May 30, 2016

Technology, alienation and the role of education: an introduction

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One definition of alienation Image: Reuters

One definition of alienation
Image: Reuters

Is there a problem here?

I live a 30 minute drive from the U.S. border, and like many of my fellow Canadians (and many U.S. colleagues) I have been watching with a mixture of disgust and horror the Donald Trump presidential campaign gathering increasing momentum. However unlike most Canadians, I am not surprised at Trump’s growing success (nor is Canada immune – Rob Ford’s support also comes from the same origins). Trump derives his support from an ever expanding body of people who feel alienated and marginalized by technology, globalization and the growing gap between rich and poor.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the supporters of Bernie Sanders as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, and the anti-austerity movements in Europe, are also driven by increasing alienation due to perceived failures of the capitalist/’democratic’ system to meet the interests of ordinary people. Both sides see government as having been captured by special interest groups, especially but not exclusively financial establishments and the major media and Internet companies.

There is of course no single reason for this growing alienation, but the way technology, and particularly digital technology, has been moving recently is one major cause of this alienation. People feel they are losing control to forces they do not understand. In particular, there is a growing sense that the benefits of technology are going to an increasingly smaller and richer group of people. The public, the end users of technology, increasingly feel that they are being exploited for the benefit of those that control the technology. People are losing jobs and those that have jobs are working harder or longer to stand still.

Dealing with the problem (or challenge)

I plan to explore this issue further in several blog posts that focus particularly on the role of education, and how we deal with technology, both as a field of study, and with its use for teaching and learning. I will argue that educators have a special responsibility to prepare students better for this rapidly changing and increasingly threatening digital world, so students can try to wrest some control and make technology work better for them in the future. I will also be arguing that some potential developments in the use of technology in education could be more harmful than beneficial, and will further increase feelings of alienation, if we are not careful.

This is very much an exploratory journey on my part. I will outline a series of topics for discussion in different blog posts, but this may well change as we get into it. In particular, I am looking for discussion and interaction, an exchange of views, and different perspectives on what I see as an increasingly important topic. The focus will always be on the implications for teaching and learning.

Here is my initial breakdown of topics:

  • introduction (this post)
  • technology and alienation: symptoms, causes and a framework for discussion (next post)
  • skills development and the labour market: are we fighting the last war? (This will include a discussion of competency-based learning, and the difference between skills and competencies – or competences, if you are European), with the goal of better preparing learners for an increasingly hostile digital age;
  • automation vs empowerment in educational technology (already done; maybe some revisions)
  • unbundling of educational services: who benefits; alternative models; privatisation versus state funding; risk management
  • the myth of the autonomous learner: the changing relationship between teachers and learners; creating effective learning environments (partly done); how to personalise learning to the benefit of the learner
  • teaching ‘defensive’ skills: protecting privacy, avoiding monopolies, citizen engagement, understanding and controlling the technology
  • globalization and online learning: think/learn globally, act/do locally; ways to open the curriculum; building bridges with other cultures
  • wrap-up.

Help!

This is starting to look like a mini-course, maybe even a cMOOC, but my thinking is so unformed at this stage that I want to keep the topic and approach as open as possible, and in particular I want to clarify my own thoughts through the process of writing (yes, that does work sometimes). So:

  • do you believe that alienation is increasing/a serious problem, due to the way technology is being managed and controlled? Or am I being paranoid?
  • what topics would you add to this list? Is there anything essential in discussing the topic of technology-based alienation and the role of education that needs to be included that I have missed?
  • can education really make a difference? Can it help prevent alienation – or should it encourage it? Or are we already stitched up?
  • would you be interesting in contributing to this discussion; if so how? (e.g. guest posts; comments; suggested readings/videos)
  • are you thinking: ‘Don’t even go there, Tony – it’s a waste of time!’?

Automation or empowerment: online learning at the crossroads

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Image: Applift

Image: AppLift, 2015

You are probably, like me, getting tired of the different predictions for 2016. So I’m not going to do my usual look forward for the year for individual developments in online learning. Instead, I want to raise a fundamental question about which direction online learning should be heading in the future, because the next year could turn out to be very significant in determining the future of online learning.

The key question we face is whether online learning should aim to replace teachers and instructors through automation, or whether technology should be used to empower not only teachers but also learners. Of course, the answer will always be a mix of both, but getting the balance right is critical.

An old but increasingly important question

This question, automation or human empowerment, is not new. It was raised by B.F. Skinner (1968) when he developed teaching machines in the early 1960s. He thought teaching machines would eventually replace teachers. On the other hand, Seymour Papert (1980) wanted computing to empower learners, not to teach them directly. In the early 1980s Papert got children to write computer code to improve the way they think and to solve problems. Papert was strongly influenced by Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, and in particular that children constructed rather than absorbed knowledge.

In the 1980s, as personal computers became more common, computer-assisted learning (CAL or CAD) became popular, using computer-marked tests and early forms of adaptive learning. Also in the 1980s the first developments in artificial intelligence were applied, in the form of intelligent math tutoring. Great predictions were made then, as now, about the potential of AI to replace teachers.

Then along came the Internet. Following my first introduction to the Internet in a friend’s basement in Vancouver, I published an article in the first edition of the Journal of Distance Education, entitled ‘Computer-assisted learning or communications: which way for IT in distance education?’ (1986). In this paper I argued that the real value of the Internet and computing was to enable asynchronous interaction and communication between teacher and learners, and between learners themselves, rather than as teaching machines. This push towards a more constructivist approach to the use of computing in education was encapsulated in Mason and Kaye’s book, Mindweave (1989). Linda Harasim has since argued that online collaborative learning is an important theory of learning in its own right (Harasim, 2012).

In the 1990s, David Noble of York University attacked online learning in particular for turning universities into ‘Digital Diploma Mills’:

‘universities are not only undergoing a technological transformation. Beneath that change, and camouflaged by it, lies another: the commercialization of higher education.’

Noble (1998) argued that

‘high technology, at these universities, is often used not to ……improve teaching and research, but to replace the visions and voices of less-prestigious faculty with the second-hand and reified product of academic “superstars”.

However, contrary to Noble’s warnings, for fifteen years most university online courses followed more the route of interaction and communication between teachers and students than computer-assisted learning or video lectures, and Noble’s arguments were easily dismissed or forgotten.

Then along came lecture capture and with it, in 2011, Massive Open Online Courses (xMOOCs) from Coursera, Udacity and edX, driven by elite, highly selective universities, with their claims of making the best professors in the world available to everyone for free. Noble’s nightmare suddenly became very real. At the same time, these MOOCs have resulted in much more interest in big data, learning analytics, a revival of adaptive learning, and claims that artificial intelligence will revolutionize education, since automation is essential for managing such massive courses.

Thus we are now seeing a big swing back to the automation of learning, driven by powerful computing developments, Silicon Valley start-up thinking, and a sustained political push from those that want to commercialize education (more on this later). Underlying these developments is a fundamental conflict of philosophies and pedagogies, with automation being driven by an objectivist/behaviourist view of the world, compared with the constructivist approaches of online collaborative learning.

In other words, there are increasingly stark choices to be made about the future of online learning. Indeed, it is almost too late – I fear the forces of automation are winning – which is why 2016 will be such a pivotal year in this debate.

Automation and the commercialization of education

These developments in technology are being accompanied by a big push in the United States, China, India and other countries towards the commercialization of online learning. In other words, education is being seen increasingly as a commodity that can be bought and sold. This is not through the previous and largely discredited digital diploma mills of the for-profit online universities such as the University of Phoenix that David Noble feared, but rather through the encouragement and support of commercial computer companies moving into the education field, companies such as Coursera, Lynda.com and Udacity.

Audrey Watters and EdSurge both produced lists of EdTech ‘deals’ in 2015 totalling between $1-$2 billion. Yes, that’s right, that’s $1-$2 billion in investment in private ed tech companies in the USA (and China) in one year alone. At the same time, entrepreneurs are struggling to develop sustainable business models for ed tech investment, because with education funded publicly, a ‘true’ market is restricted. Politicians, entrepreneurs and policy makers on the right in the USA increasingly see a move to automation as a way of reducing government expenditure on education, and one means by which to ‘free up the market’.

Another development that threatens the public education model is the move by very rich entrepreneurs such as the Gates, the Hewletts and the Zuckerbergs to move their massive personal wealth into ‘charitable’ foundations or corporations and use this money for their pet ‘educational’ initiatives that also have indirect benefits for their businesses. Ian McGugan (2015) in the Globe and Mail newspaper estimates that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is worth potentially $45 billion, and one of its purposes is to promote the personalization of learning (another name hi-jacked by computer scientists; it’s a more human way of describing adaptive learning). Since one way Facebook makes its money is by selling personal data, forgive my suspicions that the Zuckerberg initiative is a not-so-obvious way of collecting data on future high earners. At the same time, the Chang Zuckerberg initiative enables the Zuckerberg’s to avoid paying tax on their profits from Facebook. Instead then of paying taxes that could be used to support public education, these immensely rich foundations enable a few entrepreneurs to set the agenda for how computing will be used in education.

Why not?

Technology is disrupting nearly every other business and profession, so why not education? Higher education in particular requires a huge amount of money, mostly raised through taxes and tuition fees, and it is difficult to tie results directly to investment. Surely we should be looking at ways in which technology can change higher education so that it is more accessible, more affordable and more effective in developing the knowledge and skills required in today’s and tomorrow’s society?

Absolutely. It is not so much the need for change that I am challenging, but the means by which this change is being promoted. In essence, a move to automated learning, while saving costs, will not improve the learning that matters, and particularly the outcomes needed in a digital age, namely, the high level intellectual skills of critical thinking, innovation, entrepreneurship, problem-solving , high-level multimedia communication, and above all, effective knowledge management.

To understand why automated approaches to learning are inappropriate to the needs of the 21st century we need to look particularly at the tools and methods being proposed.

The problems with automating learning

The main challenge for computer-directed learning such as information transmission and management through Internet-distributed video lectures, computer-marked assessments, adaptive learning, learning analytics, and artificial intelligence is that they are based on a model of learning that has limited applications. Behaviourism works well in assisting rote memory and basic levels of comprehension, but does not enable or facilitate deep learning, critical thinking and the other skills that are essential for learners in a digital age.

R. and D. Susskind (2015) in particular argue that there is a new age in artificial intelligence and adaptive learning driven primarily by what they call the brute force of more powerful computing. Why AI failed so dramatically in the 1980s, they argue, was because computer scientists tried to mimic the way that humans think, and computers then did not have the capacity to handle information in the way they do now. When however we use the power of today’s computing, it can solve previously intractable problems through analysis of massive amounts of data in ways that humans had not considered.

There are several problems with this argument. The first is that the Susskinds are correct in that computers operate differently from humans. Computers are mechanical and work basically on a binary operating system. Humans are biological and operate in a far more sophisticated way, capable of language creation as well as language interpretation, and use intuition as well as deductive thinking. Emotion as well as memory drives human behaviour, including learning. Furthermore humans are social animals, and depend heavily on social contact with other humans for learning. In essence humans learn differently from the way machine automation operates.

Unfortunately, computer scientists frequently ignore or are unaware of the research into human learning. In particular they are unaware that learning is largely developmental and constructed, and instead impose an old and less appropriate method of teaching based on behaviourism and an objectivist epistemology. If though we want to develop the skills and knowledge needed in a digital age, we need a more constructivist approach to learning.

Supporters of automation also make another mistake in over-estimating or misunderstanding how AI and learning analytics operate in education. These tools reflect a highly objectivist approach to teaching, where procedures can be analysed and systematised in advance. However, although we know a great deal about learning in general, we still know very little about how thinking and decision-making operate biologically in individual cases. At the same time, although brain research is promising to unlock some of these secrets, most brain scientists argue that while we are beginning to understand the relationship between brain activity and very specific forms of behaviour, there is a huge distance to travel before we can explain how these mechanisms affect learning in general or how an individual learns in particular. There are too many variables (such as emotion, memory, perception, communication, as well as neural activity) at play to find an isomorphic fit between the firing of neurons and computer ‘intelligence’.

The danger then with automation is that we drive humans to learn in ways that best suit how machines operate, and thus deny humans the potential of developing the higher levels of thinking that make humans different from machines. For instance, humans are better than machines at dealing with volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous situations, which is where we find ourselves in today’s society.

Lastly, both AI and adaptive learning depend on algorithms that predict or direct human behaviour. These algorithms though are not transparent to the end users. To give an example, learning analytics are being used to identify students at high risk of failure, based on correlations of previous behaviour online by previous students. However, for an individual, should a software program be making the decision as to whether that person is suitable for higher education or a particular course? If so, should that person know the grounds on which they are considered unsuitable and be able to challenge the algorithm or at least the principles on which that algorithm is based? Who makes the decision about these algorithms – a computer scientist using correlated data, or an educator concerned with equitable access? The more we try to automate learning, the greater the danger of unintended consequences, and the more need for educators rather than computer scientists to control the decision-making.

The way forward

In the past, I used to think of computer scientists as colleagues and friends in designing and delivering online learning. I am now increasingly seeing at least some of them as the enemy. This is largely to do with the hubris of Silicon Valley, which believes that computer scientists can solve any problem without knowing anything about the problem itself. MOOCs based on recorded lectures are a perfect example of this, being developed primarily by a few computer scientists from Stanford (and unfortunately blindly copied by many people in universities who should have known better.)

We need to start with the problem, which is how do we prepare learners for the knowledge and skills they will need in today’s society. I have argued (Bates, 2015) that we need to develop, in very large numbers of people, high level intellectual and practical skills that require the construction and development of knowledge, and that enable learners to find, analyse, evaluate and apply knowledge appropriately.

This requires a constructivist approach to learning which cannot be appropriately automated, as it depends on high quality interaction between knowledge experts and learners. There are many ways to accomplish this, and technology can play a leading role, by enabling easy access to knowledge, providing opportunities for practice in experientially-based learning environments, linking communities of scholars and learners together, providing open access to unlimited learning resources, and above all by enabling students to use technology to access, organise and demonstrate their knowledge appropriately.

These activities and approaches do not easily lend themselves to massive economies of scale through automation, although they do enable more effective outcomes and possibly some smaller economies of scale. Automation can be helpful in developing some of the foundations of learning, such as basic comprehension or language acquisition. But at the heart of developing the knowledge and skills needed in today’s society, the role of a human teacher, instructor or guide will remain absolutely essential. Certainly, the roles of teachers and instructors will need to change quite dramatically, teacher training and faculty development will be critical for success, and we need to use technology to enable students to take more responsibility for their own learning, but it is a dangerous illusion to believe that automation is the solution to learning in the 21st century.

Protecting the future

There are several practical steps that need to be taken to prevent the automation of teaching.

  1. Educators – and in particular university presidents and senior civil servants with responsibility for education – need to speak out clearly about the dangers of automation, and the technology alternatives available that still exploit its potential and will lead to greater cost-effectiveness. This is not an argument against the use of technology in education, but the need to use it wisely so we get the kind of educated population we need in the 21st century.
  2. Computer scientists need to show more respect to educators and be less arrogant. This means working collaboratively with educators, and treating them as equals.
  3. We – teachers and educational technologists – need to apply in our own work and disseminate better to those outside education what we already know about effective learning and teaching.
  4. Faculty and teachers need to develop compelling technology alternatives to automation that focus on the skills and knowledge needed in a digital age, such as:
    • experiential learning through virtual reality (e.g. Loyalist College’s training of border service agents)
    • networking learners online with working professionals, to solve real world problems (e.g. by developing a program similar to McMaster’s integrated science program for online/blended delivery)
    • building strong communities of practice through connectivist MOOCs (e.g. on climate change or mental health) to solve global problems
    • empowering students to use social media to research and demonstrate their knowledge through multimedia e-portfolios (e.g. UBC’s ETEC 522)
    • designing openly accessible high quality, student-activated simulations and games but designed and monitored by experts in the subject area.
  5. Governments need to put as much money into research into learning and educational technology as they do into innovation in industry. Without better and more defensible theories of learning suitable for a digital age, we are open to any quack or opportunist who believes he or she has the best snake oil. More importantly, with better theory and knowledge of learning disseminated and applied appropriately, we can have a much more competitive workforce and a more just society.
  6. We need to educate our politicians about the dangers of commercialization in education through the automation of learning and fight for a more equal society where the financial returns on technology applications are more equally shared.
  7. Become edupunks and take back the web from powerful commercial interests by using open source, low cost, easy to use tools in education that protect our privacy and enable learners and teachers to control how they are used.

That should keep you busy in 2016.

Your views are of course welcome – unless you are a bot.

References

Bates, A. (1986) Computer assisted learning or communications: which way for information technology in distance education? Journal of Distance Education Vol. 1, No. 1

Bates, A. (2015) Teaching in a Digital Age Victoria BC: BCcampus

Harasim, L. (2012) Learning Theory and Online Technologies New York/London: Routledge

Mason, R. and Kaye, A (Eds).(1989)  Mindweave: communication, computers and distance education. Oxford: Pergamon

McGugan, I. (2015)Why the Zuckerberg donation is not a bundle of joy, Globe and Mail, December 2

Noble, D. (1998) Digital Diploma Mills, Monthly Review http://monthlyreview.org/product/digital_diploma_mills/

Papert, S. (1980) Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas New York: Basic Books

Skinner, B. (1968)  The Technology of Teaching, 1968 New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts

Susskind, R. and Susskind, D. (2015) The Future of the Professions: How Technology will Change the Work of Human Experts Oxford UK: Oxford University Press

Watters, A. (2015) The Business of EdTech, Hack Edu, undated http://2015trends.hackeducation.com/business.html

Winters, M. (2015) Christmas Bonus! US Edtech Sets Record With $1.85 Billion Raised in 2015 EdSurge, December 21 https://www.edsurge.com/news/2015-12-21-christmas-bonus-us-edtech-sets-record-with-1-85-billion-raised-in-2015

Innovation in online teaching in a Mexican university

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Alan Levine, Tannis Morgan and Brian Lamb presenting on edupunks at the CIINOApp conference

Alan Levine, Tannis Morgan and Brian Lamb presenting on edupunks at the CIINOApp conference

The University of Guadalajara

I spent last week in and around Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco in Mexico. The Universidad de Guadalajara, whose origins go back to 1586, is the second largest university in Mexico, with about 130,000 students distributed between 15 campuses across the state. It also has a long-standing distance education program, now called Virtual Campus, which offers fully online programs, often through local ‘casas’ or study centres with Internet access (only about 40% of Mexicans, and almost none in the lower socio-economic groups, have Internet access at home, mainly due to lack of competition in the Mexican telephone industry).

I first became associated with UdG (the term used by staff and students) in 1999, when I was on a review team looking at its international activities, but my work with UdG really started in 2004 when they were establishing a Master in Educational Technology which is now still running (Maestría en Tecnologías para el Aprendizaje.) Dr. Patricia Rosas Chavez was instrumental in establishing the MTA at UdG, together with several other UdG staff. I worked with faculty and students on this program in the early days, and as a result I now have many good friends there.

The Agora Project

I was approached about a year ago by Dr. Rosas, who is now the Director, Coordinación de Innovación Educativa y Pregrado at UdG. The university is wanting to initiate a major innovation program for teaching and learning based on mobile learning and social media, which became known as the Agora project, and were looking for consultants. I had no hesitation in recommending Dr. Tannis Morgan, of the Justice Institute of British Columbia, which provides education and training for police, paramedics, fire service and correctional personnel, as well as social, health and community workers. JIBC has a major mobile learning initiative, as most of its students are working and travelling all the time. Tannis pulled together a small team of international consultants to work on the project.

The UdG Agora is the site for the University of Guadalajara Student Centred and Mobile Learning Diploma. The goal of this faculty development program is for UdG professors to confidently integrate student centred and mobile learning strategies and activities into their teaching and students’ learning.

Tannis and her team have done an extremely good job in ‘walking the talk’ with the faculty at UdG. Through the use of practical examples, challenges and experiential learning, the program provides faculty and learners with the tools they need to meaningfully plan, design, implement and share student centred and mobile learning in their courses through a community of practice that fosters the enrichment of student centred learning experiences with the use of mobile learning technologies (iPads).

The program adopts the Agora as a metaphor for an open, collaborative, community where learning happens through interaction and engagement with others.  The blended faculty development program ran from July 13-December 17 2015. It began with one week of face-to-face meetings in July, followed by 8 weeks of online work from mid-August to October. It ends with two days of face-to-face meetings in December.

CIINOVApp and Conectáctica

I was asked to participate in two conferences last week organised by UdG to integrate with the final two days of the Agora project.

CIINOVApp (Congreso Internacional de Innovación para el Aprendizaje: Redes y su impacto en el aprendizaje: International Conference on Innovation in Education: Networks and their Impact on Learning) took place at a new campus of UdG in Valle, a largely agricultural community about 90 minutes drive west of Guadalajara. The campus takes pride on being closely linked with the needs of the local community. The conference included both campus faculty and students.

Orozco's 'The People and Their False Leaders' mural in the Auditorium of the University of Guadalajara

Orozco’s ‘The People and Their False Leaders’ mural in the Auditorium of the University of Guadalajara

Conectáctica immediately followed, and was aimed at all faculty in the UdG network of campuses. It was a meeting for teachers of the University Network in Jalisco to seek the exchange of experiences, trends and teaching practices that allow innovation, experimentation and implementation in the development of learners. It opened in the Paraninfo, the Auditorium of UdG. It can be seen from the photos that there are two wonderful murals by the great Mexican artist, Orozco, on the cupola and the front wall in the Paraninfo. The rest of the conference was held at the CUADD campus (Centro Universitario de Arte, Arquitectura y Diseño), about 30 minutes north of the centre of Guadalajara.

Orozco's mural in the cupola of the Auditorium

Orozco’s mural in the cupola of the Auditorium

The conferences took advantage of the Agora consultants (Tannis Morgan, Brian Lamb and Alan Levine) being in town, plus the addition of myself, Cristobal Cobo, formerly of the Internet Institute, Oxford University and now working in Uruguay, Atsusi Hirumi, Professor of Education at the University of Central Florida, and several Mexican speakers. Faculty from UdeG also made short presentations demonstrating how they had applied what they learned from the Agora. These presentations were very interesting and showed how faculty were creatively applying the lessons of the Agora.

My contribution

I gave the opening keynote at both the conferences:

  • the future of online learning (CIINOVApp)
  • teaching in a digital age (Conectáctica).

It was the second time I have given a keynote in front of Orozco’s The People and Their False Leaders, with the dramatic images of the ruling class brutally trying (and failing) to break the ordinary man’s desire for learning.

I also ran three two-hour interactive workshops, two on how to decide what to do online and what to do in class in hybrid courses, and one workshop on selecting appropriate media. In each workshop, participants worked in groups, chose a module or course, and made decisions about the use of technology in those courses. All my contributions drew heavily on my book, Teaching in a Digital Age. I also sat on a panel with the other foreign speakers.

This was a pretty intense week, involving four consecutive 12 hour days when the travel across and through Guadalajara’s congested traffic was included, so I was very glad to escape with my wife for the weekend to a resort at Lake Chapala, about two hour’s outside Guadalajara.

However, it was great working both with Mexican colleagues, who are incredibly kind and generous, and so enthusiastic about adopting new methods of teaching, and the foreign consultants, all leaders in educational innovation, and great people to be with.

Reflections

Yes, I know, I’m supposed to be retired, but I wanted to see colleagues and old friends once more. It will be my last time in Mexico in a work capacity, and as I have had such good friends and colleagues there, it seemed a good way to say goodbye.

The visit also reinforced my decision to retire. I was really tired most of the time (working in Mexico always requires a lot of energy), but more importantly I can feel that the future of online learning lies elsewhere, in the work of people like Tannis Morgan, Brian Lamb and Alan Levine, who are on top of the rapid, new developments in technology, and in particular have the energy and creativity to apply these technologies in educationally appropriate and exciting ways.

These conferences reinforced my view that we need to move from (but not ignore) best practices in online learning to doing things differently in ways that exploit the power of social media. Best practices in online learning provide a safe base and certainly need to be a foundation for innovation, but we cannot continue to be restricted by the limitations of learning management systems and lecture capture.

In particular, we need to use technologies that are as free as possible from large corporate interests, maintaining the freedom and independence of education from the forces of Internet corporations. My fear for the future is that education will eventually become privatized through inappropriate and mechanical applications of computer technology (I will be discussing this further in my look forward for 2016 in the new year). Tannis and her colleagues are working to ensure that there are alternatives to corporate, behaviourist online learning. It will be Tannis and other colleagues, and the young faculty and students from places such as Mexico and Africa in particular, who are most likely to drive education in new and appropriate ways based on simple, non-commercial social media, which is why this last week has been so exciting.

Relaxing at Lake Chapala after the conferences

Relaxing at Lake Chapala after the conferences

Don’t want to retire? Alternatives to dying on campus

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Tony looking old

Kaskie, B. et al. (2012) Promoting Workplace Longevity and Desirable Retirement Pathways Within Academic Institutions TIAFF-CREF Institute, March

Marcus, J. (2015) Aging faculty who won’t leave thwart universities’ attempts to cut costs The Hechinger Report, October 9

The problem

I couldn’t resist this one. Students who wish their boring old prof would just die in the middle of his lecture should be careful what they wish for: it’s increasingly likely to happen.

The problem is that old, tenured faculty just won’t quit, goddammit, now that mandatory retirement at 65 has been abolished. (I retired when there was still mandatory retirement. Three years later I got a letter from the Faculty Association saying that mandatory retirement had been abolished at UBC. I was terrified: I thought I would have to go back.)

While 36 percent of all workers plan to put off their retirements beyond the age of 65, the proportion of university and college faculty who intend to delay stepping down is more than double that, according to Kaskie et al., who are from the University of Iowa.

The Hechinger Report reports that:

It’s a big, big problem for universities that are trying to cut costs and improve productivity, making it harder for them to respond to declining enrollments and changing student demand for new kinds of majors, and blocking younger PhDs from entering the workforce.

Kaskie et al. note that:

Developing a strategic response to the continued aging of the academic workforce must become a higher priority among leaders of higher education.

They go on to suggest a number of such strategic responses:

  • wellness programs tailored for aging employees; (Yoga for mechanical engineers?)
  • offering workplace accommodations most useful to aging employees (presumably even lower teaching loads, and not after bed time)
  • developing retirement pathways varied in structure and not offered consistently to both faculty and staff. (I don’t see that one getting much traction with activist faculty).

So I’m not sure these strategies will have much effect. Old profs know when they are on to a good thing.

Solutions

Asking profs to retire early because it will save the university money is more likely to make them stay on longer, just to spite the administration. Indeed, it is the administration you would like to avoid if you can, with all those boring meetings, and the barriers to doing what you really want to do that are constantly thrown up by the administration.

So, as an old and happily retired prof, I have a couple of suggestions for my younger colleagues approaching 65 that eluded the researchers at the University of Iowa.

1. Teach online

Many profs want to stay on for the teaching. You rightly claim that after 35 years in the field, you still have much to offer. You could still do this by stepping down from full-time work, and working as an adjunct faculty teaching online, not so much for the money (you will be shocked to realise how little adjuncts are paid, and even more grateful for your more than generous pension), but for the flexibility and the contact with students.

Online teaching can be done from home, and at whatever time you like, so long as the work is covered. No more dreary commutes and no more avoiding that terrible colleague down the corridor who always buttonholes you with her latest paranoia. Teaching online will not only help keep you engaged and up to date in your subject, but the social media you learn to use may even help you to communicate with your grandchildren.

You will be surprised how satisfying online teaching is (especially if you get some training and experience before you retire.)

2. Become a consultant

This is a more personal solution and won’t work for everyone, but it sure worked for me. Many professors develop strong and valuable contacts outside the university where their expertise is needed and appreciated. You may well be the only person with the knowledge and experience in your field (and if you’re not, what have you been doing for the last 35 years?).

What’s hard for people to understand is the wonderful freedom you have as a self-employed consultant. You can – and should – tell it as it is. No more obfuscating or worrying about the consequences of speaking bluntly. That’s what you are paid for, and as a consultant you may be the only one who can speak truth to power.

I have to say that most of the time, I wasn’t saying anything that someone in the organisation didn’t know already – and listening is even more important than talking as a consultant – but often these people within the organisation who do know are not being listened to. Pay someone else a gob of money for the same advice and it’s more likely to be acted on. And if it isn’t, who cares? You just walk away at the end of the contract, thus avoiding the frustration of so many jobs when you can’t do what you want to do.

However, if you want to be successful as a consultant, there are some things you should do before you leave the university:

  • first, build up that network of external contacts who may be future clients, and develop some goodwill and ‘name recognition’ – perhaps by offering free advice over a cup of coffee;
  • start doing some serious consultancy work before you retire from the university. Most institutions will allow up to one day a week for public service or consultancies. Be careful though to avoid conflict of interest. Make sure your Dean or head of department knows what you are doing. In some circumstances, it may be necessary for contracts to be with the university, rather than you as an individual, while you are still working for the university. If so, discuss the possibility of continuing as an independent contractor when you leave, both with the external client and with your institution. Remember that there are benefits to the university in your leaving; being able to take contracts with you is then part of the negotiation;
  • find a good accountant and incorporate your consultancy company, before you leave. You need to be careful about taxes, and you also need to have a system in place for accurately tracking consultancy income and expenses. It is particularly important to keep your consultancy income and expenses clearly separate from your personal income and expenses. A good accountant can be really helpful with this. It will depend on the circumstances, but I managed to live on my pensions and invest the consultancy income, thus providing financial security well into the future, while having an extra store of money for the occasional special holiday or family gathering.

Becoming a consultant enabled me to work more or less the amount I wanted to until I was 75. Even then I only stopped working as a paid consultant to do the third solution.

3. Write a book

Yes, you’ve probably already written several academic books, but stopping to write a book when you are towards the end of a career has a number of advantages.

First, you need the time that comes when you are no longer working full time. Second, you can step back a little and look at your career’s work in a broader perspective. Probably most of the books you have written have been rather narrowly focused and technical. When you are retired you can see the big picture. Now is a chance to pull all your knowledge and experience together into a readable, more widely accessible book, a kind of lifetime perspective on a topic.

In other words, it’s your legacy. If somewhat challenging – and who doesn’t need a challenge when retiring? – writing such a book can be immensely satisfying.

Conclusion

No, it’s not a good enough reason – for you at any rate – to retire just to save the university some money. But there is life after and outside the university. I had the most satisfying years of work in my life after leaving the university, although I loved what I was doing there. And seriously, universities do need new blood – and you don’t have to spill yours to make it happen.

Online learning and a knowledge-based economy

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Knowledge-based industries include entertainment, such as video games design

Knowledge-based industries include entertainment, such as video games design

Florida, R. and Spencer, G. (2015) Canada has two growth models, but we’ve been neglecting one Globe and Mail, Oct 7

Boyd, D. (2015) Canada’s party leaders neglecting renewable energy in election talks Globe and Mail, Oct 7

If you are not Canadian, please bear with me in this post, as although these articles focus on Canada, what I have to say will apply to many other economically advanced countries – and I will get to the online learning bit eventually.

The Canadian election

Three parties are running very close in the Canadian federal election, which takes place on October 19. All three parties (Conservatives, who form the current government; the NDP, the official opposition; and the Liberals), have made the economy a central plank of their campaign. In essence the election is being fought primarily on which party is best able to advance the Canadian economy.

Surprisingly though all three parties are very backward looking in their economic strategies. The Conservative government has based its economic strategy primarily around the resource-based industries of oil and mining extraction, and agriculture. It is also supporting free trade through free trade agreements with Europe (CETA) and 22 countries around the Pacific (TPP) as well as the 25 year old North American free trade agreement between Canada, the USA and Mexico (NAFTA), but still with high tariffs and protection for the Canadian dairy industry. Interestingly, there has been almost no discussion by the major Canadian political parties about the copyright and intellectual property agreements in these pacts, yet these have tremendous implications for developing home-grown innovative industries.

The Conservative economic strategy has recently run into severe problems due to a crash in commodity prices, and the oil industry in particular is in trouble due to excess capacity, low prices and increasing environmental and aboriginal land claim pressures that have resulted in difficulties in getting the oil to market.

The NDP, which has its roots in labour and the union movement, is pushing to support manufacturing industries, such as auto production. The Liberals are focusing on taxation and funding policies that are aimed at encouraging small businesses and protecting the current economy. The Liberals though have pledged a small increase (around ($100 million) to support incubators and new start-ups.

These are all very 20th century approaches to the economy, and frankly are not very different from one another at a strategic level. Where are the long-term strategies or plans that will support new knowledge-based industries?

The knowledge economy

Richard Florida, an urban economist at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, and Greg Spencer, a research associate, have pointed out in their article in the Globe and Mail that:

the real sources of sustained prosperity and rising living standards are knowledge, innovation and creativity. Canada has neglected the development of its knowledge-based economy….Cities are the central organizing unit on the knowledge economy, with knowledge and creativity concentrated in Canada’s largest city regions.’

Florida and Spencer then go on to define five key ‘pillars’ that are needed to build Canada’s knowledge economy:

  • increased urban density
  • a shift from investment in roads to an investment in transit and high-speed rail, to make communication quicker and easier
  • more compact and affordable housing in cities to encourage young knowledge-workers to come together
  • increasing the minimum wage and replacing low-wage service jobs with more creative approaches to service provision
  • increased taxing and spending powers to cities.

Noticeably they do not mention high quality post-secondary education.

Renewable energy

David Boyd, an environmental lawyer, in a separate article argues that Canada’s government to date has ignored the potential of renewable energy, focusing instead on trying to extract and move carbon-heavy oil, gas and coal, through pipelines and tankers. Instead, he argues, future economic growth will be driven by developments in renewable energy such as solar, wind and geo-thermal power. He argues that Canada has the potential to generate 100 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources within two decades.

Canada has an unenviable reputation as being a major emitter of greenhouse gases, particularly through its production of heavy crude and bitumen from the oil sands. It is increasingly clear that there will be an increasing charge on the production of such carbon, mainly through direct carbon taxes (as has been the case here in British Columbia for a number of years, with success in driving down carbon emissions) or indirect cap and trade schemes (which are coming in Ontario and Quebec). Even major investment funds are now looking at carbon-emitting industries as high risk investments for the future. As a result the Canadian oil industry must now find cleaner ways to extract and treat oil and petroleum.

Renewable and clean energy however depends on invention and innovation to develop economically efficient sources of energy. In other words, it needs a heavy investment in developing new knowledge that will drive the development of new, clean technologies.

The increasing demand for high level knowledge workers

Neither article in the Globe and Mail made the link to the need for high level knowledge workers to grow the knowledge economy. It is as if it is almost taken for granted that Canada’s universities and colleges will develop such workers. However, although Canadian institutions may train academic researchers, engineers, media designers and developers and entrepreneurial business people, they need to have the right skills to work effectively in a knowledge-based economy. We are talking about a highly competitive market here. All advanced developed countries want to be leaders in innovation. Will Canada produce the researchers, engineers and managers with the right skills for a knowledge-based economy? In particular will they develop people skilled in knowledge management, creativity, problem solving, design, entrepreneurialism, critical thinking, etc.?

Online learning and the knowledge economy

This is where online learning becomes critically important. In my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, I focus specifically on the kind of skills that will be needed in a knowledge intensive economy, and demonstrate that online learning has a key role to play in developing such skills (although of course it is not the only way).

However, this is just one person’s contribution. Canada needs to focus much more on identifying the knowledge and skills that will be needed in knowledge intensive industries and ensure that our educational institutions know how to develop such skills. In particular are we using the appropriate teaching methods and technologies that will help learners develop these skills and knowledge?

Those countries that can harness new knowledge to clean and innovative industries will surely be the economic drivers of the future. I just wish that our political parties would pay more attention to developing strategies that support a knowledge-based economy, because the fate of Canada as a prosperous country with an enviable standard of living and quality of life absolutely depends on this.