Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Scottish regeneration - getting the poor to pay for services for the poor

I spent most of today at the SURF annual conference.I have a lot of time for SURF (once the Scottish Urban Regeneration Forum, not Scotland's Independent Regeneration Network). One of my first regeneration policy events was a SURF event and every one I've been to since has been excellent with a lot of food for thought on deep issues. 

I have two main reflections on the day that I want to share here. I started the day sat next a couple of community development workers I've met through various things. One of them was trying to help get community growing going in a neighbourhood through the fantastic Edible Estates scheme. However, they talked about a meeting with a local authority where there was some enthusiasm from other officers. All the other officers were entirely negative and highlighted all the problems: "oh it will just get trashed", "nobody will care for it". Listening to this I shared my stories of similar conversations overheard during research that belie the fact that stigma and prejudice against communities and people leads to poor service delivery (more on that from my colleague Annette Hastings' work here and here). This is where our work on middle-class community activism comes from.

Then the presentations got underway. One thing a community activist from Fife said reall struck home for me; I can't quote her directly, but it was something along the lines of, why do we have to bid for money? We have need (they're one of the most deprived five per cent of deprived neighbourhoods in Scotland) so why don't we get the resources to meet that need? We then moved onto presentations about what funding is available - of course all of it is competitive bidding. Another trend that was very clear was the move towards loan financing for community projects - particularly funded through the EU JESSICA scheme. I can see part of the thinking behind these - to make sure that projects are not dependent on grant income. But as I listened I couldn't help but ponder a comment from a colleague on my housing association management committee about the current reforms to housing finance and housing benefits, that "we're getting the poor to pay for the services for other poor people". The move to loan finance really smacks of this for me - these projects are expected to generate enough revenue, and in most deprived neighbourhoods this will be from people experiencing poverty, to survive. And I'm sure a lot of these will be projects like community halls, or youth projects, that seem like nice, unaffordable add-ons for many people, but will make a real difference to people's lives.  The issue for me is, we do not expect a the affluent to run their schools on loans. They only do this is they exit from public provision through private schools. We're making deprived people exit from state provision through changes in public services.

Which brings me onto my second reflection. We discussed our Sharp Elbows work in a workshop and the same thing happened as in previous seminars - the discussion ended up back at well, we just need to make sure deprived communities are more empowered. Yet this is the very opposite of where I research was coming from and what we think it means for policies. If the middle classes are generally favoured by public service provision then we're setting up deprived communities to be like King Canute among a sea of public services that do not meet their needs - the opening conversation of my day showed that is still the case. At worse we might be making things even worse - the evidence suggests there are virtuous cycles and vicious spirals to complaining behaviour and once somebody is fobbed off or ignored they are less likely to complain in future. So, why does the debate always end up at "we must empower deprived communities?" I really don't know. And what's really funny is, our group had to leave a question for the plenary session to vote on using keypads. Our question was "is their a class bias in public service provision", and 75% of people agreed with it. If we know about it, why don't we do something about it?

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Reflections on teaching and learning: well that came as a bit of a surprise

If you follow me on Twitter, you'll know about this already. On Monday afternoon, after spending a day popping in and out of exam boards, I got an email from our Students' Union with an attached letter. This informed me that:

"I am pleased to inform you that you have received the Graduate’s Teaching Award in the School of the Built Environment.
You were nominated for this award by the graduating students in your school as part of the Learning and Teaching Oscars.  We received many lovely comments as to why you should receive this prize and I hope this recognition from your students of you work will in some way show how much your efforts are appreciated."

I'm not ashamed to say that reading the email made me cry I was so touched that my students thought so highly of me. And it's not as if I've taught that many students - across the two courses I led and the two courses I helped on, I had probably fifty students in total.

As I've previously posted about and reflected upon in one of my PGCap assessments I am slightly ambivalent about some of the teaching quality agenda - it can turn teaching and learning into a popularity contest, a higher education X Factor. A basic factor that has probably helped me get this fantastic feedback is that my students do relate to me because I'm young; a bit more like them.

I have tried out a lot of innovative things - getting students to tweet in class; lots of different class activities to embed learning (I still have an aluminium Vauxhall Corsa engine in my office); put some videos and screencasts on the VLE; and even had a go (unsuccessfully) at using Prezi; giving essay feedback as audio recordings (highly recommend that - quick, easy and students engage with it). But from the bits and pieces I've got back from the students so far it's actually just pretty basic stuff that they liked: I was approachable and friendly; they could empathise with me as a person; I was lucky enough to have the time to write two large sets of course notes (had to be distance learning ready) so I had a very good idea in my head of what curriculum I was delivery. And I did not shower my students with good marks - when they did well I rewarded them. But my marks are similar to all my colleagues.

For my latest PGCap assignment (which is turning into something like a dissertation) I'm concurrently reading the 60's classic Teaching as a Subversive Activity (big PDF) and Brabazon's University of Google. They have very similar messages in many ways, except the former is from the Fordist age and the latter is speaking to the post-Fordist age. But one major difference is Postman and Weingartner's use, focus even, on Marshal McLuhan's axiom "The medium is the message" - a real insight into a World being rocked by the advent of television and radio. I thought this notion delivered profound insights into VLE and distance teaching. Reading Brabazon made me think again. The message still needs to be good quality and adapted to the medium, no matter what that medium is. Technology can't make up for ropey teaching (or learning, for that matter). I can make as many mediocre screencasts as I like, but my students will do well with a good set of notes.

And part of that medium has to be the empathy and trust with students that I think I developed - an insight from another bit of reading recommended by my wonderful colleague Marilyn Higgins for my PGCap project, Carl Rogers Learning to Be Free. And this email that popped into my inbox from a student today reassured me of that:

"First off. let me tell you what an amazing lecturer and academic you are. Your enthusiasm for learning is infectious. It's no surprise that all the students feel the same way. Secondly, I really appreciate the support and interest you have shown me in the last year. You reminded me that people in the university really do care about their students...I wish you all the success with your career and if its any thing to go by with your first year at Heriot-Watt, you have a bright career ahead of you. All the best and it was a pleasure to meet you."

No amount of rubric generated feedback from Blackboard will beat that! Now, the challenge for me, and to reflect on in my PGCap project, is how to deliver that in a curriculum that is internationalised and dual mode. And before then, I get to go to Graduation and collect me certificate for being a great teacher! I can't wait to hang it on my office wall.

/edit: spookily, just as I clicked "post" the course feedback started arriving in my inbox. Having looked at it, and focused on all the comments below, I was thinking "ooh that's a bit mixed" and was wracked with guilt. On reflection, I got 100 for nearly every score, and the comments are things I need to improve on next year.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Spellink and grandma - social media and organisational risk

This blog post has been mulling in my mind for a while, but an impromptu lunch with Ian Eliott today and this tweet:
Got me thinking about things, so rather than concentrate on the stuff that pays the bills, I thought I'd bash out my ideas here.

One thing that fascinates me about social media is the perception of risk around it, especially among large public sector organisations. I'm fascinated, firstly, by the way that many of the people on Twitter I follow maintain both personal and "work" accounts, essentially "being" the organisation in the social space of Twitter. I'm also fascinated by this perception of risk - that somehow twitter and Facebook will be the downfall of these organisations and everything they stood for. It was interesting listening to Dominic Sandbrook's history of the postal service and how there were similar moral panics about the penny post. Like post, the telephone, and increasingly email, I know that eventually social media will just become something we "do" with social norms around its use. The scare-stories around its use I think are beginning to create that. The only barriers I see to this are if the technologies move faster than the social norms can develop and the impact of capitalism - Facebook needs to have shonky privacy policies to make its business model work and generate the revenue required. 

But the tweet above from the BBC got me thinking about organisational risk in terms of spellink and grandma. The Edinburgh Council neighbourhood office near our campus has been experimenting with giving Environmental Wardens access to their twitter account while they're on the beat and they then tweet with the hashtag #edinclean. Not the most riveting of reads, but an interesting experiment. But one thing I did notice early-on was that some of the grammar was not perfect - nothing massive, usually incorrect your/you're or their/there/they're being mixed up. My initial thought was "ooh, I'm surprised they don't get them checked in some way". On reflection I thought instead how in terms of social media this was probably a good thing - you actually want to know the person behind the account - this is why Orkney Library and their trips to Steps concerts, among other things, are so popular. So, in this case, I'd say let the bad spellink and grandma go, introduce us to the person behind corporate account so we can say "hello".

Although this does lead me onto thoughts about the high levels of literacy needed to successfully engage in the world of Web 2.0.