Deskilling Learning

According to Wikipedia, deskilling is, “…the process by which skilled labor…is eliminated by the introduction of technologies operated by semiskilled or unskilled workers. This results in cost savings due to lower investment in human capital, and reduces barriers to entry, weakening the bargaining power of the human capital.” This definition’s use of the euphemism “human capital” to mean “people” tells you how successful deskilling was as a tactic during the Industrial Revolution. Replacing artisans with assembly lines lowered costs for the people who owned the assembly lines, and tearing apart the solidarity that came from years-long apprenticeships helped factory owners squeeze even more out of people who now had no other way to feed themselves.

Most people would say that it was worth it in the long run: after all, just look at how much healthier and more affluent we are today than our ancestors were two hundred years ago. However, I don’t believe that the people who say that would swap places with their great-great-great-grandparents.

I thought about this slice of history a lot while revising the chapter on online learning in Teaching Tech Together. The difference between interacting with a teacher in real time and doing robo-graded exercises after watching a video feels a lot like the difference between making a chair by hand and standing at an assembly line screwing pegs into boards hour after endless hour. Yes, the latter scales more cheaply, but that benefits owners and educators, not workers and learners. And yes, if AI-in-education ever delivers on its much-hyped promises, we could get the benefits of automation without such a high human cost, just as automation in manufacturing has eliminated many of the horrors of the Victorian factory, but we’re not there yet, and I don’t think it’s fair to ask today’s students to pay a price so that tomorrow’s students might somehow benefit.

The industrialized suffering of the 1800s and 1900s was unnecessary: if the surplus generated by rapid capitalization in Europe and America had been allocated democratically rather than squandered on mansions and empires, we could have reached today’s standards of living even sooner and with fewer sacrifices. Those who have profited from the status quo prefer not to think about this untaken path, since it’s far easier on them to portray their critics as advocating a return to a peasant economy in which, like, billions would starve and do you really want to spend your life shoveling manure so that you can eat? Similarly, those who hope to do well by deskilling the learning process would really rather you didn’t ask what education would look like if (for example) Amazon paid taxes on its $11.2 billion in profits last year and that money was used to enable more interpersonal interaction in online teaching.

This, for me, is the real fight: not in person versus online, but skilled learning versus unskilled learning. My 12-year-old has never met her best friend in person and doesn’t think that’s weird; for her, arguments about whether lessons should be in a room or on the web aren’t even wrong. What she cares about is whether she is interacting in complex ways with other human beings or being treated as if she was just so much “learning capital”, and it doesn’t matter to her whether the latter occurs online or in a 600-person lecture theater. So while we’re waiting for the benevolent pedagogical singularity, I’m going to focus more of my energy on exploring active teaching, because I believe it will raise up more skillful learners than anything else I could do.

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