Hacking the MOOC: Towards a Postdigital Pedagogy of Critical Hope
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This article contributes to a praxis of critical hope by combining recent critical political economic (CPE) analyses of postdigital education with the inspiring experimental practices emerging from the new field of critical digital pedagogy (CDP). I argue that CDP offers hope to educators looking for practical ways beyond capitalist exploitation and alienation, but lacks the analytical foundations needed to contribute to the liberation of our ‘general intellect.’ I highlight the emergence of the Free/Libre Open-Source Software (FLOSS) movement and ‘hacker class’ as exemplars of a more dialectically conscious praxis. Conversely, I encourage CPE scholars of the postdigital to contribute to developing both intellectual tools for understanding our position within capitalism and practical tools for hacking for our liberation. Throughout the article, I use a historical materialist lens to emphasise that we can identify the conditions of and elaborate the strategies for achieving our emancipation in the dialectic of the historically specific contradictions generated by specific class antagonisms. It is in this dialectic that we find a critical hope.
KeywordsHistorical materialism Dialectic Postdigital Critical political economy Critical digital pedagogy MOOC Critical hope
Recent years have seen a flourishing of historical materialist scholarship in the broad field of the critical political economy (CPE) of knowledge production. I refer here in particular to work on the CPE of ‘academic labour’ and of ‘digital labour’ and their combination by scholars analysing capital’s recent expansion into the realm of educational technologies (cf. Winn 2015a, 2015b; Fuchs and Sevignani 2013; Fuchs and Sandoval 2014; Hall 2014, 2015). What underpins this scholarship is a fundamental ontology of capital itself as a historical agent pursuing a process of monomaniacal, ever-expanding, and interminable self-valorisation through the subsumption of ever more realms of social and natural life within the logic and circuits of its accumulation (Marx 1990). At the same time, by emphasising its historicity, historical materialism recognises capitalism’s contingency—there was a past before it and there will be a future beyond it. It does this through a dialectical ontology (and subsequent methodology) that, beyond crude cause and effect, identifies not just a mode of production, but a social system, in perpetual motion and transformation, a system of dynamic interactions driven by structural antagonisms. These antagonisms generate contradictions that inevitably instantiate crises. Historical materialist scholarship, then, also illuminates the political economic mechanisms and the nature of those crises, and the corresponding opportunities for emancipation they present. Above all, in this regard, rather than positing any vulgar determinism, historical materialism shows that it is we, the human beings enslaved within capital’s logic and circuits, who ourselves already possess the collective power to transcend our enslavement by channelling the growing power of co-operation that capital drives towards social rather than private ends (Postone 1993). Within a historical materialist ontology, then, be it the axe, abacus, accounting book, or algorithm, technology is understood as a tool for both oppression and freedom and a central site of social struggle within this capital-labour antagonism (Marx 1990: Ch15; Feenberg 1999).
Is it possible to use the implementation of TEL [technologically enhanced learning] in the University to reveal the mechanics of expropriation and alienation and to develop alternatives? (...) It is possible to use pedagogic innovation to liberate time and sociability from Capital? If so, can this be enacted co-operatively? Moreover, what is the role of techniques and technologies in rehabilitating academic labour’s collective, social power? (Hall 2016: 1006)
Capital is ‘value in motion’,1 causing ‘all that is solid’ to ‘melt into air’ (Marx 1992a: 255; Marx and Engels 2002: 4). And yet, while capital itself is in constant metamorphosis, its essential nature, and the essential nature of capitalist society, remains unchanged. The social product, and thus society and our very ‘species being’ itself, is wrought asunder by its separation into use value and exchange value and the consequent establishment and expansion of the law of exchange value over use value as the motive for production (Marx 1992b: 391). Thus, it remains that the historical form of the commodity constitutes a slow but accelerating, and inexpressibly violent, atomic fission generative of alienation, suffering, desecration, and death on a planetary scale. It is from these robust ontological and methodological foundations that historical materialist scholars continue to contribute the richest analyses of new relations of knowledge production within the rapidly transforming context of what is referred to within this journal as the ‘postdigital’—the subsumption of life itself within digital technology and a ‘digitalist’ rationality, and the naturalisation of this process (Jandrić et al. 2018; Knox 2019: 3; Fuller and Jandrić 2019: 215).
The generation of such invaluable critical scholarship is praiseworthy enough. Yet, as Karl Marx infamously noted, to be a truly critical scholar is not merely to ‘interpret the world’; it is ‘to change it’ (Marx 1969: Thesis no. 11). Who am I to judge the extent to which individual scholars fulfil this element of ‘critical’? Working within universities in which workloads exceed capacities, pressures to publish are incessant, and dualist separations of thought and action are institutionalised makes this fulfilment all the more arduous. Indeed, evoking the spirit (spectre!) of Marx’s final thesis on Feuerbach, Mackenzie Wark goes so far as to describe all critical theory as ‘hypocritical’ to the extent that it ‘questions unequal modes of knowledge production and yet participates in them’ (Wark in Jandrić 2017: 108). Nonetheless, being practically involved in constructing the alternatives that such scholarship points to remains our urgent historical task. It is with excitement, then, that we should greet the emerging field of ‘critical digital pedagogy’—growing community and wider network of scholar-practitioners reflexively experimenting to develop emancipatory forms, contents, and, above all, relations of knowledge production.2 This is a most hopeful emergence. And yet, through this article, I seek to contribute what I identify as indispensable historical materialist foundations to CDP thought in order for CDP to fulfil its historical emancipatory potential. This involves, above all, a more conscious and explicit dialectical understanding of capital on which to found experimental pedagogical innovations in order for all participants to develop a clearer sense of the natures of the alienation we are struggling against and the freedom we are working towards.
This article begins with an overview of (Marx 1993: 782) concept of the ‘general intellect’ that overarches a critical political economy of academic labour, digital labour, and educational technology. In the second section, I explore the field of knowledge production as the most conscious emergence of emancipatory post-capitalist commons-based, co-operative relations of knowledge production—the Free/Libre Open-Source Software (FLOSS)3 movement. By conscious emergence, I refer not just to the emergent mode of production, but to emergent new subjectivities creating and created by this movement. In short, what is emerging from the FLOSS movement (and also arguably the platform co-operative movement) (see Winn 2015a) is not just the hack, but the ‘hacker class’ (Wark 2004). In the third section, I contrast the class consciousness of the FLOSS movement with the CDP movement. I reflect on the ‘bill of rights and principles for learning in the digital age’ co-produced by the pioneers of the CDP community (Morris and Stommel 2013). In the fourth section, I critically review two examples of a new digital pedagogical innovation, namely the ‘connectivist’ massive open online course (cMOOC). Here, I look at #Rhizo14—a cMOOC created by a member of the CDP community, Dave Cormier—as well as U.Lab, a cMOOC that does not consciously describe itself as such, but is now a worldwide, large-scale pedagogical intervention aimed at engendering planetary transformation. Though both these examples are praised, I also reveal an insufficient materialism and historicity that precludes the emergence of a class consciousness capable of fully grasping and responding to the historical task of liberating our general intellect.
I conclude by arguing that the liberation of our general intellect lies in a praxis of ‘critical hope’—a concept developed by Paolo Freire (1992: 2), but intimately tied to Ernst Bloch’s (1995) concept of ‘educated hope’ (docta spes) (Amsler 2015). A praxis of critical hope founds utopian visions and plans on a solid historical sociology of material conditions. Thus, in the field of critical pedagogy, it is essential that we think and act dialectically, designing educational technologies not just according to an ethical bill of rights and principles, but according to the commons-based forms of ownership and co-operative relations of production that our historical conditions demand in order to produce the knowledge, the relations, and the subjectivities we need for our emancipation from capital. CDP offers us tentative answers to the questions that Richard Hall poses at the beginning of this article, but only through a more consciously dialectical approach can it play a significant role in a process of historical transformation already underway. I encourage scholars of CPE and the postdigital to contribute not just to intellectual tools for understanding our enslavement, but to practical tools for hacking for our liberation. By combining the dialectical insights of critical political economy with the practical experimentation of critical digital pedagogues, we can design and develop the hybrid technologies we need—such as cMOOCs—in the struggle to liberate our general intellect and ourselves from our current dystopian postdigital reality.
Situating CDP within a Critical Political Economy of Postdigital Knowledge Production
Critical political economy illuminates the alienated ways in which, through digital technology, we all co-produce knowledge, culture, and our very selves. I begin, therefore, with the ways in which technology is used by capital in the subsumption, exploitation, discipline and control of all labour or, in short, in our continued and intensified alienation. Next, I consider the contemporary alienated forms and conditions of what Fuchs and Sandoval (2014) term ‘informational digital labour’. This reveals how online unpaid labour, learning, and leisure have now become so subsumed within circuits of capitalist production, exchange, and consumption that we can now recognise our contemporary system truly as a ‘social’ or even ‘planetary’ factory (Tronti in Cleaver 1992; Dyer-Witheford 2010). Then, I explore capital’s incursion into higher education (HE) and its subsumption of academic labour and educational technological innovation. Finally, I introduce the concept of the ‘general intellect’, arguing that without it, we cannot develop a dialectical understanding that shines a light on a path towards emancipation from within.
Technology in Capitalism: Alienation, Biopower, and Psychopower
Beyond the techno-fetishism that ascribes to technology agentic historical power, a historical materialist perspective sees technology as shaping and shaped by the physical and semiotic character and trajectory of all social struggles (Feenberg 1999). Hence, technology ‘can function both as a tool for and an obstacle to liberation’ (Stommel 2014). Capitalism is a system whose historical novelty lies in the indirect and mediated form that its natural and social relations of exploitation and control take. Such relations are mediated through the category of labour, both abstract and concrete. Abstract labour, the foundation of social wealth or ‘value’, is measured in average amounts of ‘socially necessary labour time’, congealing itself in concrete forms as commodities and money. Through its relentless expansion, capital is a ‘self-valorising’ subject, converting labour power into surplus value via endless metamorphic circuits of production and exchange (‘money-commodities-money’) (Marx 1990: 259). In these production and exchange processes, capital unifies us in separation, that is, in social, co-operative, but alienated forms of production. Alienation is, therefore, a structural social relation mediated and enforced by technology. Consequently, technology functions as a ‘biopower’ and a ‘psychopower’ of capital in order to construct the wage-labourer and as a tool of control in the continuous reproduction of productive bodies and subjectivities ( Foucault 2008; Stiegler 2010). Though discipline remains fundamental, we can identify a long-run emergence of societies of dispersed control in which we are constantly, mostly unwittingly, reproducing ourselves as ‘willing slaves of capital’ (Lordon 2014). Be it social media or ‘wearable and other self-tracking devices’ (Moore and Robinson 2016), technological innovation remains the engine of capitalist alienation, discipline, and control.
Technology reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from those relations. (Marx 1990: 1284–5)
‘Informational digital labour’ Within the Global Social Factory
Contra Lazzarato, other scholars have rightly re-emphasised the (painfully harsh) material basis—the wage and slave labour—of the production of the technological hardware maintaining our immaterial, virtual reality (Fuchs and Sandoval 2014; Knox 2019). Fuchs and Sandoval (2014) use the term ‘digital labour’ and construct an ‘international division of digital labour’ incorporating both physical (agricultural and industrial) and informational (ideas, information, and attitudes) forms (see also Williams 1976: 9). Following these authors, I employ the term ‘informational digital labour’ to describe the current ways we labour specifically online, wittingly or unwittingly, to (re)produce both surplus value and our own alienated social relations and subjectivities.
‘between conception and execution, between labor and creativity, between author and audience’ are ‘simultaneously transcended’ (Lazzarato 1996). Online processes of economic, cultural, and social (re)production make it ‘increasingly difficult to distinguish leisure time from work time. In a sense, life becomes inseparable from work’ (Lazzarato 1996).
Fuchs (2016: 236) details the ways in which capital is ‘institut[ing] new forms of labour-time, value creation and exploitation in the information economy’. These centre on the entirely unpaid ‘consumption work’ that, through incessant surveillance and monitoring of our online behaviour and data collection of our generated content, is commodified by Google, Facebook, and other social media firms (Fuchs 2014, 2016; Smythe 2006). Fuchs (2016: 236) additionally details the ‘various forms of irregular, unpaid, precarious, outsourced, crowdsourced, and click-worked digital labour’. His conclusion is that, though it may depend on the continued hyper-exploitation of our labour, ‘[d]igital and informational capitalism...is a reality, in which we have to live today' (Fuchs 2016: 237). CPE analyses like Fuchs reveal how, in this ‘reality’ of digital capitalism, we co-produce not just knowledge and culture, but our alienated selves. Indeed, with our informational digital labour functioning within global interdependent supply chains, it is appropriate to speak of a global ‘social factory’ or ‘factory planet’ which, as Mario Tronti presaged, constitutes the ‘highest level of capitalist development’ (Dyer-Witheford 2010: 485; Tronti in Cleaver 1992: 137). In our global social factory, ‘social relations become moments of the relations of production, and the whole society becomes an articulation of production. In short, all of society lives as a function of the factory and the factory extends its exclusive domination over all of society’ (Tronti in Cleaver 1992: 137 137).
Behind the construction of our global factory, as postdigital scholars have highlighted, is the science and technology of cybernetics—the intermeshing of humans and machines within expanding and intensifying mechanisms of control fuelled by the generation of data, themselves, generated through the constant surveillance and monitoring of our behaviour (cf. Jandrić et al. 2018; Peters and Besley 2019; Knox 2019; Cormier et al. 2019). Interpretations of data and subsequent operational, strategic, policy, or political decisions can be increasingly taken by computers with no human intervention. What we are speaking of, then, is the gradual realisation of long held fears over the totalitarian potential of rationality (cf. Adorno and Horkheimer 1997) or, as Bernard Stiegler (2016) has put it, the triumph over reason by ‘rationalisation’. This ‘gigantic abstract machine’ constitutes a ‘new form of political sovereignty’ requiring new forms of political subjectivity and these are made by us, the subject-objects of cybernetics, moment to moment as we live and labour within (Tiqqun 2001). Politics itself or, synonymously put, human freedom is threatened by cybernetic rationalisation in which ‘the digital becomes the master narrative of the world’ (Fuller and Jandrić 2019: 215).
Academic Labour and Technological Innovation in Higher Education
Recent CPE analyses of higher education are grounded in a concept of knowledge as collectively produced by ‘academic labour’—academics and students working together in processes of ‘social combination’ (Marx 1993: 782; Neary 2016; Winn 2015a, b; Hall 2014). Capital’s recently accelerated and expanded incursions into higher education are not just political, but driven by an urgent need to revive profitability and expand accumulation. The expertise of academic labour and the passionate dedication of academic labourers are rich sources of energy to convert into surplus value.
Academics, themselves, at the sharp end of this process, have shown how the subsumption of academic labour within capitalist circuits of accumulation has demanded the deployment of cybernetic technologies of rationalisation, discipline, and control that have combined macro-level regulatory and institutional restructurings with micro-level practices of ‘undermining’ communal and solidaristic cultures and practices (Amsler 2011: 67). This decades-long process has now generated a model, overwhelmingly reliant on unpaid and underpaid precarious labour, demanding relentless productivity gains experienced as an incessant ‘speed-up’, burgeoning workloads, and consequent stress and burnout (Harney and Moten 1999; UCU 2016; Analogue University 2017). Since ‘cybernetic rationality demands and reinforces certain digital and material behaviours, literacies, practices, attributes, and competencies’, we are also speaking of transformations in academic subjectivities—‘entrepreneurial behaviours and a new governance mentality in academia’ (Hall 2016: 1007). Politically, we are also speaking of a rise in ‘the power of technocrats, administrators or education corporations for risk management’ and a concomitant fall in the economic and political power of academics and students (Hall 2016: 1007).
Capitalist accumulation within higher education is simultaneously driving digital innovation in the commodification of online teaching, learning, and research within and far beyond the university, most evidently in the development of a global industry in ‘MOOCs’ within which the knowledge produced by academic labour is packaged, distributed, and consumed. Recent historical materialist analyses conceptualise MOOCs as labour models ‘revolutionising...the means of production and the disciplining of academic labour’ (Hall 2015: 281). Crucially, the vast majority of MOOCs require virtually no professional academic time for supporting individual learners (Haggard in Hall 2015: 274). Within the dominant MOOC model, academics are mere producers and students mere consumers of knowledge. Even most of those ‘adaptive’ MOOCs that ‘claim to personalize an experience and adapt to students’ generally do so by using algorithms recommending limited options based on historical data of former students’ choices (Derk 2014).
an attempt to critique the participatory traditions and positions of academics as organic intellectuals, and to analyse how they actively contribute to the dissolution of their expertise as a commodity. Underpinning this is an analysis of the academic labour of students and staff as it responds to the disciplinary logic of competition and profitability (Hall 2015: 278).
Academic/digital informational labour in capitalist higher education is highly alienated and often hyper-exploitative. MOOCs are, then, indeed truly revolutionary, ‘but only on capital’s terms’—a passive revolution (Hall 2015: 275).
The General Intellect and the Dialectics of Capitalist Knowledge Production
In order to develop genuinely emancipatory pedagogical technologies, we need to begin with a critical political economy of knowledge production because such analyses reveal not just the nature of our alienation and oppressions, but the dialectical foundations of our emancipation. This is why I offer an overview of the CPE of alienated knowledge production and a political economy captured within Marx’s overarching concept of the ‘general intellect’ (1993a: 782) In Grundrisse, Marx (1993: 771) reflects on the extent to which the world we experience is the materialisation of our collective minds, our ‘social brain’, our ‘general intellect’. Because all commodities, including knowledge, are produced through co-operative processes, Marx recognises how, in each successively expanding and intensifying cycle of accumulation, capital inadvertently also expands and intensifies our powers of ‘social combination’ (Marx 1993: 782). Marx (1993: 861) envisages, therefore, a moment at which all the sciences have been pressed into the service of capital and ‘invention...becomes a business’—a prescient prophecy of the contemporary corporate university. At the same time, however, his dialectical understanding leads him to realise that such a condition would equally be underpinned by a general intellect potentially powerful enough to constitute ‘the material conditions to blow this foundation sky-high’ (Marx 1993: 782). We are talking about a revolutionary situation in which, rather than abstract labour, ‘necessary labour time will be measured by the needs of the social individual’ and, consequently, social wealth will no longer be measured as exchange value, but as wealth for all (Marx 1993: 784). The outcome is that ‘disposable time will grow for all’ (Marx 1993: 784). Finally, Keynes’ (2009) faux vision of capitalism is realised in its only possibly authentic way—as communism. Marx identifies the liberation of our general intellect—co-produced knowledge for social use—as the dialectical detonator of capital.
The struggle for the liberation of our general intellect provides the overarching theoretical framework for and historical significance of our praxis as radical educators. Within this framework, being conscious of the structural contradictions at play is essential. For instance, a dialectical CPE reveals that the violence of recent financialisation and commodification policies express not a power and strength of neo-liberal capitalism, but, conversely, increasingly desperate efforts to colonise previously uncommodified spheres of social relations in attempts to revive accumulation and profitability. Such policies also, therefore, reveal that this global system of domination is contingent, impermanent, and, in some ways, fragile. Similarly, a dialectical understanding of social relations of digital informational labour reveal how contemporary capitalism is underpinned by and magnifies an ‘extreme socialisation’ that unequivocally reveals the general intellect as ‘society’s main productive force’ (Hall and Stahl 2013: 73).
An alternative, emancipatory future can and will only emerge out from the current conditions of alienated knowledge labour today. Consequently, it becomes ‘possible to sketch and support a flowering of dissent based on the autonomous utilisation of those same emergent hardware, software and networks that are used to immiserate’ (Hall and Stahl 2013: 86). What Hall and Stahl express poetically here can be expressed far more prosaically as ‘the hack’—the disassembling of a biopolitical/psychopolitical technology in order to reconfigure it for emancipatory uses, a dialectical process itself. Let us examine, then, an example that appears to constitute precisely a conscious ‘flowering of dissent’ or ‘hack’ of this very nature.
The FLOSS Movement and the ‘Hacker Class’: Co-Producing Post-Capitalist Knowledge, Relations, and Subjectivities
I locate such promise within the FLOSS movement, identifying the emergence of the productive forces of an emergent ‘hacker class’, grounded in co-operative practices, hacking back against the cybernetic ‘empire’ to create new common modes of knowledge production and new revolutionary post-capitalist subjectivities into existence (Tiqqun 2001; Wark 2004; Moore 2011).
An Emergent ‘Hacker Class’
Mackenzie Wark (2004) identifies an epic dialectical struggle playing out over the liberation of information itself—the ‘potential of potential’, the ‘medium in which objects and subjects actually come into existence’, and the most recent form of privatised property. For Wark, today ‘[i]nformation wants to be free but is everywhere in chains’. He identifies the Internet as an overarching ‘vector’ through which the ‘free flow’ of information is ‘arrested’. Its stocks, flows, and vectors themselves are owned and commodified by ‘the vectoral class’. This imposition of scarcity of information to maintain economic power means ‘the enslavement of its producers [all of us] to the interests of its owners’, the vectoral class. For Wark (2004), ‘the vector itself usurps the subjective role, becoming the sole repository of will toward a world that can be apprehended only in its commodified form’. And yet, though information is in chains, enslaved by the law of value, Wark emphasises what he sees as the unique emancipatory quality of information: ‘information as property may be shared without diminishing anything but its scarcity. Information is that which can escape the commodity form’.
Wark identifies how ‘as the abstraction of private property was extended to information it produced the hacker class’. Hackers are the objects of ‘an intensive struggle’ waged by the vectoralist class ‘to dispossess hackers of their intellectual property’, their ‘capacity for abstraction’ (Wark 2004). Through being attacked, hackers realise that their struggle is not just for their own private intellectual property, but are coming ‘as a class to recognise their class interest is best expressed through the struggle to...abstract the form of property itself’. Since processes of production also re-form producers’ subjectivities, the hacker class has an emergent potential to evolve from a class in itself through a collective consciousness as a class for itself. This is taking place precisely when ‘freedom from necessity and from class domination appears on the horizon as a possibility’ (Wark 2004).
The FLOSS Movement: an Emergent Revolutionary Class and Subject?
The legal, proprietorial, and cultural commoning of information pursued by an emergent hacker class that Wark (2004) speaks of seems to be evolving and growing at breath-taking speed. This article is being written on LibreOffice, an example of the burgeoning FLOSS movement, an ‘open, evolutionary arena’ in which ‘hundreds and sometimes thousands of users voluntarily explore and design code, spot bugs in code, make contributions to the code, release software, create artwork, and develop licenses in a fashion that is becoming increasingly prevalent in the otherwise hugely monopolised software market’ (Moore 2011: 82). The FLOSS movement has as its ultimate revolutionary goal the provision of ‘free software to do all of the jobs computer users want to do and thus make proprietary software obsolete’ (Free Software Foundation 2005). At work (and play), here are groups of ‘geeks, artists, hackers, designers, carpenters and programmers, all of whom are committed to the flourishing of a radical ecology based on tenets that defy the proprietary and competitive relations that dominate the majority of productive relationships in the current, seemingly post-industrial, digital age’ (Moore 2011: 84). Their ‘cooperative and collaborative production have become a threat to globalised information capitalism, as much through contributors’ value systems as through material outputs’ (Moore 2011: 84). Open-source and free software movements pioneer new common forms of ownership and access sustained by innovative licencing forms such as the ‘general public license’, ‘creative commons’, and ‘peer production license’ (Kostakis and Bauwens 2014; Kleiner 2010).
Again, the dialectic is at play. The rebel pioneers of these movements—Wark’s ‘hacker class’—draw from the ‘cognitariat’ who endure low pay and precarious labour conditions within the privatised ecologies of oligopolistic IT firms (Newfield 2010). The emergence of a new generation of ‘platform co-operatives’ that are decentralised and collective in their design, ownership, and usage reveal that FLOSS workers are ‘becoming increasingly empowered, a group who increasingly own or control their own means of production: i.e. their brains, computers, and access to the socialised network that is the internet’ (Bauwens 2009). The radical dynamism of their non-market organising principle threatens the hegemony of the rigid market-bound firm (Benkler 2006). This seems to constitute a ‘genuinely new form of production’ driven by ‘productive forces’ of gift and co-operation with the potentia to usurp and supersede the productive forces of capital (Bauwens 2009; Marx 1992b: 501). It is founded on the ‘creation of common value’ (Bauwens 2009).
For Moore, the FLOSS movement’s post-capitalist, common social relations of information (knowledge) production and property are evolving a democratic and far more adaptive and effective mode of production:
The cultures that have emerged from this process have been discussed as being more truly democratic for nearly a decade. Both consensus and democratic means are used to lead towards becoming more fully individual or self-governing. This means using consensus or democratic means for vital infrastructure; the best and most widely adopted outcomes are from the adaptive systems created that enable an individual freedom of adaptation, without the knowledge of or permission by core developers, as these adaptations do not endanger, but merely enrich, the core design. (Moore 2011: 88)
Furthermore, through iterative processes of collaborative peer-to-peer production, Moore (2011: 84) also identifies ‘radical’ peer-to-peer ‘ecologies of production’ within which potentially revolutionary ‘subjectivities-in-common’ are being forged. Similarly, Kelty (2006) identifies ‘recursive communities’ emerging from collaborative practices with shared practices, principles, and objectives.
It is in the realm, or ‘ecology’, of peer-to-peer production, then, that we can identify not just the production of free and open-source software based on a radical, alternative social value, but the production of radical democratic cultures and revolutionary post-capitalist subjectivities. We can identify what Wark (2004) calls the emergent hacker class and an emergent hacker class consciousness. Thus, we can identify the mode (informational digital labour), the means (digital informational technologies), and the subjects (the hacker class) of productive forces developing the potentia to liberate our general intellect and detonate abstract labour and the commodity form.
Yet, Wark (2004) insists that the hacker class can ‘release the virtuality of the vector only in principle’—a recognition that, ultimately, ‘[i]t is up to an alliance of all the productive classes to turn that potential to actuality, to organise themselves subjectively, and use the available vectors for a collective and subjective becoming’. I understand Wark here to be asserting that the liberation of our general intellect necessitates a society-wide engagement and empowerment beyond hacker communities—the cultivation of our mass intellectuality (Virno 2001; Hall and Winn 2017). This is where a truly and fully critical digital pedagogy has a vital role to play. I turn next, therefore, to a critical assessment of CDP’s philosophy expressed through a co-produced ‘bill of rights and principles in the digital age’ and of the cMOOC as a leading CDP technology.
Assessing CDP’s ‘Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age’
CDP’s Bill of Rights and Principles
The right to online access
The right to privacy
The right to create public knowledge
The right to own one’s personal data and intellectual property
The right to financial transparency
The right to pedagogical transparency
The right to quality and care
The right to have great teachers
The right to be teachers (Morris and Stommel 2013)
Most of the rights here present a fundamental challenge to current capitalist alienated and privatised relations of learning and knowledge production. The insistence on the rights to create public knowledge and to be teachers demonstrates CDP pioneers’ unequivocal belief in and promotion of knowledge co-production and co-ownership. On the right to create public knowledge, for example, Morris and Stommel insist that:
Learners within a global, digital commons have the right to work, network, and contribute to knowledge in public; to share their ideas and their learning in visible and connected ways if they so choose. Courses should encourage open participation and meaningful engagement with real audiences where possible, including peers and the broader public. (Morris and Stommel 2013)
On the right to be teachers, they insist that:
In an online environment, teachers no longer need to be sole authority figures but instead should share responsibility with learners at almost every turn. Students can participate and shape one another’s learning through peer interaction, new content, enhancement of learning materials and by forming virtual and real-world networks. Students have the right to engaged participation in the construction of their own learning. Students are makers, doers, thinkers, contributors, not just passive recipients of someone else’s lecture notes or methods. They are critical contributors to their disciplines, fields, and to the larger enterprise of education. (Morris and Stommel 2013)
Here, CDP scholars insist that the foundation of CDP is not just enhanced participatory teaching and learning, but the production of knowledge by and for all.
Global contribution—technologies and processes that ‘maximize opportunities for students from different countries to collaborate with one another, to contribute local knowledge and histories and to learn one another’s methods, assumptions, values, knowledge and points of view’.
Flexibility—technologies and processes that ‘suggest and support new forms of interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary inquiry that are independent of old gatekeepers such as academic institutions or disciplines, certification agencies, time-to-degree measurements, etc’.
Hybrid learning—technologies and processes that ‘[f]reed from time and place,...should nonetheless be connected back to multiple locations around the world and not tethered exclusively to the digital realm’. Stommel envisage online innovations ‘rooted in real-world dilemmas’.
Innovation—technologies and processes that innovate ‘a wide variety of pedagogical approaches, learning tools, methods and practices’ to ‘support students’ diverse learning modes’.
Experimentation—which must be ‘an acknowledged affordance and benefit of online learning’.
Civility—technologies and processes should ‘encourage interaction and collaboration’ and ‘generous, kind, constructive communication’ in ‘an atmosphere of integrity and respect’.
Play—technologies and processes that ‘inspire the unexpected, experimentation, and questioning’—in other words, encourage play. (Morris and Stommel 2013)
Such principles, and the emerging literature around them, express robust ethical foundations for generating hybrid innovations for co-producing the knowledge, knowledge relations, and subjectivities we urgently need. They also do indeed also articulate a democratic politics of knowledge production. However, in the absence of a robust theoretical, dialectical understanding of the political economy of our postdigital experience, the CDP principles reveal the traditional humanistic roots of the ‘general project of education’ that does not account fully for the novelty of the postdigital condition (Knox 2019). In order to fulfil its historical emancipatory promise, CDP’s political ontological foundations need to go deeper and wider by adding an historical materialist understanding of the nature of capitalist and, therefore, emerging and potential post-capitalist relations of knowledge production—in short, the context from which CDP has emerged and seeks to escape.
Critically Assessing the cMOOC
Many experiments in CDP are emerging from within universities, often in a form of cMOOCs. Connectivist MOOCs ‘encourage learner autonomy, diversity, openness and interaction’ (Mackness and Bell 2015: 25; Haggard 2013). cMOOCs also make use of multiple, distributed platforms, e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and participant blogs. Experimental cMOOCs such as CCK08 and CCK09,4 eduMOOC underground,5 and DS106 (Digital Storytelling),6 all running at American universities, espouse experimental, decentralised approaches that put responsibility, not just for learning, but for producing knowledge, in the hands of course participants. CMOOC innovators reject ‘tracing’ practices that simply require students to trace their own limited trajectory across a predetermined map for practices that allow for radical de- and re-territorialisation, creating spaces for users to redraw maps time and again (cf. Deleuze and Guattari 1987). In short, such cMOOCs are not teaching spaces, nor learning spaces; they are knowledge spaces. Here, I will briefly overview two cMOOCs—Rhizo14 and U.Lab.
One inspiring and pioneering example of a cMOOC is Rhizo14, an experiment in ‘online community style learning’ designed and launched by Dave Cormier, an ‘educational activist’ based at the University of Prince Edward Island.7 Rhizo14 embodied Cormier’s philosophy and practice of ‘rhizomatic learning’, inspired by Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) central concept of the ‘rhizome’. Cormier defines rhizomatic learning thus:
The idea is to think of a classroom/community/network as an ecosystem in which each person is spreading their own understanding with the pieces … available in that ecosystem. The public negotiation of that ‘acquisition’ (through content creation, sharing) provides a contextual curriculum to remix back into the existing research/thoughts/ideas in a given field. Their own rhizomatic learning experience becomes more curriculum for others.8
Rhizo14 was hosted by Peer to Peer University (P2PU) and, though specific numbers are unattainable since no formal registration was required, over five hundred people participated in the course (Bali et al. 2016; Mackness and Bell 2015). Rhizo14 had no prescribed readings, materials, nor learning outcomes. Cormier merely offered two main things: a digital ‘scaffold’ (an online architecture to host and support community learning) and a weekly provocation (a pedagogical question and accompanying video and blog expressing thoughts on that question). Cormier sought merely to assist the ‘community’ to become ‘the curriculum’, to help participants explore ‘how we can learn in a world of abundance—abundance of perspective, of information and of connection.’9 While the course formally lasted for just 6 weeks, it was continued by the Rhizo14 community for a further 7 weeks and, according to one team of participants, continues through various and fluid configurations (Bali et al. 2016: 47).
Bali et al. (2016: 51–53), a team of authors who participated in Rhizo14, credit the cMOOC with a ‘genius force’ able to ‘expand your view of reality’ and generate ‘transformative learning experiences’ through the emergence of ‘polyphonic truth’. Mackness and Bell (2015: 26) temper their positive ‘light’ analysis with some ‘dark’ findings. Some of the Rhizo14 participants they interviewed found the course ‘isolating’ and lacking ‘appropriate facilitation’ and insufficient content and theoretical foundations (Mackness and Bell 2015: 32). Situating their critique within a wider, emerging literature on cMOOCs, Mackness and Bell (2015: 32) emphasise also the ethical problems raised by Rhizo14, particularly with respect to the role of the convener/teacher and ‘social interaction and community building’.
Cormier offers a rhizomatic technology for a potentially rhizomatic medium. Rhizo14 as project and rhizomatic learning as broader model demonstrate how cMOOCs can embody the rights and principles of CDP in ways that can potentially lead to transformative outcomes. I am not prescribing a one-size-fits-all approach in which every cMOOC is unswervingly focused on the political economy of knowledge production, nor am I arguing that, in the absence of a dialectical class consciousness, transformation is impossible. Instead, I am arguing that radical cMOOCs should be designed with and express a consciousness of class relations of knowledge production and that the relations and knowledge we cultivate through our cMOOC experience and endeavours can express our personal and collective power to overturn and transform these relations.
U.Lab is the creation of a team based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) led by Otto Scharmer and inspired and informed by Scharmer’s practical philosophy known as ‘Theory U’, so named because it leads participants through a U-shaped journey of transformation. It is a hybrid cMOOC or, as its creators phrase it, an ‘o2o (online-to-offline) blended learning environment’ that ‘provides participants with quality spaces for reflection, dialogue, and collaborative action’ and that ‘co-evolves with a movement in the making’ (Scharmer 2016a, b: xxxvii). Hundreds of thousands have completed the MOOC either as individuals or, very often, as members of hubs based in governmental, corporate, non-governmental or other organisations. I completed the U.Lab cMOOC in 2016. In Theory U and through U.Lab, incredibly profound, rich, and living knowledges are articulated and generated, knowledges that express and embody radical ontologies, epistemologies, and methodologies of knowledge and its production that align with and, indeed, fruitfully expand the bill of rights and principles developed by the CDP community.
U.Lab is focused on addressing humanity’s material problems and transforming society by helping participants to ‘invert’ their awareness internally towards their relations with self and between self and other until the individual and the collective come to recognise the living existence of a greater third living entity constituted by their co-existence and co-operation (Scharmer 2016a). This is achieved by taking a personal and collective journey of ‘co-sensing’ down the left-hand side of the ‘U’ (Scharmer 2016b: 26). Fundamental to the journey upwards into transformation are holistic (head-hand-heart) practices that facilitate the ‘co-presencing’ of an ‘emergent future’ (Scharmer 2016b: 26). The goal is then to incorporate these emergent futures into prototypes that inform subsequent institutionalisation of the new within ‘eco-systems’ that work for the interests of the system itself rather than individuals or groups within the system (Scharmer 2016b: 33).
As a pedagogical innovation, U.Lab constitutes a comprehensive and coherent leap forward in the MOOC’s rapid evolution. Scharmer (2016a) sees U.Lab as the embodiment of ‘MOOC 4.0’ within the following schema:
MOOC 1.0—One-to-Many: Professor lecturing to a global audience
MOOC 2.0—One-to-One: Lecture plus individual or small-group exercises
MOOC 3.0—Many-to-Many: Massive decentralised peer-to-peer learning.
MOOC 4.0—Many-to-One: Seeing your future potential through the eyes of others—and seeing yourself in the mirror of the whole. (Scharmer 2016a)
distributed organising: opening up the classroom to many self-organised hubs around the world;
generative dialogue: opening up the conversation from teacher-centric downloading to student-centric generative dialogue;
collective governance: opening up the institution to a global innovation context while cultivating spaces that help the system sense and see itself;
prototyping practices: opening up the learning modes through hands-on action learning methodologies;
self-transformation: opening up the deeper sources of human intelligence by activating the open mind, open heart, and open will. (Scharmer 2016a)
Because of the scale it has achieved, U.Lab is a seminal pedagogical innovation. It combines a ‘massive democratization of access to free education, methods, and tools’ with ‘the activation of a deep learning cycle that combines a shift of awareness through concrete projects and local work’ (Scharmer 2016b: 39). Thus, it constitutes a genuine praxis. However, it is a praxis founded on painfully weak and incoherent historical and sociological foundations, weaknesses that subsequently shape its practice and limits its potential.
Scharmer understandably seeks to offer a convincing theory of history on which to found his vision. What he presents (alongside Katrin Kaufer), however, is an incredibly simplistic asocial and Euro-centric periodisation of history. History begins for Scharmer and Kaufer (2013: 52–3) with ‘Society 1.0’—a ‘stage of societal development’ in which ‘a strong central actor...holds the decision-making power of the whole’. They contrast the ‘stability’ of Society 1.0 with the ‘random violence’ that preceded it, but critiques Society 1.0’s ‘lack of dynamism’ (Scharmer and Kaufer 2013: 53). Scharmer and Kaufer offer the Soviet Union as one example of this ‘pre-capitalist stage’ of history. What, then, of the facts that centuries of czarist imperialist autocracy preceded and provoked socialist revolution, that the violence prior to 1917 was not ‘random’, but systemic expressions of national and European capitalist imperialism, and that, though genocidal, what characterised the early Soviet era was a breath-taking developmental dynamism?
The trend continues. Rather than emerging dialectically through social struggle, Society 2.0: ‘Organising around competition’ (effectively, capitalism) emerges through a ‘shift of focus from stability to growth and greater individual initiative and freedom’ (Scharmer and Kaufer 2013: 53). Similarly, Society 3.0—‘Organising around interest groups’—is presented as the rational technocratic response to market excesses by the creation of the welfare state (Scharmer and Kaufer 2013: 54). Such periodisations are merely history as the naturalisation of desocialised institutional ‘innovations’ rather than any remotely credible, genuine social history (Scharmer and Kaufer 2013: 54). There is no social in Scharmer and Kaufer’s historical model of ‘Society’, merely occasional evolutionary upgrades.
When we do not recognise history as dialectical, that is, as driven by structurally antagonistic social forces, we have no credible theory of history and thus no clear ontological basis for understanding and envisioning our potential freedom. This is revealed in the ahistoricity of Theory U’s practical expression, U.Lab. By ahistoricity, I refer to the near total lack of the historical dimension in U.Lab’s purely present- and future-oriented practice. To the extent it is recognised, history is presented in almost purely negative terms, enacted when we ‘download’ the unthinking, entrenched pathologies of our past (Scharmer 2016b: 30). Due to this ahistoricity, U.Lab offers negligible space for addressing the injustices of the past and present. For a praxis grounded in the relational, it makes little or no mention to exploitation, oppression, or even violence. Structural conflict is absent from Scharmer’s analysis and U.Lab’s practice: class, racism, and patriarchy are invisible. Instead, ‘[t]he primary battlefield of this century is with our Selves. It is a battle between the self and the Self: between our existing, habituated self and our emerging future Self, both individually and collectively’ (Scharmer and Kaufer 2013: 30). One gets the sense that, by seeking to appeal to all (i.e. corporate) sections of society, Scharmer is playing the liberal game of rendering power relations invisible. Yet, there is no such thing as neutrality and, to the extent that they render structural relations of violence invisible, Theory U and U.Lab do harm to the cause of human justice and freedom. Humanity needs healing and healing requires confronting the historical and ongoing realities of colonialist, racist, patriarchal, capitalist, and other forms of structural violence.
Scharmer (2016b: 41) claims that, ultimately, Theory U expresses humanity’s ultimate task - ‘the reintegration of matter and mind’. Yet, I encounter Theory U as a fundamentally idealist philosophy, privileging mind over matter and, consequently, sustaining liberalism’s hegemony. Scharmer recognises that within an era of ‘disruption’ grow the seeds of a great evolutionary awakening (Scharmer and Kaufer 2013: 3). Yet, by not identifying this era of disruption as the fallout of the seemingly terminal crisis of capital, Theory U and U.Lab fall short of a praxis capable of facilitating dialectical consciousness. We are capital (and patriarchy, and colonialism, and racism). If we do not know what we are, we cannot know what we must become and how. If we cannot confront our history, we cannot found a new society on truth, peace, and justice. All that said, U.Lab constitutes an immense contribution to the advance of educational technologies for emancipation and transformation of self, communities, and society. Scharmer (2016a) defines education as ‘activing global social fields’ and U.Lab is doing this. Nonetheless, to activate global social fields for emancipation from capital, racism, and patriarchy requires coherent social theory. This is absent in Theory U and this is very much our challenge.
Rhizo14 and U.Lab
cMOOCs constitute the kind of revolutionary technologies we need to further the liberation of not just our general intellect, but, as U.Lab shows, of our hearts also, transforming the modes and democratising the means of knowledge production, empowering and transforming the subjectivities of participant co-producers in the process. Rhizo14’s emphasis on ‘community as curriculum’, for example, echoes Mike Neary’s (2012: 150–151) call to ‘re-appropriate knowledge and science so that the population which has produced this knowledge becomes the project and not the resource for a new progressive political programme’. What is absent from Rhizo14, however, is a dialectical understanding of capital that would inform and shape a more focused, yet in no way prescribed, framework for knowledge co-production.
The other example covered here, U.Lab, offers a digital platform that is truly and radically open, that allows for profound personal and social communication, action, and transformation. Nonetheless, its omission of the past in the quest for the future is a central and serious flaw. This prompts the question: can a process of confronting the deeply painful trauma of our shared past actually be enacted online at all? My heart and head tell me it must; my personal experience tells me it can.10 In short, as both cMOOCs Rhizo14 and U.Lab show and as my personal experiences of U.Lab attest, the conditions for real human connection can be created online. The barriers to our transformation are not technological; they are political.
No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society. Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation. (Marx 1992b: 501)
A critical political economy of knowledge production reveals a historical situation in which capital’s crisis of accumulation is increasingly dependent on free labour and is being steadily undermined by emergent superior commons-based forces and co-operative relations of production struggling to be born from within. The emergence of the FLOSS movement demonstrates this, but, as Wark rightly emphasises, the revolutionary emancipatory power of its productive forces requires vanguard hacker class to help to cultivate the mass intellectuality of wider society. This is a pedagogical task. This struggle requires the conscious design of technologies that create hybrid pedagogical spaces for this endeavour and have highlighted CDP as an exciting emergent community doing just this. I have highlighted the rights and principles of CDP that express the ethics and, to some degree, the politics on which to found and imbue such technologies and I have critically reviewed two examples of such a technology, the cMOOC.
While the first half of Marx’s quote compels a dialectical critique of our historical situation, the second half offers us great hope. It posits that the historical challenge we set ourselves must be surmountable because if it was not, it would mean that the material conditions for the question to even be posed would not have yet arisen. Thus, when Hall asks us...
Is it possible that a critical political economy of MOOCs might offer a way of developing an emancipatory critical pedagogy on a global scale? Might such a political economy enable the knowledge, practices, and skills produced socially and cooperatively to underpin new social relations of production as a pedagogic project beyond the market? (Hall 2015: 283)
...we are obliged, dialectically at least, to answer ‘yes!’ I believe that, through a combination of a critical political economy of postdigital educational technologies and the principles and practices of critical digital pedagogy, we can indeed envision, design, and construct cMOOCs that contribute to the flourishing of mass intellectuality and the liberation of our general intellect. Elsewhere, I have written about my own limited practical attempts to do just this (Lazarus 2018).
I would describe my experience of reading scholarship on the postdigital so far as intellectually rewarding, but emotionally draining. The fact that articles in Postdigital Science and Education often read as terrifying lists of mechanisms for ever-intensifying and expanding surveillance, manipulation, exploitation, and control is not a criticism, but I find it hard to locate hope within (albeit essential and ground-breaking) descriptions of the emergent regime of ‘bio-informational capitalism’ (Peters and Besley 2019). Recognising both the difficulties of transcending hypocritical theory within the very institutions of cognitive capitalism that academics work and the fact that intellectual work is a form of political activism, I still insist that postdigital scholars need to contribute not just to the development of intellectual tools for understanding our enslavement, but also the practical tools for hacking our liberation.
In the praxis of CDP, I find great hope. However, we need to ground our technological innovations on a firmer historical materialist dialectical understanding of our historical situation. In this way, combining a critical political economy of the postdigital with critical digital pedagogy brings a genuine critical foundation on which CDP’s hopeful praxis might flourish. Ultimately, the dialectic is source of authentic critical hope, for in an accurate analysis of the (historically particular) forces of enslavement lies the discovery of the (historically particular) potential conditions and agents of emancipation. From a historical, materialist, dialectical analysis, scholars of the postdigital and CDP practitioners might develop a critical hope that could then make a major historical contribution towards our collective hacking for humanity’s freedom (Freire 1992; Bloch 1995; Cormier et al. 2019).
See http://hybridpedagogy.org/ for the online home of the Critical Digital Pedagogy community.
Also known as Free Software Movement (FSM) or Free and Open-Source Software Movement (FOSSM).
Connectivism and Connective Knowledge run by Stephen Downes and George Siemens at University of Manitoba. See https://sites.google.com/site/themoocguide/3-cck08%2D%2D-the-distributed-course.
Run by Ray Shraeder and then Jeff Lebow of Busan University. See https://sites.google.com/site/themoocguide/12-edumooc%2D%2D-extending-a-mooc.
Digital Storytelling run by no one, but convened by Jim Groom and Martha Burtis at University of Mary Washington. See http://ds106.us/about/.
See 'Your Unguided tour of Rhizo14' by Dave Cormier at http://davecormier.com/edblog/2014/01/12/your-unguided-tour-of-rhizo14/.
See 'Trying to write Rhizomatic Learning in 300 words' by Dave Cormierat http://davecormier.com/edblog/2012/12/13/trying-to-write-rhizomatic-learning-in-300-words/.
See 'Rhizomatic Learning – The community is the curriculum' at https://courses.p2pu.org/en/courses/882/rhizomatic-learning-the-community-is-the-curriculum/.
I am part of a UK-based group which meets both online and face-to-face and works to explore the nature and heal the wounds of intergenerational violence and trauma. Over the past two years, we have worked at endlessly surprising depths even online. See https://pocketproject.org/.
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