Towards a resilient higher education?

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 25 November 2009

Preamble: energy and education

Joss Winn at the University of Lincoln recently blogged on What will Higher Education look like in a 2050 -80% +2c 450ppm world? In this post he raises issues of climate change and the need to reduce emissions, linked to what higher education will look like in a world that needs to reduce its energy use. Some of the key thinking in this area is focused upon consumption of energy rather than the production of carbon. This is important for two reasons: the growing threat of peak oil and the impact that will have on our ability to consume/produce, and on our energy security and availability; and the need to own the carbon and energy we emit/use, in order to combat climate change.

A recent JISC Tech Watch Report on Low Carbon Computing begins to engage with some of these issues, but is very heavily focused upon emissions and more intelligent institutional/outsourced technology, rather than the threats of peak oil or a need to reduce consumption by end users. One gap that it flags is our shared, disaster scenario planning for climate change, consumption and peak oil within education. Given the holistic, ecological nature and impact of these issues, we need ecological solutions that involve us all. I touch on this below, in terms of resilience.

The report highlights the impact of ICT on global emissions – this is said to be 2% globally, but in developed countries it is higher. As other nations develop, we need to consider the impact of globalisation and our approach to internationalisation, and education’s role in that. The Tech Watch report rightly notes that the use of carbon and energy is a complex issue, with embodied carbon throughout the supply and service chain difficult to monitor. With evidence of carbon sinks beginning to buckle consumption becomes much more important and yet education is predicated on productivity, as the Government’s Higher Ambitions framework suggests.

One of the key themes noted throughout the Tech Watch report is a focus on better technology, rather than restricted use. This has a tendency to reinforce a view that science will save us and that we can carry on producing/consuming technology and education at an increasing rate. So, whilst the report focuses upon: efficiency in technologies, use and services; renewable sources; and carbon capture; it is important for educators to address the growing realisation that consumption is an issue. As a result, it may be time to address issues of energy efficiency and energy use within higher education. As Warren Pearce notes about the discourse over cloud-computing in his posting Do you feel lucky? Over-reliance on tech in a finite world “What the Chrome OS story does is illuminate our wider reliance on an ‘always on’ energy supply, rather than the Fordist method of embedding a finite amount of energy in a ‘thing’. Something old-fashioned like, say, a ‘book’”. The key then is addressing Joss Winn’s issue of beginning to think about how to develop ‘resilient education’.

What do you do if your knowledge and networks are global and the global is shut down?

This question provides an interesting stating-point for any discussion about the responsibilities of higher education, in a world where always-on energy use is not a given. If our ever-expanding use of energy is under threat then we will need much bigger plans for our long-term future. We need to integrate the very necessary, but prosaic, thinking about:

  • improved, intelligent infrastructures;
  • data centre/enterprise architectures;
  • the need for thin or slim clients, and the use of shared PCs;
  • forced upgrades versus open source;
  • out-sourcing and migration to the cloud;
  • data and information storage (up to 35% of energy in data centres is simply storage);

to our view of what higher education stands for and how we, as actors, engage with or challenge it. For example, will our approach to technological intelligence and adaptation be driven by social inclusion/justice, energy security/availability, the environment or the economy?

These issues may shake-down when we wrestle with issues like carbon allowances, which may operate at departmental or Faculty-levels, and may impact resources available for learning and teaching. So, if the cost of carbon/electricity is in devolved budgets, how will those teams or groups manage issues like cooling capacity in data centres, electricity supply and the use of AC, renewing old kit and the need for high performance? Staff and students may have to evaluate when and which tasks have to be timetabled. How will this impact our developed view of anytime, anyplace, anywhere access and consumption? It may be that task and service optimisation impacts the personalisation agenda, from a requirement to power-down, rather than leave machines on-idle, to addressing renewal and embodied carbon/energy in our hardware, and re-evaluating the software functions/Operating Systems that we think we need. Will these be institutional impositions or locally negotiated and owned solutions?

Such integration of the prosaic with the meaning of higher education demands deliberation around what HE stands for. One example of why this is important is the embedded energy in the educational supply chain, especially where that chain is in a high-energy-use area [large conurbations] or is international. Can we guarantee efficient supply for core, local services and production? Have we risk-assessed or developed contingencies where access to outsourced information/data/networks may be impacted by access to power off-site? The vulnerabilities of that chain mean that educators need to think about risk and agency, and a curriculum of resilience. This is more so when we consider the resilience of the services we supply to staff/students, and whether those actors can serve themselves through resilient communities.

Towards a curriculum for resilience

Peak oil, climate change and energy consumption issues (framed by a global financial crisis that impacts funding for the public sector) radically change the ways in which we need to define the purpose of education. In his keynote at the JISC Innovating e-Learning 2009 conference, Charles Leadbeater prompted me to think about the need for educators to develop disruptive approaches to the curriculum before they are themselves disrupted. This involves new ways to work/serve or to live. He spoke about the need for relationships, and the development of social enterprise with education as a catalyst. One aim is to move education away from simply improving formal experiences, to re-form them. This highlights issues of relationships and power, of anxiety and hope, of social enterprise and community-up provision, rather than centre-down imposition.

This view of the interactions between peers in a community/socially-focused range of settings is central to a view of resilience, where global over-reliance may lead to fragility. This opportunity for the social/community connects to a number of other emancipatory arguments.

  1. The DEMOS Edgeless University report demands responsive, local missions for institutions that are then cast as focused upon renewal. Such a renewal might include engagement with informal opportunities for supplementing and then transforming the overall life experience. We can’t rely on schools/HEIs to change local cultures on their own but as part of broader community-focused agents they might win-out.
  2. Illich’s work on de-professionalising and de-schooling society offers opportunities to engage with a choice architecture of experience, where people chose where to act, make decisions and receive feedback. The context for choices is defined by the individual actor, not defined for her/him.
  3. Enquiry-based pedagogies (for example see recent Futurelab work on enquiring minds) enable opportunities for communities to come together to work for local solutions to recognised issues.
  4. Informal learning opportunities are central to a social democratic model. In part, this is about the development of consciousness about issues like peak oil and climate change that promotes an identity of interests between individuals. These associations and their consciousness about issues are key in enabling what Gramsci would call organic intellectuals who can develop ideas for a community.

Each of these areas hints at a curriculum for resilience. Resilience is social/environmentally-situated. It denotes the ability of individuals and communities to learn and adapt, to mitigate risks, prepare for solutions to problems, respond to risks that are realised, and to recover from dislocations. The recent DEMOS pamphlet, Resilient Nation highlighted that we live in brittle societies. Over 80 per cent of Britons live in urban areas relying on dense networks of public and private sector organisations to provide them with essential services. But our everyday lives and the national infrastructure work in a fragile union, vulnerable to even the smallest disturbances in the network, and both are part of a global ecosystem that is damaged and unpredictable.

The report argues that we have a choice between reliance on government and its resources, and its approach to command and control, or developing an empowering day-to-day community resilience. Such resilience develops engagement, education, empowerment and encouragement. The good news for those in EdTech is that social media offer reach, usability, accessibility and timely feedback, and may be a key to developing resilience.

Rob Hopkins, in his “Transition to a world without oil” TED talk, highlights the work of the transition movement. This focuses upon defining local problems and framing local solutions that are contextual, and not technology-driven. He argues for framing resilience around our ability to develop adaptability, to work virally and in ways that are open source, rather than reliant on 3rd parties. Resilience is “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganise while undergoing change, so as to retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks”. He focuses upon the local and the historic, and demands that we empower people to become self-organising. The key for Hopkins is that resilience is more crucial than sustainability – we need to be able to manage shock or disruption or vulnerability, and to find alternatives. This means that the local is as vital as the global. It also means that civil action rather than political action is the key to enfranchisement.

Hopkins suggests that social/community actors need to work in a context that promotes:

  1. Diversity: through a broader base of livelihoods, resource use, enterprise and energy systems than at present;
  2. Modularity: he is not advocating self-sufficiency, but rather an increased self-reliance; with ‘surge protectors’ for the local economy, such as local food production and decentralised energy systems
  3. Tightness of feedback: bringing the results of our actions closer to home, so that we cannot ignore them.

He states:

For many years, those writing and campaigning on relocalisation have argued that it is a good idea because it produces a better, more equitable economy. Now, as the potential impacts of peak oil and climate change become clearer, an additional and very strong argument has emerged: that as the net energy underpinning society inevitably contracts, so the focus of our economies and our daily lives will inexorably shift, at least in terms of manufacturing and trade, from the global to the local.

Rather than communities meeting each other as unskilled, unproductive, dependent and vulnerable settlements, they would meet as skilled, abundantly productive, self-reliant and resilient communities.

What’s more he is hopeful that:

By seeing resilience as a key ingredient of the economic strategies that will enable communities to thrive beyond the current economic turmoil the world is seeing, huge creativity, reskilling and entrepreneurship are unleashed.

Can we forge a curriculum for resilience?

In an excellent paper on the limits of partnership Jonathan Davis argues that empowerment may depend less on enhanced network democracy, which is managerial and driven by the power of specific cultures, than on strong independent community organisations capable of acting coercively [i.e. through lawful, direct action] against elites. He terms this an exit-action strategy that is developed and owned by communities, and which helps to overcome the colonisation of problems, resources and contexts by elites. The key for any debate on resilience is that defining a curriculum that is community-focused, may require institutions to become less managerial and more open to the formation of devolved social enterprises. This will need spaces for what Gramsci has called organic intellectuals, who can emerge from and facilitate community action that leads to political influence and overcomes agenda gatekeeping.

Learners and tutors may be just such organic intellectuals. In light of peak oil and climate change our learners and staff capabilities are key – what power do they have to develop resilience in an era of risk and threat, and also of communitarian opportunity? A key element here is what Davis terms “democratic ‘co-governance’” within civil action, but which might usefully be applied to education. How might this impact stakeholder roles within higher education?

The role of learner: this may become the ability to be, to co-exist, to survive and to thrive, within a range of communities, many of which will be locally-focused. In this context Habermas’ “lifeworld”, or those informal, unmarketised domains of life, that are social, voluntary, and truly participatory are important in situating the individual within a curriculum for resilience. The key facets are the ability to work with a range of peers to define problems and solutions, to make decisions and take action, and to receive feedback [for instance, journalists working with engineers to develop a communication plan for a flood-threatened town]. In this way the current focus on the learner-voice may need to be revisited to focus upon resilient community voices, which can co-produce civil society.

The role of tutor is as a more experienced other, able to provide good-enough support in context. The key is mentoring, modelling and nurturing co-production, co-governance and possibly [lawful] coercion. The key here is lobbying for new modes of curricula design and delivery that lever social enterprise and resilience. This is an activist role and focuses upon the voice of the community and proper democratic engagement in that community. This might include working with those, and in contexts, well beyond the institution. It will also shake up subject-specific working to catalyse new curricula and problem-solving.

The role of institution may be to facilitate social enterprise, affiliation, preparation, and resourcing for transformation within communities. To create a space within which a resilient curriculum is welcomed and actively encouraged. This may mean that the 360-credit undergraduate degree becomes ever-more redundant in a world where we need skill-matching, sharing and problem-solving for complex issues.

One area that frames this will be in energy usage. The Tech Watch report highlights that on a 2005 baseline, by 2020 we will only see 13% reductions in desktop energy consumption due to the impact of peripherals, laptops, iphones, netbooks etc. There is a desperate need for both dematerialisation and adding intelligence to performance/systems/services. This means changing cultures around approaches to information management, decentralised, local, micro-generation of energy that is DC, and more devolved energy management, especially for pervasive computing.

The role of the curriculum will be to frame socio-cultural opportunities for agency, community, decision-making, building relationships, and producing. As Hopkins argues, an energy crisis may be hopeful if it leads to emancipation. At issue is framing a curriculum that enables transformation through celebrating and validating the application of intelligence at the edges of networks that can in turn lead to creation and adaptation.


There is a very real danger that we risk disenfranchising ourselves through a techno-determinist approach to peak oil and climate change. 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. How do we develop the skills in social enterprise and community-working? How do we enable people to learning at a local scale? How do we build trust and dialogue, sharing and co-operation? It may be that we need to move away from reliance on the institution to self-reliance and local, voluntary responsibility.

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