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Radio #EDUtalk 9-1-19 Loose Learners ep 14 The complexities of volunteer labour online


“MAID IN LONDON” flickr photo by Shht! shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

On our first episode for 2019, we tackle a serious topic. We leave behind poetry and gifs behind for now… Instead we ask: What are the ethics of volunteer labour in online education? Is Volunteer digital labour good or bad for education? On this topic more than most, we answer with a clear ‘YES’. We have been reading about ‘free digital labour’ and have been reflecting on its impact on education. This episode is more of a meandering inquiry than our usual conversations, as the issues are varied and complex; we talk about about many threads and repeatedly acknowledge our difficulties grasping the theory as well as the practice of volunteer labour online beyond a technological utopias.


ᴹᵃʳⁱᵃⁿᵃ ᶠᵘⁿᵉˢ (@mdvfunes) on  Twitter
john johnston (@johnjohnston) | Twitter

We discuss the work of Kylie Jarret author of the Digital Housewife as she offers a frame for understanding some of the challenges of free digital labour within ‘big data capitalism’. Her work is wider than education. Although we only scratch the surface here, we highlight something aligned to a recurrent theme for us on this show,

“Is digital labour alienating and exploiting or is it meaningful and self-actualising? I saw this a a fruitless debate, is it not both? Domestic labour seen from a marxist lens gives as a framework for understanding labour, understanding practices that are both: exploiting and integral to capitalism for its productive output but are also socially meaningful exchanges with the potential for resistance. Domestic labour straddles the cultural and the economic.”

This idea suggests the possibility of learning from the study of domestic labour to help us navigate how we labour online. Jarret, quoting Merteuil, speaks of platforms as pimps in the context of digital labour; platforms do the same things a pimp does – find clients and take a cut! Jarret suggests that unpacking structural inequalities in our relationship to platforms, for example, can help us see how that which we do willingly can be exploitative; she uses the ‘gig economy’ as example and asks: how do the powerless resist?

We then try to bring these abstract ideas into specific educational examples. We focus on @dogtrax’s post: The Gap Between Open and Closed: OER vs TPT. The post explores issues in the choices we make to offer educational resources for free or for a fee. The post looks at Open Educational Resources and Teachers pay Teachers as examples of each approach. Dogtrax concludes in comments to his post: ‘I don’t have an answer either, the system is broken…’ and we share his confusion in our discussion. We also highlight Stephen Downes’ comment on the same post: “My issue with Teachers pay Teachers isn’t so much the commercial aspect but rather the idea that teachers should have to pay for anything. Why aren’t the schools and school boards paying for all this?” This leads us of into a conversation about how the free digital labour we offer via open education may be having the unintended consequence of keeping mainstream educational systems, such as universities and schools, using educators in precarious and unsupported ways. We discuss some examples from our own contexts, and how we often spend our own money to support our teaching.

We discuss Wendy Liu’s distinction between consumers and producers,

“When we glorify what the web has brought us as consumers, we obscure what the costs have been for producers. The benefits that the web has brought have come at a cost, and it’s not a cost that’s evenly spread. […] and most of the work was provided by volunteer labour – people like me who lived at home and didn’t really need money, or people who eked out a few hours a week in between their day job. The point is that it wasn’t sustainable, in material terms, to avoid corporate money.”

We discuss situations where we have volunteered, yet may be unaware of the impact our good intentions and enthusiasm may be having on the larger system.

Wendy Liu sums up the issue in the context of software development with volunteers, which she sees as ripe for take over from large corporations:

“Ultimately, there is an irreconcilable incompatibility between the idea of free information and the existence of corporations that profit from its commodification.”

We tried to discuss in greater or lesser depth some of the following questions:

When educators offer this kind of labour to ‘connect’ and ‘support’ colleagues, is there a hidden cost?
Are we maintaining a structurally unequal system at the same time as we create socially meaningful and fulfilling relationships?
Does it matter we are being exploited by other actors?
Some gurus in the open web often fall for this ‘free labour trap’ – Let’s see if we can get students to create complex computer code, otherwise it’s expensive! Does this make us all complicit?

And predictably, conclude that it’s complicated.
Extra links for following up we did not get to discuss during the show:


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