All posts by dkernohan

Dickens on big data

It has become one of those common place go-to riffs in education reform. Not quite up there with “education is broken” or that bloody Ferris Beuller video. But if you’re listening to someone with pretensions of a literary background you may well catch an earful of that classic indictment of useless educators:

Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them”

If you are lucky, you may be introduced to the fact that the character speaking is named Gradgrind and the book is Charles Dickens’ “Hard Times“. Gradgrind, of course, wasn’t a teacher – this was the charmingly named Mr M’Choakumchild – nor had he any real reason to be in the school at that point.

For what is (to my mind) one of Dickens’ more incisive and political books it is not often read. Certainly it has it’s share of unexpected familial coincidences and grotesque characters, and naturally poverty is compared with the moneyed classes with a situationally unlikely set of instances of social mobility – but at heart it is a dystopian novel based on the excesses of a certain persuasion of utilitarianism.

“The greatest happiness of the greatest number” is the Benthamite cry, and this led indirectly to Jeremy sitting in on UCL committee meetings more than 150 years after his death. But a great deal of the ongoing utilitarian work was finding reliable methods of identifying when people were happy, and the conditions that were preventing this.

There is a charming passage in Hard Times where Dickens reflects on the earnestly pursued data-driven diagnoses:

[…] there was a native organisation in Coketown itself, whose members were to be heard of in the House of Commons every session, indignantly petitioning for acts of parliament that should make these people religious by main force. Then came the Teetotal Society, who complained that these same people would get drunk, and showed in tabular statements that they did get drunk, and proved at tea parties that no inducement, human or Divine (except a medal), would induce them to forego their custom of getting drunk. Then came the chemist and druggist, with other tabular statements, showing that when they didn’t get drunk, they took opium. Then came the experienced chaplain of the jail, with more tabular statements, outdoing all the previous tabular statements, and showing that the same people would resort to low haunts, hidden from the public eye, where they heard low singing and saw low dancing, and mayhap joined in it; and where A. B., aged twenty-four next birthday, and committed for eighteen months’ solitary, had himself said (not that he had ever shown himself particularly worthy of belief) his ruin began, as he was perfectly sure and confident that otherwise he would have been a tip-top moral specimen.”

The strikingly modern aspect of this, to me, is not just the reliance on “tabular statements” to define social and moral ills, but also the reliance on coercion and behavioural engineering based on these tabular statements.

Quite what conclusion I draw from this quote I’m not yet sure. But there is some link between the aggregation of quantified selves as data trails within a larger quantitatively driven policy process and the excesses of utilitarianism that Dickens was satirising.

And you should (re)read “Hard Times”. Because it strikes home regarding the almost unnameable something that austerity-battered populations cling to that is almost the precise opposite of data-driven policy making.

The Onrushing Avalanche of Pedagogical Technology (1936)

I’m presenting at London Book Fair next week and wondered on a whim if it would be a good idea to present as if it were actually 1936. It’s probably not such a good idea. This is a sketch of a 5-7 minute presentation in that style (which I freely admit I stole the idea of from Brett Victor’s mindblowing “Future of Programming” presentation at DBX2013) and it owes something of a methodological debt to Jim Groom’s ongoing paleoconnectivism.

“A college education for anyone who wants it. A complete course in practically any of the subjects now named in the college curriculum – for five dollars; an elementary course in these subjects for one dollar, and a single far-reaching lecture on one of them by a worldwide authority for ten cents”

Professor Michael Pupin, Professor of Physics at Columbia University, sets out a compelling vision for the future of higher level instruction in a  “Popular Science” interview. In this vision of the future there is no need for a campus, or for textbooks.

Both university and private money is being invested in this and similar schemes – after recent upheaval in the financial markets it appears that technology-led speculation has moved to the world of education, bypassing existing industries entirely. A glance through the content of the rest of “Popular Science” for the month in question sees a number of advertisements for various forms of remote learning, for business or for pleasure.

Remote instruction has since become far more widespread, and we are on course to see more than 200 city school systems, alongside numerous colleges and universities, broadcasting materials by 1938. Both Columbia and Harvard, along with many other famed institutions, are a part of this movement. Often, credit is offered linked to self-administered examinations.

But, despite the obvious boon to those thirsty for knowledge without the capability to attend a physical campus, not everyone is a fan. Bruce Bliven of The New Republic asks: “Is radio to become a chief arm of education? Will the classroom be abolished and the child of the future be stuffed with facts as he sits at home or even as he walks about the streets with his portable receiving-set in his pocket?

Bliven is highlighting the need for a social aspect to learning. Advances combining learning theory and psychology at Yale (notably the work of Clark Hull) suggest that the act of learning is one constituent of the wider formation of character, and that the act of imitation is key to this. The person of the teacher, and of the more mature peer, is key here – and as yet we cannot transmit character via radio waves.

Or via the printed press. None of these concerns about technology in education are new. In Plato’s account of the dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus the idea of learning from books is discussed:

“[T]his invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.” [274c-275b]

Our UK coalition government is presiding over a number of far reaching changes to the education sector, not least the raising of the compulsory school leaving age and the development of new types of schools to meet the needs of new forms of employment. But, in this context, the 1928 Hadow report recommendation that “the books used in schools should be excellent in quality as well as adequate in numbers” suggests that as a reference and as a model, high-quality published material should be around for a long time yet. As the report notes (p112) “[C]hildren should learn from them to admire what is admirable in literature, and to acquire a habit of clear thought and lucid expression.”

Whatever the advances in pedagogy that the future may see, it is difficult to imagine a time where the expertise of the tutor, the lucidity of published materials and the discipline of classroom dictation are not central to the learning process.

The Rome Act of the Berne Convention convention, nearly 10 years ago, added a whole range of additional publication types to those protected globally by copyright. It is to be hoped, that as technology develops, these global treaties protecting the rights of publishers will develop with them, but that this would not be to the detriment of access to published works by learners and scholars.

But how are the publishers using new technologies to support education? Already we have seen the Milwaukee Journal experiment with Facsimile transmission of newspaper pages via the airwaves to a range of receivers in department stores and other public places. Although, at present this is a proof-of-concept led by the struggling newspaper industry as a way to cope with the threat of radio news, it is possible to imagine academic materials transmitted in a similar way.

We know that certain enterprises, for instance the innovative start-up “Penguin“, are experimenting with newer, more portable formats for books. The team are also looking to revolutionise distribution via a number of platforms in railway stations. Admittedly, these have been cheap mass productions, and I for one would not be surprised if a newspaper business like Pearson doesn’t become involved. But what today is only a way of selling gaudy crime novels for the price of a packet of cigarettes may tomorrow cut into the core business of many academic publishers – imagine if a consortia of university presses owned an operation like Penguin – or the proposed Pelican factual imprint?

Increasingly, readers are expecting “more” from books, and are paying less for them. Competition from broadcast channels has so far been focused on the newspaper industry, but who is to say that the in-depth engagement with an educational institution or a textbook would not be next to fall to the immediacy of new sources of information? In 80 years or so, would we be discussing a global marketplace in scholarly publication that doesn’t involve printing at all? A few years ago I would have said no, but these days – in the words of the popular song by Mr Cole Porter – “Anything Goes”!

Everyone is miserable. We are uninformed. We are lonely and scared.

So, the right own the future, the left are trapped in the past. So says John Harris in the Guardian, at least.  This is a perplexing argument, as I agree with much of what he says about the problems that he enumerates (changing nature of work, environmental issues, ageing population) but it is clear that all of these require long-term, structured and global collective action (which is pretty old fashioned socialism, frankly) if we are to have any chance of even beginning to address them.

I started thinking a while ago about a Generation X “to-do list”, given that the preceding generation has utterly failed to sort any of this stuff out (seriously, come on people…). So this is the list of stuff we literally have to do in the next 10-20 years if we have any ambitions of either surviving and flourishing as a species.

I’m well aware that everything that follows is hopelessly naive. I don’t care.

1) Everyone is miserable. Human life in the c21st is so rarely an enjoyable experience for anyone that the entire basis of civilisation is up for question. If we’ve build this huge machine to live in which is making most of us unhealthy, tired and lonely we should fix it or build something else.

Q1a) Waged work is fundamentally flawed. The dominant model of survival we have  is that where we are allocated value based on the work we do for others, and can use this value to purchase goods or other work from other people. But with the “purchase” side of the system driven by a need to reduce production costs – using technology and/or straight up human exploitation, the odds are stacked against the “realisation of value” end. In other words, if we want to buy cheap stuff we will have to employ less people.

1a1) We need to buy less stuff. Buying stuff is a rubbish proxy for happiness. Time, human contact and the pleasure of creation, are much better ways of realising the goal of happiness so…

1a2) We need to work less. For the first time in history there is less work that needs to be done than there are people to do it. A lot of people are doing work that doesn’t need to be done, either because there are machines to do it or it is just flat-out useless. But we have an economic system where if people don’t work they freeze/starve.

1a3) The way we share stuff is utterly unsustainable. A few people have everything, most people have nothing. This is not going to end well for either group.

A1a) Global Basic Citizens Income. Everyone receives a basic income sufficient to live happily on. Where people do choose to work, some of the value realised could be in additional money, or other opportunities. The remainder of the value realised (and all the value realised by automated labour) should be used to fund the global basic income. This is going to need multilateral state government agreement, and there is no other way of running it that as a (global) state owned project.

Q1b) The environment we live in is horrible. It is either disgustingly expensive or unhealthy, often both. Much of this is driven by waged work [1a)] . People “have” to live in horrible places because they have to work nearby.  But it is also driven buy the myriad stupid things we do to the planet in the name of facilitating our economic model. 

1b1) There are few spaces for humans to live. There are actually loads of places for humans to live, but the majority of us live in places designed for workers. They’re all piled up on top of each other near (enough) where we work so we can get there. We spend most of the money we get from work on them, thus perpetuating the waged work cycle. The spaces for workers who don’t work, where these exist (and they are becoming fewer and fewer) are in the same places and have the same problems.

1b2) There are very few spaces for anything else to live. Because we all live piled up together, the accumulated filth has to go somewhere else or it would be literally deadly. So we burn some of it, pump some in the sea, and put the rest in the ground. This poisons all of the other wonderful things that we share the earth with. And us, of course.

A1b) We need to better manage the places that we live. Living in huge cities is a very unhealthy state of affairs, both  for those who live in them and everything that lives outside. We need to think, on a global level about where and how people live, and relocate and re-educate people in how to do so. This – again – is a global managed solution that needs state control. It will not just happen, no matter how many “downsize” articles are written and read by rich people.

Q1c) We are using too much power. It’s an expensive and dirty business being this miserable. Historically we’ve solved this in the time-honoured manner of burning stuff. We started with burning other living things, then we graduated to digging stuff out of the ground and burning that. These days we’re all about causing huge cracks to appear in the ground with explosions and then burning what comes out. All of these things are running out, so are increasingly expensive and increasingly dirty.

1c1) Our way of living uses too much power. For half the year we burn stuff to make our buildings hotter, for the other half we use poisonous substances and burn stuff to make our buildings cooler.  We occasionally want to go to other buildings, and to do this we burn more stuff in engines.

1c2) Power is dirty. Even the newer, “cleaner”, ways of generating power we can use are pretty messy. Partly because we need so much of it, and partly because we need it cheaply and quickly, this is not seen as an issue. But it will become one.

A1c) Radically rethink the way we live. We need to use less machines, and the ones we do use need to be as efficient as possible. We can use machines to replace labour, and in some cases we already do where it is cheaper than employing people. But we should use any surplus to ensure that the machines are cleaner than employing people. This requires tough new laws, and only some kind of government can make them. Or, more likely, it requires government control of industry.

2) We are uninformed. I’m not saying that we are stupid, because we are not. But most of us know very little, and what we do know is of very little use. There’s a whole range of reasons why this may be the case.

Q2a) Our education system is focused on preparing us for waged work, and this is increasingly explicit. We are training generations of people to function in a structure that will depress and eventually kill them. And we are designing out the creative, lateral thinking that would allow us to adapt as this model of civilisation breaks down. As a delightful foretaste of work, our education system is also making people ill, and making the places we live horrible.

A2a) We need to redesign that system to prepare people for the world that they will (hopefully!) live in, rather than the rather horrible world we do. This takes firstly a global will to dream of a less miserable future – a big job in itself – and secondly the support of the kind of institution and people that could offer the education the people would need. Both these, with the best will in the world, require political will at a global level.

Q2b) It is almost impossible to get good quality information. Here, we can grudgingly award a mark to the generation before us, as the internet is unquestionably the best thing to happen in this space for a long time. But then we remove that mark for the internet we now have, which is no longer neutral and is generally becoming another way to buy things we don’t need and/or make each other miserable. Away from this, much knowledge is locked away in expensive books and journals, and read by very few. However, we have a great deal of “information” about new things to buy and a lot of gossip.

A2b) Set knowledge free. It should be a human right for anyone to access any knowledge that interests them, and to use it in the ways they want or need to, and to share the results. Of all the “answers” in this list, we are closest to this one because of the existence (in some spaces) of excellent library systems and because of the open education movement. But both of these are under pressure from commercial interests, and the big solution is to enshrine this access in some kind of international law. (if we have A1a implemented here the copyright issue becomes much less of an issue and we could safely abolish it.).

Q2c) We don’t know how to make anything we are proud of. Most of what we use every day, be it food, art, or artefact, is mass-produced. Very few people are able to produce things for themselves, and self-produced things are mostly seen as inferior to mass produced things.

A2c) Make stuff, dammit. A population with more time, a better aptitude to learn, and less need to “earn” would be far better placed to begin to enjoy the delights of making things. Be this food, art or anything else. Those lucky enough to have leisure time and disposable wealth are already beginning to re-discover these things… there’s been a huge growth around the “maker” movement, gardening, digital arts. But this is not yet widespread, and a much larger global cultural change is needed to give everyone these opportunities.

3) We are lonely and scared. We are trained from an early age to see everyone we meet as potential competition. Competition for the chance to work, competition for housing, competition for resources. So it is difficult for any of us to experience the pleasure of trusting and being trusted. Our constant suspicion tends to undermine temporary states of happiness, and to get beyond this we self-medicate with various legal and illegal drugs, and with consumption. Our consumption and ability to consume has become such a marker of status that we fear crime and physical attack.

Q3a) Our status is more important than our friendships. In general, people develop friendship groups amongst those they work with, and marry (a good “official measure” of friendship) within their own demographic group. We tend to interact with people that are “like us” in terms of education, background and lifestyle – and whereas in some ways this is very human and is bounded by opportunity, in others it can lead to isolation and polarisation.

Q3b) Interaction has become commercial. The ways in which people interact, both socially, as peers doing the same things,  and romantically are now seen as an opportunity to sell products and experiences. This serves to normalise interaction into scripted events that are opportunities for consumption.

A3) We need to change the way we think and act which will also involve shifting the underlying contours of our economy and civilisation – which is a job for us, as the facilitators or those who run it. Of all of the tasks I’ve set out here, I think this is the hardest one as it is reliant on so many of the others and yet is almost a prerequisite. It is very, very difficult to change a lifetime of taught behaviour concerning the way we interact with others.

In particular this requires acting together as a species and as a planet, something which we have yet to master. Fixing a single state would be hard enough, and would require a governance by and for the people. Fixing an entire global civilisation is, well it is something that the futurologists of my youth predicted would be easy. It won’t be. But we should at least try – and we need to use tools and structures we own to do it right.

Further reading:

On the work/employment stuff this recent post by Charlie Stross is a nice overview.

On the culture/creativity and environmental stuff see Dark Mountain

On the education and labour angle see (always) Richard Hall or Brian Lamb.

Former Yale President becomes Coursera CEO

Anything Goes (EdTech 2014 Version)

Time once was
In New Haven Conneticut
Richard Levin did instruct
All the scholars Yale could induct
If today
That scholar sought a dollars gain,
He’d brush up on his netiquette
To join the MOOCing game.

In olden days a glimpse of data
Was news to a course creator.
But now, God knows, Anything Goes.

Professors who were once pedagogues,
Pour over charts of server logs’,
Fire Hose! - Anything Goes.

The world’s mistook today
And just look today,
There’s ebooks today,
And there’s MOOCs today,
And the hook today
Is they’re took today
By everyone one knows
And as I’m not a proud Courserian
I feel so antiquarian
A-pro-pos anything goes

When Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller
Raise $40million dollars with videos,
Anything Goes.

When Thrun would pivot in Fast Company
Disrupting entire industries full of pros.
Anything Goes.

If some TED you’d like,
Not higher ed you like
Venture Cap. you like,
And free crap you like,
M.C.Q.s you like,
Money too you’d like,
Well, see how it flows!
When investors are always hoping
Your course will pretend to be open when it’s closed,
Anything Goes.

And though I am no educator
I know that you’ll comment later
If I propose,
Anything goes…
Anything goes!

(with apologies to Cole Porter)

(p.s: There is a reason for doing edtech news to 30s showtunes… all will be revealed in good time…)

PSA: Raising student fees

There’s two student finance related stories doing the rounds, and some journalists and political campaigners are mistakenly conflating them. And it’s made me so annoyed that I’m writing this in my lunch hour.

Story 1: “Willetts refuses to rule out fee rises in the next parliament”.

This is actually a non-story. Over the last few years the £9,000 upper limit has not risen in line with inflation. But with inflation starting to creep back up, chances are there will be a rise in the next parliament.

This will come as a surprise to no-one – the possibility has been built in since “Students at the Heart of the System”. It is undeniably fun for the opposition to use this as a ruse to attack the government for refusing to rule out a rise – but Willetts can’t rule out a rise as he needs to take account of inflation.

Story 2: “Something something RAB something 45% something expensive”

After a parliamentary response from David Willetts implied that the RAB charge was now 45%, we creep dangerously close to the 48.6% figure that would mean that we are spending more – long term – on the new model of HE funding than we did on the old. (it is already inarguable that we’ll be spending more year on year than the old method, and this has been the case since 2012). This – as I’ve said before on here (since 2010) – means that we need a proper rethink on our model for funding HE.

If you don’t get the basics of the current (Browne/Willetts) system Andrew McGettigan has a two part primer.

Story 1 plus Story 2 ?

As tempting as it is for journalists and politicians to conflate these two stories, they are two different issues. In particular, we should be clear that raising the fees charged to students will make the amount of money that the government is spending on this new model go up in the short term and the long term.

If the government raises the cost of tuition this will have the effect of lending students more money whilst getting broadly the same amount of money back.

So absolutely the most stupid thing David Willetts could do at this point would be to raise fees.

There are also a range of stupid things that David Willetts could suggest that would annoy the Liberal Democrats to the extent that it could potentially bring down the government.

  • lower the threshold for beginning repayments
  • raise the interest rate on loans
  • move the end-point of the loan later or remove it entirely (making it, effectively, a graduate tax)
  • cut other HE budgets  to cover the hole

But he won’t do that because the Lib Dems won’t wear it.

The one sensible thing he could do is redesign the HE funding system, or even revert to the previous one (which is cheaper).

But the utterly terrifying thing he will do is to come up with some technocratic financial engineering way of pushing the problem a few years down the line into the next parliament.

So student fees will cost more than the old funding system. Now what?

It’s been something long predicted, but today the Guardian finally reports on the fact that the RAB charge for student loans is now on the cusp of the 48.6% figure identified by HEPI as a break-even point. What this means is that – despite Liberal Democrat hand-wringing about difficult choices at the time – the imposition of large student tuition fees is on the point of costing the government more than the old (pre-2011) system of higher education funding via HEFCE.

Any argument about the change being needed to bring down the deficit is now dead in the water. And there are important implications about the planned use of fee repayments to raise the student number cap.

This leaves us saddled with an expensive, unwieldy system that – as I have already discussed – doesn’t do any of the things it was designed to do.

Now what?

First up – we need another independent parliamentary inquiry into HE funding, similar to the Browne review in that it would be supported by all parties and report after the handily placed 2015 general election. My preference would be for a much more technocratic inquiry with the close involvement of existing HEFCE staff and the likes of HEPI. (Sir Michael Barber should not be involved, under any circumstances.)

The report should be bold and be backed by as much expert advice as can be mustered. My suspicion is that it would want to advocate a return to a system with a greater level of central control, and ensure that stability and affordability are baked in to the proposals.

Secondly – as much as it pains me to say it, we need to hold on to the student number controls for a little while longer. Allowing university access to anyone who would benefit from it is absolutely the right thing to do for the long-term future of the country. But given the current system, it is not affordable. We need to build a system where it would be affordable and return to it.

Thirdly - we need to look at why the graduate job market looks so bleak that these repayment estimates keep going up. Generation Y have been hit particularly hard by the uneven and delayed economic recovery – we need to do some serious work in creating well-paid and dependable jobs for all young people.

Fourthly - Nick Clegg should apologise. Again, for lying to us in his initial apology. “I shouldn’t have committed to a policy that was so expensive when there was no money around” – he can say that again in relation to the policy he actually did commit to. Other members of the government should also apologise, but particularly Nick.

Fifthly – (and I admit this is unlikely) we should look again at the imposition of a market in HE – and in other areas of the public sector. Markets have never saved money in the delivery of public services. They have never driven up quality. We need to abandon it as a failed experiment and move on.

Why management is more than watching the numbers go up and down.


  • Take a look at the graph below – it represents the changing staff morale over time of a (fictitious) organisation, as measured by a regularly administered survey instrument.
  • You’ll see you have two buttons, one of which administers a rebuke to staff for poor performance, the other offers praise for excellent performance.
  • Your task, as manager, is to ensure that morale remains within the orange-bounded band – too low, and staff are too demotivated to perform, too high and staff are insufficiently engaged with corporate brand values.
  • There are 19 (equal) time periods, with a value given at the end of each. It moves quite quick so you really need to focus on your strategy.
  • The newest data point is always on the left, older points move towards the right.
  • Click the arrow button to begin and see how you get on.

gamePress arrow to start, reload to replay.

So how did you get on? Did you find the right balance of rebuke and praise to maintain morale? Did you learn how to react when morale suddenly dipped or soared? How did your staff morale end up? What would you do if you played again? Did you realise you’ve been pressing buttons linked to absolutely nothing whilst watching an animated gif?

Chances are you developed a narrative around the data displayed and your “interactions” with it. It is only an 20 frame gif so you probably couldn’t develop a truly compelling story based on the data (over which you had no control whatsoever). But if I’d expanded it (or if I was Martin Hawksey and was able to figure out how to do a live random number plot with Google Charts) you’d have eventually become as unshakably certain in your internalised policy rules as David Cameron.

Here he is, running the country.

David Cameron on his iPad

“Rebuke! Praise! Praise!… no! Rebuke!…”

His iPad visualisation displays a variety of socio-economic indicators in real time, including sentiment analysis (and was developed by none other than Rohan “year of code” “silicon roundabout” “exploding cheese” Silva). His iPad, of course, has an email function allowing him to request action on the hoof, as it were. As much as I’d love to tell you that his email actually goes to “null” I fear this is not the case.

Anyway, let’s get back to how much you sucked at playing the “corporate morale management simulator”. Here are some questions you didn’t ask:

  • What was the survey instrument used? Why was it chosen? What did it measure?
  • Why were the only options to “praise” and “rebuke”? Why couldn’t you do something else?
  • How large was the company? What did it do? What did the staff do?
  • Why did morale have to stay in the orange zone? Where did those values come from?

Why didn’t you ask these questions? No, not because you suck, but because I presented the situation as a game. If you’re playing Flappy Bird, you don’t ask why the bird has to flap or why he can’t just land on the green Super Mario Bros pipe-thing. It’s more fun not to ask, and to go along with the premise.

Suspension of disbelief: great for games, bad for policy.

In Joseph Heller’s “Closing Time, the president (referred to only as “The Little Prick”) plays a fictional computer game named “Triage”, one of a suite of war-themed games he keeps in an annex to the Oval Office. Triage simulates the planning of preparations for ongoing life post nuclear strike, in particular allowing the player to decide who to allow access to underground bunkers.

Of course, policy becomes based around the constraints of the game, and when he (inevitebly, after Chekov) triggers the “real” nuclear football, his subsequent choices are based on game logic – and are characterised by his unwillingness to question the logic of the “game”.

In times of uncertainty and rapid change, an ability to question the rules of the game are an essential prerequisite in adding value to decision making. And though access to data is helpful, this must be coupled with a deep understanding of the limits and constraints of the data, something that requires that you are able to comprehend it as a messy and contradictory corpus, away from the clean lines of your dashboard app.

So – our great generation of leaders – look with concern at dashboard apps and anything else that restricts your decision-making by design. And imagine how the morale in our imaginary company must have dipped if you had been randomly praising and rebuking them in the mistaken belief that it was effective.

#digifest14 session on “MOOCs”

I ran, in the loosest possible sense of the word, a session at the Jisc DigiFest on 12th March in Birmingham.

The premise of the session was this – the big, platform-led (x)MOOCs are just one colour on the open education palette, and the other tones and shades may more closely fit an institution, team or individual need. We hoped to demonstrate a range of colours for those who were just beginning to explore the area,  and in that I feel we succeeded.

I am entirely beholden to the patience and talent of my speakers, whom I didn’t even manage to introduce properly – so:

From left: Viv, Antonio, Lou, me, Lorna, George, Jonathan

From left: Viv, Antonio, Lou, me, Lorna, George, Jonathan

Lou McGill

Lou blogs (primarily) at and manages to run a gallery alongside her work as a consultant. In open education circles she is known for her work on the UKOER Evaluation and Synthesis Wiki (which more people should be drawing on as it is amazing)and the UKOER Infokit. If it wasn’t for Lou’s early efforts in Jisc , UKOER would not have happened. In this session Lou talked about the long, and powerful, history of “open” in education.

Lou’s blog | Lou on twitter | OER E&S Wiki | UKOER Infokit

Lou McGill slides (ppt) | Lou’s blog post

Jonathan Worth 

Jonathan began teaching photography in 2009 at Coventry University, as a part of a sublimely impressive career in photography. His thoughtful investigation of the problems faced by educators and photographers led to Phonar and the range of projects around Open Media in Coventry. Phonar has seen huge international success, and won a prestigious Reclaim Open prize in 2013.

Jonathan on Twitter | Phonar

Jonathan’s slides (ppt) | That film he showed (Dalia Khamissy “The Missing”)

Antonio Martinez-Arboleda

A former SCORE fellow, Antonio is a part of the team that made the University of Leeds Open Education Resources policy a reality, incorporating OER into student activity and staff development.

Antonio on Twitter | Leeds OER Policy (pdf)| Leeds Jorum Window

Antonio’s slides

Viv Rolfe

Viv led and inspired a variety of projects around health and life sciences during her time at De Montfort University. She’s maintained these despite her move to the University of the West of England, and has recently branched out into researching the MOOC phenomenon.

Viv’z blog | Viv on twitter | Viv’s Open Education Projects

Viv’s slides (ppt)

George Roberts

George has led the Oxford Brookes First Steps In Learning and Teaching programme (FSLT) since 2011. This was initial a Brookes-only course for those new to teaching in HE – George’s open techniques have made the course multi-institution and international.

George’s blog | George on Twitter | FSLT

George’s slides (ppt)

Lorna Campbell

Lorna is one of the Knights of CETIS, the near-legendary education technology centre now based in Bolton, UK. She’s been working in her own time to develop OpenScotland, attempting to bring open education policy to the attention of Scottish policy-makers and to unite and galvanise those interested in open education north of the border.

Lorna’s Blog | Lorna on Twitter | OpenScotland

Lorna’s slide (ppt) | Lorna’s blog post on the session

Audrey Watters 

Audrey is one of a very small number of journalists who understands and can interpret the business of education technology. Long a friend to the open education movement, I would (and do) recommend her weekly summaries of the world of EdTech to anyone.


Audrey’s blog | Audrey on Twitter | Audrey’s 2013 OpenEd keynote

David Wiley

In a near 20-year career in education and technology, David Wiley has been a part of every major movement towards the goal of truly open education… not for nothing is his influential blog entitled “iterating towards openness”. One of the organisers of the annual Open Education conference. he has recently left his post at Brigham Young University to work with his start up Lumen Learning, and to take the opportunities offered by his Shuttleworth Foundation Scholarship.


David’s blog | David on Twitter | Lumen Learning

Jim Groom

“Reverend” Jim “The Bava” Groom, alias “Snake Pliskin” is a charlatan and a fraud, a self-confessed “used car salesman” clawing his way into the glamour of the education technology keynote circuit via the efforts of his oppressed minions at the University of Mary Washington’s DTLT and beyond. The monster behind educational time-sink ds106 and still recovering from his bid for hipster stardom with “Edupunk”, Jim spends his days using his dwindling credibility to sell cheap webhosting to gullible undergraduates and getting banned from YouTube for gross piracy.

(actually Jim’s one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met, and I have just written the above to try and get into the testimonial list on the right-hand side of his blog – a long held dream of mine)

Jim’s Blog | Jim on Twitter | ds106 (warning: this link will change your life) | Reclaim Hosting

Being Open Is Hard #openeducationwk – an #mri13 special!

Despite my obvious and debilitating incompetence and lack of experience, I keep getting asked to speak or write about MOOCs. Now, I take these things fairly seriously (really, I do) and try to read as much of the latest research as I can.

There are more nonsensical news stories about MOOCs every day, and I like to provide a balance by talking about actual research that has been done properly. The amazing Vivien Rolfe has been working on a mammoth paper on the state of the wider MOOC literature with an emphasis on the student experience (previewed at OpenEd13), and there have been two other reviews I know of, from Tharindu Rekha Liyanagunawardena and Stephen Haggard/BIS.

The general opinion appears to be that there is very little decent research out there, and that blog posts can often be as useful – and far more timely – than a published and reviewed paper. This type of “Open Practice” has meant that we can access and talk about high-quality research as it is conducted: it leads to better discussions and better policy-making.

So imagine my delight when I heard about the Mooc Research Initiative being led by none other than George “Connectivism” Siemens. Here, then, would be a whole range of projects learning and sharing in the open – offering high-quality insights into the MOOC phenomenon and raising the quality of this important national debate?

Alas, no – not in the main.

Announcement or Press Release
Blog posts
Papers and presentations
Twitter accounts
The discursive construction of MOOCs as educational opportunity and educational threat: Neil Selwyn and Scott BulfinMonash News Story
AFR News Story
Neil Selwyn
Scott Bulfin
-The Life Cycle of a Million MOOC Users: Laura Perna, Alan Ruby and Robert BoruchUPenn press releasePaper (Dec 13)Laura Perna
-Professional Learning through Massive Open Online Courses: Allison Littlejohn and Colin MilliganGlasgow Caledonian Project PageAllison Littlejohn
Colin Milligan
-Characteristics and completion rates of distributed and centralised MOOCs: Martin Weller and Katy JordanSeries of blog postsPaper (Jan 14)Martin Weller
Katy Jordan
Conceptualizing Interaction and Learning in MOOCs: Rebecca Eynon, Chris Davies, Nabeel Gillani and Taha Yasseri. Oxford project pageMRI13 slidesTaha Yasseri
-Peer Assessment and Academic Achievement in a Gateway MOOC: Mark Warschauer, Suhang Jiang, Adrienne Williams, Diane O’Dowd, Thurston Domina and Padhraic Smyth.UCI project pageMRI13 (?) PreziMark Marschauer
Investigating the benefits of embedding motivational messages in online exercises: Joseph Jay Williams, John Mitchell and Neil HeffernanJoseph J Williams
-Social Network Formation and its Impact on Learning in MOOC-Eds: Shaun Kellogg, Kevin Oliver and Sherry Booth. MOOC-Ed News StoryShaun Kellogg
Kevin Oliver
-Enabling Resilient Massive Scale Open Online Learning Communities through Models of Social Emergence: Carolyn Rose
MOOCs Personalization for Various Learning Goals: Sergiy Nesterko and Svetlana DotsenkoHarvard News StoryBlog postsSergiy Nesterko
Svetlana Dotsenko
-Secondary School Students and MOOC’s: A Comparison between Independent MOOC Participation and Blended Learning: Rosemary Evans, Dilip Soman, Laurie Harrison and Christopher FedericoUToronto Project PageRosemary Evans
Dilip Soman
Laurie Harrison
-The Relations Between MOOC Participants’ Motivational Profiles, Engagement Profile and Persistence: Bruno Poellhuber, Terry Anderson, Jacques Raynauld, Jean Talbot and Normand RoyPaper (pending)Terry Anderson
-Understanding the Relationship MOOC Students Have with Traditional Institutions of Higher Education: Christopher Brooks, Stephanie Teasley and Steven LonnUMich Project PageStephanie Teasley
Stephen Lonn
-Understanding Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) as a Pathway to Employment for Low-Income Populations: Tawanna Dillahunt and Stephanie TeasleyUMich Project Page
Personal Page
MRI13 PresentationStephanie Teasley
-MOOC Learner Motivation and Course Completion Rates: Yuan Wang and Ryan BakerRelated presentationElle Yuan Wang
-Learning Analytics for Smarter Psychological Interventions: Daniel Greene, Carol Dweck and John MitchellStanford Project Page
-Beyond and Between “Traditional” MOOCs: Agile and Just-in-Time Learning: Jennifer Campbell, Alison Gibbs, Laurie Harrison and Stian HåklevUToronto News StoryJennifer Campbell
Stian Håklev
-Writing to Learn and Learning to Write across the Disciplines: Peer-to-Peer Writing in Introductory-level MOOCs: Denise Comer and Dorian Canelas
-Hatch, match, and dispatch: Examining the relationship between student intent, expectations, behaviours and outcomes in six Coursera MOOCs at the University of Toronto: Laurie Harrison, Carol Rolheiser, Stian Håklev and Chris TeplovsMRI13 PresenationCarol Rolheiser
Stian Håklev
Laurie Harrison
-UW System College Readiness Math MOOC Study: Robert Hoar
-Mapping the Dynamics of Peer-to-Peer Interaction in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): Don Huesman
-Promoting a Higher-Level Learning Experience: Investigating the Capabilities, Pedagogical Role, and Validity of Automated Essay Scoring in MOOCs: Erin Reilly, Stephanie Corliss, Cynthia Louden, Kyle Williams, Emily Cicchini, Donna Kidwell and Dawn Zimmaro
-Developing data standards and technology enablers for MOOC Data Science: Kalyan Veeramachaneni and Una-May O’Reilly
-Patterns of Persistence: What Engages Students in a Remedial English Writing MOOC?: John Whitmer, Eva Schiorring and Pat JamesRelated paper
-Detecting and Analyzing Subpopulations within Connectivist MOOCs: Martin Hawksey and Maren DeepwellBlog PostsMRI13 Presentation
Related Links
Martin Hawksey
Maran Deepwell
-Finding and Developing Talent: The Role of Employers in the Future of MOOCs: Keith Whitfield, Alexandria Walton Radford and Vera Luck
-MOOC instructional design principles: Ensuring quality across scale and diversity: Martha Cleveland-Innes, Derek Briton, Mike Gismondi and Cindy IvesUBC News StoryPresentation on prior work
-A crowdsourced MOOC: David Cormier and Piotr MitrosBlog Posts (1, 2)DaveCormier

(other useful links – project descriptions on MRI site, eLiterate video interviews with some participants)

Very, very few projects are blogging regularly about their work. Some projects don’t even have any kind of web presence outside of the MRI site and conference.  An awful lot don’t even have their MRI presentation anywhere accessible.

Now I understand that there are time pressures on short projects like this, and there may be a desire to publish in a decent journal – especially for new academics and PIs. I totally get the reluctance to share things that are not quite finished, and may even be a blind alley. And it is surely true that some institutions and research groups may have entirely sensible policies on when and where new research is shared.

But I also know, as an interested policy maker, that I want to read about what is going on – and what we are beginning to understand about these large online courses. And that “open practice” would really help me make a difference.

But BEING OPEN IS HARD, and we should never forget this. Being open is even hard for academics writing and researching about open education.

When I looked after UKOER projects, I insisted that they all wrote blogs for precisely this reason (some proof), and when I began to work on the Jisc Summer of Student Innovation I did the same thing. Not all of the projects got it, some tailed off fairly quickly. Which is fine – because being open is hard.

So I’m in no way having a go at the MRI, or George. I could have chosen any research programme in the world and found something similar. This just happens to be the one I am interested in.

BEING OPEN IS HARD. And this is true for all of us. This Open Education Week, challenge yourself with how much of your work and practice you are willing to share.

(MRI grantholders – if you leave links or details in the comments I will add them to the table.)

(MRI managers – you can have this table free, gratis without restriction if you promise to maintain and update it. Let me know where to send it)

Is academia the new journalism? #academicblogging

Increasingly the boundaries between the journalistic and academic professions are becoming muddled, with both embracing the practices and norms of blogging as the process of publishing and sharing are disrupted (yep, that’s a correct Christiensen-referencing use of the word) by online platforms and social media. I’ve written about this idea before, with an particular focus on the way academia (and research funding) can adapt to facilitate this process.

Politics Inspires, an initially JISC-funded project based around the politics departments of Oxford and Cambridge, recently held an afternoon workshop on the practices and realities of academic blogging around politics. A superb set of panels encompassed the project itself (which has now been taken into the departments and is clearly established as an ongoing concern), LSE Blogs, Crooked Timber, and The Conversation – each using academic bloggers to respond to and analyse current events in politics and policy.

From the more traditional media end of things we had a speaker from the Guardian Politics blog, from the less traditional media OpenDemocracy. And from a more analytical end we saw speakers from the Oxford Internet Institute and the Reuters Institute for the study of journalism, with the whole event led by Stuart White of the Public Policy Unit at Oxford.

For such a wide variety of speakers there was an unusual consistency of message: everyone was very clear that the academic voice was one that could and should make a valuable contribution to public life, and that academic blogging (be this group or individual, mediated or not by news values) had a key role to play.

However, despite an increasing emphasis from research funders on public engagement, and from departments and institutions looking to extend their public profile – academia has been slow to engage, perhaps because of an unclear link between practice and measurable benefits. How can you tell when your blog is successful?

It seems clear that the journal article is no longer a primary means of research dissemination – even though expectations and funding do both provide a continued stream of articles. The blog has the potential to become this – giving the academic control over how their research is reported (unlike the traditional PR route) and sitting on the open web… often under an open license.

For newsrooms too the idea of a quick, lively and responsive medium has proved popular. Andrew Sparrow’s Guardian Politics blog responds to (and occasionally defines) the news agenda of each day. And he often looks for and links to academic blogs (he gave the example of the wonderful as an academic blog source many journalist/bloggers use as background for stories of backbench insurrection in the House of Commons.)

So are academics becoming journalists? Clearly there is something special that an academic can bring to the reporting of any story, and that is a deep – lifelong – understanding of the micro-issues behind the headline. We’ve all had experiences where something we feel we understand well is reported badly – for me most articles (and frankly, many thinktank reports!) on higher education are largely unreadable for this reason. Academic blogging offers a chance to add a knowledgeable and historically nuanced voice to the public understanding of a story.

But journalistic values – being able to react quickly, write accessibly and promote your work – can be incredibly helpful for academics looking to drive interest in their work and enhance their own profile. Blogging, of course, is astonishingly addictive: especially when it starts conversations and helps you make connections that lead to collaborations and friendship. For work that links to public policy or current affairs this is coupled with a real chance to inform, and maybe shape, debate. One speaker wondered whether “direct influence on policy-making via blogs could be counted under the REF” (in which case maybe I’ll be expecting HEFCE QR to flow direct to

From a theoretical perspective Bill Dutton of the Oxford Internet Institute postulated the existence of the Fifth Estate – a citizen publishing revolution based around the communicative and knowledge generating power of networks…. “sourcing, creating, distributing/leaking, networking and exhibiting collective intelligence.”. Very connectivism, which for me emphasised the range of academic positions that were converging on the idea of online communities as learning communities.

Of course, something like this fifth estate doesn’t get to stay an emergent, commons-focused space for long. Organisations like the advertising-led Huffington Post, and (specifically) the government and foundation funded “The Conversation” are capitalising on this willingness to write purely for recognition and building businesses on the back of free blogger content. And in a lesser, but somehow more insidious way, those institutions who are supporting academics in blogging are seeking a bewildering range of metrics and impact measures. (But –again- what *is* success for a blogger?) In both cases, the commodification of free labour is foregrounded – prompting one to question why the writer should not profit from their own work.

[that last part about The Conversation spawned a whole other twitter conversation with some of the editors there, which I have storified - A Conversation about The Conversation]

Stylistically, the spectre of “buzzfeed” hangs over both academia and journalism – the temptation to ramp up hits can lead to the listicle and the headline tricks that bloggers like you don’t know you are missing out on (etc). What buzzfeed evolves into may be interesting… I like especially the way that sites like UsVsTh3m play with the format to sneak a distinct leftist politics and social commentary into the memes and nostalgia. But whether articles are experimental or long form essay, accessible or specialist, they represent a willingness to share and communicate that is laudable and useful.

For instance – as the event unfolded in Oxford bloggers, academics and citizen commentators around the country were converging on the twitter hashtag #caredata – critiquing the use of NHS patient data from a range of expert perspectives. The focus was a parliamentary committee questioning ministers and civil servants – an otherwise routine event that was amplified and expanded upon by the Fifth estate in a perfect illustration of the way journalism and academic engagement are informing and shaping an ongoing national debate.

A blog should have a voice – it should be personal, conversational and there should be less concern for complete accuracy than there is for having the confidence to test out (as the writers on  crooked timber sometimes do) half-finished ideas. And – I would add – it need to be confident in the space it wants to fill. One contributor suggested that a blog is the first rough draft of journalism is the first rough draft of history – but is the blog not an oral history where a newspaper article is the official version?

The first ebook collection of “Politics Inspires” posts, “Democratic Wealth”, is freely available as is a podcast of the “Academic Blogging” event  – with both released under an open license. Also, keep an eye on the @PoliticsInspire twitter account.