Archive for the ‘technology’ Category

Living in an Algorithmic World

May 4th, 2018 by Graham Attwell

This video is from Danah Boyd’s opening keynote for the re:publica 18 conference. Although it is an hour long it is well worth watching. Danah says “Algorithmic technologies that rely on data don’t necessarily support a social world that many of us want to live in. We must grapple with the biases embedded in and manipulation of these systems, particularly when so many parts of society are dependent on sociotechnical systems.” That goes for education just as much as any other part of the social world.

What happens when the optic fibre cable breaks?

January 31st, 2018 by Graham Attwell

Two weeks ago, I bought a new television. The old one had served well for 15 years but pre-dated the internet integration that we all take for granted these days. I carefully untangled the cables joining the various boxes with their flashing lights and plugged them back in again.

The result – nothing worked.  Long telephone calls to Moviestar – the internet provider -basically elicited the advice to unplug cables and plug them in again – to no avail. After two days a technician finally arrived and quickly diagnosed the problem. The cable connecting the fibre optic cable to the internet router had broken. Five minutes and it was repaired and he left warning us that these cables were very fragile and we should be careful when doing the cleaning.

Having only the previous week congratulated myself on my lack of addiction to mobile devices and social networks, I found myself at a complete loss without the internet. No radio, no music, no television, no email (and my mobile would not pick up the emails as I had not registered for two factor authentication which required a computer with an internet connection!), no web. I ended up sitting in a local café to read the online newspapers and get my emails.

The major point for me is how dependent we are becoming on an internet connection. Thank goodness that I have not been tempted by the internet of things. OK many of these devices run over the mobile and so would still work. Nevertheless, I am not convinced that the lights, heating, fridge, door lock, air con, coffee machine and toaster connected to the internet is a good thing. When I bought a new toaster last year the sales person tried hard to convince me of the benefits of a machine with an internet connection (the internet of things is the way of the future, sir, he said). It might be, but what happens when the optic fibre cable breaks?

Industry 4.0 and identity transformation

September 19th, 2017 by Graham Attwell

I gave this presentation last week at a panel discussion on Industry 4.0 at the Bundeswehr AusBildungs Kongress in Hamburg. Firstly – for those of you who do not live in Germany where the term is verywhere, what is Industry 4.0. According to Wikipedia:

“Industry 4.0 is a name for the current trend of automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies. It includes cyber-physical systems, the Internet of things, cloud computing and cognitive computing.

Industry 4.0 creates what has been called a “smart factory”. Within the modular structured smart factories, cyber-physical systems monitor physical processes, create a virtual copy of the physical world and make decentralized decisions. Over the Internet of Things, cyber-physical systems communicate and cooperate with each other and with humans in real time, and via the Internet of Services, both internal and cross-organizational services are offered and used by participants of the value chain.”

In other words – pretty much everything going on in technology today. But the particularly German take on it is how such developments will effect manufacturing and services and what it implies for education and training.

I was a bit concerned with how the presentation would work -given that it is based on research and development in the Public Employment Services. But it seemed to work extremely well.  It is not so much the threat to jobs coming from new technologies and AI, but the impact this is having on the organisation of work and the skills and competences required in the workplace. Professional identity, is a key factor in developing resilience in a world characterised by uncertainty. It empowers individuals, and determines motivation and openness to new developments – and overcomes obstructionism and frustration often associated with change processes. Identity transformation describes the processes through which people can change their professional identity to deal with new work demands. Even more it describes how individuals and groups of people can themselves use their competence and skills to shape the processes and results of introducing new technologies.

The first half of the presentation looks at the research behind identity transformation, the second half at different activities and intervention we have undertaken in the Employ-ID project to support identity transformation for staff in Public Employment services in Europe.

Learning about technology

September 12th, 2017 by Graham Attwell

According to the University Technical Colleges web site, new research released of 11 to 17-year-olds, commissioned by the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, the charity which promotes and supports University Technical Colleges (UTCs), reveals that over a third (36%) have no opportunity to learn about the latest technology in the classroom and over two thirds (67%) admit that they have not had the opportunity even to discuss a new tech or app idea with a teacher.

When asked about the tech skills they would like to learn the top five were:

Building apps (45%)
Creating Games (43%)
Virtual reality (38%)
Coding computer languages (34%)
Artificial intelligence (28%)

What is industry 4.0?

August 7th, 2017 by Graham Attwell

I’ve long wondered what is meant by industry 4.0. Some shining techno world of robots and Artificial Intelligence? Or the end of batch production for individualised goods (although we have been told this is happening for the last thirty or so years). The rise of service – although how does this relate to industry and it is hardly new? And whatever was Industry 3.0, 2.0 and 1.0 for that matter?

Erinc Yeldan, Professor of Economics at Yasar University, sums it up pretty well writing in Social Europe. In an article entitled “Beyond Fantasies Of Industry 4.0″, he says”

As a popularized futuristic concept for the 21st Century, “Industry 4.0” reveals a Messianic expectation of a technological revolution encompassing the utilization of advance techniques of digital design and robotics for the production of “high value-added goods”. It doesn’t matter in this conjuncture, nor of relevance, to ask what the characteristics of the first three episodes of industrialization were, and why do we conceptualize the emerged fourth industrial advance with a digitalized mark (4.0), rather than in plain English. It seems what matters now is the urgent need for creating an image of vibrant capitalism serving its citizens in the embrace of globalization.

If we accept the idea of Industry 4.0 as real (and I am highly dubious), Erinc thinks the question of ownership is critical for the future:

..to whom will the ownership rights of the robots belong? States as owners of public (-?) capital? Private ownership as organized along trans-national corporations under the post-imperialist phase of global capital? Men and women of the scientific community who in the first place designed and projected them? Or perhaps, a de-centralized, democratically operating societal network, above and beyond nation states?

Although I agree, this is just a part of the argument about teh future of technology. Technology is not a natural phenomenon, it is a socially derived process. How we use technology – for private profit or for public good is a political and social issue. It is long time the meanings and assumptions of the Industry 4.0 fantasy were explored from a social viewpoint.

Informal learning in practice

December 13th, 2016 by Graham Attwell

Last week I travelled from Derby to Manchester airport by train. It was a typical English Midlands December day – cold, damp and foggy. Waiting at the station was a train driver – I knew this because she had on an orange hi vis jacket with driver printed on the back. At some time a much older male driver came along and they started chatting. The conversation was about the weather – no surprises there. But it seems she had been driving the previous evening when the fog had been very thick and she had never encountered such conditions before. It was fairly obvious that she was new to the job. Her big worry had been not knowing where she was and failing to slow down in time for stations. The more experienced driver sympathized and advised her to slow down to 20 miles an hour. If you go at 20, he said, you will always be able to stop in time. But, he said, don’t worry – as you get more experienced you will get to know where the stations are.

I liked that conversation – it was a great example of informal learning – learning taking place in a chat at a station. And it also illustrated communities of practice – the learning took place around a common practice of driving trains and a common problem of driving in fog.

The next day I travelled early in the morning by train from Madrid to Valencia. This time I was on an AVE – the Spanish Renfe services high speed train. And once more there was thick fog. But this time the train did not slow all. I suppose it helps that there is only one stop between Madrid and Valencia. But I suspect the reason is that the AVE has m0re advanced technologies than the aging UK railways.

I wonder whether in learning to use these more advanced trains knowledge is passed on in the same ways or there is more emphasis on formal learning and knowledge. And I wonder which is the most effective?

The Challenges for Construction Sector Training in the UK

October 18th, 2016 by Graham Attwell

emgineerAccording to the Daily Telegraph, a new UK Government report into the skills crisis in the construction sector has recommended a new levy on house builders in a last ditch attempt to reform the industry.

The Telegraph reports Mark Farmer, who wrote the review, as warning that “within 10 years the industry would lose 20-25pc of its workforce. He said that Government apprenticeship policies had not done enough, and that it needed to “modernise or die.”

Research undertaken through the EU Learning layers project has identified the challenges to the sector from both the introduction of digital technologies and ecological issues. Digital technology is impacting on the construction industry in different ways. It is enabling the development of new materials, or new ways of producing materials, for instance through 3D printing. Secondly, it is enabling new construction techniques and processes. Building Information Modelling, being phased in as a compulsory requirement for publicly funded project throughout the European Union, represents a major change in the way construction projects are planned and carried out.

The sector also faces pressures with digital technologies from their wider deployment within society and from their potentials to solve or ameliorate societal challenges, for instance climate change.

The European Commission sees the main challenges facing construction as being:

  • Stimulating demand: Efficiency improvements in existing buildings and renovations have the highest potential to stimulate demand.
  • Training: Improving specialised training and making the sector more attractive, in particular for blue-collar workers, technical colleges and universities.
  • Innovation: More active uptake of new technologies.
  • Energy efficiency and climate change: Buildings account for the largest share of total EU final energy consumption (40%) and produce about 35% of all greenhouse emissions.

It is interesting that they highlight the need for more active uptake of new technologies. This may be a particular problem given the structure of the industry and the predominance of SMEs with a need for wider access to information and knowledge about new technologies and the skills and competences to use technologies in practice. Discussions with the Bau ABC training centre and construction companies in north west Germany, have raised the issue of training centres playing a more central role in technology innovation, especially with apprentices trained in the centres in using new technologies.

The issue of the attractiveness of the sector to new entrants has also commonly been raised. In Germany it is proving difficult to recruit sufficient apprentices and one project is even running a programme for apprentices from Spain. The use of new mobile technologies for learning is seen as a measure which could promote a more modern image for construction industry.

Technologies are also being deployed to support energy efficiency and ameliorate climate change. These include the installation of digital monitoring and control systems for buildings, geothermal bores as an energy source for new buildings and retrofitting of older buildings for energy efficiency. Although the present ‘hype’ around the Internet of Things (IoT) probably outweighs the reality, it may have a major impact on the construction industry in the near future.

Demands of digital technologies for cabling has led to the introduction of new computer based horizontal boring machines to avoid having to dig up roads to install new cables.

Drones are increasingly being used for surveying and monitoring progress in large construction projects. Although at an early stage in deployment there is widespread interest in the potential of augmented reality applications in construction, for instance to allow the visualisation of hidden infrastructures such as cabling in construction sites.

Building Information Modelling has been the subject of much discussion during the Learning Layers project. European legislation has permitted the adoption of different timetables for implementation in different European Member States. In some countries such as UK and Norway, implementation is at an advanced stage. In others such as Spain and Germany it is less far forward. There is some discussion about what organisations will be responsible for managing and implementing BIM processes as well as the technical approaches to BIM. Will BIM be the responsibility of larger civil engineering enterprises or will employees of small (Craft) companies be required to have a greater or lesser knowledge of BIM? This obviously has major implications for training and skills.

The Daily Telegraph reports that the UK’s commercial sector faces a bill of over £9bn to upgrade properties to meet the minimum energy efficiency standards (MEES), and residential buildings will cost a total of £20bn to meet the necessary level.

Yet with looming skills shortages and the upgrade in skills and knowledge required to cope with new technologies and energy efficient buildings, it seems hard to see how the UK construction industry can adapt to the new demands. Present government proposals are for a short term levy and a reliance on the market system to overcome skills shortages. But as Norman Crowther, national official for post-16 education at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers writing in the Times Educational Supplement (TES), points out  a market is not a system per se. “Introducing market mechanisms to get the output you want is not a VET system. All the “market” systems have the same sort of problems around VET (think the US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada). Of course, that’s not a problem as long as you don’t want coherent skill formation and skill utilisation. But in a time of economic uncertainty and poor productivity, a system is exactly what we need.

The German coordinated market economy goes so far as to legislate on vocational education and training, and apprenticeships have labour-market worth. In France, the state coordinates agreement via ministerial committees. The Nordic model has positioned VET as a part of the school curriculum and produced publicly intelligible VET qualifications that resonate with the public.”

The failings of vocational education and training in the UK are hardly new, neither are skills shortages. Yet without developing a proper system based on high quality training both in vocational schools and in the workplace it is only likely these problems will worsen

Jobs of the Future

August 22nd, 2016 by Graham Attwell

There is a lot of speculation at the moment as to the jobs of the future. On the one hand, it is said that we are educating young people for jobs which do not yet exist; on the other hand there are dire predictions that up to of existing 55 per cent of jobs may disappear to automation in the next five years.

If it is hard as a researcher who works with labour market data to make sense of all this, imagine what it is like for young people trying to plan a career (and if doing a degree in the UK, running up major debt).

However, there is beginning to appear some more nuanced research on the future of jobs. Michael Chui, James Manyika, and Mehdi Miremadi have just published the initial report on a research project looking at how automation will affect future employment. The report, entitled ‘Where machines could replace humans—and where they can’t (yet)’, is based on detailed analysis of 2,000-plus work activities for more than 800 occupations. Using data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and O*Net, they have quantified both the amount of time spent on these activities across the economy of the United States and the technical feasibility of automating each of them.

Their overall finding is that while automation will eliminate very few occupations entirely in the next decade, it will affect portions of almost all jobs to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the type of work they entail.
automation
Each whole occupation is made up of multiple types of activities, each with varying degrees of technical feasibility. In practice, they explain, automation will depend on more than just technical feasibility. Five factors are involved: technical feasibility, costs to automate, the relative scarcity, skills and costs of workers who might otherwise do the activity, benefits (e.g. superior performance) of automation beyond labour costs substitution and regulatory and social acceptance considerations.
The likelihood and ease of automation depends on the types of activities organised on a continuum of less susceptible to automation to more susceptible to automation: managing others, applying expertise,  stakeholder interactions, unpredictable physical work, data collection, processing data, predictable physical work. Thus occupations like accommodation, food service and manufacturing which include a large amount of predictable physical work are likely to be automated, similarly work in finance and insurance which involves much processing of data. On the other hand jobs in construction and in agriculture which comprise predominantly unpredictable physical work are unlikely to be automated, at least at present. And there is good news for teachers: “the importance of human interaction is evident in two sectors that, so far, have a relatively low technical potential for automation: healthcare and education.”

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.

 

 

 

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