The Predatory Pedagogy of On-Line Education

“A lot of education institutions . . . has [sic] bad monkeys in ‘em”

Josh Coates, CEO of Instructure, (maker of the popular educational program Canvas) at the 2012 Investor Conference

More students are logging in. More teachers are checking out.

It’s distance education. Or on-line learning. Or whatever they’re calling it these days. Whatever it is, it amounts to the erosion of the traditional face-to-face classroom.

What would Joseph Weizenbaum Say? Weizenbaum, an early inventor of artificial intelligence, wrote the seminal Computer Power and Human Reason in 1976, a powerful treatise against the dangers of computers. A humanist who’d lived through the Nazi era,Weizenbaum soon grew alarmed at the computers growing cultural domination. He advised outlawing “all projects that substitute a computer system for a human function that involves interpersonal respect, understanding, and love.” In a brilliant riposte that has resonance today he called computers, “a solution looking for a problem.” The craft of teaching face-to-face is increasingly cornered, forced to justify its relevance in the face of its high tech replacement. Joanna Bujes, a former English Professor and computer critic argues that “with the move to online learning, another massive expropriation of social space will have succeeded. And let’s not kid ourselves; this will not happen because online learning is better. It will happen because it is yet another way to guarantee profits and to fragment and isolate the working class.” She adds that, “Online learning makes the structure of domination absolute, the prospect of appeal, unrealistic, and the likelihood of universal surveillance, a sure bet” (Bejus 2013a).

Where does the instrumental logic of on-line curricula take us?

Why bother being with other humans at all? According to some proponents, the Occupy Movement was a glorious waste of time. Avirtual sit-in – in Cyberspace – would have fit the bill.

Massive Invasion of Universities

As the BIG 3 automakers cravenly eye China, the e-learning behemoth is licking its chops at the classroom. On May 14, major industry officials announced their study showing the “enormous potential for the future of the e-learning market.”  IBIS Capital and the Edxus Group, said that “While education as a whole is triple the size of the media and entertainment industry at $4.2 trillion, digital education is currently only 20% of the size of the digital media market. Since education is undergoing the same disruptive effects of digitalization that the media industry has seen in recent years, they expect to see fifteen fold growth in the e-learning market in the next 10 years to represent 30% of the total education market,” reported Pippa Cottrell in Realwire, (Cottrell 2013).  IBIS and Edxus have organized a special one day summit in London on June 14, called EdTech Europe (see URL below) that will address the current investment trends in education technology and e-learning in that $ 4.2 trillion goldmine. Attending are Microsoft, Pearson International, McGraw-Hill, InfoMentor, Languagelab, Mendeley, and Iversity which will discuss “a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platform cooperating with the best instructors, universities and knowledge-based companies to democratize education.”


Some faculties are not taking this lying down. On April 29 the philosophy faculty of San Jose State University wrote a letter protesting the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) in which a Harvard professor’s lecture was taped and disseminated widely for classroom use. The professors refused to teach that philosophy course developed by edX, “saying they do not want to enable what they see as a push to ‘replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities’” (Kolowich 2013).

Resistance is Futile, They Say

A leading e-learning corporation, Instructure, is a Utah-based start-up led by the young and flamboyant CEO Josh Coates. From its humble beginnings in 2008 it has grown to encompass over 200 employees and more than 400 colleges and universities includingBrown, Auburn, New Mexico State, the University of Utah and Utah State University. It is currently being rolled out at the University of Maryland, the University of Washington, and at my place of employment, the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

Among its “premier partners” are Pearson and McGraw Hill, noted above.

Instructure, like their competitors, is very concerned about faculty resistance to their encroachments. They have all learned from past battles not to challenge faculty directly. Instead they are taking a soft approach. A revelatory 2009 article “Resistance is Futile” (O’Hanlon 2009) spells out the general strategy. “It all starts with how you communicate with teachers,” Barbara Dunn told journalist Charlene O’Hanlon. Dunn is the vice president of the Remediation and Training Institute in Alexandria, VA. “You can position technology as, ‘This is what it does,’ etc., and that’s fine,” said Dunn, “but when you say, ‘You must use it,’ that’s where the resistance comes. And when you impose a deadline, it becomes another compliance thing rather than a way to enhance learning,” reported O’Hanlon. “Don’t try to cram it down everybody’s throat,” David Roh, general manager for Follett Digital Resources told O’Hanlon. “The trick is to position a technology tool not just as strictly voluntary, but also as something that actually will make their jobs more interesting,” said O’Hanlon. In stage two a small core of “digital settlers” master the technology and sing its praises, attracting more recruits. If all else fails there’s stage Three: the  carrots.

My university is at Stage Two.

Instructure CEO Coates Instructs us about Monkeys

In a very illuminating 40 minute video of Instructure CEO Josh Coates to 600+ stakeholders in January 2012, we get his view of the conflict. I’m not sure why he would let this be posted on-line. In his multi-media presentation, jammed with rock music, James Bond imagery and military tanks firing shells (he owns a tank), the emphasis was a story about monkeys and bananas.

The screen behind him was dotted with five monkeys, with a ladder in the middle and a stack of bananas on top. Coates projected a reference to a scholarly 1966 article and said the story he was about to tell was roughly based on it. The article was titled, “Cultural acquisition of a specific learned response among rhesus monkeys,” by G.R. Stephenson (Stephenson 1966).

As Coates told it, a monkey went to the stairs and started to climb towards the bananas, as monkeys are wont to do. As soon as he started up the stairs, the psychologists sprayed all of the monkeys with cold water. Soon whenever a given monkey attempted to ascend the stairs he was viciously beaten by the other monkeys (via operant conditioning, not wanting the pain of the cold  water to return). “True story,” he interjected. Over time, one by one, new monkeys were introduced to this environment (with the beckoning ladder and bananas), and eventually no monkey ever took the risk, Why not? He surmised from his own experience in educational environments that the (people) would say, “We don’t know. That’s just how we do things around here.”

“A lot of education institutions . . . has [sic] bad monkeys in ‘em,” said Coates.

“But it’s something no one is this room has to worry about,” he said, speaking to the face-to-face gathering of Instructure investors, consumers and techies. “Because you guys are awesome. You’re innovators, pioneers, creators and visionaries. You guys are here because you got the bananas.”

In other words, universities are like zoos of bickering professors who gang up on innovators, throttling them when they step out of line. Over time, they are often clueless as to why they are attacking the rational monkey (the one who wants the banana, i.e., the educational technology). Fortunately the Instructure team (James Bond and the technology warriors) are there to save the day. “We’ll not let you down.”

It turns out that that monkey study, as he described it, never happened (see URL of Stephenson 1966 below).  There were no bananas and no ladder and the monkeys did not attack anyone. His story is a great distortion and draws the wrong conclusions. Evolutionary biologist Dario Maestripieri, (2011) read the original study and reported his findings (see Maestripiera URL below). In the original study the rhesus monkeys were “punished with an air blast each time it started to manipulate a [“novel’] object,” and as a consequence, some showed a fear response when others went near it. Reports Maestripiere, “In reviewing Stephenson’s study, psychologist Susan Mineka [1980] noted that when female subjects were used, Stephenson found opposite results: previously fearful models lost their fear as a result of watching the nonfearful behavior of their observers.” So, unlike Coates, one could draw opposite conclusion, some monkeys did indeed eventually get the object without the intervention of a savior.

No Matter. Truth is apparently beside the point for this instructor from Instructure.

Upon viewing the video Carl Maida, an anthropologist who teaches with experiential learning methods, commented, “Techies rock; faculty will clearly become the new class of ‘technopeasants’ and the universities are fast becoming the new Latifundia” (Maida 2013).

The stakes are incredibly high. But most faculties across the country seem in the dark. “Pedagogy as an intellectual, moral and political practice is now based on measurements of value derived from market Competition,” argues educational theorist Henry Giroux, “Mathematical utility has now replaced critical dialogue, debate, risk-taking, the power of imaginative leaps and learning for the sake of learning. A crude instrumental rationality now governs the form and content of curricula, and where content has the potential to open up the possibility of critical thinking, it is quickly shut down. This is a pedagogy that has led to the abandonment of democratic impulses, analytic thinking, and social responsibility.


Giroux is right.  He’s not speaking against educational technology or social media (he is the Global Television Network Chair in English and Cultural Studies and uses much educational technology). He’s against the imposition of given curricula, forms of pedagogy, modes of technology and evaluation from above in the academic-industrial-communication complex.


Anthropologists are increasingly employing e-learning. At the University of North Texas you can get your entire MA or MS in Applied Anthropology on line (UNT 2013). You are only required to go to campus twelve times over the three year program. In England you can get, “An Archaeology PhD by eMail” (Hirst ca: 2006) through Leicester University’s Distance Learning Program. They have been running it since 2001. It’s “suitable for those with a developed career or other commitments who can’t afford to give up the day job!” they say on their website. Many more anthropology departments offer on-line courses (while still requiring campus courses). It’s argued that it makes education more accessible across time and space and provides the flexibility for busy parents and workers. Some professors at my university tell me that they prefer the hours or that they simply want to avoid colleagues on campus.

Unfortunately, many professors across the country are being pressured or required to do e-teaching.

Ten arguments for the Opposition

We need to construct a language to describe the “common sense” nonsense behind this high tech hurrah. Here is a beginning.

1. Trojan Horse of Capital. I’ve touched on this above. Teachers and professors need to shine the light on the shadows behind thenew learning management system infrastructure that is magically appearing at their schools and universities. How is the technology being introduced?    Is the decision making democratic? Who benefits? What are the trends?      

2. Deskilling Professors. A rereading of Harry Braverman’s classic, Labor and Monopoly Capital (1974:1998) is necessary. Braverman conducted an ethnographic analysis of the labor process and revealed how capital 1) appropriates all historical knowledge from the craftsmen

2) separate conception from execution and 3) employs the new found monopoly of knowledge to control every step of the labor process and hire unskilled workers who are interchangeable and cheap. It’s called Taylorization, or scientific management. The new technology makes this amazingly simple. Joanna Bujes points out one aspect of this invasion: “they will pick 100 teachers and get them on tape for e-learning. And then professors will be reduced to grad students leading a discussion section once a week. Are people going to go into debt half their lives for this?”

3. The Surveillance State. Here’s what historian of science David Noble wrote in Digital Diploma Mills, ”Once faculty and courses go online, administrators gain much greater direct control over faculty performance and course content than ever before and the potential for administrative scrutiny, supervision, regimentation, discipline and even censorship increase dramatically. At the same time, the use of the technology entails an inevitable extension of working time and an intensification of work as faculty struggle at all hours of the day and night to stay on top of the technology and respond, via chat rooms, virtual office hours, and e-mail, to both students and administrators to whom they have now become instantly and continuously accessible. The technology also allows for much more careful administrative monitoring of faculty availability, activities, and responsiveness” (Noble 1998). With the introduction of advanced corporate learning platforms many teachers will watch what they say in class. There are topics and dialogic digressions that many will not want recorded and made available for administrators to scrutinize.

4. Less Touch, Less Trust.  Trust is fundamental for education. Trust is a byproduct of working through struggle with others. Education is itself a struggle, a struggle over meaning. You learn to trust others through small reciprocities over time.  You share knowledge and intimacies and form a bond. In struggle you absorb the breadth of another’s character, their force of being. Most of this is done non-verbally, informally, and unconsciously. It is tactile and sensual. It takes place in the presence of another. Tran van Dinh, poet and Vietnamese activist, once told me that the Vietnamese called this the Three Togethers: eat together, work together, fight together. Similarly, Vygotsky talked about education as entering “the zone of proximal development,” the difference between what a person can do unaided and what they can do with help. This education is best done face-to-face, of course.

5. Informal Communication on the Backburner. To understand the importance of informality in education, Richard Sennett’s recent book Together (2012) is essential. Sennett draws from the work of Saul Alinsky and Jane Addams as part of a wide ranging exploration of why people have to be face to face. Alinsky promoted “dialogical exchange with a vengeance,” getting people together who have rarely talked, providing them with facts that they didn’t know, and suggesting methods for the community organizer to sustain dialogue.  In this he was channeling Jane Addams, settlement house leader who founded Hull House in Chicago in 1889. She built cooperation by focusing on everyday life: schooling, shopping and parenting, not by enacting policy formulas. Addams thought the values of [settlement houses] first and foremost to be places of refuge; a strict schedule of social activities modeled on those of a cruise line was to be avoided” (Sennett 2012:52-53). A good college is just that, a refuge where students of different backgrounds can gather and interact informally.

6. Waning of Cooperation. Sennett asserts “modern society is ‘deskilling’ people in practicing cooperation” (Sennett 2012:8). By this he means that “people are losing skills to deal with intractable differences as material inequality isolates them, short-term labor makes their social contacts more superficial and activates anxiety about the Other” (Sennett 2012:9). The book makes the point splendidly, but I want to draw attention to the following story. He tells how he took part in a beta testing group with Google Corporation to test the online communication effectiveness with GoogleWave, a complex email and visual product. Distant participants used this system to improve their cooperation abilities. It failed miserably and was taken off the market. Says Sennett, “One large reason for its failure may be that the program mistook information sharing for communication.” In email exchanges responses tend to get stripped down to a bare minimum and with GoogleWave the visual tended to dominate, he said. “Communication as opposed to information, mines the realm of suggestion and connotation . . . it conveys irony and doubt” in a way GoogleWave could not do. In the end the group got on airplanes to meet in person!

7. Erosion of the Eros Effect (and Dancing in the Streets). There is a real excitement in the classroom encounter. It’s visceral, highly charged and joyous when done well. It can be like a festival. The classroom is a sacred liminal space, a refuge for thinking. It’s a vital human experience and it is being threatened. Joanna Bujes says this face to face relationship was paramount to her learning. “To think of learning as the relationship between a learner and some given subject matter is profoundly distorting. Learning is first and foremost a relationship between two people. Although teaching institutions are often built around hierarchies, dominance, and obedience, there is still in the experience of the classroom the reality as experienced by the students versus the reality of the teacher. And though it might not be expressed openly, and though it might not change teaching practice, there is an infinitely higher chance that it will change reality with face-to-face learning than with distance learning. At the very least, the political aspect of education is much more visible with the traditional model than with the online model.” After our interview Joanna sent me the link of Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2006 book Dancing in the Streets, A history of Collective Joy to better understand “the energy of groups.” “Have you ever noticed that you exercise is much better with someone else than alone?”  Ehrenreich investigated humanity’s desire for ecstatic ritual (drawing from scores of anthropologists). These ecstatic rituals have been effectively suppressed by civilizations, she argues. But they are fundamental for education as well. In fact they are education.  There is a drive for humans to be with others in ecstasy from Marti Gras to Occupy to the classroom itself.

8. Collapse of the commons.   Primitive accumulation – wars, violence, enclosures and privatization – is a chief means by which capitalism appropriates the commons. Universities are a kind of commons, an essential bulwark for creating an alert democracy to address these monumental social problems. But today, with widespread corporate and military contracts and with the introduction of capital intensive technology to supplant teacher autonomy, universities are fast becoming capitalist knowledge factories, a central tier of Eisenhower’s feared military industrial academic complex. This is also evident in one of my focal areas: Indians of North America. The Bullfrog Film Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Resistance illustrates the continued destruction of the Indian commons. Gail Small, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Tribe in Lame Deer, is profiled. “You put in 75,000 methane gas wells around our reservation, you take our ground water, pollute our air, destroy our rivers, the Cheyenne here will probably not be able to survive. We’ll have a wasteland here. That’s what’s at stake here. Where will the Cheyenne go?”

9. “Techno-utopia” arrives just in time as state falters. Zygmunt Bauman puts it well . . .” ‘the techno-utopia is an ideological weapon in an ongoing traffic of influence under the aegis of free trade [Mattelart 1997].’ It is part and parcel of the discourse in which the state is represented as the evil enemy of the true freedom of a politics-free ‘civil society’ of sovereign individuals. But, in actual fact, the dismantling of state political constraints and controls, far from making ‘civil society’ free and truly autonomous, opens it to the unabashed rule of market forces which members of that society, now left to their own devices, have no means nor power to resist” (Bauman 2001:138-139).

10. Attack on Critical Pedagogy. As leading critical pedagogy theorist Henry Giroux  describes it, “Overworked and largely isolated, faculty are now rewarded for intellectual activities privileged as entrepreneurial . . . faculty are asked to spend more time in larger classrooms while they are simultaneously expected to learn and use new instructional technologies such as PowerPoint, the web, and various multimedia pedagogical activities. . . .corporate time reworks faculty loyalties. Faculty interaction is structured less around collective solidarities built upon practices which offer a particular relationship to public life than through corporate imposed rituals of competition and production” (Giroux 2012:116-117).

Epilogue: Education for What?

We are witnessing the collapse of the public sphere and the colonization of the commons by predatory corporations. We gasp at the loss of jobs and the deskilling of most jobs that remain. Are we also glimpsing the end of education as we know it to the e-learning-industrial-academic complex?

Anthropologist Carl Maida thinks so. “The new model corporate university will constitute a ‘knowledge plantation’ economy, somewhat like California Central Valley agricultural enterprises with their part-time seasonal farmworkers — as long as it moves toward hiring predominantly part-time adjunct employees and scores of lab techies to keep that farm running.”

Weizenbaum’s Computer Power and Human Reason is more pertinent today than when he wrote it in 1976. Education is cantankerous, unruly, artistic and troublemaking – in a word democratic.

It’s different from schooling. Schooling is about order. Education is about questioning. It’s rebellious, even revolutionary.

It’s not about getting rid of bad monkeys.

Brian McKenna is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and can be reached at

A version of this article was originally published in the Society for Applied Anthropology Newsletter, Vol. 24:2, May 31, 2013. Tim Wallace, editor.


Bauman, Zygmunt and Keith Tester (2001) Conversations with Zygmunt Bauman. Cambridge:Polity.

Bujes, Joanna (2013a) “Online learning” Progressive Economists listserv

( May 9.

Bujes, Joanna (2013b) Personal Interview. May 10.

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Coates, Josh (2013) “Solving Education Problems with Canvas Solutions.” Bloomberg Business Week Videos. February 25.

Edtech Europe (2013)

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Kolowich, Steve (2013) “Why Professors at San Jose State Won’t Use a Harvard Professor’s    MOOC.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. May 2.

Maestripiere, Dario (2012) “What Monkeys Can Teach Us About Human Behavior: From Facts to Fiction, When creativity crosses the line.” Psychology Today. March 20. See:

Mineka, Susan, Keir, Richard and Price, Veda (1980) “Fear of snakes in wild- and laboratory-reared rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta)” Animal Learning and Behavior. December 8(4): 653-663.

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Perelman, Michael (2000) The Invention of Capitalism: Classical Political Economy and the Secret History of Primitive Accumulation. Duke University Press.

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Sennett, Richard (2012) Together, The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. New Haven: Yale.

Stephenson, G. R. (1966) “Cultural acquisition of a specific learned response among rhesus monkeys.” In: Starek, D., Schneider, R., and Kuhn, H. J. (eds.), Progress in Primatology, Stuttgart: Fischer, pp. 279-288. See:

University of Leicester, School of Archaeology and Ancient History (accessed 5/16/13)

University of Northern Texas Anthropology Online Website

Weizenbaum, Joseph (1976) Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation. New York:W. H. Freeman.




Brian McKenna is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and can be reached at