The Care Work of Education in the Age of COVID-19

Folks in higher-ed, much like everyone else, are trying to figure out what their post-coronavirus reality will look like. This piece, by Stern School of Business professor Scott Galloway, is one example of the now capacious genre that is “post-corona higher-ed crystal ball gazing lit.” It’s worth a read, though some who read blogs by people like me may find it’s ideological position… icky.

It’s precisely the ideological cringe that makes the piece worth reading, however. Galloway, who flirts with the sort of almost-consciousness of his own ideology one typically finds on r/selfawarewolves, does an excellent job of predicting what will happen if current ideological conditions hold. Since current ideological conditions tend to hold, especially in the absence of a concerted effort to change them, this makes his analysis an excellent starting point.

His prediction? That the decline of the on-campus experience and the rise of distance education during the era of COVID-19 will lead to the biggest names in higher education (MIT, Stanford, UCLA, Etc.) partnering with big tech to essentially eat the higher education space the same way that Amazon has eaten retail, Spotify has eaten music distribution, or (perhaps the best analogy) NYT and WaPo digital have eaten newspaper journalism. Thousands of brick and mortar universities will be swept away and, in their place, will stand a small oligopoly of powerful “brands” delivering online education. His reasoning is that, in the absence of the on-campus experience “Nobody’s going to enroll in Pepperdine if they get into UCLA.”

Let’s admit here that, as obnoxious as this logic may be, it contains an element of truth. Our institutions have, in some cases, leaned on selling “the campus experience” and neglected the work of education. Nothing demonstrates that more profoundly than the terrible conditions under which the vast majority of the people doing the actual work of education on our campuses, contingent faculty, work, all while lavish investments are made in facilities and administration.

At the same time, however, the market logic that suggests that “the best education” can be reduced to a form of content delivery and “scaled” to permit many, many more students access to “the best” professors at “the best” universities recalls the failed MOOC experiment of the last decade. What MOOCs discovered was that most students in “massive” classes simply dropped out. They dropped out because the real work of teaching isn’t content delivery, it’s building relationships and engaging in care. This can be done remotely, but it can’t be done at scale. Care work is stubbornly, expensively labor intensive.

For me, this means that, to survive and even thrive in the age of COVID-19, educational institutions need to figure out ways to do the care work of education at a (social) distance. This is fundamentally at odds with the affordances of many Officially Sanctioned digital education tools (like the LMS) which are fundamentally designed around a paradigm of content delivery and surveillance. It is also at odds with slashing the instructional workforce, especially our contingent faculty who do so much of the hands-on work of teaching. I’ll have more thoughts about how to do this in a future post.

As for big tech? Here’s a modest proposal. Apple has something like 200 billion dollars in cash-on-hand. That’s enough to pay all 700,000 adjunct faculty in the United States a salary and benefits package worth $100,000 a year for 3 years. Want to disrupt higher education? Do it by hiring and paying educators. Tech has the money. Seize the moral high ground, it’s yours if you want it.

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