A tale of two conferences and the future of learning technology in the UK

Over the past few weeks I’ve been to two conferences focused on different aspects of technology and learning, Talis Insight Europe and ACM Learning at Scale (L@S). This led me to reflect on the potential for and barriers to ground breaking research in these areas in the UK.

The first conference, Talis Insight Europe, grew out of the original Talis User Group, but as well as company updates on existing and new products, also has an extensive line-up of keynotes by major educational visionaries and decision makers (including pretty much the complete line-up of JISC senior staff) and end-user contributed presentations.

hole-in-the-wall-Begin02The second, Learning @ Scale, grew out of the MOOC explosion, and deals with the new technology challenges and opportunities when we are dealing with vast numbers of students. It also had an impressive array of keynote speakers, including Sugata Mitra, famous for the ‘Hole in the Wall‘, which brought technology to street children in India.

Although there were some common elements (big data and dashboards got a mention in both!), the audiences were quite different. For Insight, the large majority were from HE (Higher Education) libraries, followed by learning technologists, industry representatives, and HE decision-makers. In contrast, L@S consisted largely of academics, many from computing or technical backgrounds, with some industry researchers, including, as I was attending largely with my Talis hat on, me.

insight-2016-jisc-keynoteIn a joint keynote at Insight, Paul Fieldman and Phil Richards the CEO and CIO of JISC, described the project to provide a learning analytics service [FR16,JI16] (including student app and, of course, dashboard) for UK institutions. As well as the practical benefits, they outlined a vision where the UK leads the way in educational big data for personalised learning.

Given a long track record of education and educational technology research in the UK, the world-leading distance-learning university provision of the Open University, and recent initiatives both those outlined by JISC and FutureLearn (building on the OUs vast experience), this vision seems not unreasonable.

However, on the ground at Learning @ Scale, there was a very different picture; the vast majority of papers and attendees were from the US, an this despite the conference being held in Edinburgh.

To some extent this is as one might expect. While traditional distance learning, including the OU, has class sizes that for those in face-to-face institutions feel massive; these are dwarfed by those for MOOCs, which started in the US; and it is in the US where the main MOOC players (Coursera, udacity, edX) are based. edX alone had initial funding more than ten times that available to FutureLearn, so in sheer investment terms, the balance at L@S is representative.

FutureLearn-logoHowever, Mike Sharples, long-term educational technology researcher and Academic Lead at FutureLearn, was one of the L@S keynotes [Sh16]. In his presentation it was clear that FutureLearn and UK MOOCs punch well above their weight, with retention statistics several times higher than US counterparts. While this may partly be due to topic areas, it is also a reflection of the development strategy. Mike outlined how empirically founded educational theory has driven the design of the FutureLearn platform, not least the importance of social learning. Perhaps then not surprisingly, one of the areas where FutureLearn substantially led over US counterparts was in social aspects of learning.

So there are positive signs for UK research in these areas. While JISC has had its own austerity-driven funding problems, its role as trusted intermediary and active platform creator offers a voice and forum that few, if any, other countries posses. Similarly, while FutureLearn needs to be sustainable, so has to have a certain inward focus, it does seem to offer a wonderful potential resource for collaborative research. Furthermore the open education resource (OER) community seems strong in the UK.

The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) [HC16,TH15] will bring its own problems, more about justifying student fee increases than education, potentially damaging education through yet more ill-informed political interference, and re-establishing class-based educational apartheid. However, it will certainly increase universities’ interest in education technology.

Set against this are challenges.

First was the topic of my own L@S work-in-progress paper – Challenge and Potential of Fine Grain, Cross-Institutional Learning Data [Dx16]. At Talis, we manage half a million reading lists, containing over 20 million resources, spread over more than 85 institutions including more than half of UK higher education. However, these institutions are all very different, and the half million courses each only may have only tens or low hundreds of students. That is very large scale in total volume, but highly heterogeneous. The JISC learning analytics repository will have exactly the same issues, and are far more difficult to deal with by machine learning or statistical analysis than the relatively homogeneous data from a single huge MOOC.

scale-up-and-down

These issues of heterogeneous scale are not unique to education and ones that as a general information systems phenomena, I have been interested in for many years, and call the “long tail of small data” [Dx10,Dx15]. While this kind of data is more complex and difficult to deal with, this is of course a major research challenge, and potentially has greater long-term promise than the study of more homogeneous silos. I am finding this in my own work with musicologist [IC16,DC14], and is emerging as an issue in the natural sciences [Bo13,PC07].

long-tail

Another problem is REF, the UK ‘Research Excellence Framework’. My post-hoc analysis of the REF data revealed the enormous bias in the computing sub-panel against any form of applied and human-oriented work [Dx15b,Dx15c]. Of course, this is not a new issue, just that the available data has made this more obvious and undeniable. This affects my own core research area of human–computer interaction, but also, and probably much more substantially, learning technology research. Indeed, I think most learning technologists had already sussed this out well before REF2014 as there were very few papers submitted in this area to the computing panel. I assume most research on learning technology was submitted to the education panel.

To some extent it does not matter where research is submitted and assessed; however, while in theory the mapping between university departments and submitted units is fluid for REF, in practice submitting to ‘other’ panels is problematic making it difficult to write coherent narratives about the research environment. If learning technology research is not seen as REF-able in computing, computing departments will not recruit in these areas and discourage this kind of research. While my hope is that REF2020 will not re-iterate the mistakes of REF2014, there is no guarantee of this, and anyway the effects on institutional policy will already have been felt.

However, and happily, the kinds of research needed to make sense of this large-scale heterogeneous data may well prove more palatable to a computing REF panel than more traditional small-scale learning technology. It would be wonderful to see research collaborations between those with long-term experience and understanding of educational issues, with hard-core machine learning and statistical analysis – this is BIG DATA and challenging data. Indeed one of the few UK papers at L@S involved Pearson’s London-based data analysis department, and included automatic clustering, hidden Markov models, and regression analysis.

In short, while there are barriers in the UK, there is also great potential for exciting research that is both theoretically challenging and practically useful, bringing the insights available from large-scale educational data to help individual students and academics.

References

[Bo13] Christine L. Borgman. Big data and the long tail: Use and reuse of little data. Oxford eResearch Centre Seminar, 12th March 2013. http://works.bepress.com/borgman/269/

[Dx10] A. Dix (2010). In praise of inconsistency – the long tail of small data. Distinguished Alumnus Seminar, University of York, UK, 26th October 2011.
http://www.hcibook.com/alan/talks/York-Alumnus-2011-inconsistency/

[Dx15] A. Dix (2014/2015). The big story of small data. Talk at Open University, 11th November 2014; Oxford e-Research Centre, 10th July 2015; Mixed Reality Laboratory, Nottingham, 15th December 2015.
http://www.hcibook.com/alan/talks/OU-2014-big-story-small-data/

[DC14] Dix, A., Cowgill, R., Bashford, C., McVeigh, S. and Ridgewell, R. (2014). Authority and Judgement in the Digital Archive. In The 1st International Digital Libraries for Musicology workshop (DLfM 2014), ACM/IEEE Digital Libraries conference 2014, London 12th Sept. 2014. http://alandix.com/academic/papers/DLfM-2014/

[Dx15b] Alan Dix (2015/2016).  REF2014 Citation Analysis. accessed 8/5/2016.  http://alandix.com/ref2014/

[Dx15c] A. Dix (2015). Citations and Sub-Area Bias in the UK Research Assessment Process. In Workshop on Quantifying and Analysing Scholarly Communication on the Web (ASCW’15) at WebSci 2015 on June 30th in Oxford. http://ascw.know-center.tugraz.at/2015/05/26/dix-citations-and-sub-areas-bias-in-the-uk-research-assessment-process/

[Dx16]  Alan Dix (2016). Challenge and Potential of Fine Grain, Cross-Institutional Learning Data. Learning at Scale 2016. ACM. http://alandix.com/academic/papers/LS2016/

[FR16] Paul Feldman and Phil Richards (2016).  JISC – Helping the UK become the most advanced digital teaching and research nation in the world.  Talis Insight Europe 2016. https://talis.com/2016/04/29/jisc-keynote-paul-feldman-phil-richards-talis-insight-europe-2016/

[HC16] The Teaching Excellence Framework: Assessing Quality in Higher Education. House of Commons, Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, Third Report of Session 2015–16. HC 572.  29 February 2016.  http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmselect/cmbis/572/572.pdf

[IC16] In Concert (2014-2016).  accessed 8/5/2016  http://inconcert.datatodata.com

[JI16]  Effective learning analytics. JISC, accessed   8/5/2016.  https://www.jisc.ac.uk/rd/projects/effective-learning-analytics

[PC07] C. L. Palmer, M. H. Cragin, P. B. Heidorn and L.C. Smith. 2007. Data curation for the long tail of science: The Case of environmental sciences. 3rd International Digital Curation Conference, Washington, DC. https://apps.lis.illinois.edu/wiki/ download/attachments/32666/Palmer_DCC2007.pdf

[Sh16]  Mike Sharples (2016).  Effective Pedagogy at Scale, Social Learning and Citizen Inquiry (keynote). Learning at Scale 2016. ACM. http://learningatscale.acm.org/las2016/keynotes/#k2

[TH15] Teaching excellence framework (TEF): everything you need to know.  Times Higher Education, August 4, 2015. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/teaching-excellence-framework-tef-everything-you-need-to-know

 

logo design competition – final days

The first entries are in for the logo design competition for the open HCI course I’m presenting in the autumn.  Arunn @ Talis has posted them on the wall in the office.  One is a very good cartoon style illustration, but I’m sure I don’t really look like that :-/

Final entries due by tomorrow midnight … and then Arunn is going to post them up for popular vote … and whichever gets most votes I end up wearing on a T-shirt at the HCI conference in a few weeks time.  There are times when democracy just feels wrong!

mooHCIc – a massive open online HCI course

Would you like to know more about human–computer interaction, or would you like free additional resources for your students?

Hardly a week goes by without some story about the changing face of online open education: from Khan Academy to Apple’s iTunes U and a growing number of large-scale open online courses from leading academics such as Thrun‘s AI course at Stanford.

Talis is interested in the software needed to support these new forms of large-scale open learning.  So, partly because it seems a good idea, and partly to be a willing guinea pig, I am going to run a massive online open HCI course in the autumn.

This type of course is either aimed exclusively at people outside a traditional education setting; or else, in the case of some of the university based courses, the professor/tutor is teaching their own class and then making some of the materials connected with it available on the web.

While similarly aiming to cater for those outside mainstream education, I would like also to make it easy for those in traditional university settings to use this as part of their own courses, maybe suggesting it as additional material to recommend to their students.  Even more interesting will be if the online material is incorporated more deeply into your courses, perhaps using it instead of some of the lectures/labs you would normally give.

If you are teaching a HCI course and would be interested in me being a ‘virtual guest lecturer’ by using this material (free!) please let me know.

I don’t intend to do a broad introductory HCI ‘101’ (although I may start with a short ‘laying out the area’ component), but more a series of components on particular sub-topics.  These will themselves be split into small units of perhaps 10-15 minutes ‘lecture style’ material (Khan-style voice over, or maybe mix of voice-over and head-and-shoulders).  Each sub-topic will have its own exercises, discussion areas, etc.  So, tutors intending to use this as part of their own courses can choose a sub-topic that fits into their curriculum, and likewise individuals not part of a formal course can pick appropriate topics for themselves.   I may also think of some integrative exercises for those doing more than one component.

I have yet to decide the final topics, but the following are things for which I have given some sort of tutorial or produced fresh materials recently:

  • introduction to information visualisation — using materials created for IR+InfoVis winter school in Zinal last January
  • emotion and experience — using new chapter written for next edition of HCI book, and tutorial I did at iUSEr last December
  • physicality — looking at the interactions between digital and physical product design — based on forthcoming TouchIT book
  • formal methods in HCI — as I have just written a chapter for Mads’ interaction-design.org open encyclopaedia of HCI
  • user interface software architecture — based on heavily updated chapter for next edition of HCI book
  • creativity and innovation — (wider than pure HCI audience) — drawing on experience of teaching technical creativity using ‘Bad Ideas’ and other methods, with both practical (doing it) and theoretical (understanding it) aspects
  • designing for use (adoption and appropriation) — understanding the factors that lead to products being adopted including the rich interplay between design and marketing; and then, the factors that can allow users to appropriate products to their own purposes.

I will not do all these, but if some seem particularly interesting to you or your students, let me know and I’ll make final decisions soon based on a balance between popularity and ease of production!

The value of networks: mining and building

The value of networks or graphs underlies many of the internet (and for that read global corporate) giants.  Two of the biggest: Google and Facebook harness this in very different ways — mining and building.

Years ago, when I was part of the dot.com startup aQtive, we found there was no effective understanding of internet marketing, and so had to create our own.  Part of this we called ‘market ecology‘.  This basically involved mapping out the relationships of influence between different kinds of people within some domain, and then designing families of products that exploited that structure.

The networks we were looking at were about human relationships: for example teachers who teach children, who have other children as friends and siblings, and who go home to parents.  Effectively we were into (too) early social networking1!

The first element of this was about mining — exploiting the existing network of relationships.

However in our early white papers on the topic, we also noted that the power of internet products was that it was also possible to create new relationships, for example, adding ‘share’ links.  That is building the graph.

The two are not distinct, if one is not able to exploit new relationships within a product it will die, and the mining of existing networks can establish new links (e.g. Twitter suggesting who to follow).  Furthermore, creating of links is rarely ex nihilo, an email ‘share’ link uses an existing relationships (contact in address book), but brings it into a potentially different domain (e.g. bookmarking a web page).

It is interesting to see Google and Facebook against this backdrop.  Their core strengths are in different domains (web information and social relationships), but moreover they focus differently on mining and building.

Google is, par excellence, about mining graphs (the web).  While it has been augmented and modified over the years, the link structure used in PageRank is what made Google great.  Google also mine tacit relationships, for example the use of word collocation to understand concepts and relationships, so in a sense build from what they mine.

Facebook’s power, in contrast, is in the way it is building the social graph as hundreds of millions of people tell it about their own social relationships.  As noted, this is not ex nihilo, the social relationships exist in the real word, but Facebook captures them digitally.  Of course, then Facebook mines this graph in order to derive revenue form advertisements, and (although people debate this) attempt to improve the user experience by ranking posts.

Perhaps the greatest power comes in marrying the two.   Amazon does this to great effect within the world of books and products.

As well as a long-standing academic interest, these issues are particularly germane to my research at Talis where the Education Graph is a core element.  However, they apply equally whether the core network is kite surfers, chess or bio-technology.

Between the two it is probably building that is ultimately most critical.  When one has a graph or network it is possible to find ways to exploit it, but without the network there is nothing to mine. Page and Brin knew this in the early days of their pre-Google project at Stanford, and a major effort was focused on simply gathering the crawl of the web on which they built their algorithms2.  Now Google is aware that, in principle, others can exploit the open resources on which much of its business depends; its strength lies in its intellectual capital. In contrast, with a few geographical exceptions, Facebook is the social graph, far more defensible as Google has discovered as it struggles with Google Plus.

  1. See our retrospective about vfridge  at  last year’s HCI conference and our original web sharer vision.[back]
  2. See the description of this in “In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works and Shapes Our Lives“.[back]

using the Public Suffix list

On a number of occasions I have wanted to decompose domain names, for example in the URL recogniser in Snip!t.  However, one problem has always been the bit at the end.  It is clear that ‘com’ and ‘ac.uk’ are the principle suffixes of ‘www.alandix.com’ and ‘www.cs.bham.ac.uk’ respectively.  However, while I know that for UK domains it is the last two components that are important (second level domains), I never knew how to work this out in general for other countries.  Happily, Mozilla and other browser vendors have an initiative called the Public Suffix List , which provides a list of just these important critical second level (and deeper level) suffixes.

I recently found I needed this again as part of my Talis research.  There is a Ruby library and a Java sourceforge project for reading the Public Suffix list, and an implementation by the DKIM Reputation project, that transforms the list into generated tables for C, PHP and Perl.  However, nothing for easily and automatically maintaining access to the list.  So I have written a small PHP class to parse, store and access the Public Suffix list. There is an example in the public suffix section of the ‘code’ pages in this blog, and it also has its own microsite including more examples, documentation and a live demo to try.

New Year and New Job

It is a New Year and I am late with my Christmas crackers again!

If you are expecting the annual virtual cracker from me it is coming … but maybe not before Twelfth Night :-/

The New Year is bringing changes, not least, as many already know, I am moving my academic role and taking up a part-time post as professor down in Birmingham University.

At Birmingham I will be joining an established and vibrant HCI centre, including long-term colleague and friend Russell Beale.  The group has recently had substantial  investment from the University leading to several new appointments including Andrew Howes (who coincidentally also has past Lancaster connections).

The reasons for the move are partly to join this exciting group and partly to simplify life as Talis is based in Birmingham, so just one place to travel to regularly, and one of my daughters also there.

Of course this also means I will be leaving many dear colleagues and friends at Lancaster, but I do expect to continue to work with many and am likely to retain a formal or informal role there for some time.

As well as moving institutions I am also further reducing my percentage of academic time — typically I’ll be just one day a week academic.  So, apologies in advance if my email responses becomes even more sporadic and I turn down (or fail to answer :-() requests for reviews, PhD exams, etc.

Although moving institutions, I will, of course, continue to live up in Tiree (wild and windy, but, at the moment, so is everywhere!), so will still be travelling up and down the country; I’ll wave as I pass!

… and there will be another Tiree Tech Wave in March 🙂

Six weeks on the road

I’ve been at home for the last week after six weeks travelling around the UK and elsewhere.  I’ve not kept up while on the road so doing a retrospective post on it all and need to try to catch on other half written posts.

As well as time at Talis offices in B’ham and at Lancs (including exam board week), travels have taken me to Pisa for a workshop on ‘Supportive User Interfaces’, to Koblenz for Web Science conference giving a talk on embodiment issues and a poster on web-scale reasoning , to Newcastle for British HCI conference doing a talk on fridge, to Nottingham to give a talk on extended episodic experience, and back to Lancs for a session on creativity! Why can’t I be like sensible folks and talk on one topic!

Supportive User Interfaces

Monday 13th June I attended a workshop in Pisa on “Supportive User Interfaces“, which includes interfaces that adapt in various ways to users.  The majority of people there were involved in various forms of model-based user interfaces in which various models of the task, application and interaction are used to generate user interfaces on the fly. W3C have had a previous group in this area; Dave Raggett from w3c was at the workshop and it sounds like there will be a new working group soon.  This clearly has strong links to various forms of ‘meta-level’ representations of data, tasks, etc..  My own contribution started the day, framing the area, focusing partly on reasons for having more ‘meta-level’ interfaces including social empowerment, and partly on the principles/techniques that need to be considered at a human level.

Also on Monday was a meeting of IFIP Working Group 2.7/13.4. IFIP is the UNESCO founded pan-national agency that national computer societies such as as the BCS in the UK and ACM and IEEE Computer in the US belong to.  Working Group 2.7/13.4 is focused on the engineering of user interfaces.  I had been actively involved in the past, but have had many years’ lapse.  However, this seemed a good thing to re-engage with with my new Talis hat on!

SUI: paper:

Web Science Conference in Koblenz

Jaime Teevan from Microsoft gave the opening keynote at WebSci 2011.  I know her from her earlier work on personal information management, but her recent work and keynote was about work on analysing and visualising changes in web pages.  Web page changes are also analysed alongside users re-visitation patterns; by looking at the frequency of re-visitation Jaime and her colleagues are able to identify the parts of pages that change with similar frequency, helping them, inter alia, to improve search ranking.

Had many great conversations, some with people I know previously (e.g. the Southampton folks), but also new, including the group at Troy that do lots of work with data.gov.  I was particularly interested in some work using content matching to look for links between otherwise unlinked (or only partly inter-linked) datasets.  Also lots of good presentations including one on trust prediction and a fantastic talk by Mark Bernstein from Eastgate, which he delivered in blank verse!

My own contribution included the poster that Dave@Talis prepared, which was on the web-scale spreading activation work in collaboration with Univ. Athens.  Quite a niche area in a multi-disciplinary conference, so didn’t elicit quite the interest of the social networking posters, but did lead to a small number of in depth discussions.

In addition I gave talk on the more cognitive/philosophical issues when we start to use the web as an external extension to / replacement of memory, including its impact on education.  Got some good feedback from this.

Closing keynote was from Barry Wellman, the guy who started social network analysis way before they were on computers.  At one point he challenged the Dunbar number1. I wondered whether this was due to cognitive extension with address books etc., but he didn’t seem to think so; there is evidence that some large circles predate web (although maybe not physical address books).  Made me wonder about itinerant tradesmen, tinkers, etc., even with no prostheses. Maybe the numbers sort of apply to any single content, but are repeated for each new context?

WebSci papers:

The HCI Conference – Newcastle

I attended the British HCI conference in Newcastle. This was the 25th conference, and as my very first academic paper in computing2 was at the first BHCI in 1984, I was pleased to be there at this anniversary.  The paper I was presenting was a retrospective on vfridge, a social networking site dating back to 1999/2000, it seemed an historic occasion!

As is always the case presentations were all interesting. Strictly BHCI is a ‘second tier’ conference compared with CHI, but why is it that the papers are always more interesting, that I learn more?  It is likely that a fair number of papers were CHI rejects, so it should be the other way round – is it that selectivity and ‘quality’ inevitably become conservative and boring?

Gregory Abowd gave the closing keynote. It was great to see Gregory again, we meet too rarely.  The main focus of his keynote was on three aspects of research: novelty, value and reliability and how his own work had moved within this space over the years.  In particular having two autistic sons has led him in directions he would never have considered, and this immediately valuable work has also created highly novel research. Novelty and value can coexist.

Gregory also reflected on the BHCI conference as it was his early academic ‘home’ when he did his PhD and postdoctoral here in the late 1980’s.  He thought that it could be rather than, as with many conferences, a second best to getting a CHI paper, instead a place for (not getting the quote quite perfect) “papers that should get into CHI”, by which he meant a proving ground for new ideas that would then go on to be in CHI.

Alan at conference dinnerHowever I initially read the quote differently. BHCI always had a broader concept of HCI compare with CHI’s quite limited scope. That is BHCI as a place that points the way for the future of HCI, just as it was the early nurturing place of MobileHCI.  However CHI has now become much broader in it’s own conception, so maybe this is no longer necessary. Indeed at the althci session the organisers said that their only complaint was that the papers were not ‘alt’ enough – that maybe ‘alt’ had become mainstream. This prompted Russell Beale to suggest that maybe althci should now be real science such as replication!

Gregory also noted the power of the conference as a meeting ground. It has always been proud of the breadth of international attendance, but perhaps it is UK saturation that should be it’s real measure of success.  Of course the conference agenda has become so full and international travel so much cheaper than it was, so there is a tendency to  go to the more topic specific international conferences and neglect the UK scene.  This is compounded by the relative dearth of small UK day workshops that used to be so useful in nurturing new researchers.

Tom at conference dinnerI feel a little guilty here as this was the first BHCI I had been to since it was in Lancaster in 2007 … as Tom McEwan pointed out I always apologise but never come! However, to be fair I have also only been twice to CHI in the last 10 years, and then when it was in Vienna and Florence. I have just felt too busy, so avoiding conferences that I did not absolutely have to attend.

In response to Gregory’s comments, someone, maybe Tom, mentioned that in days of metrics-based research assessment there was a tendency to submit one’s best work to those venues likely to achieve highest impact, hence the draw of CHI. However, I have hardly ever published in CHI and I think only once in TOCHI, yet, according to Microsoft Research, I am currently the most highly cited HCI researcher over the last 5 years … So you don’t have to publish in CHI to get impact!

And incidentally, the vfridge paper had NOT been submitted to CHI, but was specially written for BHCI as it seemed the fitting place to discuss a thoroughly British product 🙂

vfridge paper:

Nottingham MRL

I was at Mixed Reality Lab in Nottingham for Joel Fischer‘s PhD viva and while there did a seminar the afternoon on “extended episodic experience” based on Haliyana Khalid‘s PhD work and ideas that arose from it. Basically, whereas ‘user experience’ has become a big issue most of the work is focused on individual ‘experiences’ whereas much of life consists of ongoing series of experiences (episodes) which together make up the whole experience of interacting with a person or place, following a band, etc.

I had obviously not done a good enough job at wearing Joel down with difficult questions in the PhD viva in the morning as he was there in the afternoon to ask difficult questions back of his own 😉

Docfest – Digital Economy Summer School

The last major event was Docfest, which brought together the PhD students from the digital economy centres from around the country. Not sure of the exact count but just short of 150 participants I think. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds, business, design, computing, engineering, and many are mature students with years of professional experience behind them.

This looked like being a super event, unfortunately I was only able to attend for a day 🙁  However, I had a great evening at the welcome event talking with many of the students and even got to ride in Steve Forshaw‘s Sinclair C5!

My contribution to the event was running the first morning session on ‘creativity’. Surprise, surprise this started with a bad ideas session, but new for me too as the largest group I’ve run in the past has been around 30.  There were a number of local Highwire students acting as facilitators for the groups, so I had only to set them off and observe results :-). At the end of the morning I gave some the theoretical background to bad ideas as a method and in understanding (aspects of) creativity more widely.

Other speakers at the event included Jane Prophet, Chris Csikszentmihalyi and Chris Bonnington, so was sad to miss them; although I did get a fascinating chat with Jane over breakfast in the hotel hearing about her new projects on arts and neural imaging, and on how repetitious writing induces temporary psychosis … That is why the teachers give lines, to send the pupils bonkers!

  1. The idea that there are fundamental cognitive limits on social groups with different sized circles family~6, extended family~20, village~60, large village~200[back]
  2. I had published previously in agricultural engineering.[back]

A month away brain engaged and blood on the floor

Writing at Glasgow airport waiting for flight home after nearly whole month away. I have had a really productive time first at Talis HQ and Lancs (all in the camper van!) and then visits to Southampton (experience design and semantic web), Athens (ontologies and brain-like computation) and Konstanz (visualisation and visual analytics).

Loads of intellectual stimulation, but now really looking forward to some time at home to consolidate a little.

During my time away I managed to fall downstairs, bleed profusely over the hotel floor, and break a tooth. My belonging didn’t fare any better: my glasses fell apart and my sandals and suitcase are now holding together by threads … So maybe safer at home for a bit!

Back to Tiree – and being ‘half-time’

I’m on the ferry on the way back to Tiree. It’s been 2 months since I was home and then only one long weekend since the end of August, so it seems both familiar and strange sitting on the Calmac ferry again as it makes its way out of Oban.

Last autumn I had a similar long stay away, then mostly in the camper van near the University as I was still working full time at Lancaster. This year I am working half time at Lancaster, but also half-time for Talis and for the first three months at Talis spending half my time on site at the Talis offices in Birmingham. After that I’ll be doing my Talis job based from home, only going down more occasionally, so after Christmas will get more time at home.

Instead of my camper van I’ve been staying a lot at the ‘Talis house’, a house near Solihull for small off-site meetings and for those like me who live a long way away from Talis’ Birmingham offices (others live in France, Italy, and the USA). It was rather claustrophobic last autumn spending most of my weekends in my office at Lancaster, so having Talis house as a base has been good. However, I do miss that snug feeling in the back of the camper van hunkering under the bedclothes, with a take-away on my knees and watching a DVD, while the van rocked in time to the whistling wind outside.

Working half time for Talis has also imposed a discipline on my time working in my University role. Since last Christmas I have been formally working half time at Lancaster (certainly getting half pay!), but as those who work in the universities know, it is hard to put a limit on things. The idea was that this meant I would get half my time to do ‘my stuff’, research and writing. Of course I knew cutting my old 80-hour weeks down to 20 or even 40 would not happen, but I would at least get a little more time than I have become used to.

One of the half expected and half surprising things about the shift to half-time working for the University last January was the way other people dealt with it.

I guess for years I have implicitly ‘educated’ both fellow academics and students in their expectations; whenever there was something to be done, a report to read or write, I would say things like “ah this weekend I’ve already got this other task to do, but I’ll do it the next weekend” — basically assuming that weekends and evenings, strictly the unpaid times, were the times when things happened. After a bit students would get used to giving me things on Friday in the expectation that I would then have time to do it.

When I shifted to half time people would extend this notion and say “ah now you have more time you can do X”: reviews, reading student work, etc. As I said this was half expected, I had the feeling I would need to re-educate people. However, what surprised me was not that people acted this way, but that they said it, and even wrote it in emails. I would have thought that when they saw it explicitly in front of them they would think, “oh no Alan now has less time for these things”, but no; it is amazing how little we notice of what we say and do.

Anyway now things are different. Instead of it being ‘my time’ that my academic life intruded into, it is now Talis’ time and this is something others can respect more, and I guess I also respect more than my own time.

So how is it working — really being a half-time academic?

In fact of course, I still work most weekends and long days, so I have somewhat more than a full-time week of effort, so I am not yet down to 20 hours of university work, but certainly a lot less time then when I was simply trying to protect my own (unpaid!) time.

In January when I shifted to half-time, I said I’d do a day a week while at home effectively eating nearly half of my ‘half time’, meaning I was expecting to spend about 60 days a year away from home whether on site in Lancaster or travelling. In fact during this Autumn alone, by Christmas I will have spent 53 days either on site in Lancaster or travelling on University business, that is more than 2/3 of the formal 75 working days in the period and nearly all my annual ‘not at home’ Lancs working days! This doesn’t seem to add up given 1/2 time spent in B’ham, but of course the 53 days of Lancaster time includes many weekends away while travelling that I wasn’t used to counting when a ‘full time’ academic.

I clearly need to cut this down further! However, even now, being stricter than I was with ‘my time’, cracks are beginning to show. I can see students getting unhappy as it takes me longer to find time to read things they have written, and colleagues patiently realising that email to me is getting even less reliable. So much of the life of an academic depends on things done in ‘extra time’ whether weekends or evenings, or in my case earlier in the year unpaid time; when you cut back on that things simply do not happen.

From Christmas I will not have the imposed discipline of days at the offices at Talis, so will need to maintain this more for myself. However, the last few months have helped and I will certainly keep careful records to make sure Talis gets its fair share of my time and that the University does not consume so much of my ‘own’ time as rest is also part of working well.

Even though I have effectively ‘used up’ most of my university on-site/travelling days, I will of course not say “no more until next September’ (!), but will at least try to control it more. And I will also try to let some of the more balanced view of work and life I am learning at Talis influence my attitudes at the University.

And no, I won’t be reading email this evening.

Qualification vs unlimited education

In “Adrift in Caledonia“, Nick Thorpe is in the Shetland Isles speaking to Stuart Hill (aka ‘Captain Calamity’).  Stuart says:

“What does qualification mean? … Grammatically, a qualification limits the meaning of a sentence. And that’s what qualifications seem to do to people. When you become a lawyer it becomes impossible to think of yourself outside that definition. The whole of the education system is designed to fit people into employment, into the system. It’s not designed to realise their full creativity.”

Now Stuart may be being slightly cynical and maybe the ‘whole of education system’ is not like that, but sadly the general thrust often seems so.

Indeed I recently tweeted a link to @fmeawad‘s post “Don’t be Shy to #fail” as it echoed my own long standing worries (see “abject failures“) that we have a system that encourages students to make early, virtually unchangeable, choices about academic or career choices, and then systematically tell them how badly they do at it. Instead the whole purpose of education should be to enable people to discover their strengths and their purposes and help them to excel in those things, which are close to their heart and build on their abilities.  And this may involve ‘failures’ along the way and may mean shifting areas and directions.

At a university level the very idea behind the name ‘university’ was the bringing together of disparate scholars.  In “The Rise and Progress of  Universities” (Chapter 2. What is a University?, 1854) John Henry Newman (Cardinal Newman, recently beatified) wrote:

“IF I were asked to describe as briefly and popularly as I could, what a University was, I should draw my answer from its ancient designation of a Studium Generale, or “School of Universal Learning.” This description implies the assemblage of strangers from all parts in one spot;—from all parts; else, how will you find professors and students for every department of knowledge? and in one spot; else, how can there be any school at all? Accordingly, in its simple and rudimental form, it is a school of knowledge of every kind, consisting of teachers and learners from every quarter. Many things are requisite to complete and satisfy the idea embodied in this description; but such as this a University seems to be in its essence, a place for the communication and circulation of thought, by means of personal intercourse, through a wide extent of country.”

Note the emphasis on having representatives of many fields of knowledge ‘in one spot’: the meeting and exchange, the flow across disciplines, and yet is this the experience of many students?  In the Scottish university system, students are encouraged to study a range of subjects early on, and then specialise later; however, this is as part of a four year undergraduate programme that starts at 17.  At Lancaster there is an element of this with students studying three subjects in their first year, but the three year degree programmes (normally starting at 18) means that for computing courses we now encourage students to take 2/3 of that first year in computing in order to lay sufficient ground to cover material in the rest of their course.  In most UK Universities there is less choice.

However, to be fair, the fault here is not simply that of university teaching and curricula; students seem less and less willing to take a wider view of their studies, indeed unwilling to consider anything that is not going to be marked for final assessment.  A five year old is not like this, and I assume this student resistance is the result of so many years in school, assessed and assessed since they are tiny; one of the reasons Fiona and I opted to home educate our own children (a right that seems often under threat, see “home education – let parents alone!“).  In fact, in the past there was greater degree of cross-curricula activity in British schools, but this was made far more difficult by the combination of the National Curriculum prescribing content,  SATs used for ‘ranking’ schools, and increasingly intrusive ‘quality’ and targets bureaucracy introduced from the 1980s onwards.

Paradoxically, once a student has chosen a particular discipline, we often then force a particular form of breadth within it.  Sometimes this is driven by external bodies, such as the BPA, which largely determines the curriculum in psychology courses across the UK.  However, we also do it within university departments as we determine what for us is considered a suitable spread of studies, and then forcing students into it no matter what their leanings and inclinations, and despite the fact that similar institutions may have completely different curricula.  So, when a student ‘fails’ a module they must retake the topic on which they are clearly struggling in order to scrape a pass or else ‘fail’ the entire course.  Instead surely we should use this this as an indication of aptitude and maybe instead allow students to take alternative modules in areas of strength.

Several colleagues at Talis are very interested in the Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU), which is attempting to create a much more student-led experience. I would guess that Stuart Hill might have greater sympathy with this endeavour, than with the traditional education system.  Personally, I have my doubts as to whether being virtually / digitally ‘in one spot‘ is the same as actually being co-present (but the OU manage), and whether being totally student-led looses the essence of scholarship, teaching1 and mentoring, which seems the essence of what a university should be. However, P2PU and similar forms of open education (such as the Khan Academy)  pose a serious intellectual challenge to the current academic system: Can we switch the balance back from assessment to education?  Can we enable students to find their true potential wherever it lies?

  1. Although ‘teaching’ is almost a dirty word now-a-days, perhaps I should write ‘facilitating learning’![back]