Welcome to the Online University of Facebook

Zuckerberg and company are up to something new today. Facebook’s latest acquisition indicates that he’s making a play at the online education space.

This morning, Facebook bought a company called Oculus VR that specializes in designing virtual reality headsets.

The obvious application of the 2 billion dollar purchase would be to create some kind of virtual social networking space where we can all see each other via headsets.

Don’t worry—that will fail. Dumb idea that will never catch on because most normal people don’t give a crap about virtual reality hangouts.

Facebook Virtual Classroom

Will college classes of the future be taught by Max Headroom?

No, the real story of this purchase lies in an off-handed remark buried in Zuckerberg’s Facebook post about other potential uses of the Oculus headset:

“Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face to face — just by putting on goggles in your home.”

Did you catch that? Studying in a virtual classroom. Zuckerberg is envisioning a world of online education where every student and teacher wears a virtual reality headset.

Presumably, the experience would look and feel very similar to being in an actual classroom. Except that maybe your teacher is sitting on the couch with no pants. Or maybe everyone in the class is sitting on the couch with no pants.

The Oculus VR equipment is currently only being used by hardcore online gamers, and I believe it will largely stay that way. Most Facebook users will not be donning headgear in order to “like” their cousin’s cat pics.

But the virtual classroom thing is intriguing. I could see that actually catching on. Buying the hardware would just be a part of the course tuition cost, so it would be a much more natural purchase.

There are far more people who would pay extra money and accept strange prerequisites in order to get into a college classroom than there are people who will accept those conditions to hang out at a virtual party—especially if the buy-in for these virtual courses is cheaper and more convenient than enrolling in a traditional university.

Watch out. The college classroom of the future could be a virtual Facebook group. Oh boy.

Don’t Be Too Honest

Honest Abe

Honest Abe knew the importance of a well-crafted image.

Sometimes our culture’s tendency towards transparency can leave us overexposed. We say too much. We give more information than is necessary. Not always a big deal, but it can be. For example, overexposure can be disastrous for people on the job market, for whom careful image maintenance is of utmost importance. Therefore, I recommend carefully filtering the information we share with others.

Social media is one place where we can easily talk too much. I’ve seen people bad-mouthing students–even quoting directly from papers, which is a major violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). If an employer spots you violating federal law on Twitter, what do you think the chances are that your application will go right in the trash? Pretty good, I’d say.

Another potential honesty pitfall for job seekers lies in the materials we pass on to hiring managers. Just like on social media, we also have a tendency to talk too much when it comes to resumes. There’s no reason to include unnecessary information on a resume. Stick to the relevant details and experience only. Transparency is not always a good thing.

In a new piece for the Vitae career network by The Chronicle of Higher Education, I discuss these incidents of overexposure wherein we can sink ourselves on the job market with a single tweet. Complete honesty is not always the best policy.

Read more: Job Seekers, Recalibrate Your Honesty Filter

Why Financial Transparency is Good For Everyone

Financial Transparency

Turns out we were ahead of the curve when adjunct professors across the country added salary data to a Google Doc in an effort to promote financial transparency in the higher education workplace. The Adjunct Project was at the forefront of a new trend toward financial transparency that’s now spreading to the corporate world.

Tech startup company, Buffer, has also adopted the position that financial transparency is the best way to do business. According to co-founder Joel Gascoigne, Buffer “sees no reason not to share everything.” So it’s that easy? Do it because there’s no reason not to?

Yep, it’s that easy.

It doesn’t take an HR professional to know that paying people different rates to do the same job is going to make people mad. And you know what makes people even madder? Finding out through the grapevine amidst swirling rumors that they make less than the guy next door who does the same job. That’s a recipe that will ruin the culture of a workplace in no time.

So why have we done this for so many years? Why has it been taboo to discuss salary data with co-workers? Mainly because those at the top have taught us that it’s taboo in order to avoid those very conflicts that result from employees learning about pay discrepancies via the rumor mill. Keeping quiet about pay doesn’t help the workers at all. This is one of those cases where Antonio Gramsci would point out that we’re adopting the values of the ruling class to our own detriment. Financial transparency is good for workers because it keeps the administration honest.

But, as Gascoigne realizes, financial transparency is also good for the business as a whole. No more “cloak and dagger” attempts by employees to undermine each other. No more destructive gossip about salary structure. No more nasty negotiations during the hiring process. The information is all available. “This is what we pay someone who has your skills and experience. Period.” Now doesn’t that sound nice?

Financial Transparency in Higher Education

Higher education could learn from Buffer’s philosophy. Practically every person in a given department earns a different salary–even those who do the exact same job. What a nightmare. No wonder departmental politics can get so nasty. And think about the heated negotiations during the hiring process. Life could be so much easier for everyone if colleges adopted a policy of financial transparency.

The key is setting a base pay that’s actually fair. Buffer recognized that everyone in the company needed to be at a minimum threshold in order for this to work. Salaries had to be “normalized” before the internal salary wiki was published. But once everyone was making a fair salary, it was all worth it.

It’s this salary normalization step that we are trying to expose with the Adjunct Project. Universities want to suppress adjunct professor salary data because the pay is almost always shameful. It’s the kind of information that poisons a company culture and causes everyone to fight and resent their jobs. Especially when you consider that salaried professors earn three to ten times as much as adjunct professors who teach the same classes. That’s a problem.

With the Adjunct Project we’ll continue to promote financial transparency in higher education. If colleges would see the light, as Buffer has, and normalize salaries they’ll be on the path to creating a thriving and innovative culture, as well. Financial transparency is the future of successful businesses. Adjuncts realized it a year and a half ago. Now we’re just waiting for our employers to catch up and get with the program.

The Cascading Labor Market of Underemployment

cascading underemployment

Tomorrow, when the monthly unemployment numbers come out, we’ll learn that the underemployment and unemployment rates remain relatively high. Big surprise there. According to the latest Freakonomics podcast on NPR’s Marketplace, there’s a new theory for why the high unemployment rate persists. Apparently, we’re getting hit with the side effects of a trend that began over a decade ago. And this trend effects the education sector and all those who might be looking for teaching jobs in the near future.

As Freakonomics economist Stephen Dubner points out, underemployment is an even worse problem in America than unemployment. We have so many people who have been affected by degree inflation that the average citizen is overeducated for her position and the job market for knowledge workers is completely flooded. People who spent years in school training for jobs that pay well can’t find work when they graduate. This isn’t news.

In the past, we’ve always believed (and told our kids) that the more education you get, the better you’ll do in the labor market–that there will be some kind of fair exchange or Return on Education (ROE).

But here’s the thing: This just isn’t true anymore. Sure, some people will get good jobs, but many–most even–won’t. Therefore, we as a country are forced to reevaluate the ROE in which we’ve always believed.

High Underemployment and Unemployment Rates Due to “Cascading”

Dubner references a new economics paper that argues our high underemployment and unemployment rate results from an education rush during the nineties that never readjusted to the post-tech boom recession. When life was good in the nineties everyone wanted to go to school and get a great job–and most did. But now our educational pursuits haven’t calibrated with the depressed job market. People keep going to graduate school and going deeper in debt for the promise of jobs that don’t actually exist. And that’s how we end up with this flooded job market and the ensuing degree inflation that goes along with it.

This basically creates a perfect storm for massive underemployment. No jobs at the top, so the highest educated people take the second tier jobs (for which they’re overqualified). The second tier people “push down” to the third tier and so on. This process, known to economists as “cascading,” depresses the economy even further because no one is earning at his potential. Here’s how cascading ends:

Those at the top–like law school graduates for example–are drowning in the debt they incurred and can’t pay off without the jobs for which they trained. Those in the middle are taking low skill jobs that require nothing more than a high school degree. And those at the bottom can’t find any work because all the jobs are taken by more (over)educated workers.

In the Freakonomics podcast, Dubner mentions one guy who attends a job fair and is competing against people with master’s degrees and PhDs for entry level positions. Pretty much the definition of degree inflation.

Underemployment in Education

Like I said, though, this actually pushes down into the education sector, as well. Teaching has never been a field that draws the most skilled people, unfortunately. Some highly skilled people choose to make the sacrifice in order to teach, but most don’t. The pay is so crappy that most self-respecting knowledge workers skip it for something better. For more on teacher pay, check out Why We Should Pay Teachers Like the Professionals They Are.

This teacher pay issue relates to underemployment cascading because the field of education is one of those career tracks that’s now being encroached upon by those who would otherwise pass it by. On the bright side, it means more highly-qualified people will become teachers. On the other hand, though, a flooded market for teachers will cause salaries to depress even lower than they already are. Or, at the very least, it will cause salaries to stagnate.

We’ve seen the effect of this in the college labor market with adjunct professors. If a school gets hundreds of applicants for one crappy-paying adjunct job, why would they have any economic incentive to pay more? All of these education knowledge workers–would-be professors–are cascading down the job line and artificially depressing wages. And, bam, underemployment rates continue to grow.

One way to fix this issue would be to stop cranking out so many overeducated knowledge workers. To stop telling people that getting another degree is always the answer to their problems. And, yes, I have reservations about that advice. I don’t like the idea of telling people not to continue their education. It seems counterintuitive. But if people are earning these degrees in order to get jobs, somebody needs to break it to them that the plan might not work.

As long as our economy operates under the free market, our best recourse against deflation and underemployment is to reduce supply, thereby raising demand. Once employers have to start working to find good employees again, wages will start rising. The question is which generation will take the first step.


*You might also like Master’s is the New Bachelor’s.

The Creative Work Conundrum

Creative Work Gap

The problem with creative work is it usually fails.

Creatives spend hours and hours on projects that almost always crash and burn. Just about every project started by a creative professional will end in disappointment.

It’s demoralizing. It’s depressing. It’s draining. Worse yet, when a creative doesn’t succeed, he doesn’t get paid. All those hours and resources invested in the project are gone forever. Unfortunately, our culture places very little value on the creative process. Instead, we care only about the product it generates. If the product fails to deliver, then the process too is wasted.

The savvy creative at least gains experience from failure and puts that experience to use in future versions, but that experience isn’t edible. The creative work process largely has no payoff. Because of this emphasis on a successful product, there is no reward for the vast majority of creative work.

Sometimes we forget this failure imperative in the creative work process. Because we only see Jobs’s iPhone or Picasso’s Guernica or hear Handel’s Messiah, we sometimes forget how many failures these great creatives underwent in the process of creating their masterpieces.

The truth is, though, we all fail many times before we ever succeed. In fact, if the creative work life has chosen you, you will almost always be failing. Until you aren’t.

It’s that one success that can change everything–that can make all those failures mean something. Because when we finally achieve that success, the process is suddenly validated. All that work that was previously written off, retroactively gains credence.

My Creative Work Conundrum

Why am I going off on this tangent about creative work today? I actually don’t even know. It’s been on my mind lately. Probably because I’ve had so many professional failures in my life. So many “almosts.” I’ve had a couple successes, too, of course. Like this website and also the Adjunct Project. But neither have brought me the financial windfall I need in order to keep living this life of the creative mind.

And I guess that’s really the heart of the Creative Work Conundrum. How do we creatives continue to underwrite our work until we get that one success that makes the whole process worth it?

I’m sure this is the primary reason that most creatives stop short of realizing their full potential–they just run out of money. A long streak of creative failures and they’re broke. So it’s back to the grind.

I guess I also start thinking about this concept as the semester winds down and I have to start getting serious about how I will pay my bills over the summer. That adjunct professor salary just doesn’t cut it as far as saving for the future goes.

As one who’s consumed by creative work at all times, I have several projects in the pipeline. Lots of ideas and even time to execute them; it’s just that third side of the triangle that gets me: the financial means to sustain the creative process through the inevitable repeat failures.

I’ve always found a way to keep it going so far. I’m sure I’ll do it again. I’m a creative. Therefore, I know I’ll never be able to escape the creative work conundrum–even if I wanted to. I will perpetually be hounded by the threat of financial collapse until that one day when I’m not.

I’m sure many of you know exactly what I’m talking about. I want to share this graphic with you that I found on the web a few years ago. No idea who created it. I take it out every once in a while when I start thinking about the struggle that accompanies self-guided creative work. Hope it inspires you to keep pushing yourself, even when it all seems futile. That’s the ecstasy and the agony of the creative life: We’ll always keep on creating.