Reflections on career and realisation of privilege through building with LEGO®

A couple months ago I wrote a short post on drawing following a session on visual research methods led by my colleague Pauline Ridley. A couple of weeks ago I attended a session led by Professor Alison James from the University of Winchester who is, among other things, an accredited facilitator of LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®

Visual methods offer the opportunity to convey concepts that are difficult to communicate in written or oral forms. As I indicated in my last post, it is not the purpose of visual methods to interpret artefacts that participants have produced but to enable participants to use their artefacts alongside other methods.

In the session Professor James set the brief along the lines of building a Lego® model of our professional lives and the (not great)  picture shows what I produced.

 

I am the character at the edge of the room, which is dominated by an elephant. I didn’t have a any particular views of what the ‘elephant is the room’ represents, but there always seems to be some elephant in any room I happen to occupy. ‘I’ am waving some Lego piece which seeks to represent a distance communication device trying to communicate over long and short distances. All, but one of the Lego® people have their backs to me. There is Baudrillardian sense of my trying to communicate while no else wants to listen. My audience, whether students, colleagues or potential readers of my research don’t seem to want listen while I am communicate things I think are important. They are interested in, or distracted by things like giraffes or giant penguins.

On reflection this representation is a highly egotistical one. I have set myself as the one with message to communicate while everyone else is just supposed to listen. I’m saying “Hey, look at me! Look at me!”, but no one is really interested in looking at me. There are more interesting (and possibly more attractive) things to be looking at. My audience is either distracted by more entertaining pursuits or, more probably, trying not to get eaten by the sharks that circle academia. In ‘real life’ everyone else is trying to communicate too, and perhaps to them I’m the one who is distracted either by the trivialities of my research interested or fighting my own sharks. Although wheelbarrow and sink unit represent my home DIY projects,  the model is notable for the absence of any meaning outside academia. I can feel like a marginal voice in academia, but academia is itself invisible to wider word whether for seemingly legitimate reasons such as major economic and political events or the outrage about Zoella’s £50 advent calendar (now half price + 100 Boots Advantage points) .

There are those with no voice at all and no means to communicate. I sometimes get a persecution complex, but as a university educated white straight male I have my back turned to a lot more people than I am facing. The model clearly fails to convey my own privilege. Perhaps a fairer model would have millions of Lego® people standing behind me.

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Please ensure that all furniture is returned to the original position

Please ensure that all furniture is returned to the original position.
Please ensure that all furniture is returned to the original position.

Please ensure that all furniture is returned to the original position

Instructions such as this are very common in my own institution and many others I visit. I have been pondering this for a while and have been trying to think of the rationales for doing so. In the example shown the tables are on wheels and are easy to move, so the assumption exists that there will be some sort of furniture movement. But why does the furniture need to be moved back into the original position in time for the next class.

Possible rationales for putting the furniture back to the original position.

  1.  May make it easier to move furniture into a wider variety of configurations for the next class
  2. May make it easier for cleaning staff (though this rationale would only make sense for the last class of the day).
  3. Maybe the default position the most versatile for effective teaching if you don’t have the time/ inclination to start moving furniture around.
  4. It restore orders to the untidiness of furniture all over the place.
  5. It ensures that furniture is not left in places where health and safety will be compromised.

Issues raised by the ‘original position’ directive:

  1. Is it possible that the default position is seen by someone as the ‘ideal’ layout for using the classroom effectively?
  2. Might some teachers presume that the original layout is somehow pedagogically researched as appropriate for the type of teaching than will occur in that learning space?
  3. In some cases the original position is different in each classroom. In some classrooms of quite similar sizes and capacity the ‘original position’ is in groups as in the photo. In others the original position is in rows. For others still users are requested to restore the tables and chairs to a horseshoe position.

Why does this matter?
I suppose one of my questions is ‘Does it matter? I must admit I don’t particularly like to come into classroom  where tables and chairs are strewed all over the place, often making it difficult to get to the front of the class. On the other hand if the original position is seen as the way the furniture is ‘supposed’ to be used is this suppressing creativity on the part of teachers and students?

Most of our universities building where built before the age of PowerPoint and smartboards, some before slide projectors and Overhead projectors (OHPs), (see below), but I've only started noticing the instructions about the correct position in the last few years.

Saw this today on campus. An overhead projector. Looks new. Crazy.

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Representing learning visually

I’ve been running workshops on research methods for some years now, but have done very little on visual research methods. My colleague Pauline Ridley recently ran a session on visual methods for our PGCert participants which I rather enjoyed. Visual methods can be useful in representing hard to verbalise experiences, visually abstract concepts and representing processes. Pauline was very keen to point out that the purpose of visual research methods is not for the researcher ‘to interpret’ visuals produced by others, but to use visual methods alongside methods focused on written or spoken language.

My two attempts to draw the concept of ‘learning’ (as challenged by Pauline) appears below. (A discussion of my drawing abilities would require a more substantial blog post).

Representing learning visually
Representing learning visually

The first image represents a very traditional image of teaching and learning. A teacher (on the left) talks and ‘transfers knowledge’ to the seated student who makes notes. It is interesting that this was the first things that came to mind as I has spent many years emphasising the need to escape didactic knowledge-transfer approaches to learning and teaching.

The second image was inspired by a remark made by Mark Goodwin who was my personal tutor during the second year of my geography degree at Aberystwyth. He said something to the effect, “It’s called reading for a degree for a reason... you are supposed to read”. (The image is supposed to be of a person reading a book). That utterance took less than 10 seconds to pass his lips, but it is something I’ve never forgotten and pass onto others.

Further Reading
Pauline Ridley and Angela Rogers(2010) Drawing to learning series (Open Access)

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Degree programmes for the future: Inter-galatic Communication, Space Tourism or Hoverboard Design?

What do you get if you put together a group of academics from various disciplines who’ve never met before than ask them to design a degree course for the future? Not a degree in space tourism, intergalactic communication or hoverboard design, but a course which addresses a very immediate concern – that of the global ageing population. That was the challenge for our multidisciplinary group at the recent University Alliance ‘sandpit’ event at Nottingham Trent University.

Hoverskull - Jonas Bødtker

Not for the course we designed!

I will not get into a discussion about whether our present degree courses, bound largely in ‘disciplines’ which emerged in the latter quartile of the nineteenth century are fit for the present, let alone the future. Our brief was to cast off our collective baggage and come up with a degree programme which would somehow address a present challenge –namely that people are living longer and an increasing proportion of the world’s population consists of older people.

The only real rule in our brief was that the programme had to be at undergraduate level degree. We didn’t have to worry about whether the programme fitted in with any existing (real or imagined) institutional regulations.

The degree my group designed was called ‘BA (Hons) Lifelong Learning and Consultancy’ – I’m sure that given more than a two days, we would have been able to come with a catchier title for the programme. The proposed programme is aimed at older learners, possibly those who have recently retired from the police or armed forces, have been made redundant from ‘traditional’ industries or are just wanting a new challenge. Is was envisaged that learners would use their existing skills and experience to assist younger students on ‘traditional’ degrees and to work with community groups. The assessments would be largely project-based and by the end of the programme graduates would be able to facilitate learning and change in range of organisations as well as being able ‘deliver consultancy at a professional level’ (a direct quote from our programme proposal form!).

Module grid for BA (Hons) Lifelong Learning and Consultancy

At the end of the two days the facilitators expressed excitement that each group had managed to produce a plausible degree programme. The question then arose about why these things take so long in real practice. On this occasion we had the advantage that we had all allocated two days to this exercise, and by our very attendance at the event we were sufficiently open-minded to believe that something could be achieved. Unbound by the fetters of our institutions’ rules and regulations, no ideas were rejected on the grounds that our plans would be unacceptable to some committee or would violate institutional rules about contact time or assessment regulations and there was no reason to concern ourselves with the requirements of a professional body.

After attending the event and speaking to others afterwards here are a few thoughts / observations:

1. Is quality assurance (in all its local and national forms) inhibiting innovation in the design of courses, modules etc.? Too many conversations in universities revolve around what is allowed, rather than what is good.
2. Can more be achieved, faster, if we simply had the time and inclination to all get together for a day or two and focus on a particular task?
3. As a group we were unburdened by hierarchies, disciplinary traditions and a desire to preserve ‘our bit’ of the curriculum. I had not met any of my fellow group members before and did not know their ‘rank’ or standing in their disciplines.
4. This might be controversial, but would higher education be better served if everybody in academia was as open minded as the people who attended the sandpit?
5. A conversation which arose at a subsequent meeting considered issues of agility. Are our courses too slow to change to meet new challenges and the development of new technologies? Are our graduates equipped for the future or merely for the recent past? We sometimes moan about companies only seeking ‘oven ready graduates’, but does our lack of agility mean that we are serving graduates who have been the oven and are now going stale?

Tram in Nottingham
Trams are coming back. Skills and knowledge of the past needed again.

The idea of passing on skills from one generation to another is one which I think is very important and formed a key idea in our planned degree scheme. I’m not thinking solely about passing on the skills of a dying local craft, but broader skills which seem to be disappearing like the ability to put up shelves or a saw a piece of wood in a straight line. I’ve learned some of these skills from books and from YouTube, but a lot of people my age have never felt the need to acquire these skills. It would be a shame if they were to become restricted to a small group of professionals.

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HEA Fellowships: Cutting down your wordcount

Colleagues preparing their HEA fellowships often complain that the 3000 word maximum (for Fellowship) is not enough words to say what they want to with the depth and detail required. While academics face this challenge when writing journal articles or books I’m going to concentrate here on the writing aspects of the HEA Fellowship. At Brighton we have an absolute limit for our fellowship application.

This is only a guide and though it may seem that each example only saves a few words, these savings mount up considerably over 3000 words. I am not an expert on pithy writing, but some colleagues may find this helpful.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

John Canning, September 2017

  1. Use adjectives, adverbs and modifiers sparingly. They do not add as much to your writing as you may think.
Instead of...

Try...

“The students were very satisfied with the course” (8 words). “The students were satisfied with the course” (7 words).
“The students were really successful on the professional exam.” (9 words) “The students were successful on the professional exam.” (8 words)
“The students put their samples in a cold freezer.” (9 words) “The students put their samples in a freezer.” (8 words)
  1. Remove words that have do not add really add anything to meaning. Some examples include:
Instead of...

Try..

Appropriate”
e.g. “Students are assessed using the appropriate rubric” (7 words)

Students are assessed using the rubric. (6 words)

“students analyse their data with the appropriate software. (8 words)

“students analyse their data with [software/name/ type] (5 words)

Going forward”

“We are exploring studentfolio going forward”. (6 words)

“We are exploring studentfolio” (4 words)

As a matter of fact”

As a matter of fact the number of students on the module has increased by 20% since 2014.” (18 words)

“The number of students on the module has increased by 20% since 2014.”(13 words).

Different”

“The students examine three different species of toad.”(8 words)

“The students examine three species of toad.”(7 words)

  1. Short, pithy statements usually have more impact than longer statements.
Instead of...

Try

“In 2015 I began to get my students to use Blackboard”. (11 words)

In 2015 I started using Blackboard [with my students]. (5-8 words)

I do this in order to try to make my students understand the software”. (16 words)

“I do this so my students understand the software” (8 words)

 

  1. Unnecessary words also creep in when using hedging language. It can tempting to use this language where we don’t want to sound overconfident.
Instead of...

Try...

“In this module I attempt to teach my students how to use SPSS”. (13 words)

“In this module I teach students to use SPSS” (8 words).

“In this seminar I try to get the students to think critically about Jane Austen’s use of language”. (18 words)

“In this seminar students explore Jane Austen’s use of language”. (11 words)

or if the context is clear

“In this seminar students explore Austen’s use of language” (9 words).

On the request of my Head of Department I became the Level 4 tutor in 2016.” (16 words) “I became the Level 4 tutor in 2016.” (8 words).

5. Although application of scholarship is important in Fellowship applications beware of using every possible reference after making a point.

“Assessment and feedback are key problem areas identified by the National Student Survey (NSS) (see Race 2015, Ramsden 2002, Carless 2015, Yorke et al 2015, Higher Education Academy 2013).”

6. Beware the pleonasm (using more than words than necessary to describe one thing).

Instead of…

Try...

“The students dissect a tuna fish” (6 words)

“The students dissect [a] tuna”. (4-5 words).

“During fieldwork the students go scuba diving underwater”. (7 words).

“During fieldwork the students go scuba diving ”. (6 words).

(Presumably they don’t go scuba diving anywhere other than underwater).

“The students work together in groups.”

The students work in groups.

7. Multiple words which can be replaced by one word.

Instead of…

Try...

“There were not a sufficient number of students to run the course.” (12 words) “There were not enough students to run the course.” (9 words)
“Students are able to choose literature or language” (8 words) “Students can choose literature or language” (6 words)

8. Unnecessary clarifications

While it is correct to assume the assessor is not familiar with your discipline, there is no need to clarify terms which are widely understood.

Instead of...

Try...

“ZZ404, ‘Introduction to amphibians’ (frogs, toads, newts, salamanders etc.), is...” (10 words)

“ZZ404, ‘Introduction to amphibians’ is...” (6 words)

“TV soaps (programmes such as EastEnders, Coronation Street, Neighbours) … “ (9 words)

“TV soaps… “(2 words)

9. Unnecessary background

Instead of...

Try...

“I first started teaching at the then Brighton Polytechnic in 1985 when degrees were validated by the UK Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA). This was prior to the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act when the polytechnics became universities and were able to award their own degrees.” (48 words)

“I started teaching at the University of Brighton (then Brighton Polytechnic ) in 1985.” (14 words)

Though I wouldn’t imagine assessors would get hung up over:

“I started teaching at the University of Brighton in 1985.” (10 words)

 

10. Unnecessary and usually unhelpful filler:

Listing courses taught:

Instead of...

Try

I teach on the following modules:

ZZ 401 Clinical basketmaking 1

ZZ 406 Clinical basketmaking 2

ZZ 514 Forensic baskets

ZZ 516 Computational basketmaking

ZZ 621 Advanced clinical basketmaking

ZZ 723 Sussex Trug making (34 words)

I teach undergraduate and postgraduate modules on clinical, forensic, local and computational basketmaking. (13 words)

11. that

The word ‘that’ is often unnecessary in a sentence.

Instead of...

Try...

“When I started teaching this module I found that the content was out of date”. (15 words)

“When I started teaching this module I found the content was out of date” (14 words)

12, Names

a) Using people’s full titles can be nice, but they can be dispensed of here:

Instead of...

Try...

I co-teach this module with Professor Bill Badger and Dr Freddy Fox. (12 words).

I co-teach this module with Bill Badger and Freddy Fox. (10 words).

b) First/ given names are not required when using references.

Instead of...

Try...

“ As John Biggs and Catherine Tang (2011) note, … “ (11 words)

“ As Biggs and Tang (2011) note, … “ (9 words).

Further reading

Fowler, H. W. 1908. The King’s English, 2nd Edition.” Accessed September 7, 2017. http://www.bartleby.com/116/

Strunk W., E. B. White, and Roger Angell. The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition. Edited by Test Editor. 4th edition. Boston: Pearson, 1999.

IoE writing Centre http://www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe-writing-centre/develop-academic-voice/reducing-word-count

Plainlanguage.gov http://www.plainlanguage.gov/howto/guidelines/FederalPLGuidelines/writeOmitUnnecc.cfm

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Language café

The Language Cafe was an project funded by the EU from 2006-2008 which some of my colleagues at LLAS were involved in. The website no longer exists but is is available at the web archive . I've uploaded some of the resources here.

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Cloud services: Data security questions for researchers

Services like Dropbox and Google Drive can be very useful for researchers conducting research across institutions to share their files and work on projects together. They are easy to use, are low cost, or even free  but some of the security aspects are overlooked. Some people keep their whole lives on one or another of these services.

I've written before about the practical pitfalls of using the free services for collaborative projects (2GB+2GB does not equal 4GB but 2GB). Sharing your dropbox with others is more like moving extra people into your house rather than building an extension.

Researchers working for universities and other institutions make strong commitments to participants about the security of their data, but we rarely stop to think about the security of the data we use. Electronic data security is much more complex than the days of locking up the data in a secure filing cabinet.  There are obvious advantages of electronic data shortage, mostly notably that the data is unlikely to be wiped out by an catastrophic event such as a fire.

A few months ago I ran a session with a few colleagues on data security. I'm not a data security expert, but I know that security is important and  the consequences of a breach can be serious. In my session I asked my colleagues to look on the internet and find out the answers to each of these questions about a cloud storage service or any other service which relies on large amount of your data.

All you have to do for this activity is allocate each person or group a service: For example one group could look at Dropbox, another at Google Drive etc. and then answer the questions about each one.  As well as cloud services we also looked at services such as the questionnaire service surveymonkey and Wordle, a service which produces pretty word frequency pictures.

These are my questions if you wish to use them yourself (no special expertise required).

 

Why might you choose this program/service?
Where (geographical location) is your data actually saved?
How/ how often is the data backed up?
Under what legal jurisdiction is your data held?
What are the risks of using this program/ service to maintain data?
What steps can be taken to mitigate these risks?
What are the risks of using this program/ service to participants in our research?
Are there different risks for a free service compared to a paid service from the same provider?
How easy was it to find the answers to these questions?

Any other comments or questions?

 

Websites you can look at include:

Clouds (basic free + paid services ) Dropbox, OneDrive, GoogleDrive iCloud. These are the better known ones, but there are also lots of smaller providers.

Research service: Surveymonkey, BOS online survey tool. 

Project/ file sharing Sharepoint, Basecamp

Home solutions Owncloud,  WD cloud

Other stuff: Wordle

No solution is going to be perfect on all counts, but knowledge about the various services is surely an ethicalnecessity as much as it is a practical problem.

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Installing classifier- A file sorter for Linux

Linux Format LXF244 contains a short review of Classifier, a useful piece of software for sorting files into their different types. The program can be installed through the Python pip repository via the Terminal (CTRL+ALT+T): The instructions in the magazine are simply:
sudo pip install classifier


However, there are a couple of pre-requisites required in order to make this work 'out of the box' (I'm using Mint 18).

I had already installed Python, but if you need to do this:

sudo apt-get install Python

Pip is installed with Python, but may need to be upgraded. NB the code suggested here did not work.

pip install --upgrade pip

Then you can install Classifier:

sudo pip install classifier

Help can be obtained via:

classifier --help

Or

classifier -h

This brings up the following text in the Terminal:
All commands start with classifier:

-h, --help show this help message and exit
-st SPECIFIC_TYPES [SPECIFIC_TYPES ...], --specific-types SPECIFIC_TYPES [SPECIFIC_TYPES ...]
Move all file extensions, given in the args list, in
the current directory into the Specific Folder
-sf SPECIFIC_FOLDER, --specific-folder SPECIFIC_FOLDER
Folder to move Specific File Type
-o OUTPUT, --output OUTPUT
Main directory to put organized folders
-d DIRECTORY, --directory DIRECTORY
The directory whose files to classify
-dt, --date Organize files by creation date

I have used the basic function to sort out my downloads folder which contains a enormous variety of files: In my case:

classifier -d Downloads

Apparently, there is no undo here so be careful.

This sorted my Downloads into various subfolders according to their type.

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