Author Archives: George Roberts

About George Roberts

George has been at Oxford Brookes since 2000 and joined OCSLD in June 2006 as an Educational Developer (e-Learning). In his previous role he advised the Head of e-Learning and the Senior Management Team of the University on policy for off-campus e-learning and e-learning partnerships. He leads the MA Education (Higher Education) and teaches on the Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching in Higher Education (PCTHE) as well as conducting Course Design Intensives (CDIs) and other educational development activities: workshops and consultancies. He leads the Learning domain in the development of the University's Technology Enhanced Learning framework. He wrote his doctorate (July 2011) at the University of Southampton on biographical narratives of adult users of a community IT centre on a large social housing estate.

Where risk lies for HEIs: the conflation of regulation, reputation and enhancement

I had a conversation with our head of QA about the consultations current in HE regulation. Her pragmatic approach is refreshing.
I thought I might share the gist of my side of the conversation. I am working through documents at a more leisurely pace than the folk at Wonkhe. And I did read David kernohan’s  A game of risk. So, I have probably tainted my mind.
David took a very useful wider political perspective and wasn’t looking at the practicalities of working in a main-sequence institution, upon which the larger burden of risk appears to be being laid. Russell Group: fine. New providers: fine. It’s all you ex-polytechnics that are the problem. It is not only Andrew Adonis taking this position. It could be read as the same old “Media Studies are Mickey Mouse Degrees” argument: sound and fury signifying old attitudes dying hard.
But my tentative conclusion is the conflation of regulation, reputation and enhancement is where the risk lies. Institutions need to be careful not to conflate NSS, TEF and league-table positionality with either: their own enhancement or the regulatory regime. I think those are three different “games”.

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Tinkering with algorithms

I read Franklin Foer’s Facebook’s War on Free Will the Guardian’s “Long read” for Tuesday 19 September 2017.

He recapped a familiar argument: you are Facebook’s product. But when he hit “data science” I turned up my sensors. He says, “There’s a whole discipline, data science, to guide the writing and revision of algorithms”. Then he picks up on Cameron Marlow, “the former head of Facebook’s data science team”:

Facebook has a team, poached from academia, to conduct experiments on users. It’s a statistician’s sexiest dream – some of the largest data sets in human history, the ability to run trials on mathematically meaningful cohorts. … Marlow said, “we have a microscope that not only lets us examine social behaviour at a very fine level that we’ve never been able to see before, but allows us to run experiments that millions of users are exposed to.”

The point the experimentalists miss is that the experiment is directed towards outcomes already. The ethics are, at least, sensitive. Continue reading

Is the machine us?

Wait a minute. Learning analytics are always mediated by a human, or by humans (plural).

Sheila MacNeil, in a thought provoking post subtitled … analytics of the oppressed, launches into “… the learning analytics interventions should always be mediated by a human debate later this week at Digifest.”

Software and machinery always embed human values and beliefs about what is good and how to achieve it. And when it is asserted that “the machine says…” the first point holds true. The machine says only what people have enabled it to say. Whether the machine is reflective and self-aware, with anything like a recognisable value system? This is a question we can no more meaningfully ask of a machine than we can of a lobster, except to the extent that we can recognise the machine as an emergent phenomenon of human technology, and the lobster, arguably, not.

Unless, as Mike Wetsch put it, the machine is us? And then we have to ask, who are we?

Pay gaps, gender gaps and other crap

Money is power. More particularly, money is patriarchal power. Now here is the rub. If you use the powerful’s form of power to overthrow the current power, you simply replicate power as it is. You do not transform it. OK, it is a little more complicated, but that is about it. If you use hierarchised authoritarian structures to overthrow an authoritarian hierarchy, you end up with an authoritarian hierarchy. The Czar => Lenin => Stalin => Putin is the classic example given. If money and banking are used to overthrow money and banking… You get my point. “Progressives” believe incremental change can be speeded up and that systemic benefits can be progressively more evenly shared, thereby, progressively reducing noxious aspects of the present. I suggest male-female iniquities are due to more than pay differentials and while closing pay gaps is necessary, I suspect that male-female iniquity will persist unless other things also change. Or perhaps the pay gap needs to be levelled down with the differentials redistributed by some transparent, democratic mechanism to all those currently dispossessed by the current power..

Interlibrary loan or Sci-Hub? A short saga

What follows is a short saga.

Journal price inflation also adds significantly to staff time costs or reduced efficiency.

I was searching for: Ashwin, P, Deem, R, & McAlpine, L 2016, ‘Newer researchers in higher education: policy actors or policy subjects?’, Studies In Higher Education, 41, 12, pp. 2184-2197

Our online subscription to Studies in HE is embargoed for 18 months so I asked our librarian. I was advised that I needed to do an Interlibrary loan request (ILL). So, I thought I would try. To do an ILL I navigate to the page and click to log in to start the process. I enter my staff number as I do for all the Shib protected resources. Authentication fails with no request for password.

Oh yes… I remember long ago the library number was different to the staff number. you have to drop off the p and add an extra 0 (What? Yes, i know, who retains this kind of information?) And then you have to parse all the information from the citation into a slightly different structure and find the ISSN of the journal. Then you need permission from someone with access to cost codes. Get a cost code, by phone… not at desk. By email… wait until they are back from lunch? A week’s leave?.

Makes an already frustrating search for a current important piece of research in my field just that much more fun, knowing that somewhere someone in a wealthier university or the British Library can walk through the stacks, find the print article, photocopy it and post it to me for £10.30.

Or you paste the citation into Sci-Hub and in 2 seconds download the pdf.

I have broken the law. Using Brookes equipment. But I am mindfully going into harm to point out an issue. Journal price inflation significantly also adds to staff time costs or reduced efficiency.

What I should have done, of course is write to the lead author and request a copy, but they could be on leave, etc. And of course I did. But they haven’t replied yet.

Back to the really hard stuff

I am doing, in a way, what I have always wanted to do: teaching in a university, running an academic conference, editing a journal, supervising dissertations, some consultancy. And now I seem to have found the time and space to develop the two items that have been hardest for me to achieve and for which I have taken or given myself knocks: psychic and physical: the MA Education (Higher Education) and the Higher Education Journal of Learning and Teaching. (HEJLT)

Every student published? Original MA work? At the cutting edge of policy and provision.

 

Fudge?

When the tin of TEF was first opened a few days ago with all the shiny gold, silver and bronze foil-wrapped toffees, chocolates and what nots, it was entertaining and galling in measures to see who got what and what my own gaff got. Although I had been given a steer away from expecting gold, as an Educational Developer at a teaching focussed university with a heritage of teaching development initiatives, I kind of think we should have got gold. Or it is to some small extent down to me if we didn’t? Or, who knows? Maybe without me and my colleagues we would be scraping bronze?

So when I take the lid off the TEF tin a few days later it is all smelling like fudge. Grant Chapman Clarke (@elgranto) got me thinking when he pointed out who was shouting about results and who wasn’t. One could almost be forgiven for thinking that the only criterion applied to awarding the foil was how to keep the “shouting” to the very minimum possible.

And to achieve this the evaluators must have had to apply a lot of fine judgement.

Lots to do: thoughts on the task ahead

The task, for me, the lots to-do is to transform theory to practice. That is, education development aims not just to bring about correct understanding but to create social and political conditions (that is, community) more conducive to human flourishing than the present ones.

I became a Football Coach last winter and now help run a childrens’ football club (Donnington FC). My head coach has a to do list to keep Alexander the Great busy. I feel kind of the same at work. So many good ideas! Not all mine, I hasten to add!

Big on the to-do list is bringing a number of blogs back to life, not least my own! In teaching you do have to walk the chalk not just talk the talk. It can get dressed up as authenticity and typologised away into abstraction but that only lasts so long: froth. I was going to say like froth on a cappuccino but the cappuccinos from the machines today seem to have industrial strength froth that way outlasts the coffee. You get my point?

I say “social media” but I am far from the biggest of the big-time edtech bloggers. Not even close! Am I having my “those who can’t…” moment? I say “social” media but I do not do social media? So many film references, so little time: “here’s Jack,” “he’s back,””unforgiven.”

Look at my own typology. Experience? Well ok, or at least a few years under the belt. Dialogue? I have become better over the years at giving voice to others. Reflection? Yes but in my world, too private. This goes to a correction needed. Participation? There is a gap for me, which I will get to. Community? don’t get me started. It is all what matters and strikes me is incompatible with most hierarchies – but significantly: not all hierarchies. Outcomes? They matter. Whether or not specified or unintended what happens as a result of setting yourself up to do something is consequential. And, finally Activity. You actually have to do stuff. Like write. In blogs. And make pictures about it, which could mean lines in the sand, or yellow dandelions on green grass setting up positions for a transition moment: a change of possession. And in that moment, team, there is lot’s to do.

The participation gap? I said I’d come back to that. There is a gap, I suggest, for everyone in education. There is something called the “real world”. Where “real people” feed children, or not. Where absolutely all some people have is the child in their arms and a half a bottle of water.

Like I said, the task, for me, the lots to-do is to transform theory to practice. Education development aims not just to bring about correct understanding but to create social and political conditions (that is, community) more conducive to human flourishing than the present ones.

Higher Education Studies

Structurally, politically, philosophically and commercially there is more change in higher education in the UK today than there has been since the Polytechnics had their magic wand waved in 1992

The OfS’s foundation is more than a simple re-branding exercise. The shift from a ‘funding council’ to a ‘regulator’, a body found in many public and private sectors from energy, telecoms, to financial services and beyond, is a fundamental change in philosophy. (WonkHE, Monday briefing, 3 April 2017)

In a leap across several nations and several arguments, I expect England, along with Scotland (already) and Wales (very soon) will have a common, but possibly chaotic regulatory and funding framework for post-compulsory (“tertiary”) education including a plethora of new providers (many private) and new awards including Degree Apprenticeships. But difference, hierarchy and competition will persist and be generated within and between institutions, nations and firms (or syndicates or enterprises).

It appears that rules of “firms” more so than rules of “markets” or “businesses” apply. An altogether more Machiavellian future of privateers on the edge of empires beckons.

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