Thursday, 17 September 2015

Conference reflections: digital work and political futures

This was meant to be my reflections on last week's ALT conference: Shaping the Future of Learning Together, but like many people I know I've been distracted by the outcome of another conference, the Labour Party Special Conference to announce the winner of its leadership contest. My twitter stream has been a double-stranded flow of excitement about digital and political futures, with not much exchange between them. Some friends have even suggested that it would be good for me - and my twitter followers - if I kept my political views running in a separate channel to my work on digital literacies and digital education.

But it's hard not to notice how many people in the world of e-learning are dipping into the Corbyn stream. Hard not to be excited - if you care about education - that we have a Leader of the Opposition who wants to reintroduce student grants, who promises to reverse this Government's savage cuts to FE and adult/skills, and who views education as a 'collective good' that demands investment and safeguarding through a lifelong 'national education service'. Whether or not Jeremy Corbyn can deliver on these promises, debates that we thought were dead and buried are coming back to life in front of our eyes.

And the unexpectedness of Corbyn's win, the loss of any certainty about how electors will respond to continued austerity at home and war/misery/emigration overseas, the questioning of apparently unshakeable economic verities by serious economists as well as climate change and anti-capitalist protestors - these should make us all very nervous of current 'futures thinking', or at least the kind that talks up the 'digital economy' as though we know exactly what that means. It might mean the dog-eat-dog of neo-liberal entrepreneurialism, or the 'sharing economy' that would have us monetise every skill we gain, every interest we entertain, and all the space in our homes and cars we aren't actually using to breathe in. It might look like the mechanical turk writ large, with human brain space rented out to projects determined by the demands of data. Or it might look like old-fashioned collectivism with the emphasis on digital participation and decision making. It might look like a lot of paid and unpaid work in caring for others, with the help of personal data services, the digital world a beautiful collaborative playground where we spend much of the leisure time we have on our hands. It might look like a world of infinitely permeable borders, or one of constant surveillance and control, or most likely both at once. We know it will be digital, or 'post-digital' if you must, but beyond that there's still everything to play for.

So perhaps I am working and thinking in a space where digital and political futures are intertwined. At the moment I'd call this space 'the changing world of work', and mean by that both the lived experience of working inside UK HE and FE, and the 'world of work' as reified in current education policy - as the entire rationale and telos of our students' learning, the 'real' against which our intellectual and pedagogical labour must finally be reckoned.

This year I have mainly been working on a project called Framing the Digital Capabilities of Staff in UK HE and FE. The project was funded by Jisc who will be publishing my report and other deliverables shortly. I've already used this work to inform a revised Digital Capabilities Framework which I hope will be useful to people working in this space. What I have to say here is in no way endorsed by Jisc and it arises from only a small area of my work for them - my review of the changing nature of work inside and outside the academy. I was lucky enough to talk with more than 60 professionals in HE and FE about their work and the role digital technology plays in it, and their thoughts have certainly informed my own. But the interviews ranged widely and none of the people I spoke to would necessarily draw the same conclusions that I do. With that important disclaimer, here are my thoughts on...

The changing world of work


Some people I know, looking as if they are working (CC Jisc 2014)

Many excellent researchers have studied work inside academic organisations: I have been particularly influenced by Lynne Gornall and her co-editors of Academic Working Lives (2014). Go read it if you want to know more. (This and all my other references can be found online here along with key stats, facts and quotes). According to this and other sources, academic and professional work is becoming:

  • less secure – rise of short-term contracts, constant restructuring, funding constraints;
  • shorter term – defined by short/medium term initiatives, often organised in flexible project teams (e.g. task and finish);
  • more goal-driven – KPIs, personal performance management, citation index, REF, NSS, teaching quality measures, service level agreements;
  • uncertainly located – open offices, hot desking, working from home, working across multiple campuses, working online;
  • more self-directed – rise of self-employment, consultancy, project-based working and enterpreneurship; also the individual's responsibility to constantly improve (the self as project);
  • multiple/hybrid – people doing more than one job (split contracts), roles crossing professions or specialisms;
  • technology-based – core processes carried out within institutional IT systems, some aspects entirely automated, rise in roles with IT-related responsibilities e.g. in learning technology, organisational data (NB this list is my summary of multiple sources).
Of course not all of these changes can be associated directly with the impact of digital technologies in education. They have arisen in a political context of constrained finances, increased competition for students and commodification of the student experience, an interest in the quantification of outcomes, and the favouring of managerial over collegial modes of governance. However, digital technologies have played a role both instrumentally - enabling governments and organisations to carry through some of these agendas - and also contextually, for example supporting the development of cheaper alternatives against which the 'value' of traditional courses is now to be measured.

Employability and the 'world of work' also penetrate every aspect of the student experience via part-time work, work placements, internships, sponsorships, and co-curricular activities reframed as tokens of employability. Employment is widely seen as making sense and ascribing value to the whole experience of education. And this wider world of work is also changing in comparable ways. It is becoming:

  • less secure, with multiple job and career changes and the rise of casual, part-time, informal and self-employment;
  • more entrepreneurial, via the 'gig' or 'sharing' economy (uber, AMT, clickworker, workfusion, mechanical turk) on the one hand, and on the other the rise of project-based working teams and internal marketisation (intrapreneurship) within relatively secure forms of employment;
  • fragmented in terms of attention, tasks, work-time and work-space, working teams;
  • multiple and hybrid, with simultaneous contracts/roles/projects/commitments in work and the monetisation of previously private pursuits, hobbies, personal time and space;
  • uncertainly located through disclocation from the traditional workplace and a rise in home working;
  • automated and/or at risk from automation, with up to 36% UK jobs likely to be lost in next 20 years; cognitive work is being done by a smaller number of people working collaboratively with IT and data systems.

Key career assets are now a person's immediately relevant capabilities, rather than (say) length of service, and these must be constantly updated, especially where digital technologies are concerned. So digital capabilities are essential to finding and retaining work and to managing multiple work roles. This is equally true of staff as it is of the students who are being supported to enhance their employability. 

Many people, perhaps especially women, find the flexibility of digital work a liberation. This has certainly been my own experience as a long-time single mother. I've also been lucky enough to work with many educators who are inspired by digital opportunities for learning and have shared that inspiration with their students. Across disciplines, digital technology is both an exciting new subject of scholarship and a whole new toolbox for discovery, exploration and the communication of ideas. But aspects of digital academic work cause frustration and stress. Staff worry about keeping 'up to date' (the self as project again), about growing demands on their time and attention, about information overload and the loss of boundaries between work and home. People who went into teaching because they preferred face-to-face contact with students to life in the archive or laboratory find they spend most of their time sitting at a screen.

Students too worry about the loss of face-to-face contact time, but perhaps more acutely about their own working futures. For a majority of graduates, the 'digital economy' has not meant high-value 'knowledge' work but white-collar labour in call centres and data departments, insecure self-employment, or piecemeal work in a hybrid (human/computer) service economy. Most graduates are exercising their entrepreneurialism to find, retain and stitch together opportunities to earn, rather than leading digital start-ups. Dougald Hine has spoken powerfully about the new graduate 'precariat', who have 'done everything right' but are still struggling to find meaningful work. And whatever their work, it is likely to take place in a largely digital setting, which brings its own stresses - cyberbullying, information overload, repetitive strain and other health risks, loss of face-to-face relationships - as well as new opportunities and new networks of support.

This precariat, and the young people on the brink of entering it, are significant among the people who have elected Jeremy Corbyn to lead the Labour Party. (If his detractors are to be believed, the rest are 'intellectuals', which puts education professionals squarely in the frame as well.)

Our relationship with 'work' as educators
Students Hold Up a Sign that Says "Free Education."
CC Michael Fleshman: http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/neoliberalisms-war-against-the-radical-imagination

At this point I want to suggest that we have a responsibility, as educators, to involve ourselves in what it means to work in a digital age. This is true both of our own work and the work for which we are preparing our students. So far from being removed from the pressures acting on the wider economy, educators are in some ways in the vanguard (or firing line). Our work is quintessentially 'knowledge' work. Our workplaces are among the most hybrid (real/virtual) in the world, as I have argued recently in Lea's Enhancing Learning and Teaching in HE. Rightly or wrongly, a 'passion' for our subject has long been held up as the defining quality of a lecturer, which makes us in some ways the archetype of the 'passionate' amateur who is C21st capitalism's fantasy worker. Unless we understand ourselves as particular kinds of worker - and producer - in the C21st economy, we risk being disempowered in relation to our own working lives, and failing to theorise and organise on our own behalf, let alone on behalf of others who are caught up in the same nexus of forces.

As far as our students are concerned, the employability agenda has for too long been handed down into the curriculum as a given, rather than opened up within the curriculum as a set of questions about what it means to be productive in a C21st society: what value particular subject areas bring to the defining challenges of our times, what it means to live (and work) well, and how work might best be organised. As well as enabling students to cope with their immediate economic realities, it is also our place to develop critical people who can question the technologies and technology-based roles they are offered, and find new solutions to the conundrum of how to work and live in a digital society.

There has been important work around the idea of students-as-producers of knowledge, for example at the University of Lincoln and behind the NUS' Manifesto for Partnership. As educators we can support that work through our teaching and curriculum practices. But we can also support it by putting our own working lives under a critical lens. Over the last decade the 'students as consumers' narrative has reframed our work as service provision to learning consumers and - more importantly - to their future employers through students as agents of productivity. Research has been obsessively quantified for its impact on measurable outcomes, ideally transferable into monetary terms. The fetish for quantity has obscured some of the qualities that really matter in educational work, such as the quality of relationships in a community of knowledge and understanding, or the quality of the relationship between teachers and students. 

Jonathan Worth’s keynote at Alt-C returned us to that relationship. He spoke about the vulnerability of learners, the trust they place in us, and the attention we must pay constantly to the workings of power in teaching/learning as in other close human engagements (photographer/subject, seer/seen, designer/user). He also alerted us to the changes of meaning and the altered nuances of power when these relationships are mediated online. Hidden in his talk I felt were some deep questions about the nature of professional work - photography, teaching, design - when technology equips and then exhorts people to 'do it themselves'. Whether taking selfies or taking part in self-directed learning, we are dispensing with a whole class of relationships with more capable others, or defining them as a supplement - a premium service - instead of a critical term in what was once a relational activity. To 'work' as an educator increasingly means to facilitate learners' engagements with various systems within which their identities, their knowledge and their capabilities are distributed, and not to engage with them in a relationship of concern for who they are becoming.

Laura's keynote, Inequality in Higher Education, offered us a wide-ranging interrogation of learning technology through the lens of social justice. She showed us how the question of what kind of society we want to live in is continually posed and (partially) answered by the work we do as educators. To give an example with which Laura and I have both been involved, we can ask how our work as open educators impacts on the distribution of educational opportunity. When we ask that question we quickly realise that open is not enough - that the wealth of new opportunities to learn are being taken up overwhelmingly by people who are already well resourced and well motivated. Where there is systemic inequality only systemic redress - organised investment in those who have been disadvantaged - can change the balance. Laura reminds us that while our day-to-day work rightly focuses on helping individuals to meet their aspirations, in the long view we are also helping to build a world in which everyone can thrive. She reminds us that education is care, and that care costs.

Whether our work as educators moves in the direction of social justice and human wellbeing is not something we can fully determine as individuals. Our actions are constrained by political and economic - and nowadays by associated technical - systems. But those contexts change, sometimes in extraordinary ways. The Corbyn train arrives, unannounced. Endlessly-announced transformations fail to arrive (see David Kernohan's brilliant recent post on the e-learning hype industry) or when they do arrive fail to take anyone where they want to go. There is nothing inevitable about how work will be organised ten or twenty years from now - that is for political action to determine. In how our work as educators is valued, the victory of quantity over quality is not pre-determined either. There is always hope. It's all to play for.

15 comments:

Frances Bell said...

Thanks for this great post Helen. All disciplines tend to silos and Ed Tech is no exception. It was no surprise to me that one of the authors of the Mechanical Turk was Debra Howcroft, an ex-colleague from the Information Systems Institute, now subsumed in at Salford Business School. In Information Systems there has been a healthy tradition of critique, particularly of the technological determinism that crops up in 'e-learning strategies' , popular articles and, sad to say, some ed tech research.
While I was reading your post, I found myself linking the resurgence of interest in politics represented by the JC effect to digital literacies, about which you have written much. Like you I think it's all to play for, and it gives me hope that educators and students will be challenging the Googles, the Facebooks as well as institutional tech systems. When I was teaching Masters students, the discussion session critiquing Turnitin from perspectives of ethics and power as well business was always a lovely one and helped students to turn their gaze on the tech they took as a given. It is possible to treat Facebook as a subject in education without forcing students to use it as an edupunk VLE. A group of us found it possible embed critical digital literacies in the ug curriculum and though students learned over time to be critical about some SNS they were just as entranced by shiny stuff as the rest of us.

Czernie said...

Thanks for the thoughtful weaving together of these threads Helen.....then there is this...http://www.thenation.com/article/this-is-how-bad-the-sharing-economy-is-for-workers/

addirigib said...
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