Wednesday 1 January 2014

Why courses?

Computers blur distinctions - they're like a kind of solvent. They don't reduce one thing into another (it's not like reducing chemistry to physics) but they create common practices between different areas of activity where distinct practices had once prevailed. The common practice which is dissolving everything at the moment is data analytics. Whether you are looking at chemical signals in the visual cortex, traffic patterns across a city, dancer movements to music, sporting performance, interview responses or social networks, the same practices are emerging. Shared redundancy of practice is the main driver for innovation and change. And given what is going on, we should expect plenty of change in the next couple of years or so.

The institutions of education change less rapidly than the practices of scientists and artists. Institutions will wish to maintain subject divisions for the sake of stability in their own administrative apparatus. But increasingly this will simply not make sense. I know of no institutions which isn't still fixated on 'the course' as the central unit of educational delivery. Indeed, in the marketisation of institutions, there appears to be an attempt to beef up the educational quality of 'courses' (although nobody's really sure what that means!) But if we actually listen to what's happening on the ground, does it make sense to think about distinct 'courses'?

As I have argued previously (see, courses are a kind of branding of different parts of education. In effect they are risk manufacturing operations: a course creates the risks of not studying that particular course (you won't be a lawyer if you don't study law). But even law isn't immune from the breaking down of boundaries produced by computers. One may well find oneself in a senior position in law firm through technical skill, not legal skill (indeed, it is likely that the lawyer's job becomes increasingly technical in the future as IT takes over the grunt of case-work: topic modelling is likely to be transformative in that domain). So what happens is that the risk manufacturing operation of the University is countered by changes in technology which mitigate the risks. At the same time, the content of courses as 'assurances of employment' is likely to be undermined by increasingly rapid technological progress which demands new skills from domains well outside those traditionally considered appropriate. 

So what matters for the learner? Graduating from a course? Or simply having the self-efficacy, flexibility and emotional security to continually adapt practices which are common across all domains so that they can position themselves effectively in the jobs market. The key there is "emotional security", and the whole business of "student experience" as a process of building confidence, enhancing creativity, inculcating skills and dispositions will be increasingly important. Ironically, initatives like the Higher Education Academic Record ( are likely to become important, not because of the 'educational CRB-check' that they offer to employers (although this is likely to be a big thing), but because of the emphasis it places on 'achievements' outside the curriculum. It may be here that educational innovations like Service Learning really take off in the UK as a way of promoting non-curricula achievement. 

The course creates risks whose fiduciary qualities will be challenged by the fast-changing world. Maybe universities should focus not so much on 'the course', but on the opportunities that membership of the institution provides. That would mean Universities would have to prepare their learners to take advantage of available opportunities (only the most confident learners will embrace opportunities without any encouragement), to continually encourage participation and genuine achievement. That in turn requires a different kind of learner support. 

This is not a call to turn our back on the curriculum. The risks of 'the course' have not all gone away - and we should be realistic that some careers are well and truly barred to those who didn't study the right course. Rather, there is a need to better study courses as risk-making concerns, and to consider the ways in which those risks are changing in the light of changing technology. Any risk makes people anxious. Anxiety is the driver for the choice of one course over another (if I do x will I still be able to become...) But anxiety is an irrational compulsion. If institutions were to equip themselves with a deeper understanding of individual anxieties (not just those of the learner, but also of teachers too), whilst appreciating how new possibilities for mitigating risks are made available by technology practices, then we may have a foundation for rethinking educational practice, and focusing more directly on the thing that really matters to students: their confidence.

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