Beyond vocationalism: reflections on general education and technology

As we learn to live through the pandemic, during which work and professions have been transformed through the use of information technology, the question of what effect technology will have on post-pandemic jobs has been raised again and again. Books that explore AI and humanity have come thick and fast; how we educate a new generation of workers has received a lot of attention too. There is much speculation whether this time, it will be different - and if there is anything to be found in our past experience with technological change. 

I work in the faultline of this change and the object of my work has been to enable workers take advantage of technology. In a way, this is the less attractive end of education: This is not about groundbreaking research or completely novel ideas, but rather equipping the middling workers with skills to take advantage of technologies. I shall claim that this no less crucial in economic growth and progress - as without the skilled workers, the benefits of technology can't be realised - and for social benefit, as only through skilled workers, economic rewards of technological transformation can be democratised. 

However, reflecting back on my journey of thirty years, which more or less encompassed the entire history of the WorldWide Web (I graduated just as TBL worked out HTML in 1990), I see that the educational challenge we face now is different from that of the 1990s. The creative excitement of early Internet, possibility of connections and conversations with random people united by tech-savvy kept me awake many a night then. And, it was all becoming very real and the promises of possibility were very believable: Globalisation and internet transformed the meaning and object of education and brought technology training, which is what I did, to the forefront. In many ways, WWW made Internet a general purpose technology and people with diverse interests and skills joined a certain type of technologists in a common quest. There was a whiff of revolution, however ephemeral, even in the first books delivered by Amazon, and in the pages of short-lived Red Herring.

The normalisation 

In 2003, Nicholas Carr wrote an article in Harvard Business Review "IT doesn't matter"(see here). Its basic premise was simple: That Information Technology will become infrastructure and will cease to be a source of competitive advantage. 

In the aftermath of one of the biggest non-events in technology history, the Y2K moment, this was an understandable sentiment. Also, it was just about then, dot-com failed to transform the world as promised. The roaring 90s was well and truly over. Instead, history was creeping back from the dead and the US military was heading to Iraq. The biggest strategic possibility in the horizon was not IT anymore, but China: It was already waking up - though the rest of the world would only notice it as manhole covers started disappearing in Western cities in 2004.

Something in education changed around the time, perhaps less visibly: This was the starting point of a massive expansion in Higher Education in the developing world. Colleges sprung up every day and millions of new seats were added. Most of this new capacity was generally in STEM and particularly in IT. The commoditisation of IT and creation of this whole new industry of IT-Enabled Services (which sprung up, in no small measure, taking advantage of the abandoned communication infrastructure built for dot-com) meant a deep 'vocationalisation' of higher education, first in the countries like India, which were net beneficiaries of the shift, and then everywhere. 

I shall argue that even the technical education changed at that point. Not only more basic 'IT literacy' programmes crowded out the aspirational aspects of our curricula, but also programming stepped down from the elegant C to the more formulaic Visual Basic. There was conformity everywhere and job roles more predictable. Google was building what early dot-coms could not: A model that marry the culture of free of the Internet with the stock market expectations. The skills that one needed were writ large on the wall, dreams were concrete and achievable. 

Humanities - all that fetish of scepticism and real meaning of stuff - seemed completely out of step with a revolution which has been normalised. Confidence and clarity, rather than critical consciousness, ruled the moment in education. The world did not need changing - everything was going as well as anything could! The return on standardised education was far too lucretive to allow for any experimentation on the margin.

The new technological moment

The pandemic will be remembered for many different reasons and I expect one of these will be for unleashing a new technological moment. The Great Recession of 2008 already stress-tested the models of globalisation, creating the space for anti-globalisation politics on a global scale. That research in AI, after decades of incremental progress, got its breakthroughs on a steady clip, but the possibility of it becoming a General Purpose Technology became real only very recently. It may still be a few significant breakthroughs away, including some in materials and in the very nascent area of quantum computing, but the pandemic forced the ideas into mainstream. With these developments, IT is strategic again and creative possibilities abound. It followed the route of electricity, just as Nicholas Carr predicted, but pandemic had the effect of swift electrification, moving the agenda forward by a few decades in a space of months.

This should change the educational agenda again. The new generation of 'IT professionals' are not likely to be similar to those who came before them. The technology landscape they face is more like that of the 1980s or 1990s - many new technologies at a very nascent stage and of undefined possibility - than that of 2000s, when the environment stabilised. Good general education and the habits of the mind it creates will be of far greater value than vocationalism. These ideas are not novel - the conversation in education is already centering around liberal education. But, all too often, these conversations are about moral imperative and social requirements. My argument is that this is an inescapable requirement, defined by the the stage of development of technology itself.

Looking forward rather than backward 

This distinction is important as it's easy to imagine that the liberal education that we need now is the same old liberal education invented in the industrial age. Defined solely in terms of moral imperative and social harmony, we would see no reason to experiment with its model. This is why it may be important for us to think in terms of the lifecycles of technology, which may highlight a different requirement.

All too often, I meet humanities scholars, bitter with resentment of the mass abandonment of humanistic discipline, who resist economic justifications, equating it with creeping vocationalism in the new garb. But short of a resurrected new Athens, students go to universities with a purpose in mind, often an economic one. I see a strong case for reviving general education (and humanities will always form a core of that education) in the current technological turn. True, I do think that the curriculum has to be reimagined and what we do in the classrooms would be different, but this is perhaps the greatest opportunity to reverse the narrow vocationalism of the last two decades. This technological moment is an opportunity, and not a problem, for finding meaning through education.


 

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