Thursday, April 03, 2014

Reflections and Interests: The Object of My Work

I am getting into that time, after 18 months of bootstrapping, when people have started asking whether the personal sacrifice is worth it. My views are unchanged: I am soldiering through my otherwise miserable life of lecturing four days a week to earn the keeps, so that I can do one thing that I really really wanted to do in life. This is about building a truly great educational institution.

I know it does not make any sense. Educational institutions are all about big money, big land and big buildings. It is about having grants and scholarships, playing to the tune of government policies. It is about rankings and prestige. You don't just get up and create an education institution, much less a great one. I disagree.

My ideas may be less quixotic that it sounds, and here is my defense: That we are at a time of fundamental discontinuity. I am one of those who believes that the next twenty years isn't going to be like the last twenty years. This is not just about Internet and technological nirvana, though that plays a big part in my thinking. This is also about how society will change because of this, and because our institutions may start changing fundamentally. And, if there is one institution which needs to change fast, I see that to be the educational institutions. This is, therefore, the object of my work: To build an educational institution which will be fit for the future. And, I don't see any.

That's a big statement: The world is full of great universities doing cutting edge staff. Technological progress isn't going to knock them away. But then, I see that those universities are somewhat blinded by the technology and prestige, and neglect the key role of education in the society - creation of opportunities. In fact, these great institutions do more to worsen our social problems, stratification and exclusion, than other facets of our society. And, so far, balancing the great institutions with the ones designed to 'widen participation' has been a failure.

Because there is no clear will to widen participation, not inside nor outside the education system. My perception is that this is all a big game, an elaborate system of status, power, politics of entitlement, with its own reality shows and reward systems. I see the narrative of the modern universities (which I intend to write about when my life has settled down a bit and I can spare time to write) in terms of the sub-narratives of adjunctification of the faculty, rise of processed knowledge and credential-driven student culture. So, we increasingly have institutions which look more like an ordinary business organisation than an educational institution, run by and full of managers who manage, but does not teach - and often does not know, and does not want to know, the students. The people who teach are most marginal in this bureaucratic organisation, rather like factory hands who come and go. The knowledge creation and its celebration is a process, structured and tied to the sources of money and their dictat, ever more increasingly: It is not the creative persuation but the ability to play the system that become, more often than not, the chief narrative of academic life. And, finally, students who are almost like shoppers, engage in a quest for credentials and careers. The confluence of all these factors to me, all of them entirely justifiable, though a touch tragic, represent the rise of the 'consumer university', which is an incredibly efficient organisation but one without any guiding purpose. It is like a factory which produces goods that no one should need except its own mechanics of marketing that makes people feel they need them: It is a great system till the music stops.

My work is based on the assumption that we are in stoppage time. If Robots take our jobs, the road to Nirvana through university education will become harder sale. Inconvenient truths like the fact that 28% of university graduates in the UK in 2007 was still without full time work after three years will become discussable. The graduate premium is really not a graduate bonanza, but rather reflect the disappearance of non-graduate jobs and salaries will become apparent. So, my point is how do we create a system of education which is inclusive, but yet open up its students with intellectual stimulation, imagination and all that is needed for the future.

Indeed, this is all connected to the view what the graduates will need for the future: What I am after a system that enables Global, Creative, Practice Oriented, Technology Savvy, Lifelong Learners. Agreed, I am only just at a starting line, and it is a lot to talk about. But, my lack of money shouldn't be taken for the lack of commitment or ambition: This is what I believe the graduates of the future will look like and I am still working on the nuts and bolts of an institution that can produce such graduates.

Such as, a distributed institution: This is not going to be based in one place but will be embedded in many communities in different countries, all linked together by technology. The learning will be all about creative application and exploration of practices in real context, in association with employers, social organisations and businesses, in these different countries. The pedagogy will represent a balance of teaching, project work and online learning: isn't that the shape of all learning to come? And, finally, the consistent focus will be self-responsible learners - we want to go back to those conceptions of education when one didn't stop learning at the attainment of the credential, but rather was admitted to a brotherhood of the seekers at that point. More prosaically, we want the learners to demonstrate initiative and take charge of their own learning. 

Right now, my work is imagining this new institution, and slowly, haltingly, imperfectly, putting this together one step at a time. There are days of despair, balanced by occasional joys of finding a fellow traveller; there are moments of privation, all made worth by some unexpected interests - all the things that start-up life means, but more, primarily because at the end of road, the promise of reward is so much greater than just making money.

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Will be to arrive where we started
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