Earlier in my career, when I worked for Jisc, I was based at Northumbria University in Newcastle. It’s just been announced that 770 students there have been infected with COVID-19.
As Lorna Finlayson, a philosophy lecturer at the University of Essex, points out, the desire to get students on campus for face-to-face teaching is driven by economics. Universities are businesses, and some of them are likely to fail this academic year.
[A]fter years of pushing to expand online learning and “lecture capture” on the basis that it is what students want, university managers have decided that what students really want now, during a global pandemic, is face-to-face contact. This sudden-onset fetish reached its most perverse extreme in the case of Boston University, which, realising that many teaching rooms lack good ventilation or even windows, decided to order “giant air circulators”, only to discover that the air circulators were very noisy. Apparently unable to source enough “mufflers” for the air circulators, the university ordered Bluetooth headsets to enable students and teachers to communicate over the roar of machinery.
All of which raises the question: why? The determination to bring students back to campus at any cost doesn’t stem from a dewy-eyed appreciation of in-person pedagogy, nor from concerns about the impact of isolation on students’ mental health. If university managers had any interest in such things, they would not have spent years cutting back on study skills support and counselling services.
I know people who work in universities in various positions. What they tell me astounds me; a callous disregard for human life in the pursuit of either economic survival, or profit.
This is, as usual, all about the money. With student fees and rents now their main source of revenue, universities will do anything to recruit and retain. When the pandemic hit, university managers warned of a potentially catastrophic loss of income from international student fees in particular. Many used this as an excuse to cut jobs and freeze pay, even as vice-chancellors and senior management continued to rake in huge salaries. As it turned out, international student admissions reached a record high this year, with domestic undergraduate numbers also up – perhaps less due to the irresistibility of universities’ “offer” than to the lack of other options (needless to say, staff jobs and pay have yet to be reinstated).
But students are more than just fee-payers. They are rent-payers too. Rightly or wrongly, most of those in charge of universities have assumed that only the promise of face-to-face classes would tempt students back to their accommodation. That promise can be safely broken only once rental contracts are signed and income streams flowing.
This popped up in my Twitter feed this week and brought joy to my life. So simple but so effective: either randomly go to, or browse radio stations around the world. The one featured in the screenshot above is one close to me I forgot existed!
Every time we get a new kind of tool, we start by making the new thing fit the existing ways that we work, but then, over time, we change the work to fit the new tool. You’re used to making your metrics dashboard in PowerPoint, and then the cloud comes along and you can make it in Google Docs and everyone always has the latest version. But one day, you realise that the dashboard could be generated automatically and be a live webpage, and no-one needs to make those slides at all. Today, sometimes doing the meeting as a video call is a poor substitute for human interaction, but sometimes it’s like putting the slides in the cloud.
I don’t think we can know which is which right now, but we’re going through a vast, forced public experiment to find out which bits of human psychology will align with which kinds of tool, just as we did with SMS, email or indeed phone calls in previous generations.
An interesting post that both invokes ‘green eggs and ham’ as a metaphor, and includes an anecdote from an Ofcom report towards the end about a woman named Polly that no-one who does training or usability testing should ever forget.
What future learning environments need is not more mechanization, but more humanization; not more data, but more wisdom; not more objectification, but more subjectification; not more Plato, but more Aristotle.
William Rankin (regenerative.global)
I agree, although ‘subjectification’ is a really awkward word that suggests school subjects, which isn’t the author’s point. After all of this, I can’t see parents, in particular, accepting going back to how school has been. At least, I hope not.
This guide… is meant to give you hope and fear. To beat COVID-19 in a way that also protects our mental & financial health, we need optimism to create plans, and pessimism to create backup plans. As Gladys Bronwyn Stern once said, “The optimist invents the airplane and the pessimist the parachute.”
Marcel Salathé & Nicky Case
Modelling what happens next in terms of lockdowns, etc. is not an easy think to understand, and there are many competing opinions. This guide, with ‘playable simulations’ is the best thing I’ve seen so far, and I feel I’m much better prepared for the next decade (yes, you read that correctly).
By the time Michel de Montaigne wrote “Of Experience,” the last entry in his third and final book of essays, the French statesman and author had weathered numerous outbreaks of plague (in 1585, while he was mayor of Bordeaux, a third of the population perished), political uprisings, the death of five daughters, and an onslaught of physical ailments, from rotting teeth to debilitating kidney stones.
The ubiquity of suffering heightened Montaigne’s attentiveness to the complexity of human experience. Pleasure, he contends, flows not from free rein but structure. The brevity of existence, he goes on, gives it a certain heft. Exertion, truth be told, is the best form of compensation. Time is slippery, the more reason to grab hold.
There’s a children’s book that I love, The Greentail Mouse by Leo Lionni. It plays on the old theme of the town mouse and the country mouse. In this telling, the town mouse comes to visit his cousins in their rural idyll, and they ask him about life in the town. It’s horrible, he says, noisy and dangerous, but there is one day a year when it’s amazing, and that’s when carnival comes around. So the country mice decide to hold a carnival of their own: they make costumes and masks, they grunt and shriek and howl and jump around like wild things. But then, at some point, they forget that they are wearing masks; they end up believing that they are the fierce creatures they have been playing at being, and their formerly peaceful community becomes filled with fear, hatred and suspicion.
Dougald Hine is taking Charlie Davies’ course Clarity for Teachers and is blogging each day about it. This is from the last post in the series. I’m including it partly to point towards Homeward Bound, which I’ve just signed up for, and which starts next Thursday.
First I search for my new item of interest, then I filter the results by “People I Follow.” (You can try it out with some of my recent searches: “Roger Angell,” “Captain Beefheart,” and “Rockford Files.”) Depending on the subject, I might have pages and pages of links, all handily selected for me by people I find interesting.
In his most recent newsletter, Austin Kleon referenced this post of his from five years ago. I think the idea is a great one and I’ll definitely be doing this in future! Twitter move settings around occasionally, but it’s still there under ‘search filters’.
Perhaps the most counter-intuitive truth of the universe is that the more you give to others, the more you’ll get. Understanding this is the beginning of wisdom.
Before you are old, attend as many funerals as you can bear, and listen. Nobody talks about the departed’s achievements. The only thing people will remember is what kind of person you were while you were achieving.
Over the long term, the future is decided by optimists. To be an optimist you don’t have to ignore all the many problems we create; you just have to imagine improving our capacity to solve problems.
Kevin Kelly (The Technium)
The venerable KK is now 68 years of age and so has dispensed some wisdom. It’s a mixed bag, but I particularly liked these the three bits of advice I’ve quoted above.
About 60 artifacts have been radiocarbon dated, showing the Lendbreen pass was widely used from at least A.D. 300. “It probably served as both an artery for long-distance travel and for local travel between permanent farms in the valleys to summer farms higher in the mountains, where livestock grazed for part of the year,” says University of Cambridge archaeologist James Barrett, a co-author of the research.
Tom Metcalfe (Scientific American)
I love it when the scientific and history communities come together to find out new things about our past. Especially about the Vikings, who were straight-up amazing.
Confidential documents seen by Palatinate show that the University is planning “a radical restructure” of the Durham curriculum in order to permanently put online resources at the core of its educational offer, in response to the Covid-19 crisis and other ongoing changes in both national and international Higher Education.
The proposals seek to “invert Durham’s traditional educational model”, which revolves around residential study, replacing it with one that puts “online resources at the core enabling us to provide education at a distance.”
Jack Taylor & Tom Mitchell (Palatinate)
I’m paying attention to this as Durham University is one of my alma maters* but I think this is going to be a common story across a lot of UK institutions. They’ve relied for too long on the inflated fees brought in by overseas students and now, in the wake of the pandemic, need to rapidly find a different approach.
*I have a teaching qualification and two postgraduate degrees from Durham, despite a snooty professor telling me when I was 17 years old that I’d never get in to the institution 😅
Liu grew up a true believer in “meritocracy” and its corollaries: that success implies worth, and thus failure is a moral judgment about the intellect, commitment and value of the failed.
Her tale — starting in her girlhood bedroom and stretching all the way to protests outside of tech giants in San Francisco — traces a journey of maturity and discovery, as Liu confronts the mounting evidence that her life’s philosophy is little more than the self-serving rhetoric of rich people defending their privilege, the chasm between her lived experience and her guiding philosophy widens until she can no longer straddle it.
Cory Doctorow (Boing Boing)
This book is next on my non-fiction reading list. If your library is closed and doesn’t have an online service, try this.
You want workers to post work as it’s underway—even when it’s rough, incomplete, imperfect. That requires a different mindset, though one that’s increasingly common in asynchronous companies. In traditional companies, people often hesitate to circulate projects or proposals that aren’t polished, pretty, and bullet-proofed. It’s a natural reflex, especially when people are disconnected from each other and don’t communicate casually. But it can lead to long delays, especially on projects in which each participant’s progress depends on the progress and feedback of others. Location-independent companies need a culture in which people recognize that a work-in-progress is likely to have gaps and flaws and don’t criticize each other for them. This is an issue of norms, not tools.
Edmund L. Andrews-Stanford (Futurity)
I discovered this via Stephen Downes, who highlights the fifth point in this article (‘single source of truth’). I’ve actually highlighted the sixth one (‘breaking down the barriers to sharing work’) as I’ve also seen that as an important thing to check for when hiring.
The level of interest in the coronavirus pandemic – and the fear and uncertainty that comes with it – has caused tired, fringe conspiracy theories to be pulled into the mainstream. From obscure YouTube channels and Facebook pages, to national news headlines, baseless claims that 5G causes or exacerbates coronavirus are now having real-world consequences. People are burning down 5G masts in protest. Government ministers and public health experts are now being forced to confront this dangerous balderdash head-on, giving further oxygen and airtime to views that, were it not for the major technology platforms, would remain on the fringe of the fringe. “Like anti-vax content, this messaging is spreading via platforms which have been designed explicitly to help propagate the content which people find most compelling; most irresistible to click on,” says Smith from Demos.
James temperton (wired)
The disinformation and plain bonkers-ness around this ‘theory’ of linking 5G and the coronavirus is a particularly difficult thing to deal with. I’ve avoided talking about it on social media as well as here on Thought Shrapnel, but I’m sharing this as it’s a great overview of how these things spread — and who’s fanning the flames.
The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented moment in the history of social structures such as education. After all of the time spent creating emergency plans and three- or five-year road maps that include fail safe options, we find ourselves in the actual emergency. Yet not even a month into global orders of shelter in place, there are many education narratives attempting to frame the pandemic as an opportunity. Extreme situations can certainly create space for extraordinary opportunities, but that viewpoint is severely limited considering this moment in time. Perhaps if the move to distance/online/remote education had happened in a vacuum that did not involve a global pandemic, millions sick, tens of thousands dead, tens of millions unemployed, hundreds of millions hungry, billions anxious and uncertain of society’s next step…perhaps then this would be that opportunity moment. Instead, we have a global emergency where the stress is felt everywhere but it certainly is not evenly distributed, so learning/aligning/deploying/assessing new technology for the classroom is not universally feasible. You can’t teach someone to swim while they’re drowning.
Rolin Moe is a thoughtful commentator on educational technology. This post was obviously written quickly (note the typo in the URL when you click through, as well as some slightly awkward language) and I’m not a fan of the title Moe has settled on. That being said, the point about this not being an ‘opportunity’ for edtech is a good one.
Produced in March, the memo explained how an NHS app could work, using Bluetooth LE, a standard feature that runs constantly and automatically on all mobile devices, to take “soundings” from other nearby phones through the day. People who have been in sustained proximity with someone who may have Covid-19 could then be warned and advised to self–isolate, without revealing the identity of the infected individual.
However, the memo stated that “more controversially” the app could use device IDs, which are unique to all smartphones, “to enable de-anonymisation if ministers judge that to be proportionate at some stage”. It did not say why ministers might want to identify app users, or under what circumstances doing so would be proportionate.
It’s hard to think of a job title more pandemic-proof than “superstar live streamer.” While the coronavirus has upended the working lives of hundreds of millions of people, Dr. Lupo, as he’s known to acolytes, has a basically unaltered routine. He has the same seven-second commute down a flight of stairs. He sits in the same seat, before the same configuration of lights, cameras and monitors. He keeps the same marathon hours, starting every morning at 8.
Social distancing? He’s been doing that since he went pro, three years ago.
For 11 hours a day, six days a week, he sits alone, hunting and being hunted on games like Call of Duty and Fortnite. With offline spectator sports canceled, he and other well-known gamers currently offer one of the only live contests that meet the standards of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
David Segal (The New York Times)
It’s hard to argue with my son these days when he says he wants to be a ‘pro gamer’.
(a quick tip for those who want to avoid ‘free registration’ and some paywalls — use a service like Pocket to save the article and read it there)
To be clear, socialism may be a better way to go, as evidenced by the study showing 4 of the 5 happiest nations are socialist democracies. However, unless we’re going to provide universal healthcare and universal pre-K, let’s not embrace The Hunger Games for the working class on the way up, and the Hallmark Channel for the shareholder class on the way down. The current administration, the wealthy, and the media have embraced policies that bless the caching of power and wealth, creating a nation of brittle companies and government agencies.
A somewhat rambling post, but which explains the difference between a form of capitalism that (theoretically) allows everyone to flourish, and crony capitalism, which doesn’t.