The ‘digital native’ rhetoric: A Trojan Horse of neo-liberalism?

Last week I gave a keynote address at a youth conference in Thessaloniki Greece in which I discussed the implications of the generational and pedagogical claims surrounding the ‘digital native’ trope. As indicated in a series of posts last year on my blog (search ‘digital native’ on this blog to see these), the evidence simply is not there for the claims that a new generation of tech-savvy students require pedagogies based on new technologies like clickers, podcasts, and online courses. These are tools that have their place, but they are not a panacea for the widespread disengagement found in our universities.

What is becoming increasingly evident, however, is that the persistence of this rhetoric in absence of confirmatory evidence signals that certain interest groups have agendas that have nothing to do with delivering high-quality educations to otherwise alienated students, and everything to do with the marketization of education defined by the hegemonic discourses of neo-liberalism. And, in countries like Greece that face huge cuts to educational budgets, the promise of simple solutions like online course delivery can be very appealing to naïve politicians and policy-makers. Indeed, my audience told me that this is exactly what is being threatened in Greece, and my talk confirmed their fears that the rhetoric of needing to adopt new technologies and online courses to meet the needs of ‘digital natives’ in fact constitutes threats to their education system on a number of levels, as it does in other countries where naïve policy-makers are jumping on the technological bandwagon.

As I pointed out in my keynote address, there are numerous problems with a wholesale adoption of the digital native rhetoric, when in fact what is being accepted are cost-cutting measures that seek to deliver low-budget mass educations at the expense of students and their teachers. If the rhetoric is uncritically accepted, we risk handing over control of our educational systems to the corporations that control these technologies and their delivery.

If we do this, we will not only allow these corporations to define pedagogies, but we will allow them to delegitimize university autonomy in defining academic standards and learning outcomes, especially for the liberal education. The liberal arts and sciences will not likely survive if the university system is defined as a marketplace. Moreover, if universities are left to survive in an unregulated marketplace, we will end up with a situation that characterizes the current ‘wild West’ situation in the US with respect to online schools like Kaplan University and the University of Phoenix.

Players in this ‘for-profit marketplace’ have made it clear that they intend to de-legitimize ‘traditional education’ and replace it with their own delivery formats and curricula (see Kaplan’s TV ad). If naïve politicians go for these quick-fix solutions, we will witness something like a ‘hostile takeover’ where a corporation buys its competition and then shuts it down, closing up shop and firing now-redundant employees. This is essentially what has been happening in the US, as captured in the Frontline Documentary College, Inc. If this goes unchecked spreads to other countries, our university systems will become dependent on corporations, which in turn will control curriculum based on profitability and these corporations will be free to produce a ‘hidden curriculum’ for the manufacture of consent to their (neo-liberal) interests.

In addition to a loss of the ‘idea of the university’ as a place for free enquiry unfettered by means-ends logic, this is bad news for students, whose labour market vulnerability will be further exploited, and it is bad news for teachers, whose role will be delegitimized. What will prevail is the rhetoric of self-appointed gurus like Marc Prensky who claims that ‘teachers are no longer the fountain of knowledge; the Internet is’ and Don Tapscott who claims that ‘schools should be places to learn, not to teach.’

Individually, teachers forced to teach online courses will face further wage exploitation, and reduced career security and benefits. Professors forced to turn their lectures into podcasts and courses into online packages will lose their intellectual property rights. Collectively, the teaching profession will experience a technological labour-displacement and a loss of collective bargaining.

Before we get to this point, we must all ask politicians who are tempted by quick technological fixes, ‘Do we really want to hand over control of our education systems to corporations?’ We need to see the digital native rhetoric as a Trojan Horse for neo-liberal interests that gets corporations into our universities and allows them to take them over, sacking them first. There was some irony that I delivered this message to a Greek audience.

Updates on previous related posts:

Meanwhile, after having their unscrupulous recruitment practices exposed, Kaplan University recently announced that it is laying off almost 800 employees, mainly from their recruitment machine. Their official statement is:

“Our enrollments have slowed recently, as they have at other proprietary schools. More importantly, we have made a strategic decision to become more selective in the students we enroll, focusing on students who are most likely to thrive in a rigorous academic environment and meet their financial obligations. These factors have led to a shift in our personnel needs,” said Jeff Conlon, president and CEO of KHE. ”These are difficult decisions to make, but necessary if we are to maintain the same high quality education and support services our students expect.”

Several weeks ago, Apollo Group, owner of the University of Phoenix, the largest private university in the US, fired an equivalent number of employees for the same reason. Their questionable recruitment practices have been exposed and apparently there now are not as many naïve students willing to take their bait.

James Côté is a full professor of Sociology at the University of Western Ontario, where he has taught since the early 1980s. In addition to Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis, which he co-authored with Anton Allahar, he has also published numerous journal articles on student experiences with higher education. His research interests overlapping with higher education include the sociology of youth (Critical Youth Studies, Pearson Education, 2006), and the social psychology of identity (Identity Formation, Agency, and Culture, Lawrence Erlbaum, 2002). These interests dovetail in a critique of contemporary culture where forms of human development are arrested or misdirected by special interests and outmoded institutions that undermine both people’s potentials to reach their full developmental capacities and the democratic potentials for the society as a whole.