Behind the Digital Curtain: a cross-cultural study of academic identities, liminalities and labour market adaptations for the ‘Uber-isation’ of HE

Dr Hilary Collins

In this post blog, Dr Hilary Collins, Senior Lecturer with Executive Education, discusses ‘Behind the Digital Curtain’, a paper co-authored with OU colleague Dr Hayley Glover and former colleague Fran Myers, now at the University of Manchester. This was recently published in the ‘Teaching in Higher Education’ academic journal. A further study is now underway exploring the impact of Covid-19 on the increasingly digitised teaching role.

Opportunities and challenges presented by digital teaching have been rising for a generation now. Lecturers have applied themselves to new platforms and practices since initial interest from individual academics started to gather traction for an online complement to study, to today’s ubiquity of digital equivalence in a higher education student experience. These online teaching and learning practices have brought many benefits for students, including greater reach and greater resources for today’s mobile learners and a reduction of barriers to accessibility. Benefits to those teaching online have also been seen in the ability to engage with and challenge students in different ways as lecturers have invested in their own skills and practices.

As universities adopted the positive outcomes of such practices, investment was made in teaching staff competence in new ways of working required. Benefits of time saving and focus on teaching rather than manual administration were sold (rather than expected cost saving for universities), with lecturers reflecting on both new ways of one-to-many communication and engagement and personal skills required. This reorientation provided the first of our studies undertaken for Teaching in Higher Education, ‘The Automation Game: technological retention activities and perceptions on changes to tutors’ roles and identity’ (Myers, Collins, Glover and Watson, 2019).

Much of this work was focused on the practicalities of adapting to a digital working life, both from institution and lecturers, as they considered new skills necessary, and unlearning required from former routines and practices. However, other pockets of meanings kept popping up during the dialogues in the focus groups, and a sense of identity development through new forms of work appeared underway from participants. These developments were highly fragmented, indicating teachers testing out and tentatively experimenting with new ideas and alternate perceptions of selfhood. Both a sense of purpose behind new skills and routines and the group environment saw discussions drifting back to the practicalities of digital teaching.

Having undertaken the initial study, as researchers we were struck by ideas on how new identities were developing but wanted to give them space and time to unfold in exploration. It seemed a relevant place for study but how to get people to focus on, and surface such fragmented stories of self was a challenge. Our study used photographic techniques for the explicit purpose of drawing out these plastic and mutable oral stories into more linear formats.

We found that along the way between our first study and second that many developments for digital teachers were snowballing around other issues for today’s workforce, including the rise of precarious and piecemeal work practices and the normalisation of different forms of employment. We had undertaken a study in two universities expecting to find differences in approaches, rather than a commonality of digital identity work we uncovered. While contributions such as the 2017 Taylor report acknowledged both the drivers and the necessity for effective management of digital working practices, it was those rising discourses around the emotional labour of becoming such a worker that interested us. Seeing applicability from other studies that divided the digital, liminal and precarious from their embodied counterparts provided the basis of our investigation, and an insight into life behind a largely unseen ‘digital curtain’ in higher education.

Our paper raises important questions about the onus of responsibility and future policy making for contingent workers. There is a need in the digital age to both confront and respond to perceptions of what these flexible arrangements may mean in practice for workforce’s. However, while resonant with practical recommendations for the importance of fairness and dignity in future workplaces, as heralded by a fourth industrial revolution, emotional aspects of such labour remain largely unstudied. Competitive advantage from these new business models may yet regulated by government legislation to facilitate this in a positive way.

At the individual level, reductions in tenured roles coupled with eroding contractual rights and trends towards hourly-paid teaching have resulted in precarious work and associated practices. Uncertainty of the digital workspace, in parallel with supervisory increases has resulted in teaching, appearing in some cases as reduced to mechanistic, process-driven approaches riven with emotional labour. We appear to be losing academia as a critique of society while the efforts by teachers are diverted towards being compliant with frantic attempts to ‘belong’ to a profession despite an othered status.

However, we also noted a secondary picture as some teachers spoke of successful coping mechanisms emerging in some cases, where teachers were starting to instigate spontaneous, online groups which replicate the physical events of ‘water cooler’ moments through supportive virtual networks. These online meetings, acting as a form of compensation to the physical are being undertaken on a personal, or social level, largely unseen by their employers.

Universities are starting to recognise symptoms and actions from a precarious and increasingly digitised academic workforce. Within the changing landscape of today’s digital age and the associated macro-environmental drivers for change, educators are impelled to explore these new horizons and perspectives in education. This needs to be balanced with ongoing evaluation of the impact of such teaching strategies and developing ways and means of supporting teachers as individuals and members of an academic community. This has never been more relevant than now when due to the Covid-19 pandemic more and more universities are asking academics to change their pedagogy to distance learning.

Social innovating for a better tomorrow

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how society can innovate at speed. And while the focus for now is on helping each other, this social innovation demonstrates how we can all make an impact. Let’s start thinking now about how we can use this to improve society going forward, says Professor George Frynas from The Open University Business School.

The current COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated – in a very short space of time – the great potential of social innovation to aid society. The European Commission guide to social innovation defines “social innovation as ‘the development and implementation of new ideas (products, services and models) to meet social needs and create new social relationships or collaborations”.

We can just name a few of the recent innovations:

Companies are changing their delivery modes
Many retailers are turning to home deliveries. Health care providers and professionals are developing remote services for advising and monitoring patients at home. Arts and crafts schools are producing home kits. Gyms and fitness studios broadcast online classes. In China, Kuaishou – a social video platform valued at $28 billion – promoted online education offerings to compensate for school and university closures.

Companies are shifting production towards ventilators and other essential equipment
In North America, automotive suppliers are collaborating to produce ventilators. In many European countries, small businesses are turning to producing masks and other protective equipment. Different types of companies like US breweries including the giant Anheuser-Busch and Central-Eastern European oil companies including Poland’s Orlen are producing hand sanitisers.

Organisations are developing new technology solutions
In Italy, a 3D printing company called Isinnova quickly developed a design for producing plastic parts for hospital ventilators – much faster and cheaper to make than the industrial alternatives. The Austrian Red Cross has developed a phone app for virus contact tracing (pictured below), which alerts people about having come in contact with someone who has contracted the virus, and the app is now used by hundreds of thousands of people.

Austrian Red Cross Coronavirus app

These are desperate solutions in desperate times. What we are still missing is a future vision of how social innovations can help to avert the next pandemic and to make our world a safer place.

In the aftermath of previous epidemics such as avian flu, expert surveys suggested that the pharmaceutical sector is the key sector in terms of driving innovation related to pandemics and provides ‘the main pathway to mitigating the risk of a pandemic outbreak’ (Wallace and Ràfols, 2018). Pharmaceutical companies are, of course, at the forefront of developing vaccines and medical treatments. At the same time, the narrow profit motive of the pharmaceutical industry constrains innovation and the social impact of pharmaceutical companies.

Furthermore, in order to prevent and mitigate another pandemic, we will require government policy at the domestic and global levels, such as early warning systems, stockpiles of medical equipment, cross-border solidarity mechanisms and a reform of the World Health Organization. Government agencies can also play a key part in social innovation, for example through new types of budgetary processes and finance provision like dedicated innovation funds, hybrid financing models and financial incentives for successful innovation, and through creating public spaces for social innovation, such as the Korean idea of an Imagination Bank to draw in public ideas for improving public services and many other forms of democratic participation.

But social innovation can come from many other organisations, including charities, companies, universities, online groups and local community groups. There are many methods of social innovation, including open source soliciting of innovative ideas and ideas banks, donor platforms and other interactive platforms, social enterprises and other companies with a social mission, inter-household reciprocity and forms of local exchange, and so on. Universities could play an important role in this innovation process, through their research and experimentation, web-based platforms and alumni networks. At the Open University, for example, we have a wealth of experts in areas such as health and wellbeing, social enterprise, development studies and so on. This is the time for academics to start working together across disciplinary and other boundaries.

Today and now, we need to focus on how we can support each other in these difficult times. But we can all start to brainstorm about how we can innovate for a better world the day after tomorrow.

Jedrzej George Frynas is Professor of Strategic Management at The Open University Business School. He has published extensively on topics in strategic management, international business and corporate social responsibility (CSR) and has authored/co-authored four books and over 40 academic articles.

The Research into Employment, Empowerment and Futures group (REEF) is proud to be partnering with The People Space. This article was originally published on The People Space website; click to read the original article.