Saturday, 7 February 2015

E-Learning, Employability and Political Ecology

One of the impacts of technology on education has been the opening up of a new kind of discourse relating to education: at its worst it is a kind of techno-bureaucratic babbling where everything that matters about education gets subsumed into an endless discussion about the relative merits of different kinds of systems that might be implemented which supposedly might relate to an educational concern. An example occurred in a meeting I once had about 'employability' strategy. To be honest, I'm not quite sure about what 'employability' strategies are really about. Of course, there's an obvious problem: students sometimes struggle to get graduate jobs after graduating, whilst we in education tell them that education is the route to getting jobs. Employability is a particular problem in education because the struggle to get a jobs runs against the marketing that got students into expensive education in the first place. Having told students "employment is scarce - you have to get a degree to have a chance", the university then turns round (somewhat sheepishly) and says "ah, but even with a degree, employment is scarce; now you also need employability skills!" - and we create a module for it. But at this particular meeting, something happened to the conversation. If the university was seriously going to consider the employability of its students, it would question that initial assumption its marketing makes: "employment is scarce". But it can't do this because to do so would undermine the rationale for much of what Universities (now) profess to be about (now that we have largely abandoned academic apprenticeship, higher learning, etc.). So when we talk about 'employability' we have to 'flee' the problem and talk about something else. Enter technology.

"Isn't it important that our courses are more closely aligned to employers? Should we maintain closer relations with employers?"
"Weren't we going to implement a CRM system for doing that?"
"Well we tried a few CRM systems. Farooq has one system in his department, and Rachel has another in hers."
"Shouldn't we have a university policy on CRM?"
"Well, we tried, but there were licensing problems and the budgets were cut"
"and there is an evaluation problem. Some CRM systems seem to be more effective in..."
"....... xxxxx CRM ..... xxxx "
".....CRM ... system..."
"Hang on. Do we really think having employers in a database is going to solve the problem of students getting jobs?"

*mumbling* move on to the next issue.

This is a classic example of "oversight" of a problem. In Cohen and March's 'Garbage can' model of organisational choice, most problems are not solved by organisations. Instead, problems are often addressed by 'oversight' - that is by engaging in a kind of ritual in the decision-making situation, where each stakeholder in the meeting - recognising the real difficulty of the problem - seeks to position themselves so that they are not damaged by the decision that is finally made. Technologies present a wonderful opportunity for 'oversight'. Cohen and March distinguish problems from solutions and opportunities. Solutions exist independently of problems; solutions exist in search of problems. Technology is a solution in search of a problem; so too is 'creating a module' and many other crazy things that result from decision making processes.

This is the really pernicious thing that technology has done to us. Instead of discussing real educational problems and the problems of organising institutions, the e-learning lobby keep feeding the education system with solutions looking for problems, knowing that all the stakeholders in education are looking for ways of 'overlooking' the real, apparently intractable problems that they face. Of course, there was always lots of oversight in educational decision-making (Cohen and March's original example was about decision-making in a University). Before we had technical solutions, there were bureaucratic solutions. And still, there are plenty of those which are used as distractions from dealing with educational problems (changing timetables, assessment regulations, and so on).

Worse still, some of the methods of problem oversight have found their way into regulative practices at governmental level. Quality is the obvious one. The qualities and value of an educational experience is a real problem; but solutions adopted and imposed on the rest of the sector are a poor match to the problems. Moreover, the mechanisms for inspecting the efficacy of the implementation of solutions offers even more technological or bureaucratic solutions in search of problems! Then the regulative oversight at a governmental level creates real problems for institutions which shape (and almost predetermine) the ways that these problems are address (or overlooked): the auditor's criteria, however far removed from the real issues, still have to be met!

What emerges is a rich network of problems, solutions and opportunities at different levels in society. As society continues to generate solutions, so its capacity for ignoring real problems increases. Indeed, the 'generation' of solutions is what often passes for 'innovation' - it might make money because everyone wants to avoid their problems, but it's ultimately pathological. Where does this all stop? Where are real problems that we can't ignore?

The politics and ecology of organisational decision-making stops with real injustice, violence, oppression and the destruction of habitat. Environmental degradation is much more closely related to pathological organisational decision-making and innovative solution-production than we might think. Universities have been alarmingly tied up with the arms industry since the 19th century: materials research, in particular, has an unpleasant side. The lives of immigrant workers in unfree parts of the world create conditions where expensive and sometimes exploitative educational offerings (some of them from UK institutions) offer individuals their only short-term fix for remaining in a country and maintaining their way of life (avoiding return to even less free parts of the world). In the west, well-paid professors (like everyone else) live revolving around economic 'necessities' which aren't at all necessary and which feed oppression and environmental destruction in other parts of the world (not just Apple, although not a bad example).

And all the time students need to find work. There is a political ecology of e-learning which makes the connection between the ways that we overlook problems, and the deep problems that matter. It is the difference between the work that is paid and the work that needs doing.


Martti Puttonen said...

Why you did not tried to get at a more contextualized and localized description, elaboration, explanation and deep psychological-sociological explanations about the contextually arisen and generated mechanisms that are at work at least tacitly... . Those conflicts are going on all the time as are all kinds of individual attempts of resolving them.

Mark Johnson said...

Hi Martti,

Is there a level at which one can talk of anything other than an 'ideal' person, or a transcendental subject? I doubt it.I suspect the most real we can be is to write narrative accounts (note these are not necessarily explanations!) that 'ring true'. That's why I like Cohen and March's garbage can - it's got an almost Shakespearian realism to it!

Best wishes,