A Coming Luddite Rebellion Among Educators?

Luddite LeaderIn the early 19th century, textile artisans in England became displaced by new machinery and low-skilled workers. Groups rebelled by burning mills, damaging machinery, sending death threats, even fighting with British soldiers. Historians point out that this rebellion was less about a formal and collective philosophy against technological advancement and more a response to the economic and personal impact of these changes in the workplace.

Is something similar starting to happen in modern education? Looking at events from 2013 and 2014, we certainly see evidence of concern, protest, resistance to emerging educational technological experiments, and challenges to the way that the digital world is influencing teaching and learning. These are not broadly coordinated. They are rarely acts of physical rebellion. However, some of these, while informed by concerns and convictions about what is good in education, are also both subtle and direct concerns about the economic impact of technological developments upon the teaching profession.

The Neo-Luddite

Today many use the term neo-luddite more broadly, usually to describe those who oppose or express serious concern about the impact of technology in the contemporary age: its impact on life, work, communities, and/or society. In common language, people might describe themselves as being a bit of a Luddite if they resist the use of email, a cell phone, a personal computer, or social media. In everyday usage, most do not think of it as a formal movement, a rebellion, and certainly not a position that leads to acts vandalism or violence. The term, while sometimes used to describe activists and more formalized movements, is not strongly tied to an outcry about a perceived social injustice or change that is having direct economic impact upon a person or group…but that might be changing.

Signs of What is to Come

Look at the modern experiments in k-12 and higher education and we see small rebellions which may be signs of larger ones in the near future, especially if 2013 and 2014 headlines are any sign of what is to come. There are concerns about How Big Data is Taking Teachers Out of the Lecturing Business. In Clayton Christiansen’s book, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, he describes a possible future with a significant change in the student-teacher ratio, empowered by computers and blended learning, with a single teacher able to monitor and work with a much larger K-12 class than was done in the past. He argues that this will be possible even while creating a more personalized learning experience for each student. Now we see his predictions coming true.

The MOOC for Credit Challenge

In 2013, we read about faculty protesting experiments with the use of Massive Open Online Courses for credit, potentially displacing traditional faculty if such efforts were successful (some of the early experiments were not, at least not according to traditional measures and standards). Similarly, authors of Senate Bill 520 in 2013 sought to require 145 California colleges to offer credit for select MOOCs, although it was pulled off the table, largely due to massive resistance. More broadly, there are concerns among some that online courses will “make professors extinct.”

New Design and Teaching Models

Then there are new approaches to course design and teaching as online learning becomes more common in K-12 and higher education. One common approach in online learning is to design courses separate from teaching them, often using different people for each task. That means that the people who are teaching the courses may not have the freedom to facilitate how they see fit, or to use the reading and resources of their choice. Or, they might be bound by universal policies like a requirement to respond to all student submissions and inquires within a set time. Some champion this model for its ability to create consistency across courses, to maintain a consistent standard, and reduce technological problems. Others are offended or disturbed by what they perceive as a lack of respect for their professional abilities as an educator They are concerned that this reduces the freedom and flexibility to teach the course in a way that they consider beneficial for the students.

[At my school we have a blend, where much is designed separately and in advance, but teachers still have a measure of flexibility in the methods and resources employed in the teaching. Even with that model, I confess that it can be messy and a challenge to honor the desired freedom of the instructors amid a more standardized & industrial course design approach. Some are delighted with the model while others dislike it.]

Instructors and Adjuncts

Not long after Arizona State University’s celebration of their first Poet Laureate, an ASU decision to increase/adjust the teaching load of non-tenture track English lecturers resulted in national attention and no small measure of protest. This highlights growing concerns about the future of University teaching positions. We have groups like The New Faculty Majority ramping up protests about the conditions of adjunct faculty, a population of part-time faculty who have increased in numbers over the past couple of decades as a strategy to cut or manage higher education expenses. We have fewer tenure-track positions and heavier use of often lower payed instructors.

Re-imagining the Role of Teacher

There are also movements like competency-based education that allow us to completely re-imagine the role of professors, sometimes letting go of that term altogether. Look at a model like Western Governor’s University and there are potential concerns about how a CBE approach transforms the work and expectations of academic employees, as mentioned in this post about CBE. Expect to see more concern and potential protests from faculty on this topic in 2015 and beyond.

For-Profit Concerns

We also have no small number of faculty expressing concerns about for-profit education ventures and school partnerships with corporations in new ways. One example in 2014 was the Middlebury faculty decision to sever ties with K12, the for-profit education content provider assisting with a foreign language initiative, noting specifically concerns about connections with such a for-profit entity. While the President of the college stood behind the partnership, some University organizational structures are such that faculty have oversight of the curriculum and are able often overturn or resist administrative decisions or preferences. This is interesting given that many for-profit higher education institutions don’t organize themselves that way, allowing them to make quick moves in new directions, even if there is some resistance from those doing the teaching.

Technologies Doing Teacher Tasks

There are also technologies replacing tasks formerly done by teachers. On the more extreme side, we read about things like South Korea’s Robot Teachers. Some joke about the idea of a robot replacing a teacher, and even this account doesn’t really have full robots replacing teachers, but it certainly gets our attention. It brings up broader concerns and questions about technology doing everything from grading, testing, and assessment; to facilitating lessons and learning experiences (as is done with adaptive learning software). While advocates argue that such tools free up teachers to do even more important work with the students, critics express concern that these developments will be used to justify fewer teachers, reducing the teacher’s role to lesser tasks, reducing pay, de-professionalize the teacher’s role, or result in using a greater part-time workforce to cut costs.

The Personal Touch

There are no few rebuttals to these changes. Among them is the argument that teachers do more than teach content, that there is a valuable relational and emotional role for teachers. They argue that, even if a technology can replace certain roles of a teacher, this human touch is inherently valuable and should be sustained, even amplified and protected amid technological developments.

The Future

Where will all this lead in 2015 and beyond? We are in a time of rapid technological change and widespread educational technology experimentation. Expect to see the protests expand in the coming years. Just as the technological and workforce changes of the 19th century led to unrest and rebellion, we are likely to see a modern equivalent. These will not necessarily ones that results in physical acts violence and destruction, but I expect them to be strong, significant, and gaining a national platform (especially given the global platform of the web). After all, these change evoke concerns about the quality and nature of education, but also individual concerns about how such changes will impact one’s income, quality of life at work, and future employment.