Ed-Tech to the rescue? Platforms, digital labour and the casualisation of academic work

Mariya Ivancheva, Aline Courtois, Carolina Guzman-Valenzuela

Within the emerging critical literature on Edtech in higher education (HE) and its impact on academic labour, with rare exceptions, little attention has been paid to the outsourcing of teaching through Online Program Management providers (OPMs), and how it contributes to the casualisation of academic work inside and within traditional university settings.

Scholarship on digital and platform labour in other sectors suggests that the forms of casualisation they encourage are deeply gendered and racialised. Bringing these different spheres of scholarship like critical HE studies, technology-enhanced learning, and research on platform labour together seems essential to grasp the actual and potential impact of digitalisation on the most vulnerable HE workers.

With the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to online teaching, it is ever more pertinent to ask: are Edtech and OPMs producing ever more de-professionalized low-paid positions, transforming the very social conditions of academic labour in HE?

Impact of digital technologies on the casualisation of education

While research has usually been championed over teaching, students at top-ranked research universities are often taught by precarious faculty and assisted by academically-trained workers in administrative and academic-related positions. These workers (usually women, people with caring responsibilities, and those from low-income families) are treated as second-class citizens in academia. They gradually fall from academic careers as they cannot fit the norm (usually embodied by men) of care-less individuals, available to work 24/7 and travel internationally to avail of networking or funding opportunities.

With the introduction of online learning as a means to cut costs, commercially-driven forms of online education have promoted not only the need for new, often time- and labour intensive pedagogies, but also expectations and conditions of teaching that feed into further exploitation and alienation:

Most studies of such processes are missing a growing precarious academic workforce working in outsourced services, outside the universities. What is more, since COVID-19, universities have rolled the red carpet for companies offering digital devices and services, who previously had to knock on doors to offer such degrees in public-private partnerships. But what impact are these processes having on workers?

Digital disruption or unbundling of higher education

The process of unbundling HE a.k.a. digital disruption is a specific avenue where processes of outsourcing of academic labour take place. Unbundling is the process of disaggregating educational provision into its component parts and their delivery in different combinations often through public-private partnerships and the use of digital approaches. “Unbundled” micro-credentials have been praised as less financially burdensome for students and as beneficial for employers.

Already before the COVID-19 pandemic, profitable OPMs (OPMs) partnered with universities. OPMs are around 60 world players currently estimated at over 3 billion and predicted to reach 7.7 billion by 2025. OPMs get 50-70% of course fee revenue and access to profitable big data from students, in return for start-up capital, risk absorption, platform, marketing and recruitment aid.

A difference between OPMs and other players in the EdTech sector offering digital devices or services, is that OPMs do not offer the ‘frills’ of universities but provide what is considered the ‘core business’ of universities: curriculum design & delivery, teaching, student support & supervision. To do that, they rely partly on the labour of university hired academics, but mostly on that of academically-trained and precariously OPM-employed academics who do low-paid jobs on short contracts that include unpaid tasks.

A second difference: unlike most other private education providers except for commercial publishers, OPMs use established brands of existing universities in order to sell their product. The promise of radically “disrupting” the elite “bundle” of residential universities does not challenge rankings and academic fame.

The (post)pandemic future?

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a process already underway. Using the brands of universities generating income from student fees, university-OPM partnerships have already opened a new page in the deprofessionalisation and fragmentation of academic labour. With content put online and ‘facilitated’ by workers often trained to a post-graduate / post-PhD level, university-OPM partnerships use two types of unpaid or poorly paid labour:

  • often (though not only) precarious university-hired academics whose workloads intensify and extensify all at once to absorb a second shift of online teaching often within the same time schedule and with little extra support or remuneration;
  • precarious, deprofessionalised, and increasingly deregulated and poorly paid contract labour outsourced academics hired through OPMs: content curators, forum managers, online support officers – their job descriptions proliferate and they are invisible, fragmented and isolated.

Given that teaching has become a job of ‘second-class citizens’ (casualised, women, people of colour) in academia, ‘unbundled’ teaching-only positions inside and outside academia are often the only type of employment such humans with complex lives can aspire to. With the pandemic push toward home-based child- and elderly-care and online teaching, gendered divisions have deepened.

One can predict this might become an epidemic (or pandemic) development after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unless it is taken into consideration by traditional academic trade unions – which so far have either stayed in blissful negligence or put a blind eye to these developments – this new ‘generation’ of precarious outsourced workers will present a new challenge to mobilising and collective bargaining in higher education.

To explore some of these developments, we propose a comparative study in two contrasting countries, the UK and Chile, whose higher education systems are highly marketized. We aim to trace how core teaching functions have changed in both contexts, and in their temporality and spatiality due to the newly emerging partnerships for online HE provision before and over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo by Wonderlane on Unsplash

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