Thursday, 19 September 2013

Do MOOCs float on water?


[WARNING: long read :)]1

The classical test for witchcraft is to see whether the accused floats on water, since - and this ought to be self-evident - witches don’t. The logic is impeccable and the argument waterproof (pardon the pun), as long as pesky bystanders don’t volunteer alternatives for aquatically buoyant entities like apples, cherries, very small rocks, lead or ducks, which is precisely what I intend to do to the following argument by Prof. Jonathan Malesic against Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs):2
“The grounds for a social-justice case against MOOCs are even stronger within the Catholic tradition. In his 1981 encyclical on work, Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II acknowledged that technology can aid our work, but he also warned that it can become an “enemy” by displacing workers and robbing work of its rightful meaning. The threat is that technology will depersonalize both the work and the worker, who is, the pope argued, “the primary basis of the value of work.”

[…] MOOCs undercut that value for academic workers. [… T]he endgame for MOOCs is the supplanting of local, in-person labor by technologically mediated remote labor. The human educator, who is the source of education’s greatest value but also its greatest expense, is meant to become dispensable. […] MOOC providers will profit at the cost of faculty jobs. The dignity of faculty as workers will be damaged.”
Here a MOOC is “an online course aimed at large-scale interactive participation and open access via the web” (so its Wikipedia definition), and Malesic means “not replacing human labor (here, faculty) with cheaper, less effective machine labor” by “social justice.” Based on such a threat of larger Catholic universities “pushing smaller Catholic colleges […] out of business” by providing courses using the MOOC approach (and objecting also to the lack of “dialogue and physical proximity” implicit in their nature), Malesic proceeds to categorize their impact as “social injustice” and interpret Blessed Pope John Paul II’s encyclical “Laborem Exercens” as condemning them and rendering them un-Catholic.

You could certainly argue about the pros and cons of MOOCs - and Malesic too acknowledges some of their pros: “access to college-level instruction for people who have been excluded because of poverty, remoteness, or others’ prejudice,” but to argue not only that they are incompatible with Catholicism but also that such a view derives from John Paul II’s teaching is asking for a rebuttal.

Before proceeding to Laborem Exercens, let me put my cards on the table. I, already having postgraduate qualifications, have signed up to several MOOCs (on Coursera and Udacity) and have greatly enjoyed some of them (e.g., the superb “A Brief History of Humankind” by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari). Do I think they are a replacement for “traditional” education? No. Do I think they are incompatible with my Catholic beliefs? Absolutely not! If anything, I see them as great new elements to incorporate into the kind of education that Prof. Malesic too promotes - one where there is personal contact between educator and student. Beyond their expanding the means that an educator has at their disposal, by, e.g., allowing for a course to partly consist of students participating in a MOOC and then having follow-up discussions or supplemental material facilitated by their “physically proximal” educator, MOOCs also do provide access to education to those who would otherwise not have it, as Prof. Malesic too concedes. Beyond such, systemic benefits of MOOCs, there are also already some very personal success stories of those who have taken them, like that of Khadijah Niazi from Lahore, who took the Udacity Artificial Intelligence MOOC aged 10, then their physics course two years later and has since spoken at Davos alongside the worlds educational elite. Is that un-Catholic? Hardly. Is there a need for carefully considering how to best take advantage of MOOCs? Sure. But that’s not what I’d like to focus on in this post.

Instead, my aim here is to examine Prof. Malesic’s claim that John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens (LE) leads to a classification of MOOCs as socially unjust and therefore to be boycotted by Catholic universities and colleges.

Let’s start at the beginning, with LE’s opening sentence:
“Through work man must earn his daily bread and contribute to the continual advance of science and technology and, above all, to elevating unceasingly the cultural and moral level of the society within which he lives in community with those who belong to the same family.”
Hmm … sounds to me like the focus in LE will be not only work and the important considerations of social justice and dignity that it entails, but also progress on all fronts: science, technology, culture and morality. That’s more like the JP2 I know from his other writings, instead of the Luddite suggested by Prof. Malesic’s interpretation. To get a fuller picture of JP2’s thought (from 1981), let’s proceed to read what he says about technological progress:
“[W]e are witnessing the transformations made possible by the gradual development of science and technology. Historically speaking, this, taken as a whole, has caused great changes in civilization, from the beginning of the “industrial era” to the successive phases of development through new technologies, such as the electronics and the microprocessor technology in recent years.

While it may seem that in the industrial process it is the machine that “works” and man merely supervises it, making it function and keeping it going in various ways, it is also true that for this very reason industrial development provides grounds for reproposing in new ways the question of human work. Both the original industrialization that gave rise to what is called the worker question and the subsequent industrial and post-industrial changes show in an eloquent manner that, even in the age of ever more mechanized “work”, the proper subject of work continues to be man.”
Oh … wait … So, we need to “repropose” what constitutes human work, instead of getting stuck in superficial appearances? How does JP2 suggest we do that?
“The development of industry and of the various sectors connected with it, even the most modern electronics technology, especially in the fields of miniaturization, communications and telecommunications and so forth, shows how vast is the role of technology, that ally of work that human thought has produced, in the interaction between the subject and object of work (in the widest sense of the word). Understood in this case not as a capacity or aptitude for work, but rather as a whole set of instruments which man uses in his work, technology is undoubtedly man’s ally. It facilitates his work, perfects, accelerates and augments it. It leads to an increase in the quantity of things produced by work, and in many cases improves their quality. However, it is also a fact that, in some instances, technology can cease to be man’s ally and become almost his enemy, as when the mechanization of work “supplants” him, taking away all personal satisfaction and the incentive to creativity and responsibility, when it deprives many workers of their previous employment, or when, through exalting the machine, it reduces man to the status of its slave.”
The point I am hearing here is that technology, which “is undoubtedly man’s ally,” makes us look at human work not only from the narrow perspective of an individual’s “capacity or aptitude” but to consider the tools at their disposal (and these include MOOCs!) as being their extensions. While JP2 rightly points to the dangers of a “mechanization” of work that robs man of creativity and responsibility (just think of the sweatshops that many goods used today are produced in), of people being deprived of previous employment or becoming slaves of technology, he still can’t quite bring himself to labeling technology as man’s enemy, even when it is abused, applying the qualifier “almost.” Looking back at Prof. Malesic’s words, I believe it is clear that new technology poses dangers, and JP2’s teaching attests to that, but I can’t read Laborem Exercens as placing technology and man being the primary basis for the value of work at odds. The following passage makes this particularly clear:
“Working at any workbench, whether a relatively primitive or an ultramodern one, a man can easily see that through his work he enters into two inheritances: the inheritance of what is given to the whole of humanity in the resources of nature, and the inheritance of what others have already developed on the basis of those resources, primarily by developing technology, that is to say, by producing a whole collection of increasingly perfect instruments for work. In working, man also “enters into the labour of others”. Guided both by our intelligence and by the faith that draws light from the word of God, we have no difficulty in accepting this image of the sphere and process of man’s labour. It is a consistent image, one that is humanistic as well as theological. […] If some dependence is discovered in the work process, it is dependence on the Giver of all the resources of creation, and also on other human beings, those to whose work and initiative we owe the perfected and increased possibilities of our own work. All that we can say of everything in the production process which constitutes a whole collection of “things”, the instruments, the capital, is that it conditions man’s work; we cannot assert that it constitutes as it were an impersonal “subject” putting man and man’s work into a position of dependence.”
I have to say I find the above quite beautiful. Not only does JP2 explicitly deny technology the capacity to enslave man (it is a tool, whose use is at the discretion of man), but he presents a Trinitarian-like model, where man’s work places him in relationship with God and his neighbor - the fundamental context for the entirety of Christian life.

Before leaving Laborem Exercens, it is worth seeing what JP2 has to say about the changes that technology brings to white collar workers:
“Movements of solidarity in the sphere of work-a solidarity that must never mean being closed to dialogue and collaboration with others- can be necessary also with reference to the condition of social groups that were not previously included in such movements but which, in changing social systems and conditions of living, are undergoing what is in effect “proletarianization” or which actually already find themselves in a “proletariat” situation, one which, even if not yet given that name, in fact deserves it. This can be true of certain categories or groups of the working “intelligentsia”, especially when ever wider access to education and an ever increasing number of people with degrees or diplomas in the fields of their cultural preparation are accompanied by a drop in demand for their labour. This unemployment of intellectuals occurs or increases when the education available is not oriented towards the types of employment or service required by the true needs of society, or when there is less demand for work which requires education, at least professional education, than for manual labour, or when it is less well paid. Of course, education in itself is always valuable and an important enrichment of the human person; but in spite of that, “proletarianization” processes remain possible.”
What JP2 means here by “proletariat” are workers who, “reacti[ng] against the degradation of man as the subject of work, and against the unheard-of accompanying exploitation in the field of wages, working conditions and social security for the worker” follow a call to solidarity and common action. Again there is a very clear recognition of the challenges associated with the many aspects of work, and a prophetic anticipation of the consequences of a wider access to education, but JP2 is clear about “education in itself [being] always valuable and an important enrichment of the human person.”

If anything, Blessed Pope John Paul II unequivocally endorses the good inherent in technological advances and education and does so with his eyes wide open - pointing to the dangers and challenges they entail. Laborem Exercens, when taken in its entirety (and I thank Prof. Malesic for the impetus), presents a truly cosmic view of work - an activity that places one in relation not only with one’s neighbors, but - via education - also with those who have contributed to the advances of science and technology in the past (echoing Newton’s “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”), with nature and with God. Technology and education are shown as being integral to man, as opposed to external entities, and as such inherently good. Their use has clear risks and dangers, but it is their prudent and socially-aware employment that is the solution, instead of a shunning and boycotting.

1 Many thanks to my überbestie PM for his nihil obstat!
2 If, for some strange reason, the opening paragraph seems like an enigma wrapped in a riddle, you might want to consult the opera omnia of MPFC, internalizing the following (abridged) passage in particular:
BEDEMIR: Quiet, quiet. Quiet! There are ways of telling whether she is a witch.
CROWD: Are there? What are they?
BEDEMIR: Tell me, what do you do with witches?
CROWD: Burn, burn them up!
BEDEMIR: And what do you burn apart from witches?
VILLAGER #2: Wood!
BEDEMIR: So, why do witches burn?
VILLAGER #3: B--... ’cause they’re made of wood...?
CROWD: Oh yeah, yeah...
BEDEMIR: So, how do we tell whether she is made of wood?
VILLAGER #1: Build a bridge out of her.
BEDEMIR: Aah, but can you not also build bridges out of stone?
VILLAGER #2: Oh, yeah.
BEDEMIR: Does wood sink in water?
VILLAGER #1: No, no.
VILLAGER #2: It floats! It floats!
BEDEMIR: What also floats in water?
VILLAGER #3: Very small rocks!
ARTHUR: A duck.
CROWD: Oooh.
BEDEMIR: Exactly! So, logically...,
VILLAGER #1: If... she.. weighs the same as a duck, she’s made of wood.
BEDEMIR: And therefore--?
VILLAGER #1: A witch!
CROWD: A witch!