And a Sharing Economy

I wrote recently about the Gig Economy which is part of a shifting cultural and business environment in the world of work. A friend reading that post asked me what the difference is between that and the "sharing economy."

It is easy to get confused because besides gig and shared economies, you will see mention of the gift economy and the barter economy.

None of these are new things. A gift economy is one in which services or goods are given without an agreement as to a suitable payment or trade to be made in return. It almost does not sound like it should be an "economy" because instead of monetary gain, the rewards are more intangible things like a sense of contribution, community, honor or prestige.

The oldest of these is a barter economy which you probably learned about is some school history class. This is a cashless economic system in which services and goods are traded at negotiated rates. This very early economy predates monetary systems and even recorded history.

Aspects of the barter and gift economies are part of the newer term "sharing economy" and sharing certainly isn't new. You let a friend stay at your house while they are visiting nearby. You give someone a ride to work and it's not a carpool and you're not an Uber driver. It's a gift, like going to the supermarket for your elderly neighbor. Maybe it's barter because that neighbor gives you fresh vegetables from her backyard garden.

But in a "sharing economy" is that you are not helping out for free. You provide services to a stranger for money. A prime example is Airbnb.

In The Sharing Economy, Arun Sundararajan, says we are transitioning to what he describes as "crowd-based capitalism." He describes it as a new way of organizing economic activity beyond the traditional corporate-centered model.

In any peer-to-peer commercial exchange, the distiction between the personal and the professional. Do you ask the person , how will the economy, government regulation, what it means to have a job, and our social fabric be affected?

The Harvard Business Review argued that "sharing economy" is a misnomer and suggested that a better term is yet another kind of economy - the "access economy." The authors say that when "sharing" is market-mediated, such as when a company is an intermediary between consumers who don't know each other, it is no longer sharing and consumers are paying to access someone else's goods or services.

Unfortunately, the distictions betweeen all these supposed economies are very gray. Though I do feel the Gig Economy is having some impact on education, I am less convinced about the Sharing Economy's impact.

Read More

The Sharing Economy Comes to Campus

Is the Sharing Economy Education’s Future?

How the Sharing Economy Can Transform the Educational Ecosystem

 

 

 

It's Not the Singularity Just Yet

There were some alerts this past summer that made it sound like an artificial intelligence (AI) system being developed at Facebook was taking over the world. At least that is what some anti-AI folks seemed to be saying. 

The story seemed to be that the AI had started its own conversation between two AI agents developed inside Facebook. They were speaking to each other in plain English. The revelation to the researchers was that because of a mistake in programming the AI had created its own language. It developed a system of code words to make communication more efficient. The researchers shut the system down when they realized it was no longer using English - and they didn't understand what the two agents were saying.

The "singularity" (at least the tech one, not the mathematical or gravitational versions) is the point hypothesized when an upgradeable artificial intelligence will enter a "runaway reaction" of self-improvement cycles. It improves itself to the point of being a superintelligence that surpasses human intelligence. It's when the machines are smarter than us. John von Neumann first used the term "singularity" back in the 1950s i talking about technological progress causing accelerating change.

Why is Facebook messing around with this? For one thing, they want to build chatbots that can have conversations and negotiate with humans in a way that mimics human responses so that they can then make decisions on their own.

Does that scare you?

Facebook was trying to get the chatbots working with a "partner" to divide up several objects that had different numerical points value. That requires negotiation to work out the best way to divide the objects and accumulate the highest possible number of points.

The event is not the first example of AI diverging from its training in English to develop its own language. The new language is nonsense to humans but has semantic meaning when interpreted by AI agents.

chatbotsA chatbot (like the ones shown conversing above) repeating "to me" five times might mean to run a routine five times. It's shorthand. A + B = C is the kind of unsophisticated math we can easily understand, but to the computer the “A” could mean thousands of line of code and that is when we are lost.

It's not that the Facebook chatbots gave up on using English in order to hide from the human observers, it was just more efficient to use another language.

The scary factor is that when Bob the chatbot says "I can can I I everything else” and chatbot Alice replies “Balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to” we really don't know what they are saying. 

At the OpenAI artificial intelligence lab founded by Elon Musk, they experimented with letting AI bots learn their own languages and it worked. This strikes fear in the hearts of many people, but there's not enough evidence to determine whether AI presents a real threat that could enable machines to overrule their operators.

The team that works on Google Translate believes that the AI created the most efficient solution to some problems.

The singularity is not here yet, but it is coming.

The Highest Paid Majors Demythified

gradsA newsletter from Jeff Selingo pointed to an upcoming piece forThe New York Times that he wrote about the biggest myths surrounding the college major.

How did you pick your major? You probably got guidance from school counselors but also less formally from family and friends,  and from news articles and headlines in the media that talked about the "fastest-growing fields" and who gets paid what.

Selingo cites a report that says all that advice on what to study in college perpetuates myths. This Gallup report details that the majority (55%) of U.S. adults with at least some college but no more than a bachelor's degree list their informal social network as providing advice about their college major. This is the most often-cited source of advice when choosing a major for the majority of U.S. adults.

The past few decades have seen a push to STEM fields. That push last occurred in the 1950s in the U.S. when we were in a space race and seemed to be falling behind other countries. In the 1950s, we were lagging behind Russia and Japan, but today most of the talk is about China and India. 
 
Yes, STEM fields do generally pay well and are we still have fewer students prepared to work in those fields. But the newsletter points to an interactive graphic from Doug Webber at Temple University that shows there is a lot of overlaps plenty of overlap between earnings in different fields. There also is a big difference in being an average or below-average engineering employee and at the top of earners with an English major.  
 
The most popular undergraduate major now is not in STEM but in business. The lifetime earnings of the typical business graduate is $2.85 million, but an English major is $2.76 million, and psychology is $2.57 million and even a history major totals up at $2.46 million.
 
Perhaps the lesson for high school students is that you shouldn't pick a major based on projected earnings.

Education and the Gig Economy

gigI mentioned the Gig Economy to a colleague at a college last week and he said he had never heard of the term. I said that "gig" is a term I associate with musicians who move from job to job, gig to gig. Now, it is being applied to a labor market characterized by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs. "But it has nothing to do with education," he commented. That got me thinking. Is it affecting education?

A study by Intuit predicted that by 2020, 40 percent of American workers will be independent contractors. Most discussions of the gig economy talk about job sharing apps like Uber, Instacart and TaskRabbit. There has long been short term, contract and freelance work being done in the labor market. But the type that is being done by college graduates is said to have grown by more than 50% over the last decade.

Jeff Selingo referenced studies that contend that all the net job growth since the Great Recession has been in the gig or contract economy, and that 47% of college-age students did some sort of freelancing work last year, along with 43% of millennials.

My first thought about gig work in higher education is adjuncts. With more and more adjuncts (and fewer full-time faculty) being used in colleges, many adjuncts put together gigs at several schools. If teaching is your only job, that means trying to get three or more classes per semester fall, spring and summer.

I pulled some books off the bookstore shelf this past weekend and looked at what is being written about The Future Workplace ExperienceThe Gig Economy and Thriving in the Gig Economy are examples. 

They talk about dealing with disruption in recruiting and engaging employees A lot of the popular of the media focus is on the low end of the skill spectrum. Less attention is given to college grads and professionals who have chosen this independent employment route.

I found so many different stats on the size of this gig workforce that I hesitate to link to a source. One book says more than a third of Americans are working in the gig economy. That seems high by my own circle of friends and colleagues, but this includes short-term jobs, contract work, and freelance assignments 

I am now officially in retirement - or unretirement as I prefer to say. I have written elsewhere about unretirement and freelance work which is part of the gig economy. I take on teaching, web and instructional design gigs on a very selective basis. I choose things that interest me and allow me the freedom to work when I want to work and from where I want to work.  Sometimes the work comes from traditional places. I did a 6-month gig with a nearby community college that I had worked at full-time in the past. I have two new web clients for whom I am designing sites and e-commerce stores.

But let's return to what this might have to do with education. Higher education as preparation for a job has always been a topic of debate. "It's not job training," is what many professors would say. Employers have always played a large role in the training and professional development of their workers whether they have degrees or not.

In a gig economy, freelancers have to be self-directed in their learning. They need to decide what knowledge they’re missing, where to acquire it, how to fit it in to their day and how to pay for it. The free (as in MOOC and other online opportunities) is very appealing. Do schools that charge tuition and have traditional classes have any appeal to these people?

Certainly, driving for Uber doesn't require a degree, though having some business training in order to be self-employed would be beneficial. But my interest is more with "professional" freelancers. Take as an example, someone who has some college, certification or preferably a degree, that makes them able to promote themselves as an instructional designer or social media manager. I choose those two because I have done both as a freelancer and I know that if I look right now on a jobs site such as Glassdoor I will find hundreds of opportunities for those two areas locally.

Businesses and colleges save resources in terms of benefits, office space and training by employing these people. They also have the ability to contract with experts for specific projects who might be too high-priced to maintain on staff.

For some freelancers I know, a gig economy appeals because it offers them more control over their work-life balance. In that case, they are selecting jobs that they're interested in, rather than entering the gig economy because they are unable to attain employment, and so pick up whatever temporary gigs they can land. The latter is often the case with adjunct faculty. 

To someone mixing together short-term jobs, contract work, and freelance assignments, where would they go to find additional professional development?

Books like The Gig Economy - with its appealing subtitle offer of being "The Complete Guide to Getting Better Work, Taking More Time Off, and Financing the Life You Want" - is more interested in real-world corporate examples (Airbnb, Lyft, Uber, Etsy, TaskRabbit, France's BlaBlaCar, China's Didi Kuaidi, and India's Ola) as crowd-based capitalism.

The freelancer may not be much concerned with emerging blockchain technologies, but she is certainly part of the changing future of work.

The future is always a land of questions: Will we live in a world of empowered entrepreneurs who enjoy professional flexibility and independence? Will these gig economy workers become disenfranchised, laborers jumping from gig to gig, always looking for work and paying heir own health benefits? How will this affect labor unions, self-regulatory organizations, labor law, and a new generation of retirees who have a more limited social safety net? Are long-term careers at one or two companies a thing of the past?

Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar, the world’s largest car sharing company, said, “My father had one job in his life, I’ve had six in mine. My kids will have six at the same time.”

The one thing all observers seem to agree on is that the way we work is changing.

Jennifer Lachs writes on opencolleges.edu.au about that changing working world and the possible impact it may have on education. I hadn't thought of it as a gig economy job but of course substitute teachers in K-12 education have long been employed on a freelance basis. The education and training industry is among the top 5 highest demand industries for freelance workers due to the high level of specialization and rise of virtual education.

I know of a dozen or so teachers who do online teaching and tutoring as a way to supplement their income. For decades, professors have done freelance writing and thesis editing and much of that has moved online. My wife and I are currently editing a dissertation via email and shared files along with the occasional phone conference.

The writing center I helped build at a community college has relied on online tutoring for student writing as a way to supplement the face-to-face tutoring. Online appealed to students, but it also offered additional work for some of out part-time tutors and others who added it to the gig list.

Are we preparing students for the gig economy once they graduate? No. 

A friend pointed me at "It’s a Project-Based World" which was a thought leadership campaign by Getting Smart to explore the economic realities of a project-based world. The purpose of the campaign: to promote equity and access to deeper learning outcomes for all students. There are blog posts, podcast interviews, publications, and infographics around the preparation of students, teachers and leaders for a project-based world. The focus there seems to be less on obtaining deeper knowledge, and more on teaching skills that students will need in the modern working world.

Finally, I think that the gig economy will have a greater impact on traditional education than traditional education will have on the gig economy. It accounts for employment growth statistics, but secondary or post-secondary schools don't prepare students for this type of work.