Piecework

I forget why exactly, but I’m on a daily email list for the US fast food industry. I’ve learned all sorts of colourful facts about change management practices and customer loyalty schemes, and it’s getting harder to avoid the conclusion that higher education institutions and quick service restaurants are marching to a similar drum. Mad Greens*, for example, is currently pitching for the same trifecta of improved service quality, compliance and productivity that informs most of the divisional workplans I’ve seen recently. Awkward, really.

The other place where we seem to be learning from the quick service trade is in seasonal hiring and firing. Here’s how they put it:

It’s no secret the employee turnover in the restaurant industry is high, and there’s a consistent need to find and hire the best talent. … Exacerbating the problem is that many restaurants frequently rely on inefficient paper-based processes to hire and onboard their staff, often doing so frantically when they find themselves short-handed for a shift and an applicant walks in the front door.  But such practices are always costly, and invariably lead to additional problems ranging from the merely annoying to utterly catastrophic.

It’s hard to overstate how painfully familiar this is. We also react to industry competition with a service model that avoids turning anyone away, and instead depends on frantic just-in-time hiring. So we also end up causing problems that are annoying—and sometimes catastrophic—not just to us, but to the people we hire.

Many casual academics in Australia juggle our erratic hiring cycles with a more long-term engagement with Centrelink welfare payment regulations, that flows on to their relationship to income tax and family benefits. These are critical factors on marginal incomes: people trying to pay their own bills, let alone meet the needs of their families and children, do need to know exactly when they’ll be paid and how much.

Even when institutions handle this well, and everyone gets paid on time, hourly paid academics are still left with the practical limitations of pieceworker rates for tasks that no one has taken the time to measure.  It’s one thing to say that an hour spent with a class is a real hour; but another to estimate that a pile of student assignments each takes the same fixed amount of time to grade.

Grading student writing shouldn’t feel like fruitpicking, and yet in Australia it’s paid according to the same pieceworker logic: the total number of students assessed, multiplied by a plucked-out-of-the-sky flat rate for how long on average an assignment of a particular length should take an average competent marker to grade.  (The “average competent” calculation in industry pieceworker rates is itself a piece of work. If you want to know more about how Australia’s fruitpicking industry handles it, make a cup of tea and sit down with Fair Work Australia’s explanation.)

The thing is that giving feedback on a piece of written work—and then another, and then another—might in practice average out, especially for experienced pickers markers, but mostly it doesn’t. This is because it’s really important. Higher education claims to develop students’ abilities to communicate effectively in writing, and feedback is key to developing that ability. It’s assessment, but it’s also part of the overall practice of supporting students to continue to learn, and to graduate with confidence.

The more academically underprepared the student, the more protracted grading becomes. It takes time to fish out and explain the rules of written expression, effective structure, useable style. Students are genuinely grateful for careful, personalised help with writing; it makes a practical difference to their later success. It’s at the heart of the value that we claim to add, and probably more important than anything we do in the room.

But the pieceworker calculation penalises care. Hourly paid academics who take a bit longer to try to help underachieving students turn their situation around end up paying for it out of their own pockets. Their real hourly rate plunges from a figure that looks attractive in relation to other kinds of casualised employment, to something much closer to the rate they’d get for stacking shelves or turning burgers. Grading speed is implicitly rewarded over grading quality—not something we mention when we’re selling the virtues of a quality education.

And here’s the heartbreaking bit: our casual colleagues aren’t collecting the reward.  Far from gaming the system in an attempt to get their real hourly rate back up to something that reflects their experience and qualification, they’re volunteering again and again to drive it back down to fruitpicking and dishwashing rates by putting in the time—on email, in discussion forums, over coffee, in comments on essays—to try to help students do better in the next assignment or the next class.

Will edtech help?  Will hourly paid tutors develop comment libraries that they can drag and drop in Grademark or Remark or Lightwork or any of the other systems that will enable this role to be performed more quickly, in more machine-like ways? In part, this depends on us getting our act together to put these opportunities in place.

But are we preparing to pay sessional staff the professional development time that they will need to develop these libraries? Our current track record in supporting their professional development or compensating their real contribution to our teaching resources suggests that this is hell-freezing-over unlikely.  More obviously, we might supply them with prepared comments we’ve written, that they can drop onto the student page like pre-set burger toppings.

Let’s stop for a moment and think about how that might feel.

Where will change come from, if all this is so discouraging? Walking across campus the other day with a colleague, I was impressed by the conversation she stopped to have with two students close to graduating, whom she’d taught in their first year. She asked how they were getting along, and what they were planning on doing next. They wouldn’t have known from her attitude or her investment in their progress that she waits every semester to know whether she has work (despite the fact that we know every semester that we depend on casual hires), and that in the between-times she heads back to the dole office.

Perhaps they should, because if another group understands casual service work, it’s students. And if these two groups got together, I think they’d start a new conversation on university campuses about the long-term social and personal consequences of whole communities making do in the piecework economy—a conversation higher education should lead, but for obvious reasons, can’t.

*Not what you think, Australia.  It’s a salad bar franchise.

Just not that into you

New Faculty Majority Board Member Jack Longmate, writing in the NFM blog this week, thinks that there are fresh signs of “potential for traction in public policy thinking” in relation to the conditions faced by academics working off the career track in America’s higher education system.

His optimism has been sparked by Robert Reich, Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, who’s been speaking out against “casino capitalism”.  Reich was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration, and he writes on the multiple conflicts of interest between public policy and the freewheeling trade of paper assets for short-term gain. Specifically, he’s suggesting at the moment that there’s something wrong with a vision of economic recovery that doesn’t include some means of valuing and protecting fair distribution.

For graduate students and others who are trapped in the adjunct/untenured/casualised/precarious/what-have-you economy, the prospect of impact on public policy is a far horizon. The fairness or otherwise of the deal on offer is much more directly affected by swamp level policy, made by those who manage the divisional budget out of which their wages are paid. This is where it can look as though Jack Longmate is right when he says that the calculation of risk to the employer goes like this:

… if we can sucker people into taking a bunch of part-time, temporary jobs, with lousy pay, working conditions, no offices or professional development (because let’s say we don’t consider them professionals) and spotty benefits on a permanent basis, let’s go for it

Ouch. If you’re an administrator who sets the terms for pay and conditions for the casually hired, please don’t write in. Sadly for everyone, it doesn’t matter how nice you are, or how hard this is for you. None of these actual thoughts need to have been said out loud in an actual policy-setting meeting, for it to feel this way to someone on the sharp end of a decision to cut hours or courses, or redefine tasks, in a way that leaves them doing more for less.  In a really tight budget, your needs and theirs seem pretty irreconcilable.

But it’s not all about the money. The part that I think will resonate with Australian casual academics relates to the times that hiring practices and working conditions send the strongest possible signal that universities “don’t consider them professionals”.

This might not be a public policy matter just yet, but is it good institutional policy? Institutions that are comfortable outsourcing core customer relations work to casual workers have made a three-part risk assessment: firstly, how low can service costs go before they flow through to customer satisfaction?  secondly, how much additional management work can the minority permanent staff pick up without negative impact on other business? and thirdly, how reliable is the locally available supply of suitably qualified replacement workers, if morale drops below a level that the current workforce will tolerate?

The risk for Australian universities is that their casual academics are among the most skilled and educated in the workforce. Unlike university students, who really are stuck with low-paying casual work because they aren’t yet qualified to escape, casual academics are at minimum degree-qualified. They’re experienced, informed, adaptable and exceptionally professional; they’re communicators, researchers, writers and project-managers; they have excellent teamwork skills; they’re used to working without supervision; they can handle difficult people and challenging situations, and they’re legislation compliant; they can lead and they can support; they deliver on task, on time, every time; and they’re really smart. Oh, and they’re also experts in their fields, some right up to the level of being PhD-qualified.

But they don’t leave.  Why is this?

I’ve been thinking about this since I got caught up briefly this week in a brisk and difficult exchange of views between Amanda Krauss (“Worst Professor Ever“) and Karen Kelsky (“The Professor is In“), over whether or not the current adjunct culture in the US is a “martyr culture”, or whether adjuncts are genuinely “oppressed”. Both are recovering academics who’ve gone on to start different businesses on the basis of their experience and expertise, and both offer the advice that “it’s OK to quit”. Both are active in commenting on the state of higher education in the US.

The exchange also pulled in Cedar ReinerLee SkallerupMelonie Fullick and Vanessa Vaile of the New Faculty Majority. I’m sure Jonathan Rees was in there at one point. The gist is this: despite the fact that many academics with tenure are lobbying hard to improve the working conditions of their untenured colleagues, some are also wondering how to ask: what if it would be better for you to walk away?

The answers are consistent, and sad.  Here’s my observation from conversations with casually hired colleagues in Australia. They’re accepting long-term but perversely insecure work on the off-career track for a mix of three reasons: they’re asked to stay, and this feels good (especially at times when PhD progress doesn’t); they’re calculating that their commitment will somehow pay out in the end; and they feel that there’s nowhere else to go in the local job market (this is especially tough for casual academics supporting families and dependent children).

Does their situation amount to exploitation, abuse of trust, or codependency? Amanda Krauss’ tough love position is that “people with choice need to stop feeding themselves into an exploitative system”; Cedar Reiner takes a different view: “how do we choose not to do what we love?” I’m not sure what I think, but I do know that every time I’ve found myself justifying something in terms like these, the situation I’ve been in hasn’t really been all that healthy for me.

But how do you judge, in the middle of the push-pull self-esteem mess you find yourself in, whether or not things might really be about to get better? Here’s a test casuals might like to apply. Does the institution asking you to come back have a strategic planning document in which it sets out its institutional aspirations for doing things well and enhancing its reputation, and does this include a clear plan for the development and career management of its academic and professional staff?  That’s not the question, though. This is: does this same strategic planning document, which will have gone through multiple working groups and committees and consultation processes and been signed off at a high level, also explain how it intends to support, develop and respect your professionalism as a seasonally hired academic worker?

If it doesn’t, then you can make your decision to stay, go, or try to achieve a better deal on an informed basis, because now you know one thing (and so do your tenured allies): at the highest level, where resourcing decisions are aligned to the institutional strategic plan, they’re just not that into you.

That’s the part that it will help us all to change.

Guarding the well

Something I learned in high school history has come back unexpectedly while I’ve been brooding about Jonathan Rees’ opposition to MOOCs and his views on what they threaten.

A couple of miles away from the place where I grew up is this beautiful Iron Age hill fort:

Old Sarum iron age hill fort, Wiltshire, UK (image borrowed from english-heritage.org.uk)

Within the inner circle are the remaining stone foundations of an original castle, and—critically—the well that stored water for the whole settlement. Soldiers controlled the resources in the middle, and the villagers and clergy lived in the outer circle, in wooden buildings of which nothing remains. In the early 12th century, exasperated by disputes with the castle guard over access to the well, the clergy took off with the community and restablished the city in a new location, where it still is today.

It’s a metaphorical stretch, but for me this decisive, strategic and disruptive move is a caution to those who are guarding the well of traditional higher education.  For a long time, we’ve held the inner circle, letting prescribed numbers in across narrow bridges that we also control. We’ve enjoyed the security of higher ground, protected by an impressive moat.  But here’s the tricky part: we only get to do this as long as the whole village accepts the way in which we manage their resources.

In other words, we’re not kept in business by market demand for the service we supply, but by taxpayer-voter consensus that a public higher education system is national infrastructure worth funding, even though the majority of the population don’t get to use it. Looked at this way, Australia’s target of 40% of 25-34 year olds being degree qualified, is also a target of 60% of the population not getting above themselves—that’s the uncomfortable consensus we have to maintain.

And in return, we offer something that’s under our exclusive control. This is why even though interested learners can now access free, open, online course content from anywhere around the world, this capacity on its own doesn’t change much, for a simple reason.  Ryan Craig of University Ventures, writing for Inside Higher Ed, points out that:

the threshold issue is the gap between non-credit-bearing MOOCs and meaningful credentials, currently in the form of associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. … We would live in a better world if love of learning were the key motivator for payment and persistence in higher education.  Alas, based on the 85 percent drop rate in Thrun’s non-credit bearing MOOC, we can fairly conclude that it is the credential that attaches to you for a lifetime.

In other words, as long as there’s a gap between MOOCs and massively open online degrees (MOODs?), the self-accrediting degree-awarding power of traditional institutions is safe in the keep.

Ryan Craig doesn’t think the world’s elite institutions will start awarding degrees assembled out of certificates of completion of even their own massively open course offerings.  Why would they?  The money they can throw into high quality resource development is small beer in relation to their overall budget. They can put their content online where others can access it for free, and as users and reusers we’ll all be doing our tiny, abject bit to promote their global reputation—potentially even creating a new future indicator against which they can rate themselves in rankings season.

But he sees the potential for a more disruptive MOOC-led shift coming from a different kind of university, that will somehow find a way to offer a low-cost, no-frills education using the mass transport model, airline-style:

It could be a private-sector university.  Or perhaps a very innovative traditional university with a clear vision of educating and granting credentials to millions of qualified students from around the world, along with a willingness to throw aside its existing model.

This is exactly what worries Jonathan Rees: what else will be thrown out, along with the existing model?  If MOOCs represent a threat to the working conditions assured by the existing model, should we be opposing them now, on principle?

I agree that the Stanford-style MOOCs present a bluntly unappealing vision of worsening rank divisions in the global academic workforce: a small number of international scholar-superstars, a larger number of tenured faculty operating as local learning management franchisees, and an even larger number of local and virtual adjuncts competing on the world market to offer the best coaching service at the lowest rates. Companies like this one who have already built a business on capturing outsourced student support tutoring business will be in the front line to capitalise if traditional universities think this is the right way to position themselves.

But before we haul down the portcullis, it’s worth remembering that the older, flatter connectivist MOOCs have been built on really different principles. They use a loosely networked model of peer collaboration to support participants working together on shared ideas, not just standing about as witnesses to the spectacle of expertise. They’re genuinely open to passers-by, as I found when Vanessa Vaile invited me to check out a facilitated discussion of digital identity on Bon Stewart’s blog during the final weeks of #Change11. And they demonstrate that effective participation in a large community of strangers requires social confidence and the capacity to set your own goals and navigate your own journey. That’s why they require less in the way of tutoring, but it’s also why they’re not going to replace undergraduate programs, where much of this capacity is still to be acquired.

So the place where MOOCs could really challenge universities is in our attempt to hang on to the contract for graduate professional development.  This is post, post-compulsory education, and it’s where universities often seem to be at their most regrettably business-focused, offering programs that are less fully realised than they might be because they’re not able to attract a large number of students to a particular campus or location. They’re also not flexible, or mixable, and by definition they’re restricted in entry, which means they also act as a licensing system for the undergraduate services we offer.

What if we stopped guarding this well? What if we all started working openly across institutions at the graduate level? This way, we would share the role of facilitation, provide more collaborative models of expert thinking, and offer wider access to a much more imaginative range of graduate-level offerings with a much more open model of cross-institutional accreditation. This way, students who want to pursue a self-managed and self-tailored approach to their later learning and professional development could do so with others from around the world.  What would we lose?

And what would we gain?

Scare tactics

OK, so clearly there’s a move on in the world of elearning conferences and events to shake academics out of our usual torpor.  As everyone knows, we don’t have much to do, and what we do pull off shows not a skerrick of imagination or even rudimentary competence.

So let’s get the email about Blended Learning 2012 out of the way first.  The event seems like a reasonable affair, but it’s clear that the pricing structure doesn’t anticipate someone like me getting along.  Seriously, $2,499 for a two-day event?  Digging a little further it turns out that the target audience is a bit more elevated.  “This event,” purrs the website, “has been specifically researched and designed for … ”

Vice Chancellors, Deputy Vice Chancellors, Directors of Learning and Teaching, Heads of Schools, Directors of IT, Heads of M-Learning, Heads of E-Learning, LMS Implementation Managers, Heads of Flexible Learning and Heads of Blended Learning

$2,499 is obviously everyone’s idea of a reasonable two-day expense at that level. Interestingly, this sum would go most of the way towards buying an entire semester of teaching at adjunct rates for a tutorial’s worth of students.  In fact, set against this, two days of executive conference attendance would want to provide some pretty staggering insights into elearning to get a similar return on investment.

But the real problem is that despite the fact that I’m not any of the above, the email was personally addressed to me and the subject line was this:

Kate, are you designing your course to appeal to the modern student?

Well, gosh, no.  Was I supposed to?  But since you asked, I design all my courses by looking at nineteenth century photographs of pinched and miserable schoolchildren with chalk and slate tablets, and I go from there.

The thing is, if you’re inviting me to something that costs $2,499, you really don’t want to know about courses I design or the students I design them for. You want to know about budgets I control, and that’s why you’re selling the vendor tickets to this networking event at an even more impressive $3,399, so they can hang out with the VP-IT and the CIO.

But if you persist in directing this email to the trenches, then you do need to understand how many of our research projects started with internal seed funding not much more than this, and how many institutional teaching awards offer prizes less than this.

Which brings me to the other resistable offer in this week’s email. This one came in an email from Campus Review, the weekly higher education magazine* that describes itself as  Australia’s:

only dedicated higher education magazine written for the sector by an independent voice. Written with editorial integrity by respected journalists, and strongly focused on issues relevant to the sector including teaching and learning, technology, management, finance, recruitment, conferences and industry events, Campus Review is in touch with its readers.

It’s a bit of a performance to remember the password to CR, but I’ve always appreciated it as a source of credible, sensible coverage of Australia’s higher education news.

So I was genuinely surprised to discover that CR were emailing to check whether I’m “ready for the demands of the Facebook generation”, and on the presumption that I’m not, to invite me to a Blackboard webinar that will help me catch up to the realities of modern life.  (Just a note to marketing: I live with the Facebook generation.  They’re currently 10-12 years old, and they’re Directioners.  If you don’t know what I mean by this, do look it up.)

The painful irony of this communication is hard to overstate.  I don’t mean to single out any one LMS, but Blackboard really aren’t renowned among either educators or students for the engaging nature of their social tools.  It does seem as though they’re now having to tackle the increasing tolerance of their client institutions for platform solutions that include compensatory social tools alongside the campus LMS.  Or, as Blackboard would like us to see it:

As institutions grow they develop a complex ecosystem of diverse platforms, this becomes a roadblock to delivering a customised student experience and institutional agility. Student’s [sic] expectations are high, they assume you will deliver 24/7 service, Facebook-type eLearning interfaces, and course materials to their mobile devices. Benchmarking for this is now too long a process, seeking out proven practices and implementing them without delay is the only way to keep agile and ready for change.

This is a genuinely subtle proposition, presented as a planning emergency. I’m sure TEQSA would be interested to read that Blackboard have now decided that Australian higher education can no longer afford the time it takes to benchmark.

The short version of the invite is this: because the terrible design of social tools native to the typical LMS has encouraged faculty and  institutions towards a more open-minded ecosystemic approach, we now need to know more about all of Blackboard’s other tools that will deliver us from the messy solutions we devised to deliver us from the campus LMS in the first place.

This is complicated enough.  But what I’m really trying to figure out is why this opportunity was presented to me as such an antagonising email from Campus Review.  I understand that they have many commercial sponsors, as well as all their academic subscribers, but I also can’t help noticing that one of their current lead articles is a feature on academic conflict of interest in relation to commercial partnerships, to which I say: right backatcha.

A little while ago, I suggested that a company that had acquired a controlling stake in the critical infrastructure of the small Australian higher education sector would operate discreetly.  I’m now less sure that this is the case, and I’m genuinely uncomfortable at the revelation that the CR subscriber list has proved to be such an obvious commercial asset to the national Blackboard getting-to-know-you strategy.  Or have I missed something?

I’d really welcome a clarification from anyone at all on this, but in the meantime here’s my plea to anyone else who’s planning to send me a faux personalised email alerting me to the “Facebook-type” tendencies of “the modern student”: please stop telling me how to do my job, and please stop these disingenuous attempts at telling me that I don’t understand how the modern world works.  I do, really I do.  It is my absolute privilege to meet and work with “the modern student” every single day, and if you ever want to bring your vendors along to find out how we’re all getting along together (and how we’re already using Facebook-type free public tools to do it), they’re welcome to pay us handsomely for the opportunity, and we’ll put it towards something worth promoting.

* UPDATE: Yesterday I described CR as a weekly newsletter, and created the wrong impression for non-Australian readers that it normally comes out as an email, and the Blackboard advertisement was just included in that.  So I’ve clarified that CR is a weekly web-based higher ed magazine in Australia, and the email that I received from CR was on the single topic of the Blackboard webinar, headed “Are You Ready For The Demands of the Facebook Generation?”  I opened it because I was genuinely interested to know CR’s views in the context of this question. My objection to the tone of the webinar promotion is aimed at Blackboard; my confusion about CR’s reponsibility for the email and its header is that I think it’s at odds with their statement on independence.  Surely Blackboard can send their own emails?

Flip this

Here’s an innocent little grenade-with-the-pin-out question rolled into the conversation about whether TED-ED has provided us with a whole new way of engaging students by moving content out of class time: on the same day, Plashing Vole is asking whether we shouldn’t be making attendance at conventional university lectures compulsory?

It looks like exactly the kind of retro thinking that academics get accused of, given how much we hear about flipping, collaborative learning, students as producers etc.  It could be dismissed as a product of the British higher education system, some kind of wistful cultural preference for discipline and proper behaviour. But as it happens I’ve recently been a bystander to the same deliberation, so it’s global.  If we put so much effort into preparing lectures, if we pay a higher rate for their delivery, and if we still structure quite a bit of the discussion and assessment in our teaching around the lecture as marquee event, the logic goes, then why don’t we back ourselves up by making students attend them?

There are some messy vanities bundled up in this question.  What does it say about my lecturing style or content if students vote with their feet and don’t show up?  (Worse, what if they do, but spend the whole time quietly sledging on social media?)  On the other hand, what happens to the students who do continue to attend, and start to feel like the last parishioners in a declining Anglican congregation?  Surely they have a right to feel aggrieved?

But pride isn’t the real issue.  My colleagues are genuinely worried that students who bypass lectures miss out on key content that would help them perform effectively in assessment. None are sure how far to go in providing compensatory alternatives, including lectures slides, lecture recordings, and even potted versions of key points in person afterwards.  We’ll do our best, but there’s a point at which the email that says “I wasn’t at your lecture this week, if I missed anything important can you send me the notes?” does touch a tiny nerve.

So cheer up everyone: the case for the correlation between lecture attendance and grades is on our side, apparently.  The data is presented very effectively in the presentation embedded in this post by Jon Tulloch. Jon is responding to Plashing Vole, and the detailed evidence he’s gathered is worth working through (it’ll take two minutes, you won’t even need a cup of tea.)

There’s just the small problem—and Jon himself raises it in the final slide—that the clear correlation between attendance and grades doesn’t prove that attendance results in good grades; things could just as easily swing the other way.

So is there a good reason to make students attend lectures? Should we try to manipulate attendance like a kind of loyalty program or radio competition, with prizes for showing up? Or are we looking at it like welfare reporting and parole, with penalties for missing an appointment? And how are we going to know who shows up, as class sizes increase? If you’re going to make something compulsory, you do need a standard of evidence on which you can make a case for either incentives or penalties stick.

Obviously, Blackboard have a future vision for student end-to-end-lifecyle swipe cards at every corner of the campus, and will no doubt eventually microchip students for us, but until then we’re left with the pen and paper methods that already make the seminar roll call one of the most anachronistic and school-like of university practices. Is this really the tone we want to set, as we also try to explain the complexities of self-managed professionalism that university graduates will need in a churning employment market?

Perhaps a better question is this: if we were going to invent higher education right now, using all the tools available, and knowing what we know about how people learn, what would we include?

Dean Dad is asking if we’d include the standard length term or semester, for example; or whether we’d trial teaching broken into smaller chunks of time, given that completion rates weaken the longer it takes to complete a standard course.  In the same vein, I think we can ask whether if we were starting the whole show this week, we’d think “I know! In order to deliver the most important concepts and ideas, that I’ll want students to be able to retain accurately and review extensively over time, I’ll use spoken word.  Brilliant.”

Of course we wouldn’t. In one of today’s articles about TED-ED and the capacity it offers for teachers to customise high quality content that can be used as preparation for time spent together, high school teacher Aaron Sams puts it like this:

“I asked myself, ‘What’s the most valuable thing to do with the face time I have with my students?'” he says. “And the answer was not, ‘Stand up and lecture them.'”

So that’s one thing: lecturing isn’t the best way to use people’s time together.  It just isn’t.

But the big thing for me is that university education itself is post-compulsory. This is both simple legal practicality, and a principle that we should be careful not to mess with.  Our governments might want more students to enrol, and they might want to hold us reponsible for their retention.  But we have the privilege of working with adults who have chosen to enrol in a university degree in the context of each of their lives, and it’s this hard and entirely personal choice—rather than any sparkly edtech solution or educational philosophy that we rustle up—that is the foundation of their agency as learners.  That’s worth defending.

The hardest part

OK, so here’s a quick follow-up on yesterday’s post about Blackboard’s complex rebranding of itself as an open source visionary. Phil Hill thinks this isn’t the key point, and I feel that he’s right.

As I mentioned yesterday, Ray Henderson has issued a significant challenge to higher education, in the form of an offer “to solve the hardest problems in education, comprehensively.”

Educators are really familiar with being the experience of being told that we have a problem that someone is either keen to point out, or worse, keen to fix.  This is the daily grind of personal performance evaluation; something we loosely call “feedback” is the grist that we take to the mill of change every single day.

The Blackboard vision of the “end to end” management of the “educational experience” that should “build on everyone’s best” is shown here in their key promotional video.  If you’re wondering what all these changes mean, this is three minutes of your life worth giving up to watch it again.  It’s a vision of college life that won’t ring true for everyone, but it shows how broad the expectation is that students in the near future (these are not students with pointy ears or flying skateboards) will have all of their financial, communication and learning needs seamlessly supplied through one integrated suite of college-life tools.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the wire, institutions and their employees will glide through a world of handsomely visualised data all effortlessly transmitted from wherever it is anything is hosted.

Everything will just get much easier for everyone, in this world in which all of higher education’s hardest problems are solved.

Except that on this basis, it looks as though higher education’s hardest problems relate to how students find their way around campus, pay fees on time, shop at campus services, and can more easily buy tickets to the game, all while remembering to do their homework. Faculty are now sitting in much more comfortable chairs because they’re working wirelessly everywhere, merrily keeping tabs on everyone’s personal educational growth, while lecture halls are packed with animated and highly engaged students with the world’s premier educational content at their fingertips.

So, OK, I think educators who are invested in this potentially significant culture shift need to be leading a different conversation, about higher education’s harder problems.  Here are four that pop out for this ordinary educator.

1. Adjunctification (or casualisation, depending on where you sit globally): where are we at with this? What’s the business services IT wraparound that will make this standout feature of global higher education less corrosive for individuals, and while we’re at it, less compromising for the integrity of higher education marketing?  Do we even have a plan for ensuring that as learning becomes more complex and diffuses across more opportunities and locations, the majority of actual teaching which is currently resting with the precariously employed doesn’t become an ever more onerous personal IT cost that they bear?

2. The higher education toxic debt swamp: why exactly should students take on the personal cost of a college education, and what happens when they can’t pay it back?

3. What are we really doing in terms of social justice and global regional equity, in terms of widening participation while maintaining the meaningful status of a completed higher education program as a significant professional achievement?

4. Open needs also to be local, so how are we ensuring that the world’s educational content isn’t supplied by a small number of big institutions, most of them located in the metropolitan centres of the northern hemisphere, so that all educational institutions remain effectively engaged in conversation about what matters to their regional communities?

These are hard, interesting problems.  Higher education institutions, in mostly effective partnership with our students, think about these problems every day.  If the mission of our former LMS providers really is to help us solve them, then we need to be a whole lot clearer in explaining our priorities.

Hint: for most of us, it’s not about the ball game.

Hope’s temper

Hope must be tempered by the complex reality of the times and viewed as a project and condition for providing a sense of collective agency, opposition, political imagination, and engaged participation. … Hope expands the space of the possible and becomes a way of recognizing and naming the incomplete nature of the present.

(Henry Giroux, 2004)

The Adjunct Project is one of the most important outcomes of the recent US summit on precarity in higher education. Behind it is an impressively simple plan: invite academics who work without tenure to create a cloudsourced data collection project about their pay and conditions.

Data is the central nervous system of higher education. Without it, there are no key performance indicators, no reporting, no ranking schemes, nothing for auditors to audit. If the tenured to non-tenured ratio is reaching a tipping point in the US, as Vanessa Vaile of the New Faculty Majority suggests, then this tipping point is quantitative, not impressionistic. Colleagues without tenure have two choices: rely on their employers or their labour unions to collect the data on how close we all are to the lip of the waterfall—or collect it themselves.

So I really love this pragmatic exercise of hope. Every time I drop in to have a look, there are others exploring the spreadsheet at the same time as me. It may not be viral in the sense that the magnificently nutty double rainbow video went viral, but I feel that Lee Bessette is right when she says that it’s “as viral as you can go in academic circles“.

The reason higher education has a low bar for viral is interesting. It isn’t because we lack the capacity for sudden fannish enthusiasms, or that we’re missing the infrastructure and connectivity to pass these around our networks.  It isn’t that we’re a small global workforce either.  The easy explanation is that we’re each too busy buffing up our personal resumes to achieve collective impact on anything. But that’s not especially true either: levels of collegiality and trust among peers are still very high even in demoralised workplaces. We know how to work together.

But Lee has touched on something else about higher education workers that’s relevant to the future of The Adjunct Project: we’re parochial. Despite the global intellectual horizons of our disciplines, when it comes to the meat and potato stuff of how our institutions are run, and on what terms, we don’t typically look beyond our local situations to appreciate how much we have in common with others working in higher education around the world.

When I wrote about hourly-paid academic work last week, for example, I was asked why I had used the American term “adjunct” instead of a dinky-di (look it up) Australian one. In Australia, as it happens, we typically describe short-term stop-gap hiring either as “casual” or “sessional”, and neither “contingent”, “adjunct” or “precarious” are in wide use.  But we’re obviously talking about the same thing: the emergence of a two-tier system on which the whole set-up depends, in which the conditions granted to one group are driven by the need to keep the cost of teaching to a stripped-bare minimum, and the conditions granted to the other are driven by competitive recruitment policies aimed at hiring and hanging on to academics who will drive up the research quantum. It’s not rocket science.

So fair enough, the local terms we use are the dry ground on which we try to achieve the best working conditions that we can, and at one level I’m sympathetic to the idea that professional Strine (look it up) is what we need to tackle our own problems in Australia.

But we all need to be careful in retreating to go-it-alone parochialism on the future of higher education—not just those of us in smaller education markets.  Our expanding ability to work across national borders without leaving home, empowering as this can be for student learning, also significantly increases the capacity of our institutions to source their casual teachers at the best rate they can get on the world market.

This means that we need to think beyond the goal of managing local solidarity between tenured and non-tenured workers. And those of us outside the US also need to understand how to get beyond “playing at being American”, as John Caughie put it in 1990 about the experience of watching US television from somewhere else. Playing at being American is an idea that slides across easily to the practice of joining the global conversation on higher education. We fall for the idea that we’re all included, until those awkward moments when it suddenly becomes clear that the doors have closed, and we’re out in the hallway again. Josh Boldt, for example, who designed the Adjunct Project, calls it “the beginning of a national movement by the people, for the people”—and I think in fairness, this is also the best way to view the New Faculty Majority initiative for now.  But, you know, ouch.

So I’m a huge fan of the Adjunct Project, but I also think that the problems it’s been set up to address are rapidly escaping the scope of any national movement. Next week we’re expecting a different project to collect data on the Australian casual academic experience, and the critical issue is that these initiatives need to be combined.  The financial and ethical challenges facing higher education are already complicated, and now ed tech is accelerating the prospect of “race to the bottom” hiring on a grand scale.  To get ahead of this, and to produce coherent arguments about quality working conditions that don’t fall back on either technophobia or xenophobia, we need to settle quite quickly on some common aims for sharing data, ideas and ideals on the global problem of the academic precariat.

As both Henry Giroux and JFK (yes, the American one) tell us, hope works best when it’s tempered with a realistic sense of what can be achieved. So we need the data on the adjunct/casual experience, and we need to understand university budgets, government funding, and the challenges to long-term sustainability of a traditional industry currently losing control of both its product and its market. This tempering process, tough as it is, is what makes for real, social hope, and not just escapism—wherever we are.

(And all this is a long answer to the Plashing Vole’s recent question about the hope of international worker solidarity in traditional manufacturing industries, for whom international labour supply is a given.  We have significant infrastructural advantages over other workers when it comes to international cooperation. What stops us getting it together?)

Step right up

I’ve been asked why I’m so bothered by the invitation to sit in a dunk tank as part of our orientation activities for new students. Surely dunk tanks fall into the category of harmless fun? Don’t they?

OK, here are a few reasons, without even beginning to think about their resonance among students who’ve had enough of high school because of the bullying and are hoping for something better from higher education.

First, this is how they’re promoted:

Does Dunking Your Teacher or Boss in a Dunk Tank Make You Feel Like You Got Revenge?

Most events with a dunk tank rental involve either a boss or teacher stepping up to the tank. This is when you can normally judge their popularity by how long the line gets. So does this let you get revenge on them for the hard times they put you through?

You can’t fault the candour; I’m just not sure it’s the best way to start our relationship with new university students. What message are we sending them when we do this, especially our international students?  Dunk us now, because you’ll be mad at us later?

Secondly, I don’t buy the Bakhtinian bonhomie of the whole thing. The dunk tank says “Working in universities doesn’t make us dull or formal, and once you’ve dunked us you’ll have a pretty fair idea of what we look like without our clothes on, so that’s sure to have some kind of benefit in the long run.”  But I don’t think we have the first idea what we’re pitching for here, unless it’s the traditionally overplayed Australian value of egalitarianism—in which case it’s a pretty unconvincing attempt to pass off our power as the exception to the rule of our everyday cameraderie. If we really want to get serious about undermining rank and privilege in universities, this is a long road, not a carnivalesque sideshow.

And the sideshow element is the source of my third objection to this rubbish.  The problem with history is that if you know nothing about it, and care even less, it has a way of showing up at awkward moments. (Another example that has come up recently is a university branding strategy that mentions winning “hearts and minds” without a trace of irony.)

So where did dunk tanks come from? How long have they been around? And is there a reason why the mesmerising YouTube genre of dunk tank videos starts to seem a little samey after a while?  Sure, I was expecting that it would mostly be women being hurled into the tank, and I wasn’t at all surprised to read that (brace yourself) sometimes men even pay money for women to go into the tank wearing bikinis! Well, gosh.

But there’s something else.

Far from representing a longstanding tradition of allowing the uppity worker to take aim at the boss, dunk tanks have a really ugly racial history. Denis Mercier’s essay on 19th and 20th century fairground attractions that used African Americans as the source of sport for white folks gives a very different view of the relationship of power and humiliation to money-making:

The target games found in traveling carnival shows, seashore resorts and fairgrounds throughout the nation were among the most racially aggressive of all popular games. One popular carnival game which featured names like “Dump the Nigger,” “African Dip,” or “Coon Dip” did not require directly hitting a Black person, but hitting the target device attached to a delicately balanced plank upon which a Black person sat. The target, if hit squarely, caused the sitter to be dumped into the tank below.

In several accounts of amusement park history, the sitter’s role is spelled out more clearly. African American men and boys were hired to spend the day on the platform revving up the crowd of (white) patrons with insults, just enough that their eventual dunking seemed reasonable revenge for the taunting—in segregated venues that wouldn’t admit them or their families as paying customers. So the dunk tank recruited those who were most likely to experience racial violence from crowds into a bitter simulation of asking for it. If you know even one thing about lynching history you’ll see why this is a ruse of staggering cruelty.

African Dip
From 1936 advertisement for African Dip

And before we’re too quick to dispatch all this to the remote past, here’s a quietly horrifying photograph from 1965:

"Boy Working Dunk Tank", Dallas, 1965

Are we having fun yet?

So what I’ve learned from all this (apart from the fact that there’s a limit to the number of dunk tank videos you can watch without becoming slightly depressed) is that dunk tanks don’t bother me because I think we should be above this kind of thing, or because it’s undignified, or because it’s not what universities are supposed to be about.

And I don’t even think this excursion into historical poor taste reveals some secret truth about campus racism, or racism at corporate parties and the other fun events where dunk tanks might show up—any more than I think Prince Harry (or whichever one it was) is secretly a Nazi sympathiser because he thought that was a fun way to dress for a party with his mates. The fact that someone in marketing doesn’t know where dunk tanks came from isn’t a gotcha moment—a week ago, neither did I.

Nope. It bothers me because it feels as though we’re signing up for the sitter’s role out of a sense of helplessness as we lurch into the uncertain future of demand-driven funding.  We read every day that higher education is in crisis, that we’re out of touch, that big publishing can deliver educational content more impressively than us, and that even the final thankless vestige of our professionalism—academic judgment—can be exercised more efficiently by automated grading bots. To this we’ve now added a generalised fear of underprepared students as flighty customers, who will vote with their feet unless we can catch and keep their attention.

So instead of welcoming our students calmly and warmly, and letting them know that we have what it takes to support them in changing the world they will enter when they graduate, universities are turning to bad taste party stunts, and we’re making ourselves look desperate as we do — desperate for their approval, and in a strange way, desperate for their protection.

This isn’t what they want from us, and it really isn’t the best that we can do.

The robot and the muse

It’s that time of year. Predictions and lists everywhere, like the snow currently falling over Google, WordPress, bitly … (memo to northern hemisphere: look down very carefully and like Gulliver you will see the tiny little people from the other half of the world running around doing their Christmas shopping in shorts).

It happens like this every year, but higher education has a particularly worried tone at the moment, which is no wonder considering the lack of restraint in the headline predictions. Universities are under attack.  Will the internet kill education?  Will schools kill creativity?  Is contentless education the end of knowledge? Will anyone pay the inflated prices we’ve been able to charge for an in-person education if top-tier institutions are prepared to credentialise theirs online for a modest (although undisclosed) fee? Who will occupy MLA if not @occupyMLA, who seem to have spent too much time doing their grading in bed to build consensus around their cause?

It’s all very nerve-wracking, and it creates a climate in which frantic listmaking seems to make sense.  Among the blizzard of best-of this-and-that thinking, Audrey Watters’ series on the edtech trends of 2011 stands out, for tracking trends that are as much about higher education as they are about technology.  In a similar way, Dave Cormier’s seven black swans for education list takes a broad look at the ways in which education should brace itself for the possibility of surprise coming from more than one direction. Together they remind us that it’s difficult to get a fix on the horizon for higher education by looking only at what’s in the boat:

Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream, 1899

As Dave Cormier explains so well, end-of-year round-ups get us thinking about what we mind about, and they do this equally well whether our values are threatened or encouraged by the situation we find ourselves in.

For many of the writers I’ve followed this year, but for none quite so consistently as Jonathan Rees, something vital to the virtue of learning is threatened by the rise of online education.  His views are critical to anyone interested in edtech: he’s not a technophobe (far, far from it), he’s really committed to higher education, and he’s the only person I’ve seen who has invited a student to join the conversation.  And while I’ve disagreed up hill and down dale with his views on elearning since he first started carrying on about online charlatanism, I think he’s absolutely right to counter that all of this excitement has something fundamental to do with working conditions and hiring practices. While there might still be genuine reasons to believe in the transformative capacity of elearning where it’s resourced, supported and done well for the right reasons, it’s more important than ever to recognise that these disruptive values may not be what is currently driving its expansion across higher education.  Quite the opposite.

So for Jonathan Rees, who is very fond of historical technology metaphor, here’s a cartoon from the 1931 campaign to protect the 140,000 professional musicians who were making their living in American theatres.

The robot and the muse
The American Federation of Musicians protesting against recorded music at the movies in 1931, via paleo-future.blogspot.com

Of course there are good reasons not to rustle up quaint historical precedent to prove that change is inevitable and resistance is stupid (or change is stupid and resistance is heroic, whichever). It’s often a cheap shot to use the past in this triumphalist way, just as much as it is to use nature to prove the inevitability of market competition.  But I’ve returned to this surviving trace of a specific lost campaign again and again to think about the nature of the values that it champions:

Here is a struggle of intense interest to all music-lovers. If the Robot of Canned Music wrests the helm from the Muse, passengers aboard the good ship Musical Culture may well echo the offer of Gonzalo, to trade “a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of ground”. Are you content to face a limitless expanse of “sound” without a sign of music?  Monotony in the theatre – corruption of taste – destruction of art. These must inevitably follow substitution of mechnical music for living music.

Were they wrong about recorded music bringing on the monotony, corruption and destruction of art?  Well, perhaps not. But they were right to suspect that the era in which musicians had been able to make a living from accompanying live performances and silent movies was coming to an end.

Are we in the same position? Is the Muse of Education threatened by the Robot of Educational Technology? Just as in 1931, this oversimplifies a tangled weave of innovation, business speculation, consumer demand and freak opportunity. Technology isn’t exactly designed in a vacuum, and is capable of doing most of what we might wish for. So the edtech that we have tells us a great deal, symptomatically, about the wishlist that higher education has revealed to its would-be suppliers through the way that we speak about growth, mobility and risk—and perhaps the lesson from the current emphasis on analytics is that we should be careful what we wish for.

But there are problems that edtech isn’t well-placed to solve.  The chronic dependence of higher education worldwide on precarious labour is at last the sustained focus of concern among those who are fortunate enough to have secured tenured employment, not just those who are stuck in traffic on the freeway between one hourly paid gig and another, or who are up late in their kitchens working online for an institution in a whole other timezone.  (Or, in the case of one of the most gifted adjunct teachers I’ve ever had the privilege to work with, who are heading off to work as a department store Santa.)

At the end of 2011, casualisation and contingency are straining the relationship between universities, their staff, and their students, and draining our culture of respect, trust and collegiality. If this problem doesn’t become critical to universities in 2012, then perhaps we will also get what we deserve.

Is it time?

A few weeks ago, Professor Frank Larkin reported for the L H Martin institute that staff-student ratios in Australian higher education are a bit worse than are commonly claimed.

What makes this sensitive is the government’s ambitious target of 40% of 25-34 year olds being degree qualified by 2020. There’s some debate about the viability of this target, and the details are vague on exactly how this will raise national productivity unless we’re really prescriptive on what those undergraduates study, and what they go on to do. But for the time being, this is the cunning plan to keep Australia economically fabulous, and its success depends on Australian families believing in the value of supporting their adult children for a further three or four years while they struggle up the final stretch of the education mountain, acquiring a hefty personal debt as they go.

The complicated strain this places on families is significant, given that so many Australian undergraduates live at home, while their friends start working, or travelling, and generally getting on with their future lives. University students often talk about feeling stuck in a failure-to-launch scenario, going through the motions of something that feels too much like high school, while balancing part-time, seasonal, insecure employment with the social constraints of life at home with the parents.

As families are right now in the process of deciding whether to not to go through with this, the risk is that public debate over staff-student ratios is like the ongoing PR crisis about unflued gas heaters in school classrooms: even if your children and their teachers aren’t personally exposed to this problem, repeated discussion of it does wear out your confidence in the overall system. Primary school? Isn’t that where the heaters make everyone sick? University? Isn’t that where they’re all sitting on the floor and no one knows their name?

This seems to be why there’s been a strong counter attack this week, in the form of a background briefing paper issued by the Group of Eight.

What’s the real difference of opinion? Professor Larkin’s position is that the dramatic increase in student numbers since 2000 hasn’t been covered by an increase in permanent academic positions, but rather by a diversion to research-based appointments matched with a supplementary hiring of casual teachers. According to his altered formula, staff-student ratios are now at 1:34.1 across the sector, and the assumption is that the quality of the undergraduate experience is therefore also declining.

The G08 position is, more or less, “Oh no it’s not.”

Larkins asserted that universities have been pursuing their own research interests above all else and students are being short-changed as a consequence. He alleged that universities have been reclassifying academic staff in order to game assessments of research quality. He claimed that “the coursework student to T&R + TO staff ratio was concerningly high at 34:1 in 2010”.

The available evidence does not support his claims.

At 16 pages of charts and graphs, you can see how this could drag on.  In terms of reassuring the primary audience who might have been fooled into believing Australian undergraduate education is going to hell in a handbasket, the Go8 paper is at particular pains to point out that if there has been a tiny shift towards research only (RO) positions, matched by a really minuscule increase in casualisation to take up the teaching shortfall, then this is because a) research is very difficult and b) there’s more research being done, especially by G08 universities who win all the grants and c) there’s more emphasis being placed on research by rankings, and altogether, this may result in

the offer of RO appointments [as] a mechanism for attracting and retaining academic talent in the increasingly competitive environment, even though it may not align with the raison d’être of a university.

Well, no kidding.

The second part of the PR struggle over whether or not Australian universities are adequately staffed is casualisation. The Go8 euphemise this as “university staffing flexibility in times of intensifying competition”, and find it to be at surprisingly low levels, a fact they attribute to stroppy unions. Using a different formula, they find the overall staff-student ratio to be 1:16.8 in the G08 and 1:24.4 out in the wildzone where the rest of us work.

The confusion for those of us trying to figure out which of these sets of numbers is right is that university calculations don’t count “actual casuals” (this is the strangely poignant technical term) as actual people, but as fractions of imaginary full-time staff positions. Both teaching load and teaching labour in higher education involve smallish chunks of discrete human activity: a student sitting in a lecture here is a fraction of the nominal time allocated to a class which is a fraction of that student’s imaginary full-time student life; a teacher grading papers for a different class over there is also a nominal fraction of something.

All these bits and pieces are reaggregated into full-time equivalence in order to be able to tallied against each other, and it’s on this basis that we reassemble the founding myth of full-time students taught by full-time staff. But in reality, students are radically economising on the time it takes to be taught (and lecture attendance is the blunt measure of this), and both permanent and casual academics are volunteering more and more of their own time to compensate for this. So the myth of full time anything doesn’t seem like a solid starting point.

However, beyond the practical consequences of casualisation for institutions, and even beyond the impact on individuals whose personal and professional lives are being bonsaied by this strategy, there’s another economic factor that doesn’t get the consideration it deserves.

Our growing contingent workforce includes those who represent the apex of government investment in education. They are in every other respect the stellar success stories of higher education retention, having stuck with us all the way up to PhD level. Now they’re mostly not living at home (although some are), but they’re trying to raise families of their own, and the more teaching they do to help universities maintain their flexibility “in times of intensifying competition”, the worse their real career prospects become.

So while we’re making charts, perhaps we could apply some scrutiny to the fact that higher education’s current structural dependence on flexibility is confining many of its own most successful research trained alumni to the prospect of long-term job precarity as casual teachers—or to costly retraining for a whole other career. This seems like the exemplary case of a bad return on investment for all concerned.

(The posts that this week that have got me thinking about all this come from Dean Dad on course overloads, Ferdinand von Prondzynski on the business principles of retention and attraction, Lee Skallerup on the need to take action for adjunct colleagues, Jonathan Rees who is as worried as anyone about the structural problems of the academic labor market, and Stephen Matchett on the Go8’s dispute with Larkin’s report. But there are now plenty of others calling for advocacy on this matter, including the excellent New Faculty Majority.  I think, to use an Australian phrase, it’s time.)