FOCUS: The Platform University

FOCUS: The Platform University

Mark Carrigan

In recent years, the term ‘platform’ has become ubiquitous, taken up by both business gurus and critical social scientists in a way liable to leave many suspicious of what appears to be a passing fad. It is a slippery term, trading off a range of connotations which are not always apparent to speakers, helping social media firms shield themselves from their responsibilities as gatekeepers of our media ecosystem at the same time as being used to analyse the business model and hold the firms behind the platforms to account. But it is nonetheless a useful word because it identifies a significant change in how digital technology is being deployed within social life, underscoring a turn towards an approach which has rapidly become ubiquitous. Here, I place the platform in the context of a much broader digital transformation, before turning to what it means for the higher education systems within which platforms are being taken up at a dizzying rate. Doing this necessitates looking back, beyond the creeping dismay which increasingly surrounds intellectual accounts of digital technology, in order to recall the enthusiasm which once greeted these innovations.

The utopian ambitions which defined the internet as it grew revolved heavily around virtuality, the possibility of escape from the mundane constraints of the physical world and the promise of a better world which could be built beyond them. As John Perry Barlow put it in his A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, these pioneers saw themselves as building a world where “all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth” and where “anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity”.

The fact it was published from Davos, at the World Economic Forum where Barlow was an invitee alongside other “digerati” detracts slightly from the epochal character of his declaration and his frustration at the “self-congratulatory arrogance of my hosts” could easily be levelled at the man himself. But it nonetheless captured an ethos which was pervasive, with its resonant condemnation of “weary giants of flesh and steel” who failed to understand this brave new world which they sought to regulate.

He was far from the only prophet of an internet age. Figures such as Stewart Brand, with his often repeated yet little contextualised soundbite that ‘information wants to be free, reflected the ethos which was emerging amongst digital pioneers while also giving it further shape. What they shared was a commitment to Barlow’s “civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace”; the promised land which could be built from the capacity of digital technology to undermine the role of gatekeepers, strip out intermediaries and free individuals from the constraints of material existence.

As the second decade of the twenty first century draws to a close, the reality of the internet has become something else entirely. Far from a virtual world existing ‘out there’ beyond society, we instead confront a social order undergoing profound disruption because virtuality is now woven into every aspect of it. For all the hyperbole which accompanies the terminology of ‘post truth’ and ‘fake news’, few would disagree that social media has contributed to social and political upheaval, even if there remains widespread disagreement about the character and extent of that contribution. Firms like Uber and Airbnb, leaders in the so called ‘sharing economy’, roll through municipalities like juggernauts, explicitly rejecting constraints on their activities and fighting to ensure maximal freedom for these operations. Google and Amazon compete for their voice assistants to take a central place in as many households as possible, in the process ensuring their platforms are woven into the everyday fabric of domestic life. These are just the highest profile example of a process through which the infrastructure of social life is being reconfigured around the operation of a small number of firms with soaring market capitalisations and opaque corporate strategies.

The platforms they operate are socio-technical systems which enable users to interact within specific parameters, with the data generated by every facet of this activity existing as a proprietary resource to be drawn upon by the firm in question. This might be innocuous, used for little more than improving the user experience or tweaking the platform to encourage more frequent use. But it might also be profoundly sinister, as the Snowden and Cambridge Analytica revelations made clear, constituting a shadowy apparatus of surveillance and control which resists oversight and analysis. Increasing tracts of social life are now being conducted through platforms, with complex implications for power and inequality which we are only beginning to understand at the level of either empirical research or social and political theory. What had once been a dream of disintermediation, the removal of gatekeepers from social life, finds itself transformed into a project to insert distant and opaque intermediaries into every facet of existence.

What does all this mean for higher education? My growing obsession with this question has arisen in part because it’s the sector of society I work within, leaving me preoccupied by how to make sense of a process I can see taking place around me. But there are also characteristics of activities within the sector, such as teaching and knowledge production, which make platformisation in these areas a particularly fascinating case study of a process we can see underway in other areas of economic and social life. Furthermore, we have to start somewhere and analysing a particular sector helps us get beyond epochal narratives in order to ground our account of platforms in specific processes of transformation which are underway.

There are four key areas which are the focus of my research, in which we see platforms tied up in the transformation of higher education. But these are just a few of the many ways in which platforms are being taken up by the university, increasingly seen in almost every aspect of what universities do and how the sector as a whole fits together.

  1. Education as a whole has become a battleground for venture capitalists striving to disrupt one of the most established arenas of human activity, with the longstanding project of educational modernisation coming to be conceived of in ever more privatised and technologised terms. Higher education is in many ways economically trivial when compared to the scale of activity underway within primary and secondary education, as well as the money which can be made there. But it is still capable of having an enormous impact upon the university system, its core functions and the everyday lives of those within it.
  2. The ubiquity of digital platforms is tied up with changes to academic labour in a way which is still too little understood. While there has been a great deal of critical scholarship exploring the role of metrics in performance management, as part of audit culture, the literature on how digital systems are extending and intensifying these interventions remains comparatively underdeveloped. For example how is social media popularity coming to be encouraged and rewarded by universities who are committed to embedding a culture of impact amongst their staff? To what extent are inequalities of visibility on social media reinforcing and entrenching existing inequalities within the academy? How are Altmetrics being evaluated and pursued by academic staff who are concerned to demonstrate the circulation of their work beyond familiar networks of field and discipline? There are so many empirical questions which digital platforms raise here to which we still lack answers.
  3. The digital tools upon which academics now rely have brought about a change in the character of the university itself. As Jamie Woodcock has put it,“the university becomes more like a platform – allowing access to institutional subscriptions, email accounts, and other online resources, that do not require a worker to physically be present within the university itself”. While this decreasing reliance upon the physical infrastructure of the campus reflects other trends, such as the choice or imposition of ‘portfolio careers’ for increasingly large segments of an insecure workforce, this shouldn’t obscure how the nature of the technology itself normalises and entrenches the ensuing way of relating to the university. Universities are turning to platform providers like Microsoft and Google in ever more comprehensive ways at precisely the moment when university staff are increasingly relating to their institution through the mediation of these digital platforms.

But individuals, networks and projects are coming to use other platforms for communication as ways of managing the practical challenges of coordination and collaboration which ensue from these increasingly fragmented patterns of work and mobility. In some cases, these might build upon or supplement what is provided by the university, through the sophisticated architecture of plugs in and connections increasingly made available to users. However they would run much more frequently in parallel to this provision, creating an infrastructural mess in which cloud platforms provided and supported through a university interface haphazardly with a diverse range of platforms which are being taken up by individuals because they provide solutions to practical problems and help them manage the many tasks involved in contemporary academic work.

  1. Higher education is a crucial site for producing knowledge about social change, not least of all about the proliferation of platforms and their political consequences. What has most commonly been framed in terms of ‘big data’, computational social science or data science to its adherents, seems on the surface to be a matter of methodological innovation. There are exciting new opportunities to produce knowledge about the social world, freed from the costly undertaking of the sample survey and it seems increasingly untenable to deny the implications of data driven approaches for the social sciences. However there’s also a real risk of a precipitous narrowing, as the limits of social reality slowly contract to encompass little more than what registers empirically within the confines of a particular data infrastructure. In many cases, the radical insights are only available to private corporations, as Big Tech cultivates and profits from data monopolies which give these firms an unprecedented capacity to analyse and intervene in social life.

There are potentially existential questions which this commercial opacity poses for the future of the social sciences, with the problem only likely to get worse as each revelation of data scandal offers another incentive for private firms to pull up the drawbridge even further (assuming it was even down to begin with) and restrict the use of data to internal purposes. This might offer opportunities to those social scientists working within them, but this in turn raises the question of the revolving door opening up between academic and commercial worlds.

Each of these trends is already being studied, particularly in the last case where there is a vibrant and creative cross disciplinary scholarship which becomes stronger with each passing year. What is new is the insistence on drawing these otherwise distinct strands together because of their collective implications for the university and the work conducted within it. Even if we come to understand each one of these trends in depth, what gets lost is the overall process of transformation. If teaching is changing, if the research process is changing, if performance management is changing, if external engagement is changing and if student recruitment is changing then there is a profound transformation underway within the university which we are at risk of missing if we remain focused on these individual areas.

An analysis which failed to track these specific changes, understanding and theorising them in the process, would be fatally limited. But if we remain preoccupied by the mutation of the trees then we fail to grasp how the forest as a whole is becoming increasingly weird. There is a profound change underway and we, myself and Susan Robertson at Cambridge and Janja Komljenovic at Lancaster, have used the platform university as a provocative framing device to begin to think through where this might be leading.

This was the starting point for our first conference, organised at the University of Cambridge in December 2018. It collected a range of papers over two days, encompassing the full sweep of the university, with many of those participants contributing to this special issue of Discover Society. The second conference in the series will be held in the Centre for Research in Higher Education at Lancaster University in December 2019, with Janja Komljenovic as the lead organiser. We hope this will become a regular event, bringing together those interested in the proliferation of digital platforms and what they mean for the university. This is a conversation about technology and its consequences in higher education. But it is also one about bureaucracy and the decreasing space it leaves for collegiality in a university where managerialism is rampant, with technological innovation sometimes being little more than its avatar. It is attuned to the negative consequences of technology without being anti-technological.

The risk is this becomes a neurotic mission to preserve the boundaries of the university against the encroachment of platform capitalism, manifesting what Sasha Roseneil describes as paranoia rather than criticality. In doing so, we would miss how these developments are being encouraged by university leaders and the expanding wonk class who see technological innovation in terms of a modernisation project liable to improve their standing while leaving the university less dependent than ever on the professionalised labour of often recalcitrant academics. Not to mention how they are embraced by academics themselves, seeking tools and techniques to support an open ended acceleration driven by a fear of falling behind. It would also obscure how the boundaries of the university are themselves being reconfigured by digital technology, as Jana Bacevic has analysed. It would most of all fail to grasp the potential within this technology to develop ways of coordinating and collaborating with can buttress collegiality and solidarity, without subordinating scholarly activity to capital accumulation.

We can take inspiration in this challenge from platform cooperativism, the diverse and growing movement which seeks to develop equitable and participatory alternatives to corporate intermediaries. As one of its initiators Trebor Scholz has put it, “platform capitalism is getting defined top-down by decisions made in Silicon Valley, executed by black box algorithms” but platform cooperativism can provide “a new story about sharing, aggregation, openness, and cooperation; one that we can believe in”.

There are examples which can be seen in a wide array of sectors, ranging from transportation through to photography and time-banking. In some cases these projects have been backed by trade unions resisting the encroachment of digital platforms into a sector, in others they are supported by city governments eager to find alternatives to municipal disruptions and others still have been driven by alliances of producers within particular fields. What these initiatives share is a concern to utilise the affordances of the platform structure, supporting interaction between parties for a specific purpose, while rejecting the notion that the data this generates should be extracted and utilised for private gain.

We can already see examples of these within higher education. Humanities Commons was developed by the office of scholarly communication at the Modern Language Association, with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Its explicit focus is on “providing a space to discuss, share, and store cutting-edge research and innovative pedagogy—not on generating profits from users’ intellectual and personal data”. A project like this is exciting and embodies the potential for platform cooperativism in higher education, suggesting the scale of what might become possible as ambition grows and resources become more easily available for work in this area. In doing so, we avoid the temptation to frame platforms as an intrusion from the outside, reproducing what Jana Bacevic identifies as a common trope: if we are constantly looking out towards the enemies who are perceived to be at the gate, we mystify our own role inside the university and our responsibility for it.

However as well as these initiatives building platforms which operate as alternatives to commercial offerings, we should not lose sight of how existing technologies can be deployed and repurposed to further collective ends. This involves another sense of platform, as a position from which to speak, which it might be necessary to recover. Discover Society, itself, is an example of such a platform with the collective behind it having designed and built an infrastructure, using a WordPress installation on a private server and a Twitter feed for dissemination, which enables individual authors to reach an audience which the project as a whole assembles over time.

There are many examples we can find of platforms in this broader sense, including many which are unlikely to be noticed beyond the field in which they operate. These initiatives range across online magazines, podcast series, YouTube channels, Twitter accounts and many other forms. They are dazzling in their diversity but if we see them as instances of the same category, academics using the affordances of digital media to build platforms from which to speak and influence, a rich ecosystem of creative and collaborative activity soon becomes recognisable around us. In this sense, cooperative platforms aren’t intrinsically about building technical infrastructure, as much as the most exciting and high profile cases might involve this, but rather finding ways to work together to leverage what digital environments allow us to do for communal ends which express our commitments.

I’ve covered a lot of ground in a short essay but hopefully I’ve gone some way towards establishing the significance of platforms for higher education. There’s a risk it might lead us to a faddish fixation on the ‘shock of the new’ but the best way to avoid this is by recognising how the higher education sector and the organisations within it are every bit as crucial to our analysis as the platforms themselves. If we simply focus on the technology, dazzled by digitality, we miss so much of what is important here. To understand it is a socio-technical challenge, such that treating either dimension in isolation is going to leave us with one sided and deficient accounts of what its going on. It is early days for this emerging field.

Our conferences have been driven by a sense that the implications for higher education are profound, even if they cannot be understood in narrowly educational or technical terms. What we often inelegantly describe as platformization within the university is a process which cuts across existing areas of inquiry and forms of expertise. To grasp it we need to recognise the specificity of higher educational systems while also looking beyond them, recognising how the university is being changed by these new technologies but that we can’t explain these changes without understanding why the university is the way that it is. We might never see something that could be called the platform university but keeping the idea in mind helps ensure we are open to the full extent of the change which is rapidly unfolding around us.


Mark Carrigan is a sociologist in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. His research explores how the proliferation of digital platforms is reshaping education systems, with a particular focus on knowledge production within universities. He is internationally recognised as a leading expert on the role of social media within higher education, giving over 100 invited talks internationally and consulting for universities, research centres and publishers. He is associate editor of Civil Sociology and a member of the editorial boards of Applied Social Theory, Digital Culture & Education, Discover Society, Journal of Digital Social Research and Social Research Practice. He is a trustee of the Social Research Association and a member of the Centre for Social Ontology.

Photo by Franki Chamaki on Unsplash