Thursday, 25 August 2016

The magic firkin

Once upon a time the was a magic firkin (hogshead or cask).  It's magic properties included the apparent impossibility of filling it.

One day Baron Thomas arrived in the village. He and his friends had been drinking at the fountain of hope and expectation and needed to relieve themselves. The Baron began to  use the firkin. His friends followed suit and soon the firkin was full. Baron Thomas went back to his castle, happy and confident that the firkin had done its job well.


But the Baron was a cautious and jealous leader and wanted the firkin to be exclusively for his own use - so he appointed an overseer to supervise it. The overseer never thought to empty it and it stood, steadfastly, in the village centre, full but not overflowing. Every few days the Baron used his exclusive firkin and handed back to the overseer's safe keeping, to ensure that the firkin could not be used by anyone else. 

The Baron protected the firkin from abuse by others by announcing that the firkin was enchanted - a magic cask that could never be filled up.  The cask became know, locally, as Thomas' Enchanted Firkin (TEF for short).  However, over a number of years the contents of the firkin became stale and began to be a health issue for many who worked near it.  Neither the Baron nor the overseer really bothered about it - because the firkin was doing the job it was always intended to do and the enchanted status meant that nobody asked serious questions.

One day the overseer needed to relieve himself too and turned to the full firkin.  He was mindful of the Baron's orders and the nature of the enchantment and so ensured that nobody saw him.  He used the firkin and found, to his immense surprise, that it coped with his needs without overflowing, complaining or leaking.

"Truly, this is a magic firkin" said the overseer  and told the population that they lived in a truly blessed realm.

Once again Baron Thomas came to the village and relieved himself in the firkin.  He then emptied the contents over the overseer as a punishment for disobeying his orders. It was then that the firkin realised that the reason why it never filled up was that someone - probably the Baron himself - had arranged to extract its contents under cover of nightfall so that it appeared never to fill up.  The act of tipping the firkin upside down had stirred the firkin's memory.

The moral of this story is that there is no such thing as a magic firkin that will never overflow and that the country's leaders will often take the pee.


Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Will they ever learn?

OIn my occasional musings about the state of UK Universities I have used the backdrop of banks as a benchmark of over exuberance and unfettered selfishness. I do so in the hope that lessons can be learned and sensible behaviour reinstated - in order, largely, to avoid the problems and ignominy awarded to financial institutions through their actions following various regulatory regimes NOT mirroring the global situation.

Banks are a reasonable foil for Universities as they have seen lax and then more stringent regulation, protected markets being entered by new domestic and foreign competitors, advances in technology that undermine traditional methods and social change that both values and then eschews "experts" and scholarship - normally against the measure of "value for money".

So, let us consider technology. What is possible is not always desirable.

Banks in developed economies, and some undeveloped ones where the leap to mobile telephony has bypassed years of gestation of plastic cards, ATMs etc, report that consumers flock to use pre-payment cards, mobile banking and remote delivery. Bank investment in these systems comes at a huge cost and allows competition but there are benefits of customer convenience and the certain knowledge that traditional delivery systems (cheques, branches, human beings) can be downsized and retired so that bank profits can be maintained or even increased.

For commercial banks that's probably a good thing as governments and consumers press for efficiency - a.k.a. low prices, empowerment - a.k.a. buyer beware and shareholders press for, let's be frank, more of everything every quarter.

For Universities, however, where the "product" is less transactional, the objectives less profit oriented and the learning partners ( note I did not call students "consumers") less empowered by so called "efficiencies" a proper balance must be struck.

Technology in the form of smart classrooms, VLEs, podcasts and voting systems, flipped lectures and on-line tests are great - in their place.  We need to understand the learning benefits rather than the shorter term reactions to cost cutting, "efficiency" and bowing to student demand simply to boost short-term ratings.  In that way investment can be targeted to promote teaching rather than purely financial strategies.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

TEF review published

In 2020 Dame Janet Harsh was asked by the then post Brexit, Rainbow Alliance party Education Secretary, Cynthia May-Johnson (6) to undetake a review of the Teaching Excellence Framework for Higher Education (TEF) following its introduction 4 years previously.


Dame Janet's recommendations were:

1: All teaching active staff should be returned in the TEF.

Thankfully, Professor V.Boring was pronounced dead during his last lecture and so can no longer be classed as "active".  Some doubt if that adjective could have been ascribed to him for the last 20 years anyway.

2: NSS and DEHLE outputs should be submitted at Unit of Assessment level with a set average number per FTE but with flexibility for some faculty members to submit more and others less than the average.

Thankfully, nobody really knew what this meant and so allowed different Universities to submit data based on a wide range of assumptions, making realistic comparisons with others almost impossible.

3: Outputs should not be portable.

Thankfully, Universities could continue to pursue a policy of not offering high salaries and other inducements to so called "Super Teachers", thus removing the motivation both to buy success or to become a "Teaching Tart".

So, that's all good then...

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Nurse it....don't milk it

In a recent Tripadvisor post based on a flight to Moscow I observed that the ONE small snack in a six hour period (I include here the pre-boarding wait, the flight and the expected delay in Moscow for visa clearance) was rather poor service for a flag carrier with a clear dominance in the UK to Moscow direct  scheduled route (other carriers include a delightful stop in either Frankfurt, Düsseldorf, Paris or Schipol airports).  My advice to the airline was to nurse a dominant market position rather than milk it.

My advice to UK Universities fearing the approval of competitors in their most lucrative markets is just the same. Nurse the Business and Management sector, don't continue to milk it.

However well intentioned and focused History professors may be they sure aren't going to get the funding from commercial sources that becoming a private University or "alternative provider" requires.

So what should that mean in practice?

1. Universities need to reconsider the fee levels for undergraduate programmes. Why continue to charge a flat fee when the clear evidence persists that Businees Schools subsidise other subject areas?  Why should Business students pay for say, Drama students, to enjoy subsidised studies?

2. Staff Student ratios also need to be re-considered to be able to deliver the level of service and meet the expectations of Business students that relatively higher fees suggest.

3. Research Professors should be paid well in excess of standard Professorial rates of pay, regardless of their contribution to Business School revenues*

4. Business Schools should change their traditional model and actually deliver teaching that reflects what matters to business today - and in a way that responds to the needs of today's students.

Now, that's not too much to ask is it?

* point 3. excluded as this already appears to be happening.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

"Of course I can ride a horse...I've read the book"

Quite what do undergraduate or Masters degrees actually equip young people for? They are certainly not shorthand for intelligence or life skills - just ask employers who have to "re-train" graduate entrants and get them to forget all of the silliness academics have filled their heads with.

So why not design a degree in Common Sense?

Foundation modules in the first year could include:

16CS101 Introduction to hard work
16CS102 Studies in finding stuff out
16CS110 Exploring what stuff actually means
16CS112 Communicating sensible ideas to a variety of audiences
16CS150 Peering outside the box

To be followed in subsequent years by degree level studies in:

16CS201 The 20% of stuff you really need to know
16CS210 Intermediate reality
16CS220 Boosting your CV by working
16CS301 Advanced explaining
16CS350 Planning to do something relevant
16CS360 Final project (making a difference to somebody else's life)

No, it wouldn't really work would it? No real basis in research. Very little academic research is about common sense.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

"Out of Office" message

Summer is a time of year when many Universities appear deserted.
Undergraduates on traditional 3 or 4 year programmes have "gone down", whilst 1 year postgraduates disappear to London (or Edinburgh / Paris / Madrid / Rome) to "work on their dissertation".
University academics enjoy family holidays and lengthy "research" visits - except if they have been handed the role of "Admissions Tutor" as that will mean a fraught August and criticism for either undershooting or overshooting targets, keeping standards high or reducing them.  Administrators (on flexible / term time and partial contracts) are absent and professional staff, who find that there are no decision makers to interact with, take increasingly long lunches and early nights.
So, the ubiquitous "Out of Office" message gets pinged from multiple email accounts across the University to recipients across the globe.

Some "out of office" messages that have collected in my inbox are:




I hope that you enjoy the 2.5 days we British call "Summer".

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Lecture Capture-what's the problem?

In a short lived action research project this year I tested out the idea of Lecture Capture to support my teaching.
After gaining ethical clearance from the University Ethics Committee - since it was felt that the research might be upsetting for "vulnerable"  students - I set up my camera so that it pointed at the class of students for the entire lecture.

Following the lecture the footage was uploaded to the University VLE for access by all those registered on my module.  I repeated the experiment for four weeks until a complaint from the student representatives to the Dean resulted in the whole thing being shut down.
All was not lost, however, as I was able to download and analyse viewing statistics for the four weeks and benefit from a large amount of comment on my end of term feedback forms.
My findings were enlightening:

  1. Students overwhelmingly felt it an intrusion into their "privacy" to be recorded during a lecture session.
  2. Many  students felt that the images and sound recorded were of a low quality.
  3. Only 5% of students viewed the video after the lecture, mainly to "sample" fellow students and make YouTube compilations of their various behaviours (sleeping, Facebooking friends, texting).
  4. The resource required to "pixelate" 50% of the faces in each lecture (following requests to do so by students) was very, very costly.
  5. Few students felt that their Learning was enhanced simply through Lecture Capture. Engagement in the class was far more important.
  6. Most students reported that they understood why academics were reluctant to adopt Lecture Capture widely.

Since the action research project I have been approached separately by the Student Loans Company and the UK Visa Authorities for copies of the footage.  Unfortunately the footage was destroyed on instruction from my Dean.