Research at NTU


I’m just on the way back from a seminar at NTU. The first thing that strikes you when you arrive is how amazing the building is (see picture). Obviously the fact that the sun was shining helped – but it is a great new facility.

Anyway, apart from the gushing about the building, this was a really interesting seminar. It was part of the iCeGS/NTU seminar mini-series. The iCeGS leg saw me and Helen Colley presenting. This time we had Ricky Gee and Helen Reed presenting.

Helen kicked things off with a project that she has been doing about transitions to secondary school. Amusingly titled “will I get my head flushed down the toilet?” She explained how her project had investigated a three day intervention that was made with primary school students in Nottingham. Before the intervention she found that there was considerable apprehension about the move to secondary school. In particular the issues around bullying, getting lost, losing and not making friends and racism came out. After the intervention the students had begun to make a transition and in most cases had dealt with at least some of their apprehension.

Ricky Gee then talked about the role of groupwork with Connexions PAs. His research found that on the whole PAs agreed that groupwork was a valuable form of careers work, but many found it difficult and stressful. We talked about how representative this was and what this meant for the profession. There was a high level of agreement that groupwork should be a key tool of careers work. Ricky’s work I’d enormously valuable in helping to explain why this doesn’t always work out in practice.

Both of these papers were excellent and I hope that the authors will publish them. The seminar as a whole was very thought provoking. iCeGS and NTU hope to continue this series next year. Do any other HEIs want to join in with this roving seminar on career?


How flexible is the flexible labour market?

We talk all the time about the changing nature of work and the increasing flexibility of the labour market. So I thought it would be easy to find some research that proves this. I was just looking for a reference or two that noted that the number of jobs or employers that an individual might encounter in their life is rising. Perhaps some figures on a drop in the length of job tenure etc. However as I’ve swum around in the research I’ve found that this certainty about the increasing flexibility of the labour market is very difficult to back up with anything authoritative. I’ve also noticed that a vast number of websites/books etc give figures for number of jobs in a lifetime or average job tenure that are completely unsubstantiated. This is very frustrating.

I thought I’d just list a few research articles and what they say to demonstrate what I mean. If people know of some research that I’m missing here it would be really helpful if you could point me towards it.

  • The Office of National Statistics find that most people (four out of five) had been in the same job for a year or more, and this proportion changes little between the years shown in the table (1986-2001).
  • Gregg & Wadsworth (1995) look at change between 1975 and 1973 concluding that for the majority still in full-time employment, average job durations are little changed from those of twenty years ago. However they also note that for those seeking employment entry jobs are now more unstable, and less well paid.
  • Burgess & Rees (1998) also look for evidence of change in the length of job tenure between 1975 and 1993 and find no evidence of it.
  • Auer & Cazes (2000) note that the labour markets of most industrialized countries show little sign of becoming generally unstable.

Ok, so this is just a quick search, but I can’t find anything authoritative that concludes that the nature of the labour market has changed in the way policy makers (and careers professionals) often characterise it. Can any labour market economists out there point me to anything more recent or more authoritative than the stuff I’ve found? Also can anyone tell me whether there is a debate about this issue happening in labour market economics?

Thinking on the move


It has been ages since I’ve blogged but that doesn’t mean I have given up thinking. I’ve just had a prolonged period without access to a desktop or freedom from ever pressing deadlines. So I’ve got a few minutes to spare while I sit in the London Road sunshine, so I thought I’d experiment with posting from the blackberry. If I can do it I never need go silent again. ( I can hear those groans off to stage left)

One of the most interesting things about my job is the fact that I get to talk about career with all sorts of people. Perhaps most interestingly I get to talk to people who have no interest in talking about there career. This is often because they think that they don’t have (or sometimes want) a career. I try to explain that for me career is an expansive concept that encompasses life, learning and work, but on the whole this isn’t how they see this concept.

What I’m struck by is how often people percieve career as an oppressive idea. It is the thing their mother nags them about, or the thing they could have had if they worked harder, or even the thing that was stolen from them by an unfair world.

This is problematic as it means that we are often talking different languages. My attempt to see career in non-judgemental ways is transmuted in their minds into a commentary on all of their mistakes and wasted potentials. Sometimes their idea of career is even stricter and related to some deeply held belief such as career=money or verticle progression or going to university. The concepts masked by career are vast and it seems in many cases dark.

I wonder about a vox pop project that attempted to draw together 1000s of individuals definitions of career. What would the collective definition look like?

England 1, USA 1, Twitter 0 (well 0 might be a bit harsh)


I spent the weekend camping in Derbyshire (hence the picture of me emerging wormlike from my sleeping bag). I???d given little though to the fact that this was the opening game of England???s world cup campaign. Social pressure and the requirement to parent semi-properly meant that I couldn???t pop down to the village to watch the game at the pub. No one had brought a radio either, so what was I to do. No worries I thought, I???ve got Twitter ??? the aggregated tweets of a thousand #england fans should easily keep me up to date with the twists and turns of this particular highpoint in the footballing calendar.


So I typed #england into my Blackberry and waited to see what was happening. Unfortunately it was a deeply underwhelming experience. Apart from the score all I got was insults being traded about various players and then the occasional ???ooooooooooo!??? etc. Obviously Twitter isn???t a visual medium and so the beautiful game was unlikely to transfer particularly well. But, this was a place where one semi-professional sports writer would have scored over the crowd. Someone simply tweeting


???And England clear it from the penalty box???

???The USA are about to take a corner???

Etc etc


Would have been a much higher quality experience than the collective groans and comments of the assembled crowd. I picked up a very strong sense that England were disappointing but I had absolutely no idea why. The emotion was collectively aggregated, but the information was not.


So my advice ??? don???t try and watch international football through Twitter.


I wonder what javelin throwing would be like to experience through Citeulike recommendations?




I???ve been thinking about e-portfolios quiet a bit recently so I thought that I???d use this post to set out some thoughts and see if I can get anyone interested in talking about it.


E-portfolios are a learning and reflection tool that users can use to draw together evidence about their lives and work in. If you want the Wikipedia definition here it is. The vision that underpins the implementation and use of e-portfolios is that they can be a powerful learning tool that supports reflection, integration of learning from a range of sources and transitions. A true e-portfolio is owned by the learner and independent of an institutional setting or educational level. The learner can use the e-portfolio to encounter a range of different content and as a repository for evidence of and reflections on their learning. The portfolio can then be presented to people who it might be useful to present such things to (employers, other learning providers etc).


E-portfolios aren???t new but their implementation has been patchy. They pre-date Web 2.0, but incorporate many Web 2.0 elements, and this has further muddied the water. I feel that I keep something very like an e-portfolio through a combination of this blog and my LinkedIn page. However, when people talk about e-portfolios they are normally talking about one of the dedicated e-portfolio products that are out there. In some ways this means that there is a tension between the idea of an e-portfolio and a more decentred Web 2.0 personal learning environment (PLE) ??? see my blog post on my PLE. However I???d see both of these ideas as attempting to create the same kind of reflective, social learning. E-portfolios provide a bit more scaffolding for this process and so should be ideal for use within a formal learning context. However there are some challenges with the different user groups that I???d like to talk about a bit more.


One group that need to be convinced about the value of the e-portfolio is learners. How can learners be convinced that they want to engage with something like an e-portfolio. One way is to incentivise its adoption by using it as a mode of assessment or key part of a course. In this case learners have to engage, but this compulsion raises some issues. Firstly some of the key benefits of e-portfolios are that it supports transitions and encourages users to build links between different aspects of their learning/work/life identity. Constraining something within a course doesn???t necessarily help this and even if it does, how far can this support continued (lifelong) use. Creating an e-portfolio for an assessment is not necessarily a good way to engage people in ongoing lifelong reflection and learning.


A second group that needs to be convinced is the teacher/learning provider. E-portfolios offer this group a way to encourage learning practices in learners that enable them to draw on pre-existing knowledge, integrate learning across concurrent courses and create a permanent personal record of what they have done. It could also enable learners to make meaningful connections between the learning that they are doing informally with the learning that they are doing formally. However it requires investment by the learning provider to develop the curriculum and new methods of assessment. It also requires the gradual development of a genre of e-portfolio assessment which is clear to both staff and students.


Finally it is worth considering the role of employers in the development of e-portfolios. Many e-portfolios are sold to learning organisations on the basis that it provides a conduit for learners to talk to employers. However if employers are not confident in viewing e-portfolios and using them in their recruitment this rather falls flat. I think that there would be good reasons for employers to welcome e-portfolios as they have the potential to be a living document that offers far more insight than a CV. However employers are attached to CVs and application forms and the willingness to look at something like an e-portfolio again requires the development of a genre that can support both the writing and reading of these documents.


I suppose what I???m arguing here is that while e-portfolios offer huge benefits, their implementation needs to be cultural as well as technical. Does that distinction make sense to the e-portfolio hardcore?

Career learning and the internet

Bill Law has just published a very interesting piece called Career Learning and the Internet on his website The article is in formation and he has asked for people to respond to it by the 19th June. So I thought that I???d use this blog post to make some (hopefully useful) comments on what Bill has written. This post might not make a lot of sense without reading Bill???s article.


Bill???s article starts out by noting that the internet has become an immersive, interactive experience, moving from ???quiet library to noisy forum???. He then goes on to discuss possible responses for careers workers to this situation by setting up a dichotomy between the idea of ???colonising??? or ???inhabiting??? the web. I find this a useful distinction and it rings true with the way I hear certain people talking about the web. The question is usually ???how can we use facebook/twitter/etc for career guidance???. The first problem with this is the difficulty of using something as a pedagogic tool that you have little experience of as a user. I generally believe that you need to be self-exemplifying in your pedagogy. In other words you need to find a personal value for Web 2.0 before you evangelise it to others. However another problems with the ???using facebook for career guidance approach??? is the assumption that the basic careers work paradigm is unproblematic and simply needs to be transferred into a new environment. What Bill is arguing here, and I would endorse this, is that the radical changes in the way we interact with information and each other that have been brought about by the growth of social media/web 2.0 require the development of a new paradigm. ??


So what to do in the light of this radical transformation. Bill cites the response that is given by Bosley, C., Krechowiecka, & Moon, S. (2005) and Barnes, A., & La Gro, N. (2009) as inadequate. These studies push the idea that training is what is needed to get the careers worker up to scratch, whereas Bill argues that we have to inhabit the web without claiming expertise. While I think that training has a place I???d broadly go along with this idea as well ??? my experience of using the web is of constant learning rather than confident competence. If you wait until you know ???enough??? you never get to take part. As soon as you???ve learnt something the world has moved on and we are into something different. I think that this means that we need to embrace and develop a culture of experimentation and exploration, Bill constructs this as a need to recognise the learning that young people already have.


I???m all for co-construction of learning and for breaking down barriers between learners and professionals. What I???m not convinced about is the idea that young people are necessarily highly competent users of social media. The idea that there is a generation who are born hard-wired into the web seems to me to very problematic. I think that we need to move very carefully into areas where we assume that competence in any skill is associated with a generation.


Bill then goes on to characterise Web 1, 2 and 3 as cognition, communication and co-operation in a definition that he draws from Fuchs et al (2010). I need to give this article some proper attention but it seems to me that these terms are pretty heavily contested. I???m gradually weaning myself off using these Web #.0 definitions but in the meantime I generally work with the following


  • Web 1.0 ??? the web
  • Web 2.0 ??? the web (but a bit easier for users to update)
  • Web 3.0 ??? the semantic web


However this is really rather different from Bill???s/Fuchs??? definition. I???d see the move from communication to co-operation as being a cultural shift within the technology of Web 2.0 rather than a technical shift. What do other people think about this?


Bill then goes on to rehearse a number of concerns about how developments on the web are impacting on learning. Essentially this comes down to listing the work of Tony Curzon Price, Laura Miller, Maryanne Wolf, Tara Brabazon, Cass Sunstein, Nigel Selwyn and Jaron Lanier. To be honest I think that this section needs to be either expanded or dropped. In particular I have big doubts about the value that is accorded here and elsewhere to Lanier thinking. I think that he tends to be trotted out as a convenient thinker to provide ???balance??? in discussions of the internet. I don???t agree with his ideas, but I also think that they have a Canute-like quality of ineffectively trying to turn a tide that is much more powerful than any individual. However, I don???t want to get sidetracked onto a discussion about Lanier ??? let???s save that for another day. While it is all very well to recognise the limits of technology and the impact (both positive and negative) that it might have on learning/teaching, these different critica
l perspectives pull in a wide range of confusing directions. More interesting than this survey of the anti-Web brigade is Bill???s discussion of the concerns that we have about issues of trust and provenance when (young) people are using the web. Bill posts some very useful questions that set out an approach to critical digital literacy that I feel should be at the heart of what careers work needs to be teaching people. If we can???t teach people to answer the question ???how can we know what/who to trust??? how can we talk about helping people to undertake career exploration and utilise labour market information. Bill constructs a frame for this process that looks like this:


(1)???????? finding things out, by experiencing and enquiring;

(2)???????? sorting them out, by linking things into ???like-not-like??? patterns;

(3)???????? checking them out, by concentrating on what people can then see is important to them; and

(4)???????? figuring out how things got this way, and – so – how they can effectively be managed.

Bill goes on to argue that this approach to career learning, what I would call ???critical digital literacy???, provides a much better basis for careers work than the conventional matching paradigm. He then goes on to make the point that if this is the job of teacher and careers adviser they should be able to move past the constant cries for technical training. Our job becomes to enable learning, encourage enquiry and challenge assumptions, yes we need to learn how to use some technology to do this but the core of our activity should be around the learner and not the technology. This seems an important message that discussions about technology, education and careers really need to put at their centre.

From Vocational Guidance to Portfolio Careers: A Critical Reflection

After some frustrating delays (damn the details!) iCeGS has finally been able to publish the paper of Barrie Hopson???s excellent annual lecture From Vocational Guidance to Portfolio Careers: A Critical Reflection. I wrote about the lecture after Barrie spoke in December (see the blog post) but the paper gives you access to what Barrie said in his own words. The typology of career paths that he sets out here (single-track, serial, lifestyle and portfolio) is particularly helpful for our thinking about how people conceive their careers. I???m not sure I completely buy this typology but it is a good place to start an investigation. I???m not sure for example that there is such a difference between a serial and single-track career, I suspect that it is more about the way you tell the story.


However the meat of Barrie???s paper concerns itself with the nature of work in the twenty-first century. He???s particularly interested in what he calls portfolio working, which essentially means simultaneously having a number of jobs. He is very persuasive that this model provides a more realistic way to combine life, work, learning and play together. The achievement of some kind of enjoyable, fulfilling and workable compromise between all of these different bits of your life is what I???d see as one of the main aims of the careers agenda. I think that Barrie would go along with this and he would argue that a fragmented employment situation offers one of the most effective ways to achieve this.


I???m not so sure, I think that portfolio working has its place but I suspect that it very quickly reproduces the inequalities of a class-ridden, gendered society. Barrie deals with some of these sorts of critiques in the questions at the end of the paper. However, whether portfolio careers really offer an alternative to other forms of career or are just a marginal aspect of the economy remains to be seen. Will we see the growth of a postmodern economy where individuals are free agents in negotiation with various organisations about when, how and for how long to sell their labour? Or alternatively will we see the restructuring of the capitalist economy in ways that preserve hierarchies and largely preserve the categories of ???employer??? and ???employed???. Where do things like employment rights, job security, pensions, training and so in fit into these new structures.


Barrie???s work is visionary. It sets up concepts that need further investigation. However, in the meantime this paper is pretty essential reading for anyone interested in career. ????