Zombie ideas in careers

There is a worldview amongst many technology companies and indeed some politicians who buy into the hype and the marketing that surround them, that technology is the panacea, the answer to all our problems and the ills of the world. These beliefs are often driven by utopian ideas of Artificially Intelligent machines running the world efficiently, driven by big data and disruptive technologies where humans live happy and fulfilled lives. Examples of how this might apply to education can be found here: AI will deliver education on demand.

But here’s a current example of the challenge we face. In its heyday Kodak employed more than 140,000 people and was worth $28 billion. Kodak is bankrupt today. The new face of digital photography is Instagram, sold to Facebook for $1 billion in 2012 employing only 13 people.

In education the idea of technology as a panacea for all ills has a long history and has given rise to fads and trends that seem to be regurgitated in one form or another over the decades. These are known as “Zombie Ideas”. Zombie ideas are ‘beliefs about policy that have been repeatedly refuted with evidence and analysis but refuse to die’ according to the economist Paul Krugman. Krugman was referring to health and social care but the principle applies across all spheres of human activity. There are lots doing the rounds in education which I am sure readers can identify and suggest themselves.

But in technology and education terms these two excellent blogs from Audrey Watters who runs Hack Education and Larry Cuban outline a few tech zombie ideas that have repeatedly re-emerged in education in one form or another.

Remember these as being the solution to the same education problems?

  • TV
  • PCs
  • Laptops
  • Ipad

The tech zombie idea that is being converted into careers policy albeit on the q.t. is that websites and applications serving information and tools to individuals coupled with engaging more employers to deliver talks to schools will solve the CEIAG problem in schools. That because kids are ‘digital natives’ they will naturally be able and want to source careers guidance online or via an application. Whilst the plethora of websites and applications currently available may be helpful and important as resources, we as technology developers, need to acknowledge that there are limitations.

Technology understands yes or no, black or white, on or off. It does  not deal well with ‘maybe’ or allow for social complexity. Buying a car tax disk online is a simple transaction. Claiming benefit online (Universal Credit) is another matter. Technology does not deal well with all of the different varieties of personal circumstances that need to be taken in to account or indeed those unable to access it.

To make sense of data and information generated via careers websites and applications about ourselves, about the world of work and the routes into it and deciding which might be best for them, the individual requires a skill set that includes the ability to analyse, organise, sort and filter information; self-reflection and critical thinking as well as the ability to make informed decisions.

“Those without internet access can only be disadvantaged as public careers services place ever greater weight on internet-based provision. But this is only the first concern; individuals not only need access to the internet but need to be able to use it effectively in relation to their own career development. This is no small order. It requires the ability to formulate appropriate questions; to access the information relevant to them; to manage the volume and complexity of the information generated; to assess its veracity and value; and to relate the generality of the information and insights gained to their own personal circumstances and needs.

Such ability is by no means assured, even for young people who are frequently perceived as ‘digital natives’ for whom the internet is a ‘natural’ space’ (YouthNet, 2010, p. 6) and whose use of digital technologies is seen as ‘completely ingrained in their lives’ (Green & Hannon, 2007, p. 16). Bennett, Maton and Kervin conclude: ‘The picture beginning to emerge from research…is much more complex than the digital native characterisation suggests. While technology is embedded in their lives, young people’s use and skills are not uniform’ ” *

If these skills are not well-developed and if the website, tool or application being used has not been designed:

  • with thought and empathy for the user’s different starting points and abilities
  • with regard to the context of its use
  • to help diagnose the focus, extent and timing of support for the user by providing relevant and timely data to help a teacher or careers guidance professional

…then at best the resources are interesting but benign in their impact and at worst will lead to poor decisions with major life consequences in the future.

Over and above this the student must navigate a system which encourages and incentivises perverse behaviours from key protagonists. Zombie ideas such as targets and league tables which drive what teachers do to the detriment of real learning (teaching to the test); coercive inspection regimes that threaten special measures if ‘standards’ slip; contracts with payment by results clauses which cause external service providers to ‘cream’ the low hanging fruit and ‘park’ the harder to reach; funding mechanisms which mean students are taken down a route (6th form / A-levels) that is not necessarily in their best interests. All impact the learner’s decisions. (More on these Zombie ideas in future blogs).

Technology is not the solution to these fundamental issues. Neither is throwing more money and resource in the guise of a national, standardised careers service. It is the flawed thinking that sits behind the current education system that needs addressing if we are to have a real ‘culture change’ in careers. Everything else is just tinkering. Technology is part of the solution. But it needs thought; it needs an understanding of the CEIAG process, of the different user starting points and the environment in which it is used but it isn’t a panacea.

That is how we intend to approach product design and development in future. Designing tools which support people led processes in environments that support the best interests of the user.

*Source: Cathy Howieson & Sheila Semple (2013) The impact of career websites: what’s the evidence?, British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 41:3, 287-301, DOI: 10.1080/03069885.2013.773960

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