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Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jul 24, 1997

Posted to DEOS-L on 24 Jul 1997

The return of low-wage capitalism via the bundling of a range of skills under one FTE salary item. I get it. Handy device, this computer thingie.

That's a nice slogan, and a handy scapegoat, but let's think this through...

Specialization is a recent phenomenon. It began to flourish only with assembly-line industrial processes. Prior to that era, it was common for people to have a wide variety of skills.

The advent of specialization resulted in the creation of very narrowly focused jobs. Classic examples still abound in today's workplace: the person who tightens one bolt on a Cadillac Seville, the person who spends all day placing envelops into slots.

Not only were these jobs particularly unrewarding, they were limiting on those employed in such occupations. Layoffs at auto plants and staff reductions at the post office, for example, placed onto the street workers who possessed only one real skill, a skill which could not be applied anywhere else.

Consequently, such employees are at the mercy of the employer. Their only recourse was unionism - and the more specilized the job, the more militant the unionism, because they have more to lose.

Now I think unions are a good thing, because they provide workers - especially narrowly specialized workers - with some measure of protection. But to forced into the union stance because one's own inability to work elsewhere is not a good thing.

The advent of a computerized workplace does not force a person into developing a wider range of skills. It is still possible to be terribly specialized even in a computer-driven environment - the stereotypical nerd-programmer is an instantiation of that phenomenon. What computerization allows is the *capacity* to develop a wider range of skills.

Prior to information technology, it would have been unthinkable for me to wear a large number of hats in the workplace. It would have been too hard for me to learn new things in various disciplines, acquire specialized tools, texts, and whatever for each discipline, or meet with practitioners in different fields.

But computerization and the internet allow me to meet and discourse with practitioners in a wide range of subjects without leaving my chair. And the same tool I use to draft proposals is the one I use to write software, design manuals and construct class outlines. I also use it to chat with my friends and play Civilization II.

What's significant here is: the skills I learn playing computer games can be applied when I design software. The skills I learn chatting with friends can be applied to distance ed course design. The skills, in other words, are not *task* specific. Each skill can be applied to a wide range of tasks.

As I said, using computers gives me the capacity to learn and practise a wide range of skills. Why would I do this, when I could focus on a single discipline? After all, it would take less work and less learning on my part.

Well, for one thing, my work is a lot more interesting. To borrow plato's oft-used analogy, I am not a sheep; I am involved in all facets of distance education design and delivery. On a typical day, such as today, I can practise desk-top video conferencing, discuss our lates program guide, write a PERL script, discuss details of our software order from Netscape, greet a visitor from Brazil, discuss delivery of an internet course while the instructor is at the lake, and write an (admittedly long) email to DEOS (and yes, that's what I did today - so far).

For another thing, I'm a lot more valuable to my employer. It means we don't have to hire a contract specialist to do the many tasks involved in DE design and delivery. Not that we don't contract - right now we've got several contract people working with us - but we don't have to if it's not efficient. It also gives me a much improved capacity to work with contractors, vendors, instructors and students. It's easy to pull the techno-wool over a specialist's eyes. I've seen it happen a lot. But not so someone who has worked in the field.

Third, I have increased job security. Not because I don't think my employers will never lay me off - that's always a possibility. Rather, because I know that with a wide range of skills I am not locked into a specific job description when I hit the pavement. My next job could be instructional design, or it could a variety of other things. Wherever the demand is.

The quote above refers to low wage capitalism. Now the original ad did not specify a salary, but I'll say right now, and with a reliable degree of certainty, that someone with such a range of skills does not come cheap. That's because they don't have to. You can force people with unary skills into a low-wage job. But you can't force somebody with many options into a low-wage job. Any person with the skills listed in the ad will have many options.

That's another reason to develop a broad range of skills. It's still good advice.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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