On the edge: universities bureacratised to death?

Just took a quick peek at the new JISC report “Edgeless University: why higher education must embrace technology” prompted by a blog about it by Sarah Bartlett at Talis.

The report is set in the context of both an increasing number of overseas students, attracted by the UK’s educational reputation, and also the desire for widening access to universities.  I am not convinced by the idea that technology is necessarily the way to go for either of these goals as it is just so much harder and more expensive to produce good quality learning materials without massive economies of scale (as the OU has).  Also the report seems to mix up open access to research outputs and open access to learning.

However, it was not these issues, that caught my eye, but a quote by Thomas Kealey vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham,  the UKs only private university.  For three years Buckingham has come top of UK student satisfaction surveys, and Kealey says:

This is the third year that we’ve come top because we are the only university in Britain that focuses on the student rather than on government or regulatory targets. (Edgeless University, p. 21)

Of course, those in the relevant departments of government would say that the regulations and targets are inteded to deliver education quality, but as so often this centralising of control, (started paradoxically in the UK during the Thatcher years), serves instead to constrain real quality that comes from people not rules.

In 1992 we saw the merging of the polytechnic and university sectors in the UK.  As well as diffferences in level of education, the former were tradtionally under the auspices of local goverment, whereas the latter were independent educational isntitutions. Those in the ex-polytechnic sector hoped to emulate the levels of attaiment and ethos of the older universities.  Instead, in recent years the whole sector seems to have been dragged down into a bureacratic mire where paper trails take precidence over students and scholarship.

Obviously private institutions, as  Kealey suggests, can escape this, but I hope that current and future government can have the foresight and humility to let go some of this centralised control, or risk destroying the very system it wishes to grow.

the more things change …

I’ve been reading Jeni (Tennison)’s Musings about techie web stuff XML, RDF, etc.  Two articles particularly caught my eye.  One was Versioning URIs about URIs for real world and conceptual objects (schools, towns), and in particular how to deal with the fact that these change over time.  The other was Working With Fragmented Overlapping Markup all about managing multiple hierarchies of structure for the same underlying data.

In the past I’ve studied issues both of versioning and of multiple structures on the same data1, and Jeni lays out the issues for both really clearly. However, both topics gave a sense of deja vu, not just because of my own work, but because they reminded me of similar issues that go way back before the web was even thought of.

Versioning URIs and unique identifiers2

In my very first computing job (COBOL programming for Cumbria County Council) many many years ago, I read an article in Computer Weekly about choice of keys (I think for ISAM not even relational DBs). The article argued that keys should NEVER contain anything informational as it is bound to change. The author gave an example of standard maritime identifiers for a ship’s journey (rather like a flight number) that were based on destination port and supposed to never change … except when the ship maybe moved to a different route. There is always an ‘except’, so, the author argued, keys should be non-informational.

Just a short while after reading this I was working on a personnel system for the Education Dept. and was told emphatically that every teacher had a DES code given to them by government and that this code never changed. I believed them … they were my clients. However, sure enough, after several rounds of testing and demoing when they were happy with everything I tried a first mass import from the council’s main payroll file. Validations failed on a number of the DES numbers. It turned out that every teacher had a DES number except for new teachers where the Education Dept. then issued a sort of ‘pretend’ one … and of course the DES number never changed except when the real number came through. Of course, the uniqueness of the key was core to lots of the system … major rewrite :-/

The same issues occurred in many relational DBs where the spirit (rather like RDF triples) was that the record was defined by values, not by identity … but look at most SQL DBs today and everywhere you see unique but arbitrary identifying ids. DOIs, ISBNs, the BBC programme ids – we relearn the old lessons.

Unfortunately, once one leaves the engineered world of databases or SemWeb, neither arbitrary ids nor versioned ones entirely solve things as many real world entities tend to evolve rather than metamorphose, so for many purposes http://persons.org/2009/AlanDix is the same as http://persons.org/1969/AlanDix, but for others different: ‘nearly same as’ only has limited transitivity!

  1. e.g. Modelling Versions in Collaborative Work and Collaboration on different document processing platforms; quite a few years ago now![back]
  2. edited version of comments I left on Jeni’s post[back]

fix for WordPress shortcode bug

I’m starting to use shortcodes heavily in WordPress1 as we are using it internally on the DEPtH project to coordinate our new TouchIT book.  There was minor bug which meant that HTML tags came out unbalanced (e.g. “<p></div></p”).

I’ve just been fixing it and posting a patch2, interestingly the bug was partly due to the fact that back-references in regular expressions count from the beginning of the regular expression, making it impossible to use them if the expression may be ‘glued’ into a larger one … lack of referential transparency!

For anyone having similar problems, full details and patch below (all WP and PHP techie stuff).

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  1. see section “using dynamic binding” in What’s wrong with dynamic binding?[back]
  2. TRAC ticket #10490[back]

What’s wrong with dynamic binding?

Dynamic scoping/binding of variables has a bad name, rather like GOTO and other remnants of the Bad Old Days before Structured Programming saved us all1.  But there are times when dynamic binding is useful and looking around it is very common in web scripting languages, event propagation, meta-level programming, and document styles.

So is it really so bad?

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  1. Strangely also the days when major advances in substance seemed to be more important than minor advances in nomenclature[back]

spam going up

I noticed the size of my spam folder seemed to be going up.  16.5 Mb in the first 14 days of July.  I checked back to see what it was previously (I am truly sad and archive my Trash folders, so can see what t was!).  The 9 months October-June was 154 Mb, so with July at 33Mb in one month that looks like near doubling in rate.  Actually looking back the previous 19 month period was 88Mb, so again doubling.

I checked Eudora’s record of the numbers of emails arriving (right).  This incoming mail is  dominated by Spam and shows it going up from about 3000 a week in January to over 5000 a week now, again consonant with a doubling about every 9 months.  I’m not sure if this is because the server-side spam exclusion is letting more through or because the total volume is increasing. If the latter, the trend is worrying, not just for those of us personally trying to cope with the volume, but also for mail servers.

Moore’s law for disk capacity is about doubling in 18 months, and personally I’ve noticed that my actual document sizes tend to double about every 3 years (more media etc.), so basically disk space keeps ahead of disk need.  However, if the Spam volume is doubling every 9 months it is faster than disk size increases, so mail servers may find themselves struggling with the throughput, even if they can filter and remove it.

Is it just me or are other people seeing a similar pattern?

grammer aint wot it used two be

Fiona @ lovefibre and I have often discussed the worrying decline of language used in many comments and postings on the web. Sometimes people are using compressed txtng language or even leetspeak, both of these are reasonable alternative codes to ‘proper’ English, and potentially part of the natural growth of the language.  However, it is often clear that the cause is ignorance not choice.  One of the reasons may be that many more people are getting a voice on the Internet; it is not just the journalists, academics and professional classes.  If so, this could be a positive social sign indicating that a public voice is no longer restricted to university graduates, who, of course, know their grammar perfectly …

Earlier today I was using Google to look up the author of a book I was reading and one of the top links was a listing on ratemyprofessors.com.  For interest I clicked through and saw:

“He sucks.. hes mean and way to demanding if u wanan work your ass off for a C+ take his class1

Hmm I wonder what this student’s course assignment looked like?

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  1. In case you think I’m a complete pedant, personally, I am happy with both the slang ‘sucks’ and ‘ass’ (instead of ‘arse’!), and the compressed speech ‘u’. These could be well-considered choices in language. The mistyped ‘wanna’ is also just a slip. It is the slightly more proper “hes mean and way to demanding” that seems to show  general lack of understanding.  Happily, the other comments, were not as bad as this one, but I did find the student who wanted a “descent grade” amusing 🙂 [back]

a simple PHP record sorter class

Not for the first time I needed to sort arrays of arrays in PHP (structures like tiny DB tables).  I have previously written little wrapper functions round usort, but decided this time to make a small class. It is a simple, but generic utility, so popping it up in case useful to anyone.

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a new version of … on downgrades and preferences

I’m wondering why people break things when they create new versions.

Firefox used to open a discreet little window when you downloaded papers.  Now-a-days it opens a full screen window completely hiding the browser.

A minor issue, but makes me wonder about both new versions and also defaults and personalisation in general.

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