Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Social Media and the Future of Higher Education

Social media are not going to enhance higher education- they are going to completely transform the relationship between student and teacher and shift the balance of power in the education system.
Social media such as Facebook have already changed many of the aspects of how we relate to other people, who we can form relationships with and the types of things we share with them. Many businesses are now using social media to interact with their customers in different ways and use them as brand ambassadors or answer their concerns and complaints in a much more direct way. Entertainers and writers are also using social media to interact with their public in more direct ways. The other day I got a direct tweet from an author whose books I read in repsonse to a tweet I made about the work of another author. That type of interaction would have been highly unlikely a few years ago.
The education industry ought to be at the forefront of embracing new technologies. Sadly this has not been the case and I think the reason for this is fear about how transformative and disruptive the technology is. However, HE institutions will have to use social media or suffer serious consequnces.
To illustrate why I think this will happen I will give the example of downloads and the music industry. In 1994 I participate in an amazing concert in London by the artist Todd Rundren. The concert tied in to his No World Order album, an interactive piece of music released on a computer disc and an interactive cd which aloowed the listener to make their own remixes of the material and control the mood tempo etc of the music. For those of you are, like me, social work professionals this could be looked at as a form of personalisation- the listener being in control rather the artist. Rundgren figured that new technology would completely change the balance of power and control between the producer and consumer and that neither artist nor publisher would be able to control how people experienced or distributed music. Rather than fight this, he embraced its potential. The concert itself was completely interactive with members of the audience being allowed on stage to dance and play instruments. At one of the shows in America he apparently decided to leave the stage for a while and be partof the audience while audience members ran the show- playing his songs.A little later before the emergence of Napster, he tried to interest record companies in releasing legal downloads. They refused point blank stating that it would interfere with their CD sales. Now of course there are no CD sales and most of these record companies are in bankrupcy or liquidation.
A similar fate faces many HE institutions if they do not start modernising now.
Two forces are currently facing HE in the UK. One is the threat of competition from the private sector who are going to be able to offer degrees. The other is a fall off of student numbers because of the high tuition fees which will be charged as a result of these fees being moved from a loan/taxpayer split to being completely financed by loans to the student. Social media can either offer a vehicle for the first threat or a way for Universities to stave off the second threat if they embrace it.
Currently higher edication is one of the few industries which operate in much the same way as it did in ancient Greece. Certainly, new technologies such as Blackboard have been introduced. However, they are always considered to be in support of traditional forms of learning rather than a replacement for them. Furthermore, the quality of the technology used in education is inferior to that which people enjoy in other areas of their lives. I know of lecturers who have successfully carried out much more lively debates with their students on Twitter than they have managed to in the discussuion forums on Blackboard. People are used to frictionless connectivity and so an interface which requires people to navigate through about 6 pages before finding that nobody is online is not going to be very popular.
Social media have the opportunity to connect educators instantly with their students and also connect them and their students to a wider body of authors, educators, students in other institutions and (for social workcourses) the wider public and people who use social services. They also have the ability to connect HE instituions with all of their former allumni and other partners such as employers, providers of placements etc. If a tool like Facebook or Twitter was offered to HE institutions for the first time they would proabably be willing to pay a lot of money for it. And yet these tools are available now and are completely free. Why are they not being taken advantage of?
The issue for many educators is the lack of control which they will have in these debates and discussions or what ultimately is done with the content if it is available to outside parties. However all of these outside parties are stakeholders of education and they have a legitimate right to take part in debates about good poractice without their participation being stagemanaged and controlled. Students also have the right to take advantage of the educational opportunities available to them through free interaction with others.
Certainly, there will be risks assocated with embracing new media. However, these risks are overwhelmingly trumped by the lost opportunities from not engaging with them.
For HE providers the greatest risk in the next 10 years will come from new private competitors. These competitors will not have the overheads which Universities currently have. They will be lean operations using high quality syndicated material delivered by podcasts and backed up with instant contact to tutors through mobiles and skype. Students will connect with and meet each other through social media. These institutions will focus their resources on aspects of the student experience which add value (flexibility, accessibility, interactivity) and ignore those aspects which are not perceived as adding value.
If you think this sounds far fetched then I suggest that you read the article 'Disrupting Higher Education' which appeared in Harvard Business Review July/August 2011 issue. It states: "State institutions are gradually being defunded by taxpayers. Liberal Arts Colleges are struggling for survival. Upstart for-profit colleges are, despite mis-steps on the rise." Essentially, the changes I am describing are already ocuring in the USA. Prestigious Ivy League Universities are able to retain their traditional approach but HE institutions which do not have their USPs are being overtaken by ditital-savvy alternatives. According to the article tuition fees are on a downward trajectory as these new hi- tech forms of education are much cheaper. I would suggest that the coalition Govt in the U.K. has deliberately transferred the burden of fees onto students so that they will drive prices down. This change is partnered with a liberalisation of who can actually provide HE. While fees remain high this will provide opportunities for private institutions to come in under existing market prices and still make profits.
Existing HE providers cannot afford to look on at social media and tut tut about loss of control,loss of privacy etc. Young people have already weighed up these issues and concluded that benefits outweigh the disadvantages. Consumers made a similar calculation in relation to music downloads and decided that they did not want their choice restricted, even though this often meant breaking the law before the advent of legal downloads.
It need not be a bad outcome, however, for our 'non-Ivy League' Universities. They do have real strengths in terms of their engagement with local communities and local industries, and in their reputation for social inclusion and expanding opportunities. However, they will need to build on these strengths by modernising how they do business, reducing costs, and embravcing technologoies which will enhance their students' experience of HE.
Social media will radically transform the relationship between lecturer and student. They will blur the boundary of where the classroom starts and finishes, who takes part in a student's educational experience and who holds the expertise and power. This is its stength and a challenge to engage with rather than something to fear.
I am very excited about this. I did, after all, go into education to help people to think for themselves and continue my own experience as a learner.
Every other aspect of our lives has changed radically as a result of technology-education just has some catching up to do-but the psychological changes and the change in power relationships will be more profound than the changes in technology.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Mutualisation and Privitisation of the Public Services

David Cameron is quoted on the Independent website today as stating that he wants to take 1 million workers out of the public sector and into employee owned mutuals. Should we be afraid-very afraid- or is this a wonderful opportunity?
Well, in better times, under different circumstances it might be a good opportunity- However, in the present climate I am very skeptical.
The theory behind mutuals is that if workers are independent of large scale public bodies then they can be freed uo to be more creative and less cautious. Also, since the workers are essentially working for themselves they will be more committed and more willing to pitch in to get things done- relationships with service users will improve and sickness absence will go down. There are, apparently, examples of this happening.
However,there are a number of issues which should, rightly make employees cautious about any transfer of their employment rights.

1. Trust. The present Govt has been hostile towards the public sector-rhetoric about dependency cultures and gold-plated pensions reveal a cynicism about the public sector and the work which people in the public sector do.

2. Previous form on privitisation. Previous bouts of privitisation under the conservatives and new labour have been ways of achieving wage reductions by the back door. Services which are contracted out by local authorities such as home care are done so at hourly rates so low that they could only be achieved by paying the workers very low wages. By contracting out these services local Govt can avoid being accused of paying low wages since the workers are not on their payroll. The cost of human services is largely made up of labor costs so the only way of significantly reducing the cost of services is by paying workers less. Workers have some grounds for being suspicious that any transfer in employment will involve cutting back their pay and conditions.

3. The present economic situation. This is not a good time to be launching any type of business, mutual or otherwise whose main customer is the Government or customers who are paid for by the Government. In times of expansion, we might have confidence that there would be continued and/or increasing demand for our services. A period of contraction in the public sector as a result of swingeing cuts is not the best time to be starting any new venture- even if it is a continuation of an ecisting service. At the moment many voluntary sector and private sector providers are going to the wall. Not because they are inefficient or bloated but simply because public services are being pared back to the bone and then cut even more. The present eurozone crisis can only make things worse. The Government is making progress on the deficit and as it is still committed to deficit reduction worse cuts lie ahead.

4. Lack of security. Mutuals may intially win contracts to provide services but there is no guarantee that they will these contracts again when they come uo for renegotiation several years later. Workers may find that these lose out to another mutual or a private provider and find themselves forced to work for a new employer under poorer conditions. They could be moving into privitisation by the back door.

5. Lack of incentives. Running a private business such as a restaurant, a shop or samll manufacturing business involves high risk. A large percentage of businesses close down often with their owners losing everything they own. The only reason that people take on such a high risk is that if they are successful then they (and/or their shareholders)will reap large rewards. Public sector employment, by contrast is normally a low risk undertaking. The worst that can happen is that you are made redundant and hopefully you will find another job quickly. The only downside is that you are not paid very much. Social enterprises and mutuals offer the worst of both types of endeavour. They offer the high risks of private enterprise with the low returns of public sector employment. Owners of public interest companies (social enterprises) are not allowed to sell the business which they have built up at a profit or take out more than a certain amout out of the business relative to the turnover. I don't know what restrictions exist for mutuals but I doubt very much that they will receive any additional recompense for shouldering the added risk and responsibility or the worry and strain it will put on their families. Bankers get obscene profits for taking risks with other people's money. Public sector workers are expected to accept a pat on the back as reward for putting their own careers and finances on the line.

6. Lack of flexibility. If people in a public service form a mutual what do they do if they see a new way to grow their services or invest to improve how they deliver their services? I read a story recently about an employee owned mutual provider in the health service. The article suggested that they only had one months salary for all the workers in the bank at any one time. How can such an oirganisation invest in improving its business model to cope with change or expand what it offers? Private businesses can borrow money from banks or the stock market to expand or change their focus. What opportunities will there be for mutuals to raise money to grow and change? Will they be frozen in time, forced to continue in the same form as they were when they were first spun off, until the service they offer is no longer appropriate to the times? Maybe I don't fully understand mutuals but nothing I have read so far has answerted these questions for me.

7. Are mutuals and social enterprises the right business models for public services? I suspect the Government is pushing these models forward becuse they are considered more politically acceptable than outright privitisation. In taking this path the Government could be headed for even more trouble in the long term. Most people who work in health and social care have no aspiration to be business owners of any kind. They come to work because they enjoy working with people and there is nothing wrong with that.
Ministers are constantly trotting the example of the John Lewis partnership. The reason for this is that there are few co-operatives who are market leaders in their field. There are a growing number of successful companies who have more level structures and more democrative and participative types of management- but that is not the same as being employee owned.
I strongly suspect the mutualism agenda is a fig leaf of repectability for privitisation rather than a genuine belief that it is the best way forward.

Anyway- that was my slighly jaded take on mutuals and social enterprises. Its only a personal opinion and perhaps there is a lot I just don't know aboiut mutuals and social enterprises. I supect I probably know, more, however, than many of the poor public sector workers who will have to make decvisons about mocving their employment if Cameron gets his way.

Maybe I will be proved wrong and there will be lots of very happy people celebrating the day they got spun off from the council/NHS.What do you think?

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Are you Part of the 'Dependency Culture'?

I read an interesting article in today's Financial Times. I am probably one of the few social workers who regularly reads this esteemed publication. My interest probably stems from two factors. Firstly, my background in accountancy and economics in a former existence. Secondly, I don't like reading newspapers that tell me what I ought to be thinking even if I might generally agree with what they are saying. This is the main reason why I don't tend to read the Guardian unless I have to.The FT sticks to the facts and when it does give an opinion it is based on logical analysis- not prejudice, preconceived ideas, or a desire to please a particular crowd.
Please read it sometime-you might be surpised.
Anyway the piece today is 'Benefit cuts set to carve a divisive path.' The article concerns the potential damage to local economies in the north by the Government's decision to cut back on incapacity benefit. It look at the system of medical testing, cuts to benefit and also the meagre chances of people whom have been on benefits for years of actually getting a job in hard pressed northern cities.The article is reasonably sympathetic and addresses some important elements of the incapacity benefit issue.
What I want to draw attention to specifically in this post is a comment by the Leader of Barnsley council in the article. He is paraphrased as saying that it is vital that the town 'moves away from a dependency culture where half the working population rely on the state, either as public sector workers or benfits claimants.'
Since the article uses parapharasing rather than direct quotes I can't be sure exactly how this was expressed by the council leader. However, the sentiment- that working for the public sector is equivalent to claiming benefits and that both are a form of dependency is one which I hear increasingly and one which makes me very angry. I don't just hear it from conservative politicians- I even hear people from the north who work for the public sector saying that we are too 'dependent' on the public sector for employment. Taking up a public sector job ought to be seen as a way of serving one's community- and indeed many people in public service very much see it that way. However, within this particular discourse it is seen as sign of fecklessness at best and moral turpitude at worst. The reason there are/were a lot of public sector jobs in the north partly came as a result of the previous Government deciding to relocate jobs out of London to save money and to provide employment in areas devastated by the loss of traditional industries at the hands of previous Tory governments. People who took up these posts did so in good faith and with an intention of doing a worthwhile job well. Working long hours as a nurse, a social worker or a civil servant is not a form of dependency.
We curently have a form of rhetoric which suggests that only people who work in the private sector represent the real economy. This is a distortion of the truth. From this point of view a barman is doing a worthwhile job whereas a nurse is a drain on the economy. The discourse which suggests that public sector employment is a form of dependency serves the political purpose of greasing the wheels for attacking people's pensions and conditions of employment. Advocates of discourse analysis regard speech as a form of action- it has a purpose beyond the actual surface meaning of the words.
With regard to benefit claimants- many people on incapacity benefit ended up on this benefit as a result of attempts by earlier governments to reduce unemployment figures by having them declared unfit for work. Having them now declared fit for work fits the new political purpose of reducing spending on benefits. Many very vulnerable people will experience a great deal of distress as they are treated as political footballs.
We can't control the messages that politicians send out in their rhetoric. We might want to challenge them, however, through letters pages and social media. What we certainly should not do is swallow the rhetoric and start using it ourselves.
Serving the public is something to be proud of and people who claim beneiofts ought ot be the subject of persecution. Neither deserve to be labelled as part of a 'dependency culture'.

Access to Social Networking is a Human Rights Issue

In my job as a social work lecturer I had a conversation the other day about Facebook and employment. Several of the students told me they had become aware of problems associated with use of Facebook and people's employment. One was a situation in which someone had made a comment which might have been seen to be critical of the persons employer. In this case the employer had not been mentioned on Facebook. I think the employer had a legitimate issue about it not being appropriate to put info about one's employment on Facebook. However, I think their response was disproportionate to the employee's error oif judgement. More concerning, was the fact that a number of people who work in social care are apparently being told that they should not have Facebbok accounts at all. A certain amount of caution and use of privacy settings is appropriate due to the nature of social work and the fact that making too much of one's own information publicly accessible is a potential risk for employees. There is also the fact that people should not discuss details of their work or their attitudes to it in a forum where they (and by extension their employer and/or service users) can be identified.
However, nothwithstanding the above, banning people from using Facebook and social networking is a serious violation of people's civil liberties and could have serious negative consequences for their ability to socialise and have a normal life outside work., As the number of people with Facebbok accounts mushrooms it is becoming a mainstream way of communicating with people. Facebook is a faster, easier and more effective way of communicating with friends than email, telephone or amy other communication platform. It allows people to talk in real time, share photos, share one's present location, arrange outings, share photos,inform large numbers of people news at the same time, share conversations and leave comments,and act as a portal to other platforms such as this blog. Even more importantly it allows all these things to be done at the same time with minimal hassle. It is genuinely frictionless communication. It has great potential for business and professional networking which so far has hardly been exploited. It is a better vehicle for sharing examples of good practice and promoting collaboration than any alternative conduits available in most businesses. On the commercial front many businesses are considering scaling down their websites in favour of using Facebook as main platform for building rlationships with their customers. For purely social purposes it allows people with similar interests to make new friends across countries and time zones and develop new communities electonically.
Much of the moral panic and technophobia surrounding Facebook relates to the perceived lack of privacy. These comments miss the point completely. Facebook is like any other form of communication- it can be as private or as public as you like. If you are standing in a busy street you can shout a message to everyone on the street or whisper a message to the person beside you. The analogy with a street, is I think very appropriate. Banning people from Facebook is like forbidding them to walk out on the street or go to the local pub. It is a form of digital house arrest. I find myself building closer links with people who use Facebook and find it more difficult to keep up with people who aren't. When people ask me about a trip or something I have been doing I find it slightly irritating that they haven't accessed the information I have put up electronically. The divide between people who use it and people who don't is going to become a new digital divide- with people who don't use social networking being more and more excluded. Being banned from social networking is a form of digital house arrest- you are banned from taking part in an important part of the social environment. It is in fact a denial of human rights to take part in the life of one's community.
Of course, eventually these social work/social care employers will have to capitulate- just as they had to in relation to accessing the internet at work. It is a shame, however, that parts of the sector has to start from a position of Luddism and fear- rather than a willingness to embrace the potential of powerful technologies.
Meanwhile I think it is just a matter of time before someone challenges the issue on a human rights basis.