Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

Marx, use value, exchange value and social networks

October 13th, 2014 by Graham Attwell

I have to admit I am not a great fan of lectures on line. there seems far to little human interaction and the slick production of things like the TED talks has got both ‘samey’ and somewhat tedious. But I loved this lecture by David Harvey on Karl Marx delivered in Amsterdam with no slides and no notes! As the blurb says “David Harvey is a Distinguished Professor of Anthropology & Geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), and the author of numerous books. He has been teaching Karl Marx’s Capital for over 40 years.”

David Harvey does not shy away from the politics of Karl Marx. But his focus is on Marx’s writings and ideas as a tool for social science and analysis. For those of you without the time, interest or patience to listen to the whole video the particular bits I found interesting include his ideas around rational consumption (about 30 minutes in), the idea of accumulation by dispossession (some 38 minutes in), the idea of management of the ommons important (after about 47 minutes) and contradictions over the role of the state (towards the end of the lecture and before the discussion).

Harvey talks a lot about contradictions – the biggest being the contradiction between use value and exchange value. As Wikipedia explains: “In Marx’s critique of political economy, any product has a labor-value and a use-value, and if it is traded as a commodity in markets, it additionally has an exchange value, most often expressed as a money-price. Marx acknowledges that commodities being traded also have a general utility, implied by the fact that people want them, but he argues that this by itself tells us nothing about the specific character of the economy in which they are produced and sold.”

Much of David Harvey;s work has been in the area of urban development and housing and he explains how this contradiction applies there and its implications. But it may also be a useful explanation of understanding what is happening with social networks. Social networks have a use value for us all in allowing us to stay in touch with friends, develop personal learning networks, learn about new ideas or just letting off steam to anyone who will listen. OK – the exchange value is not expressed as a money price. But most people now realise that social networking applications are seldom free. Instead of paying money we give our data away for them to use. And in turn they use this data to try to extract money from us through buying commodities. This is all fine as long as the use value exceeds the exchange value. But as social network providers try to monetise their products they are constantly upping the ante in terms of exchange value. In other words we are increasingly being required to sign over our data as well as our privacy in order to use their applications.

Alternatively social networks are trying to push ever more commodities at us. An article in the Gaurdian newspaper yesterday over Twitters attempts to build a business model noted: “Chief executive Dick Costolo has talked longingly about growing, and eventually making money from, the huge number of people who view tweets without signing up. This is fine on YouTube, where most of us watch the content without producing it and only sigh a little as we’re forced to watch ads when we do so. In contrast, sponsored tweets are a bit like being asked to pay for gossip from your colleague over the coffee machine.”

All this means more and more people are questioning whether the use value of Facebook and Twitter is worth the exchange value.

And such contradictions are hard to resolve!

Thoughts on the Day of German Unity – Part 2: My memories of my visits 1989-1990

October 3rd, 2014 by Pekka Kamarainen

In my previous blog I started writing out  memories on the process that led to Germanunification in the years 1989-1990. This is my contribution – as a Finnish expatriat working in Germany – to the celebration of the national holiday – the Day of German Unity. But, as I mentioned in my previous blog, these events have a more personal meaning than news from foreign countries. It so happened that during the turbulent October-November days 1989 I was on a a five weeks’ study visit in Germany. And in the beginning of October 1990 I was again in Germany as a participant of a conference that was organised during the days of the unification. In the previous blog I have tried to reconstruct the chain of main events. Now I try to refresh my memories on how I observed the events when travelling round Germany in 1989 or witnessing the day of unification in the middle of a German conference.

1. Memories of the period October-November 1989

I had planned a five weeks’ tour starting from North Germany (Bremen, Hamburg), then continuing via Kassel and Göttingen to the Ruhr area (Dortmund, Düsseldorf), then having a stop in Bonn, making quick  visits to Karlsruhe and Frankfurt, then spending a Week in München (Munich if you insist) and then spending the last week in Berlin. My aim was to get to know the main research institutes in the field of vocational education and training (VET), industrial sociology (social shaping of work and technology) and educational policy research (with emphasis on VET). From this perspective the trip was successful – I got a lot of fresh insights and made several good contacts. In particular, my long-term cooperation with Institut Technik & Bildung (ITB) started from that visit. But in this blog I do not wish to go to those aspects of my study visit. Instead, I try to reconstruct how I experiences the turbulent times in the German-German history while travelling in Germany when great changes were on the way to happen.

During the first weeks in North Germany the most striking news were the arrival of the masses of refugees that were evacuated from the embassies where they had been camping. It was striking, how great their expectations were on their personal future, now that they had managed to escape and start a new life. However, they had to adjust themselves to rather inconvenient temporary accommodation before they could get settled. Also, getting used to market economy with consumer goods richly available – but with market prices – was not easy for all. People told stories of young men who had just got their first jobs and immediately tried to order top class BMWs.

During the next weeks’ travels from Kassel to the Ruhr area and to Bonn the news focused more on the mass demonstrations in different cities of the German Democratic Republic (DDR). Also, we started to get insights into the difficulties caused to the DDR economy and society by the mass exodus of people to the west. Key functionaries and key professionals had left their posts and fled away – the organisations were struggling to cope with less people available. In particular in the healthcare sector this started to be a problem. At the same time the ones who continued with protests became more determined.

During the visits from Bonn to Karlsruhe and Frankfurt I heard the first news on changes in the leadership of DDR. The top man in the leadership, president and party leader Erich Honecker had stepped down. Yet, it was not clear, whether this would be just a minor face lift with some of the oldest representatives of the ancien regime stepping aside, whilst younger technocrats would try to save the regime.

During the week in München the uncertainty of the future course was still there. There were new waves of refugees via embassies. The demonstrations were continued with growing number of participants. And some other key persons in the leadership of DDR stepped down. Yet -what was to be expected. My host organisation, the sociological research institute ISF had planned a comparative project on industrial relations and working conditions in several countries and they had invited a promising young researcher from DDR to join in the consortium. She was also invited to give a speech on this topic in an event of the Civic Academy of München. Her speech was received well and the discussion started exploring other issues of public interest. When asked directly of her opinion on the recent events, the speaker shocked her audience by stating that she will not return to DDR. She had no confidence that the things would turn better.

During the week in Berlin I got the chance to understand what it means to live in a divided city and in an insular city that has been surrounded by walls. Indeed, the Berlin wall was there and you had to climb to the terraces on the western side to see the Brandenburg gate and the sites in the East. The protests kept going on and the West-Berliners were getting sure that the regime in the East is losing control. A taxi-driver’s comment was symptomatic: “They have mismanaged their economy and the political leaders have no control. If they get a chance for free election, they will vote for unification.” At that time many key persons in the protest movement were still hoping to find an alternative course for their DDR – not to push through a unification with the superpower in the west.

Few days after my return to Finland the ancien regime lost the control irreversibly, the wall was opened, the offices of the secret service were abandoned and the demonstrators caught the last agents that were trying to delete documents. And the big wheels started rolling towards the unification.

 2. Memories of the conference trip to Magdeburg in October 1990

Almost one year later I had a chance to visit Germany again. I had a chance to participate in the German umbrella conference on pedagogics of vocational education and training (Hochschultage Berufliche Bildung). Originally this conference was supposed to take place in a West-German university. However, the designed host organisation had to give up the plan. Therefore, the national organising committee made an arrangement with the University of Technology in Magdeburg to organise a West-German conference in DDR. This was understood as a a friendly gesture to support the gradual coming together between the two German states after the wall had been opened.

However, real life was much faster than anyone had anticipated. The process of gradual coming together turned into rapid unification. To the great surprise of the organisers they had to cope with the decision that the final day of the conference would be the day of unification – and a new national holiday for the unified republic. The organisers decided that they will celebrate unification by continuing the conference as had been planned.

When I arrived in Magdeburg I realised that the conference was heavily overshadowed by the forthcoming unification. The mode of unification was to join the DDR area as new federal states into the Federal Republic of Germany (BRD). In this way the Federal legislation will come into force in the new states. This caused a lot of anxieties among the people who had to cope witt legal and organisational rearrangements. These discussions overshadowed many of the sessions. The East-German participants tried to highlight what they felt was appropriate in their system of VET. The West-German participants tried to show solidarity and understanding. They also were pleading for flexibility and creativity in the the process of systemic transitions in the field of VET.

Due to the timing of the conference it got some attention from top-level policy-makers. The last Minister of Education and the last Secretary of State of DDR were attended the conference and completed their missions in these positions. The Federal Minister of Education of BRD had promised to attend during the opening panel discussion. He arrived – just in time – and gave a speech with which he indicated, who is the new master in the house and whose rules count from now on. Then, contrary to his promise, he apologised that he had to leave at once because of an important appointment in his West-German home town. So, he missed the speeches of the Minister and Secretary of State of DDR (who gave their last speeches in these positions).

On the way back from the conference I and the other Finnish delegate experienced a complete traffic chaos in Berlin. We were supposed to have plenty of time from the railway station Berlin Schöneweide to the airport Berlin Tegel. But the streets were full of people who wanted to get to the City centre to witness the special session of the parliament in the Reichstag building and/or the nearby events. Also, when we finally got to the airport, the plane was kept waiting because the Members of Parliament kept coming on charter planes to attend the session. Finally, we got a permission to fly away (but we missed our connecting flight and got an extra dinner in Hamburg, courtesy to flight company). In the meantime the prominents had their celebrations in Berlin. The picture that was taken on that evening was symptomatic – we see the Mayor of West Berlin, Mr Momper, the old Chancellor Willy Brandt, the Foreign Minister Genscher, the Chancellor Kohl, his wife Ms Kohl, the Federal president Mr v. Weiszäcker waiving their hands – and just fitting to the picture the last Prime Minister of DDR, Mr de Maizière. The new era had been started.

I guess this is enough with these memories. I have had to witness important events from close vicinity. Little of this could be understood immediately on the spot. The big picture could only be reconstructed afterwards. It is time to end these stories now that the Day of German Unity is turning into evening.

The story of the day is told. More blogs to come on working issues …

Thoughts on the Day of German Unity – Part 1: The chain of events 1989-1990

October 3rd, 2014 by Pekka Kamarainen

Today Germany is celebrating the Day of German Unity (Tag der Deutschen Einheit). As we are having a day off from work, I found it appropriate to refresh my memories on the historical events in the years 1989-1990. In the first blog I try to summarise the chain of events that led to the end of the division of Germany into two states and to the rapid unification. To me this national holiday also brings back memories of me first two visits to Germany that coincided with these remarkable days in the German history. Therefore, in the second blog I have a look at my own journeys in Germany and try to memorise, what I could observe at that time. (And since I was both times travelling on working missions, I feel that it is appropriate to post these under the heading “Working & Learning”.)

 1. DDR 40 years – the unpopular regime and its unpopular anniversary

The first thing that comes back to my mind was the preparation for the 40th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic (DDR). The old regime wanted to have a celebration that goes “by the book” – as it has been scripted and without anything that scratches the image. Yet, the atmosphere was getting bad, the economic circumstances  did not confirm the optimistic picture given by the official statistics. And, furthermore, the dissatisfaction of ordinary people becomes manifest in many ways. Finally, the celebrations take place with all the military parades and processions of the youth organisations. BUT, the youngsters do not celebrate the old guard of the regime – the praise the guest of honour: the reform communist Mikhail Gorbatshov. And he had a message to his hosts: “Those who come too late (to carry out necessary reforms) will be punished by real life.(“Wer zu spät kommt, den bestraft das Leben!”)

2. The refugees vote with their feet

The most striking news of the autumn were the stories of people escaping DDR in masses. First Hungary had opened its borders to Austria and a great number of citizens of DDR had used that route to West. When the old regime tried to prevent people travelling to Hungary, the new waves of refugees took the course Prag and Warsaw and climbed over the fences to the embassies of the Federal Republic of Germany (BRD). The situation was inconvenient since the number of these refugees grew, the circumstances in those ‘refugee camps’ on embassy grounds became unbearable and the diplomatic tensions grew. Finally, a compromise was found to send these refugees to West-Germany via East-German territory with special trains. The West-German foreign Minister Genscher came to the balcony of the West-German embassy in Prag to announce this: Ich bin hier angekommen um Ihnen mitzuteilen, dass morgen Ihre Ausreise …” (He never had the chance to finish his sentence once he had spoken out the German word for permission  to travel out. The cry of joy from masses gathered on the embassy grounds was tremendous.

3. The citizens’ protests grow into peaceful revolution

But not all dissatisfied people were ready to leave their home country – as they still felt like that for the GDR. New forms of citizens’ protest and opposition had grown up. Already during the municipal elections there had been activists networks that had managed to monitor the count of the votes and to reveal the manipulation of the results. In a similar way the Monday demonstrations started to demand that the state should respect the civil rights that had been written into the constitution. When the demonstrations started to grow bigger, the participants felt empowered and made clear their commitment to their claims: Wir sind das Volk! Wir bleiben hier!.”

During the 40th anniversary the secret service (Stasi) and the police tried to get an upper hand by using violence, but it was already too late. Soon the demonstrations became integral parts of the daily life and the old regime had to find other answers. All of a sudden, when the peaceful demonstrations had grown over any expectations, there was no authority to order violent measures when the demonstrations shouted: “Keine Gewalt!”

4. Collapse of the old regime and the final concessions

It had already become clear that the days of the old regime were numbered. The country was experiencing an economic  collaps that was aggravated by the masses escaping to West. The government had lost its legitimacy and couldn’t keep itself in power. As its final efforts the old regime tried to survive with the help of facelifts and concessions. Firstly, the most prominent representatives of the old guard were forced to step down and their ‘crown princes’ were brought into the lead. Secondly, some major concessions were announced. The most important was the reform of the laws on travelling abroad. Shortly after the changes in the leadership, the Central Committee of the ruling party had a meeting in which the new law had been outlined – which would enable free travelling to West Germany for the citizens of DDR. A rapid press conference was announced and the  party official authorised for making such announcements was called to chair it. He had rushed from another meeting and had just got a short briefing note. In the press conference he was asked, when this reform will come into force. He had to guess and he assumed that it will come into force immediately, without any delay: “Nach meiner Kenntnis ab sofort, unverzüglich!” Again, this was a statement that turned out to be historical.

5. Tor auf! Tor auf! – Mauerfall!

The news of this press conference and of the statement of the authorised official spread throughout the country. All over the country and in particular in Berlin the border controll checkpoints were surrounded by exited people who demanded the right to visit the West. The border control officials had no information and no instructions. And – what was even worse – they did not find their superiors or the supreme authorities to give them guidance. There was no one left to answer, what to do with crowds who demand them more and more impatiently to open the gate: Tor auf! Tor auf!

The original plan of the old regime was to let people travel out freely but to stamp their DDR passport with a stamp that declares their passports invalid. Freedom to go, but not to return back. However, no one had thought that the events would take such course as they did. After few people had been fet go via border control with their passports stamped invalid from now on, there was no way to control the masses. The gates were opened and the masses were free to visit the West. West-Berlin got crowded by huge masses from the East – using public transport or driving their Trabant cars – the Trabis. And the West-Berliners join the celebrations – from both sides of the wall, people climb up on the wall to dance and celebrate – in the very places that had been the symbol of the divide. It was the collapse of the Berlin wall – Mauerfall.

 6. Big wheels start rolling – towards the German unification

After these events there was no coming back to ‘normal business’ any more. The old party structure, the secret service and the government apparatus had all lost their legitimacy. The hardliners of the old regime were moved away, whilst the realists sought dialogue with the opposition to enable the political transformation. New elections for the parliament were arranged under new legislation that brought new parties into picture. The new parliament and the new government took the course towards unification – firstly the currency reform brought the D-Mark into DDR. Then , the political processes were preparing for the unification of the two states by integrating the DDR region as new federal states to the Federal Republic of Germany.

Bigger wheels were of course rolling at the international level. The allies of West Germany had to convinced that the unification will happen and they have to accept the growth of weight of Germany in the EC and in the NATO. Also, after the collapse of the eastern military and economic block – there were concessions to be made to the Soviet Union. The retreat of the Soviet troops from DDR had to be rewarded. Altogether, the way to unification was paved by the treaty of the old allies of the World War II who gave up their role as patrons of the post-war Germany.

7. The Day of German Unification

When all the preparatory measures had been taken, the date for the unification was set. It was a matter of importance for the citizens of DDR that the unification will take place before the 41st anniversary of DDR. They didn’t want to witness any more anniversary of the division of Germany into two states. Thus, the unification took place on the 3rd of October 1990. And the parliament of the unified Germany celebrated this event in a special session in Berlin in the traditional Reichstag building – there, where the dividing wall had been torn down and no more signs of division were to be left visible.

The unification was celebrated but the return to new normality was not an easy ride. However, now that 25 or 24 years have passed of those days it is easier to look at what all has been achieved. Yet, the Germans do not forget that easily the memories of the divide, of the revolutionary transition and of the hard years of growing together. These are the issues that come up when the Day of Unification is celebrated – now the 25th time.

The story will be continued …

A good day for English education?

July 15th, 2014 by Graham Attwell

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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.

 

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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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