On the 31st of January the UK Government announced that it was reducing the number of vocational qualifications offered in UK schools and colleges. This decision came out of the Wolf Report last year. Prof Alison Wolf noted that a quarter to a third (300,000 – 400,000) of 16 to 19 year olds are on ‘vocational’ courses which do not lead to higher education or good jobs.
signpost to jobs- cancelled
There has been an exponential growth in the number of these courses in the last ten years, as well as the number of students taking them. The media were full of recriminations against schools because teachers were choosing to put pupils on these vocational courses that were rated for school assessment purposes as equivalent to 4, 5 or 6 GCSEs. Where teachers felt that students were at risk of not achieving that number of passes – if they took actual GCSE examinations- students were encouraged to take vocational ‘equivalent’ qualifications. However, outside school league tables very few people – not teachers or employers – valued these qualifications, and they became seen as a badge of poor ability, rather than any measure of success. In fact students might have been better without any qualifications rather than some of these. But the problem in a situation like this is not the action of teachers. Teachers and schools were responding quite rationally to an inappropriate incentive scheme, established by the UK government to ‘improve quality’ in schools. The creation of league table performance measures as indicators of school quality directs effort to increasing league table performance rather than teaching performance. Efforts to increase league table performance through the selective choice of qualifications taught produced bigger gains faster than improving in teaching quality and staying with traditional examinations.
Unfortunately this doesn’t help address the dire situation the UK is in with respect to vocational education and increased structural inequality. Last year – for the first time- I looked at women doing vocational qualifications in the UK and it seems clear to me that the new areas of ‘soft’ ICT skills have become feminized, and vocational qualifications in these subjects simply channel women into low skilled and low paid work. Unlike university level ICT education, which has opened opportunities for women and students coming from families with no experience of higher education, sub-degree level ICT vocational education reproduces gender and socio- economic class within and through ICT occupations. Vocational education, in the UK at least, is a tool of structural inequality rather than an opportunity for social mobility.
Future career option
*She’d be much better off on the stage!
On Saturday, I wandered into the Haywood Gallery – and inside the gallery into a ‘pop-up shop’ run by Nobrow – publishers of ‘graphic novels’. And there I was also introduced to Lowbrow art.
The images and books in this tiny ‘retail opportunity’ were an adrenalin shot for me, and have stayed, and replayed on my eylids all week. These are images for cyborgs- they show strange surreal worlds peopled by surreal beings. Mark Ryden’s big eyed child/people are now everywhere doing puzzling things.
The Haywood was good value for money on saturday. I sat mesmerised by a brilliantly edited video of a piano testing machine called 9,000 pieces by Euan Macdonald. That was pretty clearly art for cyborgs, then wandered into the strange world of Lowbrow. And thence [as Pepys might say] to the theatre where we were merry for the rest of the afternoon.
Despite sore throats, coughs and blocked sinuses we spent New Year’s Eve with the good folk of Newcastle on Tyne. The evening began with The Frost Queen and her dancers
And a carnival led by Thor
The children’s evening had the highlight of a firework display
And then the serious partying began
Time for all good gynoids to make mince pies, make merry and make friends. Three of the young Muslim men who live in the next door house called unexpectedly tonight, with the gift of a very nice bottle of port, to wish us Merry Christmas. This is the first time we have spoken since they moved into the house two months ago. It gave us a chance to be as welcoming to them as we should have been when they first arrived.
On the 1st December Michael Gove (UK Secretary of State for Education) made a speech to the Schools Network. A large section of that speech was techno-enthusiasm; a peon of praise for the use of digital technologies and in particular the potential of new software for children’s learning. Gove stressed the speed at which technologies have changed, noting how dated a film such as Wall Street appears now in its use of hardware for mobile phones. He waxed lyrical about free web content: “content is being created daily, and the vast majority is free to anyone with an internet connection”, and how this can be used alongside new software to change the environment in which children learn. “I believe we need to take a serious, intelligent approach to educational technology if our children are not to be left behind”.
As someone working in educational technology I always welcome a ‘serious intelligent approach’ even if a bit late in the day. Unfortunately the serious approach was undermined for me by the penultimate sentence of his speech where his speech writer got carried away with a very annoying rhetorical flourish. New technologies [in the hands of this present government] “will see children’s learning ‘liberated from the dead hand of the past.’”
I’m surprise a graduate of Oxford show such lack of respect for the past: Isn’t everything on the internet a product of the past? ITunes and YouTube present events that happened in the past and were put there in the past. It’s naive to think that the internet is the ‘future’: always forward pointing – somehow a-historic.
Sometimes the most recent past dates the fastest. As a Dickens fan I am really enthusiastic about the author’s bicentenary in 2012. Dickens is now more popular than he was in the 1950s because the world he describes [caricatures] with its huge gaps between rich and poor, corruption in high places and endless bureaucracy resonates with us more today than it did with the post-war welfare state generation of social optimists. And we buy more Dickens books and watch more Dickens films. We are closer to David Copperfield than we are to Gordon Gekko. The past is actually NOT such a foreign country, and they don’t always do things so differently there.
Educational technology has a past too, that matters and taking account of it enriches us. When we pay attention to it, it gives us a helping hand [or even a 'leg up'].
So Three Cheers for the Past – especially as I get ready to read Christmas Carol again – The Spirit of Christmas Past was more fun than the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
Spirit of Christmas Past
My colleague Martin Weller launched his new book : ‘The Digital scholar’ today. You can buy the book through Amazon, or you can read it online – for free- in open access form on the Bloomsbury Publishers website. I haven’t finished it myself but so far as I’ve got it’s full of good ideas and a great read.
I’m a believer in the ‘digital scholar’- – someone who engages with digital technologies as an integral part of all their scholarly activities. I believe that blogs -like this one of mine – are part of scholarly practice. Martin is not just a promoter of digital scholarship – for him open access scholarship – free and open content -is integral to this new scholarship. This is the bit that still has me puzzled. Who pays the digital scholar for the time and expertise they put into producing their scholarly ‘goods’? Who pays to host that scholarly content, and to make it freely accessible. Traditional hard copy commercial publishers do look like an outdated form of production and distribution of ‘stuff’, and many see that themselves and are experimenting both with new media as well as with new services for both readers and writers. But moving away from hard copy to online doesn’t move away from high-cost technological production to no-cost non-technological production.
It has been estimated that Google alone has 900,000 servers, and Amazon at least 400,000. The same article that quotes these figures says that Amazon spent $86 million on servers in 2008 alone. These are only two giants among many. I might give my writing for free-or as in most cases my University has paid for the time I used to write in- but why should someone pay for the server space to host my writing? We can guess the answer: while Google delivers content to us, it delivers us and our information to the commercial world. We are becoming familiar with the saying: ‘if you are not paying for the product, you are the product’. Is there something worse perhaps than being the vehicle for a publisher to make profit from – in the form of books sales?
I don’t know the answer to that – and Martin doesn’t claim to have the answer himself- although he offers some ways to bridge the commercial and the free. It is time we digital scholars got our heads around the economics of the digital and stopped thinking our words of wisdom are being funded by the internet equivalent of the tooth fairy.
[image from www.twiddleskeep.com]
Everyone is enjoying Halloween this weekend. In fact we now have two weeks of costumes, fireworks and fairgrounds here where I live. I still enjoy traditional ‘creepy stories’ more than the surfeit of gory teenage vampire/zombies that fill my TV schedule. [Why did ‘The Fades’ (BBC3) start so well and end up with the usually gory Zombie-fest]. I was listening to a lovely creepy radio play – enriched with Vincent Price chuckles as I drove home last night from dinner with friends in Bedford. No zombies or werewolves came jumping from the trees by the road, just young drivers with headlights on full-beam in a great hurry to overtake me, a lot of rabbit and hedgehog road-kill in front of me and the late X5 bus to Cambridge going past me in the other direction. It was a very late Late bus and as it drove past I realised no-one was driving it.
I have been in bed for the last two days with some kind of bronchitis; feeling alternately exhausted and self-pitying during coughing periods and bored and uncomfortable the rest of the time. My muscles ached so holding a Kindle was much kinder than holding a paperback [and you can wipe off the viruses with anti viral cleaner afterwards]. So when my brain was working I read China Mieville’s The City & The City. A clever and hallucinatory book, but sometimes my befuddled and beflu’ed brain just got me lost in between the twin cities Besźel and Ul Qoma. Then I gave up reading and did the thing that most of us can do even when befuddled. I went internet shopping.
I lay feeling weak and feeble and bad temperedly demanding attention, tea and ‘something nice to go with it’ from my partner. But in my head I imagined the super healthy me striding the Lake district on a Wainwright walk in a couple of weeks. So now I am expecting the delivery of a new pair of lined walking trousers, a new running vest and a special belt for my iPod and water [with whisky] bottle. Even bronchitis can’t keep me away from a bit of retail therapy
Last week I spent half my time staffing induction and training sessions for research students here in my University and part of the rest of the time being inducted as a post-graduate student at another institution. The first was pleasurable work, the second was pleasurable ….‘work’. I think I am an intellectually promiscuous learning junkie.
One of the best parts of my first job at the University was the ability to take any OU courses free of charge. As a research assistant on a pretty basic salary ‘free of charge’ was crucial. I took modules in basic computing (in the days of mainframe computers and teletype printers linked through the UK ‘Post Office’ telephone system) Victorian culture, the history of mathematics – in fact anything that interested me. I realise that my ‘ endless earning journey’ doesn’t look in the least like the kind of employment focused student behviour that policy makers have in their economic models of education. How have I developed my human capital? How has my education demonstrated a return on investment – and to whom/what? Or have I simply been spending my time and [other people’s money] on the academic equivalent of in/conspicuous consumption – and the time and money would have been equally well spent on opera tickets and Michelin starred restaurant meals?
[from http://www.ukonlinepayday.co.uk ]
Clearly I don’t think so. But I am now a part-time self-financed student on a Master’s programme in the economics of education. Maybe I’ll have a better understanding of the economic value of my academic life in a year or so – or maybe I’ll be convinced that my time, my money – my life even- would have been better spent at the theatre.
I have just come home from the 14th – and last -Cambridge ODL conference. The theme of the conference was internationalisation and social justice: and the role of ODL in this. Social justice continues to be part of the rationale for ODL, but we are now worried that ODL is becoming as much part of the problem as part of the solution.
Cambridge conferences are always small: this year 90 international participants from ODL institutions and projects in Australia China, Africa, the Middle East, the USA and Europe, Pro-Vice Chancellors, practitioners, researchers and PhD students in open and scholarly discussion without the barriers of status or hierarchy that usually make international conferences so unsatisfactory. In themselves these Cambridge conferences have – for years- been examples of social justice – scholarly egalitarianism – in practice. Participants from poorer areas of the world have often been supported to attend – by partial funding.
This year we worked in the environment of a lovely Cambridge college: Madingley Hall. For most of us our day to day academic environment is nothing like the ideal Cambridge College, with its gardens and historic buildings. We increasingly work in open plan offices with the same facilities and working environments as any commercial office worker. In Madingley we had the rare opportunity to experience an embodied scholarly retreat, and at a cost lower than conferences held in hotels and purpose built ‘conference centres’.
Unfortunately this is the last of these conferences planned for Cambridge. After 28 years [the conferences have run every two years] the organisers are moving into retirement and opening the way for others to continue the spirit of this conference in other places in the world. The world of scholarly life – even in distance and e-learning has changed significantly in the years since the first conference. The ‘massification’ of higher education – in which ODL has played such a driving role – has changed the role of the professional academic/scholar in the system. The time and resources available to engage in embodied scholarly debate and discussion is so much reduced – as we fulfil our research and teaching output targets. Can the spirit of the Cambridge ODL meetings take root somewhere else in the world and be tended so it thrives for a further 20 years?