30 May 2009

On failing to heal myself

It is a salutary experience to find oneself in the position which irritates one in others. I suspect that as I get older the experience will get more frequent. However, the present stimulus is quite specific and probably shared by anyone who reads this.

I have bought a new machine (have you noticed that those of us in the know don't talk about "computers" any more? Just as "technology" is now synonymous with "digital technology", so "machine" [with the conspicuous exception of the washing machine, which is alien territory to any self-respecting {?} geek] is now synonymous with computer. (Real geeks took this a stage further many years ago when they started referring to computers as Unix "boxes"...)

Sorry! I almost ran out of nested parentheses there...

We know how much of a hassle it is to break in a new machine. Indeed "break in" seems ever more appropriate a phrase. In the old days, almost ten years ago, computers just out of the womb, sorry box, were passive beasts waiting to be guided. Now they are more like yapping puppies wanting to be "helpful" and to mould your practice to their demands...

There is also a rite of passage, in which one is obliged to go mouse in hand to seek guidance from a sage in India, whose eminently sensible guidance will both humiliate you and also prove to be useless. [I have to confess here,that I was, if not actually rude, a little peremptory, with the lady in the call-centre when she suggested I should contact the ISP... But she did check further and she did find the solution and she did ring back with it--and it did work! So many thanks to Dell customer service, and I did email my appreciation, too.]

All that is normal, and it is a reasonable hassle.

What I don't find as reasonable is the extent to which standard software (i.e. MS Office) has been "upgraded" while I have merely been using it. For a few months I have been wrestling with .docx documents which would not open in Word, until I found the patch. But only in the past few days have I confronted the "improved" version, with its "ribbon" etc. That is not the problem. I am sure new users will soon find it intuitive, and bemoan its passing when it is replaced. I am equally sure that the interface is the product of serious research with user labs and focus groups and tracking of the use of actual facilities...

No, the problem is that the "legacy" provision is limited to a contemptuous tolerance for files sired by previous versions. Not only can I not configure the packages to simulate the look and feel of earlier versions (whose incremental changes may have been irritating, but not disorienting) ---------but I can't even erase this version, and buy--for good money--the 2003 version. Or even Word 2 for Windows 3.1; apart from some table alignment and indexing facilities which I use twice a year for quite specific tasks, I've noticed little practical improvement since then...

Of course I do know about OpenOffice; it is fantastic and v3 is even better. I have tended to use it only on this little Linux netbook on which I am writing this, but perhaps I shall have to adopt it as the default for all my relevant work. (Yes, I do know about OpenDocument formats, but I'm not very interested...)

Which gets me to the point. It's not about the software. The day before the Dell machine arrived I foolishly allowed liveUpdate to trash this Linux netbook and experience similar feelings as I reinstalled everything and dealt with all the configuration and driver and ... issues.

It's about handling change, and loss (if only the loss of a few hours which could have been spent more productively). Actually, that is about us as users-----but hey, you designers and producers could be a little less pushy sometimes!

29 May 2009

On a taste of reality

Community Colleges in the States are rather different from Further Education in the UK. I don't know enough, nor do you have time enough, to explain the differences. But as this post shows, there is often an assumption that they are second-class institutions.

Far from it. The linked page shows just the same passion as Fred Flower's "Language in Education"--a plea to value changing lives rather than mining academe--which is to blame for where I am now.

28 May 2009

On the Screaming of Participants

I wasn't cheered up for long. Follow the links in this post--and his suggestion about using it as an intro to a lecture on the dark side of Milgram. (Do remember he also started the six degrees of Kevin Bacon stuff.)

On the Naming of Parts

The Beeb is celebrating poetry this month. And replying to a correspondent (about teaching outdoors) reminded me of this wonderful poem by Henry Reed--funny, wistful and in the later parts, surreal.

So I looked it up and found it on this superb labour-of-love website--a model of its kind. It's really cheered me up!

26 May 2009

On clickers

A good overview of a promising technology to enhance large lecture teaching; but as ever 80% of the functionality can be addressed by giving students coloured cards to wave. It could not be simpler.
  • Think of the maximum number of alternatives you might want in a multiple-choice quiz. Four? Somehow issue each of your students with four different coloured cards. Say, red, yellow, green, blue.
  • Now you can stop your lecture at any point and pose a quiz, to check understanding of a particular point. Just put up a slide wutlipleith the multiple-choice answers, each associated with a particular colour. On your mark get everyone to show... you can take it from there.
  • But red and green in particular have strong connotations... You can use them to monitor understanding of points you have made--or prior understanding. All that is needed is a verbal cue. "Have you got that? If you're pretty sure, show green and I'll move on. If you are a bit 'iffy' show amber and I'll check out where the problems are. If you haven't a clue, show red and I'll go over it again..."
Since I don't commonly lecture to large groups, I had largely experienced this "technology" as a member of the audience, and only used it as a lecturer for demo purposes. A few weeks ago a colleague and I were team-teaching a group of about 400 students, and we used the technique. We had planned to use it just two or three times. But the feedback was so vivid and immediate and the students took to it so well, we used it much more than that. You could see clusters of students who had problems, for example, so it was possible to go to them and find out the specific issue. On a couple of occasions there were students waving red cards without being prompted; they didn't understand and it was much easier to do that than to speak up about in a group of 400.

Clickers are more flexible, and they are remarkably cheap (especially if each student buys their own and uses it over their college career and then sells it on...) But bits of cardboard? Must be the biggest ever return on investment in educational technology!

And of course I would be remiss not to acknowledge and thank Phil Race, who has refined the use of cardboard and post-it notes to a fine art, as a minor gloss on a great career. I'm delighted to hear that he is continuing his assocation with Leeds Met in an emeritus capacity.

25 May 2009

On a new approach to defining a threshold concept

A threshold concept is that piece of information in the plot of a film, which crops up just as the over-priced bucket of fizzy drink takes its toll and compels a temporary absence, such that without the information the plot makes no sense.

Either that, or the plot of "Star Trek" made no sense either way.

On re-launching the sites part 1

It's the big finale, folks!

The funding runs out at the end of this academic year, and so I have embarked on a real root-and-branch up-date of the sites, so I don't have as much to do when no-one is paying. I think I have dealt with the "learning" site, and I have up-loaded it back to the server in the last few minutes. I'm sure I have missed something; in that case please let me know.

I'll start on the "teaching" side in a day or two (given that I do have something which passes for a life, besides this). That site is bigger but less complicated. And then I'll move on to "Doceo", which has had a partial re-vamp already.

And of course I shall carry on without external funding (and my gratitude to the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme of the Higher Education Academy for supporting this for the last five years--it was not meant to go on so long, but they have been really supportive and understanding), although I may have to resort to carrying Adsence or similar. Hey, don't let Susi know, but I can probably afford it in any case---and she might even contribute to keep me out form under her feet...

I'll notify the next stages via the blog, too.

21 May 2009

On training child abusers

OK. The heading is a little dramatic, and I have no direct involvement with the Irish situation. Nor have I read the whole report. But I was involved in training "residential child care officers" in the '70s.

From 1975 to 79 I was the tutor-in-charge of the largest Certificate in the Residential Care of Children and Young People (CRCCYP) course in England. It was based in a College of Technology (up-market college of further education which in this case eventually became part of a university) and validated--very loosely by present standards--by the then Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work, predecessor of...who cares?
  • Incidentally, I had no direct experience at all of practice in residential child care or any kind of residential social work, or indeed of any kind of social work beyond some volunteering at university.
  • but I did have a first degree in European Studies and a Master's in Religious Studies
  • and a sociological interest in "total institutions"...
  • and a year's introduction to the psychoanalytic approach to group relations
  • and I and the team of tutors, were really proud of the intensive educational and vocational programme we offered
Why mention all this? Because of what it suggests about the disconnection between the training--and probably the inspection--and the practice of care.
  • Some of the people I trained---and licensed to practise---were later prosecuted for abusing children in their care. (I find myself seeking to exculpate the course by claiming, "merely" physically, not sexually. As if that mitigated anything.)
  • Some of the practice placements we used were later shown to be the settings of abuse. The details are not always public (nor I admit are all the allegations tested), but it appears that in some cases "therapeutic" was a cover for "abusive" activity. (I am being scrupulous here. In the absence of evidence, both descriptors go in quotes. But New Barns, one of the establishments identified in the linked article below, was regarded as one of our very best student placements.)
  • One of the external examiners for the course was later convicted of child sexual abuse. (See here.) I became a friend of his; he stayed with me rather than go to a hotel when he came up for examiners' meetings (even that would be frowned upon now). We discussed how unjustly he had been treated in various ways for admitting to being gay. Above all I remember to my shame commiserating with him over the abuse he had received (including excrement through his letter-box, he said) over an item he wrote for his column in Social Work Today entitled "Sex and the Residential Social Worker" in which he argued for an end to the absolute prohibition of sexual relations between staff and residents--spinning it to imply that he was referring to establishments for morally and mentally competent adults with physical disabilities...
This is 30-year-old history. I am not trying to re-open old wounds. (That may indeed be a just and worthwhile project, but it is a different one.)

But I am not surprised that the Irish authorities in those day were so easily deceived by the abusers. I was certainly even more naive than other people in my position. I cringe now to think that only once, out of more than 300 students with whom I worked, did it even occur to me that he or she might be a premeditating abuser. (I did confront that person over his failure to obtain parental consent for a planned "expedition" with children. I never saw him again... but there was no evidence to pursue it further.)

Later, in 1979, trying to set up a crisis intervention project for young people at odds with their families, using volunteers, I was challenged by a Director of Social Services; "How are you going to guarantee that your volunteers do not abuse the young people?" Strange question. Well, they want to help, not hurt, don't they? And besides, this is a Christian project... How can you be so negative and suspicious? Pathetic response.

Ireland in the '70s was quite different from the rather-frayed Celtic Tiger of just yesterday. If we failed to see what was beneath our noses in secular social services in England, how much more likely was that in an Irish Republic in thrall to the Catholic church?

Now, of course, much is different. Fear of abuse has unsurprisingly become an obsession, to the detriment of some of the best practice of thirty years ago. Sadly, those abusive practitioners not only destroyed directly many young lives, but they also destroyed any notion of trust within the system. So that the possibility of rebuilding hope for those children who have already been abused is severely limited; for every school or children's home which dares physically to touch them, there are many which do not.

About fifteen years ago, I was peripherally involved in giving evidence to an enquiry into the peremptory closure in the middle of the night of Oxendon House in Leighton Buzzard. (The link is about the only useful one I can find on the web, interestingly.) The reason for the action was claimed to be that members of staff had been giving young people massages to help them relax before bed, under the supervision of a fully-trained masseuse. The parliamentary written answer states;
the acting principal of the home has been arrested by the police and that four other members of staff have been suspended. Following advice from the social services inspectorate, the county council is conducting an investigation into allegations of inappropriate therapies and restraint techniques and the general culture of the home. Meanwhile the home has been closed, the children relocated and 45 members of staff have been given leave of absence.The social services inspectorate is continuing to monitor the situation.
All criminal charges were dropped. A subsequent inquiry (costing, I was told, £250,000) found no abuse or wrong-doing, although some practices were "capable of being misconstrued". But there was nothing to merit the precipitate closure, nothing to justify the relocation of children who were just in some cases finding the firsrt safe place in their lives, or blighting the careers of the staff. The Director of Social Services was the one who resigned.

I'm rambling. That's what happens. It is very difficult to retain focus or perspective. There's a deep desire for some simple angle. Sometimes the most difficult part of reflection is to acknowledge that there isn't one.

18 May 2009

On going backwards!

Cheap point, but that is what happens when you give up on education to the extent of not having a government department for it.

15 May 2009

On disputing "constructive alignment"

An interesting discussion of the limitations of Biggs' "constructive alignment" model for university teaching—which is referenced and outlined in the post. Briefly, Jones suggests that it leads to big top-down quality enhancement/staff development initiatives which just do not work. He proposes a more modest encouragement of "reflective alignment" which in effect says that if university teachers will just think more about what they are doing, they will not be able to resist improving it. This is in line with the Strivens article I have often drawn attention to.

12 May 2009

On reprising Milgram

I think these replays are only available for a few days, so hurry!

Milgram's "Obedience to Authority" experiments (1973) are part of the canon of classic psychological experiments, but that is not the reason to watch the final quarter-hour of this programme. It's what it is about. Unlike the re-creation of Zimbardo's prison experiment, which worked out very differently in the '90s from the '70s, this account suggests that not much has changed in the susceptibility of people to authoritative influence overriding their personal moral standards. "Suggests". I may have missed it, but much of the potency of the original experiment lay in the stats--in the proportion of people prepared to acquiesce under pressure--rather than in the individual cases, and I don't think we got any of that here. For all I know, they ran the protocol a thousand times to get the few conforming examples shown here...

On good advice

It's not particularly original but it can bear repeating many times—see this advice, primarily about conference preentations but also applicable to lectures, etc.

Thanks to Robert Cottrell on the Browser.

08 May 2009

On feedback

Do read the linked column—and, as important, the comments.

The author (now a professor) has kept her former professor's annotation of an essay she wrote in her second year as an undergraduate. She reproduces them and her readers comment on them. It's fascinating, and also rather disconcerting to see how many ways the notes can be interpreted, as well as to consider whether that kind of feedback would be acceptable thirty years on.

07 May 2009

On the personal touch

Just when it seems that everyone is going over the top for e-portfolios and that egregiously infantilising application, PebblePad — the Times Higher Education once again comes through with a feature on the distinctive feature of UK universities (albeit cast largely in the discourse of the "unique selling proposition"), namely personal contact between academics and students.

There ain't no substitute.