Towards a resilient curriculum for HE

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 8 December 2009


In his recent blog posting on Oil and the story of energy, Joss Winn highlighted the work of David Mackay and his Five Energy Plans for Britain. Joss argued that two factors will squeeze our society as we manage the transition from oil to other energy sources, in any peak oil scenario.

  1. How long it will take to replace our current oil-based global energy infrastructure with something we think is a viable alternative. Joss quoted Robert Hirsch, who in 2005 stated “The peaking of world oil production presents the U.S. and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem.” Hirsch highlighted price volatility linked to unprecedented economic, social, and political costs, with “Viable mitigation options” needing to be implemented “more than a decade in advance of peaking.” Do we have the will for this?
  2. The net energy that can be extracted from other sources of energy, such as nuclear, solar and wind both as a direct replacement to “keep the home fires burning”, and as a composite used in the manufacture of plastics, fertiliser, medicines, rubber, asphalt and other useful products. As a replacement for oil in products other than fuel, nuclear, wind, solar, etc. are not viable. Can we contemplate this as we frame ourselves around the consumption of more systems, services and technologies?

Disruptions to economic norms, to the climate and our carbon-related consumption and energy security provide a counter-point to the determinism of always-on energy and technology use. So we have a scenario where falling energy supplies exacerbates issues around energy security, availability and cost, but also where availability of oil for manufacturing goods that support services and lifestyles upon which we have based our cultures may not be viable. One impact may be on the availability, use and supply of non-essentials like new technology, especially where hoarding or use only for essential activities becomes the norm.

How soon these issues will impact is a moot point. Whether a peak oil, energy-scarce model, or a techno-determinist, economic-growth position, or a scenario that lies somewhere in between, comes to pass, the lives that we live in 2030 seem likely to be framed by uncertainty. So how does this square with the curriculum in HE and the idea of the University? Can a focus on resilience help?

Towards a resilient curriculum? Determinism and technology

In Searching for a Miracle, Richard Heinberg notes “Over the long run, static or falling energy supplies must be reflected in economic stasis or contraction”. This is critical in thinking about the development of a resilient curriculum in HE. At present the dominant HE ideology is neo-liberal and driven by consumerist models. There have been Ideas of the University proposed that are more socially and culturally constructed, and which focus upon the University as spaces where reflexivity and enlightenment are valued. However, their ability to gain traction in a competitive educational market that is focused less on social enterprise and more on market economics is problematic.

This then impacts on the development of curricula that enable a learner to manage disruption and uncertainty like a transition to a post-peak oil scenario. At present, innovations in curriculum design and delivery are technology-driven and assume that the dominant discourse of energy availability and increased energy use will continue. Other major curriculum development strategies, like employer engagement and workforce development, and widening participation, are also focused on employability and the economy, and upon developing the individual’s economic value. This is echoed in the value attributed to technology-enhanced learning, or on-line learning/training, in the Government’s policy and is amplified through the current HEFCE online learning taskforce.

This deterministic, positivist, progressive approach demands that energy use is not only maintained but increased, if only in order to pay off the UK’s huge national debt. Not increasing energy use, even if we are expected to make significant cuts in carbon emissions, is not an option in economic recovery. However, in the peak oil scenario painted by Joss, it is difficult to see how this focus on always-on energy can remain unchallenged in the medium-term.

The value of “always-on” technology then frames the provision of services, which are increasingly outsourced. As Keri Facer has noted, developmental technological processes have catalysed core functions or services being outsourced away from the individual and towards machines or data-processors. A classic example is the use of SatNavs rather than maps, and the use of search engines for pretty much everything. This is not to say that, for example, the Geographical Information Systems implemented within HE leave GIS students de-skilled, but there may be a reliance or even dependence upon specific forms of technology and on using those technologies for specific tasks. Any dependence on always-on services within our curricula and within life more generally is a risk.

This dependency on tools and services underpinned by oil is possibly the most concerning in any peak oil scenario. A focus upon energy efficiency and intelligent technology moves us away from scenario-planning around the development of a meaningful curriculum for resilience. For instance, the latest JISC Strategy is economically-framed and paints a scenario where energy security and availability, and the increased manufacture of technologies are not at issue:

“The UK is at risk of losing its world-leading reputation for education, unless it continues to invest in digital technologies to meet the ever-changing needs of modern learners, researchers and the academic community… The strategy outlines a vision of the future whereby a robust technological infrastructure is required to meet the shifting needs of the 21st century education community. JISC believes it is crucial that the UKs education system continues to compete on the international stage by investing in innovation, research and increasing the availability of online resources.”

A key statement in this Strategy is “the ever-changing needs of modern learners”. This relentless, restless, dynamic picture is not energy-neutral, it implies constant curriculum re-definition and re-design, and the availability of renewed, always-on technologies. My concern in a world of uncertainties like peak oil is whether we are doing enough to prepare learners for the fact that this may not always be the case, and that they may need to master different tools and skills.

The case of Illich: tools for conviviality

In developing mastery, the Russian thinker Ivan Illich questioned the extent to which institutions, curricula and technologies (de-)humanise. In Tools for Conviviality he prioritised the use of tools for “autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment”. In part this catalyses social learning through the development of learning webs. In part it focuses upon the place and role of the individual in her/his communities. Illich’s view of autonomy and creativity framed a counterpoint to a dominant consumerist paradigm, in which individual relationships are mediated though consumption, and towards a focus upon shared resources and skills and more community-driven interdependence.

This focus upon the use of tools to redefine our approaches to socio-cultural, and economic, engagement, enables meaningful personalisation and a diversification of skills. Illich argued that “A pluralism of limited tools and of convivial commonweals would of necessity encourage a diversity of life styles.” This view of diversity and commonweals or communities defining needs and using shared skills is interesting in light of the types of literacies flagged in the Learning Literacies for the Digital Age project. The project final report (p.3) highlighted the urgency of supporting a differentiation of identities and engagements in multiple spaces:

“there is a tension between recognising an ‘entitlement’ to basic digital literacy, and recognising technology practice as diverse and constitutive of personal identity, including identity in different peer, subject and workplace communities, and individual styles of participation.”

Illich saw this as critical and believed that a “convivial society should be designed to allow all its members the most autonomous action by means of tools least controlled by others”, in order to overcome regimentation, dependence, exploitation, and impotence. He saw tools as mediating relationships, and as emancipatory where mastery of them in a specific context could be achieved. The LLiDA project report contextualises this for the digital age (p. 7): “Literacies emerge through authentic, well-designed tasks in meaningful contexts”. So the nature of the curriculum and the learner’s engagement with it is key in developing their resilience. The types of literacies involved/developed/modelled involve foundational skills, cultural awareness, communicative practices, practice-based action, self-transformation and self-awareness. In this, authenticity and participation shine through (p. 9). So what might this mean for a curriculum for resilience in HE?

A curriculum for resilience in HE

In an earlier post on the issue of resilience in HE, I wrote that

“The more we wed people to technology and the perception that efficient technology will save us from a future of energy scarcity the less we focus upon the radical pedagogical changes that are needed.”

There is a complex interplay between the theoretical opportunities of social media for personal emancipation through engagement in contexts for narrative and authorship, and our understanding of how those tools are deployed and owned in reality (See the issues raised in the special social media issue of JCAL from January 2009 on social media). One key issue is how technologies are (re)claimed by users and communities within specific contexts and curricula, in-line with personal integration and enquiry, and in an uncertain world.

It is perhaps this focus upon uncertainty that should drive the creation of a resilient curriculum. Barnett argues, in a Will to Learn, for the learner’s engagement with uncertainty and anxiety, and he re-frames this around spaces for an individual’s will to develop, and in which they can be and become in a meaningful way. The key is engendering reflexivity in an authentic context. In light of this, peak oil, climate change, energy scarcity, economic disruption all demand different approaches to existing, surviving and thriving.

So some emergent questions for the curriculum are as follows.

  1. What sorts of literacies of resilience do people as social agents need, and what is HE’s role in framing them?
  2. What sorts of relationships enable these resilient literacies and modes of being to emerge?
  3. What sorts of knowledge/understanding do these learners need to be effective agents in society?
  4. Are our traditional modes of designing and delivering curricula meaningful or relevant?

So we begin to think about how to frame a curriculum that enables individuals-in-communities to learn and adapt, to mitigate risks, to prepare for solutions to problems, to respond to risks that are realised, and to recover from dislocations. This demands curricula that may be:

  • authentic and meaningful, framed by decision-making and agency;
  • enquiry-based, in which skills, approaches, decisions and actions are developed and tested in real-world situations that demonstrate complexity and context;
  • cross-disciplinary, and linked to a guild or craft-style experience rather than a Fordist, factory approach;
  • negotiated in scope, governance and delivery within authentic, rather than false, communities;
  • accredited through the specification of expertise and experience developed within real-world processes and outcomes;
  • framed by mentoring and coaching; and
  • focused upon co-governance, rather than co-creation.

In thinking through the qualities of a resilient, differentiated curriculum, I am minded of the specific outcomes from four curriculum interventions at DMU.

  1. Framing programme, rather than module-level, communities of practice in Game Art Design. Finding spaces and technologies that enable co-governance of projects and co-creation for project deliverables, in negotiation with tutors and a wider, industrial community, supports the implementation of authentic outcomes. It enables innovation and risk and responsibility through mentoring. Personal ownership within a negotiated social space is critical.
  2. The fusion of affective and cognitive approaches to learning in first-year History, where learning logs focus upon the development of the student-as-person, hinging around evaluations of summative performance. The role of learning logs and reflection on action in enabling student to become themselves, as resilient performers and agents is key. This fusion frames the integration of affective and cognitive learning.
  3. The development of story-telling and therapeutic relationships between more experienced peer-mentors and their mentees, re-defines who has power to help and nurture in HE. These relationships demonstrate the power of dialogue in developing motivation, self-efficacy and problem-solving within and beyond the curriculum.
  4. The development of a UCPD in work-based learning for Placement students in Pharmaceutical and Cosmetic Sciences begins to value explicitly the reflection on the application of theory-in-practice, within a different learning context. A different approach to accreditation, valuing the affective and the reflective in a hard, experimental, scientific space, using industrial and academic supervisors as coaches is central.

These are not revolutionary in scope. However, I am interested in how a resilient curriculum might focus upon social enterprise, not in a return to localism, but in enabling solutions and responses within specific communities. The Cabinet Office notes that social enterprises are “businesses with primarily social objectives whose surpluses are principally reinvested for that purpose in the business or in the community, rather than being driven by the need to maximise profit for shareholders and owners.” This definition enables social enterprises to define and catalyse projects that are community-oriented, inclusive, negotiated, and enquiry-focused.

So I am interested in how a new, first-year Historian at DMU might work with her/his tutors and more experienced peers, and also with students in other disciplines, to define projects within specific communities in Leicester or the East Midlands or nationally or internationally. These projects might focus upon contextualising specific community issues and framing development or renewal projects, in terms of different histories, and might subsequently involve decision-making and negotiation with other agencies [NGOs, Government, business], in order to take authentic action. This may involve work with media production or journalism students on communication, and with those involved in social care on engaging and representing the user voice in decision-making. It prioritises an integrated and social, rather than a subject-drive, approach to processes and solutions, and it respects the different skills and aspirations that individuals-in-communities offer. It also prioritises meaningful and developmental agency.

A key in building resilience is engaging with uncertainty through projects that involve diverse voices in civil action. Clearly discourses of power will impact the values we place on certain skills, and upon our negotiating positions, and upon the nature of the projects that should be undertaken. A role for HE curricula is framing an understanding of these discourses and the contexts in which they emerge so that they can be challenged, and so that co-governance as well as co-creation is enabled and tested. In a world of increasing uncertainty, where peak oil threatens our approach to always-on technology and connection, engaging the individual in authentic partnerships, mentoring and enquiry, and in the processes of community and social governance is central.


@Fulup has blogged about Peak Oil and Digital Preservation, and the hard decision that will need to be made in a world of scarcity. Scarcity of energy will impact availability of: digital resources; always-on services;  capacity for and scheduling of  high-end processes; out-sourced technologies/services. Such availability will impact the skills and capabilities of our learners, and their contextual decisions and actions.

A key question for the HE curriculum in the 21st century is whether it needs to address scarcity, and the possibility that the always-on access to services, networks and technologies that it promises is not viable. Do HE managers have appropriate risk/disaster management plans available? So much of our curriculum infrastructure is tied to oil and plentiful energy. So much of our curriculum design and delivery discourse is about personalisation in an always-on world. Are we helping our learners to exist in authentic, social communities and spaces where the switch may be turned off?

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