As Jim has noted, we are working on an article on the theme of innovation lost and how it might be regained. One section of the piece as it stands is a fairly full-throated attack on the Learning Management System. Jim pulls out one of the critiques in his most recent post, we have drafted others. But to my mind, the saddest ill-effects of the LMS on higher education are all the missed learning opportunities. We live in an era where it is widely believed that we face an epochal challenge to guide our students into an information age of immense complexity, promise, and peril. We expect our students to spend countless hours working on computers. Yet we push their hands-on online engagement into a virtual environment that does nothing to equip them with practical and transferable web skills. Nor are they engaging the world-wide web in a spirit of critical inquiry. They are in a system, they are being managed.
Anyhow, that’s some of what we have been bashing around. But all of that has changed. I haven’t talked this over with Jim or our editor yet. But we are going to have to cut all that anti-LMS stuff out of the article. Here’s why.
Most of the promised innovation we can expect in the coming years boils down to enhanced capacity to monitor our student activity, to mine data on these managed interactions. It’s a big part of the rationale that insists we keep online learning inside managed environments.
I recently heard a short episode of the science podcast Radiolab entitled Brown Box. In it, reporter Mac McLelland goes to work at Amalgamated Product Giant Shipping Worldwide Inc. one of the mega-warehouses that feed internet retailing. If you are wondering what a fully-rendered data-driven workplace looks like, these people have made remarkable progress in that direction:
Plenty of things can hurt my goals. The programs for our scanners are designed with the assumption that we disposable employees don’t know what we’re doing. Find a Rob Zombie Voodoo Doll in the blue section of the Rockies sector in the third bin of the A-level in row Z42, my scanner tells me. But if I punch into my scanner that it’s not there, I have to prove it by scanning every single other item in the bin, though I swear on my life there’s no Rob Zombie Voodoo Doll in this pile of 30 individually wrapped and bar-coded batteries that take me quite a while to beep one by one. It could be five minutes before I can move on to, and make it to, and find, my next item. That lapse is supposed to be mere seconds.
This week, we newbies need to make 75 percent of our total picking-volume targets. If we don’t, we get “counseled.” If the people in here who’ve been around longer than a few weeks don’t make their 100 percent, they get counseled. Why aren’t you making your targets? the supervisors will ask. You really need to make your targets.
…The days blend into each other. But it’s near the end of my third day that I get written up. I sent two of some product down the conveyor line when my scanner was only asking for one; the product was boxed in twos, so I should’ve opened the box and separated them, but I didn’t notice because I was in a hurry. With an hour left in the day, I’ve already picked 800 items. Despite moving fast enough to get sloppy, my scanner tells me that means I’m fulfilling only 52 percent of my goal. A supervisor who is a genuinely nice person comes by with a clipboard listing my numbers. Like the rest of the supervisors, she tries to create a friendly work environment and doesn’t want to enforce the policies that make this job so unpleasant. But her hands are tied. She needs this job, too, so she has no choice but to tell me something I have never been told in 19 years of school or at any of some dozen workplaces.”You’re doing really bad,” she says.
I’ll admit that I did start crying a little. Not at work, thankfully, since that’s evidently frowned upon, but later, when I explained to someone over Skype that it hurts, oh, how my body hurts after failing to make my goals despite speed-walking or flat-out jogging and pausing every 20 or 30 seconds to reach on my tiptoes or bend or drop to the floor for 10.5 hours, and isn’t it awful that they fired Brian because he had a baby, and, in fact, when I was hired I signed off on something acknowledging that anyone who leaves without at least a week’s notice—whether because they’re a journalist who will just walk off or because they miss a day for having a baby and are terminated—has their hours paid out not at their hired rate but at the legal minimum. Which in this state, like in lots of states, is about $7 an hour. Thank God that I (unlike Brian, probably) didn’t need to pay for opting into Amalgamated’s “limited” health insurance program. Because in my 10.5-hour day I’ll make about $60 after taxes.
At some point, listening to this episode, I realized I had my perspective aligned completely wrong. Here I was thinking that by confining teaching and learning within a managed and artificial space, we were neglecting to provide an opportunity to develop the skills and critical thinking needed to thrive in an increasingly digitized world.
What I realize now is that by directing our students to adapt to a world in which they can exercise no control over their environment, where every click and eyeball twitch is monitored and analyzed by inscrutable algorithms, we are in fact preparing them for the real world of work (and society) that they will be living in. The Learning Management System is in fact a near-perfect training ground for the life that awaits them.
Sorry Jim, but we’ve got a lot of re-writing to do. And I promise from this point forward to leave my romantic dreams of freedom and creativity in the dusty poetry books where they belong, and to perform my KPI-defined role beyond the mandatory portion of my maximum efficiency targets.