Archive for the ‘technology’ Category

More thoughts on labour markets

April 12th, 2016 by Graham Attwell

Predicting the future of labour markets is not easy at the best of times. And this is not the best of times. The problems include the long lasting effects of the financial crash, the impact of government austerity policies (and non impact of qualitative easing) as well as rapid changes in the way we work and in the technologies we are using.

Essentially future labour markets are modelled using existing labour markets, with the proviso of different scenarios according to disruption. At the moment disruptions are seen to be overriding the base model, resulting in much uncertainty.This is a big issue for young people setting out on a career or indeed for those thinking of changing jobs or of entering education  and training.

The real problem with modelling is that there is no consensus on what is happening with today’s labour markets. Lately  this debate has spilled out from more academic and economic journals into the popular press, with predictions of a severe squeeze on middle skilled work, especially office work, due to the introduction of robots, machine learning and artificial intelligence. Yet a new  study by Dr Andrea Salvatori of the Institute for Social and Economic Research calls such concerns into doubt.

Although she recognises a bifurcation of labour markets with a decline of middle skilled jobs, rather than robots, the cause, she suggests, is the expansion in university education, “which has led to a tripling in the share of graduates among employees, accounting for the entire growth in top-skilled occupations, as well as a third of the decline in middling occupations.”

“In parallel, the relative performance of wages in high-skill occupations has deteriorated relative to mid-skill ones, indicating that the supply of workers for these jobs outpaced demand and contributed to the continuing shift from the middle to the top. These facts are highly suggestive that the improvement in the education of the workforce has contributed significantly to the reallocation of employment from mid- to high-skill occupations.”

Andrea Salvatori says that far from being threatened by technology the wages of middle skilled occupations have risen in line with high skilled professions, which she suggests may be due to the increased use of technology.

This debate is important. It suggests that rather than the disruption by technology (which it is always presumed as inevitable) it is government policies over education and training that are responsible for the shrinkage in middle skilled jobs. It could also be suggested that that lack of such jobs may in part be to blame fo the persistently low rate of increase in productivity in the UK, especially when compared with Germany which has continued to train for middle skilled jobs through its apprenticeship system.

 

The future of work – myths and policies

March 29th, 2016 by Graham Attwell

I like this blog post by Robert Peal entitled ‘A Myth for Teachers: Jobs That Don’t Exist Yet’. The article looks at the origins of the idea that the top 10 in-demand jobs in 2010 didn’t exist in 2004 and its later variant that 60 per cent of the jobs for children in school today have not been invented. In both cases he found it impossible to track these statement in any reliable research. Of course these are myths. But often such myths can be tracked back to quite prosaic political objectives.

For a long time, the European Union has pushed the idea of the knowledge society. And whilst there are many learned papers describing in different ways what such a society might look like or why such a society will emerge there is little evidence of its supposed impact on labour markets. Most common is the disappearance of low and unskilled jobs, linked to growing skill shortages in high skilled employment. Yet in the UK most recent growth in employment has been in low skills, low paid jobs in the retail sector. I remember too in the late 1990s when the European industry lobby group for computers were preaching dire emergencies over the shortage of programmers, with almost apocalyptic predictions of what would happen with the year 200 bug if there were not major efforts to train newcomers to the industry. Of course that never happened either and predictions of skills shortages in software engineering persist despite the fact the UK government statistics show programmers pay falling in the last few years.

I’ve been invited to do several talks in the last year on the future of work. It is not easy. There are two lengthy reports on future skills for the UK – ‘Working Futures 2012- 2022’ and ‘The future of work: jobs and skills in 2030’, published by the UK Commission for Skills and Industry. Both are based on statistical modelling and scenario planning. As one of the reports says (I cannot remember which) “all models are wrong – it is just that some of more useful than others. Some things are relatively clear. There will be a big upturn in (mainly semi skilled) work in healthcare to deal with demographic changes in the age of the population. There will also be plenty of demand for new skilled and semi skilled workers in construction and engineering. Both are major employment sectors and replacement demand alone will result in new job openings even if they do not expand in overall numbers (many commentators seem to forget about replacement demand when looking at future employment).

But then it all starts getting difficult. Chief perhaps amongst this is possible disruptions which can waylay any amount of economic modelling. The following diagram above taken from ‘The future of work: jobs and skills in 2030’Ljubiana_june2015.001 shows possible future disruptions to the UK economy and to future jobs. One of these is the introduction of robots. With various dire reports that up to 40 per cent of jobs may disappear to robots in the next few years, I suspect we are creating another myth. Yes, robots will change patterns of employment in some industries, and web technologies enable disruptions in other areas of the economy. Yet much of the problems with such predictions lay with technological determinism – the idea that technology somehow has some life of its own and that we cannot have any says over it. At the end of the day, despite all the new technologies and the effects of globalization, there are massive policy decisions which will influence what kind of jobs there will be in the future. These include policies for education and training, inter-governmental treaties, labour market and tax policies, employment rights and so on. And such considerations should include what jobs we want to have, how they are organised, where they are and the quality of work. At the moment we seem to be involved in a race to the bottom – using the excuse of austerity – which is a conscious policy – to degrade both pay and work conditions. But it doesn’t need to be like this. Indeed, the excuses for austerity may be the biggest myth of all.

 

 

 

Children in UK spend more time on the internet that in front of TV

January 27th, 2016 by Graham Attwell

The Guardian newspaper reported yesterday on a survey finding that for the first time children in the UK are spending more time on the internet than in front of the TV.

Research firm Childwise found that on average five- to 15-year-olds were spending three hours a day using the internet, compared to 2.1 hours watching TV.

While time spent watching television has been in decline for some years, time online has seen a huge surge according to the research, up 50% from two hours last year.

However, there are  some problems with the survey results. The research, which is based on an online survey of more than 2,000 children, did not distinguish between TV-like services on the internet, such as Netflix and iPlayer, and other forms of browsing such as Facebook, meaning it is unclear whether children are merely watching shows in different ways.

However, says the Guardian “the report says that YouTube has taken “centre stage in children’s lives” with half accessing it every day and almost all using it at least occasionally.

The majority of children who use YouTube visit the site to access music videos (58%), while around half watch “funny content” and a third say they watch gaming content, vlogs, TV programmes or “how to” videos.”

The survey also reported that time spent reading books for pleasure has declined from an hour a day on average in 2012 to just over half an hour on average this year. However, once more this does not include time reading books on computers.

I am not sure that raw figures of time spent watching TV versus time spent on the internet, be it computers, tablets or mobiles is the real story, although it might be of concern to advertising executives. More interesting would be to know more about patterns of use of computers, what levels of interaction there are with others and the degree to which computers are used actively or creatively compared to the passive entertainment which marked most television viewing.

Stagnation or innovation in Technology Enhanced Learning?

January 12th, 2016 by Graham Attwell

Just a quick note following up on my blog of yesterday noting the lack of new ideas in the exhibition at Online Educa Berlin. Today I read an interesting article entitled “Caputalism: Will Capitalism Die?” by Robert Misik on the Social Europe blog. Most of the article, as the title implies is given over to an analysis of the lack of growth and “secular stagnation” in western economies.

Misik says that “despite superficial impressions, the past 15 years may have produced practically no more genuinely productive innovations.” He quotes the economist Robert J Gordon who says:“Invention since 2000 has centered on entertainment and communication devices that are smaller, smarter, and more capable, but do not fundamentally change labour productivity or the standard of living in the way that electric light, motor cars, or indoor plumbing changed it.”

And that seems to sum up much of the developments in Technology Enhanced Learning. Whilst in the 1990s and the first years of this century there was something of an explosion in innovative uses of technology for learning through mainly the development of Virtual Learning Environments, since then genuine innovation has stalled, as least through the ed tech industry. Games based learning, Learning Analytics, mobile learning, MOOCs are all interesting but they do not, to paraphrase Gordon, fundamentally change education and learning, still less pedagogy. As Phil Hill says: “Didn’t we have bigger dreams for instructional technology?”

Misik speculates on the slow emergence of a new economy in which “more decentralized, self-managed firms, co-operatives and initiatives play a gradually more important role – so that, in the end, a mixed economy emerges composed of private companies, state enterprises and co-operatives and alternative economic bodies.” And that may be the way forward to for Technology Enhanced Learning, where the behemoths of the Ed Tech world play a lesser role, where governments continue to invest in innovation in teaching and learning with technology in education, where the importance of state involvement in education is recognised and where smaller more agile private sector enterprises become partners in developing new initiatives and pedagogic approaches to learning. Its nice to be optimistic!

A blog is just a blog

January 11th, 2016 by Graham Attwell

2016 and it is time to return to the blog after a crazy December of meetings, conferences, travel and exhaustion.

First a quick catch up from Online Educa Berlin. Online Educa is always enjoyable if only because so many friends and colleagues attend it. I am also always interested in the very large exhibition which provides a quick overview of market and to a lesser extent pedagogic trends in technology supported learning. Decembers exhibition was strange, though. Firstly there were no big stands. Go back five or six years and the big stands were from the public organisations supporting the adoption of technology in universities and education in general. The UK Jisc always had a big presence, so too did the Netherlands SURF network. When they dropped away – probably as a result of funding cuts, The Middle East countries took over with colourful booths, even if somewhat lacking in content. And of course there were the VLE suppliers – Blackboard (later to become Pearsons) could always be relied on for a free glass of wine at the end of a busy conference day. At Online Educa 2015 they were all missing. The largest stand was Egypt Arising. However – whether because of their materials not arriving or for some other reason- they has no content and seemingly no representatives on what remained an empty stand. Instead the exhibition was dominated by the cheaper to rent small stands, some from projects but mainly it appeared from start up companies.

It was hard too to discern any particular trends. A few years ago the exhibition was dominated by virtual world type apps. Another year it was all about interactive whiteboards. And the next year it was video apps that were dominating the scene. In 2015 it seemed to be a bit of everything and a bit of nothing.

It left be wondering if the days of educational technology are numbered. Yes we are moving to software as a service and this will impact of education. And of course data (sometimes big data) is making an impact in the form of Learning analytics. Learning management Systems or VLEs stubbornly refuse to go away although all the suppliers seem to stress how their platforms support personal learning pathways. But in truth much of the technology used for learning is little different from the productivity apps and social software being used in everyday business and living. Will 2016 be the year when – depending on how you look at it – educational technology becomes part of the mainstream or the mainstream is just technology used for learning. After all a blog is just a blog.

Technology is not a panacea

April 20th, 2015 by Graham Attwell

As regular readers will know, one of teh major projects we are involved in is the Learning layers project, focused on technology support for informal learning in the construction and health sectors. As part of this we are involved in ongoing scoping, concerning both the introduction of new technologies and the changes in work practices and organisation that this entails.

Probably the biggest news in construction is the introduction of Building Information Modelling (BIM) defined by Wikipedia as “a process involving the generation and management of digital representations of physical and functional characteristics of places”. BIM has been seen as almost revolutionising the construction industry and offering considerable savings in the coordination and execution of construction projects, improved logistics, waste saving and the long term management of buildings. The adoption of BIM is mandatory in the European Union for public construction contracts, although different European member states have different adoption timetables. Two of the countries in the forefront of adoption are Norway and The UK. In this respect a survey and report from the UK’s National Building Specification released last week produced surprising findings.

According to Buiding.co.uk :

The survey, of over 900 respondents from across the construction industry carried out by RIBA Enterprises offshoot NBS, shows that the proportion of firms saying they use the modelling technology has dropped from 54% last year to 48%.

The report concludes that “there remain a significant number of practices who do not see the advantages of BIM, and so chose not to adopt, or who are currently unable to adopt BIM, because of time, cost, or expertise.”

The reported fall contrasts with the rapid rise in BIM usage when the survey was last conducted. The drop in this year’s survey is particularly surprising, given the 2016 deadline for all central government funded projects to use Level 2 of BIM.

Of course 900 is a relatively small respondent base, given the number of construction firms. But it seems likely those responding are more likely to have an interest in BIM and are more likely to represent larger companies. Therefore the results beg some thinking about. it appears one of the biggest challenges is skills shortages. But such skills shortages come at a time when construction is struggling to come out of recession. Probably a bigger issue is the introduction of complex software and process management systems without adequate training for staff and without time for consideration of the necessary reorganisation of work process to cope with such change. There is also an issue as to the cost of adapting such systems, particularly in an industry dominated by Small and Medium (more small than medium) enterprises. Finally I am unconvinced that the top down imposition of such systems is the right way to go in instigating and sustaining innovation and change. Research of previous disruptive changes due to technology introduction (for instance in the motor car manufacturing industry) suggest that such ‘innovation; can lead to a short term fall in productivity. Whilst in a boom this might be absorbed, it is difficult to see how this can happen in the aftermath of the crisis.

The survey may lead to some rethinking about how BIM is introduced. But bringing in such disruptive change without properly analysing and taking measures around education and training and changing work organisations carries a very high risk of failure. the industry in countries like Germany who have hung back in the time scale for adoption, but with better traditions of continuing professional development, will be taking note.

Developing trust in our work

December 15th, 2014 by Graham Attwell

In the Learning Layers project we are aiming to produce tools to help Small and Medium Enterprises support informal learning. For most of the first two years of the project we have been focused on a co-deign process – working with small groups of users to iteratively develop the tools and applications. Our user groups are, at the moment at least, drawn from the construction sector in north Germany and the health sector in north east England.

In years three and four of the project, we are aiming to roll out these tools to significant numbers of users. In preparing for this we have had discussions with literally hundreds of stakeholders  including managers of SMEs. Three big concerns have emerged. the first is whether our work is sustainable. Many are interested in what we are doing but want to know how as a research project we can guarantee our applications will still be around and supported after the project ends. To deal with this not unreasonable concern we have had to seriously explore business models and are in the process of using the Business Model Canvas approach to identify and develop business models for each of our applications.This is new to me – but I can see the value. I have worked on too many projects where systems and tools are developed and tested with small user groups and then abandoned as project funding ends. Of course such processes are legitimate as a research aim. But all too often promising developments are wasted just because no-one has though out how to make their work sustainable At the end of two, three or four years, researchers and developers move on to the next project – and so it goes on.

Secondly people are concerned that our tools and applications will integrate with systems they already use. they do not want yet another stand alone system – and certainly do not want another log in to circumnavigate. We are implementing Open ID Connect for our own services and this offers the possibility for integration with the LDAP systems more commonly used by companies.

The third big concern is data security and server hosting. Our original idea was to use a cloud system developed by the University of Aachen. however we have encountered a surprising degree of distrust of cloud systems. This is not necessarily based on any particular technical reason. The aftermath of the Snowden affair seems to be that in Germany at least company owners and Systems Administrators want to be able to control their own data. This means they want it inside their systems – and cloud is not trusted. Data being held in the USA is not on. As Ben Werdmuller says:

There are all kinds of reasons why you should care about where your data is stored. If you’re a business or institution, there may be legislative and auditing requirements relating to your servers. Many educational institutions in Europe, for example, can’t store data in the US without jumping through numerous hoops – and requiring service providers to jump through more.

My feeling is that managers in small businesses know they should care and that it is important where their data is held. However they do not have the expertise and time to research legislative and auditing requirements. The answer for them is to hold data on their own servers – preferably where they can touch it. And I suspect this situation is not going to change in the near future. For the Learning layers project, as well as a hosted cloud solution, we are now developing the Layers Box, a box containing the Learning Layers software which can simply be plugged in to existing server systems. We will see if this helps allay people’s fears.

Exciting and inspiring students

December 2nd, 2014 by Graham Attwell


Loving this video. Veritasium points out the history of hype around successive technologies and media. One common factor is that in each phase the end of the need for teachers is predicted, Teachers have a vital role to play, say Veritasium, in guiding social processes of learning and exciting and inspiring students. The use of technology for learning is not a revolution but an evolution and teachers have a vital role to play in using technology for learning.

Summer of Innovation, business models and culture

November 28th, 2014 by Graham Attwell

On Wednesday I attended the JISC Summer of innovation event at Reading University. This was a showcase for projects undertaken in summer 2014. Jisc is running an elevator system, selecting some 20 student projects a year who each get £5000 in funding. The format of the competition, says Jisc, “allows students to get full credit for their ideas, and have an ongoing role into their development. As well as showcasing the results of this work the event was designed to seek partners to work with to develop the ideas further.

Each of the project made a short pitch to those attending. And there was ample time to go around the presentation stands for demos and talks with developers. The projects were on the whole very impressive. It almost seems unfair to pick anyone out, but since I was on the lookout for projects I might want to work with further, then my pick of the bunch has to be evaloop. Evaloop developed by Shanghavi and Thiemo Fetzer, both postgraduates at LSE, have developed a mobile app which provides teachers or trainers with an easy way to collect feedback from students. According to the LSE web site “Amar and Thiemo have ten years of teaching experience between them which helped them to identify the difficulty of getting timely feedback in a cost effective way and to create ‘evaloop’.”

As a whole, the products looked pretty cool and you could see at least some of the picking up traction. Talking to the students, though, I was less convinced about the sustainability and business plans. Most had formed companies and were putting forward subscription models. All assured me that their services scaled technically and they probably do. But when I asked them how their company scaled socially they looked at me blankly. I asked a number whether they expected to be selling the same subscriptions to the same applications in two or three years time. This seemed reasonable since I was talking to a bunch of young, ambitious, clever entrepreneurs – or would be entrepreneurs. They admitted they had not thought about that. And although many were seeking to sell subscription services to universities, they did not really seem to know who might have the power to sign up to such a package.

Only Evaloop seem to have considered the Open Source Model. And I guess that is part of the present culture of software development. Apps are not released as open source, instead the business approach is to provide paid for services or at best a premium model. I think that is a shame, since, working with a wider community, many of these projects could make a real difference and get significant take up. However, I suppose another way to look at it is that if say only two projects go on to develop as viable products or services and sustainable enterprises, that has to be seen as a success, especially given the very limited pump priming funding from Jisc. I’ve signed up with five or six of the projects to get future updates, in addition to planning a trial of evaloop. And I will keep readers here in the loop on any updates. In the meantime check out the projects on the Jisc Summer of Innovation website.

Sustaining learning

September 23rd, 2014 by Graham Attwell

I am in Tallinn in Estonia experiencing an early reminder of how cold and wet north European winters can be. I am here for a consortium meeting of the EU sponsored Learning layers project. Consortium meetings in these large projects can have a considerable number of participants, some 50 researchers and application partners attended the last meeting in Bad Zwischenahn in Germany.

Tomorrow am am helping organise a two and half hour workshop with the perhaps not particualrly sexy title of Sustainability, Scalability & Replicability. Whats it all about?  The problem is that far too many projects – esepcially in the area of technology enhanced learning – fail to develop finished products. And even those that do usually fail to get ream traction around such products let alone work out how to sustain the development. We don’t want that to happen with Learning layers. We think we are well on the way to developing tools which can support informal learning and provide learning support to thousands of people in the workplace. But of course there are issues. We do not have the money to do everything we want to. Sometimes our software designs seem hopelessly ambitious. And the research universities in the project may not have any interest in trying to sustain product development, once EU funding for research has ended.

So those are the issues we want to explore in the workshop looking at the progression from a research project to a full product, working out who are the stakeholders and developing an initial business pitch for how future development can be sustained. Watch this blog for what we discover.

 

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