11th March 2021 | Classrooms | Factories

The future of the classroom; deconstructing the factory

Welcome to Just Two Things, which I try to write daily, five days a week. Some links may also appear on my blog from time to time. Links to the main articles are in cross-heads as well as the story.

#1: The future of the classroom

At the Public Books site, Christina Lupton reviews The Teaching Archive as a way of thinking about the future of the classroom in a post-pandemic world. Although elements of education had moved online before the pandemic, it seems as if the pandemic has made this a decisive discussion. That may not be for the best educationally, however.

She puts her cards on the table early on. She likes classrooms as a teaching medium:

Why do I still believe so strongly in a version of humanist study that depends on the feel of the room, the feedback loops of dialogue, the heft of the text in a student’s hand, and the quality of attention created in a classroom?

The Teaching Archive, written by Rachel Buurma and Laura Heffernan, collects materials from 20th century teaching at places like Yale and Cambridge, Berkeley and the University of London. This is a challenge in itself—what happens in the classroom is the most ephemeral of activities. The result is a literary history about how the study of texts evolved between World War 1 and the late 1970s—and how “literary classrooms worked as laboratories and forges, spaces without which academic arguments could never have taken the shapes they did.”

Against the background of World War I air raids, Caroline Spurgeon took her students from the Bedford College for Women across London to the British Museum, sitting them down to open, scan, and dissect medieval books. A few years later, T. S. Eliot spent his evenings with opinionated grocers and schoolteachers, whose working lives and interests dictated the pace and content of class discussion.

The book is also about inclusivity, and this cuts both ways. T.S.Eliot’s views on the literary ‘canon’ were shaped by his experience in the classroom with his working class students. And although forms of virtual learning do help inclusivity, they do so at the cost of forms of engagement.

Had they been writing in 2020, Buurma and Heffernan might have underscored even more heavily the aspects of analog teaching that could not easily be deployed in a Zoom classroom… Can a class obedient to proprietary software’s principles ever really be populated by its members? Spurgeon’s 1914 emphasis on the necessity of approaching the text as if it were “the only thing that matters” is a timely reminder that texts on screen rarely solicit our undivided attention. One thing that 2020 has taught us is how inefficient a screen is at securing the kind of investment that is supported by putting a body in a particular setting for a particular purpose. 

#2: Deconstructing the factory

The British-based electric van company Arrival is suddenly valued at $5.4 billion, and hasn’t yet shipped a single vehicle. Its vans come in three sizes, produce zero emissions and are completely silent. The valuation is obviously driven by the same exuberance that has propelled Tesla’s stock price into the stratosphere, though that’s not the most interesting thing about the business.

The global van and bus sector is worth $315 billion Arrival president Avinash Rugoobur explained the business proposition to Autocar like this:

Arrival will compete head to head with big-name van players by offering a well-designed electric vehicle comparable on size and price to a large diesel Transit but with lower running costs. “As a fleet, you’ll get a vehicle that’s cheaper to operate and easier to maintain than a diesel. It’s a no-brainer,” Rugoobur told Autocar.

Electric vehicles [EVs] are simpler to build than internal combustion vehicles, mostly because the engines are vastly simpler, and an article in Autocar explains how Arrival plans to use this to develop a production model that is radically different from the traditional car factory. There’s no battery breakthrough here. Instead, Arrival plans to build its vans in micro-factories, and make the most of new materials.

The company plans to set up a network of small factories globally optimised to produce around 10,000 vans a year each, or 2000 buses. This is in contrast to the conventional large car or van plant. In addition, polypropylene body panels are moulded in the required colours on site, removing the need for expensive paint shops or stamping machines. (In a conventional car factory a paint shop can cost $10 million. You can see what that does to the business model). Different elements are assembled on site that plug into the standard chassis. A new factory can be up and running in six months.

Autocar traces this model to the work of two academics at Cardiff’s Centre for Automotive Industry Research in Cardiff, Paul Nieuwenhuis and Peter Wells, who developed a concept called Micro Factory Retailing in 2000. (They haven’t advised Arrival):

Their Micro Factory Retailing idea called for the same network of small, low-investment factories assembling vehicles on nontraditional bodies to reduce the stratospheric costs borne by traditional manufacturers. “The mass-production car industry overproduces to meet its minimum economies of scale. It is at this point that most economists stop thinking,” Nieuwenhuis told Autocar.

Update: I wrote about the impact of COVID19 on women in work a couple of weeks ago, looking at American data. None of it was good. Now PWC has released a report with perspectives from across the OECD. It’s not good either.


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