Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

A good day for English education?

July 15th, 2014 by Graham Attwell

govetweet

The departure of Michael Gove as English education minister will be greeted with celebration and relief by most teachers and educationalists in the UK. But although his pronouncements and policies appeared as arrogant, narrow minded, reactionary and sometimes just bizarre, there was a direction and theme which underpinned such policies: privatisation. Gove and his policy advisers, not to mention friends and lobbyists, wanted to privatise schools in the UK. In a time when profits are hard to come by, public services represent a huge untapped market for capital. And the removal of Gove alone does not mean that the dream of giving education to the private sector has gone away.

Nicky Morgan will probably be less abrasive in pursuing such a dream. But she also comes from the right wing of the conservative party. As the Guardian reports:

Morgan, a trustee of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, voted against same-sex marriage partly because she could not reconcile it with her faith. This is likely to be the reason that Cameron split the women and equalities brief, handing the latter to Sajid Javid, the culture secretary, and leading to accusations that she was the “minister for straight women”.

She was privately educated at a girls’ day school before reading law at Oxford University and going on to become a corporate lawyer.

What is the discourse behind the Open Education Challenge

January 23rd, 2014 by Graham Attwell

I don’t know quite what to think about the Open Education Challenge. It is good that the European Commission is working to support start up companies in education and especially interesting to note the impressive list of people available to help mentor new start ups. However, 20 companies hardly represents a critical mass and secondly I am not sure that the trudging successful applicants for twelve weeks around “successive European cities: Barcelona, Paris, London, Berlin and Helsinki| is the best way to do things.

And although the project is running under the new EU Open Education strap line, it is a bit hard to see just what is open about it (apart from anyone can apply). Worrying is the language of the web site: Europe will be the leading education market for years to come. Is this just another step to using technology to privatise and marketise education? True the talk is of transforming education, not disrupting it. But i am not quite sure what they mean by “All projects are welcome; the only condition is that they must contribute to transforming education.”

I am much impressed with Martin Weller’s blog on the The dangerous appeal of the Silicon Valley narrative. He argues that the popular discourse around MOOCs  conforms to the silicon valley narrative, proposing a revolution and disruption. He quotes Clay Shirky as saying  “Higher education is now being disrupted; our MP3 is the massive open online course (or MOOC)”. It also suggests that the commercial, external provider will be the force of change, stating that “and our Napster is Udacity, the education startup”. Martin Weller goes on to say MOOCs “were established as separate companies outside of higher education, thus providing interest around business models and potential profits by disrupting the sector. This heady mix proved too irresistible for many technology or education journalists.”

So where does the EU Open Education initiative fit in terms of different discourses. Is it a project aiming at opening up education and developing new pedagogies or is it a market orientated initiative aiming to develop the Silicon Valley discourse in Europe?

 

The Erasmus Plus programme, innovation and policy in Europe

December 19th, 2013 by Graham Attwell

We sometimes forget the role of politicians and policy makers as major stakeholders in education and training. Yet decisions, particularly at the level of structures, qualifications and funding have a major say in how education and training is provided in different regions and countries.

Despite the limitations on their power in the filed of education and training, in the last two decades the European Commission has come to play a major role through their sponsorship of various funding programmes. Probably the most important has been the Lifelong Learning Programme (LLP), sponsored by the DG Education and Culture. The LLP, which ended earlier this year has funded a series of sub programmes for projects and exchanges for higher education, vocational education and training , schools and adult education, with a transversal programme around policy, language learning and the use of technology for learning. And although sometimes seemingly over bureaucratic, in general the programme has worked well.

The major thrust of the LLP, as the name suggests, has been to promote innovation and social inclusion for lifelong learning. At the same time exchange programmes like Erasmus and language projects and the development of a European educational credit programme have promoted mobility and discourse between institutions, teachers and learners.

Now the EU has adopted a new programme, called Erasmus Plus. Although claiming to be a continuation and further development to the previous programmes, Erasmus Plus is very different. Apart from lip service, at first glance (of the over 200 page guidelines) there appears little focus on lifelong learning. With limited exceptions, innovation and the exchange of best practice also no longer appear to be a priority for Europe. Instead the major focus is on individual exchanges visits between institutions and institutions and companies. It is not difficult to guess why. The European Union is panicking at the level of youth unemployment and the potential instability this may cause. And to ameliorate the impact of youth unemployment they are diverting resources into producing temporary education and training opportunities. Spending on education and training is not a bad answer to the economic crisis. Indeed it is noticeable that whilst the UK and many other European countries have been cutting back on education spending and provision, Germany has been increasing the number of university places as a reaction to the crisis. However I cannot help thinking that the new Erasmus Plus programme is a short term answer and that moving away from proper funding of innovation and the development of new practices and pedagogies of teaching and learning represents a retrograde move. Of course, the LLP and successor programmes were only ever supposed to be additional and transnational programmes, on top of national and regional initiatives and funding. But the reality has been that in the face to such severe cutbacks in expenditure of educational research and development they have become an important source of funding for educational innovation in many European States.

It is possible that I am not properly understanding the new programme. I hope so. But at least on first reading, it seems to be a reaction to many different and countering lobby groups, with concessions made to the strongest of the lobbies. The only hope is that as it is put into action, some coherence and sense may emerge.

 

Wales goes OER

September 19th, 2013 by Graham Attwell

There has been lots of interest today in the announcement that Wales has become one of the first nations to agree to make university course material publicly available so that academics do not have to create their lectures from scratch.

According the The Times Higher Education Supplement: “Vice-chancellors from the country’s eight universities were expected to commit from 19 September to the principles of the open educational resources movement, which makes materials freely available online.”

Also welcome is that the Welsh government is to fund workshops to help staff learn how to use the resources, to be hosted on institutional web servers but accessible through a portal.

However there do appear to be some limitations to the agreement. “It’s up to each university to determine what they want to make available,” Professor Mulholland explained. Some would give away “significant elements” of their courses, while others could give away “very little” in the beginning. Furthermore, the resources would consist “mostly lecture notes and course materials.”

In the fast changing context of higher education, a move to share e-learning content would be an even more welcome step.

Where are the real skills shortages?

September 13th, 2013 by Graham Attwell

The debate over skills shortages is looming again. For some years national governments and the European Commission have been warning over shortages of qualified workers in Science, Engineering, Technology and Maths (STEM) . Yet a number of studies refute these claims.

A blog post on SmartPlanet quotes Robert Charette who, writing in IEEE Spectrum,  says that despite the hand wringing, “there are more STEM workers than suitable jobs.” He points to a study by the Economic Policy Institute that found that wages for U.S. IT and mathematics-related professionals have not grown appreciably over the past decade, and that they, too, have had difficulty finding jobs in the past five years. He lists a number of studies that refute the presence of a global STEM skills shortage. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, for one, estimates that there was a net loss of  370 000 science and engineering jobs in the U.S. in 2011.

I doubt that figures in Europe would be much different. One of the issues is how to define a ‘STEM” job. In the UK jobs are classified through a system called Standard Occupational Classification. This itself has its problems. Given the desire for comparability, SOC is only updated every ten years (the last was in 2010). In a time of fast changing occupations, it is inevitably out of date. Furthermore jobs are classified to four digits. This is simply not deep enough to deal with many real occupations. Even if a more detailed classification system was to be developed, present sample sizes on surveys – primarily the Labour Force Survey (LFS) would produce too few results for many occupations. And it is unlikely in the present political and financial environment that statistical agencies will be able to increase sample sizes.

But a bigger problem is linking subjects and courses to jobs. UK universities code courses according to the Joint Academic Coding System (JACS). It is pretty hard to equate JACS to SOC or even to map between them.

The bigger problem is how we relate knowledge and skills to employment. At one time a degree was seen as an academic preparation for employment. Now it is increasingly seen as a vocational course for employment in a particular field and we are attempting to map skills and competences to particular occupational profiles. That won’t really work. I doubt there is really a dire shortage of employees for STEM occupations as such. Predictions of such shortages come from industry representatives who may have a vested interest in ensuring over supply in order to keep wage rates down (more on this tomorrow). For some time now, national governments and the European Union, have had an obsession with STEM and particularly the computer industry as sources of economic competitiveness and growth and providers of employment (more to come about that, too).

However, more important may be the number of occupations which require use of mathematics or programming as part of the job. One of the problems with the present way of surveying occupational employment is that there is an assumption we all do one job. I would be pretty pushed to define what my occupation is – researcher, developer, write, journalist, project manager, company director? According to the statistics agency I can only be one. And then how the one, whichever it is, be matched to a university course. Computer programmers increasingly need advanced project management skills.  I suspect that one factor driving participation in MOOCs is that people require new skills and knowledge not acquired through their initial degrees for work purposes.

My conclusions – a) Don’t believe everything you read about skills shortages, and b) We need to ensure academic courses provide students with a wide range of skills and knowledge drawn from different disciplines, and c) We need to think in more depth about the link between education and work.

Give us back our data

June 27th, 2013 by Graham Attwell

We’ve always joked that security services were listening in on our email and chat. I suspect many of us thought it was not a joke but it sounded so madly paranoid we didn’t like to admit it. Some of my techy friends steered clear of social networks, others encrypted their email. This sounded a little over the top. Not any more. Thanks to public hero, Edward Snowden, we know the US and UK security services have been illegally intercepting millions of internet based communications (and of course the internet includes telephone) and mining the data for goodness knows what.

And guess what, people don’t like it.

In a recent article referring to “Without Permission: Privacy on the Line” published in the International Journal of Information Security and Privacy, by Johanne Pratt and Sue Conger the editors say:

This feeling of victimization and violation of privacy is the fuel behind the recent public outrage directed toward the NSA and companies utilizing big data in marketing. A recent post on NPR’s blog Monkeysee discusses the differences between the information gathering done by Apple and Target, for marketing purposes, and the government’s motives for data collection:

“Government has no such transparent single motive, like profit, but a variety of motives, not all of which people are confident they know about. What you believe to be the motives of a particular administration or government agency depends on a complicated, often highly charged calculus of politics, policy, media consumption, and internalized constitutional theory that you may not have even verbalized but know in your gut.”

Over the last week I have been having a series of conversations with different project partners about how we should react. We don’t really have anything to hide, nor do we carry commercially sensitive data. But it is just the feeling of outrage at the fact that they intercept and mine our data, Google for commercial reasons and the NSA for perhaps more sinister reasons. We were already uneasy about letting Google have our data. We were already looking for more efficient tools for project management. And I think overall we are looking for systems we can install on our own servers and maintain ourselves. Of course that will not stop intercepts, nor will it stop our data being hacked. But al least we will have some element of control back over how we store and manage our data. Longer term this could have quite profound implications for how the internet develops.

Big data, issues and policies

June 21st, 2013 by Graham Attwell

I’ve been working this week on a report on data. I am part of a small team and the bit they have asked me to do is the use of big data, and particularly geo-spatial data, for governments. I am surprised by how much use is already being made of data, although patterns seem very uneven. We did a quick brainstorm in the office of potential areas where data could impact on government services and came up with the following areas:

  • Transport

- infrastructure and maintenance

  • Council Services

- planning

- Markets/Commerce

- Licenses

  • Environmental Services

- Waste and Recycling

- Protection

- Climate

- Woodlands

- Power monitoring

- Real – time monitoring

  • Health Services
  • Planning
  • Employment
  • Education
  • Social Services
  • Tourism
  • Heritage Services
  • Recreational Services
  • Disaster response
  • Disease analysis
  • Location tracking
  • Risk management/ modelling
  • Crime prevention
  • Service Management
  • Target achievements
  • Predictive maintenance

There seems little doubt that using more data could allow national, regional and local governments both to design more effective, efficient and personalised services. However there remain considerable issues and barriers to this development. These include:

  • Lack of skills and knowledge in government staff. There are already predictions of skills shortages for data programmers and analysts. With the rapid expansion in the use of big data in the private sector, the relatively lower levels of local government remuneration may make it difficult to recruit staff with the necessary knowledge and skills.
  • Pressure on public sector budgets. Although there are considerable potential cost savings through the use of big data in planning and providing services, this may require considerable up front investment in research and development. With the present pressure on public sector budgets there is a challenge in securing sufficient resources in this area. Lack of time to develop new systems and services
  • Lock-in to proprietary systems. Although many of the applications being developed are based on Open Source Software, there is a danger that in contracting through the private sector, government organisations and agencies will be locked into proprietary approaches and systems.
  • Privacy and Security. There is a general societal issue over data privacy and security. Obviously the more data available, the grater the potential for developing better and cost effective services. At the same time the deeper the linking of data, the more likely is it that data will be disclosive.
  • Data Quality and Compatibility. There would appear to be a wide variety in the quality of the different data sets presently available. Furthermore, the format of much published government data renders its use problematic. There is a need for open standards to ensure compatibility.
  • Data ownership. Even in the limited field of GIS data there are a wide range of different organisations who own or supply data. This may include public agencies, but also for instance utility and telecoms companies. They may not wish to share data or may wish to charge for this data.
  • Procurement regulations. Whilst much of the innovation in the use of data comes from Small and Medium Enterprises, procurement regulations and Framework Contracts tend to exclude these organisations from tendering for contracts.

 

You couldn’t make it up!

April 30th, 2013 by Graham Attwell

This post comes up with the category ‘you couldn’t make it up if you try’.

The UK Department of Works and Pensions, responsible for paying unemplyment benefits to those presently without work, have introduced an online psychometric test which some claimants have been told they must take if they wish to claim benefits.

I have always been dubious of psychometric testing but have been sort of convinced they may have some befits in choosing careers. Not this test.

The test called is called My Strengths and has been devised by Downing Street’s behavioural insights or “nudge” unit, According to the Guardian newspaper

Some of the 48 statements on the DWP test include: “I never go out of my way to visit museums,” and: “I have not created anything of beauty in the last year.” People are asked to grade their answers from “very much like me” to “very much unlike me”.

When those being tested complete the official online questionnaire, they are assigned a set of five positive “strengths” including “love of learning” and “curiosity” and “originality”.

However it appears the software behind the tests is nothing other than vapourware. It does not make any difference what answers are given to what positive strength the test returns. The idea, it seems, is that merely filling in the test will ‘nudge’ claimants in a positive direction towards being employed.

The spokesperson for the Department of Works and Pensions said: “it is right that we use every tool we have to help jobseekers who want to work find a job.” Perhaps that might include finding some jobs for them to apply for rather than wasting their time and money playing games devised by overpaid behavioural economists.

 

The cost of austerity and privatisation

April 22nd, 2013 by Graham Attwell

There is growing concern over the consequences of the English (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have different policies) government’s cutbacks and privatisation of  careers guidance for young people. The International Centre for Guidance Studies reports on a discussion paper called ‘Cost to the Economy of Government Policy on Career Guidance: A Business Case for Funding and Strengthening Career Guidance in Schools‘ from Lizzie Taylor who is an Careers England Affiliate Member. “The report claims that the economic consequence of current government policy on career education is an escalating annual cost to young people in reduced and lost earnings, reaching £676m p.a. in 2018 before dropping back slightly to £665 m p.a.2022. The total cost in reduced and lost earnings to young people in the period 2013 to 2022 is estimated as £3.2bn.”

Shocking but true

February 25th, 2013 by Graham Attwell

At various times we have pointed out that educational achievement is closely linked to income or – negatively to poverty. Why is this important> Quite simply that many of the measures employed by the UK government target bad teaching or bad discipline or the lack of testing as the reason for underachievement. And it simply isn’t true. Or at least it isn’t the main reason for under achievement.

A recent report, ‘Poverty and Low Educational Achievement in Wales: Student, Family and Community Interventions‘, by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation makes this very clear.

They report that:

Living in poverty has a major impact upon levels of educational achievement in Wales. The most widely-used indicator of the number of children who live in relative poverty in Wales is the percentage receiving free school meals (FSM). On average this is about 17 per cent of children in Wales.

The educational performance of these children compared with those who come from more prosperous backgrounds, provides clear evidence of the effect of poverty on achievement. Educational under-achievement by children living in poverty in Wales can be seen as early as the age of three, when they enter nursery. Here the scores in standardised tests for those on FSM can be up to a year behind those of children not receiving FSM. This gap is often closed in the early years of primary education, but it widens again by the age of eleven. At ages 14 and 15/16, standardised tests and examination results reveal that on average there is a gap of 32 to 34 per cent between what children living in poverty achieve compared with other children (Egan, 2012b; Estyn, 2010). The percentage of 15 year olds achieve the equivalent of five or more higher-grade GCSEs, including English (or Welsh) and Mathematics is increasingly regarded as a key indicator of educational attainment. This is because having literacy and
numeracy skills at this level is critically important for progression to further study and into employment. Here, too, there is a significant gap in achievement. In 2011, for example, 21 per cent of young people receiving FSM in Wales achieved this outcome compared with 55 per cent not receiving FSM.

The report finds little evidence that  AAB-type interventions – raising aspirations, changing attitudes to schooling and tackling behaviour – have had impact on the educational outcomes of disadvantaged children.

However they found two areas of policy interventions seen to make a positive and sustained impact.

These are:

  • parental involvement in education;
  • participation in extra-curricular activities and mentoring

The research, they say, points to four areas of parental involvement which have had success:

  • improving at-home parenting;
  • involving parents in school;
  • engaging parents in their children’s learning and in their own learning;
  • aligning school–home expectation

Hopefully the Wales government  will pick up on the report findings. But there are no signs that the ideologically driven English government will take any notice – indeed it appears that it is looking at how to change indicators of child poverty – in other words to massage the figures rather than look at the real causes of underachievement in school.

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    Consultation

    Diana Laurillard, Chair of ALT, has invited contributions to a consultation on education technology to provide input to ETAG, the Education Technology Action Group, which was set up in England in February 2014 by three ministers: Michael Gove, Matthew Hancock and David Willetts.

    The deadline for contributions is 23 June at http://goo.gl/LwR65t.


    Social Tech Guide

    The Nominet Trust have announced their new look Social Tech Guide.

    The Social Tech Guide first launched last year, initially as a home to the 2013 Nominet Trust 100 – which they describe as a list of 100 inspiring digital projects tackling the world’s most pressing social issues.

    In  a press relase they say: “With so many social tech ventures out there supporting people and enforcing positive change on a daily basis, we wanted to create a comprehensive resource that allows us to celebrate and learn from the pioneers using digital technology to make a real difference to millions of lives.

    The Social Tech Guide now hosts a collection of 100′s of social tech projects from around the world tackling everything from health issues in Africa to corruption in Asia. You can find out about projects that have emerged out of disaster to ones that use data to build active and cohesive communities. In fact, through the new search and filter functionality on the site, you should find it quick and easy to immerse yourself in an inspiring array of social tech innovations.”


    Code Academy expands

    The New York-based Codecademy has translated its  learn-to-code platform into three new languages today and formalized partnerships in five countries.

    So if you speak French, Spanish or Portuguese, you can now access the Codecademy site and study all of its resources in your native language.

    Codecademy teamed up with Libraries Without Borders (Bibliotheques sans Frontieres) to tackle the French translation and is now working on pilot programs that should reduce unemployment and bring programming into schools. In addition, Codecademy will be weaving its platform into Ideas Box, a humanitarian project that helps people in refugee camps and disaster zones to learn new skills. Zach Sims, CEO of Codecademy, says grants from the public and private sector in France made this collaboration possible.

    The Portuguese translation was handled in partnership with The Lemann Foundation, one of the largest education foundations in Brazil. As with France, Codecademy is planning several pilots to help Brazilian speakers learn new skills. Meanwhile in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the company has been working closely with the local government on a Spanish version of its popular site.

    Codecademy is also linking up up with the Tiger Leap program in Estonia, with the aim of teaching every school student how to program.


    Open online STEM conference

    The Global 2013 STEMx Education Conference claims to be the world’s first massively open online conference for educators focusing on Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, and more. The conference is being held over the course of three days, September 19-21, 2013, and is free to attend!
    STEMxCon is a highly inclusive event designed to engage students and educators around the globe and we encourage primary, secondary, and tertiary (K-16) educators around the world to share and learn about innovative approaches to STEMx learning and teaching.

    To find out about different sessions and to login to events go to http://bit.ly/1enFDFB


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