Dialogue through technology

Dorm Room Diplomacy

 

Intrigued to learn about the activities of an organisation called Dorm Room Diplomacy which gets groups of students together from around the world, via videoconferencing, to engage in dialogue aimed at promoting greater international understanding:

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Founded by students at the University of Pennsylvania in 2009, Dorm Room Diplomacy fosters intercultural dialogue and mutual understanding among an international group of university students. Dorm Room Diplomacy employs videoconference technology to facilitate virtual exchanges that help students to see the individuals behind reductionist cultural stereotypes.The videoconference program occurs each academic semester, and the same set of 8 students join in a virtual dialogue with a trained facilitator each week. Dorm Room Diplomacy is entirely student-run, encouraging students to take ownership over the dialogue process, establish campus chapters, and empower themselves and their peers. As a non-partisan organization, Dorm Room Diplomacy does not engage in political activities or advocacy, other than the promotion of intercultural dialogue.

Whilst the number of institutions involved is modest nevertheless it does seem like a valuable initiative. There are many other ways to engage in such dialogue both on campus and through international exchanges but this looks like a useful additional option.

Will Dorm Room Diplomacy take off? Time will tell.

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Urgent: save those emails

Do we need to preserve Vice-Chancellors’ emails?

A diverting essay in Inside Higher Ed has a call for the preservation of presidential email:
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…boards of trustees should act – with a sense of urgency. They might begin by appointing a task force, composed of professional historians, lawyers, board members, and administrators, to recommend procedures for an independent review of the correspondence of presidents and provosts. Although a mandate that all communications should reside in library archives might have a chilling effect on email exchanges and boost the telephone bills of academic leaders, it should be considered as well. Equally important, boards of trustees should set aside funds for the review – and for cataloging presidential and provostial papers having just completed a history of Cornell from 1940 to the present, co-authored with my colleague Isaac Kramnick, I can attest to the massive challenges posed by uncataloged collections, which contain millions of documents.

In addition to making possible more accurate institutional histories, complete and accessible presidential “papers” might well help sitting presidents facing tough decisions, by allowing them to understand what their predecessors considered, said and did in similar situations.

So should universities do this? And is it really as urgent as this essay suggests? I don’t think so. There is a strong case to be made for better records retention in universities but to focus exclusively on vice-chancellors’ or presidents’ emails would seem to me to be too narrow a take. And surely they get as much nonsense and spam as everyone else?

Guidance or directive?

Easy finance

A new statement from HEFCE advises universities how to make financial information more visible to students. But is it advice, guidance, assistance or in fact a clear directive?

New guidance aims to help universities and colleges in England present information about income and expenditure on their web-sites in a way that is transparent and accessible to current students and the general public.

The guidance has been developed by the British Universities Finance Directors Group (BUFDG), GuildHE, HEFCE, NUS and Universities UK. It follows a request from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills to HEFCE for universities and colleges to publish financial information more effectively.

It draws on findings from recent research, including a survey of 2,400 current students which found that there is interest in this type of information but that it was often difficult to find and understand.

The research identifies priorities for improving the presentation of financial information such as accessibility, clear signposting and ensuring technical language is clearly explained, as well as keeping information up to date.

Clear enough for you?

In summary, it seems that all this finance stuff is a bit difficult to find and understand and therefore needs to be provided in accessible and easily digestible form. In other words we need to ensure that this aspect of university management can be represented by infographic. Perhaps it would be better if every dimension of university life were to be represented in pictures?

This just adds, as previously posted, to the excess of information already made available to students. And, if it does turn out to be a requirement rather than just encouragement, then isn’t this yet another piece of unwelcome regulation to add to an already excessive burden?

Note that Hugh Jones has a slightly different take on this, favouring transparency and openness with students. He has a similar line on fancy pictures though…

 

What are academic bloggers up to?

What are academic bloggers blogging about? And why?

A great article for the Guardian Higher Education Network by Pat Thomson ( @ThomsonPat )  and Inger Mewburn ( @thesiswhisperer ) on bloggers in higher education. The piece is a summary of an article in a special edition of Studies in Higher Education and the longer one is well worth reading too.

Both of the authors are academic bloggers (Pat Thompson’s blog can be found here) who wanted to work out what other academics were blogging about and why. This was clearly not an unchallenging exercise and even deciding what counted as an academic blog was far from straightforward:

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We opted for the blogger who stated an institutional affiliation, had some kind of academic purpose and was connected to other academic blogs. We called the bloggers who weren’t professors, lecturers or fellows ‘para-academics’. We couldn’t get a representative sample as there is no handy index of blogs, the numbers change all the time, and frankly, there were just too many. And because we speak English, our choices had to be blogs we could actually read.

By using various online listings of academic blogs, we eventually compiled a list of 100 we could use as a sample set. Of these, 49 were from the UK and 40 from the US, five from Canada and six from Australia. 80 were by teaching and researching academics, 14 from para-academics and six from doctoral researchers.

By analysing and categorising the content of these blogs, we determined that 41% largely focused on what we call academic cultural critique: comments and reflections on funding, higher education policy, office politics and academic life. Another 40% largely focused on communication and commentary about research. The remainder covered a diverse range, from academic practice, information and self-help advice to technical, teaching and career advice.

The vast majority of blogs studies used informal essay formats and straightforward reporting styles of writing, but a significant proportion (40%) also used a formal essay style, not dissimilar to academic journal articles but with less intrusive referencing. Interestingly, given the rhetoric around blogging, 73% of the content we analysed was geared for other academics, while 38% was designed for interested professional readers.

We conclude that, in this sample at least, most academics are blogging for professional peers, rather than for the public in any general sense. Our results do not coincide with what the loudest advocates of academic blogging suggest we should do. But we think what we saw in our 100 blogs is understandable.

So, academic blogging is perhaps less about public impact than many have thought and much more about building new online communities and the sharing of ideas with peers in new and interesting ways.

A really worthwhile and absolutely fascinating study.

An engaging app for students?

Possibly. But it’s a tough sell.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a story on a new app which claims to offer faster outreach to students. But will it catch on?

 

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The app, Student Engauge, is part of a larger trend toward mobile outreach, as colleges seek ways to engage with students who often don’t respond to e-mails or online pestering, says Justin Reich, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. The app follows in the path of mobile warning messages that many colleges have adopted to alert students of campus emergencies.

Once downloaded on a mobile device, Student Engauge syncs to a student directory, allowing students to authorize their accounts using their existing credentials. The college can then send out questions or alerts based on those data—for example, asking a student whether he or she liked a professor, or asking a specific group of students if they found a counseling session to be helpful.

More details can be found on the website.

The promo video offers a little more of a taster of what the app might offer

Does it offer enough to ensure widespread adoption? It’s not at all clear. And it could really do with a better name.

Communicating science. Though improv.

A surprising source of help with communicating science.

A great story in The Chronicle of Higher Education on an accolade for Alan Alda for his contribution to helping scientists communicate

In New York City this week, Mr. Alda is being honored at the university’s celebrity fund-raising gala for his central role in creating Stony Brook’s Center for Communicating Science. Its program, based on improvisational theater techniques, has trained people at about 60 universities across the country, and some of those people are using the techniques to train others at their own institutions. The idea “just caught fire,” Mr. Alda says.

Best known as the star of the M*A*S*H television series, Mr. Alda later was host of a science interview program on PBS for 13 years. Many of his guests, he observed, had trouble explaining their ideas to a general audience.

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A solution, he thought, might be to teach scientists some basic improvisational skills. Though improv is commonly associated with comedy theater, it is, more fundamentally, the skill of listening to an audience and making corresponding adjustments in the delivery of a message.

During the film festival, Mr. Alda was seated next to Shirley Strum Kenny, then president of Stony Brook. As he had done at other universities across the country, he brought up his idea. Ms. Kenny, an English scholar, was immediately receptive. She says she had long wanted the institution to do more to prepare its students to explain scientific concepts to people who know less than they do, a skill they would surely need once they entered the work force.

It’s a really fascinating development and terrific to see how the approach is spreading across the US. This video about the Centre explains a bit more about its work:

Suspect we could learn a thing or two in the UK about the technique.

Broadcasting university performance

Very public reports on institutional performance.

Accessible university performance data.

 

Rather impressed by this Performance Tracker which is concerned with reporting in a very accessible way on the progress of Michigan’s public universities:

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The achievement of Michigan’s public universities is a critical factor as we look to participate in the knowledge economy of tomorrow. A well-educated, skilled talent base will help our state develop and attract new business opportunities. Universities also drive research and development, bring thousands of new faces into our state, and build lasting partnerships that advance our communities.

These goals matter to all of us, and so does the performance of Michigan’s higher education system. This website offers an overview of Michigan’s higher education achievement nationally, and shows how our universities are acting as incubators of future economic growth and change.

There is a great deal of very interesting data in here from graduation rates to tuition fees and SSRs to salary costs. Sensibly, the bench marking is against peer institutions. Will we see others adopting a similar approach? And might it catch on in the UK?

Marketing inflation

Increasing marketing spend in universities – real or hype?

Inside Higher Ed features a report on a recent conference on marketing in higher education which featured some bold predictions about the money UK universities will be spending in the brave new market place.

Discussion focused on whether we would see levels of spending of up to 20% of revenue on marketing as has happened in some US universities. The predictions all seemed to suggest that we would see major growth in UK universities’ marketing spend as institutions compete more to attract students.

The article notes what has happened in some US institutions and contains some rather extravagant propositions about what will happen in the UK:

A report released in July by the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions chaired by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, found that for-profits in the country spent an average of 22.7 percent of their revenue on marketing and recruitment, 5 percentage points more than their investment in teaching.

Tim McIntyre-Bhatty, deputy vice-chancellor of Bournemouth University, said that UK universities would rapidly move toward an equivalent figure. “The question is how quickly and the answer is 12 months,” he said.

Robb said that tuition fees had escalated and the same thing would happen to marketing budgets. “There’s no doubt that universities will spend more on marketing in the next 5 to 10 years than they have done to date,” he added.

It is reasonable to speculate that universities will spend more on marketing than they have in the past. However, the idea of spending even as much as 4-5% on marketing as one director of marketing quoted in the piece suggests strikes me as hugely excessive. And as for allocating in excess of 20%, this is just absurd. In reality I would guess that the real level of spend will be in the range of 1-2%. So a load of rather excessive hype I think.

Banning key Twitter words for athletes

Vocabulary tightening for student athletes using Twitter

It seems that, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, two universities are to bar athletes from using hundreds of words on Twitter. Monitoring social media postings by athletes is, apparently, quite normal but this goes even further:

The University of Louisville flags 406 words or slang expressions that have to do with drugs, sex, or alcohol. The University of Kentucky flags a similar number, of which 370 are sports agents’ names.

The words range from the seemingly innocuous “pony”—a euphemism for crack cocaine—and “panties,” to all manner of alcoholic drinks and sexual expressions.

Software used by the universities sends an e-mail alert to coaches whenever athletes use a word that could embarrass the student or the university, or tarnish their images.

Here are some of the words the universities block:

Agent

Alcohol

Benjamins

Cheat sheet

Doobie

Fight

Gay

KKK

Murder

Nazi

Payoff

Porn

Rape

Robbery

White power

You’d hope that most of these wouldn’t routinely appear in tweets. But this kind of targeted proscription just seems ludicrous. (Might be worth a go with some Premiership footballers though.)

Another university league table variation

A league table of universties’ social media ‘visibility’

Econsultancy have published a league table of Russell Group universities’ social media profiles or their ‘visibility’:

The visibility score we use here is based on the total number of links a web domain has scored on the six social sites, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Delicious and StumbleUpon, while accounting for different weightings we give to links on individual social sites.

The content linked to includes

news page stories about new research studies and initiatives are quite common. While heavily shared links included software simulations, web cam images, jokes and podcasts.



The league table is as follows:

Social visibility of Russell Group universities

University of Cambridge. Visibility score: 462,823

University of Oxford: 442,758

London School of Economics: 286,859

Newcastle University: 186,184

University College London: 176,202

University of Warwick: 169,462

University of Manchester: 143,186

University of Edinburgh: 131,053

Queens University Belfast: 118,137

University of Glasgow: 72,211

University of Bristol: 70,656

University of Nottingham: 64,381

University of Leeds: 63,802

Imperial College London: 47,321

Cardiff University: 46,053

University of Southampton: 44,106

King’s College London: 31,762

University of Liverpool: 20,444

University of Birmingham: 15,873

University of Sheffield: 9,912

It’s a bit crude but nevertheless fascinating. And it is quite striking how big the gap is between Oxbridge and the lower half of the table. Many of us have a lot to do to catch up.

Finding the good stuff

Social media can be overwhelming…

And this can make finding the really good stuff really rather difficult. The Schumpeter column in The Economist has an interesting take on this.

Most commentary on social media ignores an obvious truth—that the value of things is largely determined by their rarity. The more people tweet, the less attention people will pay to any individual tweet. The more people “friend” even passing acquaintances, the less meaning such connections have. As communication grows ever easier, the important thing is detecting whispers of useful information in a howling hurricane of noise. For speakers, the new world will be expensive. Companies will have to invest in ever more channels to capture the same number of ears. For listeners, it will be baffling. Everyone will need better filters—editors, analysts, middle managers and so on—to help them extract meaning from the blizzard of buzz.

It’s not a wholly original point but it is well made. It’s a challenge for individuals as well as for universities and other organisations. The problem is, I think, the more you fret about it, the worse it seems. Moreover, by the time you have analysed the position, the entire world has moved on. So, don’t worry, just go with it is my lightweight solution to this particular challenge. Hey, it’s Friday.

ICO: private email accounts are subject to FOI

New regulatory joy from the Information Commissioner’s Office

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has published some exciting new guidance making it clear that information held in private email accounts is subject to the Freedom of Information Act:

Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham said:

“It should not come as a surprise to public authorities to have the clarification that information held in private email accounts can be subject to Freedom of Information law if it relates to official business. This has always been the case – the Act covers all recorded information in any form.

“It came to light in September that this is a somewhat misunderstood aspect of the law and that further clarification was needed. That’s why we’ve issued new guidance today with two key aims – first, to give public authorities an authoritative steer on the factors that should be considered before deciding whether a search of private email accounts is necessary when responding to a request under the Act. Second, to set out the procedures that should generally be in place to respond to requests. Clearly, the need to search private email accounts should be a rare occurrence; therefore, we do not expect this advice to increase the burden on public authorities.”

Key points set out in the guidance include:

Where a public authority has decided that a relevant individual’s email account may include official information which falls within the scope of the request and is not held elsewhere, it will need to ask that individual to search their account.

Where people are asked to check private email accounts, there should be a record of the action taken. The public authority needs to be able to demonstrate, if required, that appropriate searches have taken place.

It is accepted that, in certain circumstances, it may be necessary to use private email for public authority business. There should be a policy which clearly states that in these cases an authority email address should be copied in to ensure the completeness of the authority’s records.

I hope that’s clear for everyone. Happy new year!

A checkup call from the top

Valuable student support measure or a bit of a gesture?

In addition to spending what must be a huge amount over the past few months on advertising in the trade press, Boston University has undertaken another big investment, according to The Boston Globe, checking up on new students:

With new students wrapping up their first month on campus, school staff and administrators, including the provost and dean of students, spent the week calling all 4,300 first-year and transfer students, an ambitious gesture designed to make them feel at home.

“It’s about community,’’ said Kenneth Elmore, the university’s dean of students. “We want students to know we’re here to help.’’

Many administrators and researchers applaud the school for reaching out to students during the pivotal first semester, a time when they are at greater risk of falling behind and dropping out. Nationally, just 57 percent of full-time students at four-year colleges graduate within six years.

‘It’s about community. We want students to know we’re here to help. . . . We tell them we’re here to help them steer their course.’

“The most productive thing you can do is focus on the early experience,’’ said John N. Gardner, the head of a North Carolina institute that works with universities to improve student retention. “If they go unnoticed and unaddressed, academic problems can become severe.’’

I do think this is quite a good idea, particularly with the low completion rates referred to here. And it is undoubtedly the case that the early experience is particularly important. However, in isolation, one ‘phone call will not be sufficient and does need to be just a part of a larger student support package. Would it work in the UK? Or would it be seen as a bit an empty gesture?

A “hyperwired” freshers’ week?

Freshers! Come and try a new kind of learning laboratory

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a fascinating freshers’ week piece on a very different kind of learning lab, within the setting of a student dorm:

Students moving into a newly renovated dormitory at the University of Kentucky signed up for a hyperwired college experience: Each one was given an iPad and required to take a series of tech-themed courses. The unusual program is called A&S Wired Residential College and is housed in a dorm of 177 freshmen, who plan to major in a variety of fields.

Among the $1-million in renovations are 20 wireless access points in the basement and first floor—enough to serve 75 high-bandwidth users at the same time—11 large-screen televisions, which can be connected with multiple iPads simultaneously; and two 82-inch “interactive whiteboards.” The whiteboards will be in the dorm’s two smart classrooms, which both also have 55-inch televisions. The classrooms can do international videoconferencing, too; one class in the spring will feature interaction with a class in South Africa, says Mark Kornbluh, dean of the University of Kentucky’s College of Arts and Sciences.

“We see this as sort of a laboratory of different teaching technologies,” he says. The students in the dorm are meant to be a microcosm of the university, and the related courses are in subjects including “Social Connections: The Sweet and the Bitter of Relationships,” “The Vietnam War,” and “The African-American Experience in Kentucky.”

It’s an interesting experiment. And it does look like the students knew what they were signing up to (and not just free iPads). Although it does seem that the innovation is driven by the technology rather than by educational aims.  The piece doesn’t say what the gender balance is.

UK: Swedish Registrars Seminar 2011

2011 UK: Swedish Registrars Seminar

This event, held in September at the University of Cardiff, was the latest in long series of biennial seminars, alternating venues between the UK and Sweden and I was privileged to be invited to attend as one of the dozen or so UK delegates. The seminars started, I think, about 30 years ago at the instigation of the Swedish government (which also provided some funding) with the aim of enabling Swedish Registrars to learn about developments in the UK from their counterparts here. Whilst the origins imply one way traffic in terms of learning and advancement, it is very much a mutually beneficial dialogue these days and hugely beneficial as a consequence.

It was a hugely enjoyable and deeply fascinating event and it was great to meet colleagues from Sweden in this kind of format which enabled extensive discussion to take place, and some socialising too. Super organisation from Louise and Lucy at Cardiff.

Our Swedish counterparts seem look at our systems (plural given the different UK nations present) with real interest and not a little nervousness. And who can blame them. The changes taking place in Swedish HE, whilst not as dramatic as those in the UK, are interesting nevertheless. The most significant reforms, following their last change in government, include:

  • Greater freedom for universities and significant deregulation
  • Huge investment in research, with the  allocation of resource based on performance
  • A new quality assurance regime
  • Major changes to teacher education
  • The introduction of higher fees for non-EU students

Bizarrely (it seemed to us) the universities rejected the independence on offer to them, preferring to stay under the government’s wing. However, given the financial benefits which have clearly accrued, particularly in relation to research support, and the fact that there is a lot of new regulation being imposed anyway, this is perhaps not such a strange decision.

International student recruitment in Sweden has dropped dramatically (by over 85% it was suggested) but given the current level of funding and the very small contribution offered by international fees, the universities are quite relaxed about this and expect things to improve in future.

One extraordinary, to us, fact about Swedish HE was the position in relation to capital funding. Essentially, for most institutions, there isn’t any. They don’t own buildings but lease them from an agency which largely builds to the requirements of the university.

An awful lot emerged that we had in common, from HR issues to Centre v School tensions and resource allocation to student recruitment. Many other points of contrast too – most notable for me was that the Swedes had lived happily with freedom of information legislation for as long as they could remember and really didn’t understand our concerns.The other perhaps suprising conclusion from the British delegation was that the systems in the different nations of the UK are diverging more than we may have thought.

But such a huge benefit in sharing experiences in this way in such a congenial atmosphere. And again I was extremely grateful to have been invited.