Stop fighting progress; address the unintended consequences

Surely we’ve learnt from history that it is utterly futile to resist advances in technology? Once something has been invented, it can’t be “un-invented”. Luddites haven’t historically delivered many long-term successes; they haven’t typically been a good investment.

Advances in technology often create new problems – sometimes unintended consequences; other times very much intended. Ultimately, it is the consequences which have to be addressed, rather than the technology itself. It therefore seems odd to me that so much energy is being expended in fighting the adoption of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) – which have been in the news again recently following the publication of an Open Letter to Professor Michael Sandel from the Philosophy Department at San Jose State University.Borsig_steam_locomotive

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A big day for students

Today is the day when hundreds of thousands of A-level students get their exam results. All across the country they are variously terrified, shocked, delighted, surprised, thrilled, incredulous and disappointed. For some it is simply another milestone reached exactly as expected, on their journey into a career. For others it is certainly a milestone… but perhaps “turning point” would be a more accurate description.

For many students, today marks the end of their dream. Failure to achieve the required exam results means that they cannot progress to their chosen university. It might mean re-sitting exams next year; it might mean going to a different university to read something completely different; it might mean a complete change of tack, and not going to university at all. In most of these instances, students will regard today as a setback, and for some they will feel it is the end of the world, a dream completely shattered. It may indeed be a major setback, but humans are remarkably resilient. Setbacks become opportunities, which become new dreams and new challenges. Over time, expectations change as those new dreams take shape and come to life. What once seemed like the end of the world will soon be just a turning point.

It is easy for wise heads to look back and see many turning points in their own lives – times  at which something significant happened. Maybe a birth, death or marriage; or a job change or sudden opportunity overseas. As we become older and more experienced, we see how these instances present “timeouts” – opportunities to reflect and react. Younger people don’t have that experience, and are not as capable at handling timeouts. After all, apart from deciding which subjects to study, students generally don’t have to make many “really big” decisions before they leave school. They might not agree that today’s results merely mark a turning point, and they will need a great deal of support from friends and family. The quality of that support is likely to be just as important to them as everything they’ve done for themselves until now. It is likely to be a key part of their short-term recovery and longer-term transition to a new dream.

The press will quote pass-rate statistics throughout the days and weeks which follow, explaining how it is all much easier today than it was twenty years ago. Whether they are right or wrong, it is all completely irrelevant to those students. The lucky ones don’t care – their dream continues; the unlucky ones don’t care – they need a new dream. And support.

It’s a bit like carrying an organ donor card

Stats from the NHS suggest that whilst more than 94% of us would expect to benefit from a donor organ should the need arise, only 29% of us carry an organ donor card.  Similarly, only 4% of the UK population give blood – a staggeringly low proportion given the personal “cost”.

When unleaded fuel was first introduced to the UK in the late 1980’s, the takeup was very slow.  This was partly owing to the engine-tuning changes which were needed, but even when new cars were compatible with unleaded, the takeup remained stubbornly slow.  It was only when unleaded became significantly cheaper than the alternative, that it began to change, and unleaded sales overtook leaded and diesel.  Drivers could directly feel the benefit for themselves, immediately.

We all understood then, that it was a good idea to switch to unleaded, just like we all understand now, that it’s a good idea to carry a donor card.  So what are we waiting for?  It seems we need to feel the effects of the gain personally before believing it, and deciding how to behave.  The debate in the UK over whether or not we should have an opt-out system (rather than the current opt-in) will no doubt continue whilst we consider civil liberties, rights, information security and such.  But I’m fairly sure that if you told someone who was suddenly critically in need of a donor organ, that they could only receive the organ if they themselves held a donor card, they would sign up instantly.  In this case it’s easy to feel the gain personally, and the resultant behaviour is easy to predict.

Is this why we have so few placements available for students?  Employers aren’t actually feeling any real pain, so they don’t do anything about it?  Can we make it more painful for them unless they create places?  Or, better, is there something we could do which makes them feel the benefits as soon as they create places?  Doing something might be more effective than waiting and hoping for the best.

Gosh, it must be so hard for those at the NHS who encourage us to donate blood or organs – they must encounter so much apathy!  I feel for them.

Footnote – as a result of this, my immediate personal action is to register with both services.  Doesn’t take much thinking about really, does it?

Unlocking Britain’s potential

A fascinating report has been published at www.unlockingbritainspotential.co.uk

Two quotes jump right off the page – “We are failing our youth and creating a lost workforce“, and “Education is failing employers and employees“.

And a few key statistics:

67% of employers think there needs to be a collaborative effort between government, employers, parents, individuals and the education system to ensure that those entering the workforce have the skills required by potential employers.

50% of respondents (46% of employees; 53% of employers) say that university does not equip graduates with the right skills for the workplace.

Employers rate future potential on attitude (91%); work experience (55%); education/ qualification (35%).

This report was an initiative from the Adecco Group, partnered with Deloitte and Cisco.  It is a brilliant read, with a number of key recommendations.  The only real worry is that it’s going to take time, money, lots of effort, joined-up thinking, and some serious collaboration to resolve.  That usually only happens when there is clear leadership.  In the report, there is a call to government to take action – will the resultant action be positive, or will there be an “official response”, acknowledging that something needs to be done but disagreeing with much of it?  Some of the actions proposed:

There needs ot be structured collaboration between employers, education, government and other stakeholders to better define what we need from the education sector, and how we measure it.

Employers need to be more engaged in education, and in particular not restricted to major employers.

Teachers need to be given wider support and training, in understanding the needs of employers and workplace norms.

Work experience in schools needs to be formalised.

It’s absolutely brilliant to find such a major study with such clear findings.  The recommended actions are clear.  Let’s see what happens next.