2019 – Films of the year

Beginning my end of year series of posts with my annual film round up for no real reason. I don’t feel it’s been a great year for movies, I struggled to find ten I really rated, but I must confess I missed quite a few at the cinema that coulda been contenders. In the end though there are some great films in this list. So in no particular order, here they are:

The Favourite – Yorgos Lanthimos’s delightfully sordid, sweary account of Queen Anne and her competing favourites was as if Kathy Acker wrote an episode of Downton Abbey. It was also a reminder that the idealised version of Heritage Britain is a myth. And with Brexit we see the danger of that myth. But mostly it was a lot of fun, with three amazing performances from Colman, Stone and Wiesz.

Joker – a Scorsese love-fest with very direct nods to Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, the best thing about Joker was that it acted as a reminder that moral ambiguity can be part of mainstream cinema. The subversion of the comic book genre was the perfect vehicle to do this. And of course, Phoenix’s performance and the steps dance is already part of the cinematic lexicon.

I Lost My Body – it wasn’t a great year for animation, and the Disney live action remakes were mostly a disaster zone, but this charming French Netflix movie was a delight. Beautifully drawn it tells the combined tale of Naoufel’s fledgling relationship with Gabrielle, and the journey of a severed hand across Paris to be reunited with its owner. Definitely the best severed hand odyssey film you’ll see.

Crawl – apparently this was Tarantino’s favourite film of the year, but don’t let that put you off. Sometimes you just want to go to the cinema and see a tense movie, well constructed. In this creature feature, alligators are coming to town when a Category 5 hurricane hits. Haley, conveniently a competitive swimmer, is trying to rescue her father, trapped in his basement. There is no subtext, it’s just alligators trying to eat you, but it’s a blast. As trash horror actor Mary Woronov put it, “I knew what was art and what was shit. But sometimes the shit was more interesting.”

Avengers: Endgame – as Game of Thrones evidenced, bringing multiple storylines to a satisfactory conclusion is not easy. The culmination of years of those end credit teasers delivered for all. It was not quite up to the standard of Infinity War, but it was the only big summer film to deliver.

If Beale Street Could Talk – Barry Jenkins follow up to Moonlight was moving, angry, and absorbing. A love story set against all manner of institutional racism it was politics and humanity in a rich mix with a luscious soundtrack. But we all know what film won the Oscar. As someone put it on Twitter, If Beale Street Could Talk, Green Book would interrupt it.

Border – there was a decent clutch of films your accountant might classify as a “bit too weird for my tastes”: Under the Silver Lake and In Fabric are worth a watch. But my choice in this category is the Swedish tale of a customs agent who can smell emotions. She meets someone who shares her distinctive physical features and from this unrolls a modern take on Nordic fairy tales.

Booksmart – this film is perfect, from the moment we are dropped into the world of high school nerds Amy and Molly you immediately wonder why we haven’t seen characters like this before. Their cultural references, in-jokes and worldview are all authentic, and the film neatly plays with the high school movie cliches, veering towards them and taking just enough from them.

Midsommar – Ari Aster’s follow up to Hereditary was the best horror of the year, particularly when IT Chapter 2, and Pet Sematary disappointed. It slots effortlessly into that canon of movies about growing dread in perfect settings. What Aster manages so well is to ration the violence carefully so when it does occur in a graphic form, we feel the shock of the characters. Florence Pugh who was excellent in Lady Macbeth really cemented her position as one of the hottest talents around as the central character Dani, coping with family grief and a lousy boyfriend.

Knives Out – I love a murder mystery but they are almost impossible to realise without falling into absurd cliche. Rian Johnson’s smart movie embraces all the cliches, plays with them, flips some on their head, and still makes the overall conceit of a whodunnit work. The best fun I had at the cinema all year.

I may be getting old but I struggled to get through two films that have cropped up in a lot of end of year lists, namely Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and The Irishman. I get why people like them but I would prefer to see Crawl or Booksmart over either of these cinematic heavyweights. But as I mentioned, I don’t feel it’s been a great year for films. If 2019 was in my class I would be staring at it disapprovingly over my glasses and saying “I’m just disappointed”.

Questions for the new kid on the block(chain)

via GIPHY

There was an article in October’s Chronicle of Higher Education entitled How Blockchain Technology Will Disrupt Higher Education. (It’s in the Chronicle so of course you can’t actually access it, even my university library access does not permit the current edition to be viewed.  The Chronicle – where articles go to rest in peace). Now, I’ve knocked blockchain before, but my problem with this article is not so much the blockchain part, but rather that it is indicative of the almost wilful historical amnesia that besets so much of ed tech.

In the article the author, Richard DeMillo, claims that blockchain will disrupt (no, I’m not going to bite on that word either) higher education:

It will do so by solving a problem that few of us realized we had: There’s no reliably efficient and consistent way to keep track of a person’s entire educational history. That’s why a worldwide effort is underway to use blockchain technology to tame the internet so that it can become a universal, permanent record of educational achievement.

Well, speak for yourself. This is a problem many people thought they had, and indeed one they thought they had solved in the format of e-portfolios. The benefit of blockchain DeMillo claims is that it will open up what we recognise as assessment:

Students are more than transcripts and test scores. The college transcript is a 19th-century invention that has little do to with the educational institutions and workplaces of the 21st century.

Well, ok, but let’s look at how Helen Beetham summarized the benefits of an e-portfolio back in 2005:

  • that provide evidence of an individual’s progress and achievements
  • [are] drawn from both formal and informal learning activities
  • that are personally managed and owned by the learner
  • that can be used for review, reflection, and personal development planning
  • that can be selectively accessed by other interested parties e.g. teachers, peers, assessors, awarding bodies, prospective employers. (p. 3)

That sounds a lot like what DeMillo wants from blockchain. They developed standards to allow eportfolios to be written to by different providers and transported between systems. I have been critical of eportfolios, and they perhaps haven’t had the impact once envisaged for them, but they are very popular in some areas. Some of the issues in their uptake are not related to the technology, but to the context within which they operate. For instance, employers generally say they would like to have a complete portfolio of applicants work, but when it comes to it, they tend to fall back on CVs and interviews. Similarly, eportfolios require assessment in universities to be reshaped so they are based around discrete tasks which are more usefully added as a stand-alone piece of evidence.

Now maybe blockchain represents a better way of achieving this result, but for an article declaring how it will change the method of assessment, to not even acknowledge the existence of eportfolios is odd. How will blockchain do it better? How will it overcome the problems that over a decade of eportfolio work has not quite managed to address?

This goes for any new tech being declared to solve a problem in education. You are unlikely to be the first to have come across this issue, so what is in existence already? If that wasn’t successful, why? How will your solution overcome those issues? These are the questions any new ed tech kid on the (ahem) block needs to answer. And yet…

Confessions of an audiobook addict

via GIPHY

I’ll write my annual books review post soon, but one comparison I won’t do this year is format: from a mix of physical books, ebooks and audiobooks in previous years, it is now nearly all audiobooks (I’m not counting reading for work). I came to audiobooks in 2016 after Brexit pretty much ruined listening to the Today programme (as lots have commented, the BBC is incapable or unwilling to deal with false equivalence and flagrant, unabashed liars). Screaming at the radio is only viable for so long. And once I had stopped listening to the Today programme, my Radio 4 listening fell away all together (I still listen to 6music when I’m working).

So I switched to audiobooks. And it turned out I had a lot of time they could fill – my drive to Milton Keynes is about 6 hours, I walk the dog for 90 minutes a day, and I listen for half an hour going to bed. I can easily rattle through 1-2 books a week. Compared with time which you can devote to sit down and actually read, and well, a physical book can hang around for ages. I have sympathy with Hugh McGuire who jokes of his own struggle to read more books:

I’ve been finding it harder and harder to concentrate on words, sentences, paragraphs. Let alone chapters. Chapters often have page after page of paragraphs. It just seems such an awful lot of words to concentrate on, on their own, without something else happening.

But I feel guilty – we have been raised on the purity of reading as a pursuit. Listening to an audiobook isn’t the same as reading I feel, and I’ve experienced people be snooty when I say I’ve read a book and then reveal it was an audio version, like “oh, you haven’t really read it then.” I asked a neuroscientist at a conference recently if there was a difference and she said we form an auditory loop when reading so there is no difference in the way the brain processes the two forms (but perhaps she was just telling me what my little pleading face wanted to hear). Unsurprisingly people have written a few opinion pieces on this. Some studies have shown no difference in comprehension from people who have listened or read and are tested afterwards. Whereas others show that for more complex text, the sort of thing you study, there is a benefit for readers. I’d disagree that audiobooks are passive and reading is active though, I can listen or read passively or actively.

What I did find interesting is that we haven’t always made this distinction and regarded reading physical text as superior. Jack Goody characterised societies as oral or literate, (although that is a simplification) but the distinction may not be clear. In ancient Rome, Starr emphasises the importance of Lectores – these were people who were paid to read texts aloud to wealthy people, while they went on with other business. Not to perform them, but to do the reading when the aristocrat was otherwise occupied and could not physically do it for themselves. They were pretty much manual audiobooks. And they did not make a distinction between this type of reading, and sitting down in your toga and curling up with a good codex yourself.

The prevalence of wifi, smart phones and unobtrusive earphones, combined with abundance of audio content in audiobooks and podcasts, makes me feel that we are entering a similar combined oral/literacy phase socially and moving away from a largely literate dominated one. Given the number of other tasks that only require partial attention (from playing Candy Crush to having your dad talk to you), the opportunity for orality to become prominent is present. And I for one, welcome our new audio-overlords.

The rootless ed tech units

Woman at the back of a camper van on a laptop
Photo by Brina Blum on Unsplash

One common complaint when I hang around with ed tech/learning technologist people (to be fair, we have a few) is that often universities don’t know quite what to do with them. They know they want them, but they’re not quite sure what for. If you look at where learning technology units are placed in organisational structures, this uncertainty is highlighted – sometimes they are aligned with the library, other times they are part of IT, or inside the education faculty, or sit on one side under the direct aegis of a PVC.

My own unit, IET at the OU, has been reviewed at least six times since I’ve been there. We have been with the PVC students, now with the PVC research, we’ve been in with a bigger grouping including learning technology production and the library, and briefly, in a faculty. With each move comes a new set of priorities and direction. Most people I speak to have similar tales of being moved around organisationally (and sometimes physically).

This results from three causes I think. Firstly, as technology is increasingly viewed as the means by which strategic change is realised, and its significance has increased, where units sit and what they do is subject to political, financial, and tactical changes from senior management. The second factor is that ed tech doesn’t really have a long history for many campus universities, therefore people are still exploring how best to view their role, so this is still evolving. The last factor is the most significant, which is that learning technology units often perform a strange mix of functions, which varies across different institutions, and so there is no agreed structure. In some institutions they are a service unit, responsible for ensuring things like lecture capture & the VLE work. In others they may also have a role in learning design, or researching new technology, or being experts in pedagogy, or staff development in technology.

This means there is probably no single solution for overcoming the rootless, shifting nature of learning technology units, but if I was to offer some suggestions for at least making it less of a problem, I’d go for:

  • Involve the team in any decisions – they will understand how best to realise many goals.
  • Trust them to have ideas about effective implementation
  • Think longer term rather than immediate responses. Ed tech isn’t going away, so what you need is a unit that understands what is happening and can respond appropriately.
  • If you’ve implemented a new strategy, direction or organisational structure, leave them alone for a few years to do it before deciding on a new one. Nothing wastes people’s time, energy or enthusiasm more than continuous reshuffles.
  • Give them lots of money (ok, it was worth a shot).

25 Years of EdTech: 2019 – Micro-credentials

This is year 27 in my 25 Years of Ed Tech series (no – YOU do the math). The book is scheduled to come out next year, but I thought I’d add one for this year which won’t make it in to that.

For 2019 the educational technology I would choose would be micro-credentials. I was at OpenEd and WCOL conferences recently, and micro-credentials were a common topic, plus in my place of work, IET at the Open University, we are busy developing courses for these. So it seems I can’t turn anywhere at the moment without bumping into them.

Micro-credentials are smaller, certified chunks of learning, often allied to a specific, vocational skill. In New Zealand the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) have teamed up with EduBits to recognise and promote them, and FutureLearn are proposing a Common Microcredential Framework to allow for standardisation. So they have some high level backing and are beyond just the ‘wouldn’t it be nice’ stage.

Micro-credentials are a good example of how in ed tech several technologies and concepts align in to one commonly shared idea. They have their roots in OER, MOOCs and digital badges, all of which promote the idea of learning chunks that are smaller than a degree, and focused on specific areas that some people want recognition for. They also grow out of the lifelong learning drive that was prominent in much of the 00s, and more recently issues about employability and skills in a digital economy.

Like so much of ed tech, micro-credentials induce mixed feelings. On the positive side, higher ed needs to be more flexible to appeal to the different needs of as many learners as possible. Dominic Orr and colleagues in the AHEAD project have a nice summary of four different educational models, which they characterise around toy metaphors:

  • Tamagotchi – the current dominant model where education in one block at the start acts as preparation for subsequent employment.
  • Jenga – a chunk at the start and then smaller pieces that build on this
  • Lego set – a more disaggregated version, acquiring different aspects of learning from different providers across a lifetime but with no foundational chunk.
  • Transformers – students who come into higher education later and may have different requirements from that system.

These are summarised below. I quite like this model for thinking about the different formats of education, and also for emphasising no single model is ‘correct’. All can co-exist and will meet the different needs of different learners. Higher ed doesn’t need to be precious about making it a Tamagotchi only world (the OU has implemented Transformers successfully for instance, but much of the discussion in higher ed policy occurs in a Tamagotchi world).

For the second and third models to be effective then something like micro-credentials is required. In general, I feel that different takes on what constitutes higher ed for different people is a positive thing.

But I have some reservations (of course I do!). First amongst these is that I stated micro-credentials were the culmination of several ed tech developments, but there is also a sense in that they are driven by these very developments in order to validate themselves. The argument goes something like “we’ve spent all this money and made all these claims about MOOCs, we’d best show some value for them.” And lo, a market for MOOC type credentials is manufactured. This is not the same thing as there being an actual need or demand for them, and it’ll be interesting to see if learners and employers embrace them with the same enthusiasm.

A second reservation is around cost. Since around 400BC I, and others in the field have been trying to tell people that elearning is not a cheap option. But alas, this lesson needs to be relearnt every 5 years or so. Developing shorter courses is problematic because many of the costs remain fixed, so a standard 60 point undergrad modules is cheaper to produce than 4×15 point courses. Once the initial enthusiasm to experiment and accept losses has worn off, universities will need to make micro-credentials cost effective. Inevitably this means those costs will be passed on to students. So while a micro-credential course will be cheaper than a three year degree, in order to stack them up they may be more costly over time. It’s like the shopper who can’t afford to bulk buy their washing tablets so buys a small box every fortnight – they are paying more per wash. So micro-credentials may disadvantage poorer students.

The last reservation is an old one that we’ve seen with learning objects, OER and MOOCs, which is whether higher education can be effectively broken into discrete chunks, and what is lost without that synthesis across a longer time period and integrated curriculum. But while this may be true for some subjects, it may not be the case for all learning requirements.

In short, micro-credentials represent the latest chapter in the attempt to make the shape of higher education more amorphous and flexible. In this, I am in favour of them, because if you want education to be inclusive and diverse then it needs to come in various formats to meet those needs. Whether micro-credentials are the means to realise that, or another attempt to bend higher ed to mythical needs of employers which turn out to be ill-defined and unwanted, remains to be seen.

Open degree generator

I’ve mentioned before that I’m the Chair of the Open Degree at the OU, which is our multidisciplinary degree. Bar some excluded combinations, students can combine modules from across the complete range of OU offerings. This creates some interesting combinations, and as I’ve reported before, it turns out that students really take advantage of the flexibility, with many different, often unique pathways.

I had with the metaphor generator, which randomly selected a metaphor topic from one list and applied it to a randomly selected educational technology in another list to give metaphor prompts such as: “How is your favourite film an analogy for academics use of Twitter?”. I thought I could do a similar thing with module combinations for open degrees. So, using the list of modules eligible for inclusion, I created three lists, covering level 1, 2 and 3 modules to create an Open Degree Generator. I generalised a lot of the module titles to make sense to a broader audience (we like a cryptic, clever module title at the OU), and combined a few, so it’s not an exact listing of modules. Nevertheless, all of the suggested combinations of topics can (I think!) be studied in the open degree.

I’ve used three different sentence structures: “Your degree could be a combination of …”; “Would a degree containing … be interesting?”; and “In order to solve complex problems we need degrees that combine subjects like…”. The last is my favourite as it makes you consider how novel combinations can be used to address complex, or wicked problems.

It’s fun to see the different combinations that it generates. Sometimes the suggested mixture looks a bit random, but usually after some consideration you think “there would be some interesting connections between those subjects”. And if you don’t get anything from the combination, just click the button to get another set. Obviously this is just a bit of fun, and not an actual course recommendation, but I think it offers some interesting prompts.

[The code for the metaphor generator which I used for this is available here, and Alan Levine’s write-up on how he developed it here.]

[Slightly modified version of this also published over on the Open Programme blog]

The Open Ed identity crisis

(Openwashing by @bryanMMathers is licenced under CC-BY-ND)

I’ve been keeping out of the debate around the OpenEd conference panel (Rajiv has an excellent analysis of it, if you want to catch up), partly because it seemed a very N. American discussion, but also partly because I found it, well, boring. But then I thought about why it bored me, and that was, well, interesting (perhaps).

Firstly, to clarify, it wasn’t the objections made very clearly by people such as Billy Meinke-Lau or Michelle Reed that induced my ennui. These are important and valid arguments and I thank them for articulating them. Rather it was that the panel itself, and the ensuant kerfuffle, are symptomatic of a narrowing of focus and range as to what constitutes open education.

Irwin, Viv, Katy and I wrote a paper about the range of topics that can be included under the open education umbrella, and the manner in which these areas don’t reference each other. The distance ed people don’t talk to the MOOC people, who don’t acknowledge the OER people, and vice versa. But even then, within OER, there is a reduction, where OER comes to mean “North American Open Textbooks”.

I think, in part, the backlash against this panel reflects something of this identity crisis. I haven’t been to OpenEd since 2016, maybe it has changed, and I’m happy to be corrected if it has (I note several papers on Open Pedagogy in the programme), but the panel would indicate not. The OER Conference (disclosure: I’m President of ALT who organise this, so not an entirely disinterested party) started from the Jisc OER projects, and was thus initially focused on content. It has moved away from this over the years, to focus much more on practice and thought around openness. In fact, one could argue that “OER” is not really the best name for it now, and something like “Critical Open Educational Practice” might be more accurate (but I doubt they’re going to change it as it has recognition). OpenEd seems to have gone on the opposite trajectory – from a conference that was built around the possibilities of what openness could mean in education, to one largely focused on the open textbook as artefact. A more appropriate name might be the “USA and Canada Open Textbook conference”.

That is not a criticism – for those working in the field that is a very valuable conference. Just as a Blackboard conference is probably the most useful event many people who work with it daily will attend. But if I went to a conference called something like “21st Century Learning” and it was only about VLEs/LMSs, then I would feel a tad aggrieved that they were implying that was the only thing of interest. Similarly a major conference called OpenEd that is almost entirely US/Canada and open textbook centric implies that is what constitutes open education. And from this disjuncture tension arises which the current debate is an example of, but not the only instance.

I don’t have an objection in principle to hearing from a commercial publisher (although one on a mixed panel might be a better option), but for instance, imagine the different message it would send if that panel was focused on OER in the Global South, or OER and Social Justice. Keynotes are signifiers about the identity of your conference, and that’s why this one didn’t grab my interest (although I should add I like the other keynotes). I just want Open Education not to be synonymous with this one narrow instantiation – there’s a big, wide, open world out there folks, go explore.

PS – I realise I’m complaining about open textbooks, and thus seem to be transforming into Jim Groom. Stop me before I reclaim something 😉

Situated degree pathways

As part of my role in the OU’s open degree programme, we had a session with Bryan Mathers recently to draw out some of our key principles and vision (and get some nifty graphics of course). During this wide ranging session with the team, one of the things we talked about was the flexibility in the open degree. You can create your own pathway, but perhaps more importantly you can change and adapt it as you go along, responding to changes in your life, interest that has been sparked by your studies, topics of your study you have found less interesting than you expected, or shifts in society.

This responsive (can I call it agile?) is quite different from conventional degree structures, which may have some electives, but are largely pre-determined. I was reminded of the well known analogy Lucy Suchman uses at the start of her influential book, Plans and Situated Actions, of different forms of navigation. She uses a comparison of the Trukese and European methods of navigating the open sea – the Trukese navigator “begins with an objective rather than a plan. He sets off toward the objective and responds to conditions as they arise in an ad hoc fashion. He utilizes information provided by the wind, the waves, the tide and current, the fauna, the stars, the clouds, the sound of the water on the side of the boat, and he steers accordingly.” This is in contrast to the European navigator who plots a course “and he carries out his voyage by relating his every move to that plan. His effort throughout his voyage is directed to remaining ‘on course.’”

Suchman uses this analogy to frame how people act, and in particular what she calls ‘situated actions’, which are “actions taken in the context of particular, concrete circumstances.” Here, we are acting like Trukese navigators, taking in available information and (re)acting accordingly with an overall objective in mind. This is in contrast to when we have a definite plan and steps we follow. (As an aside someone commented on Twitter the other day, imagine how different MIT Media Lab would have been had people like Suchman been given the lead, but that’s another story).

I think this analogy works for the choice of modules in an open degree for many of our students also. This is particularly true if they are studying part-time, and thus over a longer period than the traditional 3 year full time degree. There is more chance that circumstances will change during a longer period of, say, six years, and thus the degree pathway itself needs to be flexible. As an example, look at what has happened in world politics since 2016 – you may well have started off with a plan for your degree, but have become interested in economics, or your change in career now requires some expertise in European politics, or now have an idea to develop an app for your company, and so on. This ability within the degree structure to be responsive and adaptable will be increasingly significant I feel.

Ed tech metaphor generator

I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a book along the lines of “Metaphors for Ed Tech”. Readers will know I like an extended ed tech metaphor. Sometimes it’s just to be playful, but I also think it can reveal a new perspective on ed tech. As a bit of fun I thought I’d create an ed tech generator, so you can play along. It’s a bit UK and me-centric so feel free to adapt to your own context.

I’m sure there is a better way to do it, but I used the Glitch site and adapted someone else’s app. You can see it here, and code here. I’m up for other suggestions to implement it, maybe more extendable by others or WP based. Laura Gibbs recommended RotateContent, so I will have a look at this too. I may develop it further – it might be fun to add a SPLOT so people can post their solutions? Feel free to use in your Ed Tech class ice-breaker activities 🙂

Some work better than others, but that’s instructive too. Ping me any base domains to use for the metaphors and I’ll add them in (I’ve steered away from overtly political ones, I really don’t want to read Trump or Brexit as metaphor for Blockchain pieces).

Also – Metaphors of Ed Tech book, good idea or not?

[UPDATE: Super lovely Alan Levine, put together a nicer version, which I’ve now installed here: http://metaphor.edtechie.net/ – happy metaphor generating]

Education in an empty planet

I’ve been reading (well, listening to) Empty Planet by Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson. It makes the claim that the projections of global population growth are incorrect, and in fact after about the mid-century point, we will start to witness a global population decline. Many countries, such as Japan, are already experiencing this. I’m not enough of an expert to know if they are being selective with the data in their argument (this article suggests they are, but it too will have its own bias). But it’s credible enough, we already have fertility rates below the maintenance level of 2.1 babies per couple across Europe (Spain is as low as 1.3).

The general trend is for increased urbanisation (you don’t want many children if you live in a city or a slum compared with a farm), women’s empowerment (taking control of reproductive rights), loosening kin ties (family pressure people to have children in a way that friends don’t) and decreasing religiosity (if you are less devout then contraception becomes more likely), and all of these reduce the number of children people tend to have. That argument seems persuasive from one’s own experience and that of people you know.

Even if it is a little shaky in places, it made me appreciate how much of our world view is predicated on global population expansion. I don’t think about it much, but I suppose that it is the model I carry in my head. So it’s an interesting example of how challenging that assumption causes some significant shifts. If in 200 years time, say, the population of the UK was 40 million, with 10 million of those at what is currently post retirement age, and another 10 million in school or education, then that is a drastically altered society. The politics of population decline is very different, for instance it would need to be pro-immigration, provide free child care, remove disincentives for women to take career breaks, encourage part-time work for the over 67s, etc. As an aside, a real timebomb from Brexit could be that it has so trashed the UK’s reputation as a desirable place to come to, that by the time politicians wake up to realising that far from immigration being a burden, they in fact desperately need it to help boost the economy, it will be too late.

And what would the challenges be for higher education in such a scenario? Again, to reiterate I’m not suggesting the claims in the book are irrefutable, but rather playing the thought exercise of what if they were true. For a start higher ed provides an excellent means of attracting young, smart people to your country who may well remain, so it it is a route to bolster your population and economy. In terms of policy then you would need to do pretty much the opposite of what the Conservatives have done over the past 8 years. Costly fees put people off from studying here, but also have the side effect of making those with that debt postpone having children. A welcoming, easy visa (or open border) system would be necessary too.

Universities will be in increasing competition for fewer young students as that group declines, so they will need to appeal to older learners. The type of education offered will need to be flexible, as the traditional student profile of the 18-22 year old will no longer be the norm (we are already seeing this, but it will be amplified). Learners will likely be older, have care commitments (children or older relatives who are living longer in a state that doesn’t generate as much tax for social care), multiple jobs and changing priorities.

Some of these conclusions look similar to those from the ‘digital economy’ perspective. But in a declining population, maybe the threat from AI and automation taking jobs is less pronounced – there are fewer people around to do the jobs anyway. In this scenario the role of education is less about reskilling people for different jobs (as is often proposed), if jobs become a ‘buyer’s market’ then education shifts to a more social, individual role, as perhaps was original envisaged, rather than the current vocationally dominant narrative.

Anyway, I thought it was an interesting thing to muse while driving to the OU today. We often do scenario planning for an automated future, a globalised one, climate change affected one etc, but I don’t recall ever having done one for population decline.

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