The arts for art’s sake…

Last week I wrote about the importance of learning coding skills. This prompted a response from one reader, advocating the teaching of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) in schools: “Coding and the STEM subjects are our gateway into the future.” I would agree. But, as other commentators have noted elsewhere, we also need to put the A (for art) into STEM to get STEAM to propel us forward….

Equivalent VIII (1966) Carl Andre (b.1935) Purchased 1972

Equivalent VIII (1966) Carl Andre (b.1935) Purchased by Tate Gallery in 1972

I recently attended a talk by renowned arts administrator Michael Lynch, as part of the FLAIR art event, where he expressed frustration at the state of the arts in Australia, the lack of a public arts policy, and the associated cuts to government funding. It can’t help that from John Howard onward, we have had a sequence of Prime Ministers who, while not total Philistines, have shown little enthusiasm, appetite or appreciation for the arts. And during Q&A, Mr Lynch referenced the conservative and “safe” nature of so much arts programming as evidenced by the lack of risk-taking and the stale and over-familiar choice of repertoire, although he did acknowledge some arts organisations were doing exciting work.

The debate then shifted to whether we need a new method to evaluate the benefits of a strong arts sector that is not purely dependent on economic terms or financial performance. It was not possible in the time available to come up with a suitable indicator, but I suggest we can derive a range of benefits from putting more emphasis on teaching, supporting and sponsoring the arts. This RoI might be measured in such terms as the following:

  • Enhancing creativity among students will benefit individual problem-solving skills and collective innovation;
  • A healthy arts scene is indicative of a balanced, self-assured and progressive society;
  • Participating in the arts can give people a sense of confidence and well-being;
  • Through art we can learn about culture, philosophy and history – especially of other societies;
  • Giving people the means to express themselves through art is an important outlet for their skills, talent and interests.

We agonize about the amount of investment in our Olympic athletes in pursuit of gold medals, and whether the money can be justified (goodness – Australia only just made the top 10!)  But no-one (yet) has suggested it’s not worth doing, even if we don’t win as many medals as is often predicted. And of course, together with the wider popular entertainment industry, professional sports attract more dollars, airtime and support through sponsorship, advertising, broadcasting rights, gambling revenue, club memberships and merchandise than the arts could ever hope to.

Part of the challenge lies in the popular notion that arts are either elitist, worthy, self-important, or simply frivolous – which makes it harder to build an economic case for the arts, but which can also lead to the worst kind of cultural cringe. Also, if the arts are really doing their job, they hold up a mirror to our society, and we may not like what we see. Populist politicians can’t afford to be associated or identified with such critiques – either as the targets or as de facto protagonists – so would they rather be seen shaking hands with gold medalists (or attending a Bruce Springsteen concert…) than maybe attending a cutting-edge performance by The Necks?

Next week: The latest installment of Startup Victoria pitch night

Online Pillar 3: #Education

Students don’t need to attend formal classes anymore – they can YouTube a tutorial, sign up for a MOOC, watch a TED talk, Google the answer to a question, or research a Wiki entry. And that’s just the free stuff. Online seminars and workshops, especially in the area of software programming and code writing, are big business; and even vocational courses are looking to deliver more content via the web.

This week is the final part in my mini-series on the Three Pillars. (See Health and Finance.) Of the three, Education has probably done the most to embrace online – it’s certainly been at the forefront of the Internet and the web, both of which have their roots in academia. Yet of the three, it is the one vertical segment that is most vulnerable to disruptive technologies and changing business models.

Lifelong learning is going to become vital in keeping ourselves informed, skilled, up-to-date, relevant and employable (whether as hired labour or as self-employed freelances). Even in retirement, services like the University of the Third Age (U3A) can help in maintaining our mental wellbeing.

Few of us establish long-term relationships with schools or educational establishments we have attended – at best, we may join an alumni group, but in my experience, many such organisations are designed around fund-raising activities, “old boy” networks, quasi-masonic rituals and/or sadomasochistic memory recall at the annual reunion; and they don’t do so well when former students become increasingly mobile in the global workplace. On the other hand, the ability to attend so many different educational establishments and be exposed to different types of education services makes for a richer learning experience.

Online academic reference and research services have been around since the 1980s, and it’s now possible to source post-grad dissertations and PhD papers via vast online library databases. Part of this is driven by the academic need to “publish or perish”, part by changes in the publishing and information industry, part by the need to foster collaboration via better dissemination of primary research.

For myself, I participated in my first online seminar about 15 years ago, and webinars are commonplace for professional development, distance learning and collaborative projects. I have also enrolled in online tutorials for one-off courses on very specific topics – less about getting a qualification, more about enhancing my knowledge.

Students today, including those in primary and secondary education, are expected to participate online, even though they may still attend daily “in person” classes:

  • tablet devices are mandatory – for access to textbooks, and for managing assignments
  • students interact with their teachers and classmates via Learning Management Systems
  • undergraduates are expected to develop online CVs as well as use dedicated social media platforms run by their colleges
  • ebooks are capable of being personalised and customised – e.g., uploading your own notes, accessing peer comments, and interacting with teachers

Mass Open Online Courses (MOOC) are a logical extension of the webinar model – but of course, you don’t get the same certificate or diploma you would receive (assuming you get one at all) if you had enrolled for the class, completed the assignments and passed the exams. Some universities and colleges license their content (syllabus and curriculum) for local delivery by another institution – a bonus for students in remote locations, or unable to access more expensive colleges. Maintaining the integrity and quality of this “distributed” learning is still a challenge, and mutual recognition of qualifications (as well as certification and authentication) may yet be a barrier to student mobility.

Recognition of prior learning is a key feature of vocational education – but I can see a demand for more services that help me validate what I know and what I have learned (in the absence of a formal qualification) as well as helping prospective employers in candidate selection. There are also challenges in monitoring mandatory Continuing Professional Development (CPD), especially in areas such as health services, where even relatively junior nursing and ancillary staff in hospitals are required to maintain an online learning diary or journal as well as evidence of training completion and competence. (Question: who would be responsible if a nurse engaged by a hospital via a labour service provider failed to maintain currency in patient care, resulting in avoidable harm?)

Ultimately, the role of lifelong learning is in helping to plan, manage and develop our careers. Just as we might have a financial plan (to prepare for the future), and we would expect to manage our health (via regular check-ups and preventative measures), why wouldn’t also have a career plan, supported by a learning pathway? And if we are increasingly comfortable accessing content via mobile apps and the web, why wouldn’t we expect to pursue our learning needs online as well?

Next week: Another #co-working space opens in #Melbourne