as did Sven Birkerts 18 years ago in The Gutenberg Elegies, “Will fast online browsing replace deep reading?”

This is all wrong. We’re not seeing the obvious, the massive shift that’s already present in higher education.

The critiques of the Harvard-MIT venture assume that the world of technology exists — and grows — outside of ourselves, outside of who we are and, thus, as Martin Heidegger suggests in The Question of Technology (1954), we fail to understand technology as “human activity” This is something. I said, in 2008, at the MIT sponsored conference on Federating Resources Through Open Operability, the early stages of this move, on MIT’s part.

The Harvard-MIT venture is a sign that functions as a map of our current state in education, our American education crisis and as a distinct model for future power and control over delivery systems that, in turn, will certify one’s value in a world that’s constantly shifting beneath our feet, requiring that we re-tool on a continuous basis. Current education models cannot sustain the re-tooling of workers, at any level.

The Harvard-MIT partnership is an agreement to exert massive control over how education will be experienced in the near future — and who will gain. There are several reasons why this is viable — and why this has been brought on by the conditions in our culture.

In 1997, Steven Johnson, in Interface Culture, describing our relationship with technology, said that “we live in a society that is increasingly shaped by events in cyberspace, and yet cyberspace remains, for all practical purposes, invisible, outside our perceptual grasp.” This has created an ongoing drama as we try to (re)imagine — and understand — ourselves in this shifting cultural landscape propelled forward technologically and economically.

The great drama of the next few decades will unfold under the crossed stars of the analog and the digital. Like the chorus of Greek tragedy, information filters will guide us through this transition, translating the zeros and ones of digital language into the more familiar, analog images of every day life. These metaforms, these bitmappings will come to occupy nearly every facet of modern society: work, play, romance, family, high art, pop culture, politics. But the form itself will be the same, despite its many guises, laboring away in that strange new zone between medium and message. That zone is what we call the interface.

Interface, for Johnson, is where the old, analog world is transformed into the message; it comes with culture–altering methods and processes, as we now see as we integrate Facebook and Twitter into our lives. There’s the iPad, the iPhone, the Android and the Kindle. The interface alters perceptions, yet as Johnson rightly asserts, “the form itself will be the same”; that is, the reasoning behind the nature of the interface is still analog, the same. It’s control.

The $60 million investment must be paid back; it must be profitable. Why, then, such a magnanimous offering from 2 of our most distinguished academic institutions?

Answer: it’s about the interface.

Harvard and MIT are offering a free online service, not because they’re investing in the romantic ideals of higher education, but rather because they will learn a tremendous amount about our interactions with their online interface, providing volumes of data about our likes and dislikes, our methods of engagement, the relationships between social networks and, now, academic ones. It’s a harsh economic strategy, winner take all.

Harvard and MIT will have a robust system, behind the scenes where we can’t see it, much as Amazon does when it suggests books to you, that will gather information about our behavior. In turn, this will help Harvard and MIT retool their tool because “clients” will not be able to keep away from the significance of this venture. In other words, given the label, Harvard-MIT, it’s expected that millions will access this portal; these millions will give Harvard and MIT the data they need to fashion a learning portal to fit our behavior.

Education has turned a corner; it’s a synthesis of old analog learning with market realities.

“The ability to rapidly form and reform intelligent communities will become the decisive weapon of regional skill centers competing within a globalized economic space,” says Pierre Lévy in Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace (1997). “The emergence and constant redefinition of distributed identities,” says Lévy, “will not only take place within the institutional framework of business, but through cooperative interactions in an international cyberspace.”

Lévy said this 15 years ago. Some of us paid attention. Colleges and Universities did not — until now.

One of the greatest costs of running a university is technology. This is because higher education has had a distinct analog model they’ve been following, the kind of blindness Heidegger warned us about 63 years ago when he first lectured on The Question of Technology, in a series of 4 lectures, in the Club at Bremen. Heidegger talked about the “instrumental and anthropological definition of technology”; that is, the “means” and the “human activity.” In higher education we’ve always allowed both the means and the human activity to be determined by forces outside the academy — think Apple and Microsoft, for instance, both in terms of hardware and software. Then came the emergence of blogs and course management systems, for profit online universities — and education still following, never taking the bull by the horns, defining the uses of technology on its own terms. We’ve always tried to fit into whatever technologies were given to us at the highest cost, in the meantime enabling a change in higher education determined by software companies. The engineers that create the code have been our cultural and pedagogical gurus for the past twenty years. Until now, until Harvard and MIT have drawn attention to their aggressive attack on pedagogy and interface — or, perhaps better said, their definition of pedagogy gathered from data we provide for their interface that, in turn, will alter the face of higher education, propelling us into an unknown future.

But the high cost of technology is only part of the story, the other chapter is about the high cost of labor in higher education. Next to technology, labor is the biggest drain on colleges and universities. Talent, the professor, is handsomely paid; in public institutions, the professor earns less then at prestigious universities. Academia works on a star model — luminaries with crossover books get paid the best, appear on TED and on the PBS News Hour, Charlie Rose, and so on. Media tends to follow the most prized in an unforgiving system that talks a great deal about the need for excellent teaching but rewards the stars that bring notoriety to the campus, the company label. This system, as Harvard and MIT are aware, is not sustainable.

How much will families be willing to pay for a high – grade education? 60K? 100K? This is where we’re heading with our current analog model. It can’t happen — unless we change things around a bit. Most of the Ivies have changed their financial aid, accordingly; however, labor is still a number one concern: it’s too high. So what if we changed the model?

TED, for instance, is extraordinarily popular. The 15 minute lectures are almost de rigueur these days, having spawned TEDx across campuses. I find myself giving student TED lectures and things I find on YouTube, from lectures to appearances to animation and film clips to highlight ideas. I find myself giving students up – to – the – minute news from around the world, adding to the analog aspects of my syllabus. I correct all student work online. I use MOODLE and WordPress as course management tools. I have students create digital stories, when appropriate.

If a professor is working in these ways, already breaking the analog stranglehold, why not push a bit further and change the role of the professor to be more of a coach: if ready-made lectures, by luminaries, are delivered online and questions, essay prompts, designed work is likewise delivered, then the teacher can simply be one who urges, prods, encourages, and gives students more resources, online, to round off a given subject, which is pretty much what we’re doing these days anyway. Then the professor/teacher doesn’t need a PhD, of which there are too many anyhow. The system then doesn’t need things such as tenure. And the luminary professor doesn’t have to be paid $200K, but rather much less, the rest of his worth determined by “hits” and advertisements to a course, public appearances, digital books sold, etc. Then we really have a star system that mirrors all others in our economic system.

Most big universities, such as Harvard and MIT, have 100 + students attending lectures for approximately 2 years. We know from the analog model that we can deliver education one – to – many. Why not take this online? We can leave the last two years for residency, if we want, reducing energy costs and labor costs since, we also know, graduate students can critique work. We’re heading this way.

But of course this will make our education crisis worse because, already, way too many kids are being left behind in the analog model. These kids don’t have access to good teachers, technology and relevant books. For example, in one of my current courses we’re working with high school students in Washington Heights, New York City. These kids don’t have access to adequate technology, and what they do have access to is highly filtered. Teachers are not instructed on how to capitalize on the technology we have. In a survey I sent to these students, one of the kids said, “I really thank you for having me learn how to use Google.” Can you imagine? Expertise with Google is a sign of an education gap! Though many will have access to the Harvard – MIT online venture, ultimately, these institutions will reap all the rewards and bring along those that already gain from attending them. Nothing much will change unless we address the inadequacies of online learning K-16 and we, in education, start to take greater responsibility and control for what we’re charged to do.