One of the most frustrating things about our current "national dialogue" surrounding education and education technology, I would argue, is that we tend to conflate learning issues and labor issues. When we talk about the ways in which we desperately need to rethink education in this country, I fear we get sidetracked by one at the expense of the other. Or more accurately, I'd say, we tend to get far too wrapped up in blasting or defending teachers' unions and spend far too little time asking some of the bigger questions about what teaching and learning should and could look like look like.

But sometimes, of course, the two are so inextricable that it is hard to untangle them and offer a way forward.

Case in point: news today that the UC-AFT, the University of California chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, has issued a declaration in opposition to the state's higher education system offering more online education: We believe that if courses are moved online, they will most likely be the classes currently taught by lecturers and so we will use our collective bargaining power to make sure that this move to distance education is done in a fair and just way for our members.

At stake, in part, is the labor of the UC system's lecturers. Although the job title might suggest that these are the folks who just stand up in front of massive rooms full of undergraduates -- and some of them do -- it's actually the name used to describe any non-Senate faculty on the UC campuses. These workers make up almost half of the teachers who teach UC's undergraduates. They teach almost all the courses in writing and in foreign languages. Less than half of them have full-time employment through the university system. That means no path to tenure. That means no benefits. That means no long-term contracts. Many of these folks, while teaching, are also pursuing their own research and publications. So yes. This is a matter of teaching and learning. But it is also a labor issue.

Last week the university system signed a deal with the UC-AFT that included a provision barring it and its campuses from creating online courses that might result in "a change to a term or condition of employment" of any lecturer without first going through the union. While the union says this means no more expansion to online classes, the university system disagrees, according to Inside Higher Ed. The union does "not have the power to block the university from implementing online programs," according to a spokesperson for the UC system.

So. Labor dispute or learning issue?

Hacker News commenters (of course) weighed in to denounce the news as yet another indication that unions stand in the way of technological innovation. Many of them decried the UC-AFT as undermining efforts like the incredibly popular online courses at Stanford University happening this fall. (Over 100,000 people have signed up to take Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and/or Introduction to Databases this term via this university's experimental massive online course effort.) It's worth noting, however, that Stanford is a private university. (It's probably worth noting too that this may well be something that spins off into a commercial venture in its own right -- but that's another story with other lessons to be drawn.)

Despite their ignorance of the workings of the UC system, the Hacker News commenters do offer up what's the fairly standard, knee-jerk response to these sorts of education/technology/worker issues:

"Let the market decide whether it's an effective alternative or not. If somebody can learn just as well from that medium then let them. Eliminating an entire department isn't a bad thing -- education is about the students, not the teachers -- regardless of what the unions would have you believe." "Imagine a kid from a poor neighborhood sitting in on a lecture from a top tier university. That's what we're talking about. That kind of educational opportunity. And the unions are trying to destroy that."

Okay, I admit. Pointing to Hacker News commenters might look like the perfect set-up for a straw man argument here. But if it is one, it's really just my intention to highlight how convoluted our discussions about learning, technology, and labor get to be.

That being said, I actually do want to sidestep debates about whether or not online education offers a better or adequate or comparable learning experience. In other words, I want to sidestep the learning issue. I want to focus here on the labor issue. Because like it or not, it's an important one.

Intellectual labor on campus -- online and offline

As someone who saw the handwriting on the wall when it came to my chances for employment in academia and as someone who has a lot of friends struggling to piece together a livelihood through adjunct teaching, I completely understand why the UC-AFT feels it needs to put its foot down when it comes to online teaching. The conditions for those who teach at universities -- particularly those with the status "lecturer" -- are already fairly awful. Low pay. Large classes. No benefits. No assurance that a contract will be renewed another semester or another year.

Add to the mix, then, online courses.

There's a whole additional layer of stress and pressure and actual workload that comes with teaching these sorts of classes. It isn't simply "teachers fear technology" either. Online classes require a different pedagogical approach. As lousy as the training is for college instructors in the classroom, help, advice, training and tech support for online instruction is practically non-existent.

Add to that the expectation that online teachers are available 24-7, that the "class prep" time for online instruction oftentimes vastly outweighs the time spent preparing for offline instruction (making a five-minute demo video, for example, can take hours to create versus, ya know, just demoing something "live" in class.)

When you think about the insecurity that many of these instructors already feel, worrying that their contracts may not be renewed for subsequent terms if they don't get high enough enrollment or positive enough reviews from students, then threats -- perceived or real -- of having their lectures and course content syndicated by the university are pretty real. You can say, as the Hacker News commenters do, that the "market will decide." But that's not true. The university decrees which courses students take. Students must take writing to graduate, for example. And those classes are increasingly moving online.

It doesn't surprise me then that the unions want to put the brakes on the expansion of online courses in the UC system until lots of the questions about how this can be done in a way that's fair to its members are answered.

And frankly, I'm not sure I see it as any sort of roadblock to technological innovation. Rather, I see it as a very important reminder about the labor -- the bodies, the work, the brains, the people -- that always sit behind the technology and that always work to make online instruction happen.

No matter the bells and whistles and gadgets that we use to make education available electronically, none of this -- the teaching or the learning -- happens without people. Unfortunately, that makes technology and education a labor issue. Whether we like it or not.

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

Back to Archives