DIVERSE: A new JISC-funded project

I’m pleased to report that this week, Dr. John Murray and I were awarded one of JISC’s Teaching and Learning Innovation Grants. As usual, you can read the full bid to JISC on Google Docs. Very roughly, it’s a study of what happens when Social Bookmarking and Learning Analytics meets Student as Producer. I think it’s going to be a really interesting project, and I’m looking forward to working with John, the Principle Investigator, and two of his students.

This project will undertake a cross-departmental study of the use of ‘resource clouds’ for subject research, peer-review and validation of materials. It will build on DIVERSE, a tool for crowd-sourcing relevant subject resources, to determine student understanding of lecture and assignment topics. Through an analysis of qualitative and quantitative data, it will examine why students favour particular resources, determine how reading lists can be more effectively created and provide case studies of how students can contribute to lecture design.

This programme of funding requires a different application process, using a template and interview format. I think this is to improve the efficiency of bidding and judging, although in my case I spent more time on this bid and then preparing for the interview than any previous application! I quite enjoyed it and the online interview afforded me a bit more confidence than sitting face to face in a room as I was able to refer to written notes a lot more than if were I in right in front of the panel.

While talking to the interview panel I realised that I am in a fortunate position to be working in the Centre for Educational Research and Development, which leads the University’s Teaching and Learning Strategy (Student as Producer), as well as sharing the responsibility for technology for research, teaching and learning with the Library and ICT department. It’s these close working relationships with all the right people and the great support and enthusiasm we have from the Vice Chancellor’s Office, the Dean of Teaching and Learning, Head of ICT and the University Librarian, that allows me to talk with confidence about undertaking and sustaining our work.

As you’ll see from the full grant application, development of the DIVERSE tool was funded internally by the Student as Producer project under our Fund for Educational Development. I’m happy to say that DIVERSE will be the first project that our new group provides support for as we intend to do for many other projects. We’ll be ensuring that John and his students are able to integrate the DIVERSE tool into our CWD+Nucleus+OAuth framework over the summer in time for the new academic year.

This is exactly the model that I hope we can keep repeating: students and staff with good ideas around the use of technology for education (it doesn’t have to be software development!)  bid internally for a small amount of funding where required and, if successful, then we provide the appropriate institution-wide advocacy and support (technical integration, training, joint research, etc.). If such projects are also able to attract external funding, it suggests we’re doing the right thing.

Technology for education: A new group

I offer this as one response to my previous post. Much more needs to be done to ‘reverse imagineer’ EdTech, but this will be my practical focus for the foreseeable future and the nexus of where theory is put into practice, where pedagogy meets technología: “The processes and practices of doing things, understanding things and developing knowledge”? (Selwyn 2011, p7)

A new group

In January, I wrote about how I had written a paper for the university about the role of technology in the context of Student as Producer. The paper included a recommendation that a new team be convened to “further the research, development and support of technology” at the university. January feels like a long time ago now, and I wanted to write about what’s been happening since then, because it’s all good :-)

Following my presentation of the original paper to the Teaching and Learning Committee, I was asked to provide more detail on what the proposed team would do and a justification for the budget I had outlined. Both papers were written on behalf of and with the co-operation of, the Dean of Teaching and Learning, the University Librarian, the Prof. of Education, the Head of ICT and the Vice President of Academic Affairs in the Student Union. The second paper went back to the T&L Committee and, following their approval, then went to the university’s Executive Board in early April.

I began the paper by outlining what the team is for:

The team will consolidate and extend the existing collaborative work taking place between Centre for Educational Research and Development, The Library and ICT Services1 and invite staff and students from across the university to join the team. The team will offer incentives to staff and students who wish to contribute to the rapid innovation of appropriate technology for education at the university, through work-experience, research bursaries and internal and external applications for funding. Through our experience of the Fund for Educational Development (FED) and Undergraduate Research Opportunity Scheme (UROS) funds, we know this is an effective method of engaging staff and students in research and development. A core principle of the team will be that students and staff have much to learn from each other and that students as producers can be agents of change in the use of technology for education.

I then went on to argue:

The Student as Producer project is anticipated to take between 3-5 years to fully embed across the university. During this time, significant changes will occur in the technologies we use. In just the last five years, we have seen the rise of web applications such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Web 2.0 in general. Aside from such applications, networked infrastructure has developed considerably, with access to broadband now widespread and the use of smart phones and netbooks rapidly increasing. For a student at the University of Lincoln in 2011, high-speed networks are now ubiquitous across the city campuses and such networks themselves are now the ‘learning landscape’, in which the university is but one part.

There is a strong argument for shifting away from the idea of ‘educational technology’ to address technology straight on, recognising that any technology can support and enhance the research, teaching and learning process, and that the use of these technologies increasingly lies outside the institution’s control. We would argue that it is not the university’s role to compete with or determine the use of any technology but rather support access to technology in the broadest terms. This can be achieved through incremental improvements to infrastructure (e.g. network capacity and ease of use), supporting staff and students (e.g. training, workshops, courses) and personalising and integrating the services we do provide so that staff and students have a useful and enjoyable experience of technology at the university and understand how it fits within their wider networks. In particular, we should consider whether Blackboard can be better enhanced through mobile applications and the integration of other popular services such as Facebook. It is a key technology for the support of teaching and learning and if extended through the work of the proposed team, could be a platform for innovation. All of this work should be informed by a broad understanding of the social roles of technology and the objective of producing critical, digitally literate staff and students.

I presented a list of risks that I thought would present themselves if we didn’t take this approach:

  1. Poor co-ordination: Poorly co-ordinated investment in technology to support strategic objectives, resulting in competing interests in limited resources.
  2. Disjuncture: Growing disjuncture between student expectations and institutional provision of technology and support.
  3. Inertia: No locus for technological experimentation and innovation.
  4. Unattractive to potential post-graduates and staff: Technological provision compares poorly to other institutions, putting off new staff and post-graduates.
  5. Loss of income stream: Under-investment in ‘seeding’ projects that may attract external income.
  6. Business As Usual: During a period of significant change in Higher Education, our progressive T&L Strategy is hindered by poorly co-ordinated technological development.
  7. Student as Consumer: Technology remains something ‘provided’ by the university, rather than produced and informed by its staff and students.

Finally, I provided more detail about the costs. After taking into account existing budgets available to us and anticipated external research income, the total I asked for was £22K/yr to pay for an additional 12-month Intern position and a contribution to the staff and student bursaries we want to make available.  This was approved.

I was pleased with the outcome as it means that our current work is being recognised as well as the strategic direction we wish to go in. In terms of resourcing, we will have at least one more full-time (Intern) post and hold a £20K annual budget which will be used to provide grants and bursaries to staff and students, pay for hardware and software as needed and pay for participants to go to conferences to discuss their work and learn from the EdTech community at large. This doesn’t include any external income that we hope to generate. The nature of our applications for research grants is unlikely to change other than we hope to have more capacity in the future including both students and academic staff as active contributors to the development, implementation and support of technology for education at the university.

Team? Group? Network? Place?

The core members of the group (i.e. CERD/ICT/Library) met for an afternoon last week to discuss the roadmap for getting everything in place for the new academic year. We began by discussing the remit of the group (as detailed in the two committee papers), which is principally to serve the objectives of Student as Producer, the de facto teaching and learning strategy of the university. We spent a while discussing the nature of the group; that is, whether it was a team, a network, a group or even a place. In the first committee paper I wrote, I described it as “a flexible, cross-departmental team of staff and student peers”, but have since come to refer to it as a ‘group’, as ‘team’ does not reflect the nature of how we intend to work, nor the relationships we hope to build among participants, nor is a ‘team’ inclusive enough. I’d like to think that we’ll develop a network of interested staff and students and even attract interest and collaboration from outside the university, but I think it’s too early to call what we’re doing a network, although we are networked and working on the Net.  We’ve given ourselves a couple of weeks to come up with name but whatever we call it, we agreed that in principle we’d govern the group by consensus among us. Ideally, though not always in practice, the Net can help us create flatter structures of governance, so we’ll try to shape the way we work around this ideal.  My role will be to co-ordinate the work of the group by consensus.

UPDATE: We decided upon LNCD as the name for our group. It’s a recursive acronym: LNCD’s Not a Central Development group.

All participants will be encouraged to write about their work in the context of Student as Producer, building on the progressive pedagogical framework that is being implemented at the university, theorising their work critically and reflexively. We’ll support this approach, too, building a reading list for people wanting to think critically about EdTech and an occasional seminar series where we’ll discuss our ideas critically, reflexively and collegially.

Road map and tools

We will be up and running by the start of the next academic year. Over the summer, we’ve got a timetable of work that we plan to do to ensure we’ve got a clearly defined identity and the tools in place to support the nature of our work. By the end of September, we’ll have a website that offers clear information on what we do, what we’re working on, how to get involved and the ways we can support staff and students at the university. The site will allow you to review all aspects of our projects as well as propose new projects which can be voted up and down according to staff and students’ priority. There will be an application form for you to apply for funding from us and a number of ways for you discuss your ideas on and offline. We’ll be continuing our current provision of staff training, but will be looking to re-develop the sessions into short courses that are useful to both staff and students. The 2009 Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World report recommended that

The time would seem to be right seriously and systematically to begin the process of renegotiating the relationship between tutor and student to bring about a situation where each recognises and values the other’s expertise and capability and works together to capitalise on it. This implies drawing students into the development of approaches to teaching and learning. [Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World, p.9]

This is very much what Student as Producer is aiming to do through embedding research-engaged teaching and learning across the curricula and the approach we plan to take around support and training for the use of technology in teaching and learning. We’ll be working with the Student Union and the Principle Teacher Fellows across the university to identify ways that students and their tutors can be encouraged to support each other and we welcome the input and collaboration of anyone who wishes to adopt and advocate this approach. We’ll be designing some posters, flyers and business cards over the summer so that people around the university know who we are and how to get in touch in time for Fresher’s Week.

For the Geeks, you might be interested to know that we’ve decided upon a set of tools for managing our work online in a distributed environment where most of us work in different parts of the university campuses. We’ll have a dedicated virtual Linux box (as well as our usual development servers) and the main website will be run on WordPress using our own custom CWD theme. We’ll be migrating all of our code to Git Hub very soon and we’ll be using Pivotal Tracker to manage our development tasks in an agile and open way. We’ll be using our existing combination of Get Satisfaction and Zen Desk to manage peer-to-peer user support and bug reports and we’ll also be looking at alternatives such as User Voice and the Open Source Q&A tool to provide a way for you to suggest and vote for project ideas. Notably, through the use of their APIs, most of these tools integrate well, so that we can create tasks in Pivotal Tracker from bug reports made with Zen Desk and associate those tasks with commits on Git Hub. We’ll be using Twitter just as we always do, and we’ll be using Google Groups for longer discussions around each project (as well as regularly meeting face-to-face, of course). For projects that don’t involve writing code (which we certainly welcome), we’ll be looking at tools that assist with resource development and document control, such as digress.it, MediaWiki, Git Hub, Google Docs, EPrints and Jorum, depending on the nature of the project. We won’t be prescriptive with the tools we adopt, using whatever is appropriate, but with an emphasis on those that offer decent APIs, data portability and good usability. Proprietary software lacking APIs and with poor usability (we can all think of a few) won’t get much of a look in. Finally, through RSS and widgets, we’ll be presenting a coherent picture of each project on the main website.

There’s quite a bit to do but we know how to do it.  If you’ve got any suggestions (a name would be useful!), ideas or even want to join us, for the time-being, leave a comment here and we’ll get back to you. Thanks.

  1. Since writing this, I’ve listed examples of our existing work in a recent blog post. You can add JISCPress and ChemistryFM, this WordPress platform and our e-portfolio system to that list, too. []

Reverse imagineering ‘educational technology’

The question that has been occupying some of my thinking the last couple of months is “how is Student as Producer expressed in terms of ‘technology’ (technología)? That is, “the processes and practices of doing things, understanding things and developing knowledge”? (Selwyn 2011, p7)  Over the next couple of years, the Student as Producer project aims to

…establish research-engaged teaching and learning as an institutional priority at the University of Lincoln, making it the dominant paradigm for all aspects of curriculum design and delivery, and the central pedagogical principle that informs other aspects of the University’s strategic planning.

There are a number of documents that lay the theoretical and practical groundwork for Student as Producer.

Re-reading these papers, some broad themes are common:

  • History
  • Society
  • Pedagogy
  • Curricula

Within these themes, we can find the following keywords and ideas

  • Speculative thinking
  • Critique
  • Close contact between student and teacher
  • Dialectical method
  • Student as subject, student as producer
  • Make history not just knowledge
  • Relationship between intellectual and manual labour
  • ‘Common Affairs’ / ‘Everyday life’
  • Radically democratic
  • Direct communication/direct action
  • Informed by social history
  • Student designed curricula
  • University as producer and consumer of technological innovation
  • Student as personification of knowledge
  • Politics of production
  • Internet as mass intellectuality
  • Polycentric, collective intelligence
  • Social constructivism
  • Openness
  • Collaboration: Student as teacher/teacher as student
  • Connect theory with action
  • Interrupt consensus
  • Ecological sustainability = institutional sustainability
  • Social learning that transforms social context
  • Paradigm shift

In the context of a university, the technologist is interested in the ‘study of’ (logia) the art, skill or craft (techne) of teaching and learning and in the context of Student as Producer, we are obliged to  extend this interest to thinking critically about the use of ‘tools for improvement’ and recognising that their development and use is, and always has been, political and socially determined, just as ‘the idea of the university‘ has always been politically and socially determined.

How then, might we undertake a ‘reverse imagineering‘ of educational technology? What is it with technology that we are seeking to improve in education?1 Following the objectives and techniques of ‘reverse engineering’ in hacking, reverse imagineering might be a method by which we deconstruct the complex machine of ‘educational technology’ and reconstruct a technology for education.

The deconstruction of complex machines and their ‘decolonized’ reconstruction can be carried out on all kinds of objects, not just computational ones. In the same way as you deconstruct a program, you can also deconstruct the internal functioning of a government or an administration, a firm or an industrial or financial group. On the basis of such a deconstruction, involving a precise identification of the operating principles of a given administration, or the links or networks between administrations, lobbies, businesses etc., you can define modes of action or intervention.2

How do we deconstruct educational technology in order to reconstruct a technology for education? I suggest we develop a critical praxis of technology for education and that Student as Producer offers us both a theoretical and practical framework by which to undertake it.

  1. It’s worth noting that the word ‘improve‘ has always been closely aligned with the use of technologies to add value i.e. profit. The Middle English improwen, meant to enclose land for cultivation, from Anglo-Norman emprouwer, to turn to profit. The OED entry lists a long and interesting list of similar uses. []
  2. Bureau d’Etudes, Autonomous Knowledge and Power in a Society without Affects. []

Pedagogy, Technology and Student as Producer

I was recently asked to present a paper to the university’s Teaching and Learning Committee about the role of technology in the context of Student as Producer. The paper was well received by the committee and I have been asked to draw up a Business Case  which will be presented to the Academic Board and then, hopefully, for final approval by the Executive Board. Unlike this paper, which is pretty high level, the Business Case will go into more detail about what we actually propose to do and how. Comments very welcome. Thanks to my colleague, Sue Watling, for  help with the section on ‘digital inclusion’.

Pedagogy, Technology and Student as Producer

Summary

Student as Producer will have a significant impact on the work of both students and staff at the university and this paper briefly addresses the strategic role of technology and teaching and learning within the context of Student as Producer. In summary, we argue that the university can lead the sector in re-engineering knowledge creation and sharing through the open development of edgeless social learning networks, based on a methodology of peer-to-peer innovation and a commitment to digital inclusion and critical, digital literacy.

Student as Producer

Student as Producer is underpinned by progressive pedagogical theory which asserts that students can and should be producers of their social world by genuinely collaborating in the processes of research, teaching and learning. Student as Producer has a radically democratic agenda, valuing critique, speculative thinking, openness and a form of social learning that aims to transform the social context so that students become the subjects rather than objects of history – individuals who make history and personify knowledge. Student as Producer is not simply a project to transform and improve the ‘student experience’ but aspires to a paradigm shift in how knowledge is produced, where the traditional student and teacher roles are ‘interrupted’ through close collaboration and a recognition that both teachers and students have much to learn from each other. Student as Producer is not dependent on technology but rather on the quality of the relationship between teacher and student. The extent to which technology can support, advance and even progressively disrupt this relationship is therefore key.

Critical, digital literacy

Increasingly, the language of digital networks is that of ‘users’ who produce and consume ‘content’. With the availability of ‘free’ Web 2.0 tools, we are told that anyone on the web is a potential publisher of content for someone else to consume. The message from The Edgeless University (2009) is increasingly typical: In the world of Web 2.0, universities are being positioned as distinctive “resource providers” i.e. research outputs, lectures and podcasts on iTunesU, Open Access institutional repositories and and Open Educational Resources, with the expertise to “validate learning”. Student as Producer both challenges and leverages this ‘abundance’ of open resources by articulating a “pedagogy of excess”, whereby the student is encouraged and supported in being not just a student-consumer but rather a productive, critical, digitally literate social individual. In this view, technology is inclusive and understated, advocated by the institution primarily to develop the individual’s critical, social understanding and abilities which they apply to their learning and in this way technology does not become an end in itself.

Digital inclusion

Digital divides, both within higher education and beyond our institutions, derive from the social shaping of technology where technical design and implementation is influenced by organisational, political, economic and cultural factors (Bjiker and Pinch 1984, Williams and Edge 1994). Technological ‘innovation’ is often the subsequent means whereby wider social inequalities are reproduced and reinforced. For example, operating effectively within a Web 2.0 environment privileges a narrow range of access criteria and assumes pre-requisite levels of digital confidence and competence. Those who fall outside of these parameters are digitally excluded and disempowered. In the development of critical, digital literacy, Student as Producer can raise awareness of the nature and effects of inequitable digital practices and in doing so, encourage socially responsible individuals who are then able to challenge exclusive practices and ensure inclusive ways of living in society.

Learning landscapes

In itself, technology arguably has no direct bearing on educational outcome. It is the extent to which technology is understood, developed and employed within the overall social and political environment that it contributes to the social wealth, education and overall well-being of society (Downes, 2010). The typical use of technology in higher education ranges from the mundane to the instrumental to the experimental, enabling, for example, the management of courses and assessment through the Learning Management Systems (LMS), the increasingly collaborative cross-institutional nature of research through discipline-specific Virtual Research Environments (VRE) and the creation of Personal Learning Environments (PLE) where teachers and students choose technologies appropriate to their own needs and capacities. Similarly, technologies such as Blackboard, are thoroughly embedded in critical institutional functions penetrating deep into the overall ‘learning landscape’ of the university. Networked technology is now ingrained in the very ‘idea of the university’ and the social production of knowledge. It is used to both intentionally effect change (i.e. innovate) in higher education and respond to change taking place in society (i.e. facilitate). Arguably, it is not a matter of asking “what is the role of technology in higher education?”, but rather “what is the role of the university in a networked world?” (Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World, 2009)

A pedagogy of excess

Student as Producer is perfectly timed to engage with what The Edgeless University states as a “time of maximum uncertainty and time for creative possibility between the ending of the way things have been and the beginning of the way they will be.” At a time when the higher education sector is being privatised and students are expected to assume the role of consumer, Student as Producer aims to provide the student with a more critical, more historically and socially informed experience of university life, which extends beyond their formal studies to engage with the role of the university and their own role in society. Pedagogically, this is through the idea of ‘excess’ where students, undertaking a critical evaluation of their subject and of their role in society, are anticipated to become more than just student-consumers during their course of research and study (Neary and Hagyard, 2010). In practice, a pedagogy of excess re-orientates the roles of staff and students to become producers of an edgeless university and creators of social wealth.

Student as Producer responds to calls for ‘edgelessness’ by asserting a radical agenda for the development and support of technology, extending the networks and spaces that we maintain to become social learning networks or, in Vygotsky’s term, ‘Zones of Proximal Development’ (ZPD), in which social learning has the potential to change the individual and their social context (Neary, 2010). We recognise the centrality of staff and students in “driving further innovation without losing the strengths of the traditional academic environment” (Learning Landscapes, 2009) and this should be coupled with the benefits that networked technology brings to the learning landscape, not only in advancing ubiquitous access to information but also the potential for challenging and re-engineering the relationships between teacher and student engaged in collaborative research.

Peer-to-peer production

To undertake this, we recommend that a flexible, cross-departmental team of staff and student peers are convened to further the research, development and support of technology for research, teaching and learning at the University of Lincoln. The team’s primary remit will be to support the objectives of Student as Producer through technology. To achieve this, it is proposed that the team has an acknowledged research and development role, and that the work of the team is theoretically informed by the progressive pedagogy of Student as Producer so as to engender critical, digitally literate staff and students. To this effect, the team will consolidate and extend the existing collaborative work taking place between CERD, The Library and ICT Services by inviting staff and students from across the university to openly contribute. The team will offer incentives to staff and students who wish to contribute to the rapid innovation of appropriate technology for education at the university, through work-experience, research bursaries and internal and external applications for funding. A core principle of the team will be that students and staff have much to learn from each other and that students as producers can be agents of change in the use of technology in education.

Conclusion

This proposal is supported by recent NUS data, which highlights the need for greater choice in how students learn, concerns around staff ICT competency, and the appropriateness of technology used across courses. (HEFCE/NUS, 2010). Overall, recent reports support the creation of a learning landscape where the distinction between teacher and student is increasingly fluid, emphasising the role of technology to enable collaboration and the co-production of knowledge. The multi-faceted nature of the institution remains highly valued, as does the multifarious role of the teacher. However, due to changes in the production and consumption of information in society, the student’s role is being reasserted in a new form of peer collaboration; one which we might call the ‘student as producer’.

Annual Budget Required

Digital Development Co-ordinator (Grade 8 )

Student/graduate developers (Grade 4/5) x 4

Student bursaries £4000

Staff research grants: £7000

Hardware/Software: £10,000

Conferences: £4000

References

Bradwell, P. (2009) The Edgeless University, DEMOS. http://lncn.eu/dpq

Downes, S. (2011) Better Education Through Technology. http://lncn.eu/c57

JISC (2009) Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World. http://lncn.eu/kp7

Neary, Mike and Winn, Joss (2009) The student as producer: reinventing the student experience in higher education. The future of higher education: policy, pedagogy and the student experience. Continuum, London. http://lncn.eu/xz2

Neary, Mike (2010) Student as Producer: A Pedgogy for the Avant-Garde. Learning Exchange,Vol 1, No 1. http://lncn.eu/aq2

Neary, Mike and Hagyard, Andy (2010) Pedagogy of Excess: An Alternative Political Economy of Student Life. The Marketisation of Higher Education and the Student as Consumer. Eds. Molesworth, Scullion and Nixon. Routledge. http://lncn.eu/e23

NUS/HEFCE (2010) Student Perspectives on Technology. http://lncn.eu/uvw

Pinch, T. J. and Bijker W. E. (1984) The Social Construction of Facts and Artefacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other. Social Studies of Science 14, 399-441. http://lncn.eu/cwz

University of Lincoln (2010) Learning Landscapes in Higher Education Final Report. http://lncn.eu/buy

Williams, R. and Edge, D. (1996) The Social Shaping of Technology, Research Policy Vol. 25, 856-899. http://lncn.eu/e49

Towards the critical study of educational technology

It therefore seems sensible to contend that academic researchers and writers should give greater acknowledgement to the influences on educational technology above and beyond the context of the individual learner and their immediate learning environment. Put bluntly, as technology-based education and ‘e-learning’ continue to grow in societal significance, then it follows that the use of technology in education needs to be understood in societal terms. For instance, this includes acknowledging the clear linkages between educational technology use and ‘macro’elements of the social structure of society such as global economics, labour markets, and political and cultural institutions. Similarly, at the ‘micro’ level of the individual, the act of technology-based learning also needs to be understood as being entwined with many other dimensions of social life. The study of educational technology should therefore be seen in profoundly social scientific terms – moving beyond making sense of the ‘science’ of learning, and pursuing what can be termed the critical study of technology-based social action and social life within the social world of education.

Selwyn (2010): Looking beyond learning: notes towards the critical study of educational technology

I like this paper a lot. I think anyone involved in the study and/or advocacy of technology for education should read it. These days, my own research interests and developing approach sit quite well within the critical approach Selwyn is arguing for.

I’m mainly interested in how research, teaching and learning can be understood as forms of capitalist work and the role of technology in ‘enhancing’ and replacing academic work, or possibly liberating academics and students from the capitalist labour process. Methodologically, I have found Postone’s reinterpretation of Marx’s critical theory to be extremely rewarding. If you’re interested, read how he understands Marx’s critical theory in this paper and how he applies his understanding to a critique of Anti Semitism and National Socialism. As a reinterpretation of Marx’s critical theory of capitalism, it should be possible to use and further Postone’s approach in any sphere of capitalist life, including the various dynamics of technology and education.

If you find these as stimulating and inspiring as I do, you might like to read this recent interview with him where he discusses his study of and approach to critical theory. It’s a nice compliment to the ‘rethinking’ paper above. His major work is Time, Labour and Social Domination.

Energy, the economy and resilience

What impact might the increasing cost of energy have on Higher Education? My interest is not simply about the impact on institutional spending, but rather the deeper and broader socio-economic effects that an energy crisis might have on the provision of Higher Education. To the extent that Universities are businesses, I am interested in ‘business continuity’, but equally I am interested in whether the current energy intensive model of HE will remain viable and whether an energy crisis might act as a catalyst to changes in the nature of Higher Education within society.

This forms part of an on-going series of blog posts/essays, which are being collected under the tag #resilienteducation (RSS feed). My thinking on these issues is by no means complete or even coherent at times but through sketching out these ideas and hopefully receiving feedback, we can all offer useful observations on and possible solutions for the future of Higher Education. You will see that Richard Hall has recently begun to address this too, questioning the relevancy of curricula, and how building resilience to the related impacts of an energy crisis and climate change might inform learning design and pedagogy.

I appreciate that a discussion about energy fundamentals is not part of the usual discourse around educational provision, but my proposal is that it should be and will be, just as there is already a discourse around the increasing role of educational technology, which is, from one point of view, merely leveraging affordable and abundant energy for the purposes of research, teaching and learning.

In fact, the discourse around energy has already begun under the guise of Climate Change and Sustainability. When we speak of sustainability with regards to Climate Change, we are referring to a transition from a society built on fossil-fuel energy to one that is not. If adhered to, this compelling transition will be more profound than anything we have experienced in our lifetimes and is likely to last our entire professional lives, too.

As the crucial issue of Climate Change begins to dominate all aspects of society, so I expect an interest in the fundamentals of energy policy, security, production and consumption to surface in discussions about the nature of our institutional provision of education, just as an interest in carbon emissions and sustainability is surfacing now.

The facts

During the period of 2007-8, GDP in the UK hovered somewhere between 2-3%:

GDP Growth. Source: Office for National Statistics

GDP Growth. Source: Office for National Statistics

Looking at the Consumer Price Index (CPI) between 2007-8, inflation rose from about 2% to 5%:

Inflation 2007-9. Source: Office for National Statistics

Inflation 2007-9. Source: Office for National Statistics

Individual earnings increased, on average, just under 4% each year during 2007-8:

Average Earnings 2007-9. Source: Office for National Statistics

Average Earnings Pay Growth 2007-9. Source: Office for National Statistics

Average household income in 2007-8 was about £30K:

Household Income 2007-8. Source: Office for National Statistics

Household Income 2007-8. Source: Office for National Statistics

Now, moving on to energy, consumer ‘dual fuel’ bills have more than doubled since 2004.

Dual fuel customer bill 2004-9. Source Ofgem

Dual fuel customer bill 2004-9. Source Ofgem

In 2006 (the latest figures I can find), household fuels made up, on average, 3.5% of household income. Though bear in mind that this is an average. For lower income households, it rose to 6.6%.

Household Fuel Expenditure 2006. Source: DECC (2008 report)

Household Fuel Expenditure 2006. Source: DECC (2008 report)

With the average household final income at just under £30K and the average annual household duel fuel bill at over £1200, the current percentage expenditure on household energy is more like 4%.

The scenario

In October this year, Ofgem forecast that UK domestic energy bills could rise by up to 60% over the next ten years in a scenario where the economy recovered and there is a competitive ‘dash for energy’ between countries for energy resources. Specifically, they see a difficult period around 2016 due to the closure of domestic facilities and an increased reliance on imported fuels.1 However, last week, at a House of Commons Select Committee, Alistair Buchanan, the chief executive of Ofgem, said that following more recent discussions with energy suppliers and academics, the 60% figure is now seen as too optimistic. He didn’t offer a revised figure from 60%, but we might consider research by Ernst & Young (commissioned by uSwitch), that warns of up to a 400% increase in the costs of domestic fuel by 2020. That is, average annual domestic energy bills could increase from £1243/year to £4733/year.2 This doesn’t mean very much until we compare it to increases in average household income which, looking at the individual income, GDP and inflation charts above, we might optimistically suggest will climb back to about 3-4% each year. The forecast isn’t quite as good as that in the medium term though, with GDP predicted to grow by 1.1% in 2010, 2% in 2011, 2.3% in 2012 and 2.7% in 2013. Inflation (CPI) is likewise forecast at 1.9%, 1.6%, 2% and 2.3% each year, respectively. Anyway, let’s be a bit optimistic and say that the average final household income will rise from about £29K to around £37K in 2020 (about +2.5%/year – my Union has just agreed to a 0.5% pay increase this year). The percentage of household income spent on the £4733 energy bill would rise from 4% to nearly 13% in 2020. That’s a significant chunk of household income that for many people would force ‘efficiencies’ in energy use, result in cuts in other household spending and contribute to further fuel poverty. In terms of the Jevons Paradox, it may be understood as a method of controlling the energy consumption of the average household.

Fuel Poverty 1996-07. Source: DECC

Fuel Poverty 1996-07. Source: DECC

The bigger picture

It’s useful to look at the bigger energy picture presented in my last post and consider the effect that the price of oil had on energy prices, inflation and GDP during the last few years. The prices of gas and electricity correlate closely to the price of oil:

The correlation of energy prices

The correlation of energy prices

Of course, not only does the price of electricity rise with oil, but the price of fuels for transportation rise, too, and when transportation costs rise, everything else, including food and consumer goods, rise.3 Look back to the inflation chart above and see how inflation peaked above 5% in September 2008 not long after the price of oil peaked at $147/barrel in July 2008. The effect is, unsurprisingly, that as living gets more expensive and results in sustained debts we cannot manage, we are forced to curtail consumption and GDP slows.  I mentioned in my last post that there is a belief that oil price spikes lead to recessions.4

Look again at the chart below, which I used in my previous post and shows the price of oil over the last few years with a projection to 2012. The forecast of oil at around $175/barrel within the next two years, based on what we’ve just seen above, suggests the possibility of a sustained recession as economic growth is limited by the availability of affordable energy. Given the recent volatility of the oil market, we should be cautious of forecasting prices, but can, with more confidence, predict supply and demand, which prices are linked to. With oil production at a plateau, “chronic under-investment” in the oil industry (despite record income) and the additional price of carbon added to energy consumption, the retail price of energy to consumers is unlikely to go against the trend shown in this graph.  Other sources confirm the likelihood of an ‘oil crunch’ before 2015. For example, see the interview with the IEA’s Chief Economist and a report from Chatham House, which warns of a crunch by 2013 and the possibility of prices topping $200 per barrel.

World oil supply, demand and price to 2012

World oil supply, demand and price to 2012

Finally, there is a whole other local issue of declining revenues from North Sea Oil, which was presented as a grave problem to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Oil and Gas, this week. If this post interests you, I highly recommend spending 30 minutes reading this paper which accompanied the presentation and discusses these issues in much greater depth and breadth. The paper concludes:

If we look forward, taking into account the biophysical restrictions, a major change in the nature of our economy is certain – if only because the reality of our situation dictates that it can’t stay the same. That is the political issue that British society must reconcile itself to. For the last two decades we have been living a lifestyle that has been sustained by the wealth and power created by indigenous energy resources. That cannot continue, and the process of moving from an economy that has no limits to one that must operate within more tightly constrained limits is going to be a difficult re-adjustment for many: For the political class it means redefining what it is society represents, and what its aspirations should be; for the business community it means redefining what the term “business as usual” really means; and for the public it means reassessing their own material aspirations, and perhaps a return to a far less energetic lifestyle that in terms of energy and material consumption is likely to be similar to the levels which existed in the 1950s or 1960s.

Perhaps at a later date, we might look at Higher Education in the 1950s and 60s in some detail…?

Universities are large consumers of energy

If oil and therefore energy prices are to continue to rise as both the chart above and the uSwitch research warns, what might be the cost to Higher Education? A 2008 paper estimated that UK Higher Education Institutions spent around £300m on energy in 2006, an increase of 0.5% since 2001 and representing 1.6% of total income.5

This review reveals that the energy consumption levels in UK HEIs increased by about 2.7% over the 6-year period between 2001 and 2006. The building energy-related CO2 emissions are estimated to have increased by approximately 4.3% between 2005 and 2006 alone. These trends run contrary to the national plans for emissions reductions in all sectors and are therefore a cause for action.

The Sustainable ICT project estimated that around £60m of the £300m (1/5th) was to power ICT.6 Since 2006, energy bills have risen by about 25% so we might expect HEIs annual electricity costs to currently be around £375m, with ICT use around £75m. The increase in the number of students in Higher Education has not resulted in a corresponding increase in energy use; closer correlations can be found between floor space and energy use and, interestingly, between research activity and energy consumption. The more research intensive universities use relatively more energy.7 But enough about energy prices. Annual income of HEIs increased by 10% to £23.4bn between 2007-8 and total expenditure likewise increased by 9%.8 How would an energy shock of +400% , increasing sector-wide energy costs from £375m to £1.5bn over the next ten years, be managed when income and spending appear to be so tightly coupled? On a more local level, my institution’s gas, electricity and oil bill is forecast to be £1.63m in 2009/10, up 6% on the last year. What would be the impact on us of an annual bill of £6.5m in 2020? (In 2007, our university had a budget surplus of £2.6m).9 What areas of income are likely to accommodate an increased spend of up to 400% in ten years? Efficiencies in energy use can help, but even with planned cuts in consumption of around 5% next year, the annual cost of electricity, gas and oil at this university is still expected to rise by 0.8% under current energy prices.

Sustainability or resilience?

Resilience is the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganise while undergoing change, so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks.10

What actions can HEIs take to be resilient and therefore remain relevant as dramatic social changes occur in our use of energy and therefore material consumption and output?

Resilience, it seems to me, is a pre-requisite for sustainability if you accept the tangible and coupled threats of energy security and climate change enforcing long-term zero or negative growth. If oil production has peaked just prior to the worst economic crisis in living memory and faced with the need to reduce carbon emissions by at least 80% in the next forty years, should we not first develop a more resilient model that we wish to sustain?

In terms of energy use, can efficiencies lead to sustainability? At what point does ‘efficiency’ actually mean conservation and rationing? At what point do we change our habits, our practices, our institutions instead of telling ourselves that we are being efficient, as we do today? How can we teach a relevant curricula with less money (due to funding cuts and higher costs) and less energy?

To what extent is Higher Education coupled to economic growth? Universities contribute 2.3% of UK GDP but to what extent are universities dependent on economic growth? How would a university operate under a stable but zero growth economy? To what extent is educational participation dependent on economic growth?

Sorry, lots of questions but fewer answers right now.

The Sustainable Development Commission, “the Government’s independent watchdog on sustainable development”, published a report earlier this year called Prosperity without Growth, the transition to a sustainable economy. The publication (recently developed into a book), examines what ‘prosperity’ means and discussed education alongside other ‘basic entitlements’ such as health and employment.   In particular, the author argues that these basic entitlements need not intrinsically be coupled with growth. He argues that growth itself is unsustainable and that high standards of health, education, life expectancy, etc. are not coupled with higher levels of income everywhere.

Interestingly, there is no hard and fast rule here on the relationship between income growth and improved flourishing. The poorest countries certainly suffer extraordinary deprivations in life expectancy, infant mortality and educational participation. But as incomes grow beyond about $15,000 per capita the returns to growth diminish substantially. Some countries achieve remarkable levels of flourishing with only a fraction of the income available to richer nations. [p. 43]

Participation in education vs. income per capita. Source: Prosperity without Growth

Participation in education vs. income per capita. Source: Prosperity without Growth

Chapter four of the publication includes a useful discussion on economic growth, technological efficiency and resilience concluding:

…the answer to the question of whether growth is functional for stability is this: in a growth-based economy, growth is functional for stability. The capitalist model has no easy route to a steady-state position. Its natural dynamics push it towards one of two states: expansion or collapse.

Put in its simplest form the ‘dilemma of growth’ can now be stated in terms of two propositions:

  • Growth is unsustainable – at least in its current form. Burgeoning resource consumption and rising environmental costs are compounding profound disparities in social wellbeing
  • ‘De-growth’ is unstable – at least under present conditions. Declining consumer demand leads to rising unemployment, falling competitiveness and a spiral of recession.

This dilemma looks at first like an impossibility theorem for a lasting prosperity. But it cannot be avoided and has to be taken seriously. The failure to do so is the single biggest threat to sustainability that we face.

Decoupling participation in Higher Education from energy use and emissions

We can see from the chart above that Cuban citizens enjoy roughly the same level of educational participation as the UK, yet their GDP per capita is just a quarter of that of the UK. Participation in this case, is “the combined primary, secondary, and tertiary gross enrolment ratio.”11 Cuba’s energy use per capita is also just a quarter of the UK’s consumption, suggesting that while GDP and energy consumption are closely coupled, GDP and educational participation need not be.

Oil demand and GDP. Source: The Oil Drum

Oil demand and GDP. Source: The Oil Drum

In terms of UK HEI’s resilience, how can opportunities for participation in Higher Education remain widespread in a low energy, zero growth scenario? The Sector review of UK higher education energy consumption showed that energy consumption is not tightly coupled with student numbers, although close correlations between floor space, the number of research students and FTE staff can be seen. Does that mean that the smaller, less research intensive universities are better placed than the larger, research intensive institutions in an energy crisis scenario? Is a model of fewer universities with a higher staff-to-student ratio the answer? What other attributes, other than floor space and research activity could be used to measure resilience against the economic impact of an energy crisis?

Again, lots of questions, but fewer answers right now. Have you got any?

  1. For a good overview of energy security in the EU, see the recent Briefing Paper from Chatham House: Europe’s Energy Security After Copenhagen: Time for a Retrofit? []
  2. Household fuel bills to hit almost £5K in ten years time (PDF)  []
  3. For 2008 average fuel prices, see The AA’s Fuel Prices 2008 []
  4. See James Hamilton’s paper, ‘Causes and Consequences of the Oil Shock of 2007-08′. It’s worth starting from a discussion on The Oil Drum, where you can download the paper. For a more succinct summary, see the FT article here and a rebuke here. Still, even the rebuke recognises the impact oil can have on an economy: “It is through second-round effects that inflation can rise. For an oil importer, a rise in the price of oil means that the country is poorer as a whole. No matter what policy action they take, their terms of trade have deteriorated.” []
  5. Ian Ward, Anthony Ogbonna, Hasim Altan, Sector review of UK higher education energy consumption, Energy Policy, Volume 36, Issue 8, August 2008, Pages 2939-2949, ISSN 0301-4215, DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2008.03.031. []
  6. Sustainable ICT in Further and Higher Education: SusteIT Final Report, p. 97 []
  7. Ian Ward, Anthony Ogbonna, Hasim Altan, Sector review of UK higher education energy consumption, Energy Policy, Volume 36, Issue 8, August 2008, Pages 2939-2949, ISSN 0301-4215, DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2008.03.031. Another interesting figure that the paper observes is that the ‘downstream’ energy use for the sector, which includes suppliers, business and student travel represents 1.5 times the direct energy consumption of the sector. []
  8. HESA: Sources of income for UK HEIs 2006/07 and 2007/08 []
  9. University of Lincoln Financial Statements []
  10. Although it requires more elaboration and consideration in terms of educational provision, this is the common definition of ‘resilience’ used by the Transition Town movement adopted from Brian Walker and David Salt, (2006) Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World. See Rob Hopkins (2008) The Transition Handbook. From oil dependency to local resilience. For an academic critique of the Transition Town’s use of ‘resilience’, see Alex Haxeltine and Gill Seyfang, ‘Transitions for the People: Theory and Practice of ‘Transition’ and ‘Resilience’ in the UK’s Transition Movement’. A paper presented at the 1st European Conference on Sustainability Transitions, July 2009 []
  11. What is the Human Development Index? []