Green Party 2015 Higher Education Policies – Analysis

First published on Wonkhe.com

Twenty fifteen is the year that we need to start paying attention to party policymaking at all levels. With any one or more of eight potential parties likely to form a government, niche areas like HE are ripe for horse-trading and deal making. With the Green Party increasing their membership and now gaining ground in the opinion polls, not least amongst students, it is a good time to review the state of their higher education policies.

Free education?

The Green Party have long promised to abolish student fees entirely, with a wider support package forming a part of what will easily be the most radical policy proposedby anyone in 2015, the UK Citizens Income. Put simply, all existing benefits plus the tax-free earnings allowance would, under a Green government, be transformed into an equal single payment to every adult citizen of the UK, paid for from the existing welfare budget plus higher taxes on earnings above this level. This basic income would allow us to make life decisions based on reasons other than economic ones – so people would choose to study for reasons of interest and personal fulfilment, rather than in order to earn enough to live.

Depending on your personal political standpoint, this is either an exhilarating or terrifying plan. It would finally break down the link between labour value and the ability to live, challenge low pay and effectively abolish poverty. However, barring a very unlikely set of circumstances it is not going to happen in 2015.

The Green Party leader Natalie Bennett has linked the costs associated with removing tuitions fees to an increase in business taxes. Of all the positions detailed relating to higher education, this seems the most likely to be brought into coalition negotiations.

But the question should be: how can we make a judgement on how keen the Green Party would be to influence government university policy in as an extreme minority partner commanding only one or two votes, and in their best case scenario of being one of several other minorities in either a coalition government or a confidence and supply arrangement? And what they would do if the party were minded to use their limited policy influence in this way?

The policy book

There is a surprising amount of current Green Party HE policy, though how much finds its way into a manifesto remains to be seen (for instance, the European Election mini-manifesto affirms free education as an aspiration but does not offer details). These policies form a part of the party’s Policies for a Sustainable Society (PSS), which constitutes a ‘book of longer-term policies’ that have been proposed and agreed upon at their conference.

This is an evolving body of policy (and explanatory preambles), changing conference by conference, and can be seen to be a summary of the views held by members, as it is members – not party officials – that propose and agree motions.

So what there is may be out of date, and it may not reflect the views of the green ‘surge’ that has joined the party over the last few months or indeed over the last parliament.

Most wonks will enjoy the Higher Education preamble (ED230-233), which sets out the place of higher education within a society focused on ‘sustainable living and not consumption-led growth’. As these ideas underpin the wider philosophical basis of Green Party policy, the emphasis is on the need to modify education provision (including a move away from a perception of HE as something that happens straight after A-levels) to meet these goals.

ED233 is one of the best short conceptualisations of the ‘crisis’ facing HE that I have seen for a long while, notable in that it links student and staff experience rather than seeing the student experience as being institutionally driven. It is worth quoting in full:

Departments are closing, students are being forced to pay increasing fees for their education, lecturers are working longer hours and receiving worsening pay and conditions and the student to tutor ratio is increasing.

Other aspects of the agreed policy position are slightly more surprising. Who would have thought, for instance, that the Green Party would favour maintaining subject diversity with a particular focus on manufacturing and industry related subjects? Or – perhaps most surprising of all – calling for a system of national accreditation for HE courses?

That latter one (covered in ED237 and ED238) is aimed at assuring academic standards across institutions. It highlights the nationalising tendency of the left of the Green Party, effectively returning us to CNAA days, and functioning as an eerie echo of some of David Willetts’ wilder ideas.

External accreditation is also raised within plans concerning access to HE (ED244), with institutions funded to deliver externally accredited ‘access courses’ to those they deem to have the potential to study at HE level. This policy muddies the water as regards institutional autonomy even further – institutions are trusted to identify those with HE potential (you’ll note no mention of tariffs or other metrics), but the access courses they used must not be accredited by the institution in question.

Green research (in higher education) policy is another expression of the tension between an anti-commercial mindset and a need to encourage the development of green and sustainable technology (a tension beautifully described in more general terms by Paul Kingsnorth). There is a particularly interesting piece of language (ED242) around ‘sufficient funding to encourage independent and ethical research’, which almost seemed to suggest a preference for non-targeted research funding and curiosity-led research.

Green international policy is interesting, to say the least. I can hear the voice of Farage in the line: ‘In some cases this can lead [Institutions] to accept international students who are less able than EU students who they reject’ (ED245), whereas ‘Higher Education Institutions will be properly funded by the state’ (ED246) seems wonderful, if perhaps over-hopeful. The two strands mesh together in the international development section of ED247, which would use state funding to support students in or from developing countries where a skills shortage exists.

The only green (as in environmental) polices overlap with the existing HEFCE sustainable development scheme, which has gone a long way to addressing these issues the party raises.

Conclusion

A lot of this policy is clearly outdated, outrun by developments in policy by the current and previous administrations. The entire party policy area needs a comprehensive review, and although I reached out to the party for comment on this, there was no response. As such it is moot how much of what is currently on the books would make it in to an election manifesto. The language of free education has formed a part of recent Green rhetoric, so it is to be expected that – at the very least – a reduction in student fees would be a primary policy goal.

The position on staff conditions is very interesting – and plays into wider Green concerns around work and society. It is possible to see the language around independent and ethical research, free from commercial bias, as presenting the beginnings of a move towards academic autonomy. When this position is seen alongside the nationalising tendency – though external accreditation is a huge surprise to me – we can perceive the welcome beginnings of a HE policy based around the needs of academics and students, rather than employers and institutions.

It is easy for a minor party to make unfunded promises of more spending in any area, and the Greens may well be as guilty of this as the Liberal Democrats were in 2010. But in an unpredictable political year, it’s hard to know which policies may ultimately influence future government thinking

The double-time swung classroom

I’m still working through, in my head, the implications of Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” for the way we think about mastery, and the way we think about learning.

Leaving aside the physical and emotional violence (which most reviews have focused on), I see the way it presents tuition (and musical tuition in particular) as a critique of the “flipped classroom”.

For a film set in a prestigious New York conservatory that is not Juilliard in any way, it doesn’t show very much teaching. Andrew Nieman (the young, talented and driven protagonist) does not appear to attend his institution for any reason other than to be assessed. His interactions with his tutor are simply demands that he perform to precise (though often imprecisely stated) standards.

In real Juilliard, in his first year Andrew would be playing in multiple ensembles both for training and performance purposes. He’d be studying harmony, listening skills, learning about composition and performance. Over his four year course he’d learn the skills and attitudes he’d need to be a professional musician.

And – I would venture – he would be enjoying the process, and enjoying learning from his tutors and his peers. You’d have to imagine that the fictional competitor, Shaffer, would have a similar curriculum.

In the flipped model we do see, most of the practices happens during his own time – his obsessive practising and listening. And in this, we never see him actually learn anything, simply playing what he does know faster and more aggressively, beyond the limits of his mind and body.

In musicianly terms, we never see him form any kind of beneficial relationship with his peers. Such is the relentless focus on competition that he sees the people he should be forming a musical relationship with as his rivals.

You can, as a musician, learn a lot from solo practice. But until you start using and refining this technique with other musicians, it is pretty much a waste of time. Whatever your instrument, a hunt around YouTube will yield jaw-dropping but oddly unaffecting blasts of technique. And the ability to measure this technique – how fast, how many notes, how loud, how much accuracy – metricises music into a competition.

Here are similar thoughts from two professional drummers, quoted in discussion about the film:

“As far as [Nieman’s] technique and the portrayal of him working so hard that he’s bleeding, that’s completely unrealistic. When you play fast, what you learn to do is the faster you play, the more you have to relax and breathe. Any drum teacher will tell you you’re holding your sticks completely wrong if you are doing damage to your hands. So that’s really off-point. […] Jazz is a personal journey, too. You’ve gotta love that music and work really hard. That kind of teacher is a detriment to any path of improving in a way that brings joy and life to the music.” – Michael Shrieve

“A conductor or bandleader will only get good results if he or she shows as much love or enthusiasm as the discipline or toughness they dole out. Being a jerk is, ultimately, self-defeating in music education: for one thing, the band will not respond well; secondly, such bandleaders are anathema to the other educators who ultimately wind up acting as judges in competitive music festivals — such bands will never win (the judges will see to that) […] I’m disappointed that any viewer of the film will not see the joy of music-making that’s almost always a part of large-ensemble rehearsals and performances. Musicians make music because they LOVE music. None of that is really apparent in the film, in my opinion.” – Peter Erskine

And one genuinely impressive reviewer:

“In “Whiplash,” the young musicians don’t play much music. Andrew isn’t in a band or a combo, doesn’t get together with his fellow-students and jam—not in a park, not in a subway station, not in a café, not even in a basement. He doesn’t study music theory, not alone and not (as [Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker did) with his peers.” – Richard Brody

“Surely,” asks a relation of Andrew’s, in one of the rare non-musician voices that we are allowed to hear, “music is subjective” so you can’t judge which is best. “No”, is the monosyllable he hears in reply. Andrew buys into this broken system of values just as much as his “tutor”.

Motherhood and apple pie, you may think. We’d never do this to our students.

And we wouldn’t, but clearly there are no systemic problems in doing this to our educators.

You’ll have read enough on #fota about targets, metrics and key performance indicators, about – god forbid – deliverology to have you checking your (quantified) self against an array of measures and and easy-to-use wipe-clean wallcharts. And let’s not even mention bloody PISA. Or the REF. Or the NSS.  Or any of the other league tables that have our managers shouting “faster!” and our peers nervously looking over their shoulders.

About something that should be fun. That should be a pleasure.

Should educators be better at educating? – yes. Do we know in what way? – no.

Not my tempo. Our tempo.

Reinventing Universities in the media

This post was first published on Wonkhe.com

At our best, HE wonkery is very like academia – in that ideas are shared, evidence evaluated, modifications suggested and literature built upon. At our worst, wonkery is also very like academia, in that those with power and contacts feel able to postulate on topics they have researched little and understand less of. It is in the former spirit – I hope – that I offer some criticism of Sonia Sodha’s latest piece for The Guardian: ‘Universities must adapt to the modern world’.

Sodha has some serious wonk cred – she’s worked at Demos, IPPR, Dartington, Which?, and advised Ed Milliband on small businesses. But she is not a higher education specialist, and her article is riven with the ahistoricism that suggests a wonk writing in an area they don’t work in.

Just to take a simple example, she asserts:

Unlike 50 years ago, when a tiny, socially elite proportion went to university, they [new students] will be joining almost 50% of their peers in studying for a degree, facing average costs of upwards of £46k for a three-year degree, including tuition and living costs, compared with the generous grants available up until the 1990s.

“Generous” grants are, in policy terms, a blip in student support. Only in the 80s could they be considered generous, or even liveable. (Fun fact: The largest ever increase in student support grants – a quadrupling, no less – happened under the Thatcher administration in 1980).

A little over 50 years ago, huge steps were taken to ensure that access to university education widened: an achievement in widening HE participation almost unparalleled since, unless you count the changes to polytechnic status in 1992. The 1962 Education Act meant that, for the first time, local authorities were required to provide grants for living costs and fees – a state of affairs that lasted until the imposition of top-up fees in the early 00s. The Robbins report in 1963 began the expansion of UK HE that has continued ever since.

Robbins, however, was famously blunt about what a university education should provide:

In a period of rapidly changing knowledge there is undeniably a tendency to add new knowledge year by year to an already full curriculum. It is easier to add than to take away, It is difficult to reach agreement as to where to impart less knowledge and where to concentrate more on principles. Especially where an element of professional preparation is involved, the pressure is all the other way. […] The essential aim of a first degree course should be to teach the student how to think. In so far as he is under such pressure to acquire detailed knowledge that this aim is not fulfilled, so far the course fails of its purpose. (para 254)

I would suspect that Ms Sodha is not for a moment suggesting that the purpose of a university course should not be “to teach the student how to think”. But her dismissal of the values of the higher education system of 50 years ago, as “employers are demanding a completely different set of skills”, is troubling when seen in the wider context of this decades-old conversation.

Robbins argued for less specialisation; broader, more principles-based education. Sodha argues for more specialism. In a world where jobs for life are rare and career changes frequent surely a broader, principles-led education is a better investment than a course aimed at a job that may well not exist in 5 years?

Debates about the benefits and value of higher education are so prevalent in the current climate, from the industrial orthodoxy of Browne to the neo-liberal radicalism of Thrun and Thiel, that to decry the exclusion of these issues in debates betrays, at best, a highly selective reading list.

Most of the proposed remedies to the current “nonsense” of a world-leading and diverse UK higher education systems where student demand exceeds supply, already exist.

Oxford, just to pick on her first example, already offers a huge range of free and open online tuition. From podcasts, to commentary, to online materials for continuing education, Oxford remains at the global forefront of open online education . The main reason they don’t offer MOOCs is because MOOCs are a low-quality commercialised flavour-of-the-month (or flavour of 2012) that sits poorly with the values, standing and history of somewhere like Oxford.

Professional co-funded degrees? – already happen, though student interest is limited. Intensive two year courses linked to employers – try a Foundation Degree. Franchising and external accreditation offered by universities to other providers? Old news. Links to volunteering and work experience? – everywhere.

It’s pleasing to see a citation of the value that the Open University adds to the sector, as a means of access to higher learning for those who could not attend a traditional university. These days, the OU are one of many institutions that offer online distance education, not least the 150 year old distance learning provision from the University of London. But to see the establishment of the OU as a part of a realisation by the Wilson Government that it was “the only way to increase access in the face of a reluctant sector” again flies against history, underplaying the superb work of Jennie Lee and Lord Taylor, and the roots of the proposal in the technological experimentation of the BBC and similar activity around the world.

So where does the Sodha article leave us? What is the point that she is making? A list of already existing innovations and a vague exhortation to the higher education sector to “evolve to keep pace with the world around them”? For me, the language on the limitations of the market is the bigger story, coupled with an understanding of the need for a more hands-on approach to ensure that we can develop the HE sector that the UK needs. What is missing is an engagement with the discussions and debate that are defining a genuinely new vision of a sector that can shape rather than react to changes in society.

Stop starting stopping making sense

I think I watch more television over the Christmas break than at any other time of the year. As it likely was for many, a highlight for me was Charlie Brooker’s 2014 Wipe (still on iPlayer and most likely on YouTube somewhere too) – in particular a short segment produced by Adam Curtis.

His argument concerns the deliberate disintegration of the political grand narrative, using techniques drawn from conceptual art and storytelling. (Long time readers may remember a post from me back in 2012 tackling similar ideas from a policy-making perspectives)

As a reminder of the task we have ahead of us this year (specifically, ahead of the May general election  in the UK), I can’t think of anything better. We have an urgent need to make sense of things that are deliberately presented to us as atomised a-historical events in terms of our own wider narratives and in terms of what we may sometimes think of as the truth. Both in empirical and emotional senses.

On this blog (and maybe elsewhere) over the next four months I will be attempting to do this for UK Higher Education policy. Put like that, it seems like a very low priority side-quest in the grander project of making sense of the world that we live in. But hopefully, aside from a set of posts useful to HE wonk-kind, I’ll also be able to illuminate some of the techniques used to obfuscate in politics, policy, big media and social media more widely.

Wish me luck.

9 things to watch out for in 2015

So after an unaccountably excellent attempt at predicting the key news stories in education technology and higher education policy for this year, I feel  compelled to have another stab – and suggest what 2015 may hold. I should note I’ve just spent some time #ConferenceCrashing at the superb SRHE2014 conference, and many of the ideas currently buzzing around my head will have come from conversations I had there.

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. Neither will it have escaped many peoples notice that none of the seven significant parties  (eight if you count the Liberal Democrats) contesting seats have a clear policy to address the now widely recognised deficiencies in funding processes, quality assurance processes and legislation that make HE such a spectacular mess at the moment.

What I am predicting is HE policy being a point of clear distinction between parties. Unlike 2010, where everyone waited for the Browne Review, there is space now to generate policy positions that will reveal a lot about what kind of country each party believes we need to be. Access or elitism, internationalism or isolationism, economic engine or radical heart? The expanding network of great UK HE policy blogs (not least Wonkhe.com and Critical Education) will be a huge part of this national debate.

2. Academia against the institution – Battle lines are increasingly being drawn between students, academics, support and ancillary staff on the one hand, and institutional leaders and senior management on the others. Campaigns like #3cosas, #copsoffcampus and the myriad #freeeducation protests have taken the lead in challenging managerialism and the pursuit of cost savings above the welfare of human beings. The heart-breaking story of Professor Stephan Grimm at Imperial, the funding-target driven layoffs at Warwick, the bizarre saga of Professor Thomas Docherty (again at Warwick… seriously what is happening there…) are bellwethers for a wider culture of fear and control that have made working at a UK HE institution a series of compromises and an ever expanding job that eats into your health and your family life.

I’ve heard too many stories of senior institutional managers out of control and out of touch, the saga at Plymouth is as yet the most visible but there is a lot more to come out from institutions of all types. Our union (UCU) has a huge role to play in seeing that light and political heat is focused on this unfortunate tendency, and I think 2015 will be the year when many of these stories come to light. The struggles of academics and support staffs for fair pay and fair conditions are liable to take longer, but with students and (increasingly) public opinion on their side we should see some movement on this too. Expect more strikes, more protests, more hard questions asked of institutions – and hopefully some answers.

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. (I know Udacity kind of mostly have, but another one) Investors have waited and waited for the disruptive moment that MOOCs promised, and I don’t think they will wait another twelve months without advocating some kind of a sustainable business model.

There is a lot of work to be done around accredited online instruction, and I predict that institutional offers will take up some of the latent demand for low-cost courses that the MOOC experiment has revealed. But these courses will compete on quality and value, rather than price.

4. Teaching quality enhancement metrics - the ongoing HEFCE work on “learning gain” was a surprise to many on announcement this year, and the findings may prove to be some of the most significant policy drivers in teaching quality enhancement next year. “Learning and Teaching” has had a difficult time over the last few years with the rise of the vocabulary of the “Student Experience”, and learning gain looks like a way of stifling the remainder still further with a faux-scientific focus on quantitative measures. Just this morning, Professor Richard Hall issued another of his barnstorming communiques – I demand you all watch the “dashboarding” video and read the text carefully.

Organisations like the SRHE and ALT (both which I intend to join next year, having been hugely impressed with their work this year) may be the two major vehicles of dissent to this agenda, and the combination of the theoretical rigour of the former and the pragmatism and history of the latter will be a powerful combination.

So I predict that: 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.

5. Independent researchers - (no Martin, I’m not saying “Guerilla Researchers“!) I am an independent researcher, so are most of the people that read these posts and work in these area. Grants and projects are now hard to come by, institutional support for non-income generating research is increasingly limited – and the likely funding decisions linked to the REF will limit this support further.

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.

6. Authenticity - One of the most interesting sessions I sneaked into at the SRHE conference used the language of Queer Theory to examine various aspects of academic life. Though the vocabulary and conceptual framework were not familiar to me, the feeling in the room was incredible. We were talking about real lived experiences, not as data points but as artefacts on their own that could not be challenged or reduced to fit a pattern. And it was powerful.

Much of the wider cultural debate about austerity has shifted from measurement to the recounting experiences – government ministers can argue about statistics all day, but when greeted with the actuality of a life lived (or a life lost, all too often) it is more difficult to dismiss. 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.

7. Students as ______ ? – The “student as consumer/customer” arguments are largely played out in the UK. Clearly students are paying, and have always paid, with their time and attention as well as their money. What we’ve not seen yet is a proper attempt to define the relationship of the student with their institution, with their subject and with their tutors in language that both encompasses and moves beyond the transactional language beloved by our government.

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. And this will help us design institutions and processes that will support the entirety of the student experience – away from the “customer always knows best” reductions of the way the NSS has been implemented.

8. Uncapturing the lecture – It seems that lecture capture is capturing everything! Coupled with the increasing prevalence of the mandated deposit to the VLE, it seems we have reduced the lecture to an artefact rather than celebrating it as a performance. Journalists and dubious consultants line up to describe the lecture as dead, deficient or just plain dull. And this language is parroted and amplified by those looking to sell the content that is intended to replace it.

In musical terms, we can see the required .ppt as the score, the capture as a recording. But the live, interactive and responsive experience of the lecture (and lecture-style teaching techniques, just to be pedagogically neutral here) is of far greater value than any of the ways we have of capturing it. I predict a resurgence of the lecture – as outreach, as destination and as the cornerstone of the higher education experience.

9.  Collaborative tools – I’ve struggled to find an actual education technology this year, because so much of edtech this year has been a glossy restatement of Taylorism and Skinnerism – a retreat to the very worst of instrumental education (or “skills delivery” to use the argot of the times).

But the things I do see that I like are the tools that enable distributed collaboration. Ward Cunningham’s  Smallest Federated Wiki (popularised in my PLE by the ever-amazing Mike Caulfield ) is one such example – a very different one that I perhaps understand a little more is Known. As John Willbank’s superb keynote address at OpenEd14 impressed upon me the need for tools for collaborative research, so Kin Lane‘s advocacy opened my eyes to the possibilities and the concepts embodied by GitHub (cue Pat Lockley eyeroll as he’s been banging on about this to me for years).

So in 2015 the technologies that will impress us most will be collaboration tools of various purposes, returning perhaps to Tim Berniers-Lee’s original conceptualisation of a web that is readable, writeable and editable.

9 things to watch in 2014 – redux

I’m usually not one to brag, but round about this time last year I did a bit of future-gazing and knocked out “9 things to watch in 2014” and a quick glance around suggests a fair measure of accuracy.

  • Virtual realityFacebook bought Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard happened, and celebrity sweary-keynote giver Donald “Lectuuurrres” Clarke jumped on the bandwagon so hard it creaked
  • Algorithmic policy and the knowledge worker shift - well, I still think it is coming but maybe we didn’t see as much this year in HE as I expected. In the public sector, at least. Business strategy, and marketing strategy, is heavily algorithm driven. But I’m going to score this as a near miss.
  • Data literacy - We sure need it. Even Forbes now think so.
  • Personal data trails – I’ve seen many, many presentations and posts about personal data anxiety and the effect on students. Uppermost I would suggest Catherine Cronin’s ALT-C keynote. But I’ll also highlight this from Ben Goldacre, and this contextualisation to HE from Brian Kelly.
  • Corporate courses - just today I saw FutureLearn, apparently with sincerity, highlighting the experience of global megacorp Vouchercodes.co.uk on one of their courses. Coursera are all over this, as Audrey points out. FutureLearn even use their courses to train their own staff, with a textbook 80% drop out rate (MOOC story of the year for me)
  • Open Classrooms – Phonar (and PhonarNation) continue to go from strength to strength, as do the other courses I mentioned last year. I thought we’d see more press about this, but on reflection this is stuff that happens under the radar of the PR/journalism nexus. So I’ll score this one as a near miss too.
  • Challenges to institutions#copsoffcampus . Any number of university occupations, protests, demos, but the Warwick stuff (great year for Warwick, Times Newspapers University of the Year 2015!) really brought into focus the disconnect between management on the one hand, students and academics on the other.
  • Effectiveness metrics - Oh god. And how. How many people need to die or leave HE before this stops? I guess the REF results next week will offer some clue.
  • More funding chaos - Andrew McGettigan’s work on funding concerns around the new breed of private HE has been one of the stories of the year. And although PG loan access is welcome (as was the end of the UG cap before it) we still have no idea how to pay for either, and we enter the election campaign with HE funding looking likely to be a major political issue.
  • (User data bubble – this was a bonus, and longer term. But we are on our way. )

I award myself 7.5 out of 9, an approx 80% accuracy rate. Predictions for next year will follow in the next few days.

Now what kind of a guru are you, anyway?

Heroism against Humanity

This is a disconnected train of thought set running after watching “The Imitation Game”, reading a blog post about historic Russian Cyberneticism by Mark Johnson, and attending a workshop on Text Data Mining.

Something seems to have happened recently to change our cultural understanding of the nature of heroism. Broadly speaking, our initial idea of a hero was someone who was more humane than your average human, someone who could do great deeds as an expression of what humanity could become. If you want that in a statement, “an imagination of what a more powerful humanity could be”

What I’m arguing is that a contemporary statement defining heroism would be “an imagination of what a power beyond humanity could be”. Something in between the old idea of a god, and big data science.

In “the imitation game” there is a curious twist to the story, almost as a false ending, after the team break the Enigma code (the story of process, incidentally, plays back the five-people-in-a-room-doing-crosswords model of Bletchley – which speaks of a need to replay the popular conception rather than to challenge it. But that’s another matter, and one that Dr Sue Black takes up admirably in her review.). The team realise that they have all of the data they need to understand and predict axis forces activity, but are narrowly stopped from saving millions of lives by Alan Turning throwing a phone at the floor to remind them that the primary concern was to ensure that the breaking of Enigma was kept secret.

What follows is a jaw-dropping re-telling of the course of world war two almost as a stage-managed process, managed between a statistical analysis of the likely consequences of acting on certain information, MI6 subterfuge and even a bit of Soviet espionage.

None of this, even more jaw-droppingly, is actually true. It was an invention for narrative purposes. Policies around the use of decoded information (which incidentally happened many times, to Enigma and other protocols, before Turing’s team’s Polish-inspired breakthrough with the Bombe) were in existence even before the start of the Second World War, and this was handled by an entirely separate department (Hut 4, for completeness sake… I’ve stood in it).

So for narrative reasons the mere fact of the mathematical and mechanical ingenuity of Alan Turing – a fine, and true story, but one that needs to be seen in the context of other work at the time, not least the contributions of Bill Tutte, Tommy Flowers and many others in breaking the Lorentz cipher – was not enough. He had also to make difficult ethical decisions outside of mere human considerations such as saving lives. Much of the latter hang-wringing is about the use of this god-like power brought about by the analysis of a large dataset.

And this is a very modern portrayal of heroism indeed – making decisions with ramifications beyond life and death for a higher good, based on a machine-like grasp of the entirely of a data set and its implications. Think Doctor Who. Think (the modern) Sherlock. Think Batman, Iron Man/Tony Stark, Lucy, George Clooney’s character in Gravity… take your pick.

Think Sebastian Thrun. Think Sal Khan.

Think Mark Zuckerburg. Daphne Koller.

The common thread is an ability to think beyond human concerns, to transcend individual interactions to see truths and answers in the sum of those interactions.

So what does it mean to live in a world where are heroes are those who understand the general rather than the specific, the reality of the data rather than the reality of experience?

Which brings me to the Soviet attempts to employ cybernetics to build the ideal socialist state. As Mark Johnson notes:

“In 1959, Anatoly Kitov proposed to the Kremlin that a computer system was developed to manage the whole Russian economy providing real-time feedback on production. This ambitious request was rejected, although it remained a long-held dream of Kitov and other scientists: a programming language called ALGEM (a variant of ALGOL-60) was developed to assist in the realisation of this economic management system.”

As Mark recounts, huge swathes of the Soviet computer programme were abandoned as the Kremlin decided to standardise on IBM!

This prefigures the Chilean Project Cybersyn, which was a far better known (and more advanced) attempt at the same goal: to direct the use of resources for the good of the workers.

In the west we currently live in a civilisation where resources are distributed by algorithm, but these support the profits of merchants (and not yer bourgeoisie neither) rather than the welfare of workers as any dairy farmer will happily explain to you.

And in academia we are already a long way in to a similar disruption, as regular expressions are capable of reading and excerpting from more academic literature than any single human being.  The UK government has already invested £73million in “big data” research, and the development (and sharing) of datasets for future mining has become a huge component of research grants in all fields.

There’s a palpable, almost childlike, delight in the scale of the research that will be possible in the future. But it is only the funding conditions of the present that mean the high volume and low quality of academic research are unmanageable by human eyes. For years we have used policies that have given us more and more data, so it is only natural that we turn towards the development of tools to manage and use it.

It is already very difficult to receive funding or demonstrate impact for a research project based on existing literature or data. Academic fields, old and new, cry out for annotated bibliographies, literature reviews and meta-analyses. But we don’t have the political will to fund them. Or, more accurately, to fund people to conduct them.

But we will, it seems, fund people to build machines to do similar things.

The “heroism” here is a faster, cheaper means of conducting academic research via automation. The question is – and the one which several teams grapple with worldwide – is this for the benefit of the workers or the merchants?

Towards a Paleoconnectivism Reader #opened14

This is a complement to Jim Groom’s notes from our joint presentation (sadly missing one Brian Lamb) at OpenEd14. There’s a lot more stuff I want to write about from that conference, and from the awesome UMWHackathon I was lucky enough to participate in afterwards. But this is a start.

On birth myths

Last year in Park City we were honoured to be able to hear Audrey Watters speaking about the apocalyptic preoccupations of the culture that has grown up around education technology.

Our work here today is a look at the other end of the mythological journey – the birth myths of open education. We know them well – Sebastian Thrun inventing massive open online learning in 2011, George Siemens inventing massive open online learning in 2008… MIT (and/or the Hewlett Foundation) inventing sharing learning materials in 2002…

Birth myths, even more so than apocalyptic narratives, are ahistorical. They tie in with a phallogocentricism of the concept of creation as a single act by a single person (generally a man…) rather than a whole set of pre-existing conditions and preoccupations.

Paleoconnectivism is an attempt to recontextualise our current work in looking at the pre-creation history of the concepts and interests we share. It’s an attempt to begin to clear the way for a literature, a research base that connects with other work in cognate fields.

As George Siemens wrote recently:

 “I can’t think of a trend in education that is as substantive as openness that has less of a peer reviewed research base. Top conferences are practitioner and policy/advocacy based. Where are the research conferences? Where are the proceedings?”

We could add – where are the roots in the fields that openness sprang from? Where are the connections to long standing work in copyright reform, education studies, communication studies, philosophy?

Larry Lessig and the First World War (a worked example)

What were the causes of World War 1?

That’s right, the cause of World War 1 was ethics in games journalism.

Or at least, ethics in journalism. The power of the fourth estate.

On the first day of this conference, Larry Lessig talked about “tweedism”, the idea that the interests of those who funded politics would always prevail over the choice of politics offered to the electorate. His analysis omitted the power of journalism of all forms to shape politics, and even to start wars.

Alfred Harmsworth began his career writing for Tit-Bits. This was a UK periodical that collected the best of other journalism from around the world, based on reader recommendations and occasionally reader contributions, and presented it in weekly issues [Students of the history of copyright will note a parallel with the late c18th journals like Mathew Carey’s American Museum that excerpted UK copyright scientific materials and republished in the largely (at the time) lawless US. Which was the way the US became a superpower, and is another story that I also didn’t get to tell last year.]

Basically, it was Reddit.

He moved on from there to found what was essentially Quora, a periodical called “Answers To Correspondents” where readers could write in to ask or answer questions of and for other readers. This quickly became a hugely popular publication, and the profits from this enabled him to buy and found a range of UK newspapers including the Times, the Daily Mirror and – most terrifyingly – the astoundingly popular Daily Mail in 1896. He became ennobled – Lord Northcliffe.

Throughout the early 1900s, all of these papers pursued a belligerent and, frankly, xenophobic line against the rival European power of Germany, using their near-blanket control of public opinion to force more and more hawkish policymaking from the government of the time.

One of the few papers he didn’t control, the Star, noted:

 “Next to the Kaiser, Lord Northcliffe has done more than any living man to bring about the war”

During the war his papers brought down the British Government of Asquith over an alleged shortage of munitions, and had David Lloyd George installed as minister for munitions in the following coalition government. When Lloyd George became Prime Minister in 1916, Northcliffe turned down a proffered ministerial post and was made Director of Propaganda.

Not Lessig’s “green power”, not the power of popular opinion – something else. The curated and managed mass opinion used to shape policy. (Even now, it is widely considered that the Daily Mail receives and prints more readers letters than any other UK paper). Somehow this all feels very modern, and very relevant as we consider popular resistance to a more progressive agenda. And, though I loved Lessig’s presentation, this was an aspect of policy making that his analysis missed.

The Sheer Pace of Change (back to edtech)

 One means of shaping popular opinion is to emphasis the sheer pace of change. Again, Audrey touched on this last year – but consider this from Martin Bean of FutureLearn and the UK Open University:

 “Perhaps the most difficult thing for those of us in higher education to get to grips with is the sheer pace of change”

He’s right, in a way. Things change so slowly. Old battles are refought, old divisions redrawn. Old ideas are lost and, perhaps, rediscovered.

“Educational institutions, too, are expected to change themselves so they can somehow be one step ahead of (or just catch up with) where people already are. Resistance to change is presented as resistance to what is natural and inevitable, like fighting a rising tide or an avalanche (yes, these are the same metaphors used in MOOC-hype articles – no coincidence). Universities are depicted as recalcitrant in the face of changing external circumstances, the latest of which is the ascent of the digital” – Melonie Fullick

 There is a vested interest in a fast rate of change, and the interest comes from – as always – people with things to sell. Education is more like a glacier than an avalanche. Change is slow, but relentless and final – arching fissures in the landscape that remain long after the reasons are forgotten.

The Time of the Cyclops (in the country of the blind…)

Martin Bean worked for the Open University in the UK, an institution that began as the “University of the Air” – shaped by and inspired by technology.

 “Between church and lunch I wrote the whole outline for a University of the Air.” – Harold Wilson

 As the University charter  sets out:

“The objects of the University shall be the advancement and dissemination of learning and knowledge by teaching and research by a diversity of means such as broadcasting and technological devices appropriate to higher education, by correspondence tuition, residential courses and seminars and in other relevant ways, and shall be to provide education of University and professional standards for its students and to promote the educational well-being of the community generally”

 The OU has both a remit to, and a history of, experimenting with new technologies. FutureLearn is one example, another is Cyclops – which was designed in the late 70s and used in trials until the mid 80s. It extended the then-contemporary use of phone conferencing, and was seen as a less technical alternative to the full on CoSY web-conferencing (multiple-email list) action in stuff like DT200, which we’ll come to later.

No-one appears to have recorded, what – if anything – Cyclops stands for. My best guess is Control Your Class Like Orthodox ProfessorS.

Mike Sharples is now Pedagogic Lead at FutureLearn, but he was also one of the key team at the OU working on Cyclops. Here’s some notes from a presentation about it he gave in 2009.

Students preferred it to the alternatives… so why isn’t it used now? Framework for evaluation at three different levels: Micro, Meso and Macro –usability, usefulness, efficiency
  • Micro layer – worked at this level! Familiar system – like an overhead projector, true wysiwis, students operated it with no training.
  • Meso layer – tutors adapted it to their teaching style, tutor station with graphics pad
  • Macro layer – matched students needs, wrong business model, saved student travel costs, but increased OU costs for facilitator and line charges”

A familiar attempt to capture student attitudes at the time, is detailed in Bates’ 1984 book. The Role Of Technology in Distance Education:

CyclopsStudentAttitudes

And from a longer paper [McConnell, David and Sharples, Mike, “Distance Teaching by Cyclops: An educational evaluation of the Open University’s telewriting system”, British Journal of Education Technology, vol 14 issue 2 (May 1983)]

McConnell and Sharples

Precisely why adding graphics to telephone teaching would make it more effective is not discussed in any of the literature I am able to find. What the telephone teaching added to distance learning was the connection with the others,and  although early work focused on content the key was the connection.

Elsewhere in the 80s education technology literature (specifically in the Robin Mason edited “Mindweave“) researchers were clear that further work should draw on fields that study human communication. For example:

 “Finally, in the user arena, we need to continue to do, and to make use of, fundamental work on the characteristics and processes of human communication, at the individual (cognitive and psycho-affective) level as well as on the social (group interaction and cooperative working) level”  (Peter Zorcoczy in “Mindweave”, p262)

The student experience research I cited earlier suggested that a visual focus of attention  was one of the primary benefits that the Cyclops system can offer. But is all digital content just a “visual focus of attention”? Some pretty lights to look at whilst the learning happens elsewhere?

#DT200 is your new #4LIFE

 “It could be argued that the inherent pedagogical characteristics of CMC are independent of whether it us used in a distance or campus-based environment. They revolve around two very important features of the medium:

* it is essentially a medium of written discourse, which nevertheless shares some of the spontaneity and flexibility of spoken communication

* it can be used as a powerful tool for group communication and for co-operative learning” (Anthony Kaye in “Mindweave”, p10)

Computer Mediated Communication (via tools like Guelph’s CoSY system) was the big noise in the early-mid 80s, with the OU’s own DT200 of legend being one of the first courses to use such a system with (comparatively) inexperienced distance learners.

This was the first time the OU had used CMC as a primary means of supporting learning. Opinions of students were, at best, mixed:

 “A series of questions about the convenience of electronic communications was included in the questionnaire for the course database. These show that about 60-70% of students returning questionnaires found [CMC] less effective for contacting their tutor, getting help, socializing and saving time and money in travelling” (though methodological issues around survey timing)” (Robin Mason in “Mindweave”, p123)

 “There seem to be a lot of people with axes to grind, particular things which interest them which they put into the conference which aren’t really relevant to the course at all. Sometimes they are interesting to read, but it is pretty much pot luck – you don’t know what you will get out of them” (student quoted by Robin Mason, as above)

“Before we started I had naïve visions of vast amounts of stimulating conversation going on […] By and large this has not happened and I have learnt that electronic communication is both hard work and time consuming. There is also concern about social isolation produced by the new technology, the electronic communicator can spend a large part of his or her time alone, neglecting the family and perhaps having little time left over for face to face interaction.” (student quoted by Robin Mason, as above)

 As Mason concluded, “Conferencing did not have a high enough profile on the course to be a medium for discussing course issues in depth” (p137)

Fundamentally, the people who liked computer mediated conferencing, liked it. It made sense as a supplement to other modes of interaction, especially amongst interested groups. But it was a long time before eLearning (as it became) became a standard offer at the OU, especially given the expense of providing modems, loans for computers and when contributions towards academic and support  time spent responding online were added up.

This was, of course, in line with the more theoretically grounded research writing at the time:

 “Although technology is important for any mediated activity, it cannot automate what is in reality a social encounter based on specific social practices. These social practices are unusually complex because of the difficulty of mediating organized group activity in a written environment. Failures and breakdowns occur at the social level far more than the technical level” Feenberg in  “Mindweave”, p28

 The message the keeps coming across is that this is difficult stuff. Not really difficult technically – at least, not in 2014 – but difficult conceptually. Interacting and learning in this way online is not “like” social media, any more than it is “like” a face-to-face conversation. It is something different. And, until a learner is used to it, it is something that can be very complex.

Networks, not work.

 “This message map analysis shows a complex web of interaction composed of many interconnected linkages. This visual mapping of the comment linkages supports reported observations that online discussions are not linear and that complex referencing occurs […] collaborative learning is predicated upon interaction; analyses of on-line course indicate highly synergistic and interactive learning patters. There is dynamic interaction and weaving of ideas” Linda Harasim in “Mindweave”, pp56-57

 We still don’t really understand the implications of this, despite the huge growth in social and learning analytics. I’ve seen so many diagrams that just demonstrate that a lot of people talked to a small number of people. We’re still staring at these images of networks as if they will reveal something about what makes them work.

You might think that this post is just another example of edtech nostalgia. But I’m not here to laugh at old dreams of the future. To me it is a salutary reminder that so much of the work has yet to be done. We’ve improved the technology, we have yet to improve our understanding of the underlying issues. As “open education” becomes a field of inquiry rather than advocacy, this is the unfinished business left to us by our predecessors.

 “Everything may be possible eventually through technology – but we should ensure that what is done through technology is what we want, no less in distance education as in other aspects of our lives.” Tony Bates in “The Role of Technology in Distance Education”, p230)

(why a paleoconnectivism reader? well, originally we had some thoughts of launching a call for chapters for a book covering all this stuff. It may still happen. Most of what I have written here is taken from dusty old books retrieved from academic library clearances. Next time someone comes to relearn this I want them to have some chance of finding an artefact to work from. 80s and early 90s history is a bit of a blind spot for the internet, sadly…)

Book Launch: A New Order

A New OrderI made a book!

You can get a real actual physical object, with pages and a cover and everything, from lulu.com. It’s £10 plus whatever post and packing is to where you live. (I think it will also get on to the evil online bookstore of your choice, eventually)

You can also get a pdf version for your various ebook reading devices and apps. That one is free, and you’re just downloading it from me. Whilst it lacks the tangibility of the other version, all of the links do work and the other stuff is as near identical as you may expect.

There is also an ebook (ePub) version, which is available on Lulu.com . Or, access it via your favourite multinational bookselling conglomerate: Amazon Kindle, iTunes Books, Barnes & Noble Nook, Kobo (probably other ones too…). This ebook version does not have any hyperlinks, because EPUBs suck. It’s free (as in £0.00), and free ( as in CC-BY-SA).

The content is the least worst of the various posts I’ve done here over the last 4 years (so, of course you could just read most of the content here). Possibly more exciting is an exclusive introduction/reader guide from the man who started all this madness, Brian Lamb.

The superb cover image, and indeed the header image of this blog, have been created by the super-talented Rob Englebright.

A lot of this creation and publication happened at the UMW Hackathon, so big thanks to Jim, Martha, Tim, Ryan, Andy and the team for hosting us at DTLT (big fan). The “publishing books” track was primarily Audrey Watters and myself, so look out for her book (of her talks from this year, which have all been amazing)

 

OK, so shall we talk about ethics in games journalism?

This is a post about VERY BAD THINGS that are happening/have happened on the internet. This is a trigger warning because I understand not everyone wants to or can healthily read about stuff like this. There are very few explicit words or images in the post, but there may be more if you follow the links (which I have kept to a safe minimum here, though you can read all of the horrible things you like if you look hard enough. Or see Audrey’s post.)  

Male and “EdTech” readers – yes this post does concern you. You don’t get to write this off as “some horrible men are being horrible to some women”. This is our internet, this is our culture, this is our responsibility.

Gamergate is a thing, and some people are still trying to defend it. It’s a leaderless, structureless, and – quite possibly – lawless entity which seems to exist primarily to (a) threaten and humiliate women involved in the games industry or “games culture”, (b) threaten other women and men who speak up for the women that have been threatened, and (c) say “BUUUUT ethics in games journalism” when taken to task about the first two activities.

Threatening people is no way to win an argument. Defining or agreeing what the argument is about would be a first step, maybe.

The history of the “thing” is already well documented and goes something along the lines of “messy break-up whining goes viral, rape threats happen, but ethics in game journalism”. Turns out a woman may have slept with a man she met who works in the same industry as she works in (I know, right…), and the man was not responsible for writing a non-existent review of an award winning game she produced. Because ethics in games journalism.

Obviously this is the cue for people (and by people I mean a very small number of men) to get angry and start hurling accusations and threats about. As this is the internet and the internet loves drama, a whirlpool of journalism and journalism-flavour content is scattered all around the bits of the web that us normal folks might go on, thus drawing more people in to point out that threats of sexual violence are not ever a good thing and thus having similar threats hurled at them. Because ethics in games journalism.

This annoys me. Ethics in games journalism is actually an interesting thing to write about. Games, and gaming culture, is interesting. There are legitimate concerns about ethics in games journalism, although to be entirely accurate these concerns do not extend to the sex lives of game developers or game journalists.

The real ethical issue in games journalism concerns the huge amount of advertising and sponsorship income gaming publications get from people who make games.

Once there was a time called “the 90s”, and the Amiga was was pretty much the gaming platform of choice. So there were loads of magazines that reviewed Amiga games, and in pre-internet times these reviews were the main way in which tedious game-obsessed schoolboys (like your humble scribe) could get information regarding which games (if any) they would want to spend their scarce funds on.

And these reviews were, in the main, awful. They reviewed unfinished games, they gave high scores to terrible games (because game reviewing was, and is, mostly about the scores – which [by ancient convention, the reasons for which are lost forever] are measured as a percentage against the platonic ideal of the best game ever.), and they used screen-shots that all looked suspiciously similar to each other.

The usual deal would be that an evil software publisher would sidle up (oh yes, SIDLE up) to an unscrupulous magazine and whisper “oh deary me, what am I going to do with this *huge advertising budget* for our new game. Which magazine should I buy ads in?”. At this point the magazine in question would adopt a certain position and offer to review said new game in glowing terms, even if it wasn’t (a) very good or (b) finished as long as they could have an “exclusive“.

Why? Because … yup… ethics in game journalism. Always has been.

Videogames magazines and videogames publishers nowadays exist solely as a mutual-support network aimed at squeezing money out of your pockets and into theirs. They know only too well that the days of games mags are numbered, so they have no interest in building reader loyalty, and hence no interest in integrity. All they want is to get as much cash out of you as possible before they die forever. And the best way of doing that is by hyping publishers’ games, artificially inflating readers’ enthusiasm, getting lucrative advertising from the publishers in return, and meanwhile cutting back on staff and budgets to the point that even reviewers naive enough to want to do their job properly simply don’t have the time or the resources for it.

- Stuart Campbell, probably around 2004.

Or how about giving an excellent score to a terrible game that was unfinished, using a version that bore no resemblance to the game that was released. In 1987.

Ethics. Journalism. Games. And actually a fair point, one that deserves criticism (as opposed to, say, threats of sexual violence).

At the time there was one magazine that wouldn’t arbitrarily give a dull game 73% because they didn’t want to annoy people, and that was Amiga Power (which pioneered new and exciting ways of annoying people).

It had a short-lived but still worthwhile “Amiga Power Policy of Truth”, which was an aspiration rather than a law:

 1. We won’t review unfinished games just to claim an exclusive.
2. We don’t pander to games publishers – we say what we really think.
3. We only use experienced, professional reviewers.
4. We won’t bore you with mountains of technical-jargon-hardware tedium.
5. We take games seriously, because you do too.

Because ethics in game journalism. Miraculously achieved without any rape threats at all.

-- intermission --
- "So, this isn't really about edtech at all is it. Just Kernohan doing his usual thing about some moderately interesting bit of recent history"
 - "Aye typical. Can't see any kind of edtech connection at all. Best get on and promote MOOCs/flipped classroom/iPads as some kind of educational panacea then..."
 - "Yes, thank god that so many edtech journalists will just blindly regurgitate any press release you hand them. Apart from a few of them, who always complain about violent misogyny on the internet which has nothing to do with edtech"
 - "No, absolutely nothing whatsoever. Just because someone had a bad experience interacting online, doesn't mean that interacting online isn't the best thing ever"
 - "Typical, bring things that aren't about selling shiny new disruptive ideas into edtech. Like that bloody Kernohan. I tell you what, I totally won't be downloading his hotly anticipated forthcoming ebook."
 - "No, me neither. I love fixed-width fonts though. Almost as good as being a man and not experiencing violent personal threats including the sharing of my name and address on the internet."
-- --

But is it just about the money? Or is there something else?

Have you ever (you the actual reader, not you the imagined reader voice that I just did that tricksy postmodern unreliable narrator thing with) heard of the New Games Journalism? It’s an idea a chap named Kieron Gillen had, which basically amounts to a post-modern turn for games journalism. This is way back in 2004 – so long, long after the Amiga was safely dead – but drew on the same kind of subjective player experience that they pioneered (apart from Your Sinclair). Alert readers will note that Gillen here manages to express this idea without threatening to violently sexually assault anyone.

Ethically, this was a very smart move as it emphasised the primacy of the individual writer’s experience. How does it feel for me to play this game? At worst, you got a blogger who had taken two junior asprin and a can of shandy pretending he was Hunter S. Thompson. At best, you got something that both functioned as consumer journalism and as literature in it’s own right. (IPR note, I’d quote from Gillen’s “manifesto” but it has such a bizarre custom license on that I am not sure I am permitted to)

Game reviews as art? Some responded with the horror that you might expect when confronted with the idea that subjectivity is not to be denied but welcome. For example Ram Raider suggests that

“The principle is that an NGJ article should centre around the writer and his experience. Taken at face value, this sounds quite sensible. Unfortunately, applied to an industry full of giant egos, this has resulted in a breed of articles that are more about the writer telling the world about himself.”

And, tellingly:

“Gillen’s not a bad guy when you meet him in the flesh, and it’s a shame to see his name brought to prominence with an issue that we can already see the community lashing out at.”

Really, people did make threats. And started alleging corruption and favouritism (but I don’t think the people involved had sex with each other. At least, I hope not) All down to ethics in game journalism. Or just wanting better game journalism. Or wanting to deal with the nastier bits of what was now connected life via the medium of video games and writing about them.

There was, inevitably a backlash, and to characterise this I want to point at what Gary Cutlack was doing with UK:Resistance during this period. Here’s his take on the issues with “new games journalism”, of which – it was fair to say – he was not a fan.  Cutlack was one of the earliest games bloggers(1), and the way his work descended into SEGA-related nostalgia and bitterness towards the end of the 15 years(!) of blog archives is oddly affecting.

Despite the “proper games journalism” stance in the article linked to above, I’d always read the site as being written in character as a parody of the “socially inept gamer” cliche. (Actually his twitter feed is still like that, except he doesn’t write much about gaming any more – shit, maybe he *really* is  that depressed… )

It takes a special kind of man to post pictures of a Sonic the Hedgehog branded popcorn machine onto a wordpress blog. And to write about his growing disenchantment with gaming and game culture for an audience that had grown with him. But in the latter years he primarily focused on “reader submissions”, which reflected the concerns of the readers back on themselves – which became downright disturbing.

UK:R became harder for me to read as the hugely disturbing “new gaming culture” became entrenched in the comments. When he closed the site in 2011, I understood why. Newer, and angrier, expressions of this culture – such as Yahtzee Croshaw’s “Zero Punctuation” – moved the rape jokes from the comment section to above the line. Because ethics in game journalism. (Incidently, this is the closest Croshaw has come to writing about GamerGate. I’d like him to write more.)

At his best, Croshaw is very funny indeed. Why he keeps adding the unfunny, disturbing and horrible bits is a mystery to me. He can clearly write well without them.

There are lots of games journalists out there – some of them are good writers, some of them are not, some of them are ethical, some of them are not. I’m naive enough to think that we are all publishers, and we all have the responsiblity to write ethically and transparently, to write well, and not to use threats of sexual assault if someone disagrees with us.

If you are concerned about ethics in games journalism (or EdTech journalism, or political journalism) remember that in commenting and responding to the work of others YOU ARE A JOURNALIST. Be ethical.


(1) It’s not a blog, it’s a web site.