Open Thinkering


Tag: LinkedIn

Coworking spaces should be run by cooperatives

This afternoon, as a result of being tagged in a LinkedIn thread, I ended up spending a couple of hours at an event local to me about rural coworking. There were some interesting people there, but only two of us who weren’t from organisations in some way affiliated with the project.

I am aware that I’m getting ever-deeper into the world of co-operatives, but I couldn’t for the life of me understand why the default position wasn’t that coworking spaces should be run by cooperatives?

The assumption seemed to be that to be financially viable, coworking spaces had to have a for-profit organisation behind them. While they talked about the importance of community and how crucial it is for the success of the enterprise, until I mentioned it the thought that maybe that community could own the coworking space didn’t seem to come up.

It was a pleasant enough way to spend an afternoon, even if it did take me away from paid client work. However, I couldn’t help but leave with a slightly bitter taste in my mouth when I discovered in the last five minutes of the meeting that their project funding runs out in a couple of months. I hope I’m wrong, but it doesn’t seem like there’s going to be much in the way of tangible outputs.

Perhaps it was because I’d just finished helping facilitate a session for the newly-formed member learning group but I couldn’t help but think that co-ops would approach this differently. Sadly, when I did a quick search for cooperatively owned and run coworking spaces I couldn’t seem to find any other than Space4 in the UK.

So this is a reminder to myself to investigate further, and a call for anyone reading this to prove me wrong. I hope there’s a flourishing scene out there, along with a guidebook on how to get started for those interested!

Image: output from the session (have a guess who was the basis for this persona!) 😉

Wake me up when you’ve stopped talking about microcredentials for workforce development

What's a badge really worth?
 What’s a badge really worth? by Visual Thinkery is licenced under CC-BY-ND

Note: this post had a previous title: Keeping alive the dream of an open, democratic, web-native way of giving and receiving recognition

This is a response to Justin Mason’s excellent provocation / blog post “Thinking Out Loud” About Why Static, Online, Competency-Based Microcredential Courses Are Boring. I want to use this post to get a bit more radical than Justin as I don’t have to include a disclaimer about my employer’s opinions 😉

Justin makes four points in his post:

  1. Higher education’s primary value isn’t in curating and disseminating instructional content.
  2. Static, competency-based microcredentials in higher education probably won’t solve the “skills gap.”
  3. “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.”
  4. Competency-based micro-credentials focus on workforce development to the exclusion of liberal arts education

Despite having four qualifications from universities, I don’t actually care that much about the continuation of Higher Education in its current form. It’s also been more than a decade since I’ve been employed by a formal education institution. So I want to highlight a point that Justin makes which reminds me that all but the most prestigious universities are about to be eaten alive:

In theory, we could develop practical microcredentials for all the contexts. But who has the resources to do that? You know who has the resources to at least try? LinkedIn, and huge companies like it. For example, you know who has a vast collection of LinkedIn Learning courses and is now promoting skills assessments to compliment them, and is awarding badges? You know who’s partnering with large higher education systems and other companies to develop microcredentials around LinkedIn Learning? Yup. If you’re developing short, online, static, competency-based courses + microcredentials with the idea that you’ll create a large collection of them, ask yourself if your institution has the resources to build microcredential collections that will compete with LinkedIn Learning’s microcredentials in scope and quality. And then allow yourself to have a good cry.

Dividing up existing courses into bite-size pieces will hasten the demise of Higher Education institutions, especially if they partner with organisations such as LinkedIn. Using a third-party provider to give students access to courses that make them more employable is all well and good, but at some point they will cut out the middleman. Why pay tens of thousands to go to university to get a series of microcredentials you can get from the same provider for less (or while working)?

Universities will realise too late that what they’re selling are experiences and signals. What they’ve got the opportunity to move into is recognition of the unique nature of each learner. So instead of making ever smaller generic credentials, they’ve got the chance to provide bespoke recognition.

I really believe that the next step higher education takes toward making itself more accessible, inclusive, and equitable is through the recognition of life-wide learning. I wager that microcredentials, or something very much like them*, will probably be a big part of how recognition of life-wide learning works. But if microcredentials are understood to be 100% about workforce development, then I worry they’ll contribute to the workforce-ification of public higher education, and that’s something I don’t want to see happen. I wish, oh how I wish, that faculty and administrators who advocate for higher education’s public mission would stop simply identifying microcredentials with workforce development. Instead, I would ask them to consider how microcredentials could be one available tool that helps us extend the reach of public higher education to previously unserved people, as well as extend the lens of liberal arts learning to encompass lifelong and life-wide learning! Seriously, our rapidly changing world needs that lens!

People need income to live, which usually means that they need to work. Most work, but not all work, comes in the shape of ‘a job’ which entails an employer. This does not mean that we need to tailor our whole education system to please employers. As Justin mentions, the ‘skills gap’ is a convenient fiction peddled by large organisations who do not want to spend money on training and development. It’s only recently, after all, that graduates were expected to be immediately ‘work ready’ for employers.

But even if we did want to please employers, the way that Higher Education seems to be approaching microcredentialing seems to be backwards. Instead of creating generic content that then needs to be applied to an area, the world of work requires extremely contextual and domain-dependent recognition of knowledge, skills, and understanding.

[K]nowledge and skills tend to be embedded in contexts. People (okay… mostly my relatives) bemoan higher education for being too abstract. Learning should be practical, they say. What my relatives don’t realize is that an amount of “abstractness” is necessary if you’re developing curricula intended for any and all contexts and learners. Take, for example, an introductory microcredential on project management. The trouble is that project management in the construction industry looks significantly different from project management in the health care industry or software development industry. Even within a given industry, project management will differ from one organization to the next. So microcredential designers must consider tradeoffs. They can either build a “practical” microcredential curriculum that is 80% useful to 5% of their potential learner-consumers, or they can build an “abstract” curriculum that is 40% useful to 80% of their potential learner-consumers (those percentages are made up examples).

A microcredential itself is not ‘content’ but rather a signal of having learned or mastered something. While a university might want to control the value of the different kinds of credentials it offers, it’s not quite as simple as that. As the illustration at the top of this post shows, there are many facets to take into account. What Higher Education institutions need to bear in mind that, as part of this great unbundling, there is no actual requirement that they are the ones who issue valuable forms of recognition.

The work that I’m involved with at the moment (alongside Justin!) through Keep Badges Weird and the OSN Open Recognition working group involves thinking about what happens when a Community of Practice takes the place of an institution. I think we could see the return of guilds run as a form of co-operative trade union which would recognise and legitimate workers within a given domain. They could push back against the overbearing power of employers. I think it would be massively preferable to the situation in which we find ourselves right now.

Most of the questions that badges have raised over the last 12 years have been ‘trojan horse’ in nature. What do we mean by ‘quality assurance’? How can we do assessment at scale? What’s the minimum viable qualification? In fact, when I was on the original Mozilla Open Badges team, the main opposition to badges came from exactly those kinds of universities that are now jumping on the ‘static, online, competency-based’ microcredential bandwagon. I suspect they’re, either consciously or unconsciously, looking for ways to embrace, extend, and extinguish an open standard to try and firm up their position within the ecosystem.

Perhaps I’m getting older, but I see a lot of issues that on the surface look like they’re about skills and credentialing that are actually deeper and more structural. There are assumptions about power relations baked into every conversation I have had over more than a decade in this area. At some point we’re going to need to have some real talk about that as well. My view, unsurprisingly, is that we need more democracy and autonomy in the workplace, and that this starts with this being practised within our education systems.

For now, though, I’d encourage those who see the world through the lens of microcredentials to read some work that my colleagues and I have done in this area over the last few years. I’d suggest reading these three posts, focused particularly on Open Recognition in the workplace:

Once you’ve done that, come and introduce yourself to the KBW Community, start earning some badges for recognition, and see if we can keep alive the revolutionary dream of an open, democratic, web-native way of giving and receiving recognition!

The more powerful the class, the more it claims not to exist

There are many views that one can have of the world. Some of these are entirely original; some are niche. Some form the default, unquestioned operating system that forms the bedrock of our collective understanding.

One way of thinking about views we hold individually and collectively is what W.V. Quine described as as a ‘web of beliefs’ That is to say, we hold some beliefs as more central to who we are and how we understand the world. That your spouse loves you, for example, would for most people be a more central belief than believing that Tirana is the capital of Albania. We have some beliefs that we hold lightly, and some that we would do battle over.

One’s repertoire of beliefs changes in nearly every waking moment. The merest chirp of a bird or chug of a passing motor, when recognized as such, adds a belief to our fluctuating store. These are trivial beliefs, quickly acquired and as quickly dropped, crowded out, forgotten. Other beliefs endure: the belief that Hannibal crossed the Alps, the belief that Neptune is a planet. Some of one’s beliefs are at length surrendered not through just being crowded out and forgotten, but through being found to conflict with other beliefs, new ones perhaps, whose credentials seem superior.

(W.V. Quine)

Some beliefs are handed down to us by parents or guardians. Some are in the air and form part of the milieu of a society at particular times in their history. There are some things that everyone does, and therefore we believe that it is the right thing for us to do as well. Sometimes we do not challenge these beliefs because to do so would set us up for conflict.

Choosing to eat differently to other people, for example by not eating meat, is an example of this. Refusing to recognise the monarchy as a legitimate institution is another example. Preferring to use Free Software tools rather than corporate apps, yet another.

But there are some practices that are seen as uncontroversial, encoded as ‘common sense’, as harmless, and are unthinkingly replicated without question. The problem is that, if we scratch the surface, some of these practices do not perhaps support the beliefs we think they do.

As long as a belief whose causes are undetected is not challenged by other persons, and engenders no conflict that would prompt us to wonder about it ourselves, we are apt to go on holding it without thought of evidence. This practice is often reasonable, time being limited. But it remains important to keep in mind that cause is commonly quite another thing than evidence. One obvious test of evidence is this: would it still be taken to support the belief if we stripped away all motives for wanting the belief to be true?

(W.V. Quine)

Let’s say that you’re told that being on LinkedIn is an important thing to do for your career. There appears to be evidence to suggest that this is the case. It’s certainly a ‘professional network’ compared to other social networks around. People are talking about work-related things. It seems ‘Serious’ (with a capital ‘S’).

However, I don’t think having a LinkedIn account does what people think it does. I don’t get particularly useful information from there, the ‘opportunities’ I’ve had could just have easily have come via email, and the endless stream of people LARPing their bullshit jobs for ersatz, meaningless awards is cringe-inducing. So yes, in an extreme case of burying the lede, I have deactivated my LinkedIn account.

What I find particularly insidious is the version of capitalism LinkedIn presents. It’s the face of a seemingly-benign way of structuring the world which venerates (to appropriate Feuerbach) the sign rather than the thing signified, the copy over the original, representation over reality, and appearance over essence. What matters is the performance rather than the work. Just like other algorithm-fuelled networks, this self-replicating pattern then spawns what Guy Debord called ‘the spectacle’, capturing everyone’s attention only for its own purposes.

So, while there’s a lot more I could say on this topic, having titled this post using a quotation from Debord, I’ll end with another from him:

The spectacle erases the dividing line between self and world, in that the self- under siege by the presence/absence of the world, is eventually overwhelmed; it likewise erases the dividing line between true and false, repressing all directly lived truth beneath the real presence of the falsehood maintained by the organization of appearances. The individual, though condemned to the passive acceptance of an alien everyday reality, is thus driven into a form of madness in which, by resorting to magical devices, he entertains the illusion that he is reacting to this fate.

(Guy Debord)