events

Research, Impact and the UK Parliament

This event took place in the Darwin Building at University College London on the 7th June 2017 and was organised by the Universities programme at UK Parliament Outreach and Engagement Service.  These are my personal notes which may be of interest to any researchers who wish to improve the profile of their work among policymakers.

 

An Introduction to the UK Parliament

The UK Parliament is made up of The House of Commons; The House of Lords; and The Monarch.  The Monarch’s role is mainly ceremonial and is not a focus for impact activities.  There are typically 650 MPs in The House of Commons.

The Commons is the democratically elected chamber of Parliament.  The party (or parties) who can command the confidence of the House of Commons form the UK government – typically the party with a majority of members.  If no party commands a majority then a a minority government or coalition government may be formed.

The House of Lords used to be largely filled with hereditary peers.  The 1958 and 1999 reforms did away with most of these and most current Lords are life peers.  It is possible to become a Lord through hereditary title; public nomination to the House of Lords Appointments Commission; or (most typically) Prime Ministerial prerogative.  Traditionally the 26 highest ranking bishops and archbishops of the Church of England sit in the Lords.  Life peers can choose to retire but they typically serve for life.  There are 92 places for hereditary peers.  Many peers have an allegiance to a political party, but there are also cross-benchers who retain independence. The House of Lords does not conventionally block bills that were in a government manifesto, and can only delay and request amendments of legislation, not block it.

What does Parliament do?  The main activities are:

  • Making new laws
  • Raising and debating issues
  • Scrutinizing the work of the UK government

Parliament is not the same thing as Government (the party or parties that command the confidence of the commons).  For the development of policy and legislation the focus should be on the Government.  If the focus is on applying pressure or criticising a piece of legislation then Parliament is likely to be a more appropriate place to start.

How does Parliament use academic research?

  • House of Lords/Commons Select Committees (groups of MPs/Lords involved in an inquiry into an area of government activity or spending)
  • Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST)
  • House of Commons Library
  • House of Lords Library
  • Public Bill Committees

How can you contribute to legislation?

  • Respond to consultations (before it goes to parliament, e.g. green & white papers)
  • Make sure the subject specialists at the House of Commons Library knows you and your area of expertise
  • Submit evidence to pre-legislative scrutiny committees and/or Public Bill Committees
  • Brief opposition/backbench MPs and Peers to assist them in legislative debates

You can send 250 word summaries of subject expertise to papers@parliament.uk for the attention of subject specialists.  This means you will be entered onto a register of experts.

 

Academics and the UK Parliament

The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) supports and advances the use of research evidence in Parliament.  Core activities include:

  • Producing 4 page briefings for MPs and Lords on topics deemed to be of policy relevance. The process includes literature reviews, interviews with stakeholders, etc.
  • Supporting Select Committees and Libraries (providing contacts and bespoke briefings
  • Connecting Parliament with researchers through events, fellowship schemes, etc.
  • Capacity Building through providing training to Parliamentary staff about using research and research methods

 

There are four POST areas:

  • Biological sciences and health
  • Energy and environment
  • Physical sciences and ICT
  • Social sciences

 

As part of the social science strand some work has been done on Parliamentary engagement through analysis of REF2014 case studies.  20% of impact case studies (N=1282) referred to engagement with Parliament.  88% of UK universities are engaged with Parliament in this way (from all 36 subject areas).  The universities which engaged the most were UCL, Oxford, Cambridge, KCL, Manchester, Bristol and Edinburgh.  The areas of Parliament that were engaged with most commonly were Select Committees (35%); Individual MPs or peers (28%); legislation (11%); debate (11%); APPGs (10%); libraries (3%); parliamentary questions (3%) and POST (2%).

The most typical form of engagement is through citation or mention (37%).  The next common is to provide evidence (18%).  Other examples include giving evidence, consultation, speaking or presenting, or through direct correspondence.

The POST note process provides a way to engage:

  • Written by postgraduate fellows over a period of three months
  • Topics are approved by the POST board
  • You can propose a POST note, or contribute to notes that are presently being worked on
  • First drafts of POST notes are usually written by non-specialists
  • Finished drafts are sent to all MPs and peers and made available through the Parliamentary website
  • The website shows notes that have been approved for drafting as well as work currently in progress
  • There is a mailing list and a Twitter account (@post_uk)
  • It can also be useful to follow the social media accounts of Select Committees or Library Sections, etc.
  • Fellowships are available through research councils, learned societies and charities
  • Academic fellowships are available for academics at institutions which hold an ESRC or EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account (currently being piloted, deadline 30th June 2017)
  • Fellows are increasingly offered the chance to work directly with a Select Committee or Library Section

 

Libraries are keen to work with academics but often too busy to seek them out.    The Commons Library is made up of specialists who produce briefing papers and debate packs; the Lords Library comprises generalists and is a smaller team who focus on answering enquiries.

The contact email address for Libraries is: papers@parliament.uk

 

Engaging with UK Parliamentarians

The first step is to contact your local MP, who can be found on the Parliament website (www.parliament.uk) or by calling the House of Commons Information Office on 020 7219 4272.  Many MPs have a constituency office where they can be contacted.

It may be appropriate to contact other MPs – one approach could be to ask which other MPs might share an interest.

Members of the House of Lords have no constituency, but neither do they have the staff support that MPs have.  Many Lords are busy and have jobs outside of Parliament.  It is important to identify peers who will support your campaign. The email address  contactholmember@parliament.uk can be used to contact any peer.  Don’t bulk send information – if more than six copies are received all are deleted.

Individual parliamentarians are free to evaluate your communication and act in whatever way they feel is appropriate. There is no formal quality assurance process, so finding a sympathetic ear can be useful.  Targeting communication is important; having some sense of the action that you wish Parliamentarians to take helps to structure and strategically focus the communication.

Ways to find out more about Parliamentary interests:

  • All-Party Parliamentary Groups
    • These informal groups function like clubs and have been demonstrated to be a good way for researchers to gain influence
    • APPGs typically focus on a particular issue (‘subject groups’) or country
    • They can operate in wildly different ways because they are not uniform in their organisation or structure and they are self-run
    • There is a register of APPGs on the parliament.uk website
    • It can also be useful to identify Parliamentarians who might be obstructive to your legislative agenda through searching APPGs
    • Granularity can be an issue: ‘health’ is quite a broad category but there can be groups for specific areas of medicine or even specific medical conditions. Find the right group for your particular agenda
    • Ask for a list of contact details for members of the relevant APPG
  • Hansard (records of debate)
    • These can be searched for key words
    • Useful for identifying Parliamentarians
  • Early Day Motions (suggestions for future debates)
  • Select Committees

Another inquiry point could be to identify clerks or co-ordinators and contact them directly.  They are likely to be organised and quick to respond.

If you’re going to contact an MP or peer, how should you present yourself?

  • Be polite
  • Have a clear purpose for contacting them
  • Try to stand out from the hundreds of other emails they have received that day
  • Be clear about the new knowledge that has been produced by your research
  • Communicate broad lines first and drill down into the details
  • Parliamentarians are ‘intelligent non-specialists’ who are used to taking in complex information – there is no need to dumb down research for them but it is good practice to minimise jargon and communicate the main points clearly

 

What is good Select Committee evidence?

Select Committees:

  • Are intended to hold the government (or relevant governmental department) to account
  • Are independent in terms of their focus
  • Examine expenditure, administration and policy of each Government department
  • Do not investigate individual complaints
  • Are cross-bench and reflect the makeup of the House of Commons – serving ministers are not part of Select Committees

 

How Select Committees work:

  1. Choose inquiry
  2. Announce Terms of Reference (narrowing areas of focus)
  3. Open the call for evidence (typically open about 6 weeks)
  4. Collect written evidence
  5. Commission research (this is infrequently done, but still happens)
  6. Visits (to relevant stakeholders)
  7. Take oral evidence (these sessions are open to the public and sometimes televised)
  8. Discuss conclusions & recommendations
  9. Draft and agree report
  10. Publish report
  11. Receive a response from the Government, who are obliged to respond to each of the specific recommendations

Recommendations may be accepted in full or in part, or rejected.

Why engage with Select Committees?

  • Evidence based policymaking
  • Publicise research
  • Impact

How should one engage with a Select Committee?

  • Submit written evidence
  • Oral evidence
  • Act as a specialist advisor
  • Highlight relevant research

What is good evidence?

  • Relevant to the inquiry
  • Accessible, not academic – minimise jargon
  • Provides context and assesses the significance of a piece of research
  • Gives clear recommendations to the Committee
  • Avoid political point-scoring since Select Committees are cross-bench
  • Bear in mind the original terms of reference (and possibly use this to structure the report)

One area of focus for Select Committees is to improve the diversity of those who are asked to provide evidence.

The best place to start when thinking about approaching a Select Committee is Twitter – every SC has a Twitter account where requests are made.

Things to think about:

  • How is your research relevant to public policy?
  • Which inquiries could you submit evidence to?
  • How will the REF influence your research?

On the subject of REF:  it is not entirely clear how one might use Parliamentary activity as a way of demonstrating impact.  Keeping records of engagement (e.g. a letter of thanks) is a good idea because this could potentially be used as part of a case study.

Select committees have no role in legislation, though they may be asked to provide scrutiny on bills that are in early stages.

Bill committees also take evidence on a particular subject and related legislation.   Bill committees are run by the Public Bill Office and chosen by party whips.  They are more political and controlled by political parties.

 

 

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Uncensored State of the Union: OER Unfiltered #oer2015

Drawing proceedings at the Hewlett Grantees meeting towards its close is a final keynote by Hal Plotkin, currently Senior Open Policy Fellow at Creative Commons USA and formerly Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary of Education for the Obama administration.  I interviewed Hal for OER Research Hub back in 2013, so am quite interested in where his thinking is right now.

Hal started by reflecting on the way that college presidents are appointed, noting that they are typically people who understand the college system and how to operate within it.  They tend to be people quite unlike the college presidents of yesteryear who were distinguished in several fields rather than rising to the top of the college administration systems.  What kind of leadership is provided by leaders who are not known for their achievements? Although OER has had a profound impact on improving access to education, not a single college president has championed or advocated for the movement.

The talk proceeded with acknowledgements of the support Hal has received from various quarters over the years, and the inspiration drawn from the OER community.  We tend to see our projects in (modest) isolation, but should better appreciate the historical significance of the work we do.

Hal identified the origins of OER movement with the Midpenninsula Free University (1966-1971).  Founded on the idea that anyone could teach and anyone could learn, the movement was inspired by the first opportunities for public use of computers.  Implicit in the mission statement and self-identity of the Students for a Democratic Society was the critique of corporatism in formal education and a mission for social justice.  Universities, it was held, must reform on the basis of dialogue and bold vision.  Free inquiry, free from centralised, disciplinary control, is the central axis of a progressive society, and must be supported.  At its peak, the MFU had hundreds of instructors, including illustrious authors and scientists.   So what happened to it?

The Revolutionary Union (a group of students) gave classes in Marxism and urban counter-insurgency, which triggered the interest of the FBI.  This inculcated a culture of paranoia at the MFU; eventually the headquarters of the MFU was bombed and a campaign of more than 30 bombings ensued.  In Palo Alto, a fundraising campaign was initiated to raise the money to build a university by music concerts.  But without permission to fund-raise in this way, the concerts often descended into the violence of regular ‘Friday night riots’.  Eventually a route around this was found through a clause in the municipal code.  Hal suggests that the real core of the 1960s counterculture was not drugs, or music, but the drive towards free education.

A pivotal moment in this chaos was a fractious meeting where attendees were divided about whether to exclude a hostile journalist; a debate that can be understood to be essentially about openness.  The journalist was ejected, and half the steering committee left with them in protest.  From this point on the MFU dissipated, and was taken over by hardline revolutionaries dedicated to the overthrow of the government of the USA.  The FBI actively worked to break up the MFU and its organising committees.

Thus, the battle for open education can be understood to start with the MFU, but when it lost its inclusivity and synergistic energy the movement was destined to fail.  When one group imposes its ideology and belief system on others the introduction of pressures to conform become dominant and many leave to find alternative paths. There is a cautionary tale here for the OER movement.

OER was written into the TAACCCT grant program, but the truth about policy is that it is invariably messier in practice than in theory.  Hal has three pieces of advice about getting policy written and passed:

  • have the strongest bladder
  • stay at the table as long as anyone else
  • be the last person to touch the document

Formerly, the Department of Labor allowed its subcontractors to retain intellectual property rights over materials created on behalf of the government (but retaining the right to use it for their own purposes).  There was some debate over whether the OER mandate in the TAACCCT bill was legal (or constitutional).  The Deputy White House counsel was eventually responsible for pushing through the open IP requirements at a late hour.

When dealing with challenges like these we often rely on scripture, poetry, or speeches for motivation and emotional sustenance.  For Hal, Bobby Kennedy’s speech in South Africa is such an inspiration.  Here is a version of the text (not verbatim the same as the version Hal read out, but pretty close).

There is a discrimination in this world and slavery and slaughter and starvation. Governments repress their people; and millions are trapped in poverty while the nation grows rich; and wealth is lavished on armaments everywhere.

These are differing evils, but they are common works of man. They reflect the imperfection of human justice, the inadequacy of human compassion, our lack of sensibility toward the sufferings of our fellows.

But we can perhaps remember – even if only for a tirne – that those who live with us are our brothers; that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek – as we do – nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.

Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely, we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men. And surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again.

Our answer is to rely on youth – not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease. The cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. They cannot be moved by those who cling to a present that is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger that come with even the most peaceful progress. It is a revolutionary world we live in; and this generation at home and around the world, has had thrust upon it a greater burden of responsibility than any generation that has ever lived.

Some believe there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills. Yet many of the world’s great movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single man. A young monk began the Protestant reformation, a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth, and a young woman reclaimed the territory of France. It was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and the thirty-two-year-old Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that all men are created equal.

These men moved the world, and so can we all. Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change. And I believe that in this generation those with the courage to enter the moral conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the globe.

For the fortunate among us, there is the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who enjoy the privilege of education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us. Like it or not, we live in times of danger and uncertainty. But they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history. All of us will ultimately be judged and as the years pass we will surely judge ourselves, on the effort we have contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which our ideals and goals have shaped that effort.

The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of new ideas and bold projects. Rather it will belong to those who can blend vision, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals and great enterprises of American Society.

Our future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control. It is the shaping impulse of America that neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine our destiny. There is pride in that, even arrogance, but there is also experience and truth. In any event, it is the only way we can live.

Hal concluded by thanking those present for the work they do in working for the greater cause and expressing his gratitude in being part of the community.

Launching the Open Education Handbook

This morning I am taking part in a hangout to launch The Open Education Handbook, a collaboratively written document published by Open Knowledge Foundation for which I acted as the editor for the most recent edition.

Lots of people were involved in putting together the manual, both directly (in book ‘sprints’ and through a working group) and indirectly through their support of the LinkedUp project.  Originally the focus of the project was open data but this quickly expanded to areas relevant to open data (including OER, policy, education).  Open research data and open educational data have much potential for influencing education and the working group opens up a space to think and collaborate around this.

The Open Education Working Group takes an open approach to collaboration, which has also been applied to the handbook.  The LinkedUp project was required to produce a handbook as a project deliverable and it was decided that an open, collaborative and community based approach would be appropriate.  The idea of using ‘book sprints‘ was new to the team, and was slightly watered down so that instead of trying to write the whole thing in three days there would be working groups and multiple sprints which attempted to improve the existing version.  The sprints were held at conferences and workshops with a ‘question and answer’ approach used to structure the content.  Around the time of the second sprint the workspace moved from Google Docs to BookType which helped the organisation of the materials as well as version control.  The working group would regularly meet to chat about the project.

Translating the book into Portuguese allowed for further refinement of the draft as the translators queried the structure of the book as well as the possible Eurocentric quality of the earlier drafts. My own contribution was to try and pull in the shape the rather fragmentary draft and apply a consistent editorial tone across the manuscript.  This involved moving away from the ‘question & answer’ model originally used to generate content to reassemble and rephrase content more like a structured narrative but also leaving open the possibility of reading sections in no particular order.

The latest version is still available for editing and there will undoubtedly be new versions as we move forward.

  • Martin Poulter reported that the book content is being imported into WikiBooks for ongoing wiki style editing and improvement;
  • Jo Paulger spoke about the FLOSS manuals site as another possible home for the handbook (and possibly the more ‘official’ versions as they are produced.

Here are Marieke Guy‘s slides from the hangout:

Guerrilla Research #elesig

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We don't need no stinking permissions....

Today I’m in the research laboratories in the Jennie Lee Building at The Institute of Educational Technology (aka work) for the ELESIG Guerrilla Research Event.  Martin Weller began the session with an outline of the kind of work that goes into preparing unsuccessful research proposals.  Using figures from the UK research councils he estimates that the ESRC alone attracts bids (which it does not fund) equivalent to 65 work years every year (2000 failed bids x 12 days per bid).   This work is not made public in any way and can be considered lost.

He then went on to discuss some different digital scholarship initiatives – like a meta educational technology journal based on aggregation of open articles; MOOC research by Katy Jordan; an app built at the OU; DS106 Digital Storytelling – these have elements of what is being termed ‘guerrilla research’.  These include:

  • No permissions (open access, open licensing, open data)
  • Quick set up
  • No business case required
  • Allows for interdisciplinarity unconstrained by tradition
  • Using free tools
  • Building open scholarship identity
  • Kickstarter / enterprise funding

Such initiatives can lead to more traditional forms of funding and publication; and the two at least certainly co-exist.  But these kinds of activities are not always institutionally recognised, giving rise to a number of issues:

  • Intellectual property – will someone steal my work?
  • Can I get institutional recognition?
  • Do I need technical skills?
  • What is the right balance between traditional and digital scholarship?
  • Ethical concerns about the use of open data – can consent be assumed?  Even when dealing with personal or intimate information?

Tony Hirst then took the floor to speak about his understanding of ‘guerrilla research’.  He divided his talk into the means, opportunity and motive for this kind of work.

First he spoke about the use of the commentpress WordPress theme to disaggregate the Digital Britain report so that people could comment online.  The idea came out of a tweet but within 3 months was being funded by the Cabinet Office.

In 2009 Tony produced a map of MP expense claims which was used by The Guardian.  This was produced quickly using open technologies and led to further maps and other ways of exploring data stories.  Google Ngrams is a tool that was used to check for anachronistic use of language in Downton Abbey.

In addition to pulling together recipes using open tools and open data is to use innovative codings schemes. Mat Morrison (@mediaczar) used this to produce an accession plot graph of the London riots.  Tony has reused this approach – so another way of approaching ‘guerrilla research’ is to try to re-appropriate existing tools.

Another approach is to use data to drive a macroscopic understanding of data patterns, producing maps or other visualizations from very large data sets, helping sensemaking and interpretation.  One important consideration here is ‘glanceability‘ – whether the information has been filtered and presented so that the most important data are highlighted and the visual representation conveys meaning successfully to the view.

Data.gov.uk is a good source of data:  the UK government publishes large amounts of information on open licence.  Access to data sets like this can save a lot of research money, and combining different data sets can provide unexpected results.  Publishing data sets openly supports this method and also allows others to look for patterns that original researchers might have missed.

Google supports custom searches which can concentrate on results from a specific domain (or domains) and this can support more targeted searches for data.  Freedom of information requests can also be a good source of data; publicly funded bodies like universities, hospitals and local government all make data available in this way (though there will be exceptions). FOI requests can be made through whatdotheyknow.com.  Google spreadsheets support quick tools for exploring data such as sliding filters and graphs.

OpenRefine is another tool which Tony has found useful.  It can cluster open text responses in data sets according to algorithms and so replace manual coding of manuscripts.   The tool can also be used to compare with linked data on the web.

Tony concluded his presentation with a comparison of ‘guerrilla research’ and ‘recreational research’. Research can be more creative and playful and approaching it in this way can lead to experimental and exploratory forms of research.  However, assessing the impact of this kind of work might be problematic.  Furthermore, going through the process of trying to get funding for research like this can impede the playfulness of the endeavour.

A workflow for getting started with this kind of thing:

  • Download openly available data: use open data, hashtags, domain searches, RSS
  • DBpedia can be used to extract information from Wikipedia
  • Clean data using OpenRefine
  • Upload to Google Fusion Tables
  • From here data can be mapped, filtered and graphed
  • Use Gephi for data visualization and creating interactive widgets
  • StackOverflow can help with coding/programming

(I have a fuller list of data visualization tools on the Resources page of OER Impact Map.)

Ethical Use of New Technology in Education

Today Beck Pitt and I travelled up to Birmingham in the midlands of the UK to attend a BERA/Wiley workshop on technologies and ethics in educational research.  I’m mainly here on focus on the redraft of the Ethics Manual for OER Research Hub and to give some time over to thinking about the ethical challenges that can be raised by openness.  The first draft of the ethics manual was primarily to guide us at the start of the project but now we need to redraft it to reflect some of the issues we have encountered in practice.

Things kicked off with an outline of what BERA does and the suggestion that consciousness about new technologies in education often doesn’t filter down to practitioners.  The rationale behind the seminar seems to be to raise awareness in light of the fact that these issues are especially prevalent at the moment.

This blog post may be in direct contravention of the Chatham convention

This blog post may be in direct contravention of the Chatham convention

We were first told that these meetings would be taken under the ‘Chatham House Rule’ which suggests that participants are free to use information received but without identifying speakers or their affiliation… this seems to be straight into the meat of some of the issues provoked by openness:  I’m in the middle of life-blogging this as this suggestion is made.  (The session is being filmed but apparently they will edit out anything ‘contentious’.)

Anyway, on to the first speaker:


Jill Jameson, Prof. of Education and Co-Chair of the University of Greenwich
‘Ethical Leadership of Educational Technologies Research:  Primum non noncere’

The latin part of the title of this presentation means ‘do no harm’ and is a recognised ethical principle that goes back to antiquity.  Jameson wants to suggest that this is a sound principle for ethical leadership in educational technology.

After outlining a case from medical care Jameson identified a number of features of good practice for involving patients in their own therapy and feeding the whole process back into training and pedagogy.

  • No harm
  • Informed consent
  • Data-informed consultation on treatment
  • Anonymity, confidentiality
  • Sensitivity re: privacy
  • No coercion
  • ‘Worthwhileness’
  • Research-linked: treatment & PG teaching

This was contrasted with a problematic case from the NHS concerning the public release of patient data.  Arguably very few people have given informed consent to this procedure.  But at the same time the potential benefits of aggregating data are being impeded by concerns about sharing of identifiable information and the commercial use of such information.

In educational technology the prevalence of ‘big data’ has raised new possibilities in the field of learning analytics.  This raises the possibility of data-driven decision making and evidence-based practice.  It may also lead to more homogenous forms of data collection as we seek to aggregate data sets over time.

The global expansion of web-enabled data presents many opportunities for innovation in educational technology research.  But there are also concerns and threats:

  • Privacy vs surveillance
  • Commercialisation of research data
  • Techno-centrism
  • Limits of big data
  • Learning analytics acts as a push against anonymity in education
  • Predictive modelling could become deterministic
  • Transparency of performance replaces ‘learning
  • Audit culture
  • Learning analytics as models, not reality
  • Datasets >< information and stand in need of analysis and interpretation

Simon Buckingham-Shum has put this in terms of a utopian/dystopian vision of big data:

Leadership is thus needed in ethical research regarding the use of new technologies to develop and refine urgently needed digital research ethics principles and codes of practice.  Students entrust institutions with their data and institutions need to act as caretakers.

I made the point that the principle of ‘do no harm’ is fundamentally incompatible with any leap into the unknown as far as practices are concerned.  Any consistent application of the principle leads to a risk-averse application of the precautionary principle with respect to innovation.  How can this be made compatible with experimental work on learning analytics and sharing of personal data?  Must we reconfigure the principle of ‘do no harm’ so it it becomes ‘minimise harm’?  It seems that way from this presentation… but it is worth noting that this is significantly different to the original maxim with which we were presented… different enough to undermine the basic position?


Ralf Klamma, Technical University Aachen
‘Do Mechanical Turks Dream of Big Data?’

Klamma started in earnest by showing us some slides:  Einstein sticking his tongue out; stills from Dr. Strangelove; Alan Turing; a knowledge network (citation) visualization which could be interpreted as a ‘citation cartel’.  The Cold War image of scientists working in isolation behind geopolitical boundaries has been superseded by building of new communities.  This process can be demonstrated through data mining, networking and visualization.

Historical figures of the like of Einstein and Turing are now more like nodes on a network diagram – at least, this is an increasingly natural perspective.  The ‘iron curtain’ around research communities has dropped:

  • Research communities have long tails
  • Many research communities are under public scrutiny (e.g. climate science)
  • Funding cuts may exacerbate the problem
  • Open access threatens the integrity of the academy (?!)

Klamma argues that social network analysis and machine learning can support big data research in education.  He highlights the US Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology, Cyber Security Division publication The Menlo Report: Ethical Principles Guiding Information and Communication Technology Research as a useful resource for the ethical debates in computer science.  In the case of learning analytics there have been many examples of data leaks:

One way to approach the issue of leaks comes from the TellNET project.  By encouraging students to learn about network data and network visualisations they can be put in better control of their own (transparent) data.  Other solutions used in this project:

  • Protection of data platform: fragmentation prevents ‘leaks’
  • Non-identification of participants at workshops
  • Only teachers had access to learning analytics tools
  • Acknowledgement that no systems are 100% secure

In conclusion we were introduced to the concept of ‘datability‘ as the ethical use of big data:

  • Clear risk assessment before data collection
  • Ethcial guidelines and sharing best pracice
  • Transparency and accountability without loss of privacy
  • Academic freedom

Fiona Murphy, Earth and Environmental Science (Wiley Publishing)
‘Getting to grips with research data: a publisher perspective’

From a publisher perspective, there is much interest in the ways that research data is shared.  They are moving towards a model with greater transparency.  There are some services under development that will use DOI to link datasets and archives to improve the findability of research data.  For instance, the Geoscience Data Journal includes bi-direction linking to original data sets.  Ethical issues from a publisher point of view include how to record citations and accreditation; manage peer review and maintenance of security protocols.

Data sharing models may be open, restricted (e.g. dependent on permissions set by data owner) or linked (where the original data is not released but access can be managed centrally).

[Discussion of open licensing was conspicuously absent from this though this is perhaps to be expected from commercial publishers.]


Luciano Floridi, Prof. of Philosophy & Ethics of Information at The University of Oxford
‘Big Data, Small Patterns, and Huge Ethical Issues’

Data can be defined by three Vs: variety, velocity, and volume. (Options for a fourth have been suggested.)  Data has seen a massive explosion since 2009 and the cost of storage is consistently falling.  The only limits to this process are thermodynamics, intelligence and memory.

This process is to some extent restricted by legal and ethical issues.

Epistemological Problems with Big Data: ‘big data’ has been with us for a while generally should be seen as a set of possibilities (prediction, simulation, decision-making, tailoring, deciding) rather than a problem per se.  The problem is rather that data sets have become so large and complex that they are difficult to process by hand or with standard software.

Ethical Problems with Big Data: the challenge is actually to understand the small patterns that exist within data sets.  This means that many data points are needed as ways into a particular data set so that meaning can become emergent.  Small patterns may be insignificant so working out which patterns have significance is half the battle.  Sometimes significance emerges through the combining of smaller patterns.

Thus small patterns may become significant when correlated.  To further complicate things:  small patterns may be significant through their absence (e.g. the curious incident of the dog in the night-time in Sherlock Holmes).

A specific ethical problem with big data: looking for these small patterns can require thorough and invasive exploration of large data sets.  These procedures may not respect the sensitivity of the subjects of that data.  The ethical problem with big data is sensitive patterns: this includes traditional data-related problems such as privacy, ownership and usability but now also includes the extraction and handling of these ‘patterns’.  The new issues that arise include:

  • Re-purposing of data and consent
  • Treating people not only as means, resources, types, targets, consumers, etc. (deontological)

It isn’t possible for a computer to calculate every variable around the education of an individual so we must use proxies:  indicators of type and frequency which render the uniqueness of the individual lost in order to make sense of the data.  However this results in the following:

  1. The profile becomes the profiled
  2. The profile becomes predictable
  3. The predictable becomes exploitable

Floridi advances the claim that the ethical value of data should not be higher than the ethical value of that entity but demand at most the same degree of respect.

Putting all this together:  how can privacy be protected while taking advantage of the potential of ‘big data’?.  This is an ethical tension between competing principles or ethical demands: the duties to be reconciled are 1) safeguarding individual rights and 2) improving human welfare.

  • This can be understood as a result of polarisation of a moral framework – we focus on the two duties to the individual and society and miss the privacy of groups in the middle
  • Ironically, it is the ‘social group’ level that is served by technology

Five related problems:

  • Can groups hold rights? (it seems so – e.g. national self-determination)
  • If yes, can groups hold a right to privacy?
  • When might a group qualify as a privacy holder? (corporate agency is often like this, isn’t it?)
  • How does group privacy relate to individual privacy?
  • Does respect for individual privacy require respect for the privacy of the group to which the individual belongs? (big data tends to address groups (‘types’) rather than individuals (‘tokens’))

The risks of releasing anonymised large data sets might need some unpacking:  the example given was that during the civil war in Cote d’Ivoire (2010-2011) Orange released a large metadata set which gave away strategic information about the position of groups involved in the conflict even though no individuals were identifiable.  There is a risk of overlooking group interests by focusing on the privacy of the individual.

There are legal or technological instruments which can be employed to mitigate the possibility of the misuse of big data, but there is no one clear solution at present.  Most of the discussion centred upon collective identity and the rights that might be afforded an individual according to groups they have autonomously chosen and those within which they have been categorised.  What happens, for example, if a group can take a legal action but one has to prove membership of that group in order to qualify?  The risk here is that we move into terra incognito when it comes to the preservation of privacy.


Summary of Discussion

Generally speaking, it’s not enough to simply get institutional ethical approval at the start of a project.  Institutional approvals typically focus on protection of individuals rather than groups and research activities can change significantly over the course of a project.

In addition to anonymising data there is a case for making it difficult to reconstruct the entire data set so as to stop others from misuse.  Increasingly we don’t even know who learners are (e.g. MOOC) so it’s hard to reasonably predict the potential outcomes of an intervention.

The BERA guidelines for ethical research are up for review by the sounds of it – and a working group is going to be formed to look at this ahead of a possible meeting at the BERA annual conference.

Liveblog: Audrey Watters at Open Ed 2013

This presentation began with a general discussion – informed by Audrey’s background as a folklore scholar – of apocalyptic prediction.  Apocalypse and crisis are motifs that are common in contemporary discourse around education and educational technology, often accompanied by the idea of some sort of salvation through technology.  Christiansen’s (1995) notion of disruptive innovation threatens to both sweep away the new as a destructive force while ushering in the radically new.

Watters argues that these ‘end-times’ kinds of myths have a pervasive on American culture, and that the idea of disruptive innovation is particularly prevalent among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and in business culture.  These provide an ideological framework which leads to a lot of predictions about the future of education:  the move to mass online learning; the inevitable death of under-performing institutions; the death of the university.  These are seen as inevitabilities that result from a kind of technological determinism.  From the high-priests of this culture the accusation is made that public institutions are unable to innovate because they are monolithic, inflexible and somehow beyond the reach of these forces.  Thus we are encouraged to embrace for-profit and MOOC style education since their prevalence is seen an an inevitability.

Good folklorists respect the sacred stories of particular cultures, but need not accept them as true.  What happens when the rhetoric of crisis is adopted widely?  Can we successfully move away from the rhetoric of ‘crisis’?  These are the questions upon which we are encouraged to reflect…

Audrey’s notes and slides are available here.

[Reblogged from http://oerresearchhub.org/2013/11/07/opened13-keynote-audrey-watters/]

Liveblog: George Siemens at Open Ed 2013

David Wiley introduced George by noting that he wrote the course for which the term ‘MOOC’ was originally created.  George similarly paid tribute to David’s stewardship of the OER movement.  Here are George’s slides, helpfully made available ahead of time.

The presentation started with a bit of a review of George’s experiences as a blogger and online educator.  This led him – and Stephen Downes – to think about ways in which to lever technology and openness to improve student learning.  Early courses encouraged public discussion and sharing of ideas and a move away from ‘transmission pedagogies’ which replicated the worst of classroom interaction online.

George noted (correctly, in my opinion) that innovation is typically iterative and collaborative.  Often there are so many strands that it’s difficult to identify the main one but rarely does it result from one person with some sort of moment of divine inspiration.

Learning systems should recognise this, being: flexible, open, accessible, build-able extendable, remix-able.  Most of Siemen’s reservations about current MOOC providers are down to the lack of these features.  He also questioned the ‘newness’ of MOOC by noting that large scale education opportunities have been explored through television since the 1950s. MOOC are actually, he asserted, a supply-side answer to decades of increased in demand for education.  The move to a knowledge-based economy in the West was not accompanied by a similar re-haul of education.  When only 10-20% of people go to university we can expect them to be self-motivated and reasonably competent learners.  As this figure increases, so the kind of support we need to offer changes with it.

Some recent (Gates-funded) research on MOOC discourse revealed the following:

  • There is genuine interest and good quality research being done on MOOC
  • 90% of conversations involved education researchers
  • Mixed-methods research are preferred by most

Now, the angst-filled reflection:

  1. MOOCs don’t prepare learners for the kinds of things that learners need to be able to do:  we need ‘stuff that stirs the soul’.  (This is similar to the argument made by Marcus Deimann and myself here.)
  2. Openness is being lost in the noise – we need an idea of openness that can engage with wide audiences the way that MOOC has
  3. Revenue models have come to be the focus for a lot of people
  4. Drop-out rates in MOOC do not matter because they can’t be compared to the level of personal investment that traditional university education involves
  5. We are too wedded to the traditional model and this stops us from properly exploring the possibilities that are available to us

Given these anxieties, what might provide succour?  We are currently witnessing the unbundling of previously existing network structures in education and this means that it can be rebuilt in ways that enable quality of learning and increasing access.  MOOC should be seen as a stepping stone towards this since they co-opt elements of the traditional university programme.  Fragmentisation of education ecosystems leads us to an open landscape which can be shaped.  Furthermore, MOOC have made technology-enhanced learning into a part of the public consciousness and wider conversations.

There is a bunch of MOOC related stuff at http://www.moocresearch.com/.  They have plans for a MOOC evidence hub too but they seem to be a bit behind on making this available.

Liveblog: David Kernohan at Open Ed 2013

David began by running out of the room (to jump in the chilly outside pool) only to be followed on camera in a segue that led to a video documentary (‘The Avalanche That Never Happened’) about the ‘deliverology’ which vexes UK education.  In the UK, in the mid 1990s Michael Barber (then a professor at the University of Keele) was invited by the government to consult with a view to improving literacy and education.  He advocated the replacement of public schools with private institutions, notably at Hackney Downs.  At the time both major political parties were keen to present themselves as the party of education.  This led to a change in the culture of British education which came to emphasise ‘targets’ and processes which were determined for the ‘front-line’ by ‘the top people’.

The obsession with setting and meeting educational examples led to an endemic manipulation of metrics across the public sector:  education came to be a matter of passing tests and passing tests alone.  Despite mounting criticism and evidence that Barber’s reforms may have been detrimental to education, the management culture he typifies remain dominant in British education despite the fact that those who espouse this approach are not themselves educators.

In more recent times a number of entrepreneurs – Jobs, Gates, Zuckerberg, Branson, many of them college dropouts – have supported the idea that there remains something inadequate about traditional approaches to education.  Educational (and teacher training) models have increasingly emphasised flexibility and profitability across the world.   The new model of the privately run school has become prevalent worldwide.  Barbers’s recent reports continue to perpetuate this view – but he’s only an example of a class of decision makers who have real influence.

Intellectual property laws have come to play a central part in this process, spreading from the west to Asia in order to protect the rights of private companies and to gather large amounts of data about markets.  Dressed in the language of ’empowering students’ and ‘globalisation’ one could see all this as the UK flavour of a wider, utopian trend.  The private sector remains the only admitted source of innovation and improvement in this view of the world.

Open education exists as a genuine threat to this orthodoxy:  it can provide a more personalised experience which can derive from genuine learner interest rather than the imposition of external frameworks of assessment.  However, we need to move away from the culture of measurement, which is a feature of this ideology:  we shouldn’t care so much about how many people use courses, what kinds of grades they get, etc.  We should resist standardisation which is carried out in the name of ‘choice’.

References and more information about the film are available at http://followersoftheapocalyp.se/opened13/.  The film itself (which is a pretty impressive production) is available from http://vimeo.com/78431114. (password = avalanche)

[Reblogged from http://oerresearchhub.org/2013/11/07/oer13-keynote-david-kernohan/]

Liveblog: Andrew Ng at Open Ed 2013

Andrew Ng – co-founder of Coursera – joined us by Skype for this presentation since he couldn’t be with us in person.  His presentation focused on the ‘revolutionary’ aspects of Coursera’s MOOC platform.  Most people, he noted, could never take a course at Stanford but Coursera makes this possible by putting courses online which anyone can access for free.

For the uninitiated – if there were actually any in the room – a lengthy explanation of what Coursera is:  as a Stanford professor, Andrew usually taught around 400 students per year.  By putting his materials online he was able to reach 100,000 students.  The project now has 107 partners and has taught 5.2 million registered students across 532 courses.  Instruction is video-based and leads to certification which can be used to improve academic or vocational credentials.  Students interact with materials through quizzes and short assignments.  These are supported by plugins that offer a range of functions and can be designed by the partner institutions.  There are peer-grading functions which supplement machine assessment.

Ng tried to make a virtue of the fact that most Coursera users are already ‘educated’ – “over 80% of Coursera students already have a bachelor degree” – and argued that because today’s world is rapidly changing the ‘half-life of knowledge’ is decreasing people will be more likely to keep learning – not sure I fully grasped the logic of this.  It seems to me that this is entrenching privilege rather than increasing access to educational opportunity, particularly when Coursera certification is not widely recognised as equivalent to a formal degree or diploma.

So far, so generic: but what does the future hold?  Andrew went on to ruminate on the ‘flipped classroom’ phenomenon and suggested that Coursera content could be used to support campus education by making classroom time available for ‘deeper interactions’.  (I thought this model had been in place for all humanities degree programmes since… well, since there were universities.)  In the future, Andrew wants lower income people to have educational opportunities that they have not had in the past.  To me this is hardly revolutionary…

Rory MacGreal made the point that student work produced within Coursera cannot be used towards credit for university courses, and questioned the validity of terms and conditions that could own the intellectual property of students.  How is this compatible with ‘education for all’.  Andrew responded by noting that Coursera has costs and needs to find a sutainable model; this is the same reason for not adopting open licensing.  (The implication seems to be that this is all leading to monetization.)

More questions could have been interesting, but Andrew had another engagement.

[Reblogged from http://oerresearchhub.org/2013/11/06/opened13-keynote-andrew-ng/]