MOOCs in Citizenville.

MOOC tracking: from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

What happens when you use technology to “serve people” by taking people and their physical presence in particular places – and thus their sense of responsibility and relationship to one another and to that place – out of the picture entirely?  One result is MOOCs, or “Massively Open Online Courses,” packages of videotaped lectures and online quizzes sold by elite universities and their corporate friends to smaller universities under a smiling mask of “student empowerment.”  The other is a bundle of plans to “wire” people into civic structures through their computers and iphones to make up what former San Francisco mayor and current California lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom calls, in his new book of the same name, Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government.  The same tautology fuels them both: technology must be the best solution because it is the most efficient (and profitable) which makes it the best because it is technology.  But poke the bubble (or the cloud?) with one fact and it pops:  democracy and education are fundamentally antithetical to such uses of technology, because they thrive on just the sort of human nuance, complexity, and relationships in particular places and times that technology would erase as “inefficient” because they don’t reduce to numbers. As Hannah Arendt and others after her have accurately discerned, “efficiency” in technological terms, which bleed back and forth into corporate and totalitarian terms with alarming ease, so often means sanding down the edges of human particularity until everyone reaches an ideal of perfection as determined by a central totalitarian – or corporate – entity.  The Nazis, wrote Arendt, dreamed of a human future in which “all was possible,” all limits (and moral scruples, and “undesirable” ethnic groups) erased by the magical powers of science.  (How clean and bright the chambers! How quick the diffusion and absorption of gas! Better living through chemistry – and genocide.)

Of course, we’re not facing Nazis in MOOCland or Citizenville.  Not really.  But I think of Arendt when Newsom – appallingly chirpy and scornful – compares Arab Spring demonstrators fighting for their rights to petulant office workers who rattle a vending machine because their Snickers bar is stuck.  I think of her when Anat Agarwal, president of MOOC company edX, “described the standard professor as basically just ‘pontificating’ and ‘spouting content’” (even in front of the very professors and administrators to whom he was trying to sell the course), the same know-nothing view of academia I expect from Internet trolls but not from CEOs who, at least in theory, should know their target audiences.  Arendt wrote that bureaucracies can be morally deadening, because they surround their officers with an atmosphere of moral oblivion in which thoughtlessness can flourish, enabled by yes-men, apparently consequenceless actions (sign the transport order in your office and you don’t actually have to see Jews loaded onto trains), and cliches that short-circuit consideration of real human beings.  Corporations at their worst do the same thing, reducing people to what can be sold to them or environments to what can be extracted from them, leaving places like West Virginia and former Rust Belt industrial towns as “sacrifice zones,” a phrase that would leave Arendt speechless.  Mountaintop-removal mining exemplifies the way techno- and corporate-logic levels everything in their path towards singularity, crushing the delicate and diverse and formed-over-time and not-made-by-man into a dense compacted brick of dollar bills.  Including animals, and streams, and trees, and wild ramps and ginseng that come up every spring.  Including people.

Newsom and Agarawal’s attitudes – and the increasing interest in MOOCs among college administrators – show that technology-adoption-as-solution-to-a-human-systems-problem is just one more of the seductive clichés that thrive in the airless cloud of a bureaucracy, blinding leaders who are supposed to know better and easing their path toward corporatization.  And for students, for citizens, and for the very nature of democracy and education in the 21st century – where our survival will depend on curiosity, critical thinking, and the courage to act – that cliché is deadly.

On April 29 of this year, the philosophy faculty of San Jose State University published an open letter to Harvard professor Michael Sandel, creator and star of the “JusticeX” MOOC they had been “asked to pilot” as part of a new “contract with edX (a company associated with MIT and Harvard.)  They refused to do so, explaining, “There is no pedagogical problem in our department that JusticeX solves, nor do we have a shortage of faculty capable of teaching our equivalent course. We believe that long-term financial considerations motivate the call for massively open online courses (MOOCS) at public universities such as ours. Unfortunately, the move to MOOCs comes at great peril to our university.  We regard such courses as a serious compromise of quality of education and, ironically for a social justice course, a case of social injustice.”  One by one, they name the costs of shifting to MOOCs.  Students lose mentorship and interaction with a live specialist in the field and with fellow learners.  A passively watched video of a distant classroom flattens diversity of perspectives and relationships to the place where students actually are.  Professors can no longer design their own courses to fit their own students’ needs.  And, crucially, education based on interaction with a real person becomes the domain of the privileged, just as the expensive preschool features hours of cognitively enriching, carefully designed play while the bargain preschool parks children in front of a TV set.  “Public universitites will no longer provide the same quality of education,” they write, “and will not remain on par with well-funded private ones.  Teaching justice through an educational model that is spearheading the creation of two social classes in academia thus amounts to a cruel joke.”

Of course, as philosophy professors, they discern what’s really at stake.  “We believe the purchasing of online and blended courses is not driven by concerns about pedagogy,” they write, “but by an effort to restructure the US university system in general, and our own California State University system in particular.  If the concern were pedagogically motivated, we would expect faculty to be consulted and to monitor quality control.  On the other hand, when change is financially driven and involves a compromise of quality it is done quickly, without consulting faculty or curriculum committees, and behind closed doors.  This is essentially what happened with SJSU’s contract with edX,” which seems to have been presented to the faculty more or less as a fait accompli.  A politician held a press conference to announce the signing of the contract, saying, “The old education financing model, frankly, is no longer sustainable.”  The new model?  Corporate money, apparently.  The politician?  Gavin Newsom.

Back to that vending machine.  I think this one passage on the fourth page will stand for much of the rest of Citizenville.  Having introduced the metaphor of government as vending machine and “citizen engagement” as “shaking the vending machine,” Newsom expands:

This is the perfect analogy.  Is there any more frustrating pursuit than shaking a vending machine? Your money has disappeared, you didn’t get the thing you want, and even if you do manage to shake something loose, you still can’t change the fundamental fact that someone else decided what you could buy from that machine in the first place.  You’re pretty much powerless throughout the entire process, except for that last resort of shaking the machine in anger and frustration.

In the last few years, people have been shaking that vending machine all around the world.  The Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, the Tea Party conventions, students protesting tuition hikes – these are examples of people shaking the machine because there’s no other way to get those in power to listen.  Something’s obviously broken when the only way people know how to get their government’s attention is by camping in downtown squares, marching and protesting, screaming at those in charge.

So what should we do? The predictable answer would be “Fix the vending machine!” But the better answer is to throw it out altogether. If we’re going to bring government into the twenty-first century, we have to start by completely rethinking what government really is.

Of course, “rethinking” within the circumscribed metaphorical frame of tech-bondage means imagining government as – what else – another kind of machine:

The cloud is an on-demand resource, freeing us from the constraints of place, letting us share, communicate, and connect more easily than ever before. 

Why is this important? Because the future is about information – being able to access it, manipulate it, learn from it, improve our lives with it.  And the cloud’s sole purpose is to give us information whenever we need it.  The cloud is ubiquity, access, sharing, collaboration, connection.  It works for you.

That is how our twenty-first century government must operate. As the futurist and author Peter Schwartz says, ‘[The cloud] enables the enterprise to organize itself in a distributed fashion, without central power, to deliver and collaborate in ways that you couldn’t before.’”

If you are not laughing at this – especially after being stalked by Google and Facebook ads, targeted by Target (who knows you’re pregnant almost before you do), and spied on by the NSA, from within that same invisible cloud – you might better check your pulse.  Does a professional politician really not understand the social dynamics behind these protests, which are so much more complicated than just “screaming?” If technology is so universally empowering, why is “government,” with all its webpage access forms and tie-ins to the cloud already, still a synonym for feeling frustrated, blocked, and ignored?  Or, as the late, great anti-coal activist and West Virginia native Judy Bonds asked, “If coal is so good for us hillbillies, then why are we so poor?”

My own answer to this would be that too many citizens have ceded our power by ignoring (and thus colluding in) the gradual sale of democracy to our corporations, one Citizens United decision at a time.  The only way to take it back is to get informed, show up, and do the work, in person, from the local level on up – fighting the pacifying, isolating effect of the very same devices with screens that Gavin Newsom heralds as our saviors, and fighting the implication of those devices that we are just consumers rather than citizens with responsibilities of our own.  (Take a look at how this worked in small, rural Mora County, New Mexico, to name just one.) According to Citizenville, Newsom apparently believes that citizens’ responsibilities can be engineered in the opposite direction: after talking with a member of “an organization called AmericaSpeaks,” he got excited about their “new technology — handheld devices that allow people to quietly vote on their priorities rather than having to travel to city meetings and strive to argue the loudest for their positions.  They could sit in their seats, even at home, and express their opinions through this device.”  (“Because people don’t shout on Twitter,” comments the Washington Post sarcastically.  “And social media platforms are never hijacked for murky political purposes, only noble ones.”)  I’m not sure whether it’s the faith in the infallibility of machines in the democratic process (even after the 2000 elections?) or the persistent desire to engineer away actual contact between officials and citizens (or borrowing the name of his grand design from an online game in which you pretend to farm) that’s weirder.  Robert’s Rules of Order and taking one’s turn to speak — not “arguing the loudest” — do still work, even in public meetings.

Sure, we can use Facebook and email and webpages and Twitter as tools – even a cursory look at movements from the Tea Party to to the Arab Spring and Occupy and local activism everywhere will show you how effective they can be.  Obviously, I’m using this blog.  But they can never be a substitute for real presence in real places, just as a videoed lecture and online discussion boards – however carefully moderated – will never substitute for sitting in a real classroom on a warm spring day, windows open to the breeze, poring through a passage of text and talking about it with your professor and the other students, being surprised and moved by a sudden idea spoken in another person’s voice that touches or challenges you in a way you never expected.  I will never forget the moment in my own first-year classroom when a student from Pakistan described witnessing a suicide bombing in his native city.  “The taste of blood filled my mouth,” he said.  “I could taste it.”  A blond girl from a Minneapolis suburb told me, three years later, how she still remembered her shock, how she studied her classmate’s face with new eyes, how she felt moved to approach and talk to him after class.  “You see that kind of thing on the news,” she said, “and it’s so easy to think it’s not real.  You’re just a kid from Minnesota, you don’t know anything about all of that.  But you hear someone who was there, and look at him – and it’s real.”

But if you are a politician whose career – especially in California – means presiding over decisions like the sale of JusticeX to the California State system over the objections of faculty, and probably also means doing as little as possible to piss off Silicon Valley, it’s perhaps understandable that you’d set forth technology (delivered, of course, by Silicon Valley corporations) as the solution to the same problems (apathy, simplistic thinking, misinformation, etc) that the giant Internet infotainment complex itself (as delivered by Silicon Valley corporations) helps create, especially if in your personal and professional life being surrounded by technology (from Silicon Valley and Hollywood) is the norm.  Newsom is trapped inside the big round bubble on which he thinks he’s standing to deliver the good news to all the rest of us.  Every feature of his “vending machine” metaphor betrays unthinking immersion in the very same features of corporate and political culture that created the frameworks for that metaphor in the first place.  Citizens are just consumers, either pacified or petulant depending on how efficiently they get the product they paid for.  (What does it mean that government here is not only a product but, literally, junk?)  Protest, much less ordinary physical presence in city council meetings and public meetings and public places, is icky and uncool, distressingly earnest and probably insane, inevitably involving “screaming,” something no reasonable person would do if she could possibly avoid it.  And it’s all delivered with a fake folksiness designed to speed you over the logical gaps and extremely troubling interpretations of the democratic process underneath, like the skin of grass over Florida sinkholes.

The ultimate implications of this reasoning are simple, and sad.  What will make everything “more efficient” and make government do its work better is to retreat behind your screen – which even the most “interactive” apps do literally encourage – and leave the business of government in the mysterious cloud of The Offices Where They Do That Sort of Thing, where you don’t go and because you don’t go eventually come to believe that you can’t.  Even clicktivism eventually comes to seem like too much work, and beside the point.  Silence is assumed to be consent.  This of course leaves room for the people who do know exactly where those offices are and how to get there – corporations, and their lobbyists.  No “interactive” computer app in the world will ever be a substitute for getting personally involved, and showing up.  Yes, it can be a pain in the ass. Yes, it does sometimes put you in the company of people you’d rather not spend time with.  Yes, sometimes it is not possible to go to Washington or Town Hall yourself. But there’s ultimately no substitute for working with your neighbors and officials, side by side, face to face, building relationships (including across other political divides) over time.  When you have to look in people’s faces, and they have to look in yours, it becomes harder for either of you to ignore or demonize or dismiss the other.  You realize that you are neighbors, for good and ill, after all.

Every year teachers see the inherent dignity and meaning of their profession eroded, a little more and a little more, by nonteachers (and they are nonteachers) who impose on other people’s children conditions they’d never tolerate for their own.  Some are choosing to add nonviolent direct action to their list of strategies, hoping to teach their students, by example, how to stand up in public and work for change.   Everyone sees the trickle-down effects of social, economic, and familial stress in their classrooms; everyone struggles with ways to apply technology in meaningful and genuinely useful ways without succumbing to the siren call of tech-for-tech’s-sake.

In my own teaching, I use online course management tools and gradebooks, email, Facebook, Youtube, and even Skype – my Advanced Creative Writing students and I speak “face to face” with the East Coast editors of Tin House and Ploughshares, who can see and answer my Midwestern students when they raise their hands – but the close-grained skills of textual analysis and physical contact with the living world are too vital for the fledgling writers and citizens in my care to lose.  I worry, though, they are being lost.  As a college teacher, I see reading comprehension – not just ability to analyze but ability literally to understand – go down every year among my entering first-year students, even after years of ipads-in-the-classrooms initiatives, even among comfortably middle-class kids with the trappings of comfortable middle-class achievement, iphones and new laptops and wardrobes from American Apparel.  Every year the divide between students who grow up in homes where reading and conversation with adults dominate (“cognitively rich environments” would be the education jargon) and families where “[they were] born in a house with the television always on” (to quote the Talking Heads) gets deeper.  The digital natives in my classroom have never known a not-online.  Many of them have never really known the depth and close-grained privacy of self and book, without the constant sideways tug of attention-diversion you feel knowing the Internet’s waiting for you, and handwriting (which more and more students have trouble reading, much less writing) may be slipping away, too.

The good news is that when you show students the norms they’ve been living within, and offer them other ways of making meaning and making things happen in the world, they respond.  When you ask them to think – really think – about the way Facebook and texting and the constant ubiquity of smartphones construct their sense of themselves and the world, they get it.   Some choose to quit Facebook for at least a little while to see what it’s like.  Some never go back.  Others develop practices of meditation, walking, working in the college gardens, writing in journals, reaching through the body and the senses for something that feels authentic and individual and real.  They fight the paradoxically restless inertia of internet-habit, we all do (I’ve been writing this blog post for ten minutes without interruption! Time to check email!) but they are developing the essential survival skills of twenty-first-century life:  mindfulness, awareness, and self-control, discerning the truths that connect you to something larger than yourself, something more enduring than the latest tech bubble or celebrity fad.  Our college’s mission statement promises we are “committed to a way of learning that moves us beyond immediate interests and present knowledge into a larger world—an education that disciplines minds and develops whole persons equipped to understand and confront a changing society.”  This takes place one conversation at a time, student by student.  It takes a lot of time.  It is not “efficient” or easily monetized, thank God.  It is inherently un MOOCable, inherently human to the core.  And it has yielded moments of intellectual and emotional revelation and challenge and change with students that I – and they – will remember all our lives.

Online education makes sense for some people, in some situations.  But forcing it on every student in a state university system, or any university system, is wrong.  MOOC promoters and EdX executives, ask yourselves this: would you want your own child’s college education reduced to videoed lectures and online multiple-choice quizzes?  No? Really? Why?

Twice in the last month I have attended Planning and Zoning Commission meetings in our county and in the county next to ours on issues related to the mining of 500-million-year-old deposits of silica sand from under our hills and bluffs to be trucked away and used as a proppant in fracking elsewhere in the country.  We are doing all we can to stop it.  This includes not only letter-writing and petition campaigns (online and in person) and Web and Facebook pages but personal appearances where it matters: in the room with county officials, where they have to look at and listen to the people they serve.  Physical presence has a weight and dignity of its own, a gravitational force, especially when you have overflow crowds and head counts of 200-plus in courthouse rooms where planning and zoning commissioners sit around a table, in rooms with humming overhead lights and open windows, where one citizen after another speaks in favor of a moratorium on frac-sand mining or against a rezoning proposal that would open a beautiful, historic Mississippi River site to a fresh new rail spur for frac-sand loading (the only purpose anyone seriously believes such a site could have.)  Commissioners look into the faces, listen to one voice after another.  Neighbors stand together and hear each other’s stories.  Discussion is serious, passionate, civil; sometimes there’s even affectionate laughter.  And at the end of the evening, the commissioners vote as the people wish.

One moment stays with me.  A white-haired speaker, a respected community elder and leader in the anti-frac-sand movement, asked the crowd in that courtroom, “Please stand if you are in favor of a moratorium on frac sand mining.”  Except for the three or four mining company representatives and a few elderly ladies with bad knees, everyone in the room rose to their feet.  It was a rustling like wind in a stand of trees, or water down a streambed – the voice of human beings in the place they love, dignified, irreplaceable, determined, and recognized, in a way that even the best-designed online petition or email program will never be.

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