Higher education: sunk at the end of history?

A reply to Justine Andrew. ‘The Strategic Imperative: Planning for a Post-Covid Future’. Wonkhe.

Justine Andrew in Wonkhe (6 May 2020) sets out a strategic approach to the big questions facing higher education: sector, institutions and their governors. She, at KPMG, uses the structure: React; Resilience; Recovery; Renewal and New Reality.

I want to suggest there is a flaw in her argument particularly when addressing the “New Reality”. The flaw is that higher education is a service delivered to customers by firms with employees. I acknowledge that this model underpins most orthodox economic thinking about society. I also acknowledge that that such a model is part of the story. The mission of the Office for Students to regulate higher education as a public utility confirms this. But, it is not the whole story.

Andrew asks, among other questions:

WHO is the “customer” (students, employers, government, partners in our region and globally) and what are their needs, now and in the future.

Higher education does not easily fit into the customer service model which dominates thought in the big accountancy consultancies and outsourcing firms. Higher education particularly does not fit into conventional accounting cycles, though it is forced to do so.

Higher education is, among others Andrew lists, its own customer, acquiring some of its “outputs” (graduates) for some of its own purposes (teaching and research). Therefore, higher education is also an employer. And, higher education is a partner. Institutions partner with each other as well as with local, regional and transnational partners in many categories: businesses, governments, militaries and NGOs.

But such a view is entrenched in the cadre of senior managers and governors of higher education institutions. Andrew asks:

Is the portfolio mix the right one and how can the university balance the need to reduce cost, generate revenue and, most importantly, meet the needs of the wider economy post-Covid-19, as well support strong recovery in the places where the university operates?

Lost in these questions is the epistemic role higher education plays as the “psyche of society”, one among several repositories of our cultures’ memories.

To point this out is to risk the accusation of elitism. To engage in activity that does not appear to deliver a customer a service within an annual accounting cycle for an efficient return is presented as a privilege to be pulled down. And that is not how a “new reality” will be shaped. That is the old one seeking to reassert itself. If there is one thing that the corona virus crisis should show us is that we are not sunk at the end of history.

Reference

Andrew, Justine. 2020. ‘The Strategic Imperative: Planning for a Post-Covid Future’. Wonkhe (blog). Accessed 6 May 2020. http://wonkhe.com/blogs/the-strategic-imperative-planning-for-a-post-covid-future/.

Sustainable assessment

Been asked to reread David Boud’s (2000), Sustainable Assessment: rethinking assessment for the learning society. For me the article dances around problems of performativity and supervision.

Implicit and explicit throughout is the assumption that individuals might become effective at self-assessment.

Assessment involves identifying appropriate standards and criteria and making judgements about quality. This is as necessary to lifelong learning as it is to any formal educational experience, although it may not be represented in formal ways outside the environment of certification. Assessment therefore needs to be seen as an indispensable accompaniment to lifelong learning. This means that it has to move from the exclusive domain of assessors into the hands of learners. A focus on methods and techniques needs to be replaced by a new conception of sustainable assessment required for lifelong learning.

Boud 2000, 151

On reflection I might see that I bring these problems. I often question supervised performance. Supervised performance is linked to real hunger through not lifelong learning but through lifelong employment. Real hunger is where will the next meal come from? For me? For my children? My neighbourhood, city, region. Can I provide my children the lifelong security I have had? There are plenty in the world who cannot, mostly through circumstances brought about by supervision and performance put at the service of, call it what you will: colonisation, surplus value, interest, rent, oligopoly; usurpation of a common wealth.

In abstracting many factors into the term “learning needs” we lose sight of the moral aspect of the question.

Sustainable assessment can similarly be defined as assessment that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of students to meet their own future learning needs.

Boud 2000, 151

Sustainability becomes an empty value unless there is consideration of some substance around what is sustained. Is learning a good in itself without regard to application or outcome? And, what is a “learning task”? Learners “… need also to be prepared to undertake assessment of the learning tasks they face throughout their lives” (152). Could daily activity become a learning task? How much activity should be framed as learning? Who frames the learning task? Who says: this-is-real-life; and: this-is-a-learning-task? When assessment is framed this way, questions of justice are raised.

Maybe this is easier when employed by a university or any educational institution. Boud reserves his comments for “…formal educational experience… within courses” (151). People like me and my colleagues are employed by institutions to assess formal learning activities in courses. If you remove “the domain of these assessors”, have you removed the need for assessment? For whom is the assessment performed, in the end? The assessors? Or, the assessed? Or another? Again I return to justice.

The idea of reciprocity appears to offer a means to retain justice within a framework of assessment for (and of) the other, but can a grand-narrative learning society serve reciprocal justice without doing to others? Boud draws on Frank Coffield’s excellent work. Coffield’s (2006) “Running ever faster down the wrong road”, summarises work undertaken throughout the 1980s and 90s, concluding, “… the government’s programme of reform in the public services, despite significant investments and successes, is now doing more harm than good.” I suggest this is as true today as it was then. There have been some successes in the first two decades of this century as there were in the last two of the previous century but, directionally, the inequities remain. Health and wealth inequalities are starkly illuminated by the coronavirus presence.

References

Boud, David. 2000. ‘Sustainable Assessment: Rethinking Assessment for the Learning Society’. Studies in Continuing Education 22 (2): 151–67. https://doi.org/10.1080/713695728.

Coffield, Frank. 2006. ‘Running Ever Faster Down the Wrong Road: An Alternative Future for Education and Skills. Inaugural Lecture’. Institute of Education. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.477.4397&rep=rep1&type=pdf.

Our World in Data, Gapminder and Justice

Thumbnail link to original chart and data

ourworldindata.org, is one of those things that makes the Internet a-good-thing. It is one of those things that makes universities worth some of their pennies. “Research and data to make progress against the world’s largest problems… All free: open access and open source.” Strapline and mission, in one. And their data visualisations are the best since Gapminder. Gapminder is another of those things that makes universities and the Internet good things. Truth through numbers made accessible visually, addressing problems that most people will understand. Kind of like Michael Sandel’s Justice course. There are more, but I realise this could become a long post, for which I do not have time this morning. About which, more later.

https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/coronavirus-cfr

The personal-political imaginary restructured by a universal-Turing-machine symbolic

The tools used in a personal learning environment (PLE) will to some extent determine the shape of that environment. The shape of any object is always in some way a reflection of the tools used to make it. And as tools shape the object, so too will desire for the object shape the evolution of tools. That is, there are no “universal” tools. Any tool operates only on a part of the whole.

Lacan, who took Vygotsky’s work from develomental psychology into psychiatry, asserted that the imaginary is what we believe ordinary life to be. It is our representation of the real to ourselves: our belief as to what is “real”. The symbolic is the apparatus of language, law, discourse and custom: the tools by which we express and regulate the imaginary. The tools of our symbolic order shape our imaginary life. We think within the frames of our languages, cultures, tools and experiences.

Our learning environments are shaped these days by digital technologies. Digital technologies are the contemporary new-shiny symbolic order: a universal-turing-machine symbolic of imaginary universality.

Personal learning environments: everybody has one

Covid-19 has given me a little time to reflect on my past 10 or 15 years. A Personal Learning Environment (PLE) is for me, first of all a purpose, and then a place where I engage in activity with others. Only then do I look for tools to effect my participation in that activity with those other people. Whatever it is, it is not one thing.

A healthy personal learning environment and personal learning network is (or strives to be) a social learning network.

PLE 2010

One large multi-modal conference I participated in was the Personal Learning Environments (PLE) Conference (2010). In Barcelona and everywhere. (Graham Attwell’s account is still here). Graham’s “unkeynote”, partly crowd-sourced, asked us to imagine our own PLE. I went critical theoretical and wrote this, below. My aim in a few subsequent posts is to expand and explain. I said, my PLE is:

A progressive, emancipatory, democratic re-centering on the human other-space between community and identity where cultural capital accounts are balanced and the personal-political imaginary is restructured by a universal-Turing-machine symbolic, generating and regenerating tools and knowledge with which to build – in struggle if necessary – an unenclosed global commons of culture, nature, and  our geno-mimetic heritage;

A hyper-distributed mesh of universal, co-created, open community information and applications, on extremely local (even personal) infrastructure;

GPL-type, open-source, creative commons (attribution, share-alike) licensed; Powered by renewable, sustainable energy sources.

Return surplus value (material and symbolic) to the common-wealth;

Enable the free movement of economic, social and cultural capital, the free movement of cultural and economic goods, and the free movement of people;

Facilitate cultural mediation, creativity, learning and play;

Preserve, respect and protect human (and bio) diversity; Resist oppression, exploitation and hegemony.

A progressive, emancipatory, democratic re-centering

My Personal Learning Environment (PLE) first of all has purpose and principles. I enter into learning in order to foster progressive (Wikipedia), emancipatory (recognising and reorienting where power is drawn from) and democratic (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) relations between people and groups of people. My Personal learning environment is autonomist, supporting self-directed, purposeful learning and self-effective (Wikipedia) life practice.

As a teacher I try to re-center learning on the individual learner and their community in order that they can themselves become a reliable authority in their own life.

The human other-space between community and identity

With the Covid-19 rush to online, learning environments are suddenly of core concern. We each, student, teacher and staff need to be able to insert our personal learning environments into those of one another.

In an earlier post, I considered my Personal Learning Environment (PLE) first a purpose. Here I consider it as a place of a particular sort. A place between a real community “out there” and a real me “in here”. A place where I, who know (or doesn’t); I, who know how, or know that, or know what to do can acquire and practice that knowing with others.

I have always seen community and identity as two sides of a coin. The individual and society are co-constituted. The learning environment is a space between real communities and real individuals. It is a liminal space, which mediates between the self and others. The learning environment allows and facilitates the deconstruction, analysis and modelling of the real world, real community or real individual: psychometrics, for example, model the person. Such activity has a general aim of understanding and transforming the real “out there” or “in here” in some way.

Then, to acknowledge its own reality, the learning environment is itself a collection of real people, communities: schools, homes, disciplines, departments, institutions, professions engaged together in a project of creating liminal places: learning environments; other spaces between the real through which I learn.