comics,  higher ed

The Cursed Earth of Ed Tech

I’ve decided to get back to using this blog for doing things that I think are fun. This isn’t the same as them actually being fun, so I accept it may get rather self-indulgent at times. But that’s the joy of blogs, right?

In that spirit, I was inspired by a book I read recently, called I Am The Law, by Michael Molcher. The author takes stories from the 2000AD character Judge Dredd to explore the changing political use of ‘law and order’ and increasing politicisation of policing. It’s very well written and researched, and the use of the Dredd perspective is a useful lens even if you’re not a comic book fan.

At the same time, I was reading the uncensored Cursed Earth Saga. For those who don’t know, this was a series that ran in 2000AD in 1978. In it, Dredd has to travel from Mega City 1 on the east coast to Mega City 2 on the west coast to deliver a vaccine for a virus that has taken over the city. For reasons he can’t fly there and has to cross the apocalyptic wasteland inbetween the two cities in a cool vehicle with a motley crew. It ran into some legal trouble because it depicted McDonalds and Burger King in a franchise war, as well as a mutated Jolly Green Giant (as a kid reading these, I hadn’t even come across Burger King yet, but even I knew it was saying something).

Combining these two readings, I thought, what better than a dip into the Cursed Earth story for some metaphors relating to ed tech? Are you on board? Let us set off in the Land Raider…

The virus and vaccine

Let’s start at the beginning and with the most obvious metaphor. Dredd has the vaccine to the Tooty Frooty virus destroying Mega City 2. Now, we don’t have to look very far for virus and ed tech connections. I’ve probably blogged too much about the role of ed tech during the pandemic. But the short version is that during the online pivot, when face to face provision failed spectacularly to demonstrate robustness, ed tech really did save education. It may not have been a good version or experience very often, but I’m still both amazed at the work so many did to shift all education online at short notice, and just as equally shocked at how little this is remembered and valued post-pandemic.

But we can flip the metaphor too. Maybe Mega City 2 is the future, the virus is self-cannibalistic AI run amok and what Dredd is transporting the antidote to this version of the world. One that requires an exposure and battle with the worst parts of capitalism (more on this below), to be fully realised.

Vampire Robots

In the Night of the Vampire story we encounter three vampire robots (nicknamed Snap, Crackle and Pop – 70s advertising was at its peak), who drain the blood of village people. It transpires this is because they are in fact medical robots, who have been programmed to keep alive the last President of the US, Robert Booth who was responsible for the atomic war. Sentenced to one hundred years suspended animation, the medic robots are charged with changing blood. But their supply is destroyed so they take to draining people to fulfil their programming.

Still with me? An obvious metaphor here might be the data we feed ChatGPT, TurnItIn, with the machines turning ever more desperate for sources. But I’m not going with that one. Instead I am opting for our relationship with academic publishing. Like our medic robots, there was a time when academic publishing was working alongside academia. But at some point, like their blood supply, the relationship soured and indiscriminate greed took over. A recent article estimated that the cost of academic peer review amounted to around $1 billion annually. This is labour that is provided freely by academics. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as it is often part of their day job, and a reciprocal transaction (we want to be published, so we need to contribute peer reviews to the system also). But when that labour effectively underwrites a $19 billion industry and the academics who provide it are striking for fair pay, then the vampire transformation is complete.

With open access legislation, independent publishers and the general power of self publishing/promotion, there is a faint hope, that like the robots at the end of this Dredd story, the mechanisms of academic publishing can be put to a more communal use.

Burger Wars

In the banned story Dredd and crew encounter two warring factions, allied to the burger franchises McDonalds (spelt MacDonalds in the comic) and Burger King. Left unfettered these have grown into cults who are constantly at war to gain new ‘customers’. The drive to recruit new customers and keep them has grown into a violent struggle. As Ronald MacDonald (sic) puts it “You’ll have to stay a MacDonald customer until this war is over”.

The not so subtle metaphor of rampant capitalism between the two burger franchises has obvious connotations for higher ed, but it is that customer (literal) lock-in that resonates with me. I could use the previous example of big publisher tie in with big deals, but instead let’s focus on the uneasy, and sometimes abusive relationship with third party vendors. Take anti-plagiarism software like TurnItIn – we create an assessment system that encourages plagiarism by reusing assignments and standard formats. Using plagiarism detection seems like an obvious and easy solution. Then sites like Chegg and CourseHero turn up where students can get answers easily. We then have to ramp up the TurnItIn detection. Then decent generative AI comes along, which creates new text so avoids plagiarism detection. But guess what? TurnItIn can solve that too. After all, most of these AI tools learnt their text from the vast essay databases we supply them in the first place. It seems, like the residents of MacDonald’s town, we are customers until this war is over – and there are no signs of that happening soon. But like those customers, we learn to love the daily burger no matter how much Ronald brutalises us. I’m not sure it’s a healthy relationship.

I’ll leave it there. Dredd makes it to Mega City 2 after facing Jurassic Park style dinosaurs (insert your own academic practice as metaphor), corrupt judges in Vegas (higher ed aligning itself with dubious commercial ventures) and saves the city. Hurrah! Now the vaccine (ed tech) has saved the world, things will be fine, right?

Reader, things were not fine.

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