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.

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