Tuesday, 14 August 2018

The Luxury of Despair

I remember one class I taught - and my memory may be playing tricks with me here, but I think it was about Jameson's ideas about the cultural logic of late capitalism.  Whatever the actual topic, the basic idea was about the hidden functions of society to concentrate power and wealth.

At the end of the class a student (clearly a lot smarter than I was) came and asked perhaps the most important two questions I had ever been asked as a teacher: What can we do about it, and what do you do about it?

At the time, I was able to answer to both questions - with a reasonable degree of confidence - "teach people".

Easy for me to say.  As a lecturer in cultural theory, it was what I was paid to do.  What I had to say on the subject carried value, and my poor students were obliged to listen.

So, I taught them about Jameson.  I taught them about Marx and De Beauvoir.  I taught them about Chomsky and Edward Said, Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart, Toril Moi and Homi Bhaba.  And at the end of all that I genuinely hoped I had persuaded them to a certain degree of both cultural criticality and moral indignation.  I genuinely wanted my students to look critically at the world around them, and to understand hidden injustices and prejudices.

I wanted them to be angry about things, and to feel that they had the capacity to do something about them.

And then I stopped teaching.

The usual tale of stress and overworking was making me pretty unwell, and I was fortunate enough to get a pretty awesome job as a 'Learning Technology Advisor'.  And I love it, I really do - but it means I have let go of all the old theories and ideas that used to get me so worked up.  For the last few years I have blocked out the news that used to make me so depressed.  Stopped reading the books.  Stopped boring people about it all, whether on Twitter or this blog, in the classroom or (worst of all) to my wife.

But now I worry that all sounds a bit too much like giving up.  All those things I believe in, and that drive me, just putting them away quietly in a drawer.  And then I made the mistake of listening to the Martyn Joseph's The Luxury of Despair, where he sings:

And if the cockerel crowed what would I deny? 
I’d hope any tyranny that met my eye 
Or the right of domain over the mind of a man 
And the lie that we cannot be equal or free

Oh bloody hell.  Thanks Martyn.

Now I have to start thinking about those questions all over again:  There is injustice in this world.  There is plenty to get angry about.  So, what can do about it?  Especially now I am no longer paid to bang on about it?

Answers on a postcard, please....

Monday, 16 October 2017

There's a wrapper in my pocket

Picture by Michael Coghlan: https://flic.kr/p/dtgg4h

There's a wrapper in my pocket.
It's from a chocolate bar
I got a long, long time ago,
From a local Spar.

I ate it in a country park,
Sitting by a tree,
Soaking in the morning Sun:
The sounds of birds and bees.

It's Winter now. I'm back at work.
And many months have gone
Since that blissful country park,
And that warm Summer Sun.

I really should throw away
This wrapper in my pocket.
Although it brings fond memories,
My pocket's gone all mockett.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

'It's owned by Elsevier': Why this is relevant when choosing referencing software

Satire on corporate monopolies in 19th-century America, targeting a railway owner who once famously said "I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half."

At my University we are currently discussing how to provide support for software that can help students and staff manage their references and sources.  There are of course many different options available on the market - some free, and some not.  During discussions I have made no secret of my preference for Zotero - which I believe offers the most intuitive and comprehensive functionality.  To this end, I have done some showcases of Zotero for various academics - which appear to illicit one of three responses from them:

  1. Oh, brave new world that has such software in it!  I had no idea - and I want it now!
  2. We already use it.  Have been for years.  So why are you telling us about it now?
  3. But don't we already have Mendeley in our official software catalogue?

I fully expected the first response - but was surprised at the number of people who came back with the second and third.  It is really rather nice to be able to tell academics who fight tirelessly each year to teach academic referencing, that there is a piece of software that can do it all for them.  More difficult were the responses about Mendeley.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Getting the most out of Moodle Blocks

The other week I blogged about the myth that Moodle looks rubbish compared to for-profit VLE systems.  Along a similar vein, I have begun to wonder just how many people using Moodle realise the power they have right at the end of their typing digits?

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Teaching Excellent Framework: A great idea heading in the wrong direction

It's TEF day.  A day that few people have really been looking forward to, mainly because there are unlikely to be many winner - but there sure as hell will be a lot of losers.

When the whole TEF idea was announced, there were many aspects of it that I wholeheartedly supported.  The idea that Universities should be at least as concerned about their teaching quality as their research output was something that I cheered along with merrily.  Very quickly though, the whole plan became infected with compromises designed to over-simply a complex process by relying on just the data that already exists - rather than data actually designed to measure the very thing you are interested in.

So. In just the same way that Ofsted can downgrade a school where pupils have a less than 100% attendance (thereby penalising schools that accept sick children), the TEF measures teaching excellence on the basis of:

  • Dropout rates (penalising Universities committed to widening participation, where students are more likely to experience conflicting responsibilities of financial burdens, work and family);
  • Post-graduate employment (penalising Universities is areas of economic deprivation, where jobs are harder to come by);
  • Post-graduate earnings (both of the above)

The consequences of a poor TEF rating then, will only serve to encourage such Universities to recruit more exclusively from a traditional pool (goodbye widening participation), and to focus their delivery more exclusively on those courses with a higher statistical likelihood of returning high income and employability stats (goodbye the Arts).

Now don't get me wrong here.  I desperately want our students to succeed.  They have every bit as much right to decent jobs and decent salaries as any pasty-faced aristocrat graduating with a PPE degree from Oxford - in fact probably a great deal more (although as I said in my last post, I think this should be about more than just earnings).

The idea of the TEF is not bad in itself.  In terms of going about it the right way though, sad to say it doesn't get gold, silver, or bronze - because it started the race by running in the wrong direction.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

The Longitudinal Earnings Outcomes are important - but students want to change their lives, not just their salaries

People working in low-paid jobs want more than just a pay rise from a degree

The release of the Longitudinal Earnings Outcomes (LEO) always tends to cause groans and head-scratching among some academics.  The picture presented is a familiar one: Graduates who go for degrees in Business or Economics are more likely to earn bucket-loads, while those who go for Sociology will be - quite assuredly - not.  Those who teach courses on the lower-paid half of the scale suddenly begin to fear their courses will be closed down as a consequence.

The problem is that when data like this is reported, it encourages us to think that salaries are more important to students than things like job security or job satisfaction - and this idea, I fear, is misleading.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Moodle looks rubbish: The myth that may be costing HE institutions

It was interesting, but not entirely surprising to read Phil Hill's blog on e-Literate suggesting a dramatic slow-down in the take-up of Moodle in HE Institutions.  Not surprising because there seems to be a myth about Moodle that has always flickered in dark corners and is fanned into flame by for-profit LMS providers at the nearest opportunity.

This myth is that Moodle looks rubbish.

Other LMS providers set up a course content page filled with as many html5 gadgets as they can imagine, and compare it to the most basic topic-format Moodle page.  "There we are!" they declare, "Look how rubbish Moodle looks compared to our system!  And in the modern world where students are using tablets and mobile phones more and more, isn't it important that your University LMS looks smart and contemporary?"

And so Universities look at these other LMS systems and think: 'Ooo, it has this, or it has that!  Our Moodle doesn't have them!'  Which in turn prompts a whole bunch of questions about whether the University needs to 'update' its LMS systems by paying through the nose for a different one.

But of course the reality is that Moodle can replicate pretty much anything these other LMS systems have - and it has the capacity to do a lot more besides.  The problem of outdated Moodle systems probably stems from an underfunding of the Moodle development team within the University itself.

Moodle is open-source - that means it's free to use.  However, you still need people to shape it and develop it to suit your needs.  In times of increasing financial pressures, it would not be altogether unusual if some institutions prefer to support the maintenance of Moodle (keeping it ticking along as it is) rather than the development of it (the continual evolution of it to meet the ever-changing needs of students, staff and technology).  If you don't invest in that development though, then your Moodle is just going to sit there - unchanging - looking older and more tired by the day.

Hence the myth that Moodle looks rubbish - when it doesn't have to.

I love Moodle, precisely because you can shape it to your needs.  When you start using Moodle, your first question is "what do I need it to do?", and then you figure out how to make it do that.  You take control of the process, and can direct it to suit the purposes of your students, your staff, or your pedagogy.

The problem with for-profit LMS providers is that when you buy into them, you given them permission to tell you what to do, and how to do it.  Ultimately, some people might prefer that - and if so, fair enough.

It would be a shame though, if institutions turn their back on all the possibilities Moodle provides, and dive into expensive deals with for-profit LMS systems on the basis of a false assumption that Moodle cannot look as good as them.

At UEL, we have just updated our Moodle theme: This video shows how...

The Luxury of Despair

I remember one class I taught - and my memory may be playing tricks with me here, but I think it was about Jameson's ideas about the cu...