I: Fast – Hyperemployment

I recently came across an intriguing article in Crikey, the daily national newsletter. A new jobs service has launched in Western Australia, known as “First In, First Offer”, or FIFO. Its website invites those seeking work to post their CVs so that employers can assess through them and make offers to those candidates who best fit their needs. Since the site launched, at the end of April, over sixteen thousand CVs have been posted, and 500 companies have used the site in their search for skilled individuals.

FIFO inverts the function of a site like Seek, where candidates look for companies that might be interested in acquiring their skills. In a labour-rich market, that strategy makes sense. But booming WA is labour-poor, so the relationship between job-seeker and employer reverses, sending employers scouring through FIFO. As long as WA has the nation’s strongest economy, it will be in labour-poor, and FIFO will fill an important role, connecting labour demand to labour supply.

The acronym FIFO has another meaning (probably intentional): ‘Fly In, Fly Out’. The demand for labour is so great, and the mining communities so poorly developed, workers need to be flown in – from as far away as London – to work the Pilbara mines.

That’s quite a commitment. An employee would be contracted for at least six months before the economics of FIFO begin to make sense. Still, with all of these costs, mining is consistently the least productive segment of the economy, lagging far behind other so-called laggards, such as health and education.

This is worth stopping and having a good think about. Mining, the shining star of the Australian economy, is by far our least productive sector.

We throw money at all of the problems in the mining sector, because there’s plenty of money to throw. But that oversupply of money removes any pressure that would encourage greater efficiencies.

Meanwhile, resource extractors face an ‘overhang’ of costs and inefficiencies which make their business models surprisingly fragile. Should prices for iron ore drop too much in China, Australia will strangle, because too many of the processes have not been optimized. The miners moan about expensive Australian labour while doing everything in their power to propagate the problem.

Remember that point. We’ll come back to it.

There are other emerging models for labour markets, some of which look a lot like the market on offer at FIFO.

Freelancer.com, an Australian startup, allows anyone to advertise their availability for short-term projects – gigs lasting anywhere from a few hours to a few months. With an abbreviated CV (and the added value of reviews from previous clients) Freelancer creates an efficient marketplace for temporary, contract employment.

That market isn’t just Australian. Freelancer reaches a global audience through its website, aggregating the talents of individuals from every corner of the planet – from Pakistan to Paraguay – while simultaneously aggregating labour demand.

A friend and fellow entrepreneur in the United States, Tyler Crowley, recently built created a web startup – Skweal – using Freelancer, employing a designer in Ukraine, a front-end HTML coder in Pakistan, and a back-end web programmer in Russia.

The labour costs were so low – perhaps one fifth what he’d have paid in labour-poor California – he funded the entire project from his own savings, needing no investment, and reaping all the rewards. Great for him, probably not so great for any talented individuals residing in countries where fifteen dollars an hour isn’t a professional wage.

This is the darker side of ‘hyperemployment’, these new, connected marketplaces where employer and employee meet and bargain. FIFO needs workers on the ground, with all of the correct permits, licenses and work visas. Freelancer allows anyone to work from anywhere on anything – art or architecture, programming or project management.

The space between these two models – one constrained by location and governance, the other bound by very little other than language and the willingness to work outside your own time zone (managing a team spread throughout the planet, my friend got very little sleep during the development phase of his project) is the gap which prevents a ‘race to the bottom’, where wages and conditions spiral down to levels broadly unsustainable.

Bradon Ellem, at the University of Sydney, an academic with a long history studying the Australian labour market, foresees trouble when the Western Australian mining boom ends. “Would websites like [FIFO] become a bidding-down mechanism?” This is a question that needs to be asked. Once labour supply has been aggregated with labour demand, does this mean, in times of oversupply, employers can disproportionately manipulate the employment market?

Before we attempt to address that question, we must take a fresh look at the Australia of 2012, profoundly connected. Australia is among the top tier of countries in 3G mobile connectivity.

Overall, subscription rates for mobile services surpass one hundred and forty percent of the nation’s population. Many of us use more than one mobile device, such as a tablet or a mobile broadband adapter – even multiple mobiles.

At the end of last year, Google reported Singapore and Australia lead the world in the adoption of smartphones. More than half of all Australians already own a smartphone – the fastest deployment of any consumer technology in the nation’s history – and penetration is expected to reach eighty-five percent toward the end of next year. Australia has become the first ‘smartphone nation’.

Connectivity is the indispensable handmaiden to commerce. We use our mobiles to keep our busy lives well-orchestrated, but these devices are acquiring an intense commercial focus, as the market moves from something located at a particular place and time to a feature of the smartphone. Everywhere we are connected, we now bring the market with us. That market is also a labour market.

An Australian startup, AirTasker, gives us an early look in on how this pervasive handheld marketplace actually works. The firm recently launched a smartphone app that allows anyone to post a request for labour – of almost any kind – together with a location, time frame, and proposed payment. This labour request goes out to every smartphone-equipped AirTasker within the given locale, who each respond with their own bids to complete the task.

As with FIFO and Freelancer, AirTasker connects labour demand to labour supply, but does so continuously and effortlessly, smartphone apps communicating directly with other smartphone apps.

A radical simplification and acceleration of the services once offered through classified advertisements, AirTasker aggregates a pool of short-term labour just as FIFO aggregates the pool of miners. But where FIFO could have launched at any point after the arrival of the Web, AirTasker could not have existed before this year – before the majority of Australians carried smartphones. There was no way to reach the pool of labour or aggregate the demand for it. With AirTasker there is very little inefficiency, and no resistance to aggregation of either labour demand or labour supply. Tasks can be dreamt up and filled without any of the overheads associated with staffing: no HR, no compliance issues, nothing that a big organization needs to support employees.

Now that technology permits it, an increasing range of labour tasks will disaggregate themselves, long-term ‘jobs’ unwinding into short-term ‘gigs’ or even shorter-term ‘tasks’, nearly all of which will be contracted automatically and electronically through the pervasive handheld marketplace created by nation of well-connected, smartphone-carrying workers. We have constructed an economy in which labour is another just-in-time input in the production chain, whether for a miner, a web entrepreneur, or a homemaker trying to get the dry cleaning picked up on a busy afternoon.

FIFO, Freelancer and AirTasker set the stage for radically different models of employment than anything on offer in the 20th century. The concepts of employer and employee become meaningless as contracts cover shorter time periods. What we once knew as jobs collapse into gigs, or into even-shorter-term tasks. Our increasing hyperconnectivity makes it possible, and the efficiencies that come paired with these possibilities will hammer them into economic reality. Flexibility is an essential competitive quality in the 21st century economy.

This brings us to education, the handmaiden of a skilled workforce, and the foundation for all future labour markets.


II: Slow – Hypereducation

The future of employment divides into three broad categories: long-term jobs – becoming rarer and rarer; medium-term gigs – where we work with others on a project basis; and short-term tasks – labour-on-demand, highly specific and constrained. Each of these employment styles requires their own sets of skills. Some of these skills extend across all three employment styles, others are determined by the duration of the contract. A long-term contract requires focus and depth within a particular range of qualifications, while short-term tasks best benefit from a breadth of relatively less complex capabilities.

These three employment styles precisely mirror the emerging forms of tertiary and continuing education – and that’s not an accident. Both have been forced to respond to hyperconnectivity. Once everyone is connected, it becomes possible to schedule and educate on demand. Education is no longer a stream separate from the rest of life (and never really was, for vocational education), but part of the package that comes with hyperconnectivity. The device that connects us becomes the platform that educates us.

How is that going to work in practice?

One immediate quality of hyperconnectivity is that it allows education to take place anywhere. The world becomes the classroom (just as the world becomes the marketplace). Teacher and student no longer have to be in the same room. This means that connection becomes the important element, not the place where that connection happens. Educational institutions have always centered on the conjugation of educator and student. That will remain true, but loses all ties to a particular place, except where specifically called for.

Certain types of hands-on education benefit greatly from the close collaboration of educator and student, and that will not change, although the where and the how will evolve substantially.

The educational institution has always had the responsibility to aggregate students, educators and educational resources. Now that students and educators can connect directly, immediately, and globally, that responsibility no longer falls on the institution. However, as provider of resources and conferrer of assessments, the institution still has a role to play: as facilitator.

Driven by what they want to do, students know what they want to learn. Coupling the desire to acquire skills with an effective educator can be done by the student, but will be much more effective where facilitated by an educational institution.

Can an educational institution have no fixed curriculum, nor any full-time teaching faculty?

That may sound dangerously strange, but it is where we are going. Students will dream up their own requirements, drawn from the demands of an evolving marketplace, and teachers will be in constant rotation through these areas of expertise. It no longer makes sense to have a fixed set of classes or assessments; instead the institution must position itself for total flexibility, able to offer any course that it can meaningfully support from its resources.

Some things take time. Many bodies of knowledge can not be absorbed inside an afternoon, or a weekend seminar. Learning, fast and slow, requires different supports.

Part of the facilitation role of the educational institution comes from the wisdom it brings to the specifics of learning. The institution needs to facilitate the student’s understanding of why a particular educational style is appropriate to the skill they want to acquire.

Institutions have always tended to favor more over less: more structure, more class time, more assessments. This becomes less tenable as a global range of resources competes for the student’s attention. In order to stay competitive, the institution will focus on delivery of skills training with the greatest efficiency.

Shorter-term skills training – such as short courses, seminars, or one-off classes – are easier to facilitate than ever before. With everyone connected, scheduling becomes a matter of shared calendars and an electronic bulletin board. As the old frictions and barriers disappear, established educational institutions face a range of new competitive pressures. Now that everyone can set up a short course, why would anyone come to a particular institution?

Two reasons: reputation and assessment. These point the way forward for the facilitation role of the institution. With so many short courses on offer from so many places, it will be difficult for students to know whom they can trust to deliver the goods. Established educational institutions bring their reputation to their endeavors, and that reputation should be made available to educators who want to use the springboard of the institution to launch their own short courses. The hyperconnected educational institution facilitates teaching by the best instructors, cherry-picking the best of the best because of the reputation of the institution.

Once skills training has been delivered, how can a student prove they have those skills? A certificate of assessment from a reputable institution carries more weight than a mere slip of paper from somewhere else. As people work their way into projects, demonstrating their expertise through practice, the value of assessment is going to decline, thought it will remain an important yardstick – just not the sole measure of competence. The hyperconnected educational institution should facilitate assessment, not just of the courses they offer, but of courses offered outside the institution. Where done wisely, this extends the credibility, reputation and reach of the institution.

All of this radically stretches the idea of the educational institution and its functions into the realm of hypereducation. Where education can be had for the asking from a few billion people, a nearly too-free-to-meter resource, what becomes important is the ability to facilitate meaningful skills development. That’s a gap very hard to close halfway around the world.

Those best able to close that gap are those closest to the student, both in proximity and in alignment of aims. Location is important, particularly when anyone can be anywhere. Face-to-face contact conveys more information than any other form of human relation. The hypereducational institution is the place where everything comes together; for years, months, days, or hours.

Although entirely flexible, hypereducation includes a core component that becomes the fixed star in an otherwise mutable universe: the career and skills training of the student.

Hypereducation is not something you complete. It is a continuous activity, interrupted as required, but proceeding throughout the entirety of an individual’s productive life. The hypereducational institution and the student engage in an evolving series of conversations and course corrections which lead into specific skills acquisitions and assessments.

Where we start out in our careers almost never looks anything like where we end up. That wasn’t true two generations ago, and within two generations what we do next week won’t look very much like what we’re doing today.

Given this trend, we need to be able to mould hypereducation to the needs of an entire nation of students, all of whom will be learning constantly.

Some of that learning will be fast – acquiring a skill to be used in an hour’s time. Some of that learning will be slow – building up a basic understanding of motors, baking, or nursing. All of that learning will be done in concert with a hypereducational institution, a partner-for-life with the individual, constantly engaging, communicating, offering and challenging the student to increase their capability and maximize their potential.

This, at least, is the vision. If educational institutions as they exist today hope to avoid being overwhelmed by the Khan Academies and Open Coursewares of tomorrow, this may be the only path open to them. You can’t compete with the kinds of global expertise on tap in a hyperconnected world.

But you can amplify the effectiveness of that expertise, supplying the value that can not come over a wire. Accept all comers, adapting to them and adapting them to the needs of the students you have partnered with in hypereducation.

There is no contest between real-world and virtual education. Both have their place, and both are desperately needed. The school will not go away — if it adapts to hypereducation. But the way it works will change dramatically.


III: Don’t Worry, Be Appy

We’ll conclude with some use case analysis. Let’s walk through one possible design of a hypereducational system, to see what it can illuminate about how our practices will need to evolve.

In this future – which is really the present – everyone has a smartphone, and everyone is continuously connected. Everything centers around an app (which works on smartphones, tablets and the web), which we’ll call TAFEbook. You can think of it as a social network for hypereducation.

Different users have different views into TAFEbook, driven by their needs. A student opens a TAFEbook during their final year at high school, using it to track their educational goals and achievements, measuring these against the published requirements of whatever profession they’d like to practice. If, for example, someone wanted to go into mining, they’d be able to see the qualifications they’d need for the job they’d like to secure.

Once these qualifications have been identified, the student indicates an interest in gaining these qualifications, advertising their interest throughout TAFEbook. The student flags their interest, and because of the hyperconnected nature of TAFEbook, everyone knows of this.

An administrator at a local TAFE sees that a number of students have advertised interest in a range of qualifications relating directly to mining. That TAFE reaches out through TAFEbook to several instructors it has worked with before. These instructors advertise their own qualifications and availability through TAFEbook, so most of this interaction happens invisibly – people are not involved. It’s just computers talking to computers and tablets talking to tablets and smartphones talking to smartphones.

Within a few minutes, instructors have been booked – provisionally – together with the necessary classrooms and ancillary educational resources.

TAFEbook then sends an alert to all students advertising their desire for a qualification, informing them that a particular TAFE will be offering this course on such-and-such a date. Would they like to enroll?

When a student enrolls, the appropriate scheduling is entered into TAFEbook.

The student has advertised their desire for a qualification, now the TAFE has agreed to provide that qualification, and, because all of this is publicly known, tutors and other resource providers advertise their own availability to students preparing for qualification assessment. TAFEbook becomes a nexus around all aspects of education, development and assessment, connecting students, instructors and institutions within an environment that allows many forms of education and education-centered commerce to flourish.

During the course, the student uses TAFEbook to communicate with their peers, the instructor and the institution. The instructor provides resources through TAFEbook (in this respect, TAFEbook is similar to Moodle and Blackboard), while students collaborate on assignments and research projects. The institution keeps its finger in, monitoring the progress of the course, offering resources as needed, and arranging for an end-of-course assessment.

Once the assessment has been completed, students who have demonstrated the appropriate capacity are conferred a qualification – which is immediately advertised in TAFEbook.

These qualifications become part of a ‘living CV’ for each TAFEbook user. Employers, looking for qualified individuals, also use TAFEbook.

When a student gets the appropriate series of qualifications, they may receive a job offer – just as presently happens on FIFO. This direct connection between student, educators, and employers is at the heart of the power of TAFEbook. It creates a market not just in education, but, by connecting education to employment, it becomes the engine room of the economy.

The student accepts the job, and goes to work in the mines for a few years. Today, this employment would represent a period of zero educational activity. With TAFEbook, that all changes.

Wanting to move up the skills and value chain at the mine, the student is advertising the desire for further professional development. Tutors – some local, some far away – offer workshops and classes to give the student the additional qualifications they need to increase their value.

If you recall, I said we’d return to how the resource extractors are doing nothing to solve their own labour problems. With TAFEbook it becomes possible to turn the mine into a campus (indeed, the campus is now everywhere), so that anyone working at the mine who wants to engage in skills development is able to do so.

The resource extraction firm advertises the qualifications it’s looking for, and the miners then advertise their desire to gain these qualifications, which leads to educators (public and private) offering this skilling and the necessary assessment. As those assessments are received by the student, they are advertised, and the mining company offers those candidates the appropriate positions.

It’s all quite frictionless, and it’s this close connection between education and employment goes a long way to increasing the productivity of the mining sector.

Everything thus far described in this use case looks difficult, but nothing could be further from the truth. We are quite well connected, although we haven’t leveraged that connectivity into utility. We can do this – it’s not even terrifically difficult – but we must rethink our institutional approaches, and our expectations throughout the educational system: students, instructors, administrators and employers.

After a very successful span of years working in the mines, the student, having made a bundle of money, comes home, buys a house, and wonders what to do next. This is one of those transition moments between learning fast – as they’ve done the past few years – and learning slow, that is, learning something entirely new.

It turns out that all of the years in the Pilbara have given the student a real appreciation for haute cuisine (since they got so little of it for so long), so now they retrain as a chef. As soon as they receive their qualifications, they get an offer to work in a French bistro, where they continue to train, on-the-job, moving from through various roles, until they’re overseeing a portion of the kitchen.

By now, the student has realized the real money is in owning your own restaurant, so he advertises a desire to take courses in restaurant management and business accounting – but does this anonymously, so that the bistro’s owners aren’t alerted of a potential competitor in their midst. After a few more years of study, and qualifications in restaurant and business management, the student is ready to open the doors on his own French cafe.

Now this budding entrepreneur uses TAFEbook to find others looking for a restaurant careers, headhunting others through their TAFEbook profiles.

The cycle has come full circle, as the student, through the magic of education, has become an employer.

That’s the whole use case, spanning many years of one person’s career.

We can’t say very much about how technology will change over the next years, but we do know that we will only grow more connected, and that everything just described will only become easier to implement. The frictions which tied education to a particular place at a specific time are vanishing, and this enables entirely new forms of engagement.

Life-long learning has been a buzzword for a generation. We now have the capability to make it reality. This is the next frontier for educators: bringing yourself into a close, continuous relationship with your students, transforming yourselves into educational facilitators who bridge the gap between student and employer. These are already all things that you do. It’s not that you will stop doing them, but rather that they are becoming integrated and amplified. Hyperconnectivity leads to hypereducation.

There are a lot of pieces to the TAFEbook, some of which you can begin today – and some of which you may already be doing. With new eyes, examine what you can already do. It’s likely you’re further down the road to hypereducation than you ever imagined.

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