I’ve had a stressful year, and working two jobs for my employer and fighting Brexit at the same time has taken away a lot of me-time I would have otherwise spent undoubtedly productively. So, during this year-end break, I took the time to reflect on some of the main lessons I’ve learnt in the last year or so. It’s not a complete list, and I’d really like to read what others have learnt.
Power distance is so last century
I grew up in an academic tradition that put the teacher on a pedestal and the learner as a recipient of their knowledge (though not necessarily wisdom). I had to learn what a ‘student experience’ is when I joined my first UK university, as we didn’t have a word for it back in Germany. But I don’t think this is a learner/teacher relationship issue – it’s one of power distance: universities are deeply hierarchical and siloed organisations, often led by a very old school ‘strong man’ (unbelievably, I heard that term used in a positive context just last week) who focuses on ‘being decisive’ rather than collaborative. How could we expect the way we educate not to be influenced by the way we are led?
I have learnt that to keep universities relevant, we have to be all about collaboration and co-creation, democratising the creative process along the way.
The kids are alright
This is not a new lesson – I’ve learnt it over and over in the last few years. Counter to the media hysteria over allegedly self-absorbed snowflakes, I have been continuously impressed by what young people are capable of. Amid the onslaught of information overload, rampant consumerism, political self-immolation, and the commodification of social relationships,
I have seen so many examples of young people (students and non-students) observe the circus we in charge have created and making reasonable judgements in how to manoeuvre in this world we’re handing over to them.
I have learnt that young people make judgements not on only the basis of economics and status, but increasingly on social values – something my generation seems to have missed out on. I can’t wait for them to take over.
If it’s not online, it doesn’t exist
There is no such a thing as a digital native – the online world is often a hostile and undiscovered country which needs to be explored individually with guidance and caution. From virtual learning environments to handling relationships via social media, political positioning in an era of disinformation, to becoming a savvy and ethical consumer – no one innately has digital literacy. It needs to be acquired – and it is vital that schools and universities help learners with this important part of socialisation. The world they will inherit will be even more mind-bogglingly complex and technical, and it’s our job to help them prepare themselves.
This year I have learnt that you can’t teach digital literacy if you don’t develop it yourself.
We are all content creators now
About two years ago, a careers advisor colleague said the great line ‘we all have to be content creators now’. We were discussing how we had to change to stay relevant and interesting to our clients, and the topic of online engagement came up. And he was right – let’s face it, a location-based service with times and services set by staff rather than client need is as 20th century as power distance led leadership. If numbers at your events dwindle it is possibly because what you’re offering is not relevant or accessible enough for your audience to schlepp themselves to. One way to address this is by making sure we offer multiple modes of delivery. At my work, we’re playing with revamping workshops as social media content recording sessions with an optional audience, rather than tearing our hair out over the perceived lack of interest. Status or assumed value of speaker (especially when faced with a manel that doesn’t reflect the audience of often hyper-diverse students) is not enough. Sure – get a star in and they will deliver, but what’s the sustainable value coming from them?
This year, I have learnt that content is the primary driver for engagement for a client focused service.
Losing #FreedomOfMovement will cost us
Freedom of movement is a basic right and an unalloyed public good under threat from Brexit. Academia thrives in open environments that encourage exchanges of thought, ideas, and values. I have watched the tightening of student visa rules and its negative effect on the sector, by making it harder for non-EU international students – and I have seen the allegedly so desired ‘best and the brightest’ having to pack their bags and not contribute to the global Britain that is supposed to emerge. Brexit widens this way of thinking to EU students and academic cooperation. Nothing ever widens by constricting its source – and society does not grow by sending those who seek to engage with and learn from it.
This year I have learnt that Brexit and anti-intellectualism are a toxic combination which will cost us all in the long-term. Forget free trade of goods and services, as in the long-term, they are dwarfed by the exchange of ideas and values.
These are some of the key lessons I’ve learnt this year. What are yours?
Since last week, I am a British passport holder. After a long time and spending a lot of money, I now hold this valuable travel document. It’s an EU edition, thank you very much – if you don’t have one, I suggest you get one while they’re still available. I am now a dual citizen, that class of people who are by identitarians often suspiciously regarded as somehow disloyal. Indeed, how can you hold more than one national identity and be loyal to both? Or was that more than one thought maybe?
‘Membership has its privileges’
The answer is simple really: my European identity contains both my German and British identities nicely. In fact, now that I think about it, as idiotic as Brexit is a venture (don’t believe me – believe one of David Davis’ Spads, who has now broken ranks), it has helped me define myself more clearly: I am (and will always remain) an EU citizen. I am a German Anglophile by birth and upbringing, respectively. I am a proudly pro-European British citizen now. With all of those come privileges, responsibilities, and rights.
It was the assault on my rights as an EU citizen that brought me to the decision to end the continuous uncertainty I had been subjected to – against all leave campaign promises regarding our status, which turned out to be porkies of an especially cynical kind, affecting Brits abroad and EU citizens (both mostly deprived of a vote) here alike. Now that I am a Brit, and hold the membership credentials that entails, I reflect back on the journey through the valley of insecurity this took.
Are you applying while European?
One of the biggest insecurities that affect EU citizens in the UK now is the spectre of discrimination. EU online support forums are full of fearful stories of unfairly priced motor insurance quotes and mortgage offers being withdrawn. Some are misunderstandings due to heightened sensitivity, but some turn out to be true. The ones that really stuck with me are the ones I pick within my professional area.
I have had reports of internships, contracts and work offers being retracted due to the EU citizenship of the candidates – normally around funding or just lack of clarity what will happen next. Nothing in writing of course – but enough to make my Spidey senses tingle.
But this is against current law, non?
Let’s imagine you’re applying while European. A central question asked as part of every recruitment process is a version of ‘do you have the right to work in the UK?’. At the moment, sure, an EU citizen does have this right. But that is – thanks to HMGov – now that’s conditional until a final agreement has been reached.
An EU citizen has the right now, but the legal status after March 2019 remains stubbornly unclear. Does that mean you can only sign a contract until the date of Brexit in March 2019? With all the best will in the world, even with a permanent residency card in hand, no EU citizen can currently honestly make that claim beyond March 2019. I recognise it is highly likely that it will be clear at some point, but is it a right and can it be guaranteed by the individual at the time of application? No one knows – and what will a nervous hiring manager do with your application now, just in case they need to go through additional hoops after Brexit or pay a migrants skills charge?
‘Please apply again’
‘Nothing will change for you’, was the Brexiter’s standard answer to my concerns – but everything has changed. My advice is of course for EU applicants (and all others) to fill in their anti-discrimination forms (adding the option ‘EU citizen’ has become a bit of batch of pride among activists), so that the actual effect of this becomes clear at least retrospectively.
Now I know that non-EU citizens have been subjected to this type of gauntlet for years of anti-immigration rhetoric. But two wrongs don’t make a right, and just as I bemoaned the withdrawal of post study work visas for international students, which helped the UK attract and retain non-EU talent (and brought in shedloads of money), I bemoan this further erosion of the UK as a country ‘open for business’ (not to even mention ‘open to ideas’).
Looking back at achieving citizenship and passport, my European identity, and my sense of history imbued by my German upbringing with parents who remembered WW2, I spend every day hoping for a better turn of events, for myself, my EU immigrant cat (pet passport and all), those I love – and those I don’t. Brexit is kobayashi maru, the unwinnable scenario – no amount of optimism is going to change its doomed course. My speck of hope is that I now have a vote – and I hope that many others with permanent residency will come to the conclusion that they should get one too.
Should I e.g. be subjected by redundancy in the future (higher education is one the industries most affected by Brexit), I now can claim that I have the permanent right work in the UK, 2019 and beyond. But as many qualified EU workers in the UK (and their international employers) now recognise, they do not have the obligation to stay. International mobility is an asset, especially when paired with the transferable workplace skills and the languages to facilitate a smooth transition. Maybe some of us may end being able to have our cake and eat it after all.
I would like to know if you have experienced the issues I’m writing about – or can give me assurances that I’m overly worried. Have you experienced or heard of any EU citizens struggling with this? Share in the comments and let’s talk about it.
I did something I normally don’t do – watch an inspirational video. I was looking for inspiration for this week’s topic – global citizenship – and I found one of the best definitions I heard for a term that often sounds hollow. But this one stuck – it’s from Hugh Evans’ TED talk ‘What does it mean to be a citizen of the world?’:
‘A global citzen is someone who identifies first and foremost not as a member of a state, a tribe or a nation, but as a member of the human race, and someon who is prepared to act on that belief to tackle our world’s greatest challenges.’
I know, I run a careers service, which isn’t exactly the most glamorous or heroic of occupations – but then my job is to help people realise their potential, at least in work terms; and sometimes a little bit more. Well, my job is to sit in meetings to run a service that does the cool stuff, helping people. Now I’m nowhere as cool as Hugh, or any of the examples he holds up – but not everyone can be a hero. Even the Avengers need back office staff, and everyone who works with me knows that I run an effective office.
I am also lucky to work for a university that has global citizenship written into its organisational values, with numerous alumni actually working to improve the world in some form or another. So I get to work in education (which is good for people) and help with building people work on global career outlooks (which is good for people as well). What’s not to like?
Even better, I got one of those global careers myself – I learnt four languages (and I’m not counting Latin, because, well Latin), and I’ve lived, studied, worked in three countries, and thanks to freedom of movement in the EU I can work and live in what I always thought was the best city in the world. So I guess, I’m one of those global citizens as well.
Or am I a citizen of nowhere?
But it seems we’re living in a world where we’re being told by some people that living like this is not so cool at all. Not the trying to help make the world a better place – no, everyone thinks that’s just peachy – or at least they say so. Well, actually some have a really warped view on that, if you look at the debates regarding helping refugees – let’s take Germany’s example – a fairly toxic term has been used by those opposing helping refugees or others (no excuses, that’s what they want); Gutmenschen. Literally, it means ‘good humans/people’ – and it’s being used as a derogatory term. As if wanting to do good was some form of naive phase which people should grow out of.
Sounds silly? This is not confined to my home country. All over, we have people popping up trying to tell us what we thought were good values, are actually bad things. Nope – I’m not talking about Trump (I think this is a whole different league and something altogether more sinister) – but here in the UK, we have a prime minister who believes ‘a global citizen is a citizen of nowhere’. Now to be fair, I think the effect she was looking for was to look tough facing that elusive global elite who rob ‘normal people’ of their economic chances (and fund political parties) – but in the anti-immigration ‘British people first’ fest that was the conservative party conference, it came over as if she was talking about people like me – and maybe you. Highly educated? Travelled to work somewhere else, especially the UK? Dare to use the social system in which you pay in? Yep, that’s me, and probably you.
So we come to the Brexit rant
They are promoting a Brexit whose values are diametrically opposed to those of global citizenship. The message is to think of ‘your own’ first before you think of others. To counter this clearly: the only way forward is together, any step away from togetherness in achieving our goals is a step backward. See – I told you I’d bring Brexit into this somehow.
In the TED talk this becomes clearest is the part Hugh talks about parochialism (from 13min onward) – and Brexiteerism is exactly that; the ‘looking after our own first’ mentality. This is so hilariously outdated in a modern interconnected world. That is why I think Brexit will ultimately fail in its aim to win back control – because the more you try to control seismic shifts (like the immigration you badly need to keep your economy and health system running), the longer you wait to deal with their consequences – or you become complicit in making them worse. A global citizen looks beyond that and sees the changes they can make. I will continue to do so, even if the country of my choice is currently hurtling into the opposite direction. Opposing Brexit – not for reasons of having a better ‘deal’ for the UK, but because it’s the ethically better choice – makes me a committed Remoaner, and a citizen of nowhere.
You take it, you own it!
Owning what you are being called is important. In the fictionalised words of Mark Ashton in the excellent movie Pride – whatever term throw they throw at you (and however abusive or derogatory) – ‘you take, you own it’. So, even if our prime minister tells me that it’s not good to want to be a global citizen – I want to be a global citizen. What do you want to be?
Shortly before the colossal act of self-harm inflicted by a narrow majority of voters in June 2016’s advisory Brexit referendum, I wrote an angry plea with readers of my blog not to ruin my life by voting to leave the European Union. Well, the voters on that day spoke and the country remained split into a small majority in favour of Brexit. The rest is – as they say, history in the making, but with the multiple possible outcomes – all of which look like worse deals than EU membership to me – delightfully uncertain.
What does this mean for me? I don’t know how many parts this series will have, but I’m sure there will be years of fun to come. Let’s start somewhere – with costs: the most direct impact so far has been on my finances. One positive, one negative – but both demonstrating how damaging Brexit will be for people like me (the small number of probably around 3m people), once it really gets going.
The pound is down
Positives first – the pound went down, my German bank account – in lovely, stable Euros – became instantly worth more to me. While I was originally planning to move what I had inherited after my father’s death (he thankfully did not have to see what happened before his death) into the UK, will now stay where it is – in a low-growth, but relatively stable and safe environment. Even better – whenever I transfer money over to the UK, I get more pounds for it. Thanks, Brexiters, I’m involuntarily benefiting from the exchange rate mess created by your choices. As an old leftie, this makes me feel a bit dirty, but I guess this is a case of force majeure.
Legal costs are up
The second impact is that I continue to fork out money to solve problems created by Brexit for me: I am not a UK citizen – before the decision to plan to renege on forty years of trust and friendship enshrined in contracts and agreements, I didn’t need to be – now I have to secure my existence here. Like many other EU citizens in the UK, I am not keen on waiting for our Brexit-spooked government (did I mention that the referendum wasn’t legally binding?) decides what to do with us. EU citizens are for the time being protected by EU law, but we’re depending on whatever deal the UK and EU will work out over the time of the Article 50 negotiations. Just imagine that you’ll get a letter telling you that your legal status in your country of residence (where you had a legal right to stay indefinitely) will now be reviewed. ‘Nothing will change for you’, Brexiters told me to my face. Looks like they were wrong.
Well, hundreds of thousands of us are now deciding to exercise our treaty rights and secure permanent residency (PR) in order to secure our existence here. PR is now a requirement for naturalisation – so I can’t become a dual citizen (which Germany frowns upon outside of EU member states – can you see a future issue coming up?) until I’ve jumped through a legal hoop not created for EU citizens. It’s a blunt legal instrument and as a matter of fact, many fail – those who for example don’t qualify because they didn’t have five years of income statements, due to raising their partner’s children, or giving unpaid social care for a dying relative (not knowing that they needed to self-insure their health). Incidentally, just this week two cases have become public where long-term EU citizens were hilariously told to leave.
Simples, I’m told – you will get that for sure. I’ve got a permanent job, so I provided five years of bank statements (yep, for every month), pay slips and a complete record of every day I spent outside the UK (yep, also five years). And I did what I had never done before – I hired a lawyer, who took all those documents and who handles my application now – so I don’t run into the same problems in the examples above. So far, my bills (including English language and citizenship test – for later) amount to c.£1.3k. Yes, I could have tried this on my own – for a lot less money, but not all of us are great legal minds – and over a third of applications are currently being rejected. I’m naturally uncertainty avoidant – and I’m still keen to help the UK economy; as my lawyer said, the legal permanent residency business is booming now. Finally, an economic sector doing well out of Brexit.
The bottom line
The legal and administrative costs dwarf of course the benefit I’ve gained from the plunging of the pound – but with all the talk of leaving the single market, a ‘hard’ or probably better called ‘bone-headed’ Brexit may offset that over time. I’m an optimist after all. So far, dear reader, the majority decision to leave the European Union has – although it actually hasn’t happened yet – has cost me money.
Yes, it’s been a while again since I’ve blogged. 2016 has been a tough year: my father died and that meant many trips to Germany and sorting out his affairs. My brothers and I live in three different EU countries and this all required a significant amount of travelling and focus. I have also spent significant time to campaign for the Remain campaign to keep the UK in the EU.
I’m coming out of the woodwork shortly before the referendum to make my personal case to anyone who is undecided, or even leaning towards Brexit. Let me start with the frustratingly necessary disclaimer: the EU is not perfect and requires constantly vigilant citizens who keep it to account. You are directly represented by your elected MEP – it’s their job to do so, even if they’re a Kipper. It’s also your government’s job to do so. They can (yes, even in the EU), they just chose the path of least resistance most of the time when they didn’t get the most exemptions amongst all other EU countries.
I am not going to make the rational argument here. There have been enough numbers and facts – you can choose to engage with them or ignore them. I am going to appeal to your humanity, by saying this: Please don’t destroy my life by voting for Brexit.
Here goes the explanation: my family’s love for the UK was based on the beautiful time we spent here in the mid-seventies when my father (thanks to an EC science exchange) moved all of us to London for a year. Thirty years after a war for which generations of Germans felt (rightly) guilty, we were warmly welcomed and it made all of us not only anglophiles but also convinced Europeans, as this life-changing opportunity came from the then EC.
As the EC turned into the EU and with free movement emerging, my brothers and I built lives and careers all over Europe. I’ve never seen my dad more proud of me than the day I could tell him and my mother that I had found a job in London. It was badly paid and fairly junior, but they treated like I had won the lottery. And this is how I felt, as over the next decade, I built a career helping your young people into work, being on the board of your charities, paying taxes, never stealing any of your benefits, and generally helping build the UK’s future. That is until about two years ago when the fairly toxic migration rhetoric started to include EU migrants. That’s when things changed for me.
You are hurting my career by voting Leave
I am an economic migrant – I came here when the German economy offered me no prospects, just your like your builders came to Germany when Thatcher reordered your society and economy in the eighties. It is the declared aim of the Leave campaign to bring EU migration under strict control, just like migration from the rest of the world. This means I will be affected. Most probably I’ll get some indefinite leave to remain, or a work permit, given that the UK doesn’t want hundreds of thousands of British pensioners making their way back into UK housing, social care and the NHS. But by doing this, you are downgrading me in comparison to UK citizens when applying for jobs, as I will lose what is now my legal right. Selection by background is rife in UK recruitment – I see this, as this is after all my area of work – and just ever so softly, I will slide into the ‘EU applicants’ pile. Once a category has been created, it will be used, and normally not for good.
But I am affected more directly: my current employer’s business depends a bit more than a third on EU students. The UK has already been sliding down in the international competition within higher education, and EU students already go where they can study UK-style degrees at just the same standards (thanks to the Bologna process), and that more cheaply. Brexit will affect our business as this third of our business will be subjected to at least two years of uncertainty while things are being sorted out. So, if all goes really badly for my university, Brexit might cost me my job. Not to think of upholding pension reciprocity in decades to come, especially should I feel it will be better to leave country due to not feeling welcome anymore. This is not Project Fear – this is fear of things that threaten me at this very moment in time.
When you can’t win them over, join them
In my desperation not to be threatened by this, I am now applying for UK citizenship – to increase my security against punitive future policies against EU migrants. The threat of Brexit is right now turning c.3 million EU citizens’ lives on their head (and the countless UK citizens who love them), right now. This is not happening in an undecided post-Brexit world – actions taken in favour of Brexit are causing this upheaval at this very moment in my life, and those of others like me.
The worst thing you can do to someone who has always played by the rules is to change the rules halfway through the game – this is (hopeful) the middle of my life, and I have loved the UK for 40 years. My whole professional life has been built on the relationships built here. Brexit questions all of that.
‘But nothing will change for you’
Those are the weasel words I have heard every time I have spoken with a Brexiter whom I have told my story. They are weasel words because they are not backed up by anything – how do you know that nothing bad is happening to me? Aren’t you voting to halt EU migration? And also – have you not listened that I have told you that the threat of Brexit already has impacted my life negatively?
I can only presume that you are trying to make me feel better, because you empathise with me – or because you feel uncomfortable with me explaining your responsibility to you in something bad that is happening to me. I have yet to meet anyone to look me in the eye and say leaving the EU is worth the risk of impacting badly on my life. I would respect that, and expect it from someone truly honestly believing in their cause. But that honesty hasn’t been afforded to me by anyone who’s been telling me their voting leave – except that one older guy who already had cast his vote, and then said he wished he could change it after hearing my story. It may be a lost vote, but it did touch me.
I will be with you in that voting booth
So when you’re standing in that voting booth, remember me and those millions of others like me, who have helped and contributed over the decades. Remember if you vote to leave you will help turn my life upside down even more. You will endanger my employment; you will endanger my prospects of finding a new job should I need to; you will heap insecurity over my life and those that I love; you will make my work of helping young people into employment harder; you will make me question 40 years of loving the UK by telling me that I, as an EU immigrant, I am not wanted.
Follow your heart when voting, but I can only beg you to please not destroy my life in the process.
I wrote this blog post last Thursday morning and was hoping to publish it later that day. Due to the heinous murder of Jo Cox MP pretty much all campaigning that I’ve been involved in ground to a halt for a few days (except for the local UKIP campaigners who just soldiered on). My original post was driven by a lot of anger, which has now been hopefully transformed into a more solemn mood, while not having this tragedy impact my writing too much. I feel profound a sadness these days, although I have not given up hope. I still urge everyone to vote to remain – we’re better together than apart.
Some time ago, my team went through an exercise in self-reflection – or as those things often go, we tried, did some of it and then got distracted by doing the ‘real job’. One of the ideas we were pursuing was to understand everyone’s relationship with their jobs.
We agreed on a format, where we would answer a number of simple questions, such as ‘What do I do?’, ‘What does it mean to me?’, and ‘Where do I want to take this?’. The aim was that we would tell each other in one of our weekly start the week meetings.
It never actually happened as planned, but I’ve got a little memento – as I wasn’t going to be there on the day, I recorded a short video message. Upon reflection, I actually like it quite a bit – it’s some form of mini-manifesto on how I think I do my job. Have a look, and see if it resonates with you.
So why was I close to giving this qualification up? My first motivation for the qualification was to ‘unstick’ my career. I saw that securing knowledge (especially in the ‘dark arts’ of quality assurance) would help me break the ‘careers/placements guy’ label that I have acquired over the years. For this, I thought, I needed some UK qualification letters behind my name. People in higher education love letters behind their names – I have worked with colleagues who almost needed a second line on their business cards. I did find out that this could be more trouble than it is worth: seeking professional development, signing up for what is essentially an academic qualification was probably the wrong step.And it shows so far in my performance: the more I try to conform
And it shows so far in my performance: the more I try to conform with the requirements of ‘level seven-ness’ (yes, someone actually used that term at a residential — for those who don’t live in the world of academic jargon, the terms is supposed to denote master’s level thinking), the less I achieve. That does remind me a bit of school, if I’m honest – and I really didn’t like school. I wrote three assignments, the first one rightly criticised for a lack of critical thinking but passing; the second one failing on this criterion – so I secured myself some extra tutoring and especially focused on that very point – only to fail the third assignment, for mostly the same reason (which was quite frustrating). Also, I was told, I showed a lack of knowledge in the subject area – which is again a fair criticism, as I focused so much on ‘how’ to answer than ‘what’ to answer.
In essence – I am struggling to fulfil what the course wants me to do, and the more I try to conform, the more uninterested I am becoming – and the less I perform. That’s not a good dynamic – and it does indeed remind me of every structured learning experience I’ve joined in before – did I mention I didn’t like school? I succeeded in university because I ditched the prescribed pathway and self-taught myself the required knowledge – I guess this would count as self-directed study, but it also shows that I’m not necessarily built for being a good (in the sense of compliant) student.
About the usefulness of the course to my career as a manager – let’s be clear: decision making in complex organisations often requires very little critical thinking in the academic sense. It’s not the better argument that wins, it’s the politically more savvy one that does. Currently, it feels like investing into repairing my struggling academic performance wouldn’t be worth it – and that’s why I almost pulled out. I already have a higher qualification than this, and the value I can gain from that perspective is limited – it was worth finding out, but not worth putting ever more effort into, to conform to a standard that is professionally only of limited relevance. I have learnt a lot from this experience so far, but may soon reach the limits of what I would want to get out of it, any more effort might become be a waste of time. I discussed this with the programme manager, and have to say that that was a very constructive discussion. I have decided to continue, as the repair job should be manageable, and I can progress to what might the more interesting part (no essays, but personal development planning and a portfolio). So for the time being, I’m sticking with it.
In the meantime, my career has developed rather nicely without the PGCert – I am now an elected staff trustee on the board of my university. Here I see, and help with decisions that affect a multi-million pound organisation. I gain insight into institutional strategy, management and politics, as well as gain knowledge in areas other than my own. I feel that spending time on this makes more sense than trying to conform with academic learning outcomes so that I get better grades – which is what the PGCert currently feels like. Maybe I will be able to change my perspective, as my journey as a student further develops.
Which leads me to the next point: The third thing that I wanted to experience on the programme was ‘the student experience’ in the post-1992 UK degree system. Now that, I do, and it is a mixed one: being a fairly self-motivated worker, putting in the required time is not a big problem. But whenever I interact with the programme itself, I feel frustrated: the virtual learning environment is usable, but dated (to be fair, they are addressing this). I still succeeded so far in studying pretty much on electronic devices, using no paper – but the use of technology is behind the standards set by other online learning experiences I’ve engaged with. A MOOC would probably have serve me better in that regard. The two presence days were problematic though – getting online at the chosen venue was a struggle every time which is really bad when you are working in the cloud as I do. When organising the annual PlaceNet conference, we secure free online access for all delegates in advance. Teaching materials (paper, and lots of it), and presentation styles tend to be quite old school – true, this represents working practises in higher education, but I don’t need to pursue a degree in order to learn that. To be fair, I am not a friend of outcomes based learning approaches since I think they lead towards performance trending towards the lowest common denominator – which was palpable when questions and instructions at the days moved towards how to get the best grades. This, I clearly disconnected from, given that my grades got worse the longer I’ve been working on this.
So, what have I learnt? A lot, in fact. From a work perspective, I have learnt about how higher education administration thinks about itself, and how it affects organisations so far. I am getting my student experience – a frustrating one – not uncommon for any struggling student. I can’t blame the course – it’s me who’s not performing to the required standards – but I am more aware of its limitations and usefulness to my career. So, as mid-term reports go, this is mine. Let’s see if the second half will be more – or any for that matter – fun.
My ears always prick up when I read something about the usefulness of language learning. In short, I believe it to be something good, without any reservations. And I am dismayed by how language learning falls by the wayside in UK education, against all warnings about it from multiple sources.
Just this morning I read two pieces, which I thought were worth sharing. The first one is about Skype as a translation software, and how this (and other services) may shape language teaching. Having been told 20 years ago when I learnt Japanese, that software would take over soon, I was right not to hold my breath. However, I am pretty sure that this argument will come back, and may become more convincing in the next decade or two, as computing power will become strong enough to facilitate two-language conversations at appropriate speed or accuracy. The article goes on to point out that this may help focus student motivation for language learning. Have a look here: Now Skype can translate for us, what’s the point in learning a language?
The second article looks at the language learner, more specifically the bilingual – which I kinda count myself as, due to being thrown into an English primary school as a five-year-old German who spoke no English. My parents thought that ‘the boy must learn to survive outside’ our then UK home – anyone reading this blog will have heard that sob story before. But back to the article: it points out to the effect on cognitive abilities in bilinguals, which they go into from a neurological perspective. Here it is: Keeping actively bilingual makes our brains more efficient at relaying information
When you follow this blog, you know that I am quite active in pushing the agenda for ‘young people,’ as they venture out into the world of work, and I often push the importance of digital literacy as a basic skill. This post is about older people though – my parents to be exact. Before getting on to my soapbox on how everyone needs to be able to use digital technology to function in this evermore digital work, I have point out that while the need for those two age groups may be similar, their interaction with technology will not be the same.
My dad vs. Facebook
When giving talks or seminars, I often tell the story when I asked my dad to become friends on Facebook. It got me into hot water, to say the least, and following an irate 20 minute phone call at a bus stop in south London, we’ve since been having a debate about this topic (i.e. for the last three years). The arguments against the usage of social media are plentiful (i.e. Facebook and Google being evil mostly), and mine (that the world is working this way now) are acknowledged, but ultimately countered with ‘I choose not to engage’. In that, they indeed have the advantage that they probably won’t need to engage with social media – as opposed to younger people who do need them almost to prove to an employer that they exist, or in some twisted sense, authentic. However, they are dependent on some online services, and will become increasingly so as they age – and the world changes around them. To be clear, my dad is no technophobe – he has worked on programmable ‘calculators’ since before I was born – and still does – but his approach is certainly very selective, in a sense that it is somehow ‘stationary’: The web is being used for email communication and finding information. From a piece of hardware. On the desk. In the study (even though it’s a laptop and there is WiFi). Engagement with e-commerce, flight bookings, and other forms of account management are outsourced to the younger generation (normally me).
However, in dragging them into this brave new world, I have chosen my battles well, and have pushed them to use first a tablet, and now smartphones. With the tablet I gave them two years ago, it was astonishing: my mother, who never has in her live used a keyboard, took to it much quicker than my father, who had used computers when they still contained tubes. It was interesting to experience in practice see what ‘intuitive’ really means in user interface design. She has now opened forms of independent dialogue with me that used to go through ‘the computer’ in the house – in my dad’s study. On another flo … you get the drift. The smartphones introduced the idea of the internet being available outside the home (even on another floor!), and them being reachable during their many travels.
There are a number of considerations behind this: being able to be contacted – and to reach out – when on the move becomes much more important when mobility impairments become the norm. There is also the aspect of being able to know where they are, and being able to support, or organise support wherever they are. This goes especially for the time when there will only be one left. Our and their mortality is a fact of life that has been on the forefront of my thinking ever since last year, I could reach one of my oldest friends just in time before he died – in no small measure thanks to mobile internet technology.
What have I learnt?
This is not easy to answer, as the learning is still going on: watching my parents calling each other and playing with the smartphones at the dining table at home is as entertaining as it is touching. It is also a phase of orientation and learning for them. In my view, in this post-modern world, digital technology and the mobile internet are life-lines, at least in a metaphorical sense. My parents will never become avid Facebook users, but we are able to connect to them, and they can use some of the technologies to reach out and stay in touch. And that is exciting.
The article is about the dearth of digital skills, and it is worrying if indeed parents try to discourage their offspring from developing a skill set that is swiftly becoming almost as important as reading and writing. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you will know my views on this. But there is a wider issue – nothing I’ve learnt recently, as I’ve known this for a long time: parental, or let’s say informal, careers advice is often more damaging than beneficial: in an employment market that is changing as rapidly (both through governmental policy and technological disruption) as it is, chances are that those who have risen into positions of responsibility (even as recently as the last 10 years) will have a significant disconnect to what would bring them there today.
That goes for advice on ‘safe’ sectors to work in (I’m looking e.g. at law and its bottleneck with regards to training contracts), expectations on pay and benefits, and on strategies on how to secure often illusive entry level employment. There is, in my humble opinion, a certain level of social selection – and benefits those who make their way into ‘research focused’ universities. This is often read as ‘better’ universities, benefitting the 15 or so percent of graduates to make it into ‘top’ (meaning large and well known) employers. However, 85% of graduates do not benefit from this – and that’s where all the work lies for struggling careers services. This doesn’t mean that it’s time to tell everyone to learn coding or study IT – IT graduates struggle to find entry level employment quite a bit.
It’s been a well documented catastrophe for schools based careers advice, entrenching informal advice (or none whatsoever) even further. There is some evidence that employer engagement both on school and further/higher education level helps – but there is still a need to interpret what they offer, and mum and dad’s advice just does not make the cut, as it’s most likely outdated by, let’s say 15 to 20 years.
And that brings in digital skills again: I remember reading in 2002 about how 60% of the jobs in 2010 hadn’t even been invented yet. Well, they have been now, and it’s an entirely different playing field. At work, I see that by the type of employment opportunities flowing in post financial crisis. In short: ‘banks down, digital up.’
In the end an appeal to parents, aunts and uncles, friends of the family et al.: your typical teenager is developing a skill set that will help them succeed in their pursuit of entry level employment. You can glimpse it by how well they explain your new iPad to you at Christmas, at how much time they spend instant messaging on their smart phones, and how adept they are at circumventing any online filters you may have installed on your home network (if you have the understanding to do so). Many of this you will find annoying (maybe not the iPad thing) – but it’s what will make them successful. Accept that you will always feel like you’re struggling to catch up – because you are (hell, so am I).
Don’t burden them with 20th century expectations – while your advice on many things is required (just think about helping them develop meaningful, intimate relationships), chances are that your job searching advice is not needed, and may be damaging. If you can, get them into work experience early on (but let them find it themselves), let them earn (and lose) money – and if you can, encourage them to take a sandwich placement course (because that’s proven to be extremely beneficial). Don’t dismiss what careers advice is left in schools – and don’t undermine the work advisors do in colleges and universities: chances are that their advice will always be better than yours.
Now relax and try to remember how that thing on the iPad worked again…