choices

Will You Benefit From a Quantified Self?

I’m not a number. I’m a lot of numbers…

I’m glad Steve Wheeler had a look at what it means (and could mean in the future) to live a more quantified life as I was also considering future issues after the release of the Horizon Report on Higher Education [Full report / Preview summary].

Number Garden (photo by Grafixar)

Life-logging to me is about accessing an ever-increasing amount of data relating to your day to day behaviour.

How far did you run, what was your heart rate, how many words did you write, how many times did you smile, what food did you eat and how quickly did you eat it, how long were you browsing websites for entertainment, how many hours of TV did you watch (including Internet video), when did you get exposure to sunshine, what music did you listen to, who did you spend time with…?

The point is, so much of what you do can be measured. The data can be used for educational purposes, making lifestyle decisions, finding efficiencies in what you do, staying fit, reaching goals, learning languages, and pretty much anything you like.

Overwhelm

It’s another opportunity for information overload. The data comes in useful until it becomes an overwhelming issue that needs so much time to organise and understand that you just don’t have the time to make use of it in an effective way.

A big issue could revolve around a single data set, but when you’re faced with many of these in your life, their individual simplicities becomes a mess of difficulties that you’re forever trying to juggle.

Yes, even when everything is apparently done for you. Why? Because we start to rely on the data. And the data gets used to push you in other directions when you least expect it. Perhaps.

How important is it to track absolutely everything you do? When you try to action something or develop a new habit, access to this information will be potentially wonderful. However, would you be able to take things one step at a time? As with any learning, the more focused you can be, the more dedication you can give to the matter at hand. When you’ve got loads of things on the go at once, it’s all jostling for position and giving you a headache.

Baby steps

The more data being amassed about your experiences and behaviours, the more you can take small, manageable steps towards goals, but the less likely you can isolate things while ignoring the rest of what you do.

There are many occasions when ignoring the rest would be preferable, and yet even this rarely attainable desire has its downside. For instance, all the things you do are related to everything else when you least expect it. So ignoring the bigger picture may be just as damaging or confusing in a number of cases.

You can’t win. Quantifying yourself is brilliant and will result in all sorts of developments and discoveries. At the same time, it will cause just as many difficulties and disasters.

Your future

As with so many things, you have to find out what works best for you and make many stumbles along the way. There is no simple answer. What looks crazy to the rest of the world may be perfect for you. And when you’ve completed everything despite everyone else’s protestations, it turns out your choice is no longer crazy and appears to be in fashion.

That’s just one way things can turn out. There are plenty other scenarios. Take your pick.

The quantified self is set to be awesome and awful. It’s bound to be both. And everything in between, of course. We can’t work on extremes alone!

In conclusion, a quantified self is probably not a bad prediction in the Horizon Report. This year’s predictions are all relatively sound in my view. But–as with the rise of MOOCs–how it benefits and impacts the world and individuals is never clear cut. Stuff happens and we deal with it.

So you’d better be prepared for what’s to come. Not because you know what’s going to happen, but because you can make best use of the technologies and developments for your own personal gain. And if you can help others along the way, that’d be fantastic.

All the things

I haven’t mentioned medical health, privacy and a whole host of other issues surrounding intimate data and life-logging. Seriously, read Steve Wheeler’s blog post and the links he provides for a start on that.

And read the Horizon Report too, so you can have an idea of the other things you may see in the coming months and years.

That way, you can look into your future not as a given, but as a guide.

How Do You Value a Degree?

What does your degree mean to you?

Your answer will depend on where you are in life right now. A first year, a final year, a recent graduate, halfway to retirement? How you view your degree changes over time.

Another influencing factor is why you chose to study in the first place. Was it to further a chosen career, in hope that you could earn more with a degree, or was it simply a subject you had a deep interest in?

It’s no surprise that many students have at least a passing interest in better career prospects from a degree. This angle comes under question all the time.

Frank Field MP has obtained data from the Office for National Statistics, finding that more than a quarter of graduates were paid less than the hourly gross wage of £11.10 paid to non-graduates with an apprenticeship.

From one perspective, it suggests that a degree isn’t the only route to the best pay. You may even think it represents bad value.

But that’s not the full picture. Money is not the only goal people strive toward. If money was all you cared about, university may have felt a waste of time in the first place. Several years without moving explicitly toward cash? It’s a long game that you may have run out of patience over.

(photo by ashley rose) (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

(photo by ashley rose) (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The huge focus on tuition fees leads to much discussion on value for money and subsequent returns on investment. It’s understandable.

For some, a degree is a necessary hoop to jump through before moving on to something else. However:

“The value of paper degrees lies in a common agreement to accept them as a proxy for competence and status, and that agreement is less rock solid that the higher education establishment would like to believe.” – Harvard Business Review, The Degree Is Doomed

That is the view of Michael Staton, a partner at education-focused venture capital firm, Learn Capital. Staton argues that employers will find “more efficient and holistic ways for applicants to demonstrate aptitude and skill”, which will subsequently lead to devaluation of the degree.

I don’t think this will happen across the board, but I expect some firms to find new methods of selection. Many graduate programmes already invest in their own selection processes, so their reliance on a good degree is potentially more a filter than anything else. If selection processes can be made more cheaply and without the need to filter by degree results, it will no doubt be considered as a viable option.

The world changes and things move on, but the degree is not dead. It’s not doomed any time soon. Higher education will need to change with the times, but I can’t see a game-changing revolution putting a sudden stop to HE as we know it.

So despite claims over earnings and employers, I still champion university life. I have long said that your experience shouldn’t be solely about gaining that piece of paper.

A basic attitude misses too much. It’s crucial to focus on the bigger picture to make an impact. The degree is no longer standalone; it’s one part of what shapes you. The resources and connections available at university can help you achieve so much, even when it has nothing to do with the academic side of uni life.

I’m happy people have alternative choices to university, barring some specialist and technical careers. The degree is not doomed just because aspirations can be realised in other ways.

What does your degree mean to you? When I asked at the start of this post, I said that your answer can change. Perhaps it’s changed between then and now. In a matter of moments your view can move as a result of reading a blog post, or having a conversation, or being selected for something unexpected.

University provides many moments that can open your eyes. That’s why I’m not about to throw my hands up in defeat.

And, as Tom Hay says here:

Weigh up the pros and cons and make the most of your decisions, from major choices like whether or not to go to university, to small choices like which social event to go to. You’ll have ups and downs, but we all do. Don’t dwell on how things could have been in an alternative universe.

Look forward, not behind. Seek value now.

Students at the heart of the system? White papers and taking control

The government has issued a long-awaited White Paper on the future of higher education.

Its title, “Students at the heart of the system”, prompted this comment on The Student Room:

“You can’t produce a report titled Students at the Heart of the System but then produce it in a format that only 1% of students will actually read?!”

Very true. In many ways, this White Paper is telling academics and policy makers that they need to make the student the heart of the system.

photo by M.Angel Herrero

photo by M.Angel Herrero

Perhaps all you need to know as a student is that *you* are now in control. If you’re not happy, the system had better sort things out. Pronto!

Otherwise what? Well, otherwise satisfaction goes down and restrictions get put in place that make life difficult for a university.

As with anything, it’s not that simple, but the strength of the ‘student as consumer’ idea is growing by the day.

Want some quotes that prove that point? Here you go:

“…doing more than ever to put students in the driving seat.”

“…we want the sector to become more accountable to students, as well as to the taxpayer.”

“…the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) [is] taking on a major new role as a consumer champion.”

“…institutions must deliver a better student experience; improving teaching, assessment, feedback and preparation for the world of work.”

See what I mean? If nothing else, the White Paper is telling those working in HE to listen to the students, because the student population have the power to change the way things work.

By being at the heart of the system, so long as you continue beating away, the sector keeps working. The sector is meant to change in order to help the heart keep going.

I’m being a bit twee and simplistic at this stage, so let me change tack and go over a few student-specific points that I noted when reading the Executive Summary.

This won’t be exhaustive, but this is still a long post. Take a deep breath, everyone…

First up, the White Paper says:

“To be successful, institutions will have to appeal to prospective students and be respected by employers. Putting financial power into the hands of learners makes student choice meaningful.”

I’ve talked a lot about marketisation of HE and the student experience before. The reality of giving students more power is not clear cut, even if it sounds pretty awesome and sensible.

Student choice is meaningful only if students understand what their choices are, why they have those choices, how to move forward in terms of those choices, and so on.

That doesn’t involve financial power. But, let’s say for a moment if did. Would that change anything? Not really. Financial power cannot itself be helpful in terms of education and what the student would genuinely benefit from. As things stand, there is a missing link.

“…a more dynamic sector in which popular institutions can grow and where all universities must offer a good student experience to remain competitive.”

This is another difficult one. A ‘good student experience’ is unique to each student. And satisfaction can play into the hands of being given a relatively easy route through to a degree. Why put pressure on yourself when you can glide through somewhere else without breaking into a sweat?

This attitude is a real danger for all parties involved. Nobody is at fault because it is just a result of the particular situation. Nevertheless, the situation is worth noting, because the issue has legs. The impact will likely increase before anything tempers the beast.

The White Paper also talks of providing more information to prospective students. Sounds great. But a lot of information already exists. A more important element to this is in helping students understand *how* to use the information.

Due to the unique experiences we have as individuals, there is no single useful way to use that information. Policy makers talk of ‘information, advice and guidance’, because information alone isn’t enough. Advice and guidance are necessary too, because instruction doesn’t help. Each person must take responsibility for their own choices.

Yet choice isn’t easy for young adults.

The White Paper states the aim to “deliver a more responsive higher education sector in which funding follows the decisions of learners and successful institutions are freed to thrive”.

The idea that “funding follows the decisions of learners” takes us into utterly unknown territory. Yet it will be used to fuel the future of the HE sector and the future of many young people.

My decisions as a child and as a young adult were not as clear and thought out as they are now. I’m not an exception. Far from it.

I’m the norm.

I have great respect for the very few who have plans, passions, and other big-picture ideas that enable them to move in a direction that genuinely suits them, despite a young age.

It doesn’t matter what your upbringing and how much familial advantage you’ve had; decisions don’t often come naturally and easily. Surely, therefore, that is a key area to concentrate and help thrive.

The paper continues:

“The overall goal is higher education that is more responsive to student choice, that provides a better student experience and that helps improve social mobility.”

Based on what I’ve just said above, this may turn out to be a contradiction. Responding to student choice could hinder social mobility. And while it may improve the student experience, will it achieve the same for the graduate experience? A big question.

The government do start to cover the graduate angle. As part of the increased information package, students will be told about employment for past graduates, starting salaries, and so on. I won’t go further down this line, though, because it begins a whole new set of discussions about the purpose of university, the differences between now and several years in the past, and so on.

For now, I’ll stick with what’s set to be on offer to new students. Back to the White Paper:

“Student charters and student feedback will take on a new importance to empower students whilst at university.”

Students like feedback. Some wish they had more feedback from tutors. So the concept won’t be new to you.

But care must be taken. There is an unfortunate link made between hard work and lack of enjoyment. The link can be false, covering up the real issues, but that doesn’t stop the link from being perceived.

But what if a degree course ticks all the right boxes for you, yet seems a lot harder than the workload of your mates at other unis or on different courses? You may feel hard done by, even if the work is necessary.

Before accepting feedback and charters as a win-win situation, a learning curve is required from both an academic AND a student angle. This could take time and will at least experience some teething trouble, if not long-term problems that stubbornly refuse to go away.

None of this even starts to cover private providers, variable fees, scholarship funds, and so on. An early NUS response to the White Paper covers a lot of this and explains that the paper “raises more questions than it answers“. If you want more detail on these other issues, I suggest check out the NUS summary of the White Paper.

Whatever happens in the aftermath of all this, the government state that they want students to get as much value from their experience as possible. Therefore, HEFCE will be “taking on a new role as consumer champion for students and promoter of a competitive system”.

To specifically state ‘consumer champion’ shows the government’s real belief in the marketisation of the HE system. In which case, helping students to understand precisely why they want to be in HE and how to further their own goals has to be the way forward. If students MUST act as consumers, the key is to let them become far more than that. If stuck in that single mindset, there is not enough space to expand. Without that space, no amount of HE provision is going to set the student free to explore the possibilities truly available to them.

Regardless of how you may feel about the White Paper, the real challenge now — as I hope it has always been — is to give each and every student the best chance possible to achieve as an individual.

You aren’t simply being given control of the HE sector. You’re being given control of yourself. Make that a satisfying, worthwhile experience and you can make everything else follow suit.

Qualifications: Shaping, Not Dictating

Will a master’s get you a job?

The simple answer is: no, it won’t. But, as a piece in The Guardian says, “students are still heaping their dreams on them”.

Before you get too engrossed in that dream, wake up for a minute and remember what gets you a job:

YOU will get you a job. A degree helps to shape you, a master’s helps to shape you, any qualification helps to shape you. Your choices make a difference, but they don’t automatically get you a job.

That’s not to say that unemployment is solely the fault of an individual. Everything impacts upon your plans, which is why qualifications make a difference. Your achievements help shape the future, rather than dictate it.

photo by Quercusivo

If everyone held the same degree, how else would you stand out? (photo by Quercusivo)

What about big plans? The Independent questioned who gets the head start in life when comparing someone who went to uni and someone who went straight into employment.

In isolation, it doesn’t make sense to ask who had a head start. Neither had a head start based on the choice, even though it’s a big choice to make.

Life is complicated and each person’s life is unique. The most successful person in the world may have been more successful if they had made different decisions. But we’ll never know. What happens happens.

You can’t make the most of your lot by going to university with no good purpose, or without making considerations about the path you’re taking. Yes, you may still make good use of your time and end up with a great job soon after graduation, but that doesn’t mean uni was the best choice and it doesn’t mean you had a better head start than someone else.

All this talk of best choices and comparing one thing to another will keep going forever more. But it misses the point. Bypass this conversation and make your own plans clear. A confident view will guide you toward making the right choices.

Once you get serious about your plans and you still decide a masters degree is the way to go, The Guardian has updated their guide to postgraduate courses this month. As with any league table, it can only serve as a guide. But when you’re making plans, it all helps.

Will you make the best choice every time? Obviously not. But the odds are stacked in your favour when you ditch the general and get more specific.