Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Obama got inaugurated

This seems like as good a time as any to revive this blog from the dead. A proper update and explanation of absence will come in due course, but for now, there appears to be a comment-worthy event happening out in the Federal Triangle of Washington D.C.

Following the inauguration of Barack Obama as US president on the BBC News Channel is at points like trying to identify a cheese from its grated pack. Every link back to Lezo at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre seems to localise the context of the Obama-becoming-president story to an account of the shifting horizons and feelings of those who share his skin colour. Very frustrating, but one doesn't expect the BBC to put forward a group of knowledgeable men and women with varied perspectives to discuss the event. Of course, this would alienate all manner of minutely analysed demographics, of course of course. The BBC still adopts the Mark Penn school of understanding your audience over the David Axelrod school.

Back to Lezo: ''So Hannah, what difference do you think Barack Obama's inauguration is going to have on ethnic minorities here in the UK?" Am I alone in suspecting the BBC to be run by narrowband idiots? And they think that declining trust in our national broadcaster has to do with the manipulation of quiz show phone-ins or comedians offending the Daily Mail's puritanical sensibilities.


To the action.....

17:03 So the swearing in involves three mistakes on the part of the Chief Justice, a man not known to approve of Obama's hiking up the level of discourse in American politics over the previous 2-4 years. Will you execute the Office, faithfully? he asks. Faithfully intoning downwards, as if to patronise the little kid, to spook him on his big day. Are you sure you're up to this, black man? Obama, as if we could expect anything else, didn't rise to it one bit.

17:05 Here we go 'rising tides ... still waters ... gathering clouds ... raging storms' sweep me away, Barack!

17:11 I am sick with nerves.

17:12 Obama, leisure is pronounced 'e' not 'ee'. Really, Leo? Yes. Sorry about that. It's okay.

17:26 Dear America, Lets brave the icy currents. Yours sincerely, Barack.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Link to the full analysis and advocacy - 'Open source and the benefits of education'

As many followers of this modest campaign and sorry blog have rightly exclaimed, 'where is the article on your website?!' ...

Please accept my apologies. I will in time be publishing the full analysis and advocacy in wiki form (so as to update it, and invite comments), but for now I hope this link to the google document will suffice.




A note for journalists forwarded to this site by the IPPR. There are a couple of editorial slipups in the article I had published in Public Policy Research which have thus far regrettably coloured the kind of feedback it has received. Needless to say, I will be happy to provide an earlier, more thorough draft on request. Mail leo.pollak@gmail.com and I'll send it on.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Open courseware and the "skills" agenda

As promised, a short reflection on the "skills agenda" that seems to have been emphasised during the course of my discussions with policy-makers and think tank researchers.

I have found there to be a particular interest in the potential for open courseware to bridge the much-lamented “skills gap” in the British economy. So the logic follows, a system of open courseware targetted as is it at excluded minorities, adult learners and students at pre-university age, would go some way to 're-skill', 'up-skill' and 'up-knowledge' the workforce whose poverty of abilities is said to be responsible for endemic low productivity in the UK economy.

I consider there something insidious, condescending, even ignorant to the metaphor of the skills ladder, where the imperative is to upskill, reskill, downstairs flipskill until the abilities of the workforce better match the needs of the economy. When industrial, political and trade union leaders lament the inabilities of workers to adapt to a flexible labour market, to a quick turnover of jobs procedures and colleagues, I rarely hear any accompanying discourse regarding the content of the economy, the quality, craft and purpose involved in the types of work widely-available. With the political discourse repetitively airbrushing away such considerations as somehow politically unsayable, the question has become relegated to a mere management issue, of how to better motivate staff to care for their work and to innovate in an ever-changing business environment. In the absence of such oversight in people's work, terms such as 'skill', 'talent', 'opportunity', 'aspiration' get bandied around as instrumental terms for animating workers into grafting towards their values, terms alienated from their authentic roots, dessicated of meaning. It is from this perspective that the influential sociologist, Richard Sennett, has recently explored the lost notion of craft and the importance of a crafts-mentality in contemporary (and historic) work.

When I asked Sennett (a self-defining 'socialist') about his attitude to this matter at a recent talk (www.rsa.org.uk/audio/lecture110208.mp3), he seemed almost to waffle his answer referring at best to the 'portability' of skills, and the 'normal rhythms of a dynamic economy' (this, albeit with David Willets MP, of beady eye and foulest breath, sat beside him). That said, Sennett spoke of what has thus far been the proverbial white elephant sitting around blindfolded, namely, that much of what is called 'retraining' and reskilling' for middle-aged workers whose skills have evaporated in one realm, is in fact the teaching of a new set of procedures that will in turn evaporate in a few years. Skill as euphemism for procedure, as semantically-detached from its formered satisfaction-guarantee – that of craft.

The importance of this observation is that where there are well-organised, user-friendly offerings of online university course materials, what is being imparted (when effective) is not simply a detailed field of knowledge and methods established over time by scholarly communities, but the disposition patience and values that better serve 'high-level' analytic and communicative skills – the intellects craft.

In open courseware, it is important to remind ourselves, there is no face-to-face interaction, and the learning of such crafting and skilling comes almost-entirely from whoever is sat down at a computer. Indeed, there exist studies demonstrating that technique is poorly transmitted over distance without face-to-face contact (e.g. Harry Collins, 1992, Changing Order)

In this context, the nuances of the package being advocated here are crucial – open certification could not and would not apply to those degrees in which kinesthetic (that is practical, hands-on, tacit) crafts are necessary, as in most Medical degrees. On the other hand, however, all that does not involve such learning, does indeed benefit from the personal supervision of lecturers at hand. Yet, while there exists no study to verify it, I would hypothesise that most of the effective learning and knowledge acquisition in lecture, video, slide and text-based courses happens in isolation, and with a significant proportion online. Here, the skills gained in university are either sufficient for graduates and economic 'need', or they are sufficient for noone, non-graduates with a lust for learning included. With visibility comes accountability and a driving up of teaching standards, and in turn, with visibility comes access and an opportunity to see exactly what students enjoying the 'privilege' of world-class university teaching are getting. If we are to carry these empowering terms with any confidence, without dessicating them entirely of meaning, then the path to open courseware and open certification must be cleared, with ideas about skill, craft and the graduate-as-jigsaw-piece recast in turn.

The policy-makers reflex has largely been to justify every well-intentioned Quango or initiative in adult learning, distance learning and widening university participation as referred back to the skills deficit, the service of public instutitions to private corporate demands. The higher education commons being proposed here would partially transform this relay of knowledge and skills, through adults, young people and the workforce they eventually enter in to.

One of the most effective critiques of 'access management' of publicly-funded information has come from a recent Treasury-commissioned report Models of Public-Sector Information Provision via Trading Funds http://www.berr.gov.uk/files/file45136.pdf (a more detailed advocacy of the Guardian's Free our data campaign - http://www.freeourdata.org.uk/). In this report, the authors explored the variety of economic opportunity costs and broader deadweight losses to society incurred by trading funds that do little to service or nurture downstream markets, that is, the value-added manipulations of raw public data. The same principle albeit on a larger scale still, I argue, applies to taxpayer-funded university course materials, and much of the academic research publication that builds upon it. And yet, in the 'knowledge economy' we inhabit, what is at stake here is not simply access to and re-use of the latest teaching and research from our publicly-funded institutions, but the very skills and crafts-mentality that would be supported more widely with a comprehensive and well-advertised offering of British open courseware, accompanied by the prospect of an Open degree to boot.


Collins, H.M. (1992) Changing Order: replication and induction in scientific practice University of Chicago Press

Newberry, D. Bentley, L. & Pollock, R (February 26, 2008) Models of Public Sector Information Provision via Trading Funds

Sennett, R. (2008) The Craftsman Allen Lane

Richard Sennett, David Willets MP & Laurie Taylor discussion of The Craftsman Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, February 11, 2008


Of chance encounters and on-the-spot arguments

Poorly-tended as this blog is, it is perhaps necessary to state that there is a post coming up on open courseware and the 'skills agenda', an agenda being enthused and pushed for by the various policy wonks and think tank researchers I have presented my ideas to, and about which I have some (hopefully interesting) thoughts.

This aside, I am impelled to report the mother of chance encounters occuring in the basement of the Wellcome Trust earlier today. A key objective of any advocacy project of this kind is to secure a formal representation with the minister concerned and his advisors (in this case Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, John Denham, his junior minister Bill Rammell, and Denham's special advisor Andy Westwood). In the context of this mini-goal of mine, to be walking through the Wellcome Trust building and to see a sign pointing downstairs 'DIUS Ministers/Board away day', the blood no doubt starts to pump a little harder.

Needless to say, I considered the least stupid option would be to rush upstairs, print off one of my articles (in this case an earlier, more thorough draft of a piece I've written for Public Policy Research), bomb downstairs and try my luck. Of course, I had to speak to a man while he was emptying his bladder, which I would in no other circumstances do, but I sensed that this was justifiable, given an imperative to give exposure to decision-makers of ideas that may well transform the economy of knowledge, skills and educational opportunity in Britain. More on which, later.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Open courseware and the audit culture

Having got this crazy project under way now, and having received reams of feedback from a variety of academics up and down the land, from differing teaching disciplines and research fields, I should like to comment on this project's intended impact on them.

The obvious fears of open courseware are as follows:

  1. That the institution of open courseware, putting course materials freely available online, under open terms, will represent a workload burden too far. With the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) occupying inordinate time and effort, detracting from and deteriorating actual teaching and actual research, the intrusion of video cameras, microphones, scanning equipment, content management systems, and the increased demands on server space would constitute an encumbrance too far.
  2. That moves towards open access scientific and scholarly publication would cut off an important revenue stream for academics, particularly those working under tight department budgets.
  3. That open courseware and open access research publication would inhibit what Patrick Baert and Alan Shipman (2005) describe as the Humboldtian conception of the university (this is the autonomous, self-governing university, accountable only to itself, and immune to class and corporate intrusion, with no obligation to produce commodifiable knowledge).

What is evident, is that analyses of current trends within academic teaching and research, and notions of accountability and trust, the place of university in society, are all at stake in an open courseware/open access system, with the opportunity to rethink the efficiency of university's accountability mechanisms, and the academy's position within the broader economy of knowledge, not to mention the famed knowledge-based economy.

The contention of the Open Teaching, Learning & Certification project, is that both university teaching assessment, and university research assessment, can largely be made from a distance, via the online portals of university offerings being advanced here. This is to make positive assertions regarding the effects of visibility on academic assessment, on internal transparency within tenure/promotion processes, and on effective teaching within universities.

The benefits of an open courseware system in teaching assessment, and pedagogic quality can be summarised as follows:

  1. A centralised hub of British open courseware, at the unregistered domain, http://www.ocw.ac.uk/, would enable a central point of reference and collaboration for teaching assessment to take place (quite apart from enabling any citizen that chooses to, to make use of their tax-payer funded, high-quality learning materials). With specialised open courseware teams at universities organising this publication and visibility, many of the administrative burdens of the RAE can potentially be lifted, freeing up time and resources for the core business of academics, of developing skills and knowledge in research and teaching.
  2. A centralised hub would possess the added benefit of enabling lecturers and course organisers to more efficiently share best practice, driving up standards where they are not high, and reinforcing them where they are. Past experience of being taught often constitutes the basis of training for lecturers, seminar chairs and producers of course notes in a variety of subjects. Here, a site complementing the QIA's Excellence Gateway would operate not as a self-conscious showcase of 'excellence, 'world class teaching and research' or any other well-meaning platitudes, but as a straight online provision of what peers are up to, with the onus on individual academics as to their use of such materials.
  3. Plurality of provision is key to the Open Access package being advanced here. The wider the range of teaching styles, of methodological/theoretical emphases, and of pedagogic structure, the better the matching to student's learning style, not merely to non-enrolled learner, but to those in face-to-face education looking elsewhere to explore the margins of other syllabi in their fields, as well as separate or related fields. The ability of a course-organising academic to prescribe a course of study remains unchanged. What does change is the range of prescriptions available to the student, maximising the chances of a rigorous and efficient learning experience.

What Alan Shipman has diagnosed elsewhere as the increasing professionalisation, proceduralisation and intellectual distance of academic life (Shipman & Shipman, 2006), is now the subject of fundamental review within the party policy research infrastructures, across a range of think tanks with differing concerns. While state and public demands for accountability and assessment have increased, so has mutual trust been eroded between citizen and state, state and academy, and between academy and citizen. The growing audit culture and corporate capture of knowledge-producing institutions has seen on the one hand, academics increasingly frustrated away from teaching and research endeavours by the demands of audit, while on the other hand, a public assumptive about the limited way their higher education materials are made available, in their personal development, and in commodity purchase. The initiation of a comprehensive open courseware and open access offering would establish the condition of possibility for an alternative mechanism of quality control in assessment practices – a mechanism whose directness and lack of intrusion, whose visibility and precondition of trust, would bring added efficiency, access and respectability to the economy of knowledge between state, academy and citizen.

While the question of open access journal publication, self-archiving, and the open access research movement in general are strongly defined and limited by the presence of the major commercial publishers - restricting access and profiteering off taxpayer-funded research - the question of open courseware is much simpler. With visibility, comes transparency, and where there is such transparency and visibility, the conditions in which teaching standards, norms and risks are engendered can be changed irrevocably. (see John Thompson's work on media for countless historic examples, 1996, 2000) The effects of visibility on face-to-face education, and on the audit culture in general within academia are designed here to be emphatically positive, both for students and academics, for the process of accountability and the broader citizenry that open courseware is intended for.

New mechanisms of accountability are rendered possible by the World Wide Web and free open-source web tools that can transmit and organise teaching and research materials at negligible cost. Furthermore, the opportunity of showcase, for universities, departments and individual academics, are considerable. The recently launched open courseware offering from Yale University points firmly in this direction.
http://open.yale.edu/courses/ While still limited in its course provision, its standard of organisation and range of media make it a case in point. In the few days since its launch, Yale have established partnerships with teaching institutions around the world, including with Jimma University in Ethiopia:

This project impels academics and government to recognise the scope and magnitude of what can be achieved here, the various developments and aspects of which will explored in the posts to come.

Stick with it, it gets better!


Baert, P. & Shipman, A. (2005) Universities under siege? Accountability and Trust in the Contemporary Academy European Societies 7 (1) 2005: 157-185

Shipman, A. & Shipman, M. (2006) Knowledge Monopolies, the Academisation of Society Societas

Thompson, J.B. (1996) The Media and Modernity: a Social Theory of Media Polity Press

Thompson, J.B. (2000) Political Scandal: Power and Visibility in the Media Polity Press

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Open Access introduced

I suppose I'll start here then!

This blog is intended to track, from start to finish, a research and advocacy project focussed on persuading the Brown/Labour government to implement what I will describe as the Open Access package of policies. The two key principal policies are:
  • An instituted centralised hub of British open courseware from Britain's Russell Group (and contributing) research universities, at www.ocw.ac.uk. Open courseware constitutes a freely-accessible, IP-cleared, online publication of a university's full catalogue of under- and post-graduate course materials - syllabi, reading lists with links to open access papers, course notes, video/audio lecture notes, slideshows, past exam papers, assignments etc.. The pioneering university in the provision of open courseware is MIT, whose entire course materials can be found at ocw.mit.edu

  • Complementing a high-quality and pluralistic British open courseware offering, I will be advocating a new kind of university qualification - an Open degree - whereby citizens can pay a premium fee and take the same exams as do existing students in enrolled face-to-face learning, with certificates signifying information about the specific courses examined on. This would be targetted, via a high-profile public information campaign, at adult learners, excluded minorities, and students at pre-university age.
The underlying economic and social basis for such policies are:
  • A growing public demand for a tangible return on their investment in higher education. The current taxpayer return is based on the idea of new graduates unleashing their human capital and higher skills on a grateful underskilled non-graduate population. I argue that there is no basis, in evidence or justice, for this view, and that in an age of digital infinite abundance, all citizens should be able to see and use what they're paying for.

  • Expanding access to the World Wide Web, and the negligible cost of making course materials freely available changing the scarcity assumption that has long reigned over the question of higher education course provision, to an assumption of abundance.

  • The growing influence of new analyses of intellectual property and innovation, identifying considerable opportunity costs and deadweight losses from the imposition of restrictions on quality learning materials, as well as the proprietary control over much publicly-funded research publication.
There are, inevitably, a wide range of benefits, risks and resistances that would be associated with these ideas. The project is designed to explore and develop many of these benefits, and to succesfully manage or placate all of the risks. In the posts that follow, many of these will be explored - from objections from some students, academics, and the major commercial publishers involved in academic publishing - to benefits for individual and communal development, for social mobility, for existing face-to-face students and academics, as well as for international relations and towards a more just lifecourse structure.

In the posts which follow, I will provide updates on the realisation of these goals, as well as cover related developments in the movement towards open education and open certification. Any comments or queries will be happily answered.