Higher Education

the future of work + the future of higher education = ???

On the cover of Time this week, a series of articles on the future of work. If you've read folks like Dan Pink or Richard Florida or even Thomas Friedman, then there isn't much new here: changing nature of the workplace, desires for flexible working conditions and career paths, changing values of Gen Y/Millennials, baby boomers not retiring, green jobs. Still there are a few good lines in there.

Rob Carter, chief information officer at FedEx, thinks the best
training for anyone who wants to succeed in 10 years is the online game
World of Warcraft. Carter says WoW, as its 10 million
devotees worldwide call it, offers a peek into the workplace of the
future. Each team faces a fast-paced, complicated series of obstacles
called quests, and each player, via his online avatar, must contribute
to resolving them or else lose his place on the team. The player who
contributes most gets to lead the team — until someone else contributes
more. The game, which many Gen Yers learned as teens, is intensely
collaborative, constantly demanding and often surprising. "It takes
exactly the same skill set people will need more of in the future to
collaborate on work projects," says Carter. "The kids are already doing

And this from a piece contributed by Seth Godin:

Internet technology makes working as a team, synchronized to a
shared goal, easier and more productive than ever. But as in a
three-legged-race, you'll instantly know when a teammate is struggling,
because that will slow you down as well. Some people will embrace this
new high-stress, high-speed, high-flexibility way of work. We'll go

from a few days alone at home, maintaining the status quo, to urgent
team sessions, sometimes in person, often online. It will make some
people yearn for jobs like those in the old days, when we fought
traffic, sat in a cube, typed memos, took a long lunch and then sat in
traffic again.

The only reason to go to work, I think, is to do work. It's too
expensive a trip if all you want to do is hang out. Work will mean
managing a tribe, creating a movement and operating in teams to change
the world. Anything less is going to be outsourced to someone a lot
cheaper and a lot less privileged than you or me.

Part of the argument seems to be that there will be increasing jobs in green and high-tech manufacturing in the US. These careers will require training beyond a high school degree, but it is likely not the kind of education that traditional higher education is equipped to provide. I'm not exactly sure who counts among the privileged class that Godin addresses here, but the rest of this quote resonates with Carter's position above. However, the general trend of these predictions is that a college education would point graduates toward these kinds of "high-stress, high speed, high-flexibility" careers.

Of course this begs the question of what is (or ought to be) the relationship between a college education and preparation for a career. In the minds of most students I meet, the answer seems fairly obvious that these two things should be the same. However those of us who are in this business know that it's not that simple. First, most students don't know what they want to do. Second, even if they do know, they are likely to change careers in short order. Third, even if they don't change careers, their careers are likely to transform beneath their feet.

That said, we are familiar with how traditional schooling prepared students to become factory workers. And we might even see how an educational culture of high-stakes testing prepared students as atomized knowledge workers in the hierarchical corporate bureaucracies of the last century. So while specific career preparation, for most careers, may make even less sense now than ever before (at least at the baccalaureate level), it is likely that educational spaces and practices will mutate to reflect emerging workplaces. Online and hybrid courses certainly reflect this, as does increasing amounts of collaborative work.

Still that's not all that higher education is or wishes to be. There's an interesting article on trying to introduce professional ethics into business management programs. It's actually somewhat sad how difficult a challenge that turns out to be (at least as it is reported here). Inasmuch as higher education is about teaching ethics and citizenship, we face challenges in figuring out how those things work in this new, networked social order. In any case, this is where I think some of the more interesting work in the humanities will take place over the next decade. Starting with what is most closely under our own purview–the ways we teach and the ways we do our research and service–the humanities ought to participate in shaping the foundation of higher education's role in this future.

That's rather general, I know, so here are a few specific points from what I am thinking for myself:

  1. Undergrad courses where students collaborate FTF and online, hopefully with students at a distance and internationally, on digital compositions that they can share with a larger audience.
  2. A first-year writing program that gives students experience with networks and digital composition, that asks them to think about rhetorical issues and compositional practices as they are shaped by techno-material contexts, and that explores ethical and socio-political concerns raised by those contexts and networked communities.
  3. Graduate courses that give students the opportunity to explore the role of networks, computing, and digitial media in their teaching and scholarship, regardless of the particular area of specialization they pursue, an exploration that would necessarily include both practical and theoretical-critical dimensions.
  4. Developing scholarly networks with colleagues interested in pursuing emerging research and publication practices.
  5. Participating in university discussions shaping the future role of digital networks not only in the classroom (i.e. trying to move away from the Bb solution in a box) but also in rethinking the way faculty organize and collaborate on campus.