#altc and me

The last working day of January saw the release of the ALTC2016 call for proposals, an eerie advance echo of mid-autumn at the very start of the year. In times past I’ve taken this as a spur to take the various ideas and half-baked inferences that usually turn up on here or on my twitter, and turn them into something I could probably present at a serious conference like ALTC.

In practice this meant I would come back to the idea at the start of the summer and spend those long summers evenings playing with video clips, or data collection, or textual analysis, or reference collecting…

… actually let’s see some uncharacteristic FOTAlove for a moment, I’ve presented each year at ALT since 2010, and every year has been my absolute A game. Five years of FOTA awesomeness:

ALTC2010 – Flat-out nailed the xMOOC movement and attendent “employer needs” hype, more than a year before it happened. No big deal.

ALTC2011 – Future of open education, but with an old west theme, featuring Amber Thomas, Helen Beetham and Dave White in cowboy hats and me as a travelling preacher man? Oh and the first ever ALTC session trailer? Done.

ALTC2012 – Just a meticulously referenced and definitive history of sharing learning resources in the UK, co-authored with Amber Thomas. That’s all.

ALTC2013 – The hype-strewn rise of  the global MOOC movement, told via deep text analysis of the very worst of bandwagon journalism, and with a little tasty soupçon of French critical theory.

ALTC2014 – You know that whole backlash about social media as a teaching tool? Privacy, ownership, twitterstorms, peak social. And memes. Lots of memes.

ALTC2015 – The actual future, the predicted future, why both of them suck. With added economic theory. (incidentally, the NMC Horizon Scan 2016 seems to fit the pattern…)

Now to paraphrase Jim Groom:

#NOBODY.

Six years of stuff that, looking back, I’m actually pretty damn proud of doing. Blog posts that have had actual serious citations as scholarly work. Multimedia – even live music. And a whole range of critical perspectives, methodological adaptations and detailed analysis. I’m not going to claim any of it changed lives or caused a revolution, but I am going to say that it made the conference, and indeed the edtech field, better and more interesting for some people.

So you’d think that I’d be planning something equally cool for ALTC2016 – but the sad fact of the matter is that I am almost certainly not even going to be attending. Simply put, I don’t work in #EdTech any more, not by choice but by the fact that my employer needs me (and more importantly, pays me) to work in other areas.

Even the most generous of observers would struggle to match what I presented with my actual job in any given year. But actually now working in an entirely non-cognate field means that the very generous leeway that I’ve been offered in the past (I want to single out @sarahjenndavies for her support and tolerance) is just not even going to be arguable this year.

So here’s a few things that I might have submitted this year (some of these may leak out as blog posts during the year if I get time)

  • I’m sure I’d have had more to say on the idea of debt, scholarly debt and the way we count it in academia.
  • Whither education (technology) research? Who is funding, and who is legitimising, people trying to figure out how to actually deliver “excellent teaching” in this data-driven “post-theory” world? (According to one source, Pearson!? – you know I can’t resist that)
  • Connecting those two, whatever the TEF turns out to be, or not to be, would be something I’d love to analyse.
  • Billionaire-driven edtech as a service – or why does a person, in receipt of a good living from ads on social media, feel obliged to try and fix education with money and bad tech? And why does it never actually work.
  • Online learning at a distance – updating Dave White’s 2010 work (that was actually done by Marion Manton and the team at Oxford Continuing Education, mind you!) to encompass the Second Great Online Learning Bubble.
  • The effects of [insert bleak 2016 event here, probably Brexit or President Trump or both] on global higher education, and the affordances or otherwise of technology in addressing these.

I certainly hope to write about all, or most, of these this year. I’m just sad that I’m unlikely to be at ALTC to share and discuss these and many other issues with the wonderful UK edtech community in 2016. Maybe my circumstances will change, but for now I can only encourage all of you to get on and submit something properly awesome to the conference.

Scholarly debt and deficit

“Violence and quantification are intimately linked” – David Graeber

For those of you who have yet to read Graeber’s “Debt: the first 5,000 years“, the central theses are:

  • Debt, seen in the sense of owing something to the general well-being of your community, is far older than both money and barter; and
  • At the various moments during history that this community-minded sharing has been disrupted by attempts to quantify debt, violence and poverty have been close behind.

For those of you who *have* read the book, you may be wondering why I have brought it up again four years after publication. Certainly, I do so with a wariness of the kind of historico-economic “cycles” that would suggest a means of predicting the future.

What Graeber calls the “axial age” period, placed between 800BCE and 600CE involved an explosion of scientific, philosophical and theological innovation – including the founding of all of today’s major world religions – and also saw the invention, primarily as a means of paying soldiers and collecting taxes from expanding empires, of a way of readily quantifying social and personal debt by means of coinage.

Easily portable, and with a known value backed up by military might, coins encouraged trade between soldiers and those whose territory they had occupied. Coins exchanged for food, supplies (including precious metals for the minting of coins) and slaves were the only means a conquered town or country were permitted to pay the required tribute to a distant imperial capital.

Coupled with the birth of mass literacy and the rise of rational calculation (after, for example, Pythagoras), this enabled an affectless data-driven means of managing human interaction – as Graeber describes “impersonal markets, born of war, in which it was possible to treat even neighbors as if they were strangers”.

Here a “stranger” is someone from outside of a given community. Their standing and trustworthiness are unknown – so rather than an inculcation into a communistic tradition of sharing and loyalty, all transactions are based around direct equivalence.

This was a great model for financing an expanding empire, and a strikingly modern economic plan. But when expansion ceased and empire faded, both coins and soldiers disappeared, and taxes could no longer be collected. Though the values of the old coins could be used to make value calculations were required, credit (based on interpersonal interaction and often nominally denominated – if not actually settled -in equivalence to a currency or other reliably valuable commonplace ( food, fancy goods, maidservants) reasserted itself.

And as empires crumbled around the world, civilisation entered what are called medieval times, or the “dark ages”. Except something very interesting happened.

Nalanda – possibly the world’s earliest independent teaching institution focused on higher learning – was founded right at the beginning of this medieval period (in northern India in 427CE), and was followed by the growth of Madrasah in the Muslim world, the rise of Confucian institutes in China and eventually (the west was a little of off the pace here) the Universities of Bologna (1088), Oxford, Salamanca, Paris, Padua and so on.

As I’ve written elsewhere, universities came into being when scholars and teachers banded together to support each other both in the practicalities of administration and in the expansion of knowledge and perspective. Relying largely on unspoken and unexamined ideas about the nature of their academic society (the first codification of this at Oxford, for example, were the Laudian Statutes in 1636) , members shared and supported a common scholarly endeavour. What we can here argue is this is the birth, in the wider sense, of scholarly debt.

This was a parallel to changes in the wider economic life of societies and the re-assertion of the idea of an unquantifiable debt to the home community – manifesting not in a quantifiable culture of repayment but in a general state of openness to share what was needed with other community members.

Surprisingly little has been written from a historical or anthropological perspective about the concept of scholarly debt.  Finnel (2014) and Allen et al (2014) both take an instrumentalist perspective, examining the rise of the practice in order either to re-assert the role of the librarian (yay! librarians!) or as groundwork for quantitative measurement.

We use the idea as shorthand for the whole “standing on the shoulders of giants” idea, but I would argue for a conception that involves standing and membership within this strange medieval idea of “academia”. “Scholarly debt” is the reason we review papers, present at conferences, heckle at conferences(!), contribute to policy debates and do “public intellectual” things and – hell, why not – share stuff with colleagues, collaborators, friends and fellow-travellers outside of an expectation of a quantifiable return on this activity.

Which is a really, really, medieval way of behaving from an economic perspective. We have no way of knowing if the person whose paper we are giving a (hopefully) helpful in-depth peer review to will directly reciprocate – but we do know that someone in the community will, and that if we didn’t participate in peer review our standing in the community would be lowered.

(I’ve sneaked in peer review here – but a few of you will have spotted that it is a bit problematic in this context. The first recognisable academic journals – Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and Journal des scavans – came into being in 1665. These replaced an earlier method of review by private correspondence within distributed scholarly societies, which itself was a proxy for discussion and debate between peers. In the modern era, and until very recently, the published journal article has been the de facto standard for scholarly communication. However, in using peer review as an example I am highlighting one of many roles academics take on for the health of the academy or discipline rather than for their own direct benefit.)

For the following millennium this peculiar set of behaviours resisted challenge from a variety of new perspectives – from the disruptive entrepreneurs of the Enlightenment, the bureaucracy and managerialism of the industrial revolution, the white heat of technology and research exploitation, and the relativism of the post-modern turn. Though the global economy entered a period that seemed closer to the Axial age and Graeber’s military-currency-slavery nexus, academia seemed curiously separate – contributing on occasion but not altering practice (if you are thinking of Anathem here, I’m with you).

Historically, the shift between a community-focused reputational credit and a quantified system of debt within any given society has been marked by a great deal of violence. The quantification was imposed by violence (the need to pay the taxes of a conqueror in their own currency), and drew further violence (peasants’ revolts, insurgency, millenarianist religion) in response, especially as newly denominated debt lead to the development of a non-landowning precariat, and debt peons were created.

So that sounds like this evening’s news for society as a whole (if you lump Trump and ISIS in with millenarianism, which is both largely accurate and wonderfully ironic), but what of academia, which has been resisting both modernity and quantified scholarly debt since the renaissance?

Alas, though violence (through quantification of debt) is dealt to academia, it is not resisted in kind. The latest technological push to quantify all of the things (that’d be “big data”, as previous attempts to quantify the unquantifiable failed because the data was just too small, I guess) has resulted simply in the normal response of attempting to gamify whatever system of equivalence is enforced with the violence of finance.

Even this gamification is a capitulation to the quantification of scholarly debt (what is the JIF of the journal you review for, how prestigious is that conference, how widely are you cited and by whom, how many twitter followers do you have…)  simply because what we owe to our institution -as a proxy of the academy as a wider ideal – now has an exchange rate set, and we are only quibbling around the exact equivalences.

Smithcote

So I was going to finish this on an upbeat note – a fight to be fought, a standard to be carried and the permanence of scholarly regard as the last community/reputational credit. Prof Smithcote (from the superb Cow Country) is probably correct that in the future we will all be regionally accredited, both in the short-term by the seemingly unstoppable march of quantification and efficacy in previously unmeasurable areas – and in the long term as we re-establish our alternative during the next great dark age. And if you think that’s a step too far, just look at Trump’s numbers.

SD cards in SPAAACE

So Jisc Futurist Martin Hamilton took to the pages of the venerable Ariadne to call for the inception of a Jisc Space Program Project. As specified, it’s a fairly simple mission.

But the really silly thing here is how (comparatively) easy and cheap part two could be.

Starting with some numbers: the base price for getting a functioning satellite into space is just $8,000. If I sold my car and Brian Lamb sold his car then we’re nearly there. That money gets you a base kit for a TubeSat (a beer-can sided hunk o’metal and PCB that can broadcast a signal back to earth) and puts whatever you do with it into low earth orbit. Thinking bigger, you can have a CubeSat (a 10cm cube) up there for $12,500, including the base kit. Both of these come under the emerging spacefaring category of pico-satellites.

By simply affixing the SD card to the satellite frame of our choice (probably with a tried-and-tested space adhesive like duct tape), we’re already backing up gigabytes of data in space for a laughably small amount of money.

But low earth orbit ain’t enough for Hamilton – nope, to avoid the all-engulfing apocalypse he predicts he wants data on the actual moon. Funnily enough, NASA are already working on a project to send a CubeSat to the moon with a solar sail. A solar sail is just what it sounds like, a shiny sheet that allows the constant energy from the sun to push an object forward in space. It’s slow, but (comparatively) cheap and it will get you there. And all we need to add to our craft is a means of deploying such a sail when low orbit is reached.

Now we’re traveling in space we have to start thinking about steering and trajectories and suchlike. I’d be looking at something like these nano-thrusters (powered by Teflon, no less) to get us pointing in the right direction. And we’d now need some kind of on-board computer to control everything, maybe a smartphone. And thus a couple of solar cell arrays to power the thing.

(a note: the physics and the software development involved here are a huge deal… I’m largely ignoring this to make a point but there would be – even if we could build on well-documented previous projects the cost of this would be enormous)

(of course, Jisc are off the pace here: the University of Surrey already launched a smartphone into space as a functional satellite in 2013.)

So, we’re basically at the moon for a little over £12,000. Now all we need to do is land, or at least crash in a controlled way that protects our precious cargo.

In the bad old days a lunar lander had a whole assembly, with thrusters, just for this. But we don’t have enough room  – so I’d propose that once we got near enough to the moon an inflatable cushion would cover the satellite. The small amount of explosion needed to deploy this could be used to get rid of the solar sail and get us moving towards the surface of the moon at speed. As soon as we hit the rocks it would gently deflate, meaning that we wouldn’t bounce off and get lost in space.

And there Martin’s SD card will lie, undisturbed, for many years – until it is discovered and read by intelligent aliens as a testament to the former existence of a race of beings that didn’t quite make it.

9 things to watch out for in 2015 – redux

Round about this time last year I did “9 things to watch out for in 2015” – a seemingly popular post that dared to predict some things about this year that weren’t entirely obvious. I did this pretty well in 2014, so now’s the time to take a look at how I managed this time around…

… and I would have to say that my performance was credible rather than earth-shattering. On some points I’m spot on – on others, clearly dreaming.

Those who enjoy irony will note that I wrote quite a lot about not-so-good prediction this year, so maybe you could use the points I made against me in the comments to this piece.

1. Education policy in politics

“I’m not going to win any points by predicting a UK general election next year, or an unusual result that is likely to mark a decisive shift away from the two party politics that have dominated the country since the second world war… What I am predicting is HE policy being a point of clear distinction between parties.”

Yup, we had an election and that was a thing that happened. And the collapse of two party politics seems to be Labour tearing itself inside out.

But the parties *did* differentiate themselves on HE, sort of – remember Labour’s £6K fees idea? No, me neither.

But maybe half-a-mark here, for being accidentally right on some points.

2. Academia against the institution

“Expect more strikes, more protests, more hard questions asked of institutions – and hopefully some answers.”

Yup. The ongoing round of industrial action against the OU is telling in the incorporation of informed strategic and financial critique. As yet, few answers, but a feeling of managers being held to account.

3. W(h)ither the MOOC

“I’ll come straight out and predict that at least one major platform will either close entirely or move away from offering free and accessible online courses in 2015.”

And I read this today on Coursera’s blog.  Students paying for assessment from January 2016. That’s pretty much a pivot away from free and accessible online courses. I would never, if I’m frank, have expected that from Coursera (I’d kind of reckoned FutureLearn as the platform to go – but they still seem to be able to draw down money from the OU as required).

4. Teaching quality enhancement metrics

“learning gain will inform the key policy arguments about learning technology in 2015, and that we will see a welcome collaboration between SRHE and ALT in response.”

Oh God, and how. The Teaching Excellence Framework has defined the year in teaching quality enhancement – going from a dumb idea in the Conservative manifesto, to Jo Johnson (who wrote said manifesto) being made HE minister and actually trying to implement it, to George Osborne omnishambles-ly linking it to inflationary fee increases (at a time of deflation, LOL right?).

And then HEFCE (RIP, 4eva in r hearts) still came on like Learning Gain was a thing.

And then the green paper came out (eventually) in Novemeber, and it was as big a dogs breakfast as any of us imagined. Now every other article in the UK HE press is about teaching quality metrics and it remains as stupid and bad an idea as ever.

(ALT and SRHE haven’t stepped up to critique it, though Wonkhe – increasingly the home of practical HE policy research – did a sterling job)

5. Independent researchers

“Like it or not, much of the significant work on education technology and education policy will be done by people in their own time, and with little or no external funding. My prediction here is that independent researchers in a number of non-science fields will begin to organise themselves for mutual support and benefit.”

None less than the mighty James Wilsdon highlighted the need for investment in research into education policy in his seminal “metric tide” report. And although I know anecdotally of unfunded researchers in edtech, education policy and elsewhere grouping together to support each other (via conversations at various conferences), there’s been little visible movement.

It’s worth mentioning the steady and beautiful growth of OpenLibHums here – one of the best HE stories of 2015, and one supporting humanities scholarship in a tangible and sustainable way.

6. Authenticity 

“Many of the most powerful arguments made about the condition of academia in 2015 will be not be framed in financial or statistical language. They will be pure, beautiful and true.”

I had to sit back and think about this a bit, but what were those whole range of post-OpenEd15 blog posts but an authentic response to a movement appearing to focus on financial and statistical language? As well as a wonderful re-awakening of a range of critical perspectives on openness, this was a visible example of the power of authenticity, culminating in the best thing David Wiley has written for a long time.

7. Students as ______ ?

“Sometime in 2015 we will see the development of a proper position that sees the consumer aspect of these interactions as one part of a very complex whole.”

Not really, no. Though the NUS  flirting with a critical position on TEF was a pleasant surprise.

8. Uncapturing the lecture

“I predict a resurgence of the lecture – as outreach, as destination and as the cornerstone of the higher education experience.”

Again, not really. Lectures retained the place that they always have had in HE. I could still see them becoming an “event”, and public lectures still form a more sustainable and valuable form of outreach than MOOCs will ever be, but as a 2015 key trend… no.

9.  Collaborative tools

“So in 2015 the technologies that will impress us most will be collaboration tools of various purposes.”

That’s pretty vague, for which I apologise. But a year that has seen the launch of Mike Caulfield’s federated wordpress and the Thompson Rivers University “SPLOTs” can be said to embody this trend of simple collaboration. And I’m increasingly enamoured of Sandstorm.io as a means of quickly deploying collaborative tools on demand.

So – I make that six out of nine – 66% accuracy rate – so slightly better than a monkey with a wordpress would have done. Join me in a few days for some predictions about 2016, perhaps FOTA has come of age as means of predicting the future of UK HE policy and edtech, but I can be certain that love has come of age.

Take it away, Kenny Loggins!

Being a Compleat & Poetickal Account Of RECENT EVENTS at the COMMITTEE of BIS

(interpretive note by D. Kernohan (BA Hons English Literature)

This recently discovered MS, by an unknown writer, fits neatly into the established collection of “broadside” poetry – produced at various times throughout history to disseminate courtly news to the general populace. In early modern Britain these would be largely written for oral transmission – the quality of illumination in this MS suggests that this would have been a private copy made after the described events, perhaps by one of those named therein. Though “Morgan John” is mentioned, is clear that this piece cannot be attributed to him.

At the time described (references to “Johnson the Lesser” suggest a date between 2015 and 2016) former acronyms (such as “HE” “OIA” and “HEFCE”) would have been pronounced as single words rather than by individual letter. Those seeking an authentic reading should note that HEFCE was pronounced with a soft “C” (heff-see).

ComeProfessor

Come Professor! Librarian!, Administrator!

And hear of great valour and graduate data

Charge up thy flagons! Sit close by the fire!

I sing of great courage, and of evil so dire.

When JOHNSON THE LESS held the bright HE Crown

And the doctrine of TEF spread through country and town

A band of great knights, from far and from near

To the COMMITTEE OF BIS did deign to appear

Call’d Assize to skewer this JOHNSON THE LESS

And to his foul schemes he may here confess.

For two hundred days the fair KINGDOM OF HE

To him fain must fall, all upon bended knee

His edicts inscribed on vellum dyed green

Through commons and courts are too often seen

Nary WILLETTS THE MEDDLER, nor NICK OF HILLMAN

Would dare to engender such dastardly plans.

Brave knights filled the hall as battle commenced

Arméd with no swords, but with God’s Evidence

Brave BEHRENS OF OIA, noble MARSHALL OF HEA

Proudly at battlefront thence did appear

Wise ATKINS OF HEFCE, BLACK DOUGLAS OF QAA

Knights from the west who were ready to spar

For honour of HE, ‘gainst the forces of BIS

Stood EBDON OF OFFA, who would not be dismissed

EBDON

JOHNSON, young brother to he who would rule

Had thought the nobles of proud HE to fool,

Disparaging feckless “lamentable” toil

The rites of the Learnéd he thought to despoil

With TEF, a dark magic for black HE days,

A measure of learning in numerous ways,

Ignoring the wisdom of QAA he proceeded

To focus attention where it was not needed

The Knights who said “NSS”, with vigour and pride

Disputed his claims, and called out “you lied!”

Evidence brandished, and numbers unfurl’d

To prove only they comprehended this world

Sarjeant JOHNSON would blacken with hearsay and rumours

And castigate STUDENTS as merely consumers.

But the brave souls of HEFCE and OFFA and OIA

Would not let such scurrilous insults pass by

Long through the morning they battled and tarried

With arguments made and rebuttals parried

Til’ even the Scribe of the Court, MORGAN JOHN,

Cried “enough! Good sirs! this cannot go on!”

The palace of Westminster reverberated

With cries of the lost, and with blood-lust now sated

E’en  LORDS OF UUK in their Tavistock Palace

Did curse the dark TEF with vigour and malice

Lords

Noon broke o’er corpse-strewn committee room

Where the forces of BIS did fall to their doom

With arguments divers and figures presented

Twas prov’n that TEF was a Perverse Incentive

And JOHNSON THE LESS, with fire and with flame

Was driv’n from the Palace in anger and shame

He swore his revenge and rethought his defences

MORGAN JOHN filed his story, and claimed his expenses.

“Heart to heart” – meanderings in the future of open scholarship and open education

Two events in a row – #opened15 on open education and #KEevent15 on open research – have conspired within my mind to produce a series of thoughts that have more to do with the organisational dynamics of pressure groups than “open” anything.

As the campaigns for openness in academia reach fifteen years old they have mostly solidified into two positions. On the one hand, we have people who like being in campaigns and are distrustful of what they see as “solutionism” (the idea that there is a technical fix for every problem), and on the other we have people who like fixing things and are less enamoured of the kind of academic navel-gazing that they perceive as being “the wider movement”.

Every solution that is built is a compromise and a first step. Moving a bit along the way towards fixing a big and messy socio-cultural-economic problem is not as rewarding or exciting as it should be. Some worry that these first steps are taken down the wrong path, others worry that the steps are too tentative. And each step has a resonance, it cannot be un-taken, the echoes continue as the unintended consequences mount.

After 15 years our ears are ringing.

Most of us in the OER world have welcomed the blizzard of reflective posts capped recently with an old-fashioned David Wiley showstopper.  The latter could be read as a better kind of project plan complete with outcomes and outputs, a plan presented – with bravery and without guile – for the community to discuss, and one that starts with a goal based in access to education and ends with a re-affirmation of the 5Rs of his famous definition.

The conference (#opened15, in an unseasonably sunny Vancouver), was effectively two co-located conferences – characterised by Martin Weller as “hardcore research” and “philosophy of open” – attended by two groups of people (“colonisers” and [shudder] “edupunks” as named by Rob Farrow). Or was it?

Certainly some of the reflections during and after the conference (Robin Derosa was the key text for me) called for a reassertion of radical pedagogic and theoretical action against the closed horizons of the “big open education” of systemic open textbook adoption.

But really?

All activity needs critique, but this should not be at the expense of the activity. Even back in the Second Great MOOC Boom of 2012 I don’t think anyone was saying “don’t do MOOCs ever”. Not even me. Rather than “this is not what I meant” the cry was “this could be so much more”.

Michael Feldstein’s keynote point about being comfortable about winners who weren’t us was a bit of a wake-up call. BC Campus are pretty great at making open textbooks, but should (say) Pearson ever start making OER texts they would render the BC Campus efforts irrelevant. And as an open advocacy movement we should celebrate that – why should Clint Lalonde have to spend large parts of his life reflowing texts across multiple formats, when Pearson do that every day, all day?

It’s an uncomfortable thought experiment  – even though if like-for-like replacement was no longer a problem we had to solve it would be possible to focus on precisely the pedagogic and remix culture that many yearned for at OpenEd15.

Rolin Moe expressed this conundrum beautifully:

“When we open the escape hatch from the reusability paradox and let the content out into a world unencumbered by copyright, we leave the safety of discussing open as a copyright problem and enter into a larger and more problematic space where open cannot be a use-value product nor a universal value. By opening the escape hatch and leaving the reusability paradox, we make open less absolute than when the hatch was closed.”

At KEevent15 (A ten-year anniversary conference for the Knowledge Exchange, a partnership between five European research infrastructure organisations) Sascha Friesike used the lens of Rogers’ (1962) theories of “diffusion of innovations” to examine the success (or otherwise) of 15+ years of Open Scholarship advocacy.

On the surface, and when compared with open education, one could easily assume that the range of high-quality open access journals, backed by funder mandates that increasingly extend to open research datasets suggests a movement with several significant victories behind it and more in easy grasp. But I heard similar voices lamenting the lack of process, and suggesting some combination of simpler tools and better marketing as the way forward.

As a “provocation”, it is difficult to know how seriously to take the notion of a diffusion deficiency as a full critique of open scholarship. Indeed Rajiv Jhangiani used and critiqued ideas from the same book, expressed via the “pencil metaphor” at OpenEd15. In both instances the metaphors are useful descriptions of the space, the conclusions either facile or unhelpful.

Rogers’ adoption curve makes a number of assumptions that need to be unpicked. Like the Gartner hype cycle it starts from the position of assumed total success, and has an uncritical (solutionist) view of innovation as an unproblematic good. It also focuses on unidirectional diffusion (from the “innovator” to the “end user”, and on a single innovation taken outside of the roaring tsunami of change that is years like 2015.

But fundamentally Rogers (like Von Neumann and Morgernstern before him) assumes a selfish (and thus mathematically predicable)  adopter, who will seek the maximum individual utility in the innovations they choose to adopt. If marketing people chose to believe that of the customers they talk about, I have no complaints – our issues are that we are not marketers and our “product” (if we must) has environmental rather than individual utility.

Looking at the open research area we see a great deal of emphasis on policy – changing the entire environment (forcing individuals to act in ways that they may individually find difficult, at least initially) rather than growing an activist base. Open Education has historically done the opposite (supporting individual innovators in a Von Hippel-ish way) – it is strange, to see the least, to see both fields meet in a joint concern about models of innovation and look to utility marketing (of all things) as a next step.

Especially as the individual academic has far less agency, and less scope to make decisions either rational or irrational, than at any other time in history. This is the greatest concern that is facing academia right now – sure, textbook costs, fee costs and the reproducibility crisis in research are all top four, but in many ways represent the absence of academic freedom to experiment.

Of the three models discussed the environmental model best fits the new fully managerialised education sector, the democratic or lead-user model has the greatest emancipatory potential. Using marketing theory from the middle of the last century as a model seems like an admission of defeat.

After all, that’s how commercial publisher sell “their” content. And how’s that working out for them?

Amy Collier and Jen Ross presented  at #opened15 on the idea of “not-yetness“, an attempt to describe the liminal, (Deleuzean) smooth space that allows for the potential for movement which is not complete. In our audit culture (Dahler-Larson) the very idea of incompleteness sits in opposition to a need for evidence-shaped data (efficacy?) supporting a progression.

The traditional critique of numerate academic research is that the specificity and validity is limited by an inability to show statistical similarity to the wider population. (But somehow when software vendors do it it works). We have moved beyond a distrust of evaluation that is unactionable to an inability to countenance an activity that is inevaluable – as numerous duplicate presentations about no statistical difference between student attainment with OER and with a non-OER text attest (or anything that involves proving with numbers that the people do indeed use repositories of their own volition – seemingly the great silent project of open academic practice).

In open research the outstanding issue is one of genuine reuse – how can we incentivise academics to reuse information and data to build new research? Funding and publication pressures demand, always, new data – and in contemporary precarious academia you do what you have to do to stay in a job.

Conversely, in open education, too much reuse is the problem – how can you *stop* academics reusing published (and expensive) material when cheaper and more adaptable alternatives exist? The pressure within teaching is only that of time – the rise of adjunct culture permits only the barest minimum of preparation and textbooks are one way of ensuring that whichever poorly-paid post-grad teaching a given course can have a running start.

Both of these problems are soluble only with a serious look at the continued attack on academic agency, security and space to experiment. And that’s the open academic movement I want to be a part of.

“Keep the Fire” – notes on my #OpenEd15 presentation

[Slides] [Data] [Song]

Open Education, and indeed Education Technology more generally, exists in a perpetual “now” – or to be more precise, a perpetual near future. No matter how many times we attempt to put it into a narrative, it retains a deliberate ahistoricity that – after a while – begins to jar. Even to say that we have heard all this before has become a cliché, as there always seems to be one of those sessions at every conference.

It’s usually my session.

“Retain” is the first of Wiley’s “5Rs”. To give the complete language:

“The right to make, own and control copies of the content, eg download, duplicate, store and manage.”

In this formulation it implicitly refers to the virality of open content. Open content doesn’t have to exist in just one place, it can exist simultaneously in multiple (accessible and non-accessible) places. The comparison is with content licensed under a closed licence – it can’t be everywhere you want it to be. Even though Apple Music (say) will temporarily store music on your computer, you can never be said to “own” a copy. And most widely used software (such as windows) is only licensed, never owned. Even the software in your car or tractor is only licensed to you – you can never truly be said to own your car.
Ownership implies a relationship between you, an object, and time. Something belongs to you until you decide not to own it. In the perpetual near-future of “edtech”, ownership is a concept that is almost obsolete.
What about a community? Can you “own” membership in a community? I would argue that you could – membership of the community of open educators is ours as long as we choose to claim it. No one – not even Stephen Downes – can refuse to let you be a part of this community.
But is the community active in time?
Maybe I need to unpack this a little. My first OpenEd was here in Vancouver in 2012 (I was meant to go to Barcelona in 2010 but I couldn’t for various personal reasons). But what did I miss by not being there in earlier years? – what did other attendees bring to the conference in 2012 that I did not? How could I even find out what happened at say, OpenEd2010? Or OpenEd2008? or any of the predecessor conferences?
This is important, because a community of practice is a shared history of that practice. When we all complained about Sebastian Thrun “inventing” open education in 2011 – this was an expression of the history of our practice. Some of us were able to talk about, say, David Wiley’s experiences with WikiClasses in 2005, or George Siemens’ experiments in 2008 and say – look, this is the same thing. We’ve done this, we learnt from it, we want to share what we learned.
But – and I mean here no criticism of a decade of hard-working conference organisers – we are actually quite bad at preserving what we have learned and in particular we are bad at capturing what happened at these conferences.
Open Education is a field often criticised – for being without a research base, for being unconcerned with context and pedagogy, for being blind to the problems inherent to the idea of reuse, for being focused on content rather than community. These are major challenges to the integrity and nature of this field: and we have no real way to answer them.
I collected and tabulated 11 years of OpenEd conference activity. Not much, just session titles and presenter names. This took me more than a week, and necessitated me promising not one but two pints of beer to Alan Levine. In some cases abstracts and/or slides were available, in other cases not. I drew primarily on the (amazing) Internet Archive, which captures the old conference sites in various states, allowing for the vagaries of the technology underpinning them. (ColdFusion? seriously…)
I did this to scratch an itch, to see something that no-one else had seen (a similar motivation, I think, drove Adam Croom to serendipitously do a similar job in a slicker way). Others may need to find old abstracts for other reasons. Validation, for instance: to prove that they where at OpenEdxx and they presented on whatever it was. Or research: they’d seen a reference to a great presentation in previous years and wanted to read about it for themselves so they could build more research on top of it.
Some presentations here become papers (or blog posts). Some begin as papers or blog posts. But many more exist as a moment in time, maybe a set of those fashionable slides with big images and not much text. And a presentation that held the room. Maybe every presentation is captured as a youtube video, or an audio file – some years it is, some years it isn’t.

opened15 graph

And as you can see, there are patterns in there. I talked about the peaks in critique and sustainability talk in 2010 (linked to the end of many Hewlett grants at that time), the slow but inexorable growth of “policy” as a theme, and the dearth of interest in “reuse” since ’06. The tags are broad and subjective – in releasing the data I’m hoping people will feel bold in using their own tags to drive their own understanding. (The only unclear tag I use was “update” – just a way of indicating sessions primarily focused on providing an update on an ongoing project. I was heartened and surprised to see more updates this year than ever before – clearly there are more projects running than people may realise)

But the real focus of the session was just to help the community get better at archiving findings and building on them. If open education ever grows beyond simple implementation, this is how it will happen.

A brief note on FutureLearn finance

“Fast-track growth”, eh?

I awoke this morning to the news that the Open University has committed a further £13m to their “FutureLearn” MOOC platform. For those reading overseas, “FutureLearn” was a late UK-centric “me-too” entry to what back then looked like an interesting trend for free online courses. For people used to the likes of Coursera and EdX, this may all seem like very small (warm) beer – but it is a useful case study in mooconomics.

Unlike the MOOC platforms you may have heard of, FutureLearn is not funded by venture capital. Rather all of their funds have come from share capital allocations and other finance from the Open University. Not including £4.9m of start-up costs, the initial OU financial commitment was for £15m of share capital linked to milestones in an (as yet, unpublished) business plan. The OU Council minutes of July 2013 give these figures (para 9.8, page 7), but the comments of council members are also worth considering.

An associate lecturer noted at the meeting (para 11.7):

“[T]he paper about governance relating to FutureLearn Limited (C-2013-03-01 Appendix 1) had been very helpful, but a number of Council members had also asked to see the FutureLearn Limited business plan. It was appropriate to delegate consideration of the financial risk to Finance Committee, although a written report on the advantages of the investment would have been useful. However, sight of the business plan might also help the Council to understand how the FutureLearn Limited business would impact on the OU operation, not just in terms of financial return and student numbers, but also in terms of staff resource, expertise and intellectual property, as this was not within the remit of either Finance or Audit Committees.”

Just to break that down – because the language of minute writing tends to flatten the drama of interventions like these – the OU Council were being asked to approve £15m of capital spending against a business plan that they hadn’t seen. Both the financial and the audit committee had seen it, but had not provided anything more detail than the vague recommendations earlier in the document. No-one appeared to have considered the implications on OU staff resource, OU expertise or (incredibly) intellectual property.

Para 11.8 is worth taking line-by-line:

“The University Secretary observed that the business plan concerned FutureLearn Limited, not the OU’s involvement in the venture as one of several partners.”

This is correct, but as the OU were (and remain) the sole source of funding for FutureLearn, which is to all intents and purposes a wholly-owned OU subsidiary.

“[…] It was Finance Committee’s role to advise the Council, as a shareholder, as to whether to invest in FutureLearn Limited.”

Again, this is the niceties of corporate structure. There was no other investor in FutureLearn, a limited company that had no income (and still shows very few signs of covering running costs, as we shall see). So it would be perhaps more correct to say that the Finance Committee should be making the case to the OU Committee to set up a wholly-owned subsiduary – using, lest we forget, public money.

“As the business plan belonged to the FutureLearn Limited board, the Committee had found it difficult to interrogate the business plan. Consequently, KPMG had been employed to scrutinise it and advise the University, through the Finance Committee, as to the robustness of its assumptions.”

So the Finance Committee (responsible for scrutinizing the business plan as a case for investment) had employed KPMG to comment on it, as they found doing so “difficult”. As neither the KPMG report (focused on audit and finance issues only) nor the Business Plan has ever been made public – or, as far as I am aware, shared with the OU council – we need to take this at face value.

“As previously mentioned, the costs were fairly certain, but the income assumptions were risky and speculative. It was unlikely that this would have been clear from the business plan, but as an expert committee it was Finance Committee’s role to advise the Council on such issues.”

Of course the income assumptions were “risky and speculative”, this was a MOOC start up! It is difficult to believe that there were any realistic income assumptions in the plan – especially as Simon Nelson has still yet to talk about any income other than the sales of certificates of completion (now £34, an ideal Christmas gift…).

Paragraph 11.11 of the minutes, wherein the Finance Director responds to the concerns of the members, is also a fascinating read. We learn that:

  • The OU would be unable to claw back allocated funds in the event of FutureLearn closing
  • Despite the advice of the Finance Committee, it was “assumed” that FutureLearn would be profitable.
  • There was never any question of institutional partners contributing to the costs of running or developing FutureLearn as a business or platform.
  • The FL business plan was phased regarding a path to breakeven (income meeting costs). The milestones by which FL could draw down share capital up to the £15m limit were linked at least partially to the level of income they could generate.
  • Though the FutureLearn board was technically accountable to the council, in practice approval of further allocations of funding would be managed by the finance committee only.

Do read the whole document, but I just want to quote one more telling paragraph (para 9.9 on the OU revenue budget):

“The Council approved the proposed consolidated revenue budget for 2013/14, which showed a deficit of £9.6m after allowing for £4.9m for the costs of setting up FutureLearn Limited.”

The filing history of FutureLearn at Companies House is where we need to go to examine the progress of the company, and extrapolate back what the initial business plan milestones may have been.

  • The company was formed on 10th December 2012, and the press launch was on the 14th
  • …  but it first started acting like a company on 20th Jan 2013. New (OU) directors were appointed as the company “moved” from the offices of a PR company to the OU’s HQ in Walton Hall.
  • The “launch CEO”, Simon Nelson, was appointed on 9th May, and the Just after the OU purchased £500,000 of FutureLearn shares on 8th April. Yes, that is before the capital spend was approved by Council.
  • On 30th July August the OU increased their holding to £2.5million, based on the approval of the OU Council. (note that the £4.9m start-up costs were not part of the share capital allocation)
  • On the 29th November (just as the first courses had commenced, following another press launch in October), the OU increase their holding to £4m.
  • The first annual accounts show an operating loss of just under £2m. FutureLearn’s only non-OU income was £4,000 for video production. To clarify, this meant that FutureLearn had spent, by July 2013:
    • £4.9m of “start up” costs.
    • £1.9m of share capital
    • £4,000 of other income.
  • The OU upped their shareholding to £5m on 21st March 2014. So I guess that at least one of the milestones would have been to generate some non-OU income in their first year.
  • The 14th May 2013 saw the OU up their investment to £6.5m
  • And the 14th July saw this increase to £7m
  • On 17th December, this was increased again to £8.5m
  • On 24th March 2015, FutureLearn filed their accounts for year 2. This was under the “small company” rules, so is in a different format and doesn’t tell us about their income. We learn that:
    • FL had spent £6.52m of the (then £7m of) share capital they had been allocated since launch.
  • The total capital investment from the OU was upped to £11.4m on 25th June 2015, after one Peter Horrocks (OU VC) was installed as a director on the 11th June.
  • The most recent allocation of share capital was on 17th July 2015, bringing the OU’s capital investment to £11.65m. There has been no further investment since that date, suggesting that no further business model milestones have been reached.

Thanks for bearing with me on that – if you just skipped to the end, know that FutureLearn have spent a boatload of money and have never showing any sign even of covering their costs, much less passing profits back to shareholders.

Of the milestones in their business model (that are linked to capital allocation), we can intuit that they have failed to meet most of the final third. The announcement of this new £13m of capital before the remainer of the initial allocation suggests that FutureLearn have not and will not meet those final milestones, so a new business plan was required.

Sadly the most recent release of OU Council minutes kept discussions about this investment confidential. So we’ll never know for sure.

So what’s the point of establishing an Office for Students? #HEgreenpaper

(I’ve been all over Fulfilling our Potential, the BIS Green Paper, over the last 24 hours. As a part of Wonkhe’s ongoing effort to give everyone access to the best, brightest and quickest HE policy analysis I wrote what I think was the first detailed look at the TEF, and have been contributing further thoughts to the live blog. This is a little extra for FOTA fans and avid HEFCE-watchers.)

The existence of the entirety of part D of the green paper (reducing complexity and bureaucracy in research funding) is hugely significant. Not because of what it says – it doesn’t really say very much as others have pointed out – but of why it is there.

As James Wilsdon points out: “Once the decision had been made to abolish HEFCE and create the Office for Students (OfS), the green paper had no choice but to address the architecture of the research funding system, given HEFCE’s role in the REF and the allocation of quality-related funding.” Given the huge number of deferrals to the Nurse Review, and the lack of content, there was clearly no other compelling reason to publish on research. Which very much prompts the question as to why the decision to abolish HEFCE was made.

As the regulatory centre of English HE, calls to abolish HEFCE are a little like calls to abolish rain – so common as to be largely meaningless and notable only in their powerlessness. In managing the complexities of HE policy, people are bound to be annoyed by one or other requirement. But there has been no recent major uprising against a HEFCE decision, or no shocking report that has trashed their sector reputation (not even Learning Gain).

The new Office for Students (OfS) has 10 stated overarching responsibilities (part C, chapter 1, para 9):

  1. operating the entry gateway;
  2. assuring baseline quality;
  3. running the TEF;
  4. collecting and providing information;
  5. widening access and success for disadvantaged students;
  6. allocating grant funding (depending on which of the two options described in paras 16 and 17 is adopted);
  7. ensuring student protection;
  8. promoting the student interest;
  9. ensuring value for money for students and the taxpayer; and,
  10. assuring financial sustainability, management and good governance.

HEFCE currently owns responsibilities 1 and 2 (which it contracts out to the QAA), 4 (which it contracts out to HESA), 6, 7 (in partnership with the OIA – which remains, rather confusingly), 8 (via support for the HEA, QAA and in partnership with the OIA), 9 and 10. Some of these could, it is true, be pulled in-house – but at massive expense and for no discernible impact

Responsibility 5 is owned by OFFA, a quasi- organisation that very much sits within HEFCE for most purposes. Responsibility 3 is a new one, obviously, but one can only assume that the experience of HEFCE in running things like the REF and CETLs would be central here.

Speaking of the REF, research functions would pass from HEFCE to… well, someone. Incredibly, whilst it is clear that OfS would not have research funding functions because “reasons”, there is not a plan for where it would go – and the vague plans that do exist (merging it into the postulated mega-research council raises questions of a double ringfence, pushing it in to BIS could engender suspicions of overt political interference and sound Haldene klaxons).

So why not leave research funding with HEFCE. Indeed why not leave HEFCE as is?

The very well informed Conservative Home article earlier this week suggested: “Although it has oversight duties that its predecessor did not, the clue to its deficiencies are in its title: there is too much stress on giving money to Universities – hence “funding council” – and too little on how it is spent.”

But even a moments reflection on this suggests that HEFCE a clear and sustained interest in ensuring money is well spent, coupled of course with a healthy regard for the principle of institutional autonomy. The pre-2012 funding method included the legendary and daunting financial memorandum. As post Browne-Willetts funding moved towards loans, this oversight has necessarily diminished but a “funding agreement” still remains for all funds that HEFCE allocates to institutions and I would strongly recommend that people read through the 12 pages of grant conditions, financial requirements and audit requirements.

Which leaves us with the name. Surely it is not beyond the wit of BIS to stump up £50k for a quick rebrand and some new stationary? This would surely fulfil the obvious ministerial priority to have the word “student” in more parts of the university regulatory landscape without an inefficient, lengthy, unsettling and largely pointless chair-shuffling exercise.

We may never know precisely why BIS appears to have it in for HEFCE. But we need better reasons before we make the expensive changes that we are contemplating.

Children of the Revolution – (almost) line-by-line on the #greenpaper in the “Tory Diary”

[source article from Conservative Home. My comments represent my own personal views and not those of any other group.]

Universities have expanded, polytechnics have joined them…

By ancient tradition, all Conservative articles about HE start in 1992, with hand-wringing about a 23-year old John Major policy.

But the Higher Education Funding Council is still in place – itself a successor of the University Grants Committee, set up in 1918 to channel funds from government to universities.

Both HEFCE and UGC, of course, set up by Conservative administrations (in coalition with the liberals in the latter instance).

This mix of past and present helps to highlight the ambiguities and contradictions of the tertiary education sector. 

… and specifically Conservative policymaking therein.

Some British Universities are among the best in the world, but the international league tables that measure their work search for research excellence, not teaching quality. 

Not true. First column in the THE/Elsevier Global University Rankings, for instance. All the rankings I know of have a teaching component. But clearly facts are a distraction, we’ve got a narrative to build.

Students pay more, but there is little sign of the competitive and innovative education market that we were promised, with more higher education institutions charging the maximum tuition fee.  Government spends more, subsiding the loans system to the point that, for some students, it turns out not to be such a system at all.  And all the while, employers say that graduates are not up to the job.

Well, there is a competitive and innovative education market, but price has not proved to be a key differentiator. Which is a shame, as huge amounts of public money was bet on a neoliberal wet dream that was never, ever, going to lead to price factoring in all other market information like in a year 1 economics lecture. Meanwhile, employers have been carping about HE since long before 1918, but we can always bring in employer voices to sharpen any argument we want to make about universities. (Top marks for a Daily Mail link also, quality journalism will out.)

During the summer, Jo Johnson, the Universities Minister, complained that the sector’s market was “frankly anti-competitive”; mocked the requirement for new institutions to have degrees validated by an existing university, which he said is “akin to Byron Burger having to ask permission of McDonald’s to open up a new restaurant”, and declared that “we need to bust this system wide open”. 

Johnson bolstered his free-market credentials over the summer. And I’m sure enjoys a tasty complimentary burger from Byron Burger every now and then.

He has a plan to do so.  A Green Paper on Higher Education is to be published soon.  A bill is pencilled in for the next Parliamentary session.  And near the heart of his proposals is the replacement of that funding council which, in one form or another, has been in place for the best part of a century.

First confirmation of planned legislation. We’d assumed this, but remember what happened after the Willetts version?

Johnson’s proposals begin with the student experience.  Some University teaching is excellent; too much is “execrable”, to borrow a word sometimes used in the department.  To help raise the standard, he wants Universities to be rewarded for better teaching.

This is a nice sleight of hand, as who could fail to rail against “execrable” teaching (whether or not evidence exists for it) and in favour of raising the standard. However if you consider teaching as something that happens between academics and students in seminars, lectures, tutorials and labs, there is no proposal to reward excellence in these areas.

The metrics used will include lower drop-out rates, good graduate outcomes for disadvantaged students…

Measuring institutional ability to recruit bright, motivated students from all backgrounds, and taking adequate pastoral care of them to ensure that they don’t leave.

, and an improved national student survey.

Measuring institutional ability to get students to complete surveys in a positive manner.

His friends claim that evidence shows students value better teaching above lower fees: there is an reflection here of Nick Hillman’s finding, over at the Higher Education Policy Institute, that they are “less motivated by student issues, like tuition fees, than has often been supposed”.

If we are doing Daily Mail links as evidence: “friends“. And, frankly the HEPI research did not directly show evidence of student motivation – it showed evidence of how student voted. Maybe some of them thought austerity was a good idea? Who knows.

The Higher Education Funding Council will go.

HEFCE1

 Although it has oversight duties that its predecessor did not, the clue to its deficiencies are in its title: there is too much stress on giving money to Universities – hence “funding council” – and too little on how it is spent.

Three words. HEFCE financial memorandum. HEFCE had (under the previous funding system) huge powers over how money is spent. Of course the Student Loans Company, as the primary mechanism for distributing public money to institutions, does not. Such are the requirements of the magical price-focused HE market in the sky.

Johnson wants this to change.

JohnsonReacts

The new body will be charged with overseeing the metrics that measure teaching, and ensuring that Universities offer value for money to students, taxpayers and employers.  It will also be empowered to allow new entrants to enter the higher education market: here is the means of busting the system open that the Minister wants.

Here, we seem to be mangling HEFCE and QAA  (and possibly OFFA) powers, demonstrating a policy confusion similar to Kernohan’s First Law of Merging the QAA With Things.

However, it will probe and inspect these new institutions to a greater degree than it will older and established ones: this is Johnson’s means of balancing quality assurance with a light touch. 

Risk-based QA – a bit of wonk nostalgia from the 2013 white paper.

Finally, that emphasis on disadvantaged students will reach wider.  David Cameron has pledged to double the university entry rate among students from disadvantaged backgrounds by 2020, and wants to see a 20 per cent increase in the number of black and minority ethnic students going to university by 2020.  He is championing colour-blind applications.  Johnson has pressed UCAS, the body charged with processing University applications, to publish place offers by ethnic group, which it will do.

I’m going to break with the trenchant sarcasm of my earlier comments and come out as saying that this is a damned good idea, and should have happened years ago. I’m also hoping that we can see more open data coming out of UCAS. That’s as linked data or in a .csv please UCAS, not in a bloody PDF.

If the new inspection body is to be the stick, there will also be a carrot. As George Osborne announced in the Budget, Universities that teach better will be allowed to raise fees in line with inflation from next year.  Permitting further rises later has not been ruled out.

Inflation currently stands at -0.1%. And the idea that inflationary fee increases are a suitable carrot is, even where inflation exists, laughable. Inflation represents a rise in the cost of living – so refusing to let a TEF-negative institution raise fees effectively takes money (in real terms) away from it.

Maybe a brownish carrot with a tough exterior, that grows on a tree. That adds to the terrifying level of borrowing that BIS already has on the books.

There will be no shortage of objections to all this.

For “objections”, read “straw men”.

Some Universities don’t want to be challenged by new entrants.

Name one.

There will be questions of detail, such as whether the metrics will work.

*picks up megaphone, stands on soap-box*

THAT IS MORE THAN JUST A DETAIL, THAT IS THE ENTIRE BASIS OF THE POLICY.

There will be those of principle, such as whether it is really government’s business to tell the Universities how to conduct theirs.

A nod to the Conservative Libertarians. Hi CWF! (and hello UKIP).

And there will be concerns about whether a tuition fee hike will deter poorer applicants.

Not as much as replacing maintenance grants with loans will.

[…]

But it is noticeable that his plans appear to by-pass the Office for Fair Access – set up under the Coalition after pressure, in particular, from the Liberal Democrats. Where they wanted to set up a special new body, he wants to replace an old one. 

(OFFA was set up by Labour in 2004)

Indeed, Johnson’s plans owe less to the party that previously presided over the department he now serves in than to Steve Hilton.  The latter’s ideal of accountability and transparency, honed in opposition, has flowered in government – in the form of Michael Gove’soverhauled Ofsted, Theresa May’s crime maps, Hunt’s MyNHS data information service, Eric Pickles’spublication of spending of over £250 online…and so on.

The idea that no-one thought of accountability or transparency before Hilton, is nearly as bizarre as the idea that the listed policies are good expressions of either.

Johnson’s new body has echoes of Ofsted, though it will not be inspecting courses directly.  His friends say that he clocked some of the problems in the Higher Education sector while heading Downing Street’s Policy Unit during the last Parliament.

He wrote the manifesto, so this whole mess was most likely his idea. And as the main thing Ofsted does is directly inspect teaching, and the new daemonic chimaera of whatever abomination he has in mind will not, one wonders which echoes are being heard?

There is a view that Jo Johnson is the real Johnson to watch.  I am not quite sure about that, but the signs are very good.

I think I’d like to keep all of them where I can see them, to be honest.

[update: the always impressive @Martin_Eve has done a proper grown-up response and analysis that you could print out and show to your Vice-Chancellor]