Clinical strength solutions

How do you gain consumers’ trust? By listening to them and knowing exactly what they want. And by turning this knowledge into innovative and compelling products.

(Beiersdorf, brands overview)

The thing about jetlag in America is that it leaves you stranded in the middle of the night with nothing to do but watch middle-of-the-night American TV. And so last night I learned about “stress sweat”, which is apparently a much worse kind of sweat than the regular kind. To protect yourself (and others, as it turns out) you need a very special deodorant. Keen to know more, I hopped on line and found that research shows it’s also called “emotional sweat” and women are 30 times more prone to producing this when we’re upset or doing mental arithmetic. But happily, research also shows that clinical strength deodorant has got us covered, to the tune of being exactly 4 x more effective than regular deodorant at saving us from ourselves.

So, you know, that’s all right then.

By now crazy with jet-lag and not a little sweat anxiety, I wanted to know who had done the research that showed all the things. And of course, the answer is what you’d expect: research in this exciting new field is done by the companies who make the products that fix the problems that their research discovers. Neat.

Cheeringly, there are quite a few sceptics out there. Take a look at Creativity Online’s “Stress Sweat and Other Problems You Never Knew Existed“, for example, for a trawl through claims made about products that will solve the problems of aging hair, ugly armpits and invisible laundry stains that hadn’t really troubled us until we were told about them. Yup, read that carefully again: there’s a laundry detergent that will remove the stains you cannot see—which surely means they fall below the commonsense standard for a stain.

The manipulation of anxiety about intangible problems is a sign of hard times in the cosmetics industry. With consumers turning more and more to supermarket cosmetics or bulk online ordering of everyday items, companies have to work harder to find new niche problems that new niche brands can fix. As beauty-industry consultant Suzanne Grayson spells it out in the article: “”Everyone is looking to consumer research for ideas. It’s desperation time. Even companies that never were heavy into research like the upscale department-store brands, are using it, looking for kernels of disappointment [they] can latch onto.”

It’s marketing that escalates this disappointment into panic. The social crisis caused by stress sweating can’t be avoided, so there’s only one solution: the product that research has shown is four times more likely to save you from being sluiced right off the bus (or out of the boardroom, or wherever you are when disaster strikes) in a torrent of your own emotional sweat.

Nuts as this sounds, it’s not a world away from the overheated language in recent higher education reports. In Australia we had the Ernst & Young report that promised to outline our prospects as a “thousand year industry on the cusp of profound change” despite the fact that most of us in Australian higher education work in buildings that were thrown up in the 1970s. This week a UK think tank with uncomfortably close ties to Pearson suggested that we’re up for an avalanche and a revolution, all in one terrorising (if confusing) title: An Avalanche is Coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead.

Ferdinand von Prondzynski points out calmly that the report advocates very little real change, and its recommendations effectively endorse many of higher education’s standing inequities in resourcing and rank.  David Kernohan describes it more bluntly as paid advertorial for Pearson. Michael Barber, lead author and Pearson’s Chief Education Advisor, certainly takes a starring role in the report itself, popping up throughout in the third person, a bit like Shane Warne talking about himself:

One evening recently, Michael and his wife were trying to recall the names of the three Karamazov brothers. Needless to say, within minutes they had resorted to Google – much easier than getting the book itself from the next-door room.

It’s all very chatty, and in the end comes across as op-ed based on the narrow personal experience of the three authors: “Whenever Katelyn inserted an example from Duke, Saad responded with one from Yale. ”  Hooray!  But does anyone really think this amounts to coverage of the diversity and volatility of higher education’s global business activity, let alone its core functions in teaching, research and community engagement?

Very little in the rest of the report contradicts the awful impression this comment creates. The report’s main function seems to be to alarm elite institutions who haven’t cottoned on to stress sweat (“Yale, at any rate, does not appear to see an avalanche coming. Or if it does, it does not feel threatened by it”) and then console them with the promise that in the unbundled future, the signal strength of globally strong brands will still be important. So they’ll be OK, because in the end their “best professors” will be safely broadcasting MOOC TV from the ski lodge while the rest of us are swept away.

What kind of opportunity would such a purging of higher education represent to companies like Pearson, or any of the other edtech vendors and venture capitalists who have already invested heavily in the education market? The IPPR’s report recommends that after avalanche has reshaped the mountain, we will have reorganised ourselves into four university types—elite, the mass, the local, and the niche—and something called the “lifelong learning mechanism”.

At the heart of this two-tier system of elite university providers and mass university markets will be unbundled digital delivery of content, online platforms, locally supported tutoring and proctored testing.  And Pearson are standing by with the clinical strength solutions to all the problems. So at the very least, this report is a strong case for higher ethical standards in research and analysis of educational markets by vendor stakeholders. Pearson have an extraordinary conflict of interest here, which is a very weak basis on which to try to gain our trust.

And it’s not a radical proposition: it’s a reheat of every argument being had everywhere about MOOCs, college tuition, university branding, ranking and funding, graduate employability, the emerging Asian markets (which is truly an awful way to think about individual students), young people and technology, the campus experience, the global superstars. The whole minestrone.

What’s missing is a vision for change that any of us would be proud to be part of.

Is it time?

A few weeks ago, Professor Frank Larkin reported for the L H Martin institute that staff-student ratios in Australian higher education are a bit worse than are commonly claimed.

What makes this sensitive is the government’s ambitious target of 40% of 25-34 year olds being degree qualified by 2020. There’s some debate about the viability of this target, and the details are vague on exactly how this will raise national productivity unless we’re really prescriptive on what those undergraduates study, and what they go on to do. But for the time being, this is the cunning plan to keep Australia economically fabulous, and its success depends on Australian families believing in the value of supporting their adult children for a further three or four years while they struggle up the final stretch of the education mountain, acquiring a hefty personal debt as they go.

The complicated strain this places on families is significant, given that so many Australian undergraduates live at home, while their friends start working, or travelling, and generally getting on with their future lives. University students often talk about feeling stuck in a failure-to-launch scenario, going through the motions of something that feels too much like high school, while balancing part-time, seasonal, insecure employment with the social constraints of life at home with the parents.

As families are right now in the process of deciding whether to not to go through with this, the risk is that public debate over staff-student ratios is like the ongoing PR crisis about unflued gas heaters in school classrooms: even if your children and their teachers aren’t personally exposed to this problem, repeated discussion of it does wear out your confidence in the overall system. Primary school? Isn’t that where the heaters make everyone sick? University? Isn’t that where they’re all sitting on the floor and no one knows their name?

This seems to be why there’s been a strong counter attack this week, in the form of a background briefing paper issued by the Group of Eight.

What’s the real difference of opinion? Professor Larkin’s position is that the dramatic increase in student numbers since 2000 hasn’t been covered by an increase in permanent academic positions, but rather by a diversion to research-based appointments matched with a supplementary hiring of casual teachers. According to his altered formula, staff-student ratios are now at 1:34.1 across the sector, and the assumption is that the quality of the undergraduate experience is therefore also declining.

The G08 position is, more or less, “Oh no it’s not.”

Larkins asserted that universities have been pursuing their own research interests above all else and students are being short-changed as a consequence. He alleged that universities have been reclassifying academic staff in order to game assessments of research quality. He claimed that “the coursework student to T&R + TO staff ratio was concerningly high at 34:1 in 2010”.

The available evidence does not support his claims.

At 16 pages of charts and graphs, you can see how this could drag on.  In terms of reassuring the primary audience who might have been fooled into believing Australian undergraduate education is going to hell in a handbasket, the Go8 paper is at particular pains to point out that if there has been a tiny shift towards research only (RO) positions, matched by a really minuscule increase in casualisation to take up the teaching shortfall, then this is because a) research is very difficult and b) there’s more research being done, especially by G08 universities who win all the grants and c) there’s more emphasis being placed on research by rankings, and altogether, this may result in

the offer of RO appointments [as] a mechanism for attracting and retaining academic talent in the increasingly competitive environment, even though it may not align with the raison d’être of a university.

Well, no kidding.

The second part of the PR struggle over whether or not Australian universities are adequately staffed is casualisation. The Go8 euphemise this as “university staffing flexibility in times of intensifying competition”, and find it to be at surprisingly low levels, a fact they attribute to stroppy unions. Using a different formula, they find the overall staff-student ratio to be 1:16.8 in the G08 and 1:24.4 out in the wildzone where the rest of us work.

The confusion for those of us trying to figure out which of these sets of numbers is right is that university calculations don’t count “actual casuals” (this is the strangely poignant technical term) as actual people, but as fractions of imaginary full-time staff positions. Both teaching load and teaching labour in higher education involve smallish chunks of discrete human activity: a student sitting in a lecture here is a fraction of the nominal time allocated to a class which is a fraction of that student’s imaginary full-time student life; a teacher grading papers for a different class over there is also a nominal fraction of something.

All these bits and pieces are reaggregated into full-time equivalence in order to be able to tallied against each other, and it’s on this basis that we reassemble the founding myth of full-time students taught by full-time staff. But in reality, students are radically economising on the time it takes to be taught (and lecture attendance is the blunt measure of this), and both permanent and casual academics are volunteering more and more of their own time to compensate for this. So the myth of full time anything doesn’t seem like a solid starting point.

However, beyond the practical consequences of casualisation for institutions, and even beyond the impact on individuals whose personal and professional lives are being bonsaied by this strategy, there’s another economic factor that doesn’t get the consideration it deserves.

Our growing contingent workforce includes those who represent the apex of government investment in education. They are in every other respect the stellar success stories of higher education retention, having stuck with us all the way up to PhD level. Now they’re mostly not living at home (although some are), but they’re trying to raise families of their own, and the more teaching they do to help universities maintain their flexibility “in times of intensifying competition”, the worse their real career prospects become.

So while we’re making charts, perhaps we could apply some scrutiny to the fact that higher education’s current structural dependence on flexibility is confining many of its own most successful research trained alumni to the prospect of long-term job precarity as casual teachers—or to costly retraining for a whole other career. This seems like the exemplary case of a bad return on investment for all concerned.

(The posts that this week that have got me thinking about all this come from Dean Dad on course overloads, Ferdinand von Prondzynski on the business principles of retention and attraction, Lee Skallerup on the need to take action for adjunct colleagues, Jonathan Rees who is as worried as anyone about the structural problems of the academic labor market, and Stephen Matchett on the Go8’s dispute with Larkin’s report. But there are now plenty of others calling for advocacy on this matter, including the excellent New Faculty Majority.  I think, to use an Australian phrase, it’s time.)

Edtech and the evolutionary arms race

In 1944, in response to a question about whether there could be a “purely American art”, Jackson Pollock said this:

The idea of an isolated American painting, so popular in this country during the thirties, seems absurd to me just as the idea of creating a purely American mathematics or physics would seem absurd …  the basic problems of contemporary painting are independent of any country.

It’s a famous move in the history of exnomination that plays differently, I think, outside America. By exnomination, I mean the straightforward work that language can do to make some features of any situation seem so obvious that they don’t need to be named. It’s a card trick of some subtlety.

The concept has often been used to think about exactly how cultural power makes itself both invisible and taken-for-granted in terms of gender or race.  But it transfers easily to edtech, where the exnominated term is “North American”, and it seems just as absurd to suggest that cultural context influences either the design of educational technology (surely all university systems are the same, aren’t they?) or the kind of content that will come down the pipes. But there you have it: I think it does.

And those of us working outside America run into the cultural paywall that’s erected around US-based edtech all the time.  Six months ago, my niggling reminder of global insignificance was the notification from Ning that the special deal co-sponsored by Pearson to relieve the pain of Ning’s transition to a user-pays business model was only available to educators working in the US.  This week, it came from edtech startup Educreations, whose sign-up process included a pull down menu to register my institutional location … but only as somewhere in the United States.

(I did get a very nice email from them about this, and apparently recognising the existence of the rest of the world is on their short to-do list, for which our heartfelt thanks.  And this puts them ahead of any major vendor still using US-focused promotional videos to sell to college systems outside the US.)

But my broader worry about the way in which we accept the proposition that the “basic problems of [educational technology] are independent of any country”, to misquote Pollock for a moment, has come from a different direction.  I was asked this week, by none other than Adrian Sannier, why I had reservations about “evolutionary arms race” as a metaphor for market-driven technology innovation.

Again, I think this is one that plays very differently in America than it does in smaller economies like Australia’s, for whom any mention of an arms race is a metaphor for gross defense dependency. To sort out my ambivalence about this, I’ve been reading up a bit about something called the Red Queen’s Hypothesis, because the “evolutionary arms race” is in fact a double handled metaphor, where the competitive nature of military development comes to stand in for the ways in which species co-evolve in response to the threats that they pose to one another.

The reason it’s called the Red Queen’s Hypothesis is lovely: it involves the passage in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass in which Alice spends a bit of time chasing the Red Queen around trying to make sense of a disturbing landscape of directional quirks, reversals, and paradoxical pathways. After a while, she complains that as much as they both run, neither of them is getting anywhere, at which point the Red Queen says something along these lines: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.”

The adoption of this hypothesis to explain co-evolution suggests that the result isn’t as bad as it seems, and this is precisely what makes the “evolutionary arms race” a benign metaphor to push one further step into the context of competitive edtech innovation.  But if we strip back to the original metaphor for a moment, the “arms race” is actually a reminder that the last time we really thought about equilibrium in arms development, we called it “Mutually Assured Destruction”, which does start to sound a bit less attractive.

So the question is whether what we’re seeing in educational technology is the capacity for mutually beneficial co-evolution, as Sannier argues, or superpower standoff, or a more troubling lurch towards monopoly, in which case it really will matter where the cultural headquarters are located. Michael Feldstein’s discussion of why OpenClass really is a big deal puts it this way:

What does Pearson get out of all this? They potentially get all the data on your students and an iron grip on the point of sale for all curricular content. Everything that worries you about what Facebook and Google know about you and everything that worries you about the control that Apple exerts over the iTunes and App stores should worry you about Pearson’s ambitions. If ClassConnect succeeds in massively disrupting the LMS market, then Pearson potentially controls the center of the chess board for ePortfolios, digital educational content, transcripts—possibly even schools themselves.

The harmonious co-evolutionary potential in this scenario is really hard to discern if you aren’t one of the other giant North American technology and platform innovators (although it’s obviously terrific if you are). Certainly, smaller edtech providers pitching in the same market as OpenClass are likely to find it hard to keep up with Pearson’s business capacity to turn the campus LMS into a loss leader.

But for those of us beyond the North American educational market, who are having to take seriously the promise that thanks to edtech we’ll no longer need our own chemistry professors because Harvard have got one whose superior content they’re prepared to share online, the health of the global education ecosystem is an even more serious concern. Ferdinand von Prondzynski is arguing for vigilance on this question, because the world’s regional universities are more than simply outlets for content generated elsewhere, piped in via systems developed elsewhere. We are contributors to our own local economies and cultural ecosystems because we’re able to generate both research and curriculum that are tailored to where we are.

So while we may be bystanders rather than key players in this particular evolutionary arms race, that doesn’t mean we can afford to be indifferent to the way it turns out, or even sanguine about the values on which it is built.


I’m struck by the coincidence of Jonathan Rees and Ferdinand von Prondzynski both writing, in different ways, about the significance to academics of being able to set their own compass. Not only do we hope to be able to research and teach in areas that are the best fit with our skills and principles, but we also prefer to work for institutions that are able to determine the best mix of features that suits their operating context.

Whether you call this autonomy or freedom, what seems to be at stake is the trust placed in us to behave responsibly: to respond in localised, adaptive, thoughtful ways to the stuff that comes up, whether in the classroom or the economy.  Agility depends in powerful ways on agency, and this works best when both the resources and the authority to use them are quartered fairly close to the situation in which they’re needed.

The enemy of freedom bearing down on two fronts here is something we might call standardised diversification, whether encountered in the enforced use of brand-driven institutional templates for online learning (JR), or the centralisation of strategic planning to save us all from the “unnecessary duplication of provision” (FVP).  Higher education isn’t inventing any of this: these approaches animate business models all over the place. It’s a principle of sustainable mass production of anything that if you introduce sufficient minor variation over time, or horizontally across the range, the tension between supply and gratification creates the future of demand for whatever it is that you make.  This is the straightforward reason why all cars are not white, a question I’ve been asked recently by my kids.

Diversification for us is about the sustainability of small disciplines (what we might call the species biodiversity model); for governments who have to pay to protect this, it’s also about controlling diversity within managed limits so that each institution isn’t overfunded to duplicate what’s being done more cheaply, or perhaps to higher standards, up the road.  It’s very like agribusiness in this sense: universities are not hobby farms. Even the humanities, for all our faux organic packaging, are driven by business models that increasingly lean towards standardisation as the best way to achieve both scale and market position without expanding cost.

None of this is rocket science, but I think it’s part of the reason why academics grimace when standards are mentioned.  There is very little confidence that the current hive-like coordination of planning, standards and quality management activities in higher education might have anything to do with a genuine wish to do things well.  At one level, it’s self-congratulating busywork, which is the worst kind of strategic activity, when the balance between time spent in reflection, and the time spent reporting against the workplan, tips decisively in favour of the KPIs.

But it’s also the reason why higher education institutions are developing such an attachment to data, as a talismanic presence in their effort to pin down the swirling cloud of human complexity that brings learners, researchers and administrators together, day in, day out.  My favourite data analysis process at the moment is comparative student outcomes reporting, which we can use to slice the data cube from all directions to see what, if anything, makes a difference. It’s like the opening credits to The Matrix for giving numbers a fetish value that leaps directly into the realm of abstraction.  How can we know so much about our students, more or less down to their shoe size, and still understand so little about how it feels for them as they navigate through our systems, our communication channels, our expectations, and our obsessive collection of data on their experience?

So at one level, no wonder the academics are tiptoeing backwards out of the room as the engines of institutional strategic data analysis start to overheat.  But perhaps we need to remember that we’re not above a bit of vanity dressed up as quality assurance ourselves, it’s just that we’ve been doing it for so long that it’s become natural to our way of life, as these things do.

Because I can’t really see the difference between making the effort to generate some useful standards in teaching and learning, and our entirely opportunistic enjoyment of self-advancing metrics in research.  As researchers, we’ve lived very comfortably with proposition that citation (not to mention journal ranking) has something to do with the measurement of our meaningful impact in the world.  We do seem broadly to be able to turn a blind eye to lack of evidence for this case, and just to get on with laundering our personal performance indicators through the various instruments developed by journal publishers to make the quantification of scholarly impact seem like a halfway sensible thing to do.  What is this if not adherence to standards?

In which case, perhaps we should all get a bit more sleeves-rolled-up about developing and implementing the standards that will help our students attach their learning to their professional futures. Surely these are no more contemptible or confronting to our freedom than the ones we exploit for ourselves?

Birds in our sleeves

Underline everything, I’m a professional in my beloved white shirt
(The National, ‘Squalor Victoria’)

One of the troublespots of shared governance in higher education institutions is the tone to strike in corporate communication with students. Is there a business unit that can stalk them on Facebook without seeming creepy? Who should follow their tweets? What happens to the brand if they’re dissing us to their friends? We don’t even know how to communicate with them officially, given that we’re institutionally hooked on email and they’re … not. But the critical issue is that there’s no coherent corporate “we”, and if there’s one thing that really messes up the social marketing strategy, it’s that academics are also out there on Twitter, Facebook and the rest, and we’re not all so easy to keep on message.

Some of this is oddly like the confusion over dress codes in universities, that do as much as anything to show up that a university campus is really several different workplaces struggling to find a coherent sense of style. Staff at help desks dress and behave like any other bit of public sector bureaucracy, somewhere between the post office and the dole office: neat casual workwear.  More relaxed than the campus bank, say, but a step up from the bar staff.  Then there are workers in uniforms, maintaining the buildings and the grounds and serving food and blowing whistles in the sports centre. The IT staff wear shirts, but not ties. Way backstage are the policy people and administrative staff in on-the-up corporate wear, and somewhere above it all are executives in suits.

But out in the Faculties, things get a little wild.  Every day is mufti day, and the messages are breathtakingly mixed, from “This time last year I was still a grad student myself” to all of the efforts to dress up for intermittent dashes to the executive suite.  The beards and elbow patches have mostly gone, but outside the business Faculties, suits are still not common. Students pay close attention to this, and indeed have quite a bit to say about the way we dress, because most of them are working in environments with strong workplace dress codes, including uniforms. So they’re fascinated by what looks like an ad hoc approach to dressing for work across the organisation, and they’re not always sure how to read our particular professionalism, which is the basis of our credibility when talking to them about theirs.

For many academics, on the other hand, the opportunity to go year round without ironing is one of the remaining creative freedoms of the job, like political cartoons on the office door or working at home once in a while. For these modest gains, we continue to overlook the other fairly ordinary aspects of the job, including that most of us use all our holidays to do our research, and that even though we all work evenings and weekends, we’d be genuinely astonished if anyone thought this entitled us to time that might be repaid one day.

(From time to time we do hear of threats to put academics onto the software systems that monitor administrative staff time at work so that their overtime can be tracked and either paid or returned as flexi-time.  The assumption is that we’ll all be revealed lounging by the pool, as everyone knows that we’re not doing a full day’s work anyway, what with our scant face to face teaching hours and all.  Most academics in turn are horrified and imagine this imposition as something like Julian Assange’s electronic detention bracelet.  Isn’t this why we became academics—to avoid the whole 9 to 5 thing?  But I think it’s time to look more carefully at this option, as the laugh might well be on our side.)

Anyhow, it’s Ferdinand von Prondzynski who has prompted this thinking about whether what we wear is a student communications issue, as he’s been asking about dress codes in university settings. This was also on my mind, as two of us are off to a conference next week on social media in Australasian higher education which has “business attire” as its dress code. This seems to me symptomatic of the ways in which universities are struggling to figure out the “social” in social media. Are social media just another tool in the ongoing blither of marketing communications? Is business attire a sign of the creeping corporatisation of university life (and for more on this corporatisation plus a bit of Rage Against the Machine, read Richard Hall here)? Or are both part of what’s genuinely, awkwardly, contagiously social in our work, and precisely the way in which we exploit higher education as a platform to advocate for inclusion, diversity and justice?

Cormac O’Raifeartaigh, who has the rather striking job of explaining the “universe and its puzzles”, and seems on this basis to be as entitled as anyone to show up to work in whatever he likes, says this:

I’m always struck by how scruffy I look in those group photos at conferences. Perhaps scruffy is the wrong word – too casual is probably better. Simply put, the guy in T-shirt and creased jeans looks junior to everyone else, it just doesn’t look authoritative.

I wish I had developed the ironed shirt-and-tie wardrobe early in my career, it’s hard to change now. … I think I might have been taken a little more seriously, especially in Cambridge and Harvard, instead of being continually mistaken for a student!

At one level, I admit he’s right: plenty of our administrative colleagues do see our casual dressing at work as a sign that there’s something not quite right about us. It’s probably also true that this plays a part sustaining some of the stupider media stereotypes of university academics as out of touch with the real world.

But maybe there’s also something that we shouldn’t give up so easily about those birds in our sleeves that come with academic work—something about the values of creativity, contradiction, uncertainty and risk, that we’re also trying to pass on to students before they land with a thud on the baggage carousel of their future professional lives.