Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The return of the autodidact

Autodidact - a self-taught person. Australian Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley  was an example, another was steel magnate Andrew Carnegie
The second half of the nineteenth century and first part of the twentieth has sometimes been called the age of the autodidact or self-taught man.

Educational opportunities were more limited, while our obsession with credentials still lay in the future.Outside certain of the professions or the church which required a basic degree, most training was craft based. The period was one of scientific advance, great curiosity and a belief in human advancement. There was a great thirst for knowledge:  Many read widely and took part in self-improvement activities through bodies such as mechanics institutes.

Both my grandfathers were autodidacts. Both left school at an early age. Both became actively involved in politics, if on different sides. Both were religious. One became a Primitive Methodist Home Missionary. Even in that church, you required a university degree to become a full minister. The second became a long standing Minister for Education in NSW and wrote quite extensively on historical, political and educational topics.

The rise of formal education and the increasing requirement for formal credentials over the second half of the twentieth century effectively stamped the breed out.  The dominance of formal ever cascading credentials introduced increasing increasing rigidities into every aspect of life. It meant that people had less time for thought, less time for reflection. less time for free choice in what to study, were reduced in what they could do without the obligatory ticks. Autodidacts still existed, but were marginalised, forced to the periphery..

There was a time in the 1980s when I believed that the rise of competency based approaches with their stated emphasis on the capacity to do regardless of how that capacity was acquired might free the system up, break the hold of the credentialers, encourage the return of the autodidact. By 1992 I knew that that was not going to happen as the professions, the officials and the education system asserted control over what had to be learned, how it was to be learned, how it was to be measured.  .

I had thought that the internet might break the cycle by giving people access to a broader range of knowledge, greater freedom. At first, things seemed promising.

The acronym MOOC for massive open online course was coined in 2008. MOOCs are online courses aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web. They are generally provided for free, although fees may apply if you wish to get a formal tick for the course. By 2010,  MOOCs were seen as the wave of the future, something that would open further study to all of their own choice and at their own pace. By 2012 universities and other providers were rushing to role-out MOOCs.

August 2012. University of New England (UNE) Sydney alumni challenge then VC Jim Barber on his vision for the University's future. 
In August 2012 I attended a UNE alumni dinner. There I heard VC Jim Barber  start by talking about the university as a business, about the on-line revolution, about the need to deliver a low cost product. UNE, he seemed to be saying, had to survive by delivering a mass, cheap, on-line product.

There was not a single word in the first five minutes of business/CEO speak that explained to me why I or other alumni should continue to support UNE. Under persistent attack, Jim refined his position, setting out a broader view, but it was an example of the effects of managerial speak and of the obsession with new technology seen in terms of delivery platforms by existing institutions.

By 2016 MOOCs were past their peak. Jim Barber had resigned in 2014, replaced by Annabel Duncan. In 2016 as I completed the latest on-line work  place health and safety obligatory course I realised that I had become jaundiced here too. Don't get me wrong, I think workplace safety is important, but so much of this stuff is really teaching people to comply with the rules. Internet based systems have become the weapon of choice in delivering stuff within the bounds set by existing rules and approaches.

I began blogging in March 2006. By 2008, I saw blogging as a key platform for learning, for open conversation, for discourse outside the academy. Google blog search became a key search tool. It was, if you like, a good platform for the autodidact!

Facebook was founded in 2004 and then began to expand from 2006. Twitter was established in 2006. By 2009, many bloggers had migrated to these new platforms, replacing analysis with short form repeats and comments. The echo chamber had been born.

Apart from missing their previous contributions, I found much of the new material boring and repetitive. I already knew their views and really didn't take well to constant re-tweets limited to stuff that I knew that they supported. There was another problem, for I found myself experimenting with the platforms themselves. So if I wrote a post, I would then FB it and tweet it as well, adding to the time involved. I also found myself pulled by a key question: to what degree should I become involved with the new platforms that kept emerging? How many new platforms could or should I add? How did I balance all this?

By 2018 I found myself weary. I was trying to do my own original writing. I was trying to use my various platforms to educate and discuss, but I seemed to be getting no where. Or, at least, not making much progress. Then I realised that I was missing the point.

Outside the bounds of the increasingly complex education and training system with its multiple layers of credentials, outside the still increasing requirements for mandated ticks, a quiet revolution has been underway.

We have, in fact, seen the return of the autodidact. I am proud to be one in the sense that I pursue my curiosity, seek to learn and to share. Here we have more opportunities open to us than at any time in human history. I am not talking about "self-directed learning" with its connotations that one is studying for a career purpose, but the seeking of education, knowledge and understanding for our own purposes including sheer curiosity.

I am sure that this will not come as a surprise to you. It's just that my own sense of weariness has stood in the way, has blinded me to the scale of the revolution of which I am a small part. I talk about myself as a public historian, I have tried to articulate my role there, but I'm not sure that I have really come to grips with what that means. Part of the problem is that I am still too locked into formal structures, into requirements mandated by others.

In history, for example, for every person studying or teaching history at school or university, there are probably 50 interested for their own purposes.The number could be far higher. I haven't worked out how to calculate it properly. More broadly, I haven't worked out a framework to help me analyse the ever-growing informal sector.

The existing education and training sector itself is starting to crumble under its own weight. You can only mandate so many qualifications, impose so many costs, extend study time horizons so far, before people stop playing, start looking for alternatives.

I think that this is already happening, in part because of the constant repetition about multiple careers, about the need for flexible education, about the need for constant re-education.. Why commit to a long course of study to get a particular ticket for career purposes when faced with a constant shortening half-life for that course of study? Surely better to do the absolute minimum now and then top up as required?

Again, I haven't thought this through properly. I think that it has quite profound implications for the structure of education. In some limited areas such as medical specialties where you have rigid mandated requirements, significant income advantages and a continuing expectation of life-long careers the status quo may survive. Elsewhere I think that the first part of a revolution may be well underway.  


2 tanners said...

Interesting, Jim. You and I have formal qualifications and informal. I value the latter more. It's what used to be called 'experience' before that somehow became a dirty word. I found towards the end of my career that only formal quals were considered (or had become prerequisites) and recruitment was being handled by people with poor formal and informal skills. How does a 25 year old HR person assess a position where the ideal candidate had to be undertaking university studies before said HR person was even born?

I'm not sure I qualify as an autodidact, but "there's a lot they don't teach ya in college, son".

Jim Belshaw said...

I so struggle with the current obsession with quals. When I did my first degree all those years ago, I didn't do it to get a "qualification" but to get a degree. I did honours because I wanted to. It was a little different with economics where I did a masters qualifying and then masters (I couldn't go straight to a masters because I did not have hons in economics) because there I was thinking that I might upgrade my economics. I also got a full pay scholarship for my masters which seemed like and was fun.

I value both degrees because they did give me useful content but they also taught me to think. I also did a lot of things - not earning money, I didn't have too - outside the formal courses including work on the student newspaper and lots and lost of discussion and argument. So lots of informal learning as well.

In terms of "training" as such, I was lucky enough to do the full year Public Service Board administrative training program on entry which combined courses with practical including rotations. That was an incredibly valuable course.

Outside my degrees and that program, none of my formal training has been of especial longer term value. By contrast, the combination of on-the job experience with my own reading has been very important in areas such as financial. economic and legal analysis. So when I realised, for example, that I was losing out because I wasn't in a macro economic area, I mounted a campaign to upgrade my macro and indeed gave presentations to students on macro-trends. TBC

Jim Belshaw said...

A bit over ten years ago I was involved in a long-running on-line debate on formal vs informal learning in a work environment. The general view among the trainers involved was that much formal training was wasted. that on the job learning (experience plus reflection on that experience)contributed well over 90% of skills acquisition. That fitted with my own views and experiences as a manager where I consciously tried to structure and manage work to enhance both knowledge and skills.

I may be jaundiced, but I think that changing working structures as well as pressures on managers has reduced the scope for informal learning in a work environment. We have tried to replace this with formalisation and standardisation. I also think that both formal education and standardised training tends to discourage curiosity and free thought. This is based on working both in senior roles and then much later in contract and project roles at much lower levels, looking up and across.

2 tanners said...

I have a feeling that Pauline Hanson, Derryn Hinch and others presently in the Parliament may be autodidacts. Unfortunately that is not a compliment. At the same time, it makes them no worse than many with formal educations who choose to then ignore what their education clearly tells them.

Since you wrote this on a Tuesday and it is now Friday, by a simple calculus that turns it into the Monday forum. I tried to opt out of the MyHealth system today. After several attempts (MyHealth crashed several times), I finally got through the screens only to be told that I already had a record (on whose authority??) and would have to cancel instead of opting out. Could I do this through MyHealth? Haha, what a jolly jest. No, go and find your My.Gov access, log in through that, link your medical to My.Gov and then we might let you cancel it. Or ring this number. Does it look suspiciously like the Centrelink number whose mean waiting time is 45 minutes, not including those who gave up and hung up? Don't ask.

Jim Belshaw said...

Sorry for the delay in responding 2t. Being an autodidact is nor necessarily a good thing.

I think the idea of on-line health information is a good thing. But having other agencies able to access it is not. I tried to opt out on-line but failed the identification test and was told I have to ring up! I have no idea whether I have a an account already.