The future of the past-university online

After a tumultuous time in higher education over past months, particularly in the EdTech and online learning spaces, it may be time to reflect, re-energise, and critically appraise. The past is full of junctures and upheavals, turning points and divergent paths, and it is the historian’s job make sense of significant events and attempt to bring them together into a coherent whole. There are several competing narratives around higher education now, each competing for their historical moment. I will offer a high-level outline of two key themes that I have distilled from the numerous online conferences and forums that I have attended over recent weeks.  This is meant as a general observation to provoke refection and imagination, rather than a deep dive into nuanced areas of debate.

The future will be online

During the Cold War, the Internet was designed as a post-apocalyptic command grid. In the event of a nuclear attack, that destroyed the communication systems of the Capitalist West, the survivors could send messages to each other to launch missiles to destroy the Communist East.  The logic of the Internet, to survive an apocalypse, was not a rosy picture of the future (and computing’s role in it), but a historically embedded response to the reality of the day, and this reality was not pretty.

Today’s reality is perhaps not that far removed from the original idea of the Internet; to survive an apocalypse. Most countries of the world are in some sort of COVID-response lockdown with mass-education systems now operating entirely online. This reality was unimaginable only a few years ago and indeed would not have been possible without the hard work of the innovators in online learning.

It is thus perhaps not surprising that many employed in the online learning space, that have done all the heavy-lifting to keep the lights on in higher education in recent months, see the future of education as online. In recent weeks, this optimistic affirmation has come up again and again, by senior university administrators, to EdTech entrepreneurs: it is taking today’s historical moment and projecting it into the indeterminate future (and if the 1960s future-vision was correct, then we would all be glowing in the dark by now).

The future of online may be quite different to what it has been in the past as it may not be a simple matter of scaling-up the hard work and innovation that has already been done (indulge my speculation here). The online education space is predominantly focussed upon courses that deliver skills and knowledge acquisition, primarily for younger students that require flexibility, or for older professionals already in good jobs wishing to reskill or change professions. This is a reasonably defined area of education and something that online does incredibly well (and some universities do better than others).

But I am not sure if this can be scaled to all or even most of higher education without confronting thorny issues of ‘academic scale’. What I mean by this is that ‘constructivism’, for instance, that has become prevalent over the past twenty years or so in online learning design may be inadequate to scale to other or all higher-education publics.  For instance, the constructivist ideal of ‘student-centred learning’ has been around for an awfully long time, close to 100 years if aligned with John Dewey’s early, ground-breaking work. But constructivism supports a particular type of industrial society and even a particular type of social realism typical in the early 20th Century US and Britain. Sure, it has been adapted and refined to the needs of contemporary education both on and offline. Still, perhaps it is time to give something else a crack as the student may have moved to some other centre. (I am thinking something much more minimalist, less prescriptive to provoke creativity, combined with a ‘real-world’, ‘experientialism’ in group contexts, something like the Minerva Schools at KGI ). I will leave this idea open, as I have not entirely thought it through. Still, my point is that if online education is to scale from its strong constructivist roots, learning design must appreciate that higher-education is embedded in other at times divergent cultural contexts with different educational needs and long epistemologically rooted world-views (i.e. the creative industries, humanities and social sciences, and pure science).

Lifelong learning will be the norm

Another fundamental affirmation reinforced over recent months in several forums is that lifelong learning is the new norm.  Lifelong learning is something that is facilitated incredibly-well online; this is, provide flexible micro-credentials, short-courses, and re-skilling-degrees for students at different stages of their life. Services such as LinkedIn Learn, Coursera, Futurelearn, edX and Practera are invaluable to a professional workforce wishing to remain current, or simply learn something new (that may send students in some fruitful lateral journeys).

The provision of lifelong learning products and services has indeed blossomed, evident in the recent Melbourne EdTech Summit (September 2020). There is a plethora of terrific work being done in experiential learning (Practera), assessments (Cadmus), Open learning and training platforms (Open Learning), and (G01). There is also a lot of innovative thinking about ‘packaging’ and ‘credentialising’ lifelong learning so that it is relevant to individuals at different life stages and work contexts. However, the lifelong learning conversation again lacks clarity when it is considered at scale. There is already an assumption in some degrees (i.e., the humanities) that learning is already forever once you ‘learn-how-to-learn’ (except how to code; this is hard). Lifelong learning is also less clear with post-graduate research-based degrees are considered, as the emphasis on research degrees is finding-stuff-out-for-yourself, and if you have done this once or twice, you could probably do it again.

That aside, there is stacks of ‘lifelong learning ‘happening right now; people re-skilling due to mass-unemployment, people stuck at home looking for things to do, unable to go to the local pub with their mates. There are terrific courses out there, literally thousands of them on dozens of platforms and heaps of topics. But still, the micro-credential scene seems a little ‘Kevin from HR’ in that they generally emanate from a particular historical context that may not scale well to all aspiring life-long-learners (sorry Kevin).

Right now, there are lots of unemployed creative people in Melbourne, and creativity is at the heart of all innovation and is equally the lifeblood of Melbourne’s much-prized liveability. Perhaps micro-credentials on dancing at work, guitar playing, digital ethics, historical storytelling, drumming, and ‘psychogeography’ (or something like this). The humanities and social sciences have an enormous role to play in online education because there is not only a skills deficit in some areas of Australian industry there is also a gaping ‘meaning deficit’ (these are existential times). With a bit of creativity, we could bridge that divide as humanities skills are timeless, knowledge-based, employability skills that are even more powerful when combined the hard-and-fast skills needed to solve the problems of an advanced knowledge economy. (And Northeastern University in the US is doing some great work in terms of combining humanities and social sciences majors with other degrees, and in experiential learning in arts and industry-based settings, with the help of the Australian-based company Practera).

Future angst

Optimism is an impoverished means to navigate the ambiguity of an uncertain future, and indeed it was not a culture of optimism in which the Internet was developed during the Cold War. It was a realistic and pragmatic response to the significant external threat of the moment (before higher education took the Internet in another direction). There are enormous challenges ahead for higher education requiring great captains at the helm. Still, I doubt that online education is the central longer-term solution to many of the problems unless reimagined to encompass more educated publics. There are many creative solutions now, micro-credentials, single post-graduate subjects, mixing of programs from different providers, flexible course starting times (not sure how this works), and terrific ‘non-credentialised’ courses (thanks to General Assembly). But still, something is lacking in this uncertain landscape, and this is the awareness that there are going to be less people employed, fewer students, less budget to pay for EdTech, and uncertain policy and political landscapes. Creativity is no stranger to adversity, and when we emerge from behind our screens, there is an enormous opportunity to respond in an informed, critical and realistic way and meet the needs of our times. As long as there is creativity in the word, the online project will never be completed.

Review: Thomas Piketty: Capital and Ideology

One of the most productive things that I have done during Melbourne’s lockdown is read Thomas Piketty’s latest work, Capital and Ideology (Harvard University Press, 2020). It is undoubtedly not the most leisurely book to read, at 1150 pages, dense with footnotes, appendices, and graphs, spanning a three-hundred-year period, multiple countries, and the fields of economics and history. It is a monumental work of scholarship, and along with his last significant work Capital in the 21st Century (Harvard University Press, 2014), it provides a rigorously empirical, data-centric and troubling view of the undoing of financial egalitarianism in Western democracies. Piketty provides the historical reasoning of this, the monumental failure of the command economies of communism, the weakening of progressive taxations and other policies design to redistribute wealth (such as inheritance taxes) and the shift in the ideology of egalitarianism to ideologies based the uncritical embrace of ‘meritocracy’.

The primary cause of the significant shift is that the political left (Labour and Democrat’s) shifted from worker’s parties to parties of the educated (or what Piketty calls the Brahmin left). A more educated demographic is more likely to vote left; the less educated are more likely to vote right. Politics has become less of a class battle and more of a battle between elites; the ‘Brahmin left’ and the ‘Mercantile right’, with a bunch of Identitarian political cleavages to keep things interesting.

I will attempt to outline the four key arguments.

Inequality has always been justified by ideology, from pre-modern ‘trifunctional societies’ (church, nobles, and warriors), to slavery, colonialism, communism to what Piketty terms ‘hyper-capitalism’. All regimes had an ideology to justify financial inequality from the slave states of the Caribbean and southern United States (that drew up to 100% of their income from the slave trade), to Belle Époque France, to 21st Century hyper-capitalist states. Piketty has a knack for measuring the transition of inequality through various historical epochs using vast data sets of national income, taxation, and inheritance records. During the late Belle Époque (the period after the French Revolution) a ridiculously small elite owned nearly all the property in Paris, justified by the post-revolutionary-meritocracy of mercantile ‘egalitarian exceptionalism’.  It was only through the advent of progressive taxation and inheritance taxes in the 20th Century that France and other countries moved to a more quantifiable egalitarianism.

Piketty claims that communism was a disaster so great that its failure overshadows the regimes of colonialism and slavery that came before it (and this argument has infuriated the Chinese CCP so much, that they have banned his book in China). Plus, the failure to regulate capital through the experimental, centralised command economies of communism, has pushed western countries in another ideological and policy direction, to have very-little wealth in public hands. In fact, all that citizens now own through their governments (schools, roads, buildings, and agencies) is worth zero dollars once government debt is considered. Indeed, in some countries, governments must pay private enterprise interest as governments own less that they owe (and this has happened in the short timeframe of 10 years).

Social democratic policies are another area of focus of Piketty’s examination. Although they have not disappeared altogether (Norway, Sweden, Germany, and to a lesser degree, New Zealand and Australia), their influence on the world stage is marginal to the 21st Century libertarian notion of globalism (free-trade, tax havens, and ‘race to the bottom’ tax competition between nations).  Piketty argues that social democracies should form federal alliances to regulate capital on a global scale, as they have so successfully done domestically.

The social democracies were some of the most egalitarian societies the world has ever known, but this did not happen through mere cultural reasons or imagined ‘egalitarian exceptionalism’, but through clear policies linked to the unambiguous ideology of wanting to be egalitarian. This entailed political courage and enacting policies of wealth distribution through high progressive taxation and high rates of inheritance tax. The period from the Second World War until 1980 was a prosperous, high-growth, high-innovation period and this was archived through maintaining egalitarianism via high progressive taxation, especially in the US (up to 75%), which is now the most inegalitarian western economy. Piketty’s point is that fiscal egalitarianism and innovation are not mutually exclusive, and in fact, the opposite may be the case.  Globalism needs to move onto a more egalitarian footing, and this can only be done through alliances of progressive, egalitarian countries, something like a federal version of the EU (that presently only collect and distributes 1% of European GDP).

As Piketty argues, one of the significant reasons that western countries (particularly the US), became so inegalitarian is because of shifting ideologies and voting patterns, especially on the left. Piketty uses post-election surveys to examine voter behaviour and discovered that there has been an almost complete reversal of voting patterns among a less-educated demographic. Since the 1980s, the less educated are more likely to vote Republican or Tory, and the more educated are more likely to vote Labour or Democrat. This shift mirrors the reduction of progressive taxation and the heightening of inequality in western democracies. The policies of the left (or what Piketty terms the Brahmin left) are seen by the working classes as supporting high-education and high-salaries, whilst neglecting working-class demands (which are often essentialised as ‘populism’). The pressure of global capital, the ‘race to the bottom’ in taxation competition, and a highly fractured polity have perhaps forced the hand of progressive parties.

As a conclusion, Piketty seems to be arguing that we need to get over communism, try egalitarianism again, and learn from the social democracies. The state does not have to own everything (the means of production). It can foster egalitarianism through taxation and ‘fiscal justice’, inheritance taxes (that prevent inter-generational wealth accumulation), and workers-representatives on company boards (as is the case in Germany and Nordic counties). One of his more interesting ideas is that there ought to be an explicit public-inheritance, or that every 25-year-old could receive a sum of say, 200 thousand euros to set them up in life at an early stage.  This money would come from an inheritance tax on the enormous fortunes. The ‘egalitarian ideology’ that justifies this is that wealth should be temporary and not accumulated over many generations (that could see us return to the nobility of pre-modern times).

I am fortunate enough to have read both of Piketty’s significant works, and the irony is, this type of scholarship is only possible in the 21st Century. The synthesis of quantitative data with a historical narrative on such scale using such techniques has all the hallmarks of emergent digital humanities (or ‘big reading’).  Piketty has even made much of his data available for further analysis, visualisation, and debate in the classroom. The book was released just before the global coronavirus pandemic, so perhaps there is a historical moment now, as there was directing proceeding the Second World War, where we have the chance to recalibrate ideologically and again move towards egalitarianism.

Building a ‘moral operating system’ for IT students: pedagogies and problems

(This is a paper I will be co-presenting at an applied ethics conference here in Melbourne in December. Ethics in IT has become a very big deal!

Dr Craig Bellamy, Lecturer, CSU Study Centre Melbourne, Nectarios Costadopoulos, Lecturer, CSU Study Centre, Sydney

9th Annual Australasian Business Ethics Network (ABEN) Conference, Melbourne, 8-10 December 2019

In this paper, we will discuss the obstacles, lessons learnt, and innovations in pedagogy in delivering the subject, Topics in Information Technology Ethics, which is the applied professional ethics subject for the Masters in IT at CSU. It is also, more broadly, a mandatory subject for all Computer Science degrees in Australia, under the auspices of the Australian Computer Society (ACS). As part of this discussion, we examine the present ethical landscape in the IT industry and outline how we prepare students to enter the industry with an independent ethical agency. It is the contention of the presentation that argument, reasoning, and logic skills are the seminal learning proficiencies required for students to enter the dynamic ethical landscape of the digital economy, although this is not without limitations.

Indeed, ethics is now the ‘wicked problem’ in the IT field as there is a developing international ‘tecklash’ against the industry led by specific high-profile incidents (i.e. Cambridge Analytica and the Christchurch massacre) and public concern for privacy, transparency, and dysfunctional digital markets. The Australian, New Zealand, EU, and US governments have responded with strict new regulation, including fines for violation of privacy, distribution of inappropriate harmful materials, and copyright infringement. 

Graduate Computer Scientists entering into this complex new domain of enforceable ethical practice may face legal or other action if they are in breach of new and proposed laws regulating the industry. It is in the interests of the Australia Computer Society, the broader industry, and educators in the field to prepare students for the ethical challenges they face, as is already the case with other more established fields such as Accounting and indeed, Higher Education. Damon Howiwtz (2014) put it succinctly, stating that what the IT industry needs is a better ‘moral operating system’ to guide ethical decision making to face today’s looming challenges.

One evident way to certify that students are prepared for ‘ethical practice’ in the industry is to ensure that their ethical judgement is sound and reasoned (Tavani, 2015). We teach ethical reasoning and judgement skills through a number of means; case studies, scenarios, and interactive YouTube videos of ethical dilemmas with multiple outcomes. At CSU we have pioneered a way of streamlining ethical decision making through the Doing Ethics Technique, an early innovation developed by academics in the subject, to build reasoning skills in a systematic and logical way (Simpson, Nevile, Burmeister, 2003). Recently we have been using argument mapping software to allow students to map ethical arguments in imminent ethical dilemmas enabled by the rise of Artificial Intelligence and autonomous vehicles. This has had mixed results in terms of digital pedagogy and assessment outcomes (MindMup, 2019). This is because the leap from classical ethical theories to contemporary ethical problems is difficult for many students (although the link is more apparent between Foots seminal ethical dilemma “the trolly problems” (1967) and rogue autonomous vehicles).

Together, we will discuss the contemporary problem of teaching ethical reasoning and logic in an IT ethics class and our advances in the area.

References:

  1. Horowitz, Damon, “We need a moral operating system”, 2014, Ted Talk, https://www.ted.com/talks/damon_horowitz
  2. Philippa Foot, “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect” in Virtues and Vices (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978) (originally appeared in the Oxford Review, Number 5, 1967.)
  3. MindMup, Sauf Pompiers Limited, Leigh-On-Sea, UK, https://www.mindmup.com/
  4. SIMPSON, Christopher; NEVILE, Liddy; BURMEISTER, Oliver. Doing Ethics: A Universal Technique in an Accessibility Context. Australasian Journal of Information Systems, [S.l.], v. 10, n. 2, May 2003. ISSN 1449-8618. Available at: <https://journal.acs.org.au/index.php/ajis/article/view/159>. Date accessed: 12 Sep. 2019. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.3127/ajis.v10i2.159.
  5. Tavani, Herman T, Ethics and Technology: Controversies, Questions, and Strategies for Ethical Computing, 5th Edition, Wiley Press, 2015

Black Cat Fitzroy

Black Cat Fitzroy

I’ve been visiting the Black Cat Fitzroy for as long as I can remember. The first time I came to this bohemian dive was sometime around 1988. It has managed to reinvent and reinvigorate itself, perhaps a little more than I have. It was one of the original cafes in the district that helped build the artsy Brunswick Street of today. I come here every Sunday and chill and listen to some good Sunday arvo music. A legendary institution.

Working with the Great Parchment Book: Digitisation and Primary Historical Texts

DHI is very excited to host  a public Lecture by Professor Melissa Terras on the 31st October 2014.

Melissa will be discussing the Great Parchment Book of the Honourable The Irish Society, a major survey compiled in 1639 by a Commission instituted by Charles I, of all the estates in Derry, Northern Ireland, managed by the City of London through the Irish Society and the London livery companies. Damaged in a fire at London’s Guildhall in 1786, it has been unavailable to researchers for over 200 years. The manuscript consists of 165 separate parchment membranes, all damaged in the fire. Uneven shrinkage and distortion has rendered much of the text illegible. Traditional conservation alone would not produce sufficient results to make the manuscript accessible or suitable for exhibition, the parchment being too shriveled to be returned to a readable state. Much of the text is visible but distorted; following discussions with conservation and imaging experts, it was decided to flatten the parchment sheets as far as possible, and to use multi-modal digital imaging to gain legibility and enable digital access (http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/3-1/great-parchment-book-project/).

  • Time and place
  • 9.30 to 10.45am
  • 31st October 2014
  • Linkway, 4th Floor John Medley Building,
  • The University of Melbourne

This talk by Melissa Terras (one of the members of the GPB project) will look at issues involving using advanced imaging methods within cultural heritage, particularly regarding the relationship the resulting model has to the primary historical text. Using the Great Parchment Book as a focus, she will ask how best can we integrate multi-modal imaging into our humanities research practices? What issues are there for both research and practice?

Professor Melissa Terras is Director of UCL Centre for Digital Humanities at University College London. Her presentation will include an overview of the advanced imaging technologies used in projects such as the Great Parchment Book (http://www.greatparchmentbook.org/), and the virtual shipping gallery at the Science Museum in London.

THATCamp Melbourne 2014, Registrations Open!

thatcamp_melb_mj

Registrations now open for Melbourne THATCamp 2014!

http://www.2014.thatcampmelbourne.org/

THATCamp, Melbourne, 2014, will be held at the University of Melbourne on the 10-11 October, 2014 (Free event!)

THATCamp is all about participation, discussion, and fun through fostering a productive, collegial environment. The program for THATCamp is created and managed by participants on the day who vote on the sessions proposed.

In preparation for the event we ask you to start thinking about some potential topics to workshop on the day. The core theme of THATCamp Melbourne is pedagogy, although any aspect of digital humanities work is welcome.

To get the ball rolling, here are some suggestions: ‘blended learning’ in humanities teaching,  spaces for learning with technology, the creation, access and critical use of digital resources in teaching; grading and assessment through learning management systems,  social media in the humanities, for instance sentiment analysis, visualisation of historical phenomena, or MOOCs in the DH.

We look forward to your proposals,

Kind regards,

Amanda, Craig, and Fiona