Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Who wants to be a millionaire?

The schools secretary, Michael Gove, is quoted in today's Guardian with a comment on tuition fees (arguing that fees are not the barrier to university, it's a fault that lies with schools): "Someone who is working as a postman should not subsidise those who go on to become millionaires."

This is just wrong on so many levels.

Firstly, that also means that a postman should not enable students to train as teachers, nurses, doctors, engineers, and any number of necessary careers without which our society would not function. This leads straight on to the second point: a university degree does not make you a millionaire. On the contrary, I would guess that most millionaires do not have a degree, because they spent their time building a successful career in business rather than reading Shakespearian sonnets and analysing the intricacies of subject-verb agreement in different polynesian languages.

I do not have time to investigate the full Sunday Times Rich list (which is hidden behind a paywall in any case), and in some cases it would not help, as some people are already millionaires before they went to university (and soon will have to be...), but here is an unscientific overview of some prominent millionaires and what I could find out about them on Wikipedia:

Richard Branson, had a "poor academic record"; he holds an honorary degree from Loughborough. His first successful business venture started when he was just 16, so he did of course have better things to do than go to uni. Still, he's #212 in Forbes' list of rich people in the world.

Alan Sugar left school at 16. No academic career.

James Dyson: I assumed he started out as an engineer, but in fact he studied interior design at the Royal College of Art before moving into engineering. No mercy for people following in his footsteps with humanities teaching slashed.

Peter Jones, of Dragon's Den fame, ended his academic career after A-levels to become a businessman.

Theo Paphitis, "began his entrepreneurial activities by running his school tuckshop, at the age of 15." Again, no mention of an academic career.

Duncan Bannatyne - was in the navy for a while, but no sign of a university degree.

Rachel Elnaugh wanted to study art history, but was apparently rejected at 5 universities. That didn't stop her from becoming an entrepreneur. Not sure, though, if she still is a millionaire.

Simon Woodroffe went on the road with Rod Stewart etc after acquiring two O-levels.

Doug Richard is actually one of the 'Dragons' who has a degree, a BA in Psychology from University of California at Berkeley and a Juris Doctor at the school of Law, University of California at Los Angeles. (source). But Gove will be pleased to see it was not funded by UK taxpayers.

James Caan left school at the age of 16. His involvement with academia (Harvard Business School) only started after he made his fortune.

Deborah Meaden is the only other academic dragon: she studied business at Brighton Technical College, which is a further education college.

This of course is not a proper sample, but one gets the impression that most of those successful entrepreneurs have been too busy in their early adolescence to pursue degrees.

And finally, as I do not want to turn this into a long rant, with a large number of UK students going into higher education (though I believe Labour's target of 50% university attendance has not been achieved), our country should be awash with millionaires. And working at a university, I should be surrounded by them. Unless my colleagues are hiding something from me, I think I must live on another planet than the one Michael Gove is on...

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Browne Sauce with your Cuts?

After a prolonged summer break, I'll kick off the new blogging term with a few comments on the Browne review, which seems to me to do to Higher Education what Beeching did to the railways. I haven't actually read the report, but am basing my comments on a summary from the THES.

The first thing that strikes me is that universities will now supposedly be exposed to the market -- that all-powerful benevolent force which has already just about wrecked our economy and is the root cause for the required cuts in funding. Market? Not quite, though: some subjects will be subsidised. So the market only works for the arts and humanities, where presumably not much is at stake, while all those important 'priority' subjects like maths and medicine will be propped up by taxpayers' money. Of course you can't have a philosopher operating on your kidney. But I guess a medic can still reason about the meaning of life.

This really gets me, how the arts are billed as a huge waste of time and money. But hey, Cameron is an arts student, he did philosophy/politics/economics at Oxford. Clegg studied social anthropology at Cambridge. You can see that those degrees did not equip them with the necessary competence to rule a small island state in Europe.

The arts are not about the luxury of appreciating 18C literature or being able to read Beowulf in the original, they are about general education. This old Humboldtian ideal of the humanist. I think we have too little of that in society and politics, and too much greed and hunger for power.

Removing the fee cap will have a devastating effect on the less affluent, and will turn back the clock a few decades when only the rich could afford to go to university. By the time my three kids are ready to go to university, we will probably have to re-mortgage our house to afford the fees, unless we want them to start off with huge debts, which will make it hard for them to get a mortgage themselves, let alone live a life without being anxious about money all the time.

The basic justification for this massive shake-up is that the students benefit from going to university, and taxpayers should not have to pay for them to have three leisurely years away from home, partying and getting drunk every day. I don't believe that is what student life is like. It wasn't when I was a student. It's a bit like saying that all benefit claimants are basically lazy cheats who buy flat-screen tvs and watch day-time television, while their neighbour works 10 hrs a day and pays for all this: a few spectacular cases make it into the news, while the large majority of students lives a boring life sitting in the library and writing essays.

The real benefit of a well-educated population goes to society in general. This is what's called 'civilisation', and Nick Clegg should have heard that term during his studies of anthropology. It is of course hard to measure and put a price on, and that makes it hard to argue. Somebody has to pay, but it should be society.

And while £4.9bn pounds are cut from Higher Education, the navy get £5bn to build new aircraft carriers. Maybe we can put all our arts students to service here: all those decks will need to be washed, and the shiny planes will need polishing. Even with an arts degree you should be able to do that...

Thursday, 17 June 2010

A Publishing Revolution

On Thursday I attended a talk on publishing, mainly intended to give postgrads some information about what to look out for and think about when trying to get their thesis published as a book. However, there were some interesting thoughts about the publishing industry, and how in the 60s and 70s the commercial publishers moved in because they could see profit opportunities there, which are now somewhat on the way out.

Salient points that stuck in my head were the horrendous price hikes on journals (which I already knew about before from attending the library committee meetings) and the smaller print-runs on monographs, which nobody really wants to publish. Also, publishers have somewhat been given a role through the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and its successor, the ominous REF, which they are not comfortable with: by taking decisions based on economic grounds (which books will sell) they cause academic judgments to be made (this is research with high impact). Not good.

There are several relevant issues at stake, but in this post I'll stick to the two most important ones:

a) Peer review. This is one of my favourite pet hates. Many people believe that peer review is what sets us apart from monkeys sitting at typewriters. Peer review is supposedly essential quality control which stops rubbish from getting published (it doesn't) and somewhat guarantees that what you read is the truth (it doesn't). Instead, peer review stifles innovative ideas, as it is inherently conservative and averse to new (and risky) ideas. One counter argument is the unfettered wilderness of the web, where everybody can publish anything, and oh boy, they do. I just today came across some guy claiming that his god had created dinosaurs, probably on day 6 of creation. But, and that is the point, I can judge for myself whether I accept it or not. Nobody has pre-vetted it for me, and it means I have to think myself. Not a bad thing. Do you like Google filtering your search results? No? Thought so. So why are you happy with some random reviewers filtering what academic publications you can read? Quality control? That's a job for copy editors and the free market.

b) Prestigious journals. Publishing in some journals is worth more than in others. Why? I never quite understood that. It's harder to get into those journals, because everybody wants to publish in them, but I have never not read a paper because it was not published in a particular journal. In fact, the only time I look at where something has been published is when I want to check whether our library has a subscription to it (it usually hasn't). With many people putting their publications on their webpages, this is becoming increasingly irrelevant. I typically look for publications by a specific author, not for stuff published in a particular journal. And the run on a select few journals just means that stuff published there is already years old by the time one gets to read it. And ground-breaking research is often published in fringe journals anyway.

Publishers claim they add value to the academic process of disseminating knowledge through peer review and the production process. Peer review we can do without, so the production process remains. Copy editing, mainly. Making sure that what is written can also be understood. But surely there must be an easier way to do this?

Currently, academics write stuff, give it to publishers (mostly for free, or for very little money), these then package it up and sell it to other academics and libraries, in the case of text books also to students. So universities get a double whammy: they pay their staff to do research and write it up, and then they pay publishers so they get a printed copy of the research to put into their library. Why not by-pass the publishers? PhD theses are usually put into libraries (or now increasingly into electronic repositories) without extensive copy-editing by publishers. They are peer-reviewed in the sense that they have been examined, though they do of course have their own particular conventions of style. But are they unreadable? I think not. Maybe not something to read for leisure, but at least they're free.

There is a problem, though, and that is that academic life is so fixated on publications. For any job or project application, you need to submit a list of publications. And if they are all self-published papers on your private website, then you might as well not apply. Prejudice or what? True, there is no guarantee that the publications are any good, but at least they are openly accessible and everybody can read them and judge for themselves, and they are not hidden behind a paywall that means they are only available to the libraries of the richer universities that can afford them.

It will require a change in culture, and to be honest, I don't believe it is going to happen. There is too much at stake. But one can still dream...

The No-Win Situation

As an academic committed to evaluation and feedback of one's teaching (aren't we all?) we frequently end up in no-win situations. This is when we try out a new innovative approach to teaching (or even an old, tried-and-tested one), solicit feedback from the students, and end up being stumped. Unlike the theoretical ideal, student feedback rarely ends up in a bell-shaped curve, where we have a few very positive, a few very negative, and a whole lot of indifferent plus/minus positive or negative bunch in the middle. Depending on whether the mean of that curve is more on the positive side or the negative one, we can judge the teaching innovation as having been a success or failure.

However, it more commonly seems (purely impressionistic non-scientific anecdotal impression) to end up with the 'Valley of Death', where roughly half the students are in favour of it, and the other half against. One such case was in last year's FREDA module, where I got the students to work in groups, and to write a formative essay as a group. Some students felt this was "not the way we work in English", as if group work was only suitable for those pesky science types, whereas others were initially skeptical, but realised that it was great because you'd get to see how others approach the same task and topic from a completely different direction.

So, what to do? The route of least resistance would be to drop the change, as then the negative comments have been taken into account, and the positives don't matter, as long as they don't state they wouldn't want to go back to the situation before the change. This, however, is deeply unsatisfactory, and my non-pc view is that we as qualified educators know better and that our views, based on sound pedagogy, are actually more worthy than those of the students. This attitude is of course not popular in a culture of constant evaluation and league tables, but then, it's a no-win situation anyway. Maybe I should just retrain as a merchant banker.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

The Business of Learning

I just spent almost an hour watching a video from a presentation at the Business of Software 2009 conference. Why? I have a pile of unmarked essays on my desk.

The real reason was that the speaker is Kathy Sierra, who has a very good approach to teaching programming concepts & looking at things from different angles. I used to read through her "Creating Passionate Users" blog, which she unfortunately discontinued. In this presentation (see below) she discussed how you can make your users feel good about using your products. Users don't want to view your company or your product as 'awesome', they want to see themselves as great. And good products make the user feel awesome.

That clearly has applications to teaching. I always try to answer the question "so what?", to give the students some motivation for why they're sitting in a seminar looking at a text. I think next year I will try even harder with making the students feel awesome...

I do not yet know how many students will be in my modules next year, but I'm already thinking hard about how to change them further. My impression is that my modified teaching style has been very successful, only some things did not work out as well as I had planned them - mainly those which required student participation. I guess the way to get students to participate is to make them more motivated. Or to use a stick instead of a carrot?

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Blogging is good for you. And for me, too!

Blog posts can be a valuable source of 'soft' or 'fuzzy' information. They allow you to partake in a huge number of conversations, sharing cultural information that is otherwise very hard to transmit.

At the weekend I suddenly had a 'flashback' about something that happened some 30 years ago: I remembered a series of children's sci-fi books that I got out of the public library, and which I was then fascinated by. They were brand-new, so the librarian didn't let me borrow the full series, and I seem to remember that I tried to chase those books over the coming weeks/months, but cannot remember whether I actually got them or not, as they were then obviously borrowed by other people and my scholarship was by that age not advanced enough that I made a note of either the author or the titles of those books. All I remembered was the covers, pastel coloured hard-backs.

The stories were about some kids aboard a space ship, with no adults (cannot remember why, I think they were off at work somewhere), going through space and having adventures. I read them in German, and it must have been around 1980 or so.

This elusive memory came back to me for some reason, and I thought that it was a pity that this kind of information is not enough to find those books. But then I thought again, and tried a web search with "seventies" (as I guessed they were English originals, and it would have taken some time for them to be translated), "children books kids spaceship no adults". And I got a result.

The first hit was a blog from just around the corner, Warwick Uni, where the writer asks a similar question. The comments on this post contain a few leads, and as it turns out, there was indeed a story of children trapped on a space ship, "Space Hostages" by Nicholas Fisk. Close but no cigar: this is a single book, not a series, and I was not too sure about the description of the story line. But then I looked up the author and found a reference to a series of books, called "Starstormers". Wikipedia says:

Published between 1980 and 1983 by Hodder, "'Starstormers'" consisted of five books; "'Starstormers'", "'Sunburst'", "'Catfang'", "'Evil Eye'" and "'Volcano'". Fed up of being left in a boarding school on earth while their parents colonize a new planet, a group of children decide to build their own spaceship out of scrap in order to join their parents, but in order to get there they will first have to deal with the mysterious Octopus Emperor.

This seems a bit late, date-wise, but perhaps I only saw the first few, and maybe they got translated quickly. The story seems spot-on, even though I don't remember anything more specific.

Our local library has some of the books, but not the first one, so I bought that on ebay. I will see if this brings back memories, or whether it was a cul-de-sac. In the worst case I'll get my kids to read them, perhaps they are interested in science fiction. Would be an improvement over Harry Potter...

But the real lesson of this episode is that any blog post, no matter how trivial, carries some useful snippet of information. It is like somebody having a chat with their mates, reminiscing about some memories, and you are there, listening, and taking part. It also shows how powerful a simple keyword search is. I would not really have expected to find out this information so easily with just a few words.

This is of course a trivial example, but I would assume that it can apply to professional blogging as well. I often chat to colleagues and friends about teaching or research, and we come up with interesting ideas. If they are put on a blog, they can be shared with the world. And most of them would not be suitably earth-shaking to make it into a journal article (and who's got time for writing everything up?) So the humble blog has a valuable role for disseminating knowledge with a much lower barrier of entry.

What's your excuse for not blogging?

Friday, 12 March 2010

Analytical Thinking

Yesterday I had a brief conversation with some of my first year students, who were asking me about the second year module choices. On the language side there are two choices: DAVE ("Development and Variation of English") and FREDA ("Frameworks of English Discourse Analysis"). I teach FREDA. This year we had about 90 students in DAVE, and 44 in FREDA.

The first years then said they had heard DAVE was easier. Where from, I asked. Some second year students they answered. It took me a while to work out at least two fatal flaws with this, and one unintended positive side-effect.

  1. How on Earth is a second year student able to compare those two modules? I can't, and I'm teaching one. The only way to compare them is to attend both modules, and this is not possible, as they are mutually exclusive choices. It's a bit like claiming that this life on Earth is better or worse than the afterlife. Either you only know one of them, or you're dead.

  2. The next thought is a bit scarier: how can you believe/trust someone who claims something you know to be invalid/impossible? I don't want to push the religious analogies too far at this point, but I guess second year students must have quite a reputation amongst the first years when they can tell them this kind of stuff and get away with it. The first thing you learn at university, however, should be to never trust anybody just because they're older/have more authority/have published a book.

  3. "Easier". How do you apply this term to a module? Is it easier to get good marks? Is the subject material easier to understand? I don't know, but I would probably call a module easier if it didn't involve much work and you'd still get a good mark. But is that what you want from a module at uni? And I doubt that DAVE involves less work than FREDA, and I would also guess that the distribution of marks will not be so different either.

And now the positive side-effect: if students think DAVE is easier because it involves less work, then students who don't like the idea of work will obviously choose DAVE. Therefore, students who choose FREDA should be eager, keen, and willing to work hard for their money (that is the money they paid to come here). This is mostly the case, but I suspect there are also some other students in FREDA. However, those at least will know not to trust the second years and are able to think for themselves. Not all bad, then!

PS: The imbalance of student numbers (which I suspect is mostly due to such rumours and ignorance of what the module is about) is one of the reasons for producing this film about FREDA.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Marketing can be fun

In the second year students have the choice between two language modules, called DAVE and FREDA. Most students choose DAVE, even though they don't seem to have a lot of knowledge about what the modules are about. As I teach FREDA, I decided to do something about it: together with our web master Billy Fallows I did a promotional video:


This was a spontaneous idea after Billy mentioned to me that he was filming a colleague for some MA info-material. I went away and scripted it, and we then decided to go ahead.

Doing it was fairly easy: I asked for some student volunteers, and got some, then we filmed a few shots, put a mini-slideshow together in Keynote, recorded the audio, and put it together in iMovie. The result is obviously better than the above video, which is much reduced to be suitable for the web.

Now I wonder whether this will have any impact on the recruitment figures for next year...

UPDATE: A higher resolution version of this video is now available on YouTube.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Catching up...

The last few weeks have been very busy. Nothing like a bout of marking to mess up your basic schedule! Now that marking is out of the way, normality is slowly returning. Still, there are things to do, and blogging tends not to be the one with the highest priority.

In my Frameworks module, the podcasting was the thing to suffer most from marking. A colleague told me that one of her AST students was sad about it, and I feel somewhat bad myself. I will try and get another podcast put together this week. In the meantime I set the students a task that involved them making their own podcasts, and slowly the results are coming in. Some are really good! They will be made available on the course blog, finally a way to get some activity going there. With any luck, students will not only post their podcasts, but also listen to each others and comment on them.

Language Foundation is slowly ticking along, and finally we're getting to the point where students feel it making 'click' during the grammatical analyses. They are hard work, but by constantly practicing them I believe students will better understand how they work, and feel more self-confident. Only the exam will tell, of course!

Then, almost out of the door is a research project proposal. Only a few things to sort out, and then the big question will be if there is enough money still around within the AHRC to fund it. This leads me back to my main gripe with the current model of research funding: the effort that has gone into this project proposal could have been spent on doing quite a lot of the actual work. Add to that the time spent by university admin people checking the figures, and by the AHRC administrators, and the academic reviewers, etc, and you will find that you probably have spent more money altogether on that proposal then it would cost to just do it. And that is assuming it will get funding, otherwise all that money would simply be wasted.

I can see that this doesn't work with your average science project, even if not all of them cost as much as the Large Hadron Collider, but many smaller humanities projects should just be funded directly. Cut the red tape, avoid the frustration of having your proposals rejected, and put some trust in your academics!

Enough ranting for today, still some things to do before today's list is empty.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

The Future of Learning?

Unlike some people, I am quite excited about the iPad, which was announced yesterday. A tablet computer with a touch screen will have many uses, even if it seems to be somewhat awkwardly positioned in a strange niche between laptops (more powerful, but cumbersome) and smartphones (lighter & smaller, but smaller screen). I think where it will be really useful is in education.

The iPad seems to me to be an ideal device for students: you can easily keep notes, check email, have textbooks accessible, look things up, check your schedule with the calendar, etc. You can even write essays on it. And then, because of wifi, you could submit them with the touch of a button.

So far the biggest obstacle with electronic essay submission for me has been the marking. Marking an essay electronically on a computer just does not work for me. You cannot easily scribble comments on the margins, and annotating a text file like you would a submission to an edited journal is just too much. But if you had a large touch screen on which to read the essay, you could just swipe over a stretch of text, it gets selected and a comment box appears, together with the keyboard. You quickly type your comment, the keyboard disappears again, and the annotation sits on the margin. Back to normal reading. You don't even have to sit at your desk. You can mark a pile of essays easily, even on a cramped train.

I think the universities should set up a subsidised scheme where each student gets an iPad - this would probably push the costs even lower than the current $499 for the basic model (due to bulk buying and/or educational discounting). Teaching staff would also get one, and then we will all sit in the seminars, iPad on lap, looking at texts or media together, sharing group work live on wikis, and have more interactive lectures. This would also save a lot of money currently spent on paper and toner - all hand-outs would be electronic, in colour, and multi-media capable.

This of course is all a bit speculative, as anything regarding the iPad, as I've only seen a video and some photos of it; but if it is anything like a bigger iPhone, I think this should work. But I am rather pessimistic. Such a scheme might be set up at Harvard or Stanford, but Birmingham is so deeply committed to Microsoft software and PC compatible hardware, that I don't see much of a chance for the iPad becoming the learning and teaching enabling tool it could be.

Shame, really.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Breaking the Ice


dnas2 pointed me to a blog entry on advice from the Law Society: don't clear the pavement in front of your house because you can get sued if somebody slips.

So, instead of clearing away the ice to make it less likely for people to slip and break their hips/ankles/whatever, you're supposed to keep it as is, and watch people fall, laughing at them and their misfortune, safe in the knowledge that it's not your fault?

As soon as I heard of that, I decided to clear our pavement. Much better now, and I am sure it is safer for everybody. Took me two hours, but a good workout.

I consider it a civic duty to do this kind of thing. Even if it might be the council's responsibility (unlike countries such as Germany, where you have to clear your bits of pavement or else), this doesn't help people like a friend's daughter, who spent Christmas in hospital because she slipped and broke her ankle. If everybody did the same and cleared snow and ice away, life would be much easier and safer for all.

But it isn't. From the photo you can see that nobody else in our road has cleared their pavement, presumably because it is hard work and you don't have to do it (and shouldn't do it, according to the Law Society advice). When people (usually Conservatives with a capital 'C') talk about 'Broken Britain', they don't mean that, but they should. This is the real bit where our society is 'broken' (if you want to use that word), that (pretty much) nobody cares about other people, it's everybody for themselves. Of course, that's a crass overstatement, and there are a lot of people who do, but they are presumably not members of the Law Society.

If you have an accident, your first thought should not be 'whom do I sue?' But if it isn't, then you are apparently stupid, losing out on a great opportunity to extract cash from a fellow citizen for yourself and your solicitor.


UPDATE: Just came across an article on the BBC website discussing the same issue.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

To-Do List setup and Scrooginess

Yesterday I read an article about a to-do list set up at Lifehack. I'm always keen to try out new productivity ideas to improve on the way I am doing things, so I decided to venture forth and acquire a moleskine. And I nearly fell over backwards when I found one in Waterstones: £10 for a little notebook!?!!

That is of course more than I wanted to spend. I could get a cheap copy at the office supplies shop, for about £3.99, but as I am a programmer (definition: someone who spends 4 hours writing a program that takes 1 minute to solve a problem that can be dealt with in 15 minutes without a program), that was wholly unsatisfactory. I also possess a wonderful gadget for which I can write my own programs, so off I went planning my very own productivity app.

This is partly a challenge, partly a way to think/reflect about what I really want and need from a productivity system. The things that come to mind so far are:

  • keeping to-do lists (daily/weekly)

  • keeping track of 'someday' items

  • keeping track of longer projects with next steps and milestones

  • have items with due dates (and without)

  • integration with address book (for collaborative items)

  • integration with calendar (for deadlines)

This looks like quite a neat app, if I can pull it off. The biggest challenge will be to make it easy to use. Speed of entry and ease of review are important. And the satisfaction of crossing off items off a to-do list...

I will keep you updated on my progress. Unlike previous (half-finished) projects, I will try to map this one out and plan it in more detail before starting the implementation. The actual development will be rather technical, and I'll discuss that on my other blog, where it will be more appropriate.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Getting ready for 2010

A bit late, as it has already started! But some exciting developments: I have a guest post lined up, about a topic that will hopefully be interesting to readers of this blog. Also, with the new term starting, there is lots of work coming up, and the challenge is to find strategies of coping with the workload, and sharing them through this blog.

In the Frameworks of English Discourse Analysis, essays are due in a week, and I will then find out if the use of podcasting and additional group work has made a difference. So far, feedback seems positive, but we will see...

My discipline with not having an email tab open in my browser all the time, and turning off google notifier works well. I feel I get more done, which is great. And ticking things of the to-do list is a good feeling. My plan for this year: improve on my work habits, and disseminate the results. Happy 2010!