Manifesto for Teaching Online – Aphorism No. 14, Part 1 “Assessment is a creative crisis as much as it is a statement of knowledge”

“Knowledge is not knowledge until someone else knows that one knows.” Lucilius in the 1st century BC

Is it fan, wall, rope, spear, snake tree? In the land of the blind the one eyed man is king.

Is it fan, wall, rope, spear, snake tree? In the land of the blind the one eyed man is king.

It also seems like everything is assessing everything else nowadays; governments assess citizen’s, citizen’s government; ratings agencies for instance speak of the credit worthiness of entire nations, firms, and individuals. Research assessment exercises and global league tables assess academic institutions. Do these assessments, can they, steer everyone to positive change, that is, encourage positive change in concordance with some realised set of normative values, or are they simply to lend the consumer informed choice?

Or worse, do they just make people tick boxes, produce tick-box research, tick-box assessments, and tick-box teaching tick-box learning with everyone scrambling to cleverly provide assessors all that they need to see or know, the anticipated, the a priori understood answers, what is expected? And just who exactly is the consumer-user of education and the ultimate beneficiary and arbitrary of quality? Is it the students and their families? Is it the government? Is it employers? Is it the general or even global society and culture? Is it finding suitable employment Derek Gillard in his historical account of the development of education in England lends example of this mentality. Coming off the back of increased governmental control and demand for accountability by schools, The Education (Schools) Act (16 March 1992) made provision for the establishment of Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education).

“The establishment of Ofsted caused teachers’ morale to plummet. The amount of paperwork and form-filling which a school had to complete before an inspection was grotesque; staff were suspicious of the motives and abilities of the private contractors; the week of the inspection itself was extraordinarily stressful; and there were concerns about the accuracy and fairness of some of the published reports – which was understandable, given that teachers’ careers were at stake.” (Gillard, 2011)

Political left and right, progressive and conservatives, see some sort of value to the economy in having a wider educated population. Economists, from Adam Smith have suggested that it raises productivity, and/or it improves competitiveness, and these terms may be tangible if we are speaking about units of widgets or mobile phones, or kilos of potatoes, for hungry phone or chip users, but can be vague in terms of units of knowledge produced. That is because knowledge must always have a context of use, otherwise it has about as much worth as a single orphaned word – like ‘bear’ or ‘they’ or ‘amongst’ without a sentence to take care of it. It is the reason why the Cambodian peasant or the Besotho cattle minder, while having the propensity or capacity to do a Ph.D. in synthetic biology, can not and will not due to not having had adequate elementary education or even knowing what ‘biology’ or ‘synthetic’ even means. Even supposing you took the child from the provinces, from the mountains and sent him to Eton and then Cambridge, he could, or probably wouldn’t ever return to where he was born. His knowledge and still set would be redundant in a place where they need someone to mind cattle, till the land, or lift sacks.  This suggests then that knowledge, skills and education is contingent on the need of the person to fulfill some purpose within their community.

Leadership with education

Knowledge properly codified and disseminated in cost effective and effective manners to the relevant persons in a given community, and knowledge adsorbed and assimilated in cost-effective manners by relevant members of a given community. This is the basic tenets of what has been called ‘knowledge management’. This has been defined as: “The collection of processes that govern the creation, dissemination and utilisation of knowledge to fulfil organisational objectives” (Murray and Myers, 1997). But it can operate on different social levels, individual, group, organisational, intra-organisational, national, regional and global.

Such management is obviously easier to write about at the meta level, than do. But within the teaching, learning and assessment process I have leaned towards the idea of inductive forms of teaching and and the promotion of meta-learning as a  means to students considering not only facts and figures but also where they are best used and why, or what kinds of skills and knowledge, or even dispositions, are needed to work on a project. Anyone with any semblance of the notion of ‘knowledge management’ or ‘intelligence’ will know that not matter what the quality of knowledge or information is, no matter its profusion, what counts is that it is available to those who need it, in particular instances, in varying institutions, at given locations and at particular times. otherwise it is simply just something nice to know, maybe useful in another context, or redundant.

The issue is not only quantity but also quality which is harder to pin down and measure. we know what a kilo of rubbish potatoes look like, but knowledge? What is low quality knowledge, only that which is peer reviewed in academic journals? Casati, et al, (2007) posit that there are three drivers behind this model:

   1. Disseminate ideas and make them visible. Through publication and review, papers are made known to colleagues, and the review process is supposed to ensure that the best papers are more visible, so that researchers know where to go (good journals and conferences) if they want to read literature on certain topics. Publications also have legal implications as they “timestamp” work and ideas.

2. Get credit, recognition. Having papers accepted at prestigious conferences and journals is a way to prove (in theory) that the work is valuable. This in turn is a major criterion to determine career advancement.

3. Meeting and networking. Publications and conference participation leads to exchange of ideas with colleagues, and to networking. Conferences are also very useful for students to come and learn how the research community operates.

Casati, et al go on to list what they see as various problems with the peer review model which they claim is an anachronism, maintained by  recalcitrant academics which have no other way in which to assess each others’ research. The call for new forms of dissemination which use blogs and open to wider audiences of criticism than the referee panels. Why not? Should not customers of consumers of research have some say in what is researched, topics, and to what detail and resolution, and in which manner it is researched?  Should the cloud or the crowd not dictate the allocations of funds, and the relevance of methods and findings? This would surely move it a more democratic modus of ‘peer review’ than the representational system which exists currently.

Is the knowledge ecosystem produced by the ‘publish or perish’ mentality simply a correlate to ‘teach to the test’  – that is that it exists solely and chiefly as a means  to perpetuate academic careers. Do captains of industry go about completely reorganizing their businesses even if they read something in the Harvard Business Review? Does a paper in the African Journal of Business Management help us reinvent the wheel and emerge from the impending doom of economic woes? Are these publications not only reviewed by peers, but also only read by peers, many of which simply want to get the feel and understand the format of what is fashionable and likely to be published. Many of them go unread expect by reviewers Sarah Kendzior recently cited one of her colleagues:

“Can you imagine if JSTOR was public? That means someone might actually read my article.”

Of course citation metrics show how a work has been accepted, but only mashed into other works, serving as a pillar-stone or a foundation or a contrast, this does not show impact on the rest of the world. In certain cases reviewers are recommended by authors. Some interesting insight into how this happens in Malaysia is detailed here. There is also beyond this the problem of fraudulent research which is rife in China right now as it tries to assert its intellectual muscle in the world. A spate of cases have been discovered regarding falsified evidence which came to nevertheless be published. Now the assessments known as essays are a kind of apprenticeship to writing academic papers. But if we are not grooming future academics then we are surely imbuing other skills that might be useful to industry or the wider society.

The UK as a country within global markets and today we simply do not produce enough stuff, Thatcher [and Reagan] privatized and deregulated and opened up manufacturing to the global free market, and the market (or those in control of it and knowledgeable how to make a quick buck with no regard for the future or well-being of the people or state quickly ripped into its weaknesses and made fabulous profits from hostile takeovers and asset stripping. In the place where things were made, caught or grown, with communities of workers, came property developments and citadel shopping malls, and hey pesto, you have lovely managed environments where the grass that nobody lies upon is cut regularly, and there is no more smog, just stainless steel and hygienic surfaces, and modern sleek straight lines.

Thus the result that today there is little being built or manufactured rather it is an assembly of things built and increasingly designed elsewhere. Our production capacity has dematerialised, materialising elsewhere in India and China where it is helping to grow middle-classes which also manifest needs for large twin garage homes in landscaped suburbs, manicured lawns and designer fitted kitchens and coffee at IKEA. We are left with low wage public sector jobs, selling insurance, working in housing associations, or in home-care. For the time being at least, public sector funding is set to nose dive by 2017. So what is to be assessed as the outcome of assessment processes in such times? What is to be taught?

It is the same when it comes to treatments of knowledge by the view that has academic institutions of the [previously] developed world as the factories of the knowledge age, the design shop [in charge] which designates the fashion and style and sends its CAD drawings, and formulae and dress patterns to the workshops and low wage workers in factory China. They are not aimed at producing things, but producing those who will work with ‘knowledge’:

“This requires the creation of a cadre of knowledge workers – people who are expert at configuring knowledge relevant to a wide range of contexts. This new corps of workers is described in the text as problem identifiers, problem solvers, and problem brokers. The shift from knowledge production to knowledge configuration is a challenge … that is particularly acute for the universities of the developing world. ” (Gibbons, 1998)

Keynes took a similar view when in 1931 he predicted that “a point may soon be reached” when consumers would be largely satiated and so a 15-hour working week would be the norm. was he speaking of us or the Chinese? As their domestic market grows and their cheap labour dries up, they will no doubt outsource to other countries which they are already doing like Cambodia or Africa, and our cheap supermarket toasters and suits may dry up. we must consider that this financial crisis is not caused by lack of efficiency or motivation of the average British worker (the proverbial man who sits in the factory toilet most of the day reading his newspaper), but financial services which have certainly since 2008 have taken on a life of their own. Of course in places where you do not produce anything and all your local networks and expertise (butcher, baker, candlestick maker and all there supply chains and networks and even the farms) has disrupted and disappeared there is a focus on the immaterial, your pensions savings debt mortgage and other financial products.

They could all evaporate tomorrow, it’s as easy as pushing the button that used to control nuclear weapons, and with the terrible results being hardly no less – confusion, starvation and extreme social unrest. In the year immediately following Cambodian independence, the number of students rapidly increased due to vast government spending on new school and institutions. Vickery suggests that education of any kind was considered an “absolute good” by all Cambodians and that this attitude eventually created a large group of unemployed or underemployed graduates by the late 1960s.

This as nothing to do with creativity and knowledge production. Consider that the “social web’s major achievement seems to have been to convince people to work for global corporations for free.” This is not new since automated call systems we have replaced clerks and administrators by not just doing all the labour but picking up the bill for the frustrating phone call! There is no lack in creativity thinking this one up, the public hardly resisted but merely accepted it as a sign of the times.

The Cartesian perspective assumes that knowledge is a kind of substance and that pedagogy concerns the best way to transfer this substance from teachers to students where it is absorbed and stored, or at best compared, contrasted and synthesised with that there already from lived and media experiences, and that which comes in the form of other lectures, readings etc. of formal education. But these are activities which can really happen anywhere.

In one respect it seems to mean the provision of ever more seats in more [private] colleges, that is, regardless of quality. And all those graduates will entail a dilution in the general value of a degree and further consolidation of centres of educational excellence in the manner of the gravitational pull of wealth, options and opportunities to the global 1%, the transnational ruling class. Those who are, and will be increasingly, like the major corporations they own or invest in, ever more stateless moving wherever, buying whatever, ring-fencing whatever suits them best, wherever is more lucrative and exclusive to live. The conduct their peregrinations like bacteria looking for places to thrive, and where it is advantageous, safe and fun for them and their offspring to flourish, learn BRIC languages and spend their riches. Businesses are built for efficiency, which depends on predictability and repeatability. Innovation is unpredictable and uncertain. Whatever they say about innovation, investors tend to favour the known over the unknown. Those that seek jobs may have to do the same in both location and in skills and knowledge.

A two-tiered education system puts those who believe in a classless society in a morally invidious position but this is what is happening. Entry to elite schools and colleges will be increasingly fierce and competitive for limited places whatever they cost, and ever more open and dedicated to the global market of new wealth, which is increasingly homogenising and consolidating their status, money and position. In fact, if things do the way they are going they will have no option but to teach these things as they already constitute much of socio-economic reality. Eton will no doubt boast the offspring of Chinese and Indian industrialists and politicians as they once did courting the offspring of Marahajahs and African Kings in the days of Kipling, and almost for the same reasons. It just seems strange to me having the offspring of high-ranking Communist party mandarins in the halls of ‘the chief nurse of England’s statesmen’, alma mater to British Royalty, and a school with origins as a charity school founded by Henry VI to provide free education to seventy poor boys. But then according to a report by The Sutton Trust 80 per cent of those who hold key positions in British society received privileged education in schools such as Eton, what does your political leanings have to do with it?

Even common and garden higher education is expensive with students emerging from their studies with up to £55,000 of debt, which is a major market disincentive to attend university in the first place. And this is compounded by the high graduate unemployment rates. It is the same in the U.S. In fact a NUS survey suggests that two in five undergrads are considering quitting over concerns about debt and poor job prospects. Yes indeed as expected The Browne review on university funding and tuition fees utterly failed to do its job and now students are paying the price. The Liberal-Conservative coalition has called for swingeing cuts to public spending (cuts that are unprecedented and greater than those of the Thatcher years). It is expected that the public funding of undergraduate degrees will be removed from all but a few subjects (in science and technology). This will mean that Universities will, in effect, be privatised.

Two Harrovians the centre of some amusement to three working class boys.

Two Harrovians the centre of some amusement to three working class boys.

In a report for the vice-chancellors’ body, UUK, Prof Geoffrey Crossick says the current model for delivering higher education has been “inherited from the past when it was available to the very few” and is practically unsustainable as the numbers ramp up. It seems that lots of things are inherited from the past when we speak of education and its institutions, and this does not simply include funding, but also its organisational and knowledge ‘structures’, the curriculum and syllabi, the publish or perish attitude where often poor, irrelevant and rubbish work is published to no conceivable public good, and even held perspectives regarding just what the ‘idea’ of education, the school and the university means in this globalised reality of the free-market.

It does not take a very sophisticated algorithm to run a simulation on all of this which would show the how it is a set of interlocking systems which produce hierarchy. As wealth, options and opportunities shift ever upwards, the bottom end of occupations, careers and ‘jobs’ are stripped away by de-skilling, automation and outsourcing.

As an example the UK Les Ebdon, the director of the Office for Fair Access, expresses his desire that the government works to help “the most appropriate route to realise their full potential.” The question remains that who or what determines a person’s “full potential.” There will be some sort of audit or assessment you would think.

Consider this against a claim that 20% of the adult UK population is functionally illiterate and a third cannot add up two three-figure numbers (this is contested). What is their full potential? Will they compete with someone who has already done his degree in economics at a lower tier university for a McJob? What of those who have already graduated and cannot find work, what is their full potential? What of those with post-graduate degrees who also cannot find work and must also take a McJob in order to make ends meet, what of their full potential? [click here for an overview of one academic that went undercover to report on McJobness]


Chinese students are apparently rushing to pick McJobs as well.

Chinese students are apparently rushing to pick McJobs as well.

Ebdon insists that people in general undervalue apprenticeships, they are seen as ‘lower status’ but I am sure that those who have are managing to find work appreciate that they will make more money and experience less debt than those committing to years of study in the hope of pursuing knowledge for the greater good. As a plasterer friend of mine likes to jibe while he puts another $600 pounds in his pocket for his morning’s work; “see if you had just stuck in at school Derek, you could have been a plasterer!” His money is not immune as people tighten belts pinched by shrinking pensions and rising interest rates do not choose to pebble dash their homes for a third time as the stones do not match the colour of the bins.

There is a stark difference between operating education as a manufacturing or production concern, using performance auditing methods such as the balanced scorecard which emerged from the American Management School system and the large accountancy and consulting firms, to analyse and improve productivity. The underlying ethos is familiar. It is about a perpetual and continual improvement, what the Japanese manufacturing theorists termed ‘Kaizen’.

The idea is that increased accountability, monitoring and improvements in technology will help us learn better, more comprehensively, deeper, faster, more relevantly, and a bunch of other positive orientated adjectives which are actually quite indifferent to the experience of learning and literally impossible to prove empirically. Employing such methods in social services such as hospitals and education will keep us in the driving seat of societal advance through giving us advantage and an innovation edge in this great time of dematerialisation and disappearance, knowledge intensity and digital commutations. Or so the hype goes…

This is of course a joke, and like my friend’s jibe, actually not very funny.

Take, for instance, the term ‘Kaizen’ translated literally means “improvement”, or “change for the better.” It is a quality concept with roots in American manufacturing with the widely acclaimed management guru E. Edwards Deming who took his statistically based ideas on quality development to Japan in the 1950s. There his contributions became widely accepted, and have in hindsight been viewed as key to the rebirth and miracle growth success of post WWII Japan, and in particular their manufacturing boom of the 70s and 80s.

The view culminates in envisioning a practice that encapsulates all aspects of the enterprise including its people, products and processes and aims to optimise them all, squeezing performance and quality gains. All should be considered to incrementally improve and improve and improve. Lean manufacturing, an extension or associated idea coming from the quality revolution includes respect for workers and fulfilment of their needs as an inherent part of the philosophy. However it often refers to a philosophy that motivates managers to consider the cost-efficient of automation, staff lay-offs and intensifying operative employee activity

Gemba, which translated as the “the real place” in manufacturing it means where things are actually created, sold or provided, this would translate to the classroom, library, online interface, basically all the touch points between the institution and its students. In educational terms, this would include staff, teaching, learning and assessment, and curriculum and academic management and administration. The premise is that by improving standardized activities and processes, kaizen aims to, amongst other things, eliminate waste. While it sounds reasonable and rationale, it could be translated as getting rid of anything that creates a burr, or slows down the end objective, which is what? A trained, prepared person or a certificate claiming, that you are, a widget ready to be plugged-into just the right engineered ‘ISO’ hole in the economy. and here is the problem, is confronting and tackling deep and wicked problems, developing understanding as Collini would have it,

What would we define ‘waste’ in education? Is it failure rate, mortality and retention, time wasted by students who should be online or have their face in a book, and so forth? Efficiency in manufacturing is typically attributed to Francis Taylor in his Scientific Management approach where he aimed to streamline the activities of the worker in the workplace to the speed of the machine and assembly line. But he was simply one well-known proponent of the ‘The Efficiency Movement’, a collection of those addressing a wide spectrum of methods and approaches aimed at reducing ‘waste’ in all manners of living in progressive, modern life. With respect to education one of the contributors was John Franklin Bobbitt at the turn of the 20th century.

Bobbits ideas formed, interestingly, when he was involved with installing an elementary school curriculum in the Philippines which was an American possession at the time. He noted the redundancy in the imported ideas with respect to the everyday life of the local people. By re-building a curriculum based upon activities derived from the Philippine culture he developed an educational approach, and which was ‘live’. His approach then was very progressive and orientated to more the ‘gemba’ type position and certainly so when contrasted say, with the British in Malaya, and the French in Cambodia at the time, where education was mainly orientated towards local elites which would perform in the service of the colonial administration. In this he echoes the concerns of John Dewey who called for the same kinds of relevancies to be built, between the child’s lived experience and that of what was being shared in school.

“While I was visiting in the city of Moline a few years ago, the superintendent told me that they found many children every year, who were surprised to learn that the Mississippi river in the text-book had anything to do with the stream of water flowing past their homes. The geography being simply a matter of the schoolroom, it is more or less of an awakening to many children to find that the whole thing is nothing but a more formal and definite statement of the facts which they see, feel, and touch every day. When we think that we all live on the earth, that we live in an atmosphere, that our lives are touched at every point by the influences of the soil, flora, and fauna, by considerations of light and heat, and then think of what the school study of geography has been, we have a typical idea of the gap existing between the everyday experiences of the child, and the isolated material supplied in such large measure in the school This is but an instance, and one upon which most of us may reflect long before we take the present artificiality of the school as other than a matter of course or necessity. “(p.90)

Such artificiality was one of the single defining points which suggested redundancies and waste to Dewey.

“From the standpoint of the child, the great waste in the school comes from his inability to utilize the experiences he gets outside the school in any complete and free way within the school itself; while, on the other hand, he is unable to apply in daily life what he is learning at school. That is the isolation of the school — its isolation from life. When the child gets into the schoolroom he has to put out of his mind a large part of the ideas, interests, and activities that predominate in his home and neighborhood. So the school, being unable to utilize this everyday experience, sets painfully to work, on another tack and by a variety of means, to arouse in the child an interest in school studies.”

There are similarities between the observations driving both Bobitt and Dewey with respect to waste in education. I hold that the contrasts between the two have been perhaps too stark, as they seem to be philosophically on the same page, while their practice and the orientation of the learning process may differ. The juncture can be realised in terms of the relation of the education to the ‘needs’ of business and industry. Dewey remarks:

“Though there should be organic connection between the school and business life, it is not meant that the school is to prepare the child for any particular business, but that there should be a natural connection of the everyday life of the child with the business environment about him, and that it is the affair of the school to clarify and liberalize this connection, to bring it to consciousness, not by introducing special studies, like commercial geography and arithmetic, but by keeping alive the ordinary bonds of relation.”

The difference lies in the difference between an ‘organic’ form discovery made by the learners themselves, and having this discovery made on their behalf by curriculum experts who would research and perhaps even to confer with industry in order to offer or teach these subjects, skills and techniques in schools. This survey would focus upon successful adults know and can do and would inform both scope and scale of the curriculum (Flinders and Thornton, 2004). This would serve better as a means to prepare students for their future roles in the new industrial society. The allusion to industrial and technical progress persists in Bobbit, such as when he states “Education is a shaping progress as much as the manufacture of steel rails” (Bobbitt, 1912, p. 11). Flinders and Thornton (ibid., p.3) venture that Bobbitt also wished to minimise sources of ‘waste’ in this process through the use of standardised tests which would “Maximise out (i.e., student learning) and minimise input (i.e., paying teachers)

“The central theory [of curriculum] is simple. Human life, however varied, consists in the performance of specific activities. Education that prepares for life is one that prepares definitely and adequately for these specific activities. However numerous and diverse they may be for any social class they can be discovered. This requires only that one go out into the world of affairs and discover the particulars of which their affairs consist. These will show the abilities, attitudes, habits, appreciations and forms of knowledge that men need. These will be the objectives of the curriculum. They will be numerous, definite and particularized. The curriculum will then be that series of experiences which children and youth must have by way of obtaining those objectives.” (1918: p.42)

Hence, as Lagemann in An Elusive Science: The Troubling History of Education Research (2000; p.107) accuses, Bobbit saw the object of learning as matching skills and knowledge to the existing social, commercial and industrial order of the time. That is a snapshot of the skills of today would prepare children for the world of the future which for these children was still possibly 10 to 15 years away. There was no consideration of issues of social justice or if it were ethical, the material success of particular figures was taken on face value. for Dewey, who can hardly be classed as a Paulo Friere or an Ivan Illich, social and economic situations would present themselves as opposed to being reified and reinforced by education: “True education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demand of the social situations in which he finds himself” (Dewey, 1897). Dewey had been an ardent critic of boards of governors of schools and universities comprised of those coming from industry, commerce and banking

It may be irritating to the reader that I continually flit between ideas which some purists would suggest only apply to primary and secondary education and not the particulars of higher and tertiary education, but maybe as a consequence of my own intellectual development, which has had a strong focus on being self-taught whilst having affiliation with educational institutions, I see no split. I also flit between American and British examples, and the only excuse I offer is that there has been a remarkable exchange of ideas at the theoretical level between the two countries with respect to many things including education. Rogers (2000) has shown convincingly the rich ‘borrowings’ that went on between the U.K. and the U.S. during the period of modernisation and this included educational theory. All of this is contingent on my main thesis which is that wider considerations must be made in accommodating TLA against a backdrop of what people need to know in universal global terms – say in order to share a common understanding – and what they need to know in terms of making this relevant to localised contexts. This is especially true in the case of online learning which is aimed at all students, all places. The brute reality of cultural specificity that I have noted in commercial online services will follow through into issues of the relevance of online courses servicing those in other geographical, geopolitical environments.

One can see for instance in the legacy for instance of progressive education from the Haddow Report (1931) in the Dewey, Montessori and Edmund Holmes, and Susan Isaacs‘. The progressive spirit reaches its apotheosis in Plowden (1967):

“The essence of Plowden is summed up at the start of Chapter 2: ‘At the heart of the educational process lies the child’ (Plowden, 1967 I:7). And not just the child, but the individual child. ‘Individual differences between children of the same age are so great that any class, however homogeneous it seems, must always be treated as a body of children needing individual and different attention'” (Plowden 1967 I:25).

Plowden for instance had advanced to a stage where there was a kind of resolution between that of Bobbit and Dewey, a combination of individual, group, and class work would allow children to be ‘agents of their own learning’. Learning is seen to take place ‘through a continuous process of interaction between the learner and his environment’. The environment is prepared but not managed or controlled, or dominated by authoritarian texts or teachers.

The realisations of Bobbit and Dewey a hundred years ago still seem to form the underlying arguments in the debates today, and why not? Technology may change but human nature and problems seem to be remarkably persistent, and education is very firmly in that arena for me. The government’s persistence in eliminating waste in public services has extended to the university, method and manner of teaching and in what is being taught. I have already indicated that the prevailing view applied is one which drives from management and accountancy perspectives and move us from the ‘idea of the university’ to the ‘use of the university’. This is significant, and affects all kinds of assessments made not only of of institutions and their staff and students, but also of the entire project.

Outspoken and erudite critic of recent governmental moves encroaching on the traditions and practices of the university, Stefan Collini argues that one cannot start from arguments about use. Instead, and citing Thorsten Veblen, he argues a new ‘genre’ of argument for universities needs to be found, as “a corporation for the cultivation and care of the community’s highest aspirations and ideals” (p. 86). In 1918, Veblen The author of Theory of the Leisure Class witnessed an increasing trend toward the domination of boards of trustees by businessmen, men of “substance” whose sensibilities and experience were grounded in industrial and mercantile pursuits. His observations are remarkable if one considers recent policy in the academy. In  ‘The Higher Learning In America: A Memorandum On the Conduct of Universities By Business Men‘ (1918) Veblen tell us:

“And yet, corporate boards, who know little or nothing about what their professors do, control academic policy, and wield their control through the budget. Their spending priorities usually favor “tangible” values over books and similar working materials, says Veblen, while “the academic staff remains (notoriously) underpaid and so scantily filled as seriously to curtail their working capacity … But the system and order that so govern the work [of scholars] …are the logical system and order of intellectual enterprise, not the mechanical or statistical intelligence that goes into effect in the management of an industrial plant or the financiering of a business corporation…Neither can that intellectual initiative and proclivity that goes in as the indispensable motive force in the pursuit of learning be reduced to any known terms of subordination, obedience, or authoritative direction.” (Veblen, 1918)

The institution of a university produces useful outcomes, but the point, the modus operandi, of that institution is not those useful outcomes. The problem with recent policy is that it has mistakenly assumed that this to be true. The whole project of research is to discover what is, and what is not. This comes through diligent observations, the development of methods for discovery and establishing moral and relative values of what is found to be or not to be. Strict regimes of accountancy ‘make’ things happen and configure them to suit whatever is deemed acceptable by those in authority, in a similar fashion that laws promote certain modes of behaviour over others under the threat of retribution (Foucault, 1975).

A thought experiment, if I am given a job to report on something, and I find there is little to report I have a choice. To declare that my post is redundant or to begin to use my imagination to make things happen or to make things up. To save my job I would want to appear as indispensable. I would naturally not wish to engage in fierce debate or too many seminars regarding my findings as they would lack substance I would run the risk after a while of making my mirages too fantastic carrying the prospect of further inquiries by the recipients of the reports.

The university in the likes of Collini’s view is not aimed at producing crisp bulleted points on best practice and how to do’s for industry but to make people consider and think and possibly understand. American poet, essayist, novelist, and Kentucky farmer, Wendell Berry sums something of the more diffuse open and fertile site the university is supposed to be intellectually. His “The Loss of the University,” in Home Economics (1987).

“The thing being made in a university is humanity. given the current influence of universities, this is merely inevitable. But what universities, at least the public-supported ones, are mandated to make or to help to make is human beings in the fullest sense of those words — not just trained workers or knowledgeable citizens but responsible heirs and members of human culture. If the proper work of the university is only to equip people to fulfill private ambitions, then how do we justify public support? If it is only to prepare citizens to fulfil public responsibilities, then how do we justify the teaching of arts and sciences? The common denominator has to be larger than either career preparation or preparation for citizenship. Underlying the idea of a university — the bringing together, the combining into one, of all the disciplines — is the idea that good work and good citizenship are the inevitable by-products of the making of a good — that is, a fully developed — human being. This, as I understand it, is the definition of the name university.”

This is the kind of diffuse proposition which comes through Cardinal John Newman famously reported in the 19th century as:

“The man who has learned to think and to reason and to compare and discriminate and to analyse, who has refined his taste and formed his judgement and sharpened his mental vision, will not indeed at once be a lawyer . . . or a statesman, or a physician, or . . . a man of business, or a soldier or an engineer . . . , but he will be placed in that state of intellect in which he can take up any one of the sciences or callings . . . with an ease, a grace, a versatility, and a success, to which another is a stranger.”

For Newman, this is a side-product of the type of embodied, community-enhanced intellectual cultivation he has in mind, within what Pring (1995) describes as ‘The Community of educated people’. Newman described the university as a place for the teaching of “universal knowledge” which contrasts with the more specific knowledge needed in vocational work. In some senses this revisited the idea of the ‘cloistered’ image of the scholarly academic, removed from the public but studying it, searching out in nature or text deeper, more profound, or new knowledge. Thus the ivory-tower image.

Another not insignificant commentator that must be included here is David F. Noble (1945 – 2010) was a critical historian of science, technology and education, and who is renowned for his work in the social history of industrial automation. He was been a fierce critics of the commercialization of the university, and goes so far as to say online courses are akin to degree mills. His objection was extends deeper into to education, where it may be witnessed, that the alchemy of intellectual activity transforms into “intellectual capital and, hence, intellectual property.” He refers to the pressure placed upon academics to produce papers and patents. His views regarding online education are interesting, he seems them as akin to the automation of factory work

“Automation the distribution of digitized course material online, without the participation of professors who develop such material is often – justified as an inevitable part of the new “knowledge–based” society. It is assumed to improve learning and increase wider access. In practice, however, such automation is often coercive in nature – being forced upon professors as well as students – with commercial interests in mind…. It is not a progressive trend towards a new era at all, but a regressive trend, towards the rather old era of mass production, standardization and purely commercial interests… universities are not simply undergoing a technological transformation. Beneath that change, and camouflaged by it, lies another: the commercialization of higher education… here as elsewhere technology is but a vehicle and a disarming disguise.”(Noble, 1998)

But the idea of a “buzzing” vibrant intellectual community, reflective, relaxed, open discussion, sharing and disputing ideas [as Newman had mind clashing with mind, idea with idea’) with reason, does somewhat resonate with more recent ideas such as ‘open source’, the ‘gift economy’ and social intelligence and networking, and organizational structures such as organic and flat, but does the rhetoric appear to outrun reality? Possibly not as we return to purpose. Industry. commerce and all business has distinctive purpose. That is to sell insurance, move goods from one place where they are plentiful to another where they are not, to provide adequate and responsive service and so on you sell mobile phones then you view the public as all actual or potential mobile phone users. All your energy and resources go into confirming this ideal.

If you sell cigarettes or indulge in fracking and somebody one day says ‘this is not good there is a risk to public health’ then resources are mustered to combat these claims with public relations and scientific counter-claims. You conduct research into why consumers buy other products and not your own. In fact you see the whole world only through the lens of what is is you provide or offer and this myopia optimises your ability to make profit. If you have just committed to making a million units the last thing you want is internal debates regarding whether this product should have been made at all. In fact the marketing effort is upon making all members of the general public and all change leaders in society (politicians, journalist, lead users) also be in no doubt what to buy, given the choice.

Competitors in such markets all believe in themselves the same way, they must to survive and thrive, as does nations and groups within nations when you consider the current geopolitical climate. It was not in universities publicity interests to have tenure track academics speaking their minds, and certain individuals, both on the political right and left have been leveraged from their privileged positions because of their views. This concords with the corporate view of staffing drawn from the Flip Chart Fairy Tales blog:

“Mavericks can be awkward, disruptive and sometimes downright intimidating. And that makes people uncomfortable … For this reason, corporate cultures often spit such people out. It’s a bit like a body rejecting a transplant. The innovators are so different that the corporate body can’t assimilate them. After going to great lengths to attract and recruit them, the corporation either finds it can’t retain the mavericks or it gives them the boot.”

They have been assessed as not being ‘safe and quiet’ and getting on with their jobs, which today is focussed on bringing in money wherever, whenever they can, consolidating and doing whatever is necessary to prop up brand and league table positions [which begin to take on a kind of self-perpetuating’ reality as the best places draw in the best students, faculties and research money]. Anything else is considered wasteful, and any interesting scholarly or intellectual work like developing new theories is left to those top tier American universities which have enough endowment money to indulge their faculty into making the books that pepper the business and technology sections.

Other accounts of what the university should represent have been given at various junctures in recent history, such as the post-WWII ‘reconstruction’ writings of Ortega y Gasset’, (1947), Karl Jaspers (1946) and Michael Oakshotts (1950). But although they have added to the debate bringing to bear the state of society at that time, they have largely been at best mere mortar between the foundational ideas of the university as a particular community of learning and as proposed between the earlier foundational propositions of Kant, Humbolt and Newman. Kant with the University grounded in the idea of empiricism and reason, Humboldt with the freedom of academic thought from state or religious influence and the melding of research and teaching, and Newman put forward his idealised university, in many ways harking back to pre-modern notions of a university, the idea of culture and by and large the collegiate attitude. We tend to see leadership in the individualistic model as “superiority over” rather than “collaboration with.” All hierarchies are defined this way and the same is true in teaching and in relations with subjects and foci of study. Hence, we fail to cultivate communities of learning committed to actions serving a common good beyond individual or group self-interest.

More recent addresses include Jaroslav Pelikan, published a book titled The Idea of the University: A Reexamination (1992) In his re-examination, Pelikan, meditating upon Newman’s ‘idea’ identifies four core and enduring functions of higher education: research, teaching, the dissemination of knowledge through publication, and the preservation of, and access to, the scholarly record in libraries and archives (Pelikan, 1992). The latter two functions – dissemination and preservation and access – refer to the life cycle of scholarly resources that are produced and used in teaching and research and are the objects of scholarly communications.

Among Pelikan’s primary intellectual principles or virtues are the commitment to free and open inquiry, intellectual honesty, discipline of mind, and a “sustained, if now significantly chastened, trust in rationality and its processes” (p.50). But this rationality is a different one which now places its gaze upon unit measurement in terms of social and economic ‘impacts’ or the cultivation and harbouring of private sector relationships and joint projects.

The shift towards a manufacturing and consumer model of the university had roots in the economic and industrial shake-ups under Reagan and Thatcher, with leaving determinations of what is relevant and important down to ‘market forces’. Hanna Gray, former President of the University of Chicago, was present and aware of the writing in the wall in a speech she gave where she expressed aghast at:

“an intensified preoccupation with narrowly instrumental views of the higher learning but also what we may term a new consumerism as its offshoot.” She was was in part responding to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education which was suggesting that “higher education industry can take some lessons from the recent change in the condition of our domestic automobile industry… institutions will have to redesign, repackage and sell their products does herald a new era for higher education, and the challenges equal the one that confronted the auto industry a decade ago … Sacred though the cow of a liberal arts education may be, it may no longer be of relative value in the consumer’s mind when he or she is making the choice of how to spend money for education. Recent trends have produced a job oriented consumer of higher education.”

Gray’s reply to is this;

“…his version of the industry has nothing to do, it seems, with scholarship or research, let alone with the development of some power to think or to know, whether for its own sake or for that of an enhanced citizenship or heightened humanity, those values traditionally associated with or invoked in favor of the sacred cow of the liberal arts. The idea seems totally foreign to him that there might be institutions of higher learning whose main purpose is to take an independent stance and a long-term view, and in that way play a more important role, even for industry. She also asks us to remind ourselves of the words of Whitehead when he said that “the task of the university is the creation of the future, so far as rational thought and civilized modes of appreciation can affect the issue.”

A wide range of authors noticed the university in 1990s moved towards ‘accountability’. For instance Gibbons:

“Gone, it seems, is the high-mindedness of a von Humboldt or a Newman, with its pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. In their places has been put a view of higher education in which universities are meant to serve society, primarily by supporting the economy and promoting the quality of life of its citizens … The new paradigm is bringing in its train a new culture of accountability as is evidenced by the spread of managerialism and an ethos of value for money throughout higher education systems internationally … In all countries, developed or developing, the culture of accountability is going to become more and more firmly established. Not only will higher education in the 21st century have to become relevant, but also that relevance will be judged primarily in terms of outputs, the contribution that higher education makes to national economic performance and, through that, to the enhancement of the quality of life … This view of university relevance, judged primarily in relation to their contribution to economic development, constitutes a major shift in perspective and values from the perspective presented to an earlier age by the likes of von Humboldt and Newman.” (p.1-2)

As Scott also put it 20 years ago, “the idea of a university hard-wired into wealth creation is among the most pervasive of the late 20th century.” The engines of this wealth creation have been encapsulated in the triple helix model – a non-linear, interactive approach to innovation as a recursive overlap of interactions and negotiations between university, industry, and government (Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff, 1997). The institutional spheres of the state, the university and industry were formerly separate entities that interacted across strongly defended boundaries. Also the engaged university (OECD, 1999; Holland, 2001; Chatterton and Goddard, 2000) also focuses on the ‘third role’ of universities – not only teaching and research but explicit economic development mandates which promote greater technology transfer, and commercial outputs, without providing much of a compass for institutional change.

The important point is that they lay down a map which serves as the very foundation of what certainly university education is about, and what it seeks to ‘do’ for a person, and by extension, the society to which they belong. These revolve around three key themes:

1) Intellectual: Learning to learn, learning for learning’s sake or knowledge for knowledge, learning to concentrate, read and interpret text, image and data, to rationalise and apply critical and creative thinking to problems and interpretations.

2) Scholarly: Learning in order to develop a particularised set of knowledges, skills and experiences, and the melding thereof, in part suitable for a particular job or career, the development a kind vocational orientation.

3) Academic: The ethos of a liberal education leading to an informed and critical citizen. The liberal arts tradition, where a broad range of different knowledges and experiences are provided so as to immerse the student in novel and unanticipated situations, or the salient issues of the day, so as to empower the student to make political decisions.

This would include the social dimension of ‘being at’ university, negotiating and sharing knowledge and opinions with others, developing insights and overviews, developing abilities to articulate, pitch and present research and ideas. And moreover, having them challenged in a ‘safe environment’ under the critique of other intellectuals. Oakeshott (1989: p.101) spoke of university life for the undergraduate as ‘the gift of an interval’ Education, here then. is seen as involving a withdrawal from ‘society’ but not from a community which first and foremost is concerned with understanding and rationale, as a prelude to practice, the ‘look’ before the ‘leap’.

This would concur with Collini, that the university is essentially a place where one where discovers, and must explore and ratinalise implications and meanings, all of which cannot be determined beforehand, and is always exploratory of self, others, data, image and text. In a sense this harks back to the monastic traditions of contemplation, introspection and rhetoric from which the university first arose, and also the Humboltian tradition of seminars and diffusion and exposure of ideas to one’s peers and other interested parties. As Grey (1984) referred: “A university seeks constancy and continuity in its purpose of the preservation, creation, and dissemination of learning and in the integrity and autonomy of thought and process these require.”

I can remember with detestation sitting in a workshop class as an undergraduate which was on ‘time management’. I objected to regularising my life either around my down or leisure time or my work and study. I much preferred a ‘flexi-time’ approach where I would work for elongated periods without breaks, and then take time off when lacking the muse. And this surely is human learning, periods of curiosity, insights and a-ha’s mixed with periods of low motivation and few ideas, and difficulties in ‘getting-it’. People are moody, have ‘off-days’ and are irrational and irregular, behavioural economists have shown us that. Students just do not roll along the production line regularly ‘ISO’ style with a set of perfect input and perfect outputs lest they are branched out into the ‘reject’ trough. I felt perhaps, as I do now, with no external requirements placed upon me, that conditioning one’s life like this is taking Taylorism too far.

Even in my Ph.D. viva by a leading academic in the early 2000, whom I respected as much for his out and out intellectualism as much as his scholarly pursuits, I was surprised when I was advised to list some clear bulleted points, ‘tips’ for industry (which I struggled with) in the re-write of my thesis. The object was to give them, ‘industry’, and clear directions of where to go in their strategy or designs. I found this difficult as it was not supposed to be a normative study but rather a descriptive one; I nevertheless used my imagination and ventured a learned opinion, but it was forced it was an attempt to show industry relevance or ‘impact’.

When one considers that the Deming inspired approaches fed-back into manufacturing practices in the U.S. and beyond, its terms and associated thinking has also become applied to many different sectors beyond manufacturing industry and its management, including education, healthcare, and even psychiatry. Notably, Kaizen is also the name of a private equity firm focused on India’s $86 billion education sector.

Continual improvement and its measurement is not an unfamiliar idea to the western canon. It can be viewed as a semi-formalisation of the leit motif of the grand narrative of modernity. That is, of society making things and processes ever more faster, bigger, stronger, or smaller, cheaper, longer, and again, or any of the many other adjectives which suggest progress technically, depending on which part of the puzzle you are referring to. But there is one glaring hole in this. It takes for granted that the manner, subject, and way things are being delivered are fundamentally improvable. This is very difficult to qualify.

They are like the normal science of Khun, or the surety of the mature market in terms of products. They extend and consolidate and improve upon, they do not re-engineer, re-invent, re-focus to use other management and business terms [which is why Japan’s economy is now faltering or why there was perhaps myopia in the siting of nuclear power plants on fault lines].

There has been enough crisis in the ideology of perpetual advance and development in modernity to make us take note and think as some ecological quarters do, or the ‘big pictures’. The modernist project has been somewhat discredited, along with associated ideas such as getting closer to the ‘truth’, getting to the nitty gritty, the tiny single underlying element, of ever increasing cultural sophistication. That technology and wealth solves all problems, of ever growing economies of scope and scale, of ideas of continual and expansive growth, of the ultimate primal unit, ever widening and towering global hyper-consumerism in citadel Asian malls, the motivational force driving global capitalism, and of course the force also behind much reform in education at all levels in all places. The bottom line is there is no certitude and all is risk unless you are in the 1% that live in a system where, at least financially, they and their investment advisors cannot do any wrong, make any wrong decisions, or say the wrong things.

Continual improvement is all about the platonic at the expense of the visceral, a social or humanistic ideal of the perfect product or service. At the risk of pushing it too far it gets to the point of the little boy who stems the flow of water from the dam with his thumb. Entropy means that attention to systemic weakness or breakdown in one part of the system can weaken or distract attention from another problem, perhaps more serious, elsewhere. In any view of assessment the bigger picture beyond pedagogy and technology must be realised, it simply cannot be ignored.


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