By Alexander L. Q. Chen
What makes the neoliberal university neoliberal?
Critiquing digital learning as a variegated form of neoliberalization
What happens after the pandemic? Pathways and trajectories
The covid-19 pandemic has ushered in a new era of digital learning, as public health requirements in the form of social distancing have rendered the traditional setting for education in the classroom untenable. While students and educators have reluctantly accepted this shift to digital teaching and learning, the tacit assumption has been that such concessions were only temporary measures that would be lifted once the pandemic came to an end. However, many Danish universities have since then expressed the intent to continue digital learning to varying degrees even after public health concerns over contagion have ceased to exist. This should not come as a surprise as the higher education system has deliberated about the possibility of expanding the use of digital educational technologies for an extended period of time. Under the value proposition of modernizing the higher education system, universities have embraced digitalization strategies by proliferating distance and blended learning as part of their educational portfolios. For this reason, the recent pandemic and lockdown should rather be viewed as catalysts that have accelerated existing trends, which have loomed large on the horizon for years.
I suggest that the stubborn push for digital learning should be understood through the lens of the higher education system qua neoliberal university, propelled by a market-driven institutional logic that yields structural pressures to treat education as a commodity. For the purposes of this argument, I refer to digital learning broadly as educational technologies ‘associated with computer technology applications such as data recording, storage, and transmission’. Thus, it also broadly encompasses cognate concepts such as distance and blended learning. Presently, the connection between neoliberalization and digital learning has only been weakly established. However, I postulate that we can fruitfully understand the institutional coupling between digital learning and the neoliberal university as a form of variegated neoliberalization. From a variegated perspective, neoliberalization should be construed as a heterogeneous process, which has the adaptive ability to co-opt and manifest itself in varying forms of institutional arrangements, settings, and strategies – in this case, digital learning.
I argue that the articulation of neoliberalization in the form of digital learning can be analyzed in relation to three benefits that it offers, which are prima facie consistent with a market-driven logic: (a) prospects of cost reduction and optimization, (b) subjecting the intellectual and creative labor of educators to a process of abstraction, and (c) creating neoliberal subjectivities by making students view education through a strictly instrumental lens of consumer-provider relationships. To this end, I draw upon a Danish perspective through personal narratives and vignettes, in my dual capacity as both a student and educator, to problematize the proliferation of digital learning as a substitute for conventional forms of teaching. Through a variegated perspective, I also hope to show that the consequences of neoliberalization and digital learning should not be seen as unambiguously bad, as they also provide openings for various opportunities that, if leveraged successfully, can strengthen the quality of education and serve emancipatory ends.
What makes the neoliberal university neoliberal?
Neoliberalism emerged in the mid-1970s as an ideological and political project with the aim of restructuring the state apparatus to advance entrepreneurial freedoms, private property rights, individual liberty, and free trade. The post-war Keynesian welfare state was targeted by an ideological assault due to its perceived inefficiency, encapsulated in its exceedingly centralized and inflexible bureaucratic organization that impeded its capacity to optimally allocate resources. Through piecemeal and, occasionally, radical reforms, the welfare state subsequently underwent a long-term process of retrenchment, which left it a hollowed-out shell for neoliberal ideology to seep into and contaminate the gaping institutional vacuums left in the public sector.
To understand the rise of the neoliberal university, it is useful to distinguish between two phases of neoliberal structuring. First, an initial phase of ‘roll-back’ neoliberalism in the 1970s that was initiated in the Global North, which undermined the ideological hegemony of Keynesian institutions in areas such as financial regulations, unions, overregulated labor markets. Second, a subsequent phase of ‘roll-out’ neoliberalism in the 1990s and onwards that permeated the rest of the world, during which the neoliberal state and international institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have assumed a proactive role in expanding the neoliberal political project by instituting processes of marketization and privatization.
Through piecemeal and, occasionally, radical reforms, the welfare state subsequently underwent a long-term process of retrenchment, which left it a hollowed-out shell for neoliberal ideology to seep into and contaminate the gaping institutional vacuums left in the public sector.
It is in the backdrop of the second round of neoliberalization in the 1990s that the neoliberal university has emerged. State policies imposed private sector ideals on the higher education system, reimagining it as a marketplace that matched university providers with student consumers of knowledge, skills, and qualifications. The Danish higher education system underwent its neoliberal moment as part of the University Reform in 2003, which ushered in a wave of top-down management with the aim of promoting efficiency gains. The University Reform would, in the following years, be accompanied by a number of further reforms and amendments, such as the introduction of employer advisory boards in 2007. Most notably, the purpose of universities, as defined by the new law, was ‘to collaborate with the ‘surrounding society’ and exchange knowledge with a wide circle of stakeholders […] with quality evaluations and ‘competence profiles’ directed to specific jobs in the labour market’. In essence, the policy framing underwriting this reform was a political desire to improve the productivity of the university system, while repurposing the educational system to be more responsive towards the needs of the labor market.
The university reform was, firstly, catalyzed by the Bologna Process in 1999, which sought to harmonize educational qualifications across the European Union, ‘with the aim of making Europe one of the most attractive and competitive regions for higher education in the world’. Thus, in the backdrop of an increasingly competitive, globalizing world, a ‘global outlook with a priority on preparing students for work in a global economy’ had been strategically foregrounded. Secondly, it also reflected the fact that the higher education system constituted a central pillar in the post-industrial society, which yielded a structural imperative to transform universities into a system engaged in the production of human capital to fuel the knowledge-based economy. We can summarize the structural imperatives of the neoliberal university by reference to two interlocking features.
First, neoliberal reforms engendered a new environment of competitive, performance-based conditions on the basis of which universities were eligible to funding. Such measures involve inter alia completion rates, the employability of graduates, attraction of research funding, and so on. The narrow focus on these performance-based measures has also compelled the university to cut corners where the ramifications are not immediately observable. Danish universities have, for example, been confronted with the strategic dilemmas that have forced them – despite massive opposition from faculties – to merge departments in order to reduce costs, increase the student-faculty ratio, and make targeted reductions in funding for departments that perform poorly according to performance-based metrics, which has particularly affected the humanities.
Second, the introduction of a market-driven logic of efficiency into the bureaucratic management of the higher education system has entailed a stricter top-down hierarchical management . Here, the logic of efficiency encapsulates the inexorable drive of the capitalist market economy towards the one-dimensional goal of profit-maximization, which pushes it towards measures such as cost-cutting and revenue optimization. When applied to the higher education system, where the metric of success is no longer profits, performance-based metrics (stipulated by the neoliberal government) become the fulcrum around which the university administration operates. When this logic of efficiency is combined with the hierarchical management of corporate managerialism (or sometimes described as new public management), the university changes its focus towards a narrower pursuit of efficiency and optimization that runs the risk of overriding the extra-economic function of education – namely to educate. Instead, education becomes a second-order consideration for the university, as its first priority is to optimize these performance-based metrics.
Herein also lies the problem with the neoliberal university, as its myopic focus on quantifiable outputs prevents it from recognizing how small cutbacks can have broader ramifications on the quality of education.
On the one hand, the market-driven logic poses as an urgent pressure due to the continuous cuts in higher education budgets, which structurally compels universities to prioritize optimizing performance and cost-cutting in educational planning. The most recent round of cutbacks in university budgets happened in 2016, when the government decided to reduce costs by 2% annually between 2016 and 2022. Camilla Gregersen, the chair of the Danish union Dansk Magisterforening, lamented that it would inevitably lead to a long-term deterioration of the educational quality as faculty members had to be laid off. Herein also lies the problem with the neoliberal university, as its myopic focus on quantifiable outputs prevents it from recognizing how small cutbacks can have broader ramifications on the quality of education, even though they might not immediately be observed as reductions in the graduation rate or employability of graduates.
On the other hand, the global higher education system has been transformed into a competitive market within which neoliberal universities compete against each other in a zero-sum game over prospective students. As universities compete to attract more students, we notice how education becomes mediated by a market-driven logic of consumer-provider relationships. The problem about such consumer-provider relationships is that it promotes a ‘consumer is always right’ attitude that places the comfort of the students at the forefront of educational planning. Insofar as completion rates are key measures for the ‘success’ of a university and their eligibility of funding, there is a distorted incentive to dilute the learning process in favor of giving a student ‘a good experience’. During my undergraduate degree, I remember this attitude as students made a massive outcry whenever they found the exams too hard, threatening teachers with a flurry of complaints. The consumer-provider relationship thus places teachers, and the university more generally, in an ambivalent position that controverts its proper function, that is, to educate. As Gert Biesta succinctly puts it:
‘Educational always involves a risk. […] The risk is there because, as W. B. Yeats has put it, education is not about filling a bucket but about lighting a fire. The risk is there because education is not an interaction between robots but an encounter between human beings. The risk is there because students are not to be seen as objects to be molded and disciplined, but as subjects of action and responsibility’.
Critiquing digital learning as a variegated form of neoliberalization
Understanding neoliberalization as variegated stresses that it must be viewed as ‘constitutively and systematically uneven’. This suggests that it is unhelpful to construe it as a monolithic process that manifests itself homogeneously across institutional space. Instead, its contextually distinctive manifestations and articulations emerge from the structural coupling and coevolution between different educational technologies and institutional forms, which can often take surprising forms such as its dynamic coupling with digital learning. For this reason, it is also important to note that the relationship between digital learning and neoliberalization is not necessitated by a design. That is to say, it does not follow a:
‘Preconceived, preconstituted ideological blueprint […] they are forged in and through real-time, in situ forms of regulatory experimentations and institutional tinkering in which previous efforts to confront recurrent problems directly influence the ongoing search for alternative solutions’.
Bob Jessop describes the tendency of neoliberal, market-driven institutional logic to permeate and saturate diverse institutional settings through its ecological dominance, whereby ‘the capacity of a given system in a self-organizing ecology of self-organizing systems to imprint its developmental logic on other systems’ operations through structural coupling, strategic coordination and blind co-evolution to a greater extent than the latter can impose their respective logics on that system’. From this perspective, neoliberalization is arguably ‘rhizomatic, changeable, and co-opts all forms of knowledge and being for its competitive purposes’.
A brief context for online learning – from MOOCs to the pandemic’s online experiment
The initial rise of digital learning has been celebrated by educators as a groundbreaking educational technology, which can potentially provide people with access to an abundance of educational resources from which they would otherwise be excluded. A pioneering development in digital learning was the inauguration of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), first conceptualized in 2008, which was greeted with massive enthusiasm, as sympathetic interlocutors claimed that it provides people with free access to learning materials through open teaching modules. Currently, the number of students enrolled in MOOCs across the world is in the millions, rendering it a sizeable parallel mode of educational format that provides students with large virtual student communities.
The value proposition was that the traditional, small-scale classroom was too restrictive in size, as it limited the number of students that could participate in a lecture in a logistically feasible manner … the traditional format of teaching was too rigid, which did not accommodate the different paces at which students learn.
The key characteristic of MOOCs is their asynchronous teaching format, which encapsulates both their key advantage and disadvantage. On the one hand, it gives students the possibility of consuming the teaching material through a piecemeal process, adjusting it according to their own tempos, rhythms, and scheduling activities. For this reason, flexibility is a primary selling point, as it allows people to claim autonomy of their educational process to learn under their self-selected circumstances. On the other hand, the limitations to such educational technologies are well-established in the distance learning literature, which finds that it is difficult to maintain engagement within such virtual, de-personalized contexts. For this reason, a massive problem for MOOCs is that they suffer from ‘very poor retention and completion rates’ .
I never found the proliferation of MOOCs as problematic per se because I always viewed them as a parallel educational technology, upon which people could draw as a complementary form of educational resource. However, in recent years I have noticed how the educational technology and teaching format underpinning MOOCs have creeped into the formal higher education system under the banner of digitalization strategies, which have sought to promote blended learning as part of the university’s educational portfolio.
My first encounter with this trend was in 2017 during my time as a member in the study board, while I was studying at Copenhagen Business School. As part of its digitalization strategy, the university had chosen to prioritize online and blended learning as a strategic development area. The ambition was, by 2022, to implement blended learning – defined as having a minimum of 25% of a course’s activity taking place online – across all programs. The value proposition was that the traditional, small-scale classroom was too restrictive in size, as it limited the number of students that could participate in a lecture in a logistically feasible manner. Furthermore, another argument was that the traditional format of teaching was too rigid, which did not accommodate the different paces at which students learn.
Here, it became painfully clear that all the solutions of online teaching were by the exact same value proposition of MOOCs. However, the sympathetic interlocutor invited from the Department of Digitalization only told one (positive) half of the story. Unsurprisingly, these digitalization ambitions were also confronted with great skepticism from both the faculty members as well as the student representatives of the study board. However, an easy accusation to throw around, usually implicitly, is that people are overly conservative, risk-averse, and thus reluctant to embrace change, preventing them from perceiving the potential boon of reforming the old, traditional forms of teaching. From this perspective, the tacit framing was that faculty members were symbolic embodiments of the centralized and inflexible structures of a bureaucracy, who resisted change and were unwilling to adapt to the brave new world that was emerging. Indeed, it was just a matter of some coaxing and piecemeal experimentation, after which we would eventually see the light of the gospel that was preached.
While the presentation of the digitalization strategy was only a vague foreshadowing of what was to come, it was nonetheless clearly signaled that, regardless of the current opposition, this strategy would be implemented as planned. However, I am sure that no one on the study board anticipated that only three years later, the covid-19 pandemic would provide the propitious context for these digitalization ambitions to be carried out on an unprecedented scale. As entire countries went into lockdown, all teachers quickly had to convert to online teaching, thereby initiating the greatest educational experiment on online teaching in history. Now, one year after the initiation of this experiment, I think we have reached an apt point to brush aside those facile accusations and provide a more substantive evaluation and critique of online learning.
Digital learning and the commodification of education: the social, community, and dialogic nature of learning
The problems with digital learning can partly be examined as a form of commodification, which means that higher education is first and foremost ‘produced’ with the purpose of being bought and sold for a profit . However, in order to truly be transformed into a commodity, it assumes that the educational process:
‘Will then be controlled by prices, for the profits of those who direct production will depend upon them; the distribution of the goods also will depend upon prices, for prices form incomes, and it is with the help of these incomes that the goods produced are distributed amongst the members of society. Under these assumptions order in the production and distribution of goods is ensured by prices alone’.
First, the commodification of the higher education system takes place through a process of abstraction whereby the heterogeneous components that collectively constitute the university experience are rearticulated as generalizable equivalents, that is, as quantifiable outputs that serve as the performance criteria for competitive funding. This, in turn, renders it possible to subject the administration of the neoliberal university to the practice of rational planning in terms of the allocation of scarce resources (inputs) and the targeted prioritization of quantifiable measures (output) such as faculty members, the number of students per program, teacher-to-student ratio, expenditure in teaching facilities, and so on. Second, the concrete labor process of the higher education process must also be subjected to this process of abstraction, which is accomplished by breaking down the teaching process into manageable and repetitive units that can be controlled under hierarchical command. As a result, it becomes possible to subordinate the teaching process to stricter control and division of labor and the control of the market-driven institutional logic.
It is from this perspective that the digital transformation of teaching and learning holds the promise to purposively restructure the educational process into digitally mediated content consumption. To put it simply, digital learning transforms teachers into content creators, which codifies their otherwise immaterial teaching process into bite-sized, pre-recorded lessons that are made available as open teaching modules on digital teaching platforms. However, this immediately presents a tension as the exchange of knowledge in the university is incontrovertibly a community-based process that is socially and collectively produced between students and teachers. That is to say, the educational process does not involve teachers transmitting information that is passively received by students, but is a collective as well as dialectical process that presupposes a level of reciprocal engagement. For example, John Dewey argued that the educational experience is fundamentally a community of inquiry that requires a co-presence between the learner, the learning community, and the professor. Another cognate perspective is Etienne Wenger’s concept of communities of practice, which emphasizes that learning is inextricably bound with its social setting. When abstracted from these social settings, such as the embedded context of the university, we are hindered in properly developing the competencies and capabilities associated with these communities.
To put it simply, digital learning transforms teachers into content creators, which codifies their otherwise immaterial teaching process into bite-sized, pre-recorded lessons that are made available as open teaching modules on digital teaching platforms.
A key feature of online teaching, encapsulated in its open teaching modules and asynchronous teaching format, is that it requires a disembedding of the knowledge creation process from these social roots. Thus, when a teacher has to conduct online teaching, he or she no longer prepares to teach and engage with the students within the context of these bounded communities of learning and practice. Instead, the student-teacher relationship is mediated by these digital platforms to which the teacher must produce digital teaching content. In essence, then, it entails the uprooting (or disintegration) of the educational process from its broader extra-economic, socio-ecological context, which arguably changes ‘fundamental aspects of educational practice including what it means to learn, the routines of academic reading and the way study is conducted’.
Fetishization and alienation
The consequences of this commodification of education are substantial for both teachers and students. Gert Biesta argues that this industry of measurement is a form of objectification, where people are not seen as subjects in their own rights, but rather become objects within the educational system. Thus, for university administrators, the educational attainments of the students are not perceived as goals in themselves, but only instrumental to meeting performance-based criteria in terms of graduation rates and employability. On a philosophical level, we cannot help but feel that there is some moral deficit involved if the pursuit of knowledge is not value for the good that is internal to it, but rather by one-dimensional, external motivators such as monetary reward. However, we can further unpack the sociological implications of this objectification through two adjacent Marxist concepts: fetishism and alienation. Fetishism refers to the process whereby the power relationship between the worker and the product of their labor becomes inverted. Thus, rather than having control over our own intellectual and creative labor as part of our education, which should presumably be a source of empowerment, we instead cede our ‘collective agency and planning-capacity’ to the commodity and the market-driven institutional logic of neoliberalism. The consequences of this fetishization are described by Karl Marx as alienation, which can be broadly defined as the ‘problematic separation between a subject and object that properly belong together’. Let us critically interrogate how this process of alienation is encountered respectively by the teacher and the student, who collectively form part of the community-based co-production of higher education.
The core issue is that once their intellectual and creative labor is abstracted from their concrete labor process, they cede their agency to the discretion of the neoliberal management, which are narrowly focused on maximizing the perceived efficiencies of online education technologies.
From the perspective of the teachers, digital learning involves a loss of autonomy as it is imposed upon them ‘irrespective of their professional judgment about their appropriateness and effectiveness’. If we return to the story about the study board meeting and our encounter with the sympathetic interlocutor of the Department of Digitalization, I am reminded of one part of the presentation where he argued that a primary selling point of recording lectures and displaying them on digital platforms is that it would allow future cohorts to benefit from guest speakers even if they are not available for the next time the course is taught. However, one professor commented in jest:
‘My worry is that, just like the guest speaker, there might not be a need for the university to invite me back for future lectures once everything has been recorded. Furthermore, who owns the intellectual property rights of the teaching content that I produce on behalf of the university; can I use it if I transfer to other research institutions?’
Keep in mind that behind every joke, there is always a kernel of truth. In this case, it was the perceived danger that insofar as the teachers can recycle recorded lectures from past semesters, the teaching hours they are awarded for each course are also curtailed in the long run. Despite bonus hours that are initially granted to incentivize professors to make the digital switch, it is a bad bargain due to its potential long-term ramifications, as they might be compelled to teach more classes or be assigned other teaching activities. The core issue is that once their intellectual and creative labor is abstracted from their concrete labor process, they cede their agency to the discretion of the neoliberal management, which are narrowly focused on maximizing the perceived efficiencies of online education technologies. Jes Fabricius Møller, a professor in history at University of Copenhagen, also conjectured in a recent op-ed that universities are only deciding to continue with online teaching after the covid-19 pandemic because it is a way to cut costs. After all, one fourth of the total expenditure of the university is, according to its latest annual report, from paying rent, which is also the expense that is most likely to increase in the future. In sum, professors fear that:
‘Managers and policy makers promoted online education primarily because it reduced the time, personnel and infrastructure costs of teaching. Participants believed managers saw online teaching as cheap and quick, and a way of limiting investment in teaching’.
Another issue is how the transition towards digital teaching also has distorted their relationship to their intellectual and creative labor. David Kellerman writes that ‘suddenly academics became video editors – mostly bad ones – and our students turned to YouTube, because on YouTube you can get a better explanation of the same thing (for free I might add)’. He laments that professors have become content creators rather than educators, and that continuing along this path will adversely impact the higher education system.
‘suddenly academics became video editors – mostly bad ones – and our students turned to YouTube, because on YouTube you can get a better explanation of the same thing (for free I might add)’.
In my capacity as a teacher, I have found it incredibly distressing to produce online content, as it completely changes the teaching format. When you are pre-recording lectures, you are not engaged with a dynamic teaching environment where you can engage with students whenever explanations are unclear. There are no follow-up questions that can be directed towards you, as they will all have to be deferred to later Q&A sessions, once again disrupting the dynamic engagement that the traditional format of teaching involves. In return, I spend far more time recording, editing, and re-recording lectures to create a seamless experience for the students, as it feels that more is at stake when lectures are recorded. I argue that this distorted relationship between teachers and their intellectual labor is alienating because it (a) distracts us from actually teaching students and engaging with them, placing our focus elsewhere on activities in which we are not necessarily trained, and (b) transforms us into passive intellectual laborers, who are increasingly receptive towards the whims of the neoliberal university management, placing us in a precarious position as we work with less predictability about our future and the security of our work schedules.
From the perspective of the student, they are also rendered passive subjects who have to imbibe the educational content transmitted through digital platforms, which I argue entails a substantial loss of engagement with the teacher who could otherwise intellectually spar with and guide them through the learning process. Gert Biesta describes this trend as a form of self-regulated learning, where we are to a greater degree left to our own devices as we are told to claim ownership over our own education. We can understand this individualization of education through the lens of Ulrich Beck’s concept of institutional individualism:
‘In the individualised society the individual must therefore learn, on pain of permanent disadvantage, to conceive of himself or herself as the centre of action, as the planning office with respect to his/her own biography, abilities, orientations, relationships and so on’.
However, Gert Biesta rightly objects that leaving us helplessly without guidance is not a form of liberation but is outright detrimental to our education. In a recent conversation with a friend, who in the process of preparing for an exam, I was told that he really had no idea what the purpose of his course was. He felt disenchanted by his university degree, as he did not enjoy most of his mandatory courses and his educational experience was primarily a blind chase against some ephemeral knowledge. His comments tie well into an interesting paradox that has surfaced during the pandemic, namely the parallel emergence of two trends. On the one hand, a survey reports that students have learned less due to online teaching . On the other hand, the grade point average of courses has increased considerably in comparison to past semesters. This paradox is interesting because it shows the tenuous relationship between performance-based criteria and the degree to which students actually learn something. Learning by rote memorization and preparing for exams rarely grant us the critical thinking skills that prepare us for the labor market and to partake in civil society as enlightened beings. This is not to say that the practice of rote memorization is unique to neoliberal education, but rather that it is proactively perpetuated by the commodification and objectification of education while discouraging a more engaged and organic form of learning.
The neoliberal university forms a feedback mechanism, which produces docile neoliberal subjects that strictly see the educational process as a hassle that needs to be overcome.
This leads me to my final point, which is how the disenchantment engendered by digital learning only feeds into a central aim of neoliberalism, which is to create neoliberal subjectivities that ‘help to foster consent to the broader neoliberal ideology that is shaping our world’. As part of the objectification of education, students also internalize the market-driven logic of neoliberalism and start to view their degrees through the lens of provider-consumer relationships. Thus, they also start to treat their education as a means to an end with which they can further their life chances, which can be succinctly summarized by the comment made by my disenchanted friend who was preparing for his exam: ‘I do not enjoy the courses of my program, but I appreciate where it could lead me to’.
In this light, the neoliberal university forms a feedback mechanism, which produces docile neoliberal subjects that strictly see the educational process as a hassle that needs to be overcome. Here, I must add that such instrumental views on education are not intrinsic to neoliberalism. The argument is rather that such views and dispositions are strengthened under the market-driven logic of neoliberalization and are further proliferated by the indiscriminate application of digital learning technology as a strategic measure of cost-cutting.
It is not surprising, then, that people find it liberating to cut out integral components of the traditional format of higher education in favor of a lite version, where we can sit comfortably at home and consume teaching content in a piecemeal fashion. Digital learning only contributes to this neoliberalization of students, as it provides a ripe context for further disconnects to arise between the community-related aspects of university and renders it transactional in nature. It sterilizes the learning process as the open learning modules present us with a set of tasks that we need to complete at our own pace, disconnected and disembedded from the rhythms and tempos of the university experience.
What happens after the pandemic: Pathways and trajectories?
Milton Friedman famously authored the adage that nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program. My central contention is that although the transition towards digital learning has been framed as an emergency measure in response to the pandemic, it might constitute a path-shaping antecedent that will consequently lock us into a future where digital learning will become far more pervasive. Indeed, there is a risk that the current global experiment with digital learning might lend arguments to the managements of neoliberal universities that converting a larger proportion of university teaching to online/blended learning allows us to reap all the benefits of the educational technology, while avoiding all the negative ramifications.
A key mechanism of the pervasive spread of neoliberalization processes is how spill-over effects yield strengthened functional pressures that catalyze further rounds of neoliberal measures being rolled out. Thus, a gradual introduction of digital learning, once it has been tolerated as an acceptable norm, will inevitably lead to its further expansion. This point is illustrated by a conversation I had with a university peer, who countered that the stylized picture of how the higher education system ought to be has never truly reflected our university experience. As far back as he remembers, we have always been cramped into large lecture halls where the student-to-teacher ratio frequently reaches 50-100, thus leaving little room for any substantive engagement between the teachers and students. From this perspective, digital learning is hardly a decline in the learning experience, but instead offers the students the added benefit of greater flexibility. The comment raises the important point that the reason for this is exactly because we have never experienced the higher education system outside the context of the neoliberal university. It is also for this reason that once digital learning becomes part of the educational norm and students are increasingly socialized by the norms and expectations of the neoliberal university, students qua neoliberal subjects will be more susceptible to accept a further expansion of digital learning initiatives.
The comment raises the important point that the reason for this is exactly because we have never experienced the higher education system outside the context of the neoliberal university.
Granted that digital learning will inevitably remain a permanent feature of the higher education system, it raises the question: what should we do about it? To be clear, my argument has not been that digital learning as a form of educational technology is intrinsically bad. Instead, I maintain that digital learning can enable learning but can never be a wholesale substitute for the embodied form of the higher education system altogether. In other words, the preceding critique should not be wrongly construed as a neo-Luddite objection against the introduction of new educational technologies more generally, nor digital learning more specifically, but is rather an attempt to map its possible trajectories, extrapolated from its past coordinates and the emerging trends from which it is currently emerging, with the express purpose of evaluating the potential risks and challenges that it introduces. To move forward, we should identify the opportunities that the restructuring of higher education through digital learning opens for students and teachers. From this perspective, the neoliberal university should be viewed as a site of ongoing struggle and resistance ‘against the social relations and material practices within a capitalist economy’, rather than an immovable force that we can only passively embrace.
To be sure, the emergence of digital educational technologies does enhance learning under the right contexts. The introduction of digital teaching platforms that aggregate information and provide easy access for teachers to communicate and facilitate discussions with their students are welcome changes. Digital didactic tools in the form of live polls, virtual quizzes, and peer-reviewing platforms all have useful applications. Thus, it is undeniable that the rise of digital educational technologies has broadened the horizon of available didactic tools that teachers can leverage in their teaching, provided that they are deployed under the right conditions. This final remark also reaches the crux of the argument and paves the way for how to resist the co-optation of digital learning technologies for neoliberal purposes. I propose that the most urgent task is to contest the indiscriminate application of digital learning technologies as part of digitalization strategies that reflect neoliberal imperatives (such as cost-cutting and efficiency gains). To this end, I outline two broad suggestions.
I propose that the most urgent task is to contest the indiscriminate application of digital learning technologies as part of digitalization strategies that reflect neoliberal imperatives.
First, the choice to introduce digital learning technologies should be developed in greater conversations with key stakeholders, such as students and teachers, who possess the qualified judgments to decide if digital technology enhances learning in a given context. Studies in international business strategy and organizational studies show that decentralizing decision-making processes to the stakeholders that are directly engaged with or in closer proximity to the transactional environment – in this case teachers – leads to better outcomes because they are placed in a better position to make the relevant judgments than the managerial board that sits atop the organizational hierarchy. Granted, this also requires a pushback against the neoliberal rationality of the university administration, as it must accept that cutting costs at the expense of the quality of education is a bad long-term trade-off. I suspect one of the reasons for this myopic view of university administrators can be construed as a form of the principal-agent problem. The reason for this is that university administrators have one of the highest turnover rates across all industries, meaning that their short-term strategic horizon is mismatched with the long-term performance of the university. Consequently, the university administrator (agent) makes a decision on behalf of the university (principal), which might not be in the best interest of the latter because the former’s reputation as managers depends on the demonstrable efficiency gains they have realized over the course of the few years of their tenure, rather than the long-term performance of the university.
Second, digital educational technology should to the greatest extent possible be preserved as a supplementary alternative, rather than a substitute for other modes of teaching. Studies have shown that digital and distance learning comes at a great cost for marginalized students, in particular when they lack the prerequisite conditions to benefit from digital technologies. Issues such as low-quality internet, people with accessibility issues, or a general deficit in support for low-income students means that their long-term educational prospects are severely impacted. Last year, I was located in Denmark while teaching students across Europe and in China. However, it quickly came to my attention that the Chinese students had difficulty participating in the online lectures because of the latency of their internet connections, which made it difficult to ask questions and listen to responses. For such students, the educational experience was severely impacted by fundamental issues such as internet connection, which rendered the entire value proposition of online learning during the pandemic null and void. This is closely related to another issue for some students that do not benefit from digital learning, as they feel disconnected from their learning environment and are thus likely to come to class (if at all) chronically unprepared. In all these cases, it is important to maintain the option for students to attend physical lectures, such that the teaching is offered in a blended format where the access to online resources does not preclude the availability of on-site learning.
Cover illustration by Jingzhe.
 Jes Fabricius Møller, “Det Går Ikke Ud over Kvaliteten,” Uniavisen, 2021, https://uniavisen.dk/det-gaar-ikke-ud-over-kvaliteten/.
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About the Author
Alexander L. Q. Chen is a Ph.D. fellow at the University of Copenhagen, Department of Sociology, and the Sino-Danish Center for Education and Research. His research is on China’s uneven transition towards post-industrial development and the emergent patterns of socio-spatial differentiation and exclusion that it engenders. To this end, he seeks to understand the changing co-constitutive relationship between the coastal and inland regions.
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