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/.

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.

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Where risk lies for HEIs: the conflation of regulation, reputation and enhancement

I had a conversation with our head of QA about the consultations current in HE regulation. Her pragmatic approach is refreshing.
I thought I might share the gist of my side of the conversation. I am working through documents at a more leisurely pace than the folk at Wonkhe. And I did read David kernohan’s  A game of risk. So, I have probably tainted my mind.
David took a very useful wider political perspective and wasn’t looking at the practicalities of working in a main-sequence institution, upon which the larger burden of risk appears to be being laid. Russell Group: fine. New providers: fine. It’s all you ex-polytechnics that are the problem. It is not only Andrew Adonis taking this position. It could be read as the same old “Media Studies are Mickey Mouse Degrees” argument: sound and fury signifying old attitudes dying hard.
But my tentative conclusion is the conflation of regulation, reputation and enhancement is where the risk lies. Institutions need to be careful not to conflate NSS, TEF and league-table positionality with either: their own enhancement or the regulatory regime. I think those are three different “games”.

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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/.

The “enhancement debate” and TEL

Beginning a critical exploration of “enhancement”.

The “enhancement debate” clearly (to me) must be addressed within the scope of technology enhanced learning (TEL) debates. TEL is largely seen as an instrumental means of making the individual person (human being) more effective and efficient in the information economy, maybe more compliant to employability and managerial norms as well as possibly resistant to collectivist and democratic or redistributive urges. TEL discussions often focus on the capacity of the technology to enhance, and the person to be enhanced largely through an individual’s own capacity to use or even master learning technology. The person is often understood as a decontextualised individual, with inadequacies to be remediated or skill levels to be increased largely through their own efforts, assisted by appropriate training and development programmes largely focused on using tools.

However set against this fairly common conception of the person and their relations to learning technology are various streams of more critical engagement (as set out by Van Den Eede 2015) from the transhumanism of Bostrom to the democratic humanism of Feenberg. Bostrom (2009) provides a definition of enhancement:

An intervention that improves the functioning of some subsystem of an organism beyond its reference state; or that creates an entirely new functioning or subsystem that the organism previously lacked. (89)

… which if the capacity to use certain tools or technologies is a “subsystem” and a human being is “an organism” and a “reference state” is a certain level of competence, then, I suggest this encapsulates “enhancement” sufficiently to both include TEL and to be included in discussions of TEL However, considering the individual “organism” or person as the object of the enhancement is only part of the landscape. Seeing TEL as an individual concern and an individual remedial (enhancement) challenge is simplistic and potentially problematic both for the individual and for groups (institutions, communities, etc).. As Feenberg (2009) suggests

… community is the primary scene of human communication and personal development. It is in this context that people judge the world around them and discuss their judgments with others. Any technology that offers new possibilities for the formation of community is thus democratically significant. (81)

Van Den Eede (2015) suggests that:

we must learn to see ourselves as hybrid blends of flesh, mind, materials, machines, information, values, institutions, relations, and processes. (152)

References

Bostrom, Nick. 2009. ‘Dignity and Enhancement’. Contemporary Readings in Law & Social Justice 1 (2): 84–115.

 

Feenberg, Andrew. 2009. ‘Critical Theory of Communication Technology: Introduction to the Special Section.’ Information Society 25 (2): 77–83.

 

Van Den Eede, Yoni. 2015. ‘Where Is the Human? Beyond the Enhancement Debate.’ Science, Technology & Human Values 40 (1): 149–62.

 

Sharks and TELephants

 

Caribbean Reef Sharks

The challenge for technology enhanced learning (TEL) is that it not be used to impoverish people. Let me begin to explain.

I can help you teach. I may be deluded, of course, but it is none the less something I believe and something that I can act on with an established and evolving repertoire. I have led a teacher education programme for lecturers in higher education for the past seven years. I can design programmes to help you teach, I can put on courses, stand in front of a class, work one-to-one and strive to help teachers elicit their own inner teacher. So why am I giving up an established role teaching teachers in order to enter the waters of “technology enhanced learning” (TEL)?

I thought I wanted a challenge! For myself, for the team and the department I felt it was important that I move on from the job I have done since about 2008. And of course, I have been splashing in those waters for I long time. In 1983 I arrived at Oxford with an electric typewriter. In 1986 I left with an MPhil and a Apricot “portable” computer. Arguably one of the most important things I learned over those three years was how to use a word processor and a printer. But technology enhanced learning? What does that mean? Arguably everything and nothing. And this is my first challenge. Wikipedia conflates “Elearning” and “Educational Technology” with “Technology Enhanced Learning“. It is worth while reading the first 200 or so words of this article.

TEL is a term that stimulates the production of complexity. It also, as a consequence, stimulates in many people the opposite desire: forBlind_men_and_elephant2 simplicity. Like the blind men and the elephant,  there are many parts.
and many people, who want to declare TEL to be one or another of the many things it could be: from pencils to iPads, to QR codes and smart cards. New! New! Shiny! Shiny! Or so far out in front that the string and baling wire are hanging off. Or simply the human condition. But, what ever it is, it has to be better (enhanced) than something else. But, better than what?

Can we posit technology-free learning? What would that look like? Among the parts of the TELephant is that which threatens established practices and identities: that which makes some people feel they can no longer teach well, that which makes some people feel diminished not enhanced, that which makes some people feel they would rather be rid of all this “technology” (whatever it is). To enter into this debate in this way brands me as a Luddite. But this is a badge that I have to be proud, now, to wear. Remember, Luddites were not against technology. They were against technology being used to impoverish people. Which brings me back to sharks and the main challenge: money and power.

 

 

 

Usurpation: the condition of the university?

Usurpation might better be seen as the condition of the university than as a problem for any particular aspect of that complex phenomenon: higher education today.

Taking Subramaniam, Perrucci, & Whitlock’s (2014) theoretical framework of social and intellectual closure we might see usurpation as – in parts and in places – an ameliorating response to both micro and macro-political movements that lead to closure. I suggest that we might take this further into a space which can only be opened and kept open (rejecting closure) by the usurper who by choice lays him/her self open to being ursurped and indeed facilitates the process of ongoing transformation, which is the driving energy of the academy.

In making this argument I draw on Popper’s (1996) positivism, Kuhn’s (1962) understanding of development in disciplines and Bhabha’s (2004) third space theory.

The pattern of usurpation described by Subramaniam, Perrucci, & Whitlock’s (2014) applies to any attempt to enter a power structure –  a university is a power structure – by agents desiring that power, whether to address wrongs done to them by that power structure and its relatives, or simply to seize more of whatever is going. When the usurpation is successful the usurper assumes the mantle of the power structure and then defends it against subsequent usurpation.

So we see entryism into disciplines of minoritarian or post-colonial themes: Women’s Studies, for example. We see traditional promotion routes to professorship usurped by teaching pathways (an interesting one Subramian et al spotted, which casts me as usurper!). We see the student experience usurping scholarship.

But as Kuhn should remind us: this is the way it works! The English curriculum which is so exercised by usurpation by Media Studies, itself was an entryist program usurping the Classics. And as Popper should remind us, this is to be celebrated. The problem is not usurpation but closure, which might be seen as resistance to being usurped.

References

  • Bhabha, H. (2004). The Location of Culture. Abingdon: Routledge.
  • Kuhn, T. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Popper, K. (1996). The Myth of the Framework: In defence of Science and Rationality. London: Routledge.
  • Subramaniam, M., Perrucci, R., & Whitlock, D. (2014). Intellectual Closure: A Theoretical Framework Linking Knowledge, Power, and the Corporate University. Critical Sociology (Sage Publications, Ltd.), 40(3), 411–430.