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Being a Gig Worker in the Sharing Economy

The Gig Economy (AKA the Sharing Economy) has its appeal: choose your hours, choose your work, be your own boss, control your own income.

It is a unconnected collection of online platforms and apps that allow users to bypass some of the barriers to personal capitalism.

Some of the players are well known: Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Etsy, Airbnb, TaskRabbit. But there are many more apps that allow entrance into gig work that are not as well known.  You are more likely to be a user of the sharing economy than being a worker in it. 

Alexandrea J. Ravenelle has been studying predominantly millennial workers who work in this new economy. She is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Mercy College and a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University. Her new book is Hustle and Gig: Struggling and Surviving in the Sharing Economy (University of California Press) which comes out of her research.

An earlier paper by her (see below) asked if these members of the gig economy were microentrepreneurs or working in the precariat class. The former is a positive label. The latter is not. The precariat social class is formed by people suffering from precarity, which is a condition of existence without predictability or security. The term is a portmanteau obtained by merging precarious with proletariat.

I have written about the gig economy, and I feel like in my unretirement I am a member of that economy, even though I don't use any of the gig apps.

The optimism connected to the gig/shared economy is that it can help reverse economic inequality. It can enhance worker rights, and bring entrepreneurship to many more people.

But it is precarious too. What is lost includes worker safety, workplace protections around discrimination and sexual harassment, reliable income.

Ravenelle groups the stories of giggers into three types: Success Stories (they created the life they want), Strugglers (who can’t make ends meet) and Strivers (who have stable jobs and use the sharing economy for extra cash).

I know that some of my college students are part-time members of the gig economy. It is their way to earn money and gain experiences and perhaps make contacts for more permanent future work. The flexibility it offers works well for students. For example, I have had several Uber and Lyft drivers who were students who drove between classes and on the days off. I suppose they are closest to being Strivers, though being a student is hardly a "stable job." In higher education, adjunct instructors are also members of a kind of gig economy as many of them put together a full time life via part time teaching assignments along with other work. 

 

Ravenelle's earlier paper "Microentrepreneur or precariat? Exploring the sharing economy through the experiences of workers for Airbnb, TaskRabbit, Uber and Kitchensurfing" was presented at the First International Workshop on the Sharing Economy held at Utrecht University June 4-5, 2018.

You can also watch the video with her slides.

2019 on Serendipity35

Welcome to another year. This year will mark the start of my 13th year blogging on Serendipity35.

serendipity35As I type this post, the visitor counter says there have been more than 104 million visits overall to the site. Wow. At the end of 2017, we were at 97,123,654 visits and at the end of 2018 the count was 104,587,893 - so we had an amazing 7,464,239 hits on pages for the year. That is actually down from years past when we were closer to a million a month. Maybe blogs are not as popular as they once were. Maybe we lost some faithful followers. Probably it is because I used to write several posts a week but now, in my unretirement, I'm only averaging 1.7 posts per week on Serendipity35. (But I am posting on 8 other sites, so it's not like I am not busy!)

The other counter that visitors don't see is the counter that tracks how many posts I have written. That one tells me that early in 2019 we will pass the 2000 posts mark.  At one time, Tim Kellers would also write on the blog, but for the past few years he has been busy in his academic IT world and keeping the server side of Serendipity35 running.

A Google search on "Serendipity35" bring up mostly posts from this site at the top, along with someone's defunct Twitter account, and a wall mount electric fireplace named "Serendipity 35 inch."

It is early in the year for academic readers. The K-12 teachers around here are back in the classroom tomorrow. College professors get started around the third week of January. I'll start posting again this week and maybe some readers will have some free time to read some thoughts on education for the new semester and year.

Thanks for following the blog.

Designing Instruction

In my unretirement, I am back into the world of instructional design this semester. During my first phase working in this area, I was the manager of a department of instructional design, but as the years passed and I moved on I became a designer independently.

For the next year, I will be designing the initial courses that will launch the Virtual campus at the County College of Morris in New Jersey. This is a virtual designer position. I will do almost all my work virtually.

The Instructional Designer (ID) is a fairly new job title that existed in some form in corporate training setting before moving into education. Of course, teachers at all levels have been "designing" their instruction forever. But the instructional designer position really came to the forefront with technology-enhanced teaching and learning and the growth of distance and then online courses.

I often point out that instructional technology is "the other IT" - an abbreviation that is generally meant to mean "information technology." In my world of IT, the "instructional" takes precedence over the "technology." Perhaps, it should abbreviated as It?

If you look at any job postings for IDs, you will find a wide variety of responsibilities and desired skills. I compiled a list back when I was interviewing people for those positions and was surprised to find the number of items on it.

  1. Collaborates with faculty and other subject matter experts to apply current instructional design theories, practice, and methods to learning activities and course content in alignment with learning outcomes.
  2. Provides instructional design or curriculum development training and support to academic units and
  3. whose work is not limited to online and hybrid courses and programs
  4. Addresses accessibility concerns
  5. Develops course templates
  6. Structures learning activities
  7. Creates or assist other sin creating visual resources and interactive elements
  8. Works with faculty to assess and improve the quality of hybrid and online courses using standards such as Quality Matters.
  9. May write or edit copy, instructional text, and audio/video scripts for courses 
  10. Identifies opportunities for adoption of open education resources OER
  11. Provides additional help to faculty with a learning management system (Canvas, Moodle, Blackboard etc.)
  12. Develops and facilitates individual and cohort-based training and orientation programs
  13. Stays current with expertise in the field by reading appropriate professional journals and trade publications, and
  14. Attends and presents at professional conferences, workshops and meetings
  15. May serve on library, university, and regional or national committees and project teams
  16. Coordinates activities related to orientation and onboarding in-depth/comprehensive pedagogical and instructional technology support of new full and part time instructors.
  17. Consults with faculty on approaches to learning and instruction and helps them to develop materials such as assignment instructions, rubrics, etc.
  18. Provides models, templates, and frameworks that faculty can use to structure course related projects, assignments, and activities.
  19. Manages the design and development of curriculum and courses according to project timelines.
  20. Assists faculty to identify and evaluate instructional software
  21. Support relevant emergent initiatives (such as Digital Humanities, Makerspaces)
  22. Research and test new technologies that support teaching and learning and solve specific problems

What kind of resume items would I expect to see for a good ID candidate? That varies a lot more than the above responsibilities list. I know lots of colleges that have one ID on staff, and larger schools with a department with six or more people. I also see some crossover at some schools with the position of Instructional Technologist. Personally, I see those two positions as very different, but not all schools agree - often it's an issue of available money and salary lines.

I would like to see:

  • A minimum of two years of experience in an instructional design, faculty development, or project management position related to teaching with technology in a college or university setting.
  • Demonstrated experience (meaning you can show me samples for all the "experience" items here) designing templates for online courses in collaboration with department, program, and/or institutional faculty and staff
  • A clear understanding of the learning theories, principles, and strategies that support best practices in online and technology-enhanced teaching, such as Universal Design for Learning. 
  • Experience with at least one learning management system - hopefully, the one being used at the school.
  • Experience designing and facilitating workshops and trainings for instructors
  • Clear understanding of policies concerning accessibility, privacy, information security, and academic integrity
  • Excellent interpersonal and communication skills and the ability to work as a contributing and collegial member of a team, and to communicate proactively within the team environment.
     

I would prefer to see some of these items on a resume.

  • Project management skills
  • An advanced degree in a discipline such as Instructional Design, Learning Technologies, Curriculum and Instruction, Adult Learning, or a related field
  • Teaching experience in a college or university setting
  • A record of professional or scholarly contributions to instructional design or faculty development, evidenced through either publications or participation in professional organizations
  • Basic graphic design skills
  • Experience with creating innovative assessments (e.g. performance based, game based, media based).

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.