Sunday, March 29, 2015

Does ICT need a Martin Luther?

Editing some online articles recently I read a report from the Australian Institute of Family Studies which found that older Australians were not the only ones to have difficulty in coming to terms with the information and communication technology (ICT) revolution.

The report found that one in 10 of the under 35s it surveyed also felt they were being left behind by fast-moving advances in the sector.

Commenting on the findings, the Institute’s Assistant Director (Research), Ruth Weston said the volume of information had increased almost beyond comprehension.

“If even these comparatively young Australians feel left behind, that makes the future seem daunting,” Ms Weston said.

Co-author of the paper, Lixia Qu said the increasing reliance on ICT developments to deliver services could make it harder for people of all ages, particularly if it signals the end or near-end of face-to-face services.

The very next story I found, dealing with IT governance, rather proved the Institute’s point. It contained the following paragraph.

In recognition of the important role Australia plays in the new International Standard for IT governance, Standards Australia runs the secretariat of Sub-Committee 40 of the Joint Technical Committee (JTC 1) of ISO and IEC, JTC1/SC 40 IT Service Management and IT Governance, which was responsible for producing the publication.”

This gobbledegook is obviously quite intelligible to those who work in the field, but I would suggest a large proportion of the population would find it meaningless.

We are fast developing a technological elite to whom the saying, attributed to 13th century theologian Thomas Aquinas, could be applied: “For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.” 

Indeed the growing jargon being produced by ICT professionals is beginning to sound as incomprehensible as the Latin Mass in cathedrals and churches would have sounded to the largely illiterate congregations of Aquinas’ day.

Like those congregations, who would have learnt a few words and phrases parrot-fashion and would know when to say “amen”, those uninitiated in the inner circles of ICT pick up a few terms and processes essential for their day-to-day lives, while leaving more complicated matters to be interpreted by the high priests from the Help Desk.

What we are seeing is definitely not the original promise of ICT to make lives universally easier. The Institute of Family Studies report has found that even some of those who would have been familiar with earlier computers and laptops feel overwhelmed by the pace of developments since.

So what hope for my generation who know Bluetooth better as the Old Norse King of Denmark than anything to do with wireless technology?

Obviously there is no going back, but my fear is that the headlong rush to ever-new concepts (already the Cloud is sooo last decade) is going to produce a substantial proportion of the population frustrated and angry at its inability to comprehend fast-changing and increasingly more complicated technology.

Perhaps ICT needs a Martin Luther to bring things back to basics.





Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Why traditional universities matter

I recently took part in an online debate about the future of tertiary education. I found myself overwhelmed by the enthusiasts who believed that online processes, led by Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs, would largely replace traditional study at real-world universities in the not-too-distant future.

Speakers queued up to eulogise the many advantages of  studying digitally: It could progress at the student’s pace, not the lecturer’s; work could be done in the comfort of home (or indeed anywhere) when  the student felt like it; they were not shackled to rigid timetables or forced to expend money on transport; it was generally easier and cheaper.

Research was produced to show employers were beginning to recognise the value of online degrees as being equal if not superior to those gained at a traditional university and that the increasing popularity of MOOCs meant that students could have access the world-class lectures rather than having to rely on the quality of the institution they were attending.

One contributor even predicted that by mid-century there would no more than 10 bricks-and-mortar universities left on the planet.

This being an online debate I suppose I should have expected a heavy bias towards online activity, and in fact I agreed with much that was said. MOOCs are and will continue to be of tremendous value to mid-career professionals seeking additional qualifications; to parents looking after children at home and to those whose circumstances meant they missed out or disregarded tertiary study earlier in life and who are trying to catch up.

Yet for those who are able to attend university at the ‘normal’ time of their lives — immediately or shortly after they complete their secondary education — choosing the online path to qualifications will mean they are missing something precious.

Universities are, and always have been, more than just places of learning, more than a pathway to a qualification. My argument goes to the heart of what an education means.

For me and my contemporaries, lectures never ended in the lecture theatre. Often debates continued in someone’s quarters, well into the early hours, usually with the lecturer taking part and occasionally with the contribution of a distinguished guest lecturer — politician, business person, entrepreneur.

On one of these occasions among my fellow students was a future Anglican Bishop, a Member of Parliament, and an individual who spent his career reporting on conflict around the globe

I simply cannot see the cut and thrust; the bouncing of arguments around the room; the interjections, serious, comic and asinine, replicated in online chat rooms regardless of the broadband speed.

Mixing with so many new people from around the country and overseas is a deeply enriching experience, helping to shape opinions and challenge prejudices. These are the days when characters are formed and lifelong friendships cemented.

Several of the friendships I made were with people outside my course of study which I met in pubs or in the various clubs and societies I joined. I know of one individual who changed the direction of his study based on the influence and personality of a fellow student. Years later he confessed he was so grateful for being convinced to change course away from a career he now knew would never have suited him.

This, I believe is what education is all about, and why I passionately hope that online learning and MOOCs are a complement, not a replacement, for the formal university experience.



Monday, March 2, 2015

Back to the future on public ownership

In a recent interview, the United Kingdom’s Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Michael Dugher sent shockwaves through the political establishment when he said New Labour was dead, and that the country’s main Opposition Party was returning to its socialist origins.
"This is not like 1997 [when New Labour under Tony Blair won government], that whole deference to markets and the private sector, that’s gone," Dugher said.
If Labour wins the election, scheduled for May — and many observers believe it will — Dugher says he will be pushing for a partial re-nationalisation of the country’s rail system.
He said he was not talking about going back to the days of British Rail which was fully nationalised from the 1940s to 1980s.
“But I think we’ve got to make the starting point that privatisation was a mess, it was botched,” Dugher said.
“The fact remains that privatisation was a disaster for the railways.”
Stagecoach, the privately-run national transport group, also came under attack with Dugher describing the company’s executives as “boneheads” for opposing Labour’s plan to further regulate the bus network.
In taking this stand Labour has latched on to a growing anti-privatisation movement in the United Kingdom and parts of Europe.
Writing on the pro-public ownership website We Own It, Professor of Urban and Regional Political Economy, Andrew Cumbers said that while public ownership remains anathema to the centre-right in Britain, it finds itself increasingly out of step with the times.
“Public ownership is back on the public policy agenda in much of the rest of the world as the failures of three decades of privatisation become increasingly apparent,” Professor Cumbers writes.
“In Germany and France, but also in large swathes of Africa, Latin America and even the United States, new forms of public ownership at local, regional and national levels are being introduced that take whole sectors back into democratic control.”
He does not advocate a return to the monolithic State enterprises set up in Britain during the immediate post-war years, but “as the failings of privatisation and market deregulation policies create more inequalities and tensions in society, we need to develop new arguments and forms of public ownership to shape the progressive politics of the 21st century”.
He suggests a role for municipal authorities and local cooperatives in public ownership and points to Denmark where one in seven of the population has shares in wind-farm projects.
It now appears that the Conservative-LibDem Coalition Government led by David Cameron may be listening. It recently decided that the State, through Her Majesty’s Prison Service, would run the new ‘super prison’ currently under construction in North Wales.
This follows a report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons into the 1600-inmate facility at Oakwood in Staffordshire, run by security contractor G4S where, the Inspector said “it was easier to get drugs than soap”.
In Australia the debate is still in its infancy, but a wave of privatisation by conservative governments at both State and Federal level is coming under increased scrutiny, while the Opposition Labor Party brought off a stunning victory in the Queensland election largely based on a campaign to stop plans to privatise the State’s ports and power network.
For too long there has been general acceptance of the conservative mantra that the private sector is always the best manager.  As Professor Cumbers says: “We should be open to the possibilities that new and diverse forms of public ownership offer to create a more equal and democratic economy and society”.