Thursday, 20 March 2008

Open courseware and the "skills" agenda

As promised, a short reflection on the "skills agenda" that seems to have been emphasised during the course of my discussions with policy-makers and think tank researchers.

I have found there to be a particular interest in the potential for open courseware to bridge the much-lamented “skills gap” in the British economy. So the logic follows, a system of open courseware targetted as is it at excluded minorities, adult learners and students at pre-university age, would go some way to 're-skill', 'up-skill' and 'up-knowledge' the workforce whose poverty of abilities is said to be responsible for endemic low productivity in the UK economy.

I consider there something insidious, condescending, even ignorant to the metaphor of the skills ladder, where the imperative is to upskill, reskill, downstairs flipskill until the abilities of the workforce better match the needs of the economy. When industrial, political and trade union leaders lament the inabilities of workers to adapt to a flexible labour market, to a quick turnover of jobs procedures and colleagues, I rarely hear any accompanying discourse regarding the content of the economy, the quality, craft and purpose involved in the types of work widely-available. With the political discourse repetitively airbrushing away such considerations as somehow politically unsayable, the question has become relegated to a mere management issue, of how to better motivate staff to care for their work and to innovate in an ever-changing business environment. In the absence of such oversight in people's work, terms such as 'skill', 'talent', 'opportunity', 'aspiration' get bandied around as instrumental terms for animating workers into grafting towards their values, terms alienated from their authentic roots, dessicated of meaning. It is from this perspective that the influential sociologist, Richard Sennett, has recently explored the lost notion of craft and the importance of a crafts-mentality in contemporary (and historic) work.

When I asked Sennett (a self-defining 'socialist') about his attitude to this matter at a recent talk (, he seemed almost to waffle his answer referring at best to the 'portability' of skills, and the 'normal rhythms of a dynamic economy' (this, albeit with David Willets MP, of beady eye and foulest breath, sat beside him). That said, Sennett spoke of what has thus far been the proverbial white elephant sitting around blindfolded, namely, that much of what is called 'retraining' and reskilling' for middle-aged workers whose skills have evaporated in one realm, is in fact the teaching of a new set of procedures that will in turn evaporate in a few years. Skill as euphemism for procedure, as semantically-detached from its formered satisfaction-guarantee – that of craft.

The importance of this observation is that where there are well-organised, user-friendly offerings of online university course materials, what is being imparted (when effective) is not simply a detailed field of knowledge and methods established over time by scholarly communities, but the disposition patience and values that better serve 'high-level' analytic and communicative skills – the intellects craft.

In open courseware, it is important to remind ourselves, there is no face-to-face interaction, and the learning of such crafting and skilling comes almost-entirely from whoever is sat down at a computer. Indeed, there exist studies demonstrating that technique is poorly transmitted over distance without face-to-face contact (e.g. Harry Collins, 1992, Changing Order)

In this context, the nuances of the package being advocated here are crucial – open certification could not and would not apply to those degrees in which kinesthetic (that is practical, hands-on, tacit) crafts are necessary, as in most Medical degrees. On the other hand, however, all that does not involve such learning, does indeed benefit from the personal supervision of lecturers at hand. Yet, while there exists no study to verify it, I would hypothesise that most of the effective learning and knowledge acquisition in lecture, video, slide and text-based courses happens in isolation, and with a significant proportion online. Here, the skills gained in university are either sufficient for graduates and economic 'need', or they are sufficient for noone, non-graduates with a lust for learning included. With visibility comes accountability and a driving up of teaching standards, and in turn, with visibility comes access and an opportunity to see exactly what students enjoying the 'privilege' of world-class university teaching are getting. If we are to carry these empowering terms with any confidence, without dessicating them entirely of meaning, then the path to open courseware and open certification must be cleared, with ideas about skill, craft and the graduate-as-jigsaw-piece recast in turn.

The policy-makers reflex has largely been to justify every well-intentioned Quango or initiative in adult learning, distance learning and widening university participation as referred back to the skills deficit, the service of public instutitions to private corporate demands. The higher education commons being proposed here would partially transform this relay of knowledge and skills, through adults, young people and the workforce they eventually enter in to.

One of the most effective critiques of 'access management' of publicly-funded information has come from a recent Treasury-commissioned report Models of Public-Sector Information Provision via Trading Funds (a more detailed advocacy of the Guardian's Free our data campaign - In this report, the authors explored the variety of economic opportunity costs and broader deadweight losses to society incurred by trading funds that do little to service or nurture downstream markets, that is, the value-added manipulations of raw public data. The same principle albeit on a larger scale still, I argue, applies to taxpayer-funded university course materials, and much of the academic research publication that builds upon it. And yet, in the 'knowledge economy' we inhabit, what is at stake here is not simply access to and re-use of the latest teaching and research from our publicly-funded institutions, but the very skills and crafts-mentality that would be supported more widely with a comprehensive and well-advertised offering of British open courseware, accompanied by the prospect of an Open degree to boot.


Collins, H.M. (1992) Changing Order: replication and induction in scientific practice University of Chicago Press

Newberry, D. Bentley, L. & Pollock, R (February 26, 2008) Models of Public Sector Information Provision via Trading Funds

Sennett, R. (2008) The Craftsman Allen Lane

Richard Sennett, David Willets MP & Laurie Taylor discussion of The Craftsman Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, February 11, 2008

Of chance encounters and on-the-spot arguments

Poorly-tended as this blog is, it is perhaps necessary to state that there is a post coming up on open courseware and the 'skills agenda', an agenda being enthused and pushed for by the various policy wonks and think tank researchers I have presented my ideas to, and about which I have some (hopefully interesting) thoughts.

This aside, I am impelled to report the mother of chance encounters occuring in the basement of the Wellcome Trust earlier today. A key objective of any advocacy project of this kind is to secure a formal representation with the minister concerned and his advisors (in this case Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, John Denham, his junior minister Bill Rammell, and Denham's special advisor Andy Westwood). In the context of this mini-goal of mine, to be walking through the Wellcome Trust building and to see a sign pointing downstairs 'DIUS Ministers/Board away day', the blood no doubt starts to pump a little harder.

Needless to say, I considered the least stupid option would be to rush upstairs, print off one of my articles (in this case an earlier, more thorough draft of a piece I've written for Public Policy Research), bomb downstairs and try my luck. Of course, I had to speak to a man while he was emptying his bladder, which I would in no other circumstances do, but I sensed that this was justifiable, given an imperative to give exposure to decision-makers of ideas that may well transform the economy of knowledge, skills and educational opportunity in Britain. More on which, later.