The Luddites Lost, Workforce Development, and Man Versus Machine

Perhaps you’ve been in a room where someone is called a Luddite. Or, maybe a person proudly or sheepishly self-identifies as one. You likely know enough about the term to understand that it has something to do with being a skeptic about modern technology, but that isn’t the entire story. Thee term “Luddite” has come to have the modern meaning of a person who is a skeptic about or critic of the alleged promise and benefits of one or more modern technologies, but its historical counterparts did not just stop at skepticism or criticism.

The original term come from the early 19th century when new technologies replaced and displaced workers in the textile mills in England. Owners of the mills determined that these machines were a justifiable improvement upon what the workers were able to do. Angry and uncertain about their futures, some of the workers started a revolt. Led by a fictional/mythical character who came to be known as Ned Ludd, some of these workers broke into mills, destroying the machines that risked their livelihood.

In other words, the original Luddites were not just skeptics or even outspoken critics. They were people who were willing to break the law and even vandalize to be heard or seek to change the course of technological developed that risked their way of life. They were rebels and activists fueled by the personal impact of new technological developments.

Today, those who embrace the label of Luddite are far less likely to represent such an approach. Instead, they are usually people who resist the use of emerging technologies in their personal life, perhaps partly in their work, or perhaps they are outspoken among friends or colleagues about how they don’t like or support all of this technological development in their lives (but it is usually limited to certain domains that conflict with certain values). Most Luddites today, for example, are quite happy with advancements in medical technology. They might enjoy the benefits of modern transportation technology. They live in homes supported by a  variety of modern technologies. They benefit from advancement in sanitation technologies in their communities. Yet, like their original counterparts, there is some area where the technology risks their preferred way of life. Or, there are times when their jobs are on the line if they refuse to embrace and learn to use modern technologies. This applies whether you are working in sales, education, healthcare or almost any industry today.

There are, of course, people today who parallel the plight of the first Luddites in the sense that they have been or soon will be displaced by new technologies. In fact, in this emerging age of robotics and new technological developments, our broader conversations about workforce development must take into account the fact that we will continue to see people replaced or, at minimum, augmented and changed by technology. There are countless articles and presentations of this future in the media, academic publications and elsewhere.

Yet, we can learn something from the modern Luddites. One important lesson is just that they failed. Their revolt and vandalism for a half decade didn’t ultimately save their jobs. It didn’t prevent machines from replacing people. It didn’t slow technological development in society or even their industry. The same thing is ultimately true today.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t resist and strive to shape the ways in which technology can and should be used. In fact, I contend that we have a moral obligation to do so. Yet, it does mean that we must also recognize that we are indeed moving into a future where the man versus machine dichotomy (or synergy) will become increasingly common. It will change the nature of work and we are wise to have far more serious and candid conversations about what this means for modern education, society, families and the workforce.

What should education look like in an age where many tasks accomplished in the past by humans are now accomplished by non-human creations?

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.

The Luddvocate: Why Your Convictions Matter in the Digital World

At Educase 2006, Georgia Nugent, the then president of Kenyon College gave a talk on “The Tower of Google.” You used to be able to listen to the entire talk here, but the link on their site stopped working a couple of years ago. It was a thought-provoking presentation, and one of her self-made buzz words stuck with me. She described her background as a classicist, but also explained her hope for the potential of technology in higher education. She called herself a Luddvocate (Here is a quick Wikipedia primer on Luddites if that is a new term for you). I can relate.

I still find  that the most intriguing books about technology were written by the self-proclaimed or often-labeled neo-luddites (Mumford, McLuhan, Ellul, Postman, Kirkpatrick Sale, Larry Cuban, Sven Birkerts…). These neo-luddites craft messages of caution. They plea for counting the cost of our technological escapades. They challenge the notion that technology is savior of the greatest social and human needs, and they highlight the adverse impact of technology in society. I read these texts and find myself shouting more than a few inner Amens to their sermons. These thoughtful texts give a perspective that I believe is valuable and needed in the modern world. Of course, there are some who, like the original Luddites, turn to violence and destruction (e.g. Theodore Kaczynski), and I’m quick and clear about rejecting those methods of dissent.

Luddism is not about being anti-technology in the same way that the Amish are not anti-technology. As I’ve written before, the Amish are not anti-technology as much as they are pro-community. Similarly, Luddism is about counting the cost of technological progress, not assuming that new technology is always a universal gain for humanity. It is recognizing the values-laden and intrinsically political nature of each technology. New technologies lead to new winners and losers. Luddism champions and gives voice to the losers in the race for technological progress.The original Luddites were moved to action by new machines displacing workers in the textile industry. For the sake of increased productivity, machines replaced people, and that affected their ability to feed their families. Luddism is about challenging us to be users of technologies instead of allowing ourselves to be used by them.

Then there is the advocate. While I’m not sure what how Nugent might further extrapolate on what it means to be an adovocate, I confess that I became one because I didn’t think I had much of a choice. Just like the original Luddites lost their fight against the vision of progress brought about by the industrial revolution, I suspect that many neo-Luddites will experience the same. What is a person to do? I distinctly remember struggling with this question throughout the middle of the 1990s, with my first regional presentation being about the negative implicat of technology in education at an educational technology conference in Chicago. I still remember the line of software vendors glaring at me with their arms crossed along the back of the surprisingly standing-room only session. I quoted Neil Postman freely as I warned about the “Faustian bargain” of new technologies. I didn’t, however, call for rejecting these developments. Instead, I took the hopeful position of striving to influence which technologies to amplify and which to muffle. I called it values-driven decision making. Identify your core values and convictions and let them drive your decisions about technology. Once you have clarity about those core convictions, you will be able to decide where, how, when, and about what to advocate. I felt good about my talk until the first question during the question and answer period, a principal wanting a list of the best software to use in his kindergarten classes. So much for values driving the decisions. I learned early on that technology in education had become a value of its own.

I found that many of my concerns about technology were connected to some what I considered to be dehumanizing effects of the industrial revolution. Don’t get wrong. I liked many of the benefit from the industrial revolution. It is just that I had and have hope that emerging democratizing technology might assist us in mitigating about some of the negative aspects of that era.

I had visions of Brave New World, 1984, the Giver and the dozens of dystopian stories of our future. So I chose to advocate for technology that seems to amplify values of democracy, access, and opportunity. It is what inspires me about the possibilities of everything from blended learning to online learning, alternative education to self-directed learning, open education to open badges and micro-credentials, personalized learning to adaptive learning software, project-based learning to social media, personal learning networks to communities of practice. It is why I can geek out about designing high-impact online learning communities while being a passionate supporter of existing and emerging physical third spaces (thank you Ray Oldenburg) that conjure a spirit of community. It is why I lobby for choice and variety in options for formal education. It is why I have degrees in both the humanities and instructional technology. It is why I am a champion for formal higher education why calling for those some institutions to resist the temptation to claim a monopoly on learning and knowledge, as if either were a commodity to be bought and sold. Each of these represent deep-seated personal values and convictions about truth, beauty, goodness, purpose, and what it means to be human. It shapes how I write and speak about the future, both forecasting and striving to create or influence possible futures. Ironically, it is the Luddite in me that drives me to be such an advocate for life and learning in the digital world. The Luddite is the one who cries out that our ideas have consequences, our convictions matter, human access and opportunity are noble causes and that all three should inform the futures that we help create.

Neil Postman and Media Ecology

Here is an older lecture from Neil Postman, presenting to the faculty and students at Calvin College. It is part 1 of 7. If the first part catches your interest, you can view the rest of them on YouTube. If we are going to spend time exploring critical perspectives on technology and society, we can’t ignore Postman. Back in the 1990s, it was Postman’s books that introduced me to the world of media ecology, challenged me to ask tough questions about our technological society, and introduced me to a world of thinkers/authors like Jacques Ellul, Lewis Mumford, Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong…

More than anything else, I value Postman for helping us craft good questions about life in the digital world. ”

What is the problem to which this technology is a solution?”

“Whose problem is it actually?”

“If there is a legitimate problem that is solved by the technology, what other problems will be caused by my using this technology?”

“Am I using this technology or is it using me?”