Hey, Hey #6k (what does that get you today?)

Though we saw a decent amount of detail from the Labour policy announcement, which was – to the surprise of many – fully costed, there are still a number of loose ends that need to be tied up. The “zero based review” provided a decent summary of the already well-documented failings of the up to 9k fees model (and mentions RAB! hurrah!). What I’d love to have seen was a similar level of detail on the workings of the proposed new plan.

For those of you who haven’t been glued to Wonkhe’s superb live coverage the guts of the policy go something like this:

  • Maximum fees, per year, that can charged by universities would be £6k – down from £9k
  • Maintenance grants would rise by £400, so for students from families earning less than £25k this will go from about £3,400 now to £3,800. (This only applies to lower and middle income families, which are those eligible for grants anyway I think.)
  • Loan repayments would be at a higher interest rate (4%) for graduates earning more than £41k/year. (otherwise at 3%)
  • Plan is fully funded, so the £2.7bn drop in university funding from fee reductions is matched by £2.7bn raised by ending higher-rate tax relief on pensions.
  • And all this is “cast iron”, non-negotiable in the event of a coalition, red line in the sand going to happen if Labour are in power.

Labour offer a short summary, and Emily Lupton at Wonhke expands on this.

This is all well and good. Actually, it is better than that: it’s a decent piece of public policy making – it’s costed, it’s based on real needs, it is revenue-neutral for universities and it makes sense long term for government finances.

But I’d be handing back my wonk-card in disgrace if I hadn’t spotted some issues that need to be addressed.

1. OFFA – currently universities are allowed to charge up to £6k/year in fees, unless they have a plan approved by OFFA which would allow the maximum to go up to £9k. (currently all English public universities have a plan approved by OFFA). With a reduction of this total price from £9k to £6k – would the non-OFFA approved limit be £3k fees charged to students? Or would the OFFA approval apply to the directly public-funded component of university funding? Which leads us to…

2. HEFCE – When funds are given by HEFCE they  apply their “financial memorandum” (from last year replaced by the “memorandum of assurance and accountability” which links to the register of providers and makes up for the regulatory wasteland that is the bequest of our current government) to it – which commits the receiving institutions to doing certain things (data returns, subscription payments…) if they want to have the money.

If the £2.7bn of direct public funding that replaces the lost fee income goes through HEFCE, this gives HEFCE a lot more power over what institutions do. Which is popular with people who like to see accountable spending of public funds, but would be less popular with people who run universities.

The VC-friendly option would be to use this £2.7bn to replace the borrowing that the government does on behalf of the Student Finance (England) in order that it can pay what has been loaned to students to institutions. So the Student Finance (England) would still pay £9k (ish) a year per students to institutions directly (as now), but with a chunk of this coming from tax income rather than borrowing.

Student Finance (England) don’t attach a financial memorandum to their payments to institutions, so the (less powerful) interim list-based arrangement would still suffice. Unless anyone in the next coalition manages to sort the HE Bill out and get it through parliament, something that David Willetts didn’t manage to do.

3. Martin Lewis - TV’s “Money Saving Expert” (TM)  still reckons that this is a regressive policy as it is only the best paid graduates that get the benefit of paying £6k rather than £9k – everyone else defaults when the cut-off point comes in. He’s *so* Money Supermarket.

Thing is – we all get the benefit because less people default and more people pay back their loans (this also makes them easier to sell…). And the extra interest rate for higher-earning graduates means that they pay back more money that they didn’t borrow.

[EDIT 28/02/15] The IFS briefing is interesting here too – especially given that the supposedly non-progressive nature (higher earning graduates benefiting the most) of the policy has been the main attack line from other parties.

But what is missing from the IFS calculation is the fact that higher earning graduates will be paying more tax (perhaps including Labour’s proposed 50p tax band, and most likely being affected by the end of higher-rate tax relief on pensions.) The actuarial modelling required here will go far beyond my capacity to come up with a sensible answer, but it is very likely that higher-earning graduates will be contributing more to HE funding through general taxation.]

4. Student number controls will there be any? We don’t know yet. If funding flows through HEFCE then this would be likely (HEFCE has number controls on the small amount of supplementary funding it currently controls).

I’m sure more will emerge as more detail does,  but those are the big questions for me.

Shame, pain, disdain and learning gain

Why don’t people fund small things any more?

I’ve been following policy developments in English HE aimed at modifying academic behaviour over the past few weeks : specifically (though not exclusively) a HEFCE seminar on “Learning Gain” and the ongoing deliberation around the REF and HEFCE’s (shortly to be released) allocation of QR funding that will be linked to it.

The latent conspiracy theorist in me insists that I mention that both “Learning Gain” and the “Impact” component of the REF are being designed and delivered by Rand Europe. And Rand, in a triumph of private sector management excellence, are basically doing the same job twice.

Though in disparate fields, both initiatives are an attempt to do the following:

  • to measure an attribute of education or research that was previously thought immeasurable.
  • to use this scheme of measurement nationally, across multiple institutions in multiple contexts
  • to make an assessment of the activity that allows significant gain to be made against these measurement schemes.
  • To reward and fund these areas of “excellence”, to encourage others

(anyone who is muttering “deliverology” or “new public management” here gets extra credit)

The big stretch comes with the first – convincing otherwise sane and rational people that the huge methodological, ethical and contextual problems that measure multi-variable second-order effects on human beings can simply disappear if you are the RAND corporation.

This faux-scientific nonsense has replaced the kind of small targeted investment in the community that has been proven to actually work. The kind of thing that other HE sectors around the world have learned from the UK and are currently implementing whilst we import failed approaches from elsewhere.

Changes in large systems like HE are substantially unlike the changes in production lines that this kind of Neotaylorism was designed to address. (It didn’t actually work too well there either…). Modern enterprises have swung round to the idea of autonomy and responsibility rather than measurement and comparison. A small investment in an expert-agent led evolution of working practices is  likely to be of much greater benefit than an intervention from someone outside the system.

And we used to do this in HE, before we got caught up the old orthodoxies of “scientific” management again.

  • comparison is not a natural motivator for beneficial process change – it only becomes a motivator if both parties to the comparison are in competition for limited resources. In my experience, this does not lead to genuine improvement in processes, but to a focus on the units of comparison themselves.
  • collaboration can be a useful way to bring about improvements in practice and efficiencies. Forced standardisation brings about a focus on the standards themselves rather than improvement.
  • autonomy is a powerful generator of innovation. Top-down imposition of change is a powerful inhibitor of innovation.
  • individual ownership, value and agency supports sustainability – enmeshing this within a collaborative community of practice multiplies this exponentially.

So why are things moving in the other direction? Primarily fear.

  • Fear felt by organisations and agencies who have lost their previous and established functions and are under real or imagined pressure to prove their worth.
  • Fear felt by institutional managers who are under real or imagined pressure to prove their worth
  • Fear felt by politicians and policy makers…

The quickest way to generate “proof” of worth is an intervention which produces a line on a graph that points upwards (again, classic deliverology). So if you are going to do this you’d first of all ensure you’ve defined a measure that would show a gain that you could link to your intervention. And this is the service that RAND Europe are offering, the effects of which is heavily multiplied by HEFCE linking impact in the REF to QR funding (and, I imagine, linking some similar funding pot to improvements in learning gain).

If there’s a CETL-sized prize (or even a couple of league table places) at the end of learning gain, I could see a lot of institutions taking it far more seriously than it deserves, and in doing so moving away from teaching innovation practices that actually work.

Which would be a shame.

Pearson: Vice City


So the Pearson Summit happened last week, at the Fontainbleu, Miami. (Next week in the same room, Michael McDonald).

And whereas I salute the guys at Pearson for opening #pearsonsummit for the world to see – seriously guys, you may have gone a bit far.

You want the wireless code? It’s online.

You want to see who was in which team building group? Aye.

The official summit spotify playlist? rock on.

You want to register to attend? Gotcha. (seriously, it would have been worth it, they got iPads)

You want to sign the Pearson Pledge? I can’t help you with what it was (but I’m guessing something to do with efficacy…), but do sign away. And check out the tins of treacle, Jerry Javelina, the Pearson Bird and numerous people called “Dave”.

If you want to get stuck in, the seekrit official iPad app is out there. Have a dig. Let me know what you find.

And of course the first day was live streamed for your viewing pleasure, and is still up for you to enjoy now.

Plenty’o’lols for all, but what did we learn from the experience (other than someone is making a mint selling iPad apps to Pearson, which is kind of ironic given the whole LA schools thing…)?

Having listened in to the first day, it feels like the last roll of the dice. To say efficacy – the in-house deliverology-esqe way of figuring out whether their stuff works in the classroom is being pushed hard is an understatement. They mean it, maaaaan. FOTA favourite Sir Michael Barber plays the bewildering part of process evangelist – met often with incomprehension as he attempts to solve decades-old problems in education research with a series of surveys used to generate metrics.

Briefly, education is riven with confounding variables – you get the chance to do studies, but need to take into account that each data point refers to a particular learner in a particular context. You could cite the textbook as a key input, or what the student had for breakfast. And these problems do not go away with the bigness of the data – PISA and (Pearson’s closely linked) the Learning Curve are similarly useless for anyone other than politicians and policy-makers looking at made-up league tables.

So that’s the publisher value proposition – with Pearson stuff (increasingly EdTech rather than boring old books) students can learn more betterer. And look, they have data and graphs to prove it.

We know the graphs will be nonsense (this is, after all, Michael Barber) – but institutional managers don’t. And institutional managers don’t talk to the likes of us.

The Pearson Efficacy tools and guidance are, again, out there in the open on the web. I cannot think of any more urgent educational research or education journalistic task than to understand and critique it, in terms and in places that senior managers can understand.

The patient unpicking of the MOOC hysteria by the community I like to convince myself I am part of has been useful in this way. But that was a dry run for diving in, intelligently and thoughtfully, to the morass of data and ideas that constitutes Pearson Efficacy.

Or Pearson will have graphs, we won’t have graphs, and the reasons that we don’t will not be enough to hold back the tide.

[Edited to fix some links – Cheers Tony – 08/02/15]

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.


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?