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We are all precarious now. Can technology help us?

The changes some providers are making in response to Covid-19 may prefigure a larger change in the way we think about higher education. Mark Johnson asks what happens when we are all precarious.
This article is more than 4 years old

Mark Johnson is a Senior Business Partner in the Department for Strategic Change at the University of Liverpool.

Universities in their modern, globalised, massified, form have emerged amid the general belief that the world is a safe place.

Being predictable and safe meant that the only thing to worry about was gaining certificates, skills, jobs and a place to live. Coronavirus has quickly changed this reality.

As universities close their campuses and move teaching online, this is time for scholarly reflection, but it is also a time for rethinking the organisation of the new social environment for thought and communication – which means our educational technologies, and particularly our organisation of university technology.

A world that is no longer safe

The extent of the unsafeness of the world is not just the virus itself. In its socioeconomic wake there will be destruction of a fabric of assumed safety which has sustained universities and their supposed “market”. The priorities for institutions are now technological. But this is not business as usual, and not simply a matter of pushing people into the virtual learning environment.

The Computer Services department, like many services departments in the university, has established its practices in a safe and predictable world. Its priorities, like everyone else, is to ensure that its world remains predictable. Consequently, the control of technology – which has always had the potential to destabilise the environment – has remained tight and restrictive. For staff and students, the result is often “computer says no”. In an unsafe world, this won’t work.

The effect of campus closure

The shock of “closing the campus” in the short-term, may simply amount to a change of practice: teaching and research will move online as far as possible, providing at least a semblance of “normality” which will allow staff to be gainfully employed, and more importantly, paid – at least for the time being.

For adjunct faculty, like millions of other “precarious” workers who signed their zero-hours contract because “precarity” was the only thing on the table, there are few protections from what is to come. Income and housing, followed by food, will be at risk. Alongside it will come potentially devastating and more serious psychological effects which will exacerbate the underlying anxiety that the precarious contract induced in the first place.

We are all precarious now

Covid-19 means that the whole world becomes unsafe for everyone. Everyone is about to become precarious. Whether one works for an airline, bank, cafe or for a hospital, risks will either be impending financial hardship as the business goes bust, or immediate risk to personal or family health, or both. Students will look at their parents and grandparents, and at the world, and wonder about their own promised graduate premium, their debt, and puzzle over which way to turn as they stare at their Moodle.

Precarity became possible partly because of the institution’s commandeering of powerful online tools. These tools posed a threat to the existing structures and practices of institutions in much the same way that printing threatened the Catholic church in the 15th century. Commandeering these tools to neutralise this threat and reinforce institutional power was exactly what the church did, and it is what universities have done over the last 20 years. In a safe world, this appears to have worked, despite the protestations of many.

In an unsafe world, this looks different. Universities will offer their classes and assessments online. But students and staff, now freed from the constraints of campus, may discover that the most exciting educational experiences online are not produced by the rigid curricular diet of the university. The one thing to look forward to in this period is a burst of online creativity and innovation, much of it by the young. It is unlikely to be led by traditional universities who see their survival in merely “keeping the business going with online courses.”

Why has it taken a pandemic to challenge the campus?

It’s worth asking why it took a pandemic to push us into using tools for online teaching and learning which have been around for over 20 years. Despite the precipitously rising costs of running the campus, the campus has successfully defended itself as the “gold standard” in education. Those costs became an increasing financial burden on society – manifested in giant hikes in tuition and student housing, borne directly or indirectly by government, banks and individuals. Institutions, by their nature, want to maintain their structures and practices in the face of environmental threats, but they have done this by absorbing ever more resource from society.

In the same way that the Catholic church locked printing into the sole purpose of industrialising their indulgence business, today most institutions seek to “lock down” their educational technology to reinforce what happens on campus. Online learning platforms allow teachers and students to do very little beyond presenting learning content and exchanging messages. Only recently with some new platforms has video become more integrated into the interactions in the VLE (long after YouTube indicated what was possible). Analytics has only interested institutions insofar that it claims to help prevent students leaving.

Reacting to an overwhelming environmental threat

It is only when an environmental threat appears which overwhelms the institutional fabric that change is forced upon it. Viable institutions in the impending unsafe world are the social media giants, global media firms like Netflix, and those upon whose infrastructure everything else sits (e.g. Amazon, Microsoft, IBM). Unlike universities, these are open (or at least easily/cheaply accessible) platforms. They are not “exclusive clubs” for which one has to have a difficult-to-obtain passport to gain entry. They do not declare the artificial scarcity of knowledge. They do not accord social status by one’s association with them. Instead – in the case of Facebook, Google, Microsoft, etc – they provide the means and tools by which one might enhance one’s social status through creativity and innovation. Universities will need to learn how to do this.

If the roots of institutions lie in human relations, which themselves lie in our biology, consciousness, curiosity, our need for love, community and conversation, then space is now needed for teachers and learners to experiment with new ways in which those relations can be expressed technically. The closest we have to this now are the open technologies of social media, not the locked-down and closed technologies of universities.

Innovation and uncertainty

The adversity of an unsafe world creates huge uncertainty, and in turn creates the hunger for community. In our most ancient universities, which today have become “knowledge markets” like everywhere else, the vestiges of these origins remain: the quad is architecture for conversation – a kind of ancient Facebook.

The impending unsafe world is not dissimilar to that from which the Universities originally evolved where the plague and persecution were not uncommon. But our Covid-19 world is a place where only technology can provide the context for the community which we will all crave.

University computer services departments need to unlock technology to provide the tools whereby students and teachers can enhance their status through experimentation, creativity and innovation, and perhaps rather less by certificates and exams. In short, institutions need to reorganise the way we manage and control access to tools. Teachers and learners will need spaces to innovate freely and to become more equal actors in the technological space.

The “computer says no” will no longer work. Where computer services departments may once have sought to restrict and control technology, the institutional need to loosen their grip is urgent.

6 responses to “We are all precarious now. Can technology help us?

  1. Absolutely! Indeed, social media’s active use especially for online learning has been long overdue. For now is the time to engage the digital tools like social media and others which are obviously free and with global reach, as front line online learning resources. Instead of always referring to them as just potential alternative pedagogical tools. An opportunity to demonstrate the doability and practicality of using these tools contextually in our online learning environments. Going forward I hope the universities will now rethink proactively and not wait for an epidemic to expose them.

  2. What ‘world’ is Mark talking about? for most of the 20th century, and into the 21st, large parts of the geographical world have been chronically insecure or subject to major acute social disruptions. From his reference points, his world seems to extend no further than Western Europe and North America, but one suspects the UK’s borders are the real limit.
    Anyone with more than a passing knowledge of historical events in Africa, Asia, and South America, or professional contact with academics living or from those continents, will be aware of catastrophic events, including political upheavals, economic crashes and epidemics (including SARS) in this timeframe. These all occurred within living memory and have had an immense effect on national, regional or continental stability as well as a lasting impact on individuals’ perspectives.

  3. Despite many warning signs over the past 5-10 years, it has taken coronavirus to really shake the tree of the fundamental belief in the long-term viability of the campus-based University (at least for UG courses). This discussion was inevitable and has now been brought forward, and good on Mark for being brave enough to share his thoughts. However … I am very unsure about the comments regarding Computer Services departments, on a couple of fronts:

    1. Control: In my experience CS Depts do not seek to lock down access for its own sake, rather they seek to impose standards that, amongst other benefits, provide security and supportability, and enable data quality and integration. This is inevitably a losing battle as other professional service departments often do their own thing without reference these standards and IT has to mop up the mess later on
    2. Data privacy and security will become even more important in an increasingly online educational world. Now is the time to invest in IT to ensure that institutions can provide secure, resilient and personalised learning wherever learners are based and in whatever channel (including the campus) they wish to interact through

    I do wholeheartedly agree that a) students will increasingly question the graduate premium given the increasingly – and now accelerated – precarious nature of the economy, and b) there is a raft of edtech innovation coming through that has the potential to further disrupt the traditional campus-based system – although much of it by older people!

  4. Quite right! Indeed what’s interesting about precarity and inequality across the world is that the distinction between the precarious world and the “safe” world has been upheld in the interests of those who are “safe”. How different is the distinction between the cheap exploited labour that made what is sold as the expensive sport shoes, from the distinction between the precarious academic and vice-chancellor? It’s not just that the inequality is there in both cases, but in both cases it is systemically entailed. In other words, inequality may be an epiphenomenon of the systemic maintenance of the distinction between precarity and safety. So along comes a virus that breaks down all distinctions…

  5. I think another way of putting is to say that the need to uphold (impose?) standards and comply with data protection legislation is the Computer Service department’s problem which they must address in their work for the university. We all tend to solve our own problems. Unfortunately the Computer Service department’s problem is not the same as the teacher’s problem, or even the learner’s problem. And in solving their own problem, Computer Services can create more problems for others… This is not the fault of any individual, but it is a consequence of the way we have organised technology in institutions.

  6. > large parts of the geographical world have been chronically insecure or subject to major acute social disruptions

    True enough, but that has been largely invisible to (or ignored by) the institutions Mark is talking about in the Western (and Westernised) world. One way of looking at this is that the membrane around those institutions, and the societies they sit in, has suddenly become more porous to the social disruptions you are talking about.

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