The COVID-19 crisis has drastically accelerated the reconfiguration of the borders between the university and the outside world. In this scenario, the walls of the university, whose function is the discrimination of the university’s external and internal elements, are satisfied via units of artificial measure (metrics) that organise the social division of labour and continuously retrace the boundary between the “foreign” and the “internal.” If earlier reforms in higher education aimed at widening access and improving academic success, on the one hand, and adapting to the demand of the labour market for a more “flexible” workforce, on the other, the exponential use of digital platforms in education strongly focuses on establishing a real-time translatability among different demands within a single tool of governance. While educational institutions exponentially rely on indexes, which are intended to both measure the fluctuations and the demands of the labour market in real time, it is urgent to rethink how we translate technology across social, economic, and cultural fields and to formulate teaching and learning machines capable of responding to the complexities and the challenges of the present.

As the margin or “outside” enters an institution or teaching machine, what kind of teaching machine it enters will determine its contours. —Spivak 1993 

Recent debates over faith in the university during and possibly after the COVID-19 crisis have overwhelmingly focused on technological solutions to the challenges posed by distance learning. The crisis of institutionalised pedagogical models sparked by restrictions on mobility and physical assembly, alongside the prospect of rapid technological developments, has defined an increasingly polarised debate among faculty, students, and university management. Among the most controversial responses encountered was the notion of a revived ed-tech “prophecy” and its vision of democratised education fuelled by Silicon Valley companies, as epitomised by Kevin Carey’s definition of a “[u]niversity of everywhere” (Carey 2015). Similarly controversial was Giorgio Agamben’s “requiem” for student life as a form of existence and for the university in the face of “technological barbarity” (Agamben 2021).

Carey’s idea of the future “university of everywhere” builds on the experiences of MOOCs (massive open online courses) and educational platforms such as edX (MIT and Harvard) to advocate for a future university that, through information technology and distance learning, can “span the earth” and allow students to participate “from towns, cities, and countries in all cultures and societies, comprising a growing global middle class that will transform the experience of higher education” (Carey 2015). However, Carey’s argument for a digitalised, inclusive, lifelong, and meritocratic education conceals the asymmetrical power distribution that enables private institutions and innovation centres to extend their reach—for Carey, MIT and Harvard represent the “zenith of global higher education”—without addressing or translating any of their own epistemological premises. In this sense, the “university of everywhere” also implies the same education everywhere.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben wrote a series of newspaper and journal articles polemically addressing the “state of exception” and what he termed the “biosecurity” of the government apparatus. On May 23, 2020, Agamben published a short post titled “Requiem for the Students” on the Istituto Italiano per gli Studi Filosofici website.1 In this post, he directed his fierce critique towards social distancing measures and the extensive reliance on digital platforms’ connectivity, lamenting the disappearance of student life from the social landscape of cities and warning against any instructors’ complicity with the new “online dictatorship.”

These opposing approaches to the current technological transformations shaping higher education, with their full-flagged determinism, mistaking what is precisely at stake in the current situation—while offering little or no space for the construction of alternative positions and standpoints over the use and the implications of technology in education—would be enough to recall here Aihwa Ong’s assertion that “education is a technology” (Ong 2003). That said, these contrasting appraisals can be read as a symptomatic means of accounting for a “loss of site” in the university discourse.2 And yet such claims regarding the loss of the site proper to the university, rather than an equally proper physical space or place, also suggest a possible impasse when attempting to identify “sites” for critically intervening within university institutions that are themselves in the process of transformation. In order to regain a site, I propose that we begin by searching for its margins or borders. If there is merit in the various attempts made to regain a site proper to the university alone, this can be achieved only by addressing two key questions: What are the digital walls, or borders, of the university? What remains of the figure of the border with the relocation of learning environments from in-person settings to digital platforms?

Let’s begin by looking at the various environments in which distance learning takes place within higher education; that is to say, the topoi of “site” and “border” from its more canonical understanding, and thereby its relation to the dimension of space. In the past three years, those of us in the university have had the opportunity to participate in multiple classes and seminars by remotely connecting our laptops to providers such as Blackboard, Zoom, Cisco Webex, Jitsi, or Google—including students and faculty members attending classes across institutional and national borders. There has been much debate around the question of this online mode of working and both its adequacy in fostering academic cooperation and possible inadequacy that would result in producing more problems than it could ostensibly solve (Fry et al. 2020).3

One could superficially notice that classes organised by Cambridge (or any top university) and minor public institutions located in the peripheries seem to take place in similar working environments and according to the same (digital) working conditions.4 Indeed, this is only a superficial analysis, which is failing to identify differences in the social and contractual definitions of one’s own working environment.5 For example, when a student or a faculty member from Karlsruhe, one from Cambridge, and one from Lagos access the online classroom, they neither access nor enter the same digital space. And it is here that we encounter two related problems: To what degree is the physical space of a school a representation of the social and contractual conditions the institution claims to host? And how much of this “concealing” of real working conditions behind digital walls is essential for restructuring the working conditions of higher education and furthering the proverbial “neoliberalization” of the university?

The debate around what “lies behind” the technologically driven restructuring of the university dates back at least to the late 1990s, when David F. Noble voiced his concerns over the commodification of higher education in North America:

What is driving this headlong rush to implement new technology with so little deliberation on the pedagogical and economic costs and at the risk of student and faculty alienation and opposition? A short answer might be the fear of getting left behind, the incessant pressures of “progress.” But there is more to it, for the universities are not simply undergoing a technological transformation. Beneath that change, and camouflaged by it, lies another: the commercialization of higher education. For here as elsewhere technology is but a vehicle and a disarming disguise. (Noble 1998) 

A few years later, Marc Bousquet corrected Noble’s thesis, shifting the focus away from the commodification of knowledge to the conditions of knowledge production. According to Bousquet (2003), Noble correctly identified that “technological change provides a vector through which management can impose reductions in workplace autonomy and control—so that for academic administration the ultimate goal of technological deployment is to ‘discipline, deskill and displace’ the skilled faculty workforce, just as in any other labour circumstance.”6 Yet, according to Bousquet, Noble’s critique lags behind because it precisely focuses on the “transmission of course content over distance”7 without accounting for the experience of knowledge production by the precarious and flexible workforce of academic labourers in this same process. In Bousquet’s words: “Which is to say that our motivation for opposing the commodification of education can never be only the degree to which commodified education is ‘better or worse’ than non commodified education, but the inextricably associated question, of the degree to which commodification represents the increased exploitation of living labour”8 (Bousquet 2003).

There are a series of interesting considerations that we can highlight by reading Noble’s and Bousquet’s attempts to unmask the promise of distance education with some of the specific challenges that have arisen during the COVID-19 crisis. First we should acknowledge the role that specific national and regional policies have played in facilitating this transfer. For example, accelerating the requirement to adapt to the online model of work and education with government decrees in rapid succession, which resulted in universities buying solutions (products) already available on the market. Here we should acknowledge also the diversification and the particularity of government responses, which does not allow for an undifferentiated and unifying discourse. In this sense, the “digitalization” of the university is far from being a homogeneous translation in which territorial sovereignty has no role to play.

Second, along with the historical demands of “right to education” and “upwards class mobility” (brought forward by the 1968 students’ movement, which, among other social forces in various geographies, attempted to shutter the “bottleneck” of selection), new concerns regarding the establishment of a “healthy” teaching/learning and working environment have been playing a major role in the reconfigurations of the university as we knew it, creating widespread consensus around techniques of distance learning. In this regard, the pandemic has further articulated the promises of “accessibility” and “economic performativity,” characteristic of a business-oriented reform model, with issues of “public concern” and “public protection” in the sphere of state administration.

Third, we acknowledge the growing reliance of educational institutions on indexes intended to measure in real time the fluctuation of the labour market. According to Ben Williamson, if

earlier HE [higher education] reforms had focused on widening access and improving academic success, “demand driven education” would “focus more strongly than ever on ensuring graduates are job-ready and have access to rewarding careers over the course of their lifetime.” (Williamson 2020) 

The global entry of the commercial technology sector into education during the pandemic, through the massive use of digital platforms, has exacerbated the role of performance metrics and product credentialing systems, as evidenced in policy framework settings and reform agendas (Williamson and Hogan 2020). Commercial operators such as Pearson and Google have sought to exploit such trends to merge existing political demands and the demands of the labour market through the establishment of digital platforms, positioned to accelerate the “pipelines” from learning to earning. In a 2018 interview, Albert Hitchcock, former COO and CTO at Pearson, was already pointing to the Silicon Valley governance model aimed at building what he termed the “Netflix of Education” (High 2018).

However, the demand-driven model is never just a model for personalised content distribution and data collection; it is primarily a model of labour management and division of labour. The intention to bridge “Education ↔ Skills ↔ Labour market” (Williamson 2020) implies the collapse of the “digital walls” separating the university and the market, studying and working, production and reproduction. In scenarios such as these, a data-driven approach to reforming the university prioritizes establishing real-time translatability across different demands through a single governance tool. With the advent of data-driven management and digital platforms in education, the means of production are the same as the means of control (Gulson, Sellar, and Webb 2022). But what is the nature of the automation being introduced into the university?

Perhaps it could be useful to restart from an arbitrary but nevertheless meaningful differentiation between skills and knowledge: if skills are those competencies that can be exchanged for recompense on the labour market, knowledge has more to do with forming and framing a specific vision of the world. The transition from a “knowledge society” to a society based on the supply and demand of skills and competencies accounts for a parcelling out of work into molecular and separate functions and tasks (Gray and Suri 2019). We are told that the geographer or the choreographer,9 as professions with a situated knowledge and a specific vision of the world, managing and orchestrating high levels of complexities, assessing causal relationships, may no longer exist in the future.

Moreover, the question of students’ satisfaction with a demand-driven model of university education predicated on the metrics of “job readiness” and “employability” remains unresolved. Even if one were to account for the social responsibility, or promise, of a university education to serve as a bulwark against unemployment and to prepare students for professions that are, themselves, no longer in demand, that “upward mobility” corresponds not only to financial income but also to social status, and is connected to networks and knowledge, remains an ineluctable fact of the current education model. And despite the alternative possibility of reviving Bousquet’s concerns from a decade prior regarding the way in which commodified education has consistently corresponded to an increasing exploitation of living labour, one remains justified in casting doubt on the actual financial promise of the demand-driven education model.

The closest precedent in Europe to such epochal change in the higher education system can be traced back to the reforms introduced with the 1999 Bologna declaration—the European regional response to the New Public Management policies trend. A plurality of national metrics were translated into a common credit system—the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS)—with the intent to foster a mobility scheme for students and faculty members across institutions and national borders. Implementing a mobility scheme was considered a key feature to achieve “employability” and to match demands of the labour market (Bladh 2019). With the outbreak of the health crisis, this same scheme was heavily undermined. While universities experienced a drastic decrease in student mobility (Kercher and Plasa 2020), uncertainty surrounds the prospects of international students coming from regions other than Europe. Following the outbreak of the pandemic, the European Commission has called for digital transformations of higher education by way of deeper institutional cooperation, implementation of digital governance tools, clear and automatic procedures for credit recognition, virtual campuses, and blended mobility for all students and staff. Among the challenges posed by the sudden closure of national borders, the crisis of the European project of international integration as a leading force for driving the reconfiguration of the university remains a fundamental problem that has yet to find its adequate solution. Thus, we should not be surprised that a significant effort has been undertaken to reengineer academic mobility in the digital realm, since what is at stake is not only the prestige and the economies of institutions of higher education, but also the very project of shaping the future “citizen” of this emerging, communitarian area.

With OpenVirtual Mobility10 and similar pilot research projects that are supported by the Erasmus+ program,11 the concept of cross-border movement is replaced by participation in online courses and platform-based group activities organised by institutions that are based abroad. This is less significant on the side of making up for the experience of living in a different region or country, or on a different continent, as an irreplaceable opportunity for learning outside of the class framework once inserted in different cultural and social contexts. We could indeed well say that “virtual” mobility is no mobility at all. Rather, the outcome of this effort to extend or replace physical mobility with a partial surrogate of it in the virtual realm might have the most significant effects outside of the classroom, on the management of the university as an institution in the long term.

Among the key concerns of the OpenVirtual Mobility project is to establish a set of (noncognitive) skills and competencies that would be able to map and define qualities that are required for participating in activities situated in an international online working/studying context, such as “intercultural skills and attitudes; networked learning; active self-regulated learner skills; media and digital literacy; autonomy-driven learning, interactive and collaborative learning in an authentic international environment and open-mindedness” (Buchem et al. 2020).

However, this particular skill set additionally requires the definition of a new metric system crafted for the particular purposes of evaluating and measuring both personal inclinations and interpersonal attitudes—information that is frequently excluded from both accredited degrees and certificates and, thus, is illegible to the established European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System. Thus, for the purposes of verifying and evaluating “informal and non-formal” learning (soft skills), the certification relies on the Open Badge standard initiated by the Mozilla Foundation in 2011 (Buchem et al. 2018).12 Here it should be highlighted, in regard to the mutual implications between evaluation metrics and the digital boundaries of the university, that the Open Badge standard, contrary to the formal ECTS system, is a marker for an online record of achievements that does not pertain exclusively to the institution of the university. Badges allow the capturing of skills and competencies granularly across different contexts and are “collected and associated with your online identity and could be displayed to key stakeholders to demonstrate your capacities” (Mozilla Foundation and Peer 2 Peer University, in collaboration with The MacArthur Foundation 2010).

Of the various challenges encountered by the OpenVirtual Mobility project in their process of establishing new, evaluative metrics adequate to a virtual mobile learning/working environment, it was the alignment between credentials and learning outcomes that was found to be especially difficult: “The problem of alignment of competencies in context of Open Badges has been the ambiguity of competency descriptions and the lack of semantic metadata of competency frameworks” (Buchem and Konert 2020). To enable cross-referencing between different competence frameworks, and to account for change in competency’s definition over time, OpenVirtual Mobility has proposed to consolidate semantics by cross-referencing the European Skills Competencies and Occupations Framework (ESCO). This would allow machine reading to deduce similarities and detect connections from one competency definition to the other. As Buchem notes,

The major benefit of adding metadata to such components of the VM Learning Hub is the algorithmic ability to recommend more suitable resources for identified skills to be improved, adapt the learning paths more flexible and after passing a certain assessment for competencies to be awarded directly with (all) Open Badges which need (a subset of) these competencies as criteria a learner has to evidence. (Buchem et al. 2018) 

Annotating digital credentials, such as Open Badges, with supplemental metadata, therefore, aims at improving the algorithm’s capacity for recommending learning paths that are better aligned with the current trends of the labour market.

Since 2017, the European Commission has made the ESCO dictionary publicly available, currently searchable in twenty-seven languages, essentially serving as a taxonomy “describing, identifying, and classifying professional occupations and skills relevant for the EU labour market and education and training.”13 Among its various purposes, this taxonomy aims to help “education and training providers to understand what skills the labour markets need. They can then adapt their curricula accordingly to prepare their students better for tomorrow’s labour markets.”14

Interestingly, job market analyses and university cooperations relying on ESCO taxonomy, and fostered by public-private partnerships, are extended beyond the EU borders—for example, to Ukraine, Tunisia, and Chile. In December 2020, the European branch of Burning Glass Technology (rebranded Lightcast after the merge with Emsi), a private company based in the United States, completed the first survey “Let the Data Speak” in Ukraine and Tunisia, referencing ESCO for machine classification of hundreds of thousands of online job vacancies via its partnership with the European Training Foundation.15 Building upon the ESCO skills taxonomy, the Chilean platform Relink offers “upskilling” and “re-skilling” intelligence for “labour reconversion” in South America: “The platform can be used similarly to the Waze application, guiding the users on their career journey by asking questions such as: ‘What are the opportunities related to where you want to go?’”16

How will the demands of the EU labour market influence curricula of educational institutions even outside the communitarian space? We should better understand how “virtual mobility” is linked to other forms of physical mobility—such as that of delivery and seasonal workers—or the immobility of the algorithm’s ghost workers (Gray and Suri 2019). Should we understand virtual mobility as a “second class” mobility for those not permitted to move, to cross a border, to set foot in the country they work “in”?

The dystopian dream of “all the work without the workers” in Ruha Benjamin’s account of the “race” after technology might well start also from here (Benjamin 2019). Benjamin references the 2008 movie Sleep Dealer, by Alex Rivera. In the sci-fi story, workers in Tijuana plug networked cables into their bodies in order to perform remote (construction) work within the United States. “I work in a place I’ll never see,” says the protagonist, Memo Cruz: “Finally, I could connect my nervous system to the other system. The global economy.” In these narratives of disembodied labour, we encounter what Aneesh Aneesh defined as virtual migration: a paradoxical inversion of the relationship between transnational labour and the worker’s own body: “Rather than move the body across enormous distances, new mechanisms allow it to stay put while moving vast quantities of data at the speed of light” (Aneesh 2006).

Highlighting the challenges and problems international students faced during the COVID-19 pandemic does not assume their privileged point of view—which is that of a small elite—as the most propitious social phenomenon for clarifying the university’s current transformation, to the detriment of other students and university workers; nor does it intend to establish a simple homology between their experience of border crossing and that of other groups of migrants. Nevertheless, it is important to recognise how the university system in Europe—and even more in the United States—has long survived on the appropriation and incorporation of “externalities” from foreign countries, mostly those defined as “anthropological areas,”17 in terms of both economic resources (in spite of the different funding models, this is relevant for both public and private institutions) and cognitive capital.18 Moreover, the strategic position of international and overseas students already made headlines in 2020, when the Trump administration attempted to pursue a policy stripping foreign students of their visas if they were going to take classes merely online—a proposal that faced immediate harsh opposition from the governing bodies of the most prestigious universities.19

The academic prestige of international branch campuses, so often questioned in the past in relation to the quality and the performance of the “mother institution,” has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 crisis, when students unable to reach Europe or the United States have been offered the alternative of being online “in presence” within their country of residency. Indeed, some Western higher education institutions relied on their international branch campuses to prevent international students from postponing or cancelling their study plans.20 Social anthropologist Xiang Biao has proposed the definition of “Shock (Im)mobilities” to account for sudden human movements in response to acute disruption. Within the university context, the case of overseas students during the coronavirus crisis can be symptomatic of how previous behavioural patterns of student migration broke:

When the global epicentre of the virus moved from Asia to Europe in March, and, subsequently, the US, students from Asia, particularly China, rushed to leave the new hotspots for home. Air travel prices hiked ten-fold overnight. Many students bought multiple tickets at a time, anticipating that some of the flights would be cancelled, while some were stranded in transit, having to later be evacuated. (Xiang 2021) 

Aihwa Ong has suggested that an American-educated foreigner is akin to a “global citizen,” defined by their capacity to translate value across cultural contexts and different regimes of wealth accumulation. The demand for these qualities of mobile knowledge, of free-floating individuals, has increased in light of the growing need for entrepreneurial subjects capable of acting within the globalised space of the market:

This mode of learning-accumulating, risk-taking, entrepreneurial subject driven by unfettered individual liberty has been the product of a neoliberal logic that stresses “the equality of worth”, often at the expense of the equality of rights. (Ong 2003) 

Taking in exams the position of international and overseas students can therefore not only foster a discussion of the possibility that universities will “survive” the crisis, but also question once more the pedagogical mission of the logic of such institutions. That said, if we follow Ong’s proposal and consider centres of higher learning as “space-making technologies that cut across national borders,” in contrast with what in the twentieth century was conveniently defined as the Humboldtian model and its ideal tension with the nation-state (Readings 1997), how can we account for the

inclusion and exclusions based on class and knowledge accumulation rather than race, gender, and ethnicity? [Although these remain crucial in modes of exclusions which must be constantly disrupted.] What alternative norms of desirable subjects can be circulated to combat this form of knowledge stratification? (Ong 2003) 

For Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, “the production of education as a global commodity involves the continual remaking and redrawing of the borders that classically separate universities from their outsides” (Mezzadra and Neilson 2009). The globalisation of higher education has been characterised by two related tendencies: “complexification of filters” and “multiplication of labour regimes.” Thus, while students/workers witness a “complexification of the filters and gate-keeping functions that control access to the university” through a system of “differential inclusion” (involving skills evaluations, visa issuance, border controls, and patronage assessment), “labour continually multiplies and divides with the global proliferation of borders” producing and reproducing hierarchies of different scales in the labour market (Mezzadra and Neilson 2009). Thus, the globalisation of the university system cannot be understood only within the framework of theories of governmentality that separate skilled, semiskilled, and unskilled workers, insofar as the current international division of labour functions “through a continuous multiplication of control devices that correspond to the multiplication of labour regimes and the subjectivities implied by them” (Mezzadra and Neilson 2009).

In 2008 and 2010, two different, yet interconnected, texts were published with the aim of addressing the challenges the university as an institution faced amid the pressure of a globalised economy as both a problem and a question of translation: the Edu-factory Collective’s Toward a Global Autonomous University (Autonomedia, 2008)21 and the fifth volume of Traces, titled Universities in Translation: The Mental Labour of Globalization (Hong Kong University Press, 2010) and edited by Brett de Bary.22

Common to both editorial projects is the understanding that the challenges posed by an increasingly globalised and neoliberal-driven university cannot be faced by rehabilitating the ideal of a national university.

For de Bary, the ongoing process of “scalar transformation” of higher education cannot be regarded mistakenly as a process of the total subsumption of difference:

Not only does capitalism continue to rely on disparities generated along an international division of labour, but neoliberal governmentality everywhere makes use of these in its disciplinary technologies, which totalize and differentiate in the same stroke. For example, the growing ubiquity of the evaluation grid, be it the world university academic rankings, the assessment exercise, or the performance chart, in higher education (and the paranoia such grids induce), brings institutions and individuals together only to set them against each other. (de Bary 2010) 

In the line of research of the Edu-factory Collective, the “defence of the sacredness of knowledge and the nostalgia for ivory towers are not only useless, but also entirely reactionary” (Edu-factory Collective 2009). It is rather a question of initiating a transformative movement that assumes the ambivalence of the new context as a terrain of resistance: “Heterolingual translation moves from an autonomous spatial-temporal dimension that intersects the global capitalist space but never coincides with it—it interrupts it, flips it, and continually exceeds it” (Edu-factory Collective 2009).

Aware of the importance of discussing and renegotiating the links and the dynamic of relating “the supranational (with its hegemonic models, such as the one of American education and the university of excellence) and the national, the regional and state level” (de Bary 2010), and despite a difference in approach, both projects address Naoki Sakai’s distinction between “homolingual” and “heterolingual” translation as methodological reference (Sakai 1997). For both publications, Sakai’s theory of translation becomes a tool for understanding and deconstructing “artificial units of cognitive measure” (homolingual translation)—such as educational metrics, performance evaluation, university rankings, and citation indexes—which constitute the policy discourse through which social relations are produced under disciplinary arrangements. Also, the notion of (heterolingual) translation is a subjective technology that—by taking account of all those “exteriorities” or “traces” that a specific metric system is not able to measure—opens up the possibility of thinking the modes of relations and construction of a “non-aggregate community.” It is in this sense, then, that for Sakai, “‘Translation’ is no longer seen as simply an operation of transfer, relay, and equivalency, but rather assumes a vital historical role akin to that played by labour in the constitution of the social” (Sakai and Solomon 2006).

Current transformations in higher education have shown how the process of “catching up” and “not being left behind” is still a powerful force in education policy across regional and national borders. The sudden requirement to move academic activities online, following the outbreak of the pandemic, led institutions to adopt technological solutions, such as video conferencing platforms, that had been tested and were already available on the market, reinforcing the ideology of science, technology, and innovation “transferred” from the West to the “rest” of the world, or reinforcing the presumption of a “time lag” between the “innovation centres” and the “peripheries.” Yet the narrative accompanying STI transfer—with the saving mission of rescuing educational institutions from their own inevitable eclipse—is possible only with a reductionist understanding of technology, and an equally reductionist understanding of how technology can be translated, one that limits “innovation to technological and commercial ventures—and technology to iconic objects and processes” (Mavhunga 2017). This particular understating of technology and its translation constitutes a clear distinction and marks a separation between, on the one hand, innovative products, which are the result of research carried out in laboratories, and, on the other, social processes, such as teaching and learning, which per se are presumed nontechnological, and are facilitated or enhanced by the use of a specific product. As Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga writes: “The arbitrary restriction of what constitutes technology to measurable things and experiments in the built laboratory performed only by those with mastery over them constitutes not just an epistemological exclusion, but also an ontological and sociological one” (Mavhunga 2017). It is precisely this separation of powers between the producers and the users of technology that is at the foundation of the potentiality of “machines to learn” by measuring and therefore organising the social division of labour.

A way to avoid mystifications while understanding the impact technology is having on higher education would be to examine “technology in use,” which means accounting for the capacities of people to “import and deploy” a technology coming from “outside,” meaning not considering them “merely as recipients of technology and innovation and treating them as designers and innovators in their own right” (Mavhunga 2014). As Matteo Pasquinelli correctly identifies, the limits of narratives that seek to describe the totalizing power that technology has over the social constitute a political impasse for the field of critical AI studies:

This is a problem of critical theory in general and critical AI studies in particular: although these studies are concerned about the impact of AI on society, they often overlook the role of collective knowledge and labour as the primary source of the very “intelligence” that AI comes to extract, encode, and commodify. Moreover, these studies often fail to see the contribution of social forms and forces to the key stages of technological invention and development. (Pasquinelli 2023) 

To better grasp the unequal distribution of powers implicit in such a discrimination, it would be sufficient to recall historian of science Leo Marx’s account of the “hazardous” use of the concept of technology as the subject of active verbs—today’s latest iteration would be “The way AI is transforming education.” Yet treating AI as a causal agent is possible only through reification of human relations: “Technology, as such, makes nothing happen. By now, however, the concept has been endowed with a thing-like autonomy and a seemingly magical power of historical agency” (Marx 2010). In order to formulate teaching and learning machines able to respond to the complexities and the challenges of the present, we must rethink how we translate technology across social, economic, and cultural fields. A good starting point, in my opinion, would be to reverse the assumption that “AI is transforming education” and to ask ourselves “How is education transforming AI?”—or, better, “How is education transforming automation?” and “How is automation transforming education?”—which is the attempt to reframe the impact of machine learning on education and the urgency of understanding how machines learn into a wider social framework committed to articulating a pedagogy of machines.

With the end of the COVID-19 emergency, it is common to see universities returning to their prepandemic operations. When examining universities from the perspective of the “scene of teaching” and the faculty-student relationship, one might be inclined to argue that the extensive use of digital platforms during the pandemic hasn’t had a lasting impact on “normal” classroom practices and in-person teaching. However, caution is necessary when focusing the evaluation solely on the return to normalcy within classroom practices.

Larry Cuban provides a clear example of how, historically, the classroom has been a realm of steadfast resistance when attempts are made to “revolutionize” teaching and learning through the adoption of new technology. In the early 2000s, Cuban’s sociological investigation into schools and universities in Silicon Valley, commonly described as the epicentre of high-tech innovation, revealed that decades of state-driven promotion of computer adoption in classrooms did not meet its expectations. Despite policies encouraging widespread availability of computers, their actual use in classrooms remained limited.

Computers and other new technologies have had little tangible effect on either classroom teaching or learning—certainly nothing comparable to the major pedagogical changes that occurred in the decades bridging the turn of the twentieth century, when labs, seminars, and discussion sections were introduced to supplement lecturing. (Cuban 2001) 

Rather than attempting to perpetuate stereotypes about faculty technophobia or resistance to change, Cuban’s findings demonstrated that the use of technology was most pronounced in the workplace when it comes to research and communication with peers and administration. The underlying cause for this uneven distribution can be traced to a conflict of interest: “being hired to teach but rewarded for conducting research.” The significance of evaluation metrics and rankings, closely tied to publishing statistics rather than teaching effectiveness, has spurred personal investment in technological activities deemed more productive. This, in turn, has perpetuated traditional practices in undergraduate teaching (reproductive labour).

Education companies like Pearson have long understood the pivotal role metrics play in reshaping the digital walls of the university. Transitioning from publishing (Financial Times, Penguin) and courseware to assessment and evaluation as their core business, Pearson completed the acquisition of Edexel (one of three examination boards in the United Kingdom, and the only privately owned one) in 2005. Pearson acquired the workforce analytics firm Faethm in 2021 and the certification company Credly in 2022, with the aim of expanding their offerings in digital credentials and badges. The digital badges market is projected to reach half a billion dollars by 2028, with an estimated value of USD 0.2 billion in 2023.23

The transformations heralded by companies such as Pearson underscore the profitability inherent in redefining the boundaries between the university and the labour market. As we assess the future impact of the pandemic on the education-workplace relationship, it becomes imperative to scrutinise not only the texture and boundaries of the digital walls of the university but also the uncertainty that surrounds their prediction.

For their encouraging feedback and valuable insights, I would like to thank Sascha Freyberg, Arif Kornweitz, Yon Natalie Mik, Matteo Pasquinelli, Jose Rosales, Mariana Silva, and the research group on artificial intelligence and media philosophy KIM (Künstliche Intelligenz und Medienphilosophie) at the Hochschule für Gestaltung Karlsruhe.

This work was supported by the Volkswagen Stiftung’s grant Corona Crisis and Beyond – Perspectives for Science, Scholarship and Society (2021).




Goh Byeong-Gwon—in reference to Gramsci’s war of position—has defined the site (hyunjang) as “a place where an event takes place, and where movement occurs. ‘Site’, therefore, does not, in and of itself, designate something outside the realm of knowledge practices” (Goh 2010).


I don’t intend to promote, for the benefit of corporate interests, a comparative approach to the specific merits and limits of one platform over the other.


It would be important to consider a “social” history of distance education or a “labour” history of the promises of distance learning, which does not necessarily depart from the recruitment strategy and economic performance (unfulfilled) offered by massive open online courses. Conventionally, this history sets about with the success in attendance of the three 2011 Stanford University MOOCs on machine learning, databases, and artificial intelligence. A history that focuses on the relationship between distance education and sociology of labour should account also for Open Course Workplace Learning 2011 at the University of Tübingen, which aimed to supplement students’ learning at the university (face-to-face) with the practical experience (connected remotely) of people in the workplace. Since 1979, Stuart Hall’s undergraduate courses and TV lectures on “Representation and Media” for the distance learning Open University, a project of the Labour Party, remind us that a virtual background is not the invention of Zoom. Periodization is indeed a political matter.


During the social distancing period, I was often asked by friends and colleagues, as well as institutional surveys, whether I preferred commuting transnationally by flying weekly at low cost to a different city in order to teach, or continuing with online courses, “comfortably” from my (small) apartment. I always felt very “uncomfortable” answering a question formulated in such a manner. After much experience teaching online, I would say that my “preference” has less to do with the physical-digital divide and is much more dependent on the contractual conditions of work. Variables to account for are number of hours per week, number of students per session, modality of teaching, subjects, etc. Different again would be the answer if I had to account for personal experiences spending time with students and colleagues “outside” and along with the hours officially allocated to seminars, as well as the time spent “taking a break” together.


Bousquest (2003), p.25.


Ivi, p.34.


Ivi, p.38.


Two examples referenced in the ESCO documentation I have analysed.




The ERASMUS program (EuRopean Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students) was established in 1987 by the European Commission. Its current iteration, Erasmus+ 2021–2027, has a budget of 26.2 billion, and it supports students’ mobility across all age groups (lifelong learning).












For a critique of the distinction between the classical cognates humanitas and anthropos, and a critique of the notion of “area studies” in the university, see Naoki Sakai’s “Comment on Yann Moulier Boutang’s ‘Cognitive Capitalism and Education: New Frontiers,’” Traces 5 (2010). pp. 337–340.


A differentiation should here be clarified between the “recruitment of brains” and the “export of hegemonic models.”






Edu-factory was a transnational mailing list initiated in 2007 that has involved more than five hundred activists, students, researchers, and academics from Europe, South and North America, and East and South Asia. Over the course of years, the network developed two rounds of thematically organised discussion: the first on the “conflicts in the production of knowledge” between local particularities and global trends and the second on the “hierarchization of the market for education and the construction of autonomous institutions.” The organised network has been described as a “political machine” that articulates its activities through a variety of tools both online and offline (mailing list, website, journals, books, meetings, and campaigns). While stemming from the theoretical tradition of Italian autonomism, the claim “What was once the factory is now the university” does refer to the potential of political organisation within the university crisis rather than to a historically determined form of production of the labour power (Fordism). It is therefore not an affirmation but a question to be explored: “How should we situate the political knot implied in the evocative comparison between university and factory, beginning from the incommensurable difference of their concrete functioning and their respective spatial-temporal coordinates?” Here the concept of translation is played both extensively and intensively, as a continued rearticulation of borders in the global space and as principle of composition of living labour.

Due to the ephemeral nature of online networks and the crumbling of the political organisation over internal conflicts in 2013, traces of Edu-factory’s past activities are scattered over the web and not yet archived in consistent form. For reference, I point here to the volume Università Globale: Il nuovo mercato del sapere (Rome: Manifestolibri, 2008), which gathers a rich list of contributions, essay, and interviews, and its English translation (with few amendments) Toward a Global Autonomous University: Cognitive Labor, the Production of Knowledge, and Exodus from the Education Factory (New York: Autonomedia, 2009).


The journal Traces: A Multilingual Series on Cultural Theory and Translation was published between 2000 and 2010 in five issues released simultaneously in four languages (Chinese, English, Japanese, and Korean) for different publishers. The scope of the series’ multilingual project was to challenge a cartographic imaginary relying on the Western prescription of modernity by performing synchronically in different language markets. It was meant to counter the colonial separation between flows of factual data (from the peripheries to various metropolitan centres) and flows of theory (from the centres to the peripheries). “Theory” is here understood as the power to interpret and classify empirical data in order to make them intelligible for the Western audience. The journal’s editorial committee strategic response to such “regulative machinery,” following the impulse of Naoki Sakai at Cornell University, was to be found in a “comparative cultural theory” exploring how theories are “transformed themselves in their practical effects when performed in other sites.” The title Traces accounts therefore for those “exteriorities” that are constantly elided by a “regime of homolingual address.” In the introduction to volume 1, Sakai writes: “Each contributor is expected to be fully aware that she or he is addressing a heterogeneous and multilingual audience: in the manner of the local intellectual under a colonial regime, every contributor is expected to speak a forked tongue.” For this paper, I rely on the journal’s English edition, published by Hong Kong University Press.



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