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.

Reflection in action: professional development study visits

How close to the moment can you get? “Be here now,”  urges 1960s psychologist Richard Alpert. A mythical Google aspires to a perfect concurrent rendering of this reality: in real-time, in software. How much rewinding can we do before anyone notices the pause for thought? Reflection in action often has the effect of: “Oops! Don’t do that again.” Have we all heard ourselves tell ourselves, “Don’t say that,” and then hear ourselves say it? The warning reverberates like a slow bell buoy. It fades until the next wave makes a ding! Good learning is sometimes referred to as “authentic”. What is this but being “in the moment”?

I have been invited to “Listen to and comment on” a number of presentations this morning. These presentations will be made by participants on a study tour for Chinese academics and higher education professional and student-support services staff.

I received the invitation yesterday morning in a hotel dining room in Cardiff, shortly before co-facilitating a workshop for newer academic staff at the University of Cardiff, who may be new to teaching and leading study modules.

So this is a note to myself, in the moment between. My colleagues at OCSLD and I use a phenomenographic approach to analysing learning events and the work of those who lead, teach or otherwise facilitate learning in higher education. Try to distinguish between event and judgement. There is data. And, there is analysis.

I have engaged with four one or two-day events organised by Oxford Prospects Programmes. Two events were for about 50 “senior academics” (n=100) from a number of Chinese Universities. One event was for about 45 professional and student-support services staff. One event was a symposium on “Education and Social Governance” jointly organised by Beijing Normal University and the Department of Education at the University of Oxford. At the symposium, academics from both institutions, eminent local government officers and representatives of the British Embassy in Beijing and the Chinese Embassy in London addressed contemporary socio-economic impacts of higher education and the role of education in social governance issues such as rural depopulation, industrial development and teacher education.

I am seeing these events all through a professional development eye as an authentic opportunity to consider where a globalising academy sees itself going next.

Beginning of term

Shamanic meso-american woman playing the earth as a computer keyboardSystems or people? We can model learning in order to develop ways for our machines to acquire, store, process and apply data: information gathered from the world around. Although I put it as a vague question of preference at the start of this essay, it has many ramifications. Are people not just quite complex systems? And is complexity simply a diversion? Is it not a more simple question? Where are the boundaries and limits?

I ask this at the beginning of term because this is hurricane season for university administration people and systems in general, and has been in particular for my university at this moment. We are building a new student record system. Well, we are acquiring, localising and implementing a student record system consisting of many new – and large – components. And, it is the system we use to manage relationships.

Which means, for the moment at least, we need to manage relationships in a different way: through people not systems. Or at least we have – for the moment – to act as though people are different to systems. Or, maybe that systems are people?

One thing we do know about people is that they feel things when they are under stress. They feel things like anger, anxiety and fear. Can I repeat that, please, using “I-statements”? I feel angry, anxious and fearful when I am under stress. While I want to be careful about projecting those feelings onto colleagues, I also want to attend to others with empathy for the possibility that they might also be angry, anxious and fearful.

One notebook warning

One notebook

One notebook

I write. Not as much or as well as I should. But I write. Two very broad forms interest me: poetry and philosophy of learning, knowledge, theory. What is true and good?

Do these concepts mean anything? I believe they do. My job, and much of this writing, here, has to do with trying to explain – to myself as much or more than anyone else – what it means to learn and do “well”, that which is “right to do”: Plato, Aristotle, Chuang Tzu, Lucretius, Karl Marx, Julia Kristeva, Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire, Bob Dylan, Paul Eluard, Alain Badiou, Bob Marley, Slavoj Žižek and Mikey Smith mashed up.

Žižek, late in this monologue, says the real artist does not add, but takes away.

I used to keep a separate notebook for work and a different one for poetry. I took it away  one and a half notebooks ago.

I am adopting that principle here in this blog. Over the next few weeks I will be on a rescue mission to a few old websites.

And the warning? You might come across some poems. You might come across some philosophy. You might come across some teaching. My honest intention is to make connections. To converse. It is all dialogue. And, a story.

A hidden curriculum

Published on: Jan 18, 2018

I examine two related concepts: hierarchised identity formation and the enclosure of desire as a hidden curriculum.

A hidden curriculum is, I suggest the collection of assumptions, often about power (Brookfield 2017, chapter 2) that is communicated alongside and through the practice of overt curricula. A hidden curriculum is conveyed through implicit biases by teachers and education institutions. It is delivered alongside more overt curricular elements such as subject-specific knowledge and skills, as well as “transferrable skills” and “graduate attributes”. There may be many, indeed there are many hidden curricula which work with and against social norms beyond the institution and largely outwith the control of the institution or its agents. I will suggest that hierarchised identity formation is one of the hidden curricula of higher eduction. I hypothesise that this might be felt more acutely in the UK because of England’s tradition of a landed, aristocratic and military gentry related by ancestry to the head of state. But, it is felt elsewhere than Britain: “Rich man goes to college, poor man goes to work” (Charlie Daniels Band, “Long haired country boy”). In Britain the green and white papers leading to the current Higher Education Act 2017 declared universities to be engines of social mobility. Social mobility for these purposes is conceived primarily as a private (not public) good and is ranked in a categorical hierarchy consisting of education attainment, occupation type and lifetime earnings expectation, ranked in quartiles and centiles. The concept of social mobility is applied competitively as a finitely resourced, zero-sum game with winners and losers and movers.

Continue reading “A hidden curriculum”

Tinkering with algorithms

I read Franklin Foer’s Facebook’s War on Free Will the Guardian’s “Long read” for Tuesday 19 September 2017.

He recapped a familiar argument: you are Facebook’s product. But when he hit “data science” I turned up my sensors. He says, “There’s a whole discipline, data science, to guide the writing and revision of algorithms”. Then he picks up on Cameron Marlow, “the former head of Facebook’s data science team”:

Facebook has a team, poached from academia, to conduct experiments on users. It’s a statistician’s sexiest dream – some of the largest data sets in human history, the ability to run trials on mathematically meaningful cohorts. … Marlow said, “we have a microscope that not only lets us examine social behaviour at a very fine level that we’ve never been able to see before, but allows us to run experiments that millions of users are exposed to.”

The point the experimentalists miss is that the experiment is directed towards outcomes already. The ethics are, at least, sensitive. Continue reading “Tinkering with algorithms”

Backpacks, badges and epistemology: an interesting conversation that leads to happily ever after

Grant (2014) asks in the title to her book about digital badges, “What Counts as Learning?” This succinctly expresses the question of higher education and explains the continuing interest in badges, and in learning technologies in general. The fact this is less explored, gives me an opportunity to explore both learning technology and epistemology.

I have developed a new MA Education course module, “Philosophy and policy of higher education”. In this 20 credit level 7 module the question: “What counts as learning?” will be explored. That is the seductive game higher education plays: a chance at determining or being among the determiners of meaning – what counts as learning – for a generation or so. To extend the “play” metaphor to a stage on which higher education acts, higher education as an institution and its practitioners as individuals seek to occupy the limen, the space on the edge between consensual suspension of belief in order to “live the dream”, and the world as it is, explained. More critically for those in the game it poses the question about one’s own underpinnings, one own “will to power”, or academic identity or even life.

Badges are something like brand propositions and to some extent depend on other similar propositions. Like many brand propositions their link to truth is explicitly unattested. The badge can only serve as a conversation starter. Like travel badges on a backpack seen on an overnight Eurail while sleeping in the vestibule: “So when did you go to Sweden?” Most universities have a t-shirt and sports kit with a name and often a crest or logo. Some might serve the question: “Were you at Malmo?” To which an answer might be “No, it is a good hoodie.” But could also be, “Yes, for ice-hockey in 2009.”

Possibly the internet will work like the cold vestibule of a Eurail under an ex army coat, and when we see badges on a site we may start that interesting conversation that leads to happily ever after: life, love, career, changing the world? Or same as it ever was. That conversation about changing the world? Because as it is now, the foundations of meaning sometimes appear both unsound and cruel, not just one or the other.

References

Grant, Sheryl. 2014. What Counts as Learning: Open Badges for New Opportunities. Kindle. Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub. http://dmlhub.net/publications/what-counts-learning/.