Obviously the answer to the question above is ‘No,’ I just wanted to get your attention. But I do have a reason for asking it, even rhetorically. A couple of weeks ago I was chatting to a friend of mine, a junior academic, and enthusing about all the amazing opportunities for CPD (continuing professional development) that are out there in the ether these days. I mentioned some excellent lectures I’d recently found on YouTube (specifically, the UCLA YouTube channel). He completely took me aback by saying that this kind of thing was very controversial in the world of academia because many academics thought it was changing university education itself, for the worse, and junior academics were starting to get extremely worried and angry because they thought it was about to destroy their future career structure.
Needless to say, this was something that had never occurred to me. In fact, I’d never thought of CPD as anything other than positive, and indeed essential. In my profession (or at least at the interesting end of it), and no doubt in many others, it’s a truism that CPD is a positive thing. It’s something we must all strive to do as much of as possible, a requirement for membership of many professional bodies and an activity we shouldn’t skimp on. In the opinion of many, including me, online CPD offers a fantastic opportunity: anyone with a broadband connection can study even if they have very little time, can’t travel or have other commitments that mean they can’t stop working full-time. The Internet in general and online CPD in particular make access to knowledge and study fairer by opening it up to so many more of us. What’s not to like?
Well, several things, as it turns out. As my friend explained, while a single person taking a single online course or following a single online lecture series makes no difference whatsoever to any institution, as these methods of study become more popular they can indirectly undermine university education by devaluing a university qualification. If a course offered online (I’m going out of my way not to specify names here) is seen to be of value, then by extension a university qualification is no longer the only way to accredit your learning in a particular field. In addition, as online lecture series become more and more popular, and more and more universities try to get in on the act, there is apparently growing pressure on universities to make their main degree and other courses more video-friendly. It seems the effects of this are already being felt in the US and are likely to begin in earnest on this side of the Atlantic over the next couple of years. That not only means that online learning is changing study at universities themselves to some extent, it also means that the more popular and therefore prestigious courses are likely to be the ones taught by media-savvy, telegenic members of university staff. Their equally well-qualified and capable colleagues may therefore lose out. This is not supposed to be how academic success is attained.
Now, one reason I think these arguments should interest us is that so many of us pursue CPD and value it very highly. Another is that I see a parallel between academics’ fear and resentment of online study and our (by which I mean translators’) fear and resentment of machine translation, especially Google Translate. In both cases, human practitioners fear being replaced by technology. In both cases, demand is rising hugely – partly as a result of the technology – but suppliers are scared there will be less demand for their own services. In both cases, the human practitioners insist they can provide something the technology can’t (and in both cases they’re right). And in both cases, the genie can’t be put back in the bottle. So, while we may disagree with academics’ concerns over online learning (and I do disagree with them), I think we should understand their point of view, as it so closely mirrors that of many translators.
I also think perhaps there’s another parallel: in recent years the translation market has started to bifurcate into the relatively small premium market and the relatively large bulk market. All the signs are that this is set to continue. Perhaps the same will happen in academia? Perhaps there will be a few top-quality (and face-to-face) universities that will thrive, and many others that will pander to the lowest common denominator and whose staff will have their career ladder pulled out from under them and see their earnings drop. For academics on the one hand and translators on the other, are these market changes purely negative? Are individual practitioners powerless, or are there ways they (we) can react to the emergence of the technology by capitalising on its shortcomings, for example? Will the independence offered to us all by the Internet make the market go to hell in a handbasket as everyone rushes for the cheap, low-quality option, or will it enable those who are capable and enterprising but not well-connected to emerge from the hegemony of all-powerful institutions?
I’d love to have others’ views on this, so post a comment to tell me what you think. Are you, like me, a devourer of CPD in all its forms? Are you, also like me, someone who values high-quality university education (and indeed high-quality translation)? Are you a translator or academic who is not worried by these issues? Are you a translator who is genuinely frightened by the thought of machine translation? Or, indeed, are you an academic who feels that your career path is disappearing in front of you? Let me know – the more opinions, the better!
This is the first of a new type of post for this blog: longer, discursive pieces. They’ll be published every month, alternating with other types of post. This means there’ll be a new blog post every fortnight. Because this is the first longer post, I’m especially keen to hear/read your views, comments and suggestions – type away!