Is this for real?

Posted July 27, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: society

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One of the most interesting dialogues of Plato – the Allegory of the Cave (a part of The Republic) – analyses how we can appear to perceive reality that is not, in truth, real. The allegory describes prisoners chained to the wall of a cave for their entire lives; their heads are restrained so they can only see the wall and nothing else. Their sole glimpse of others is through shadows on the wall as people walk past in front of a fire burning behind the prisoners. The reality here, as Plato has Socrates explain, does not consist of the shadows, and yet the prisoners may think otherwise because this is all they have ever seen.

Fans of a certain genre of literature or movie drama (the Matrix, in particular, or maybe Existenz – but there are many others) will of course immediately recognise an early insight into simulation. And of course Plato was articulating something that many of us will feel from time to time: how real is our reality, really? Is this world, indeed are we ourselves, just something that someone else has designed and in which we only imagine ourselves to be? If you are thinking this is a topic best left to a certain type of rather embarrassing nerd, you’d be wrong. Professor Niklas Boström, a Swedish philosopher now working at the University of Oxford, presented the ‘simulation argument’ in 2003, which broadly suggests it is more likely than not that we are in fact living in a computer-generated simulation.

Whether we believe this or not – and the success of simulation depends on its subjects not recognising it – it does tell us something about the fragility of reality. And that is not a bad thing for universities to ponder.

Letter (or more of a note, really) from Vienna

Posted July 20, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

Tags: , ,

While I always emphasise that academics do not, overwhelmingly, take anything more than very short summer holidays, it is still a good idea to get some rest, refreshment and perhaps a change of scene. In my own case, I am spending a week just outside Vienna (with regular day trips into the city). I have been here before, and once again I am struck by the almost overwhelming grandeur of this old city of the Habsburgs; I may follow this up with some photographs in due course.

But as you might imagine, I have taken just a little time to look at what is happening in Austria’s university system, and was struck by one development in particular. Since 1999, under an Act entitled Universitäts-Akkreditierungsgesetz (University Accreditation Act), a government-appointed Akkreditierungsrat (Accreditation Council) can receive and consider applications from proposed private universities and can recommend to the government that they be established (or not). As a result of this process a total of 12 private universities are currently in business in Austria, including a private medical school. These operate alongside 23 public universities.

Typically these universities – like the Anton Bruckner Privatuniversität – offer a very specialised portfolio of programmes, and little (or perhaps no) research. Austria is of course not alone in pursuing this particular model, and I have not had the time to look, for example, at the legal and operational model for each of these institutions (including the question whether they operate for profit). The growth of private universities, and their role within the overall system, is a topic that will need to be explored.

Gender equality in Irish universities

Posted July 20, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

Tags: ,

Previous posts in this blog – including a guest post – have pointed to the problem of gender equality in Irish universities, particularly in relation to career development and promotion.  The Higher Education Authority has now appointed a panel, to be chaired by former EU Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, to undertake a review into gender profiles and equality across the sector. The panel is due to report within a year.

It’s time to think creatively about higher education funding

Posted July 13, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

Tags: , ,

The first time, a few years ago, that I visited Arizona State University (with whom my then institution DCU was developing a partnership),  I arrived at a particularly interesting time. Just as I was there the citizens of Phoenix approved by a significant majority in a referendum the proposal to create a $223 million bond to provide capital funding for a new ASU campus. This decision really impressed me: the willingness of the citizens to assume this burden, and the partnership it expressed that would allow the university to create state of the art facilities beyond the reach, at least at the one time, of almost any university in this part of the world. It also reminded me how unimaginative we tend to be when we look at the resourcing of higher education.

Interestingly, in Ireland the recently established expert group on higher education funding chaired by Peter Cassells, is reported to be considering savings bonds as a way of creating a partnership between families and the state in providing funding: families save, and the state matches their savings (or provides tax or other incentives on a significant scale).

It is time to move away from the binary obsession: that higher education must be paid out of general taxation; or else paid for by students or their families. Neither of these options now works well, leaving either serious under-funding or chronic personal debt. It is time to look beyond these old models.

Slimming down the lecture

Posted July 7, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: education, higher education

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One of the regular debates in contemporary higher education concerns the utility of the traditional university lecture: the one-hour-or-so presentation of a topic or related topics by a lecturer to a largely passive audience of students. Given changes in pedagogy and demographics, not to mention new technology, it has been argued that this traditional vehicle for teaching is or should now be largely redundant.

But while it is regularly argued that the traditional lecture has little to offer technology-enhanced or distance learning, there is one adapted form that does seem to be popular: the micro-lecture. Here is how it has been described:

‘Microlectures (snippets) are simple multimedia presentations that are 90 seconds to five minutes long. They focus on a specific concept or skill associated with the course’s learning objectives. Microlectures allow students to access instruction on a specific concept or skill they need to practice.’

The question of course will be whether we are reducing knowledge to bite-size chunks that today’s easily distracted population can manage but which convey little of analytical value, or whether we are using key issues to stimulate learning and intellectual exploration. It is all a part of the continuing need to apply genuine pedagogical insights to new forms of education.

Analogue tales

Posted July 5, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: photography, society, technology

Tags: ,

I was standing behind two teenagers waiting for a bus the other day, and one was telling the other about a get-together planned for that evening with some old school friends. ‘Wow’, said the other, ‘that’s so analogue Facebook’. I chuckled at the expression. But right now we can still laugh because even the two teenagers still had some point of reference to distinguish between a real life meeting and social media interaction. They also understood that many things digital have or had an analogue antecedent.

record

 

But is the analogue world slipping away from us? Or is it more resilient than we sometimes thing? After all, vinyl records are apparently making a comeback. And I have set my Apple Watch (and yes, of course I have one) to show an analogue clock on its home screen. I still have (and use) a telephone on which I can really dial numbers.

analog

And in between reading stuff on my iPad, I still buy hard copy books.

reading

It’s not all gone.

watch

PS. However, all the above photos were taken with the iPhone 6 camera and edited with Photoshop. Hm.

Doing it in style?

Posted June 30, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, society

Tags: ,

Most academics get to where they are without receiving professional advice. By that I mean, they may have mentors, departments heads, supervisors and all such helpful folk; but they won’t tend to turn to a professional consultant in planning or developing their careers. But there are such people, and one of them is Karen Kelsky, who runs the website The Professor Is In. There she advises people on interview techniques, on writing skills, on preparing for retirement, and other such matters.

She also offers advice on what to wear. In an article just published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Kelsky makes suggestions on how to present yourself to greatest advantage at an academic interview. The article comes with photographs from what looks like a model shoot.

Am I sneering (as some academics might, I suspect)? Absolutely not. Kelsey remarks in her piece, with some understatement, that ‘academia doesn’t prioritise fashion’. It certainly doesn’t. And I’m not at all sure that this suggests integrity and seriousness of purpose, as some probably feel it does.

Some years ago I was at an academic conference, and found myself looking for a friend and colleague at the reception just before the main conference dinner. I couldn’t see my friend, but as I scanned the crowd it suddenly occurred to me that – how shall I put this – the majority of those present had not exactly made an effort to dress nicely for the event. The de rigueur uniform for the men was an open shirt – generally coloured in some shade of beige – and a pair of jeans, or corduroys for the very adventurous. Their hair was slightly too long, and generally hadn’t been washed in honour of the event. More of the women had made an effort, but in a fairly demure kind of way. And then suddenly the crowds parted, and in walked a visiting American female scholar, all easy charm, immaculate hair and make-up, in a designer dress. She walked about between the academics, clearly charming both the men and the women. She talked earnestly but also with flashes of wit. So was this an interloper trivialising the whole intellectual thing? Or was this someone making effective use of what has been called ‘erotic capital’ (a term originally coined by Adam Isaiah Green of the University of Toronto in his 2008 article ‘The Social Organization of Desire’, and popularised by the British academic Catherine Hakim)?

The reality is that style is a form of communication. We are saying something when we dress, or when we decorate our homes, buy our cars, choose our coffee shops or bars. We may not be saying whatever it is we want to disseminate in our academic mission, but we are creating a background that will sometimes make people more or less open to our message. The academy has, I suspect, never quite worked out whether it accepts the legitimacy of packaging of any sort. But then again, the person in rather worn clothes with chalk marks all over them, hair and beards out of control and leather elbow patches is also coming in a package; whether it is one that will help disseminate the message may be another matter.


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