Archive for April 2010

Just a little bit of hope?

April 24, 2010

Yesterday morning I was able to attend an event organised by Dublin City Council, focusing on the potential of an innovation culture as a way of generating new economic growth and prosperity for Dublin. The keynote speaker was Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science. As one might expect, she produced an exceptionally well argued and eloquent case for knowledge-based innovation with structured collaboration across Europe.

She also stressed the importance, in terms of global competitiveness, of achieving our goal of spending 3 per cent of GDP on research and development, as well as the desirability of commercialising European discoveries in Europe (rather than elsewhere in the world).

Right now in Ireland, we are talking the talk but we are certainly not acting accordingly. Despite the government’s commitment to the 3 per cent R&D spending target, our actual investment is half that or less and going down. There are now signs that we are losing some of our key scientists as they move to other countries where the research environment is less hostile. We have still not managed to develop proper careers for full-time researchers.

We must listen to the Irish Commissioner, and we must act as she advises. Ireland’s ability to restore its international reputation for innovation depends on getting this right.

How to count the votes

April 24, 2010

If you live in the United Kingdom, and you ate just getting interested in the general election campaign – maybe you’re infected by Cleggmania, or you think it’s time for an old Etonian to run things, or as far as you’re concerned a dose of Presbyterianism is just the thing – then don’t get too excited about your vote. Unless you live in one of the small number of constituencies considered to be ‘marginal’, your vote doesn’t really count and won’t make the slightest bit of difference. This is one of the vagaries of the ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system.

A good way of illustrating the unusual democracy that is the British voting system is to look at this BBC website where you can play with possible voting results and see how they would translate into seats in the House of Commons. Start with something really really simple: assume that the three main parties get exactly 30 per cent each, with the remaining 10 per cent going to the various Ulster parties and the Scots and Welsh Nationalists. This isn’t an unlikely scenario, as we know from recent polls after the TV debates. So what would you get – roughly equal numbers of seats for the three parties? Whoa there, absolutely not. In this scenario Labour would very nearly get an overall majority with 314 seats. The Conservatives would manage only 207, while the resurgent Lib Dems would, well, definitely not resurge, and would come away with exactly 100 seats.

Now let’s play with something more exciting. Let’s assume the Cleggmania lifts off the roof and the Lib Dems achieve a triumphant 35 per cent, and then let’s say that the Conservatives get 28 per cent and Labour 27. Now what happens? Well, yes, that would give the Lib Dems a more respectable number of seats. The biggest number? Nah! Maybe at least the second most seats? Not at all! They would get 176 seats. And guess what, lowest placed Labour (in terms of votes) would get the largest number of seats – 259 to be precise – while the Tories would have to make do with 186. So who would have the fewest? Why, the Lib Dems, the party with the highest vote, of course! That’s the topsy turvy world of ‘first-past-the-post’. Mind you, if the Lib Dems managed to get an overall majority – presumably by scoring 186 per cent of the vote or so – then by the next election it would all have turned upside down, and any challenger would now need to get the dead to vote 3 times to be in with a chance.

I am always amazed to find British people who will defend this, usually with some reference to stable government. It does not seem to occur to anyone with that view that stable government that is not supported by the popular will as expressed at the ballot box is not particularly democratic. And if you think that our own Irish politicians are above that kind of thing, remember that attempts were made in the past to introduce ‘first-past-the-post’ here, and it only failed because the people would not support it in a referendum.

British elections are fascinating, and I guess there’s just a little bit of me that would miss all the stuff with swingometers and the like. But in the end citizens don’t vote in order to be entertained on election night, they vote in order to settle the distribution of political power in parliament. It’s time for Britain to make political entertainment subservient to the democratic will of the people. Sooner or later, it will have to be done.

In the Palm of your hand

April 23, 2010

A rumour is circulating in business circles that the Chinese computer company Lenovo, which bought IBM’s personal and laptop computer business a few years ago, is about to acquire Palm, the makers of handheld devices. Although I haven’t used a Palm device since about 2004, I still feel a little sad that this innovating company is about to lose its separate identity. For me, like for many other people, the term ‘Palm Pilot’ is still synonymous with handheld computing, even though it has long lost its leading status in the market. In fact, Palm’s newer devices have no longer been called ‘Pilot’, and abandoning that label was probably a mistake in branding terms.

I remember my first Palm Pilot, which I bought in 1997. It’s still in my drawer, and I’ve just taken it out and had a look at it; and to be honest, from today’s perspective you’d wonder why I ever bought it. It was really just a handheld personal organiser which I couldn’t even sync because I had nothing on my computer to sync it with. I had to enter all the data manually, including the calendar. Its handwriting recognition software, thought of as revolutionary at the time, misread absolutely everything I wrote. So for example I can tell you that on this day, in 1998, I had a lunchtime meeting of the ‘Fallitg Enelntine’ – I think that was the ‘Faculty Executive’. I have no such interestingly named meetings now on my iPhone.

Time has moved on, and the stylus-powered approach of the Palm Pilot is no longer in vogue. Still, it was nice to have been part of that technology revolution at the time. So good luck, Palm, and I hope that something survives within Lenovo.

Secondary concerns

April 23, 2010

Yesterday I had the opportunity to join a group of second level students from around Ireland who were at an event in TCD’s Science Gallery to discuss the future of secondary education. What struck me in talking to them was that they were articulate, enthusiastic, intelligent, perceptive. and actually also extraordinarily courteous. But what they were saying was that their educational experience was too often undermined by a system that did not encourage initiative, participation, analysis and evaluation; and that teachers too often were worn down by this system and had become slaves to predictable routine and cynicism. It was, in short, a description of an education system that was in no position to deliver the recruits for a knowledge economy.

We have of course heard a number of recent warnings about the quality of our education, some from industry and some from educationalists. But so far these warnings have not produced a real debate about how we could do it better. We need to accept that we are going the wrong way, and that if Ireland is to be the success story of the new decade as we were in the 1990s, this will need to be fixed. Fixing it is not a matter of tweaking the Leaving Certificate, it is about understanding that right now we have system that was designed for a long gone era and for a different society, and that it has not adapted. We don’t have much time for this, and yet there isn’t a real sense of urgency in the national debate. It’s time to take this problem seriously.

University strategy – UCD

April 22, 2010

It is always good to see a university launch its strategic plan – and this week University College Dublin has published its new strategy for the period 2010-2014: Forming Global Minds. The launch itself may have been low-key, or at any rate I wasn’t invited (mental note: make sure to invite UCD President Hugh Brady to DCU’s strategic plan launch on May 10!). But UCD’s plan is a substantial one, and I hope nobody will take offence if I say that it has strong echoes of  DCU’s strategic plan launched in 2001, Leading Change. The latter plan first introduced the idea of academic themes to inform research and teaching priorities, and highlighted the importance of innovation as a key objective of the university. Both of these strategic perspectives are contained in UCD’s new plan, and they work well there also.

What the strategy now published by University College Dublin has in common with DCU’s last two plans, and our new plan to be launched shortly, is a concern to ensure that the university’s priorities reflect its desire and its capacity to enhance national economic, social and cultural regeneration. DCU in its new plan will emphasise the importance of the ‘translational’ impact of its research and teaching, and UCD refers to the significance of making an impact.

The times we are in also influence the content of UCD’s strategy, with references to the need to adapt the profile of the student body to maximise revenue. And of course there are passages on the TCD-UCD ‘Innovation Alliance’, the strategic partnership between these two institutions intended to support the potential to create an economic impact.

It has always been DCU’s intention to have the best possible relations with our friends and colleagues in Dublin (and of course throughout the state), and I personally wish UCD well as they develop this new strategy for the next five years.

Using space in higher education

April 21, 2010

Guest blog by Dr Perry Share
Head of Department of Humanities at the Institute of Technology, Sligo

What does it mean to talk about the ‘efficient’ use of university space? What is the ‘social’ in ‘social learning’? What is the appropriate student response to a room full of bean bags? What is the role of the university in the 21st century?

These were some of the intriguing issues that arose at the one-day ‘Learning Landscapes in Higher Education’ conference at the Queen Mary campus of the University of London on 13 April 2010. The conference was organised as a keystone event for the research project of the same name, a collaborative initiative of 12 UK higher education institutions funded by the Higher Education Funding Councils in England, Scotland and Wales. A summary report and further materials can be found at the project website and will repay careful study by any person interested in the spaces (real or virtual) in which third-level education happens.

The conference was mainly aimed at Estate Managers who, along with some curious academics (including your correspondent), made up the bulk of the audience. Despite the acknowledged importance of student consultation in the process of developing teaching and learning spaces, only one such person was present – and she was completing a PhD on the topic! Estate managers, drawn from the ranks of surveyors, engineers, architects, builders and, increasingly, ‘facilities managers’,  are those whose responsibility it is to keep our third level settings running smoothly – embracing everything from car parking (the issue that seemingly unites both academics and students worldwide), heating and ventilation, security to signage. Many of these tasks are, perhaps rightly, almost invisible to those who learn and work in universities and colleges.

Estate managers are also involved in the redevelopment of teaching and learning spaces, whether in the ‘masterplanning’ of whole sites; the evaluation of existing buildings; refurbishment; or even demolition and rebuilding. In Ireland we are seeing some major initiatives – in Belfast the moving of the UU campus from Jordanstown to the city and, in the south, the shift of Dublin Institute of Technology to the new Grangegorman campus. These are major and exciting projects and at the conference I met people involved in both of them.

Irish and UK third level institutions alike face a similar range of issues in relation to space and its contexts: many familiar to readers of this blog. There is a financial crisis and an apparent lack of public or political interest in the fate of the sector. Student numbers are increasing as are the demands on space. Add in technological change (aka the Internet and mobile telephony), new modes of learning (student-centred, research-focused) and changing student demographics. Top this off with the desire of enterprising universities to produce ‘iconic’ buildings to advertise their presence in the global education market, and you have a challenging set of questions. These are not limited to the provision of extra classrooms, bigger and better-equipped lecture theatres or swishier nanotechnology labs.

Rather, the issues that exercised the speakers at the conference, and which are explored at length in the research, cut to the quick of the educational exercise. How do students want to learn today, how do we want to work with them to achieve those ends, and how can we best make or remake physical spaces to encourage the sort of activity and reflection that is going to be of value? There is a major shift in the thinking about teaching and learning towards a more participatory, more social, less didactic and less formal style of university teaching and learning. Active research activity is being introduced into the undergraduate system and groupwork is encouraged.

How do the designers of teaching spaces respond? In some cases not at all. But the research points to numerous examples of innovative spaces such as the Teaching Grid at the University of Warwick, or S@il at the University of Reading. These initiatives involve a lot more than buying a few bean bags, installing electronic whiteboards or putting in coffee vending machines. At their best they reflect a rethinking of how education is done. Speakers at the conference reflected on the irony of talking about this educational revolution in a classicly didactic 1930s lecture theatre with steeply tiered seating and, touchingly, a blackboard. But they all referred in different ways to the fundamental challenge of responding to new theories about how to teach and how to reflect this in spatial design. The response must be more than a metaphorical one – it must help to produce, perhaps with little or no money, spaces that can actively support and encourage active and educationally appropriate responses to the new challenges that we face. On a flying visit to Portsmouth University’s Centre for Enterprise I saw an innovative teaching space that had cost all of £400 to fit out!

Echoing the seminal work of 1960s urban theorist Jane Jacobs, the message that came across clearly to me was the need to invest spaces with complexity and emotion. Those who use spaces in our universities and colleges need to feel connected to them, to like them and to feel some level of control over them. It may be easy to achieve complexity in the multi-layered fabric of an ancient university, with its endless iterations of buildings and the quirky remnants of the past . Far more difficult to inject a degree of soul into ‘new build’. How many of the many new Irish educational buildings bequeathed to us by the Celtic Tiger can genuinely said to be loved by their users; how many excite real creativity; how many genuinely facilitate more open, democratic and collaborative modes of learning? The debate opened up by the Learning Landscapes project in the UK is one that all members of the academic communities in Ireland need to engage in.

Making higher education count politically

April 21, 2010

One of the obvious observations one can make regarding higher education in Ireland is that it has not turned heads, politically. The actions of all senior politicians have suggested that they do not fear a political backlash from voters if they are seen to be attacking universities and colleges. This is almost certainly a correct judgement, and it demonstrates that the sector has not been good at making its case to the general public.

However, if we are to stablise the system and make it sustainable, and if we are to succeed in securing a reasonable and predictable framework of funding, then we need to assemble a coherent message that will attract public support. We also need to be willing to make higher education an election issue. In the context it is interesting to observe the very active approach of the UK journal Times Higher Education to the current general election campaign there. In particular the journal has used its presence on Twitter to push higher education issues, and it has sponsored a debate between senior politicians from the main parties.

We need to become politically more active in Ireland. Rather than having to react constantly to the speeches and initiatives of politicians, we need to develop a sector-wide campaign pro-actively to develop higher education, to make the resourcing issues more widely understood to a wider public, to identify issues that require reform and to initiate the process that will produce such reform, and to prompt and lead public debate on research and development. We must stop being victims and start having a political impact.

Why can’t we succeed in having equal pay?

April 20, 2010

Here’s a curiosity. If you are an American woman on average pay, and you wanted to get paid the same as an American man on average pay and started working alongside him in January 2009, you would have had to work until today to get what he got by December 31st.  For that reason, April 20th has been designated ‘Equal Pay Day‘ by some equal rights groups in the US. And don’t even think of feeling superior if you are European: we’re no better, except in isolated pockets, and in fact we’re generally worse. In Ireland, a woman on average earnings would still be working until early next month to catch up with her male colleague for 2009.

Why is the equal pay problem so intractable?  It is now 36 years since equal pay legislation was introduced in Ireland, in the form of the Anti-Discrimination (Pay) Act 1974. And yet, while overt pay discrimination has ceased (nobody advertises jobs now with lower rates for women, as they did then), the structural labour market issues that leave women with lower earnings have still not been overcome. And as we now have to face other social issues, including the disengagement of young males from high value education, it may well seem to some that equal pay is not so important: but it is. To overcome these problems, we need to ensure that we have a labour market without gender ghettos, and working practices that are not modelled on 19th century assumptions about family responsibilities.

It is time – high time – that we deal with this huge obstacle to a having a genuinely fair society.

The way we live now: the long-term legacy of volcanic ash?

April 20, 2010

We were so so close. Right up to late last night the suggestion in the news was that the airlines would take to the skies again from Ireland from this morning.  But they haven’t, and the Irish air space is still closed. Meanwhile on BBC television last night, the Icelandic President was helpfully suggesting that a bigger and better volcano in his country was about to erupt and that we might have to live with the aviation consequences for years. At least I am writing this from my office, not from some hotel in another continent where I might have been stranded.

There are of course now lots of news reports on how the volcanic ash is affecting tourism, trade, and so forth; but we are only beginning to think about its impact on the business of universities. All over the world, the top institutions now rely on overseas input and participation: in examination marking, in support for interview panels, in expert reviews of research proposals, in giving strategic advice. Some of this can be done remotely, online or through videoconferencing or other technology. But even in this age we still rely on travel to provide us with access to and by overseas partner institutions. This is true also of research projects carried out by international teams.

Really, we have hardly begun to think through the implications. Of course this may turn out to be another example of what some are calling the avian flu (or swine flu) phenomenon – a very serious situation that does not however turn out to be as long term or widespread a problem as at first assumed. But we cannot be sure of that. We had better look again at how we manage international engagement; because, surely, we will not want to go back to being insular.

Education, skills and training

April 20, 2010

When the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) reshuffled his cabinet recently, he re-named two government departments; one of these was the (former) Department of Education and Science (which has become the Department of Education and Skills). The ‘and Science’ part of the organisation migrated, at least by implication, to what was the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and is now Enterprise, Trade and Innovation.

Do these name changes matter? Here is how they were explained by the Taoiseach in his speech to Dail Éireann (parliament) announcing the reshuffle on March 23:

‘The changes I am making are intended to ensure that political leadership and administrative capacity are aligned with the core objectives of economic recovery, job creation and support for those who have lost their jobs. In particular, I am strengthening our approach to supporting innovation and overcoming barriers to structural change; responding better to the needs of unemployed people; supporting productivity and growth through skills development; maintaining progress in a coherent and strategic way towards important social policy goals, and accelerating the pace of modernisation of the public service.’

In the reshuffle itself, the two Ministers who ran the now re-named departments swapped jobs. And here is how the new Minister for Education and Skills, Tánaiste Mary Coughlan, explained the significance of the change as it affects her department to the annual conference of the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI):

‘There has been a somewhat artificial divide between education and training in Ireland for many years and I know that the TUI has been vocal for some time now that a more joined up approach was needed. I am glad we have delivered that change. Your conference and the work many of your members are engaged in relates directly to my new task of bringing cohesion to this move of policy responsibility and service delivery. Together, we need to ensure the up-skilling and re-skilling of people across the country, a task that is central to how the State assists and supports those who have, unfortunately, lost their jobs during this recession.’

Taken together, it seems the name changes were designed to reflect the government’s priority concern with economic recovery and job creation. And in the case of the Department of Education specifically, the change is, as the Tánaiste explained, designed to blur the lines between ‘education’ and ‘training’.

But what does all this mean? Does it mean that all education is vocational? Is it all exclusively to do with preparing people for jobs? What, if any, are the pedagogical implications in all this?

It has been my contention for a while that education in Ireland has lost its way. There are a few reasons for this, but one of them is that nobody quite seems to know these days what education is actually for. This becomes more complex still when the agenda for what has become known as ‘lifelong learning’ is added to the mix – some of it has genuine pedagogical objectives, while some of it again seems to be primarily about removing people from the dole queue.

There is, I believe, quite a strong argument for placing both education and training in the same government department; but that argument is not that they are both the same. There should of course be a coherent view of learning that takes in both what goes on in schools, and what people do to develop themselves later in life. Furthermore, the education system should take account of national needs, so that students learn those things that are of benefit to society and to themselves. But that is not the whole story, and if we over-emphasise the vocational angle we will find young people balking at learning, say, Shakespeare or Yeats, or even Pythagoras, because they  will feel that these will not be of direct functional relevance to them in their lives as accountants or software programmers.

Education has to deliver some practical benefits to the country, but that is not the whole story. It is to be hoped that the new government structures will not suggest to anyone that all education is principally vocational training. It is time that, as a country, we rediscover the merits of pedagogy.