|Issue No 109
|31 August 2001
Training for a Wired Workforce
Education is the entry point into the new economy; but the system still reflects an industrial age view of the world.
The organisation of schools, the use of school resources, the curriculum all reflect the ordered, top down, one-dimensional industrial age structures. It is true that schools have adapted to a degree to the information age - they have computers, but what is a computer on its own? What else is needed to make children the critical and conceptual thinkers we need if our society is to flourish in the information economy? By sticking them onto computers, aren't we just wedding children to soon to be outdated technology? What more is needed to train people who are truly equipped for this new world?
The Wired Classroom
There are some basic things schools can be doing to equip people for the information age. Accustoming students to being online, using computers and developing the skills to work them is only the start. There is also a need to develop the thought processes and to get the benefits of the enhanced learning capabilities that come from network technologies. The classroom has changed a good deal over the years, but there is the need for further changes flowing from the ever- increasing permutations of the Internet.
The school project is a neat metaphor for this change. Before the Internet a school project was about finding the relevant resources from a limited number of books in the school library. If you were lucky there was a World Book encyclopaedia. You'd copy out the relevant information and present it for the teacher. If you found the right source material and could colour inside the lines, you'd get a good mark. What the Internet offers is a unlimited supply of potential resources to tap into - provided you know how to use it. So the shift is away from finding the one thing you need, to filtering through an unlimited mass.
This shift is potentially a profound equaliser; if you have this vast bank of online information, then providing you have the skills to access it, it doesn't matter if you are the richest school in the country or the poorest school. Before if you were in a school with limited library resources and you were a long way away from the state library, then you had a real problem. There are still some unequal components - what goes on at home has an enormous impact on what goes on in the schools, but it is a massive shift from the idea of content as a limited resource, where at school you had to consume the content that was given to you because its precious; to this unlimited mass.
The same shift has been occurring across society. Look at the change in the finance sector from stockbrokers who passed on parcels of information to their clients, suddenly anyone can get hold of it. This changes the whole sense of how you deal with information - no longer is it a precious commodity in the way it is compartmentalised and distributed.
Totally different skills then become paramount - the skill of discovery, imagination, interpretation and the skill of utilising passion. These are skills that liberal educationalists would always have argued were central to primary education; but now you can see the benefits in a more tangible way. They fuel creativity and self-directed drive. The cooperative group school projects or putting on a school play are now so much more like real world employment and family life than the formal individualist school work. Whether projects use online technology or involve an observational trip to a creek, it is the cooperative sharing of information and skills around the group and the communication of the synthesised information that is the key learning experience. And in the IT world, one of the things that makes people really good is that they have a passion for their stuff. It can be an obscure passion - maybe for Linux operating system programming or a certain type of content area. But it is the passion that makes them valuable.
Can you educate passion?
You can liberate passion; you can give people the skills to use their passion, that kind of na�ve energy, in a constructive fashion. That's what education should be about in the Information Age. This is a major shift conceptually from where it's been in the Industrial Age. Much of the education was to train children to grow into workers who would be cogs in the machine or the managers who would run the machines. In each case, it was about training people to fit into a frame; learning the behaviour that would contribute to the machine.
To see the pitfalls of this model, you only have to look at a place like Japan. One of the reasons the Japan economy has been stagnating in recent years and is in enormous trouble is that it is the archetypical industrial age economy. The education system has an emphasis on rote learning and those structures. It's stuck in this formal and cultural industrial age framework of rickety old superstructures that are fine if the world attention is focussed on mass manufacturing of goods. But when you have an over-capacity in producing widgets, as you do now around the world in all the major widget-producing capitals and when the production and a sale of widgets is a decreasing proportion of the total world economy, you've got a problem. In a society like our's the notion of questioning things and solving problems and thinking for yourself has been an emerging priority in education. That's a post industrial age mindset. We're lucky that while we haven't exactly launched into this world, the changing mentality that is necessary for this to happen has been occurring by default.
A Liberal Education
The Athenians believed a broad education was necessary for the functioning of democracy and for empire building. The British of the 18th and 19th and early 20th century picked up this idea of the classical education as one that would equip gentlemen for running the empire, the civil service, science, business and politics. In the twentieth century the broad liberal curriculum for 'gentlemen' was extended to all citizens who were able and motivated through high schools, but this sat along side 'industrial continuation schools (up to the 1950s), and the option leaving at 15 or 16 for the majority of Australians who obtained a job or entered TAFE in tandem with an apprenticeship or office job. The aim now is for everyone to remain at school until 18, and then to continue education throughout life. The period of 'youth has been extended from the teens to age 25. Specialsiation can occur later, after school or even after a BA style education. More and more kids from blue collar and lower middle class families expect and seek the education once reserved for upper middle class kids and the talented scholarship minority.
The challenge is to create a new liberal education for this century that enhances citizenship and democratic participation, creativity and lateral thinking, knowledge and cultural/social literacy. Ethics is an important element as well, especially given the decline of religion. The challenge is to devise a broad liberal education that is not biased to old upper middle class Anglo-Celtic culture - which is as out of date as old blue collar culture . We need an education that harnesses the community's differences for the good of our economy, creative culture and polity. And that doesn't mean Italian Day or folk dancing. How can so-called Aboriginal learning difficulties be turned into a positive learning experience with regard to , say , visual literacy? How can pop fan consumerism by working class girls be turned into media literacy? How can a Vietnamese teenager's love of computer games be harnessed to a programming project. How can some couch potatoes from Campbeltown get to make a short film like the young private school trendies in the Tropfest? This is the challenge of actually tapping the talent and cultural literacy in our diverse population.
The key skill is the need to analyse symbolically and think abstractly - skills not necessary for everyone in the industrial world, but essential in the new information economy. Globalisation demands a serious commitment to learning other languages from a very young age - as they do in Europe. Australian public schools do not do this anymore. Primary education now emphies skills acquisition rather than knowledge. You have to have both to function in society.
The Internet is just one example of the ease with which more knowledge can be attained yet the primary school curriculum has abandoned history and science and geography to saddle kids with the tyranny of 'relevance'. In so doing children are being given inflexible minds that will not cope with change. Every Australian deserves to now have 3000 years of history and dreaming, and to understand the natural world. This feeds directly into the content of the new information age. Without knowledge the pipes will be empty.
The Left needs to critically review the state of curricula - they have surrendered criticism to the Right and become uncritical defenders of some pretty dumb, short sighted social engeneering. Giving every class a soon to be outdated computer is a political expedient to convince parents that a govt running down resources and emptying out the curriculum is doing something . Significantly, most who carve in the computer world never used a computer at school - for many, they didn't really exist then. But all the kids who were good at symbolic analsysis or manipulation of ideas or clever with games or imaginative seem to have made the jump when work environments or recreation exposed them to it.
One of the keys to making the transition we are talking about, is that you shouldn't confine yourself to simply replicating your existing arrangements in an online. You should actually rethink what you do and how you do it. It's not just painting the red car blue, it's about re-engineering the whole thing. We need to reconsider what we do, why we do it and how we do it, in the changed context. Likewise - in education the shift is not just to move from doing the six times table on a computer rather than on apiece of paper. We should also be asking what we are teaching it for and whether we should be teaching something else.
You clearly need a set of basic skills. The curriculum process in recent years has been useful in refining the skills base we want people to have. But the conceptual shift is also in how these skills are taught. A lot comes down to individual teachers and how they use the curriculum. Do they work the kids through the curriculum - like they are on a process line? Or do they identify what a child is interested in at the moment and push them down that track, work with them to pursue that that curiosity and discovery side of them? These two models are quite different - they use the same formal curriculum, but they use it in totally different ways that reflect different models of learning
The Teacher as Mentor
The relationship between teacher and student is changing dramatically. One possibility that the Internet opens up is that a particular enthusiastic student will know more than their teacher because it gives them access to such a vast bank of information. What happens to the relationship there? The dynamic between teacher and student must change to a more interactive partnership - almost like the relationship between a supervisor and a PhD student; the teacher becomes the educational resource and the authority figure who keeps control and offers a bank of live experience and education experience; but they do not become the keeper of all the knowledge. Potentially that relationship will change quite markedly. The differences will be less about intellectual knowledge as emotional differences - the art of teaching becomes a mentoring process.
Look at what flows from the uncoupling of physical constraints. If you are 15 year old kid who is really into Physics, in the Industrial Age there is a major constraint on what you can do - you need physical laboratories to conduct experiments. That's a huge constraint. If you move into a world where you can simulate all these things on a computer, then suddenly your potential for learning and discovery and moving to a much higher level of understanding is liberated.
One thing that really stands out is how marginal formal education is becoming in lots of the jobs of the information economy. There is an interesting paradox that in the new world people need a lot more skills, the work is more brain based, unskilled manual activity is retreating very rapidly to the proportion of total economic activity; so clearly education per se is critical. But you talk to people in the IT sector and they have very equivocal views about formal qualifications. Sometimes, they would rather someone with the basics who can learn from them than the university educated. I recently had lunch with a group of IT managers from major companies. Someone commented that none of their jobs had existed when they were at university. They went around the table and this was literally true.
This raises issues about what is the best mix. There may need to be a new structure that recognises that a qualification comes to resemble a glorified apprenticeship arrangement; which says that the reality of getting out there and doing it is what matters most, and that there are certain things you can learn in a classroom context that are important reference points. The model would be radically different from apprenticeships, but it's very difficult to teach outside the workplace, particularly in IT areas which are changing every six months. We would still recognise the importance of the collective learning experience of the classroom; but the notion that you should lock someone away for three of four years and teach them to write 5,000 word essays and detailed knowledge of some new, but evolving technology, without being out there and tackling real problems, is not going to work.
The Curse of the PhD
An example is the PhD system. The brightest students in each year are cursed by the expectation of ongoing insitutionalised learning. These are the students who got the top marks as undergraduates. They get first class honours, so they're told they're really good at their area so they better get a PhD. They then come out of, sometimes a decade in a tertiary institution, the master of a very narrow field, but with very few concrete employment options. The PhD emerges as the dead-end of industrial age education - it's specialise, specialise, specialise until you reach this point from where there is no escape route.
The notion that you should have a linear process that you complete outside the world of technological activity: that you go from school to university to PhD and then from the top of your discipline you are launched into a world of information technology as a great genius is just not going to happen. The question becomes: how to you prepare your brightest students to give the greatest contribution in their working life? In an economic sense is about how to get the most out of your human capital. For the individual, it's about getting a decent return for the time invested in their education.
All of Life Training
There was no such concept in the past. But It's now become a necessity forced on people because their jobs have disappeared. In the Industrial Age economy the interest of the employer was very round up in security and stability. If you have this vast amount of capital sunk into big factory, big machinery, then what you need is a stable workforce whoa re not going to turn over very fast; who know how to work your equipment, who are reliable, who turn up on time. In a sense, innovation and change is a negative.
If you move into an economy where there aren't big lumps of sunk capital involved; when you're starting a company which employs lots of people where there isn't $50 million in equipment invested and the investment is in the people themselves; the stability of your labour is no longer the imperative. No longer will you need to tolerate poor performance in return for stability of labour. The smaller the capital investment, the quicker you turn it over. If you buy a $3 million printing machine, and another model comes out on the market in six months that is slightly better, you are not going to throw away your machine and buy the new one. Eventually you will replace your machines, but you didn't do that regularly.
In the information age that 's exactly what you'll do. You'll invest in some software, when something new comes along you will make the change. This forces people to continually upgrade their skills. How you do that? Conceptually it's not difficult: it needs to be a constant revision both in the world of employment and the world of education. The challenge is: how do you integrate that into an educational system?
The problem is that if we accept that education for the information age involves broader notions like discovery, imagination, interpretation and passion, how do you re-educate in that context? If we take the view, that education is no longer just about learning fact A. B and C, then re-education can't be about A, B and C either. It's about opportunities to get people involved. One idea would be to develop a mentoring sort of system; matching students who understand the technology with older people, who's experience is an asset but whose skills are falling behind. They each have something to offer the other. Maybe there is potential in connecting those two people for their mutual benefit.
Long Term Game Plans
There needs to be ongoing retraining strategies in place. Workers need to think about where their skills are taking them. Employers should discuss where the company is going so workers can develop their skills in those areas. The US management literature at the moment talks about job reviews where you don't take down notes, you don't look at quantitative indicators; but rather you talk about the person's interest, where the job is going how you can develop over the next year.
One way to make this a lot easier is an accounting change; treating human resources as a capital asset so that training becomes an investment rather than an outgoing expenditure. This would make a huge change for workers - you would suddenly have human resources on the balance sheet. Most companies in the information economy are nothing more than its workforce and a brand name - without the workers they would not exist - but we don't attach any value to this in accounting . An example is the football club - you have players who if you transferred them all, you would have nothing on the field. Investment in players should be viewed as a capital asset that can be written off over time. We have relatively absurd valuations for Internet companies - but there's no way of telling which valuations are good and bad. The success of a lot of the Silicon valley companies are based on the value of their team - you need a tool to quantify this - and we haven't come to terms with this yet. The resistance is people don't like the idea of human beings being treated as assets - it's fine to view buildings and land as assets, but whether they'll accept people is another thing.
Socialisation of the Mind
One of the challenges for political parties of the Left is that if you look at the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange; and if you look at where western economies are heading; what it leads you to is a point that basically says: how do you socialise what is inside people's heads. Because that is increasingly your dominant means of production, distribution and exchange. The means of production were traditionally seen as capital, labour land with labour seen predominantly as in a manual sense, with a certain amount of narrowly defined brain input. Increasingly the means of production is comprising autonomous decision-making, knowledge, expertise and choices that ultimately means that the dominant factor of production is what is in people's heads. That is not susceptible to socialisation, to central planning, to command economies.
This gets to the bigger question of why social democratic parties around the world have been retreating from traditional regulatory and ownership structures? Why did Eastern Europe collapse? Because of these changes? Because the production process has changed. When it consists of lots of sunk capital with lots of people doing the same thing at the same time with the Taylorised skills structure, then your economy is amenable to a command function, if you are prepared to make the call over personal freedom which is another question. But when you move into a knowledge based economy, it just doesn't work. I always think back to the Gosplan computer in the Soviet Union where there was this giant single mainframe computer that supposedly ran the whole Soviet economy. It was pretty strange then - it's ludicrous now!
Keep 'Em Laughing
It is a fundamental importance to the future of our society, to an equitable society, that we don't end up with half the society online and half not. We are already starting to see the first signs of a new layer of disadvantage and exclusion and all the problems associated with that emerging in our society. It won't be long before people who are online regularly get things cheaper, get better services from government; it is an emerging problem that has to be addressed.
Answer? The government has a responsibility to see everyone online. The barriers include infrastructure, which is gradually being tackled through a variety of new technologies; and price which will gradually be forced down. But we need to accelerate the take-up among potentially disadvantaged groups, or the gap will persist for a long time. The barrier that is going to stop people being online is that people don't know how to do it and don't want to do it. If you are talking about people who don't have an occupational need to develop computer sills, who don't have the opportunities or motivation, how are you going to get them online?
One solution is to open up all possible data channels to competition -- especially if they adapt existing technology. For example, datacasting, using TVs, offers the ability for people to relatively painlessly shift into this world. The great analogy is the spread of mass literacy in the 19th Century. What was the key driver of mass literacy? Universal education was critical, but people still needed the motivation to sustain and use their skills. Otherwise they'd forget how to do i. What gave it to them? Tabloid newspapers, crappy magazines, pornographic rubbish, trash. Ordinary people who didn't have an employment need or a social need to read or write, actually had a motivation: entertainment.
That's where datacasting comes in. If you quickly produce this modification to this existing technology and offer people the ability to do magic things with their TVs, like participating in the quiz show or choosing your camera angle at the cricket, what will happen is that people will seamlessly move into this interactive world. You will have the Internet on TV and it will be a relatively simple shift. Entertainment will be the vehicle to drive the people who do not have an economic connection with this new technology. This needs to happen now, nit just when the TV stations are finally comfortable with the idea.
The Howard Government has imposed absurd restrictions on datacasting in order to protect the existing TV stations. This will inevitably retard the spread of internet access and skills, and reinforce the emerging gulf between those who are online and those who are not
A Critical Mass of Benefits
This goes back to the question of education. How to make sure that everybody is online. Because the things that flow from that are immense. Even just from the cost of government: if you have everyone online, a whole host of things that currently cost a lot of money in the endless day to day relationship between government and citizen can be done a lot cheaper, a lot more conveniently for the consumer and government. But you can't do that effectively if only half the society is online, you don't get the critical mass of savings and you do get the exclusion.
Half the households in Australia have PCs. That's not the elite - the elite are in there, but the elite are not half the society. Household internet connection increased from 18 to 23 per cent in the year to August 1999. Yet the percentage of Australian households with PCs only increased from 46 to 48 per cent. The concern is that the internet take-up will keep rising until it starts to plateau around that halfway mark. That's why datacasting is so important. As we said earlier: it's about keeping people engaged with learning. It's not the box, it's what you can do with it.
What It Means for Labor
The most important thing for us to understand is that social structures and educational structures reflect the society around which they've been built. They reflect imperatives that emerge from the essence of the society, and importantly from the production process. The most obvious examples of this are punctuality and rote learning and discipline in schools - all of which are about replicating the factory environment. We need to keep the machines running, we need the people there for defined periods, we need everybody organised and pulling together in the same direction. The pattern of school education in our society very much reflects the rhythms and dynamics of the external world students were going to go into.
Because we are in this process of transition, with the production process changing into a different type of economy, the education system has to reflect that. The great challenge for Labor as a political party is that we are in both worlds at once. As with the change from the agricultural to the industrial economy, the industrial economy is not going to disappear, it's just becoming a smaller proportion of the total reality. As the industrial economy developed agriculture retreated as a proportion of the economy. We were still eating the same, we're eating more, but because of our productivity it becomes a smaller part of the economy and fewer people work in it. That's what happening to the industrial economy. It's not disappearing, but it's being overlaid by the new service industries. And by definition, the education system has to follow where the numbers are, where most people are going to work.
This means that the skills, attitudes and attributes that it is trying to generate for the future are increasingly different. An example is people skills - there's a perception that these skills are innate, solving problems, working as a team, human skills that are not really taught anywhere but that are becoming more and more important to the production process. The command model of production is being replaced by cooperative collaborations. Unless our education system accepts and embraces this, it won't be fulfilling its function.
This chapter is based on a discussion involving Peter Lewis, Opposition finance spokesman Lindsay Tanner and Social Change Online director Sean Kidney
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Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005