Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Reflections on teaching practice - loving international students

A quick blog post because I'm feeling the HE luvvin at the moment. I've previously blogged on my experiences of the internationalisation of teaching through my PGCap assignments - the negative bit about the neo-liberal multiversity here, and a constructive reflection on teaching and learning here. In doing this project it amused me how a lot of the eulogistic writing about international students, particularly from days when they were still a novelty on campuses, was so different from the actual experience of teaching a class with almost a majority of international students. I highlighted how the growing number of international students was actually presented as a problem by my colleagues, particularly students from a Confucian Heritage Culture (CHC). This was very different from the wonderful world of intercultural discovery portrayed by some authors. In particular the following stereotypes were very strongly in play (some of them based on reality):
  • that CHC students lacked critical thinking skills and were compliant
  • that CHC students looked to the teacher as leader and all-knowing demi-God.
  • that CHC students have poor English language skills.
My PGCap project found that the latter was likely to be the main barrier to educational success. However, on the former two points I know I can be a little bit racist in presuming that these are true assumptions - that these students have swallowed the Communist Party line and struggle to criticise what is happening back in China.

I'm pleasantly finding out how wrong I have been. Last year I had a little window into this - a student was discussing how she wanted to do a dissertation on the accessibility of public transport to disabled people in China. I mentioned how the Chinese government might not allow the sort of campaigning organisations around disability that we have in the UK - the response was a wry, very knowing, smile.

In yesterday's environmental planning course I was discussing types of pollutants and got onto discussing air pollution in Beijing. I raised the issue of the disparity between the Government's air quality measures and those of the US Embassy. The response from one student from Chinese was to burst out laughing. Given all my students fall asleep in this class, I was not expecting this at all! One of his friends pointed out he was from Beijing, so I asked why he was laughing - it was because the fact that the authorities diddled the figures did not come as a surprise to him at all. And he knew everything that had happened during the Olympics to try and clear the air. In the same class, another student from another town in China also discovered that there was an aluminium smelter in his town that had basically been killing people with its pollution. 

It's moments like these that definitely make you #lovehe.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Open access on my new toy

Well after a long wait I've treated myself to a Google Nexus 10 tablet. The original idea was that it would be a Christmas present but they've been out of stock since November so the treat took a little longer to arrive than expected which says something about a loss-leading price and a producer unable to meet demand but that's awhile different blogpost.

Anyhoo, I splashed out on the thing because of the ways I've seen other people using tablets - checking emails in down time and be able to access papers for meetings from it, that sort of thing. I also thought it might encourage me to do a few more short blog posts, like this.

The issue if open access to research findings - specifically journal articles - is finding its way into the academic twittersphere I inhabit, as it regularly seems to do. The Finch report into open access last year recommended that all UK research council funded projects should move towards "Gold Open Access" where the author pays thousands to have the journal article available to everyone.

My view in the debate is that open access is important. This is why I always say on here that if you want some of the pay-walled content, I'm happy to be emailed to send it to you, even though this is technically against the law. Yet, I am firmly in the "gold open access isn't for everyone" camp. To put it bluntly,even with Sage reducing the price of Gold Open Access, if it was the only way to publish I would not have done so yet, I simply couldn't have afforded it. This would mean I would not have got the job I've got which would mean I wouldn't be able to do the research you're all fascinated by, and in the longer term I think it would mean people with independent wealth getting even further in academia. But I do upload pre-print versions of my papers into my institutional repository which will soon be going public - so-called green open access. I'm also acutely aware that academic journals are pretty unreadable to all but specialists. There needs to be much more work on producing research results, for free access, in accessible formats, like my oft-linked policy briefing.

It's clear from the debates and the evidence that there does need to be reform of academic publishing. But publishers do have costs to cover. However, one thing that gets me thinking is - clearly the publishers make all their money from institutional subscriptions. When I'm on my computer on campus, my IP address is logged and the publisher know I'm either part of a purchasing consortium or some money is taken to pay for my access. I've never met anyone who's paid the £20 or so for a journal article. Which got me thinking, why don't we do reverse open access - you only pay if you're accessing a journal article from a university campus from a university IP address. Everyone else gets free access. It must be easy to do as Wikipedia banned (might still do) university IP addresses from editing their pages. That way the people who use and need academic journal articles most can get them and costs are covered. I'm sure there's loadsa reasons it won't work but it's an idea, and a better solution for me than the race for Gold Open Access.

Still not convinced by gesture typing....

Friday, 11 January 2013

Democracy and policy decisions – are the people always right?

I started my full-on teaching semester this Monday just gone with my first classes in Social Sustainability and Urban Infrastructure and Resource Management. On the former, I get the students to come up with their own definitions of social sustainability and then email/tweet or text me them and I make them into a wordle:
Wordle: Social Sustainability 2013

I then shamelessly copy the format of Michael Sandel’s public philosophy lectures to start getting the students to realise it’s never as easy as “just” balancing the environmental, economic and social aspects of sustainability – even within social sustainability you have to make impossibly difficult decisions. The “switch problem” and the “footbridge problem” that Sandel uses are excellent ways to get students to understand the qualitative difference many people feel in making different decisions even though the outcomes are the same link. I present different theories of how to make a “good” decision, including of course utilitarianism, to which the students readily realise majoritarianism mean utilitarianism is not always a good thing, especially when you’re talking about issues of equity, equality and prejudice.

And lo and behold, yesterday, planning a democracy were in the news rather a lot. Down in England, the planning minister revealed that he had once been a NIMBY resisting new housing development, and re-announced the New Homes Bonus to “bribe” local communities to accept new housing. Implicit in this, and made more clear in the Tories “Open Source Planning” document, was the view if you left new planning to communities nothing would get built, so you have to bribe them.

Closer to home, Glasgow City Council want to remodel the civic square, George Square - well, actually businesses surrounding the square want to and seemed to have the council over a barrel. Just like similar proposals for Union Terrace Gardens in Aberdeen, there is now call for a “vote” although want they actually seem to want is an online poll – as a social media researcher the thought of this fills me with horror. The Union Terrace Gardens proposal ended up going to referendum and it’s still stuck in a quagmire of controversy.

Which has got me thinking… Planning theory talks to community engagement in policy a lot and in a very informed way. The debates between the collaborative planners and the agonist planners really get into the heart of the matter in a way missed by a lot of policy and politics literature I’ve read that presumes community engagement is always a good thing. As I’ve expressed on here quite often, I’m sceptical about community engagement. In particular, I think it is used by the powerful to maintain their benefits; and I also think it is used by public agencies to avoid doing what just needs doing (you can’t eat community engagement). Ruminating on this yesterday, I suggested to Sarah Payne the following scenario: when we look at our towns and cities, the massive amount of housebuilding from 1945 to the mid-1970s is staggering – particularly the new towns programme. It’s easy to dismiss this by focusing on the high-rise blocks and say it was all a “catastrophe” – but most of that housing, the sort that Albert Finney looked to settle down in at the end of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, or that Bob and Thelma lived in in Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, planned housing, is still there. I suggested that perhaps this expansion, produced by the immediate development plans created by the 1947 planning system, was allowed because people did not yet know how they could use the planning system to restrict development.

Which brings me to two issues – leadership in decision-making and the role of technical knowledge. On the latter, the New Deal for Communities evaluation has produced some interesting findings on this, with a recent article in Planning Theory and Practice(£) stating that:
“there was a consistent tendency for [residents] to overstress problems of crime, combined with an under-emphasis of educational and health standards. Furthermore, [residents] sought to address these ills through orthodox interventions…”
This was something I also found in my research on regeneration in Scotland. Previous initiative meant more to communities because the housing improvements were such obvious improvements to their lives; however over the long term they did not deliver socio-economic improvements. 

On the former issue, this article(£) on the siting decision for homeless hostels in Rotterdam presents a very interesting case study indeed. Essentially, the populist mayor realised that no one would want a homeless hostel in their back yard so essentially kept the siting decision secret, presented it as a fait d’accompli, and then defended his decision. A classic “decide and defend” decision we’re supposed to rubbish, but one that got essential infrastructure for a marginalised group constructed, and not just in the most deprived neighbourhoods in Rotterdam.

So where does this leave democracy and development decisions? As I’ve theorised myself, the richness and experience of the built environment needed for communicative action around development decisions is very difficult to get in a short period of community engagement. In the case of my doctoral case studies it seemed to have taken the community activists about 15 years to come to the conclusion that some of the physical development was good. And still, the discussion about many of the developments continued. Essentially, consensus needed the longue duree or was unachievable. And I’m not sure how we can square this with democratic processes as we have them, except to say that planning is democratic in that decisions are made by elected planning authorities and can be revisited over time. For all its faults, it’s better than a non-democratic, or market-led process.

And yesterday’s and today’s Herald also highlighted what happens when democracy goes wrong – with the shocking revelations that NHS Lothian were putting through decisions on waiting lists at confidential meetings and then trying to restrict the access Audit Scotland had to these papers. It’s not clear yet whether the papers should have gone to a public meeting, but either way, it’s a shocking indictment of an organisation that somehow thinks it is above public scrutiny and everything it does is right. From my limited experience as a committee clerk in local government, is it exactly this sort of behaviour that the light of democratic scrutiny stops – it would be almost impossible for that to happen at a Scottish local authority, unless Councillors, Officers and Committee Clerks going right up to the top of the organisation were complicit in the activity. I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen, but that it is much less likely to happen. This is why I’m never convinced by the beguiling niceties spoken of about Community Planning Partnerships in Scotland as a form of community accountability – just who are they actually accountable too? And could the Edinburgh Partnership ever stop NHS Lothian carrying out behaviour like this? 

As ever, if you want pay-walled content, contact by Twitter or email. And I had a thought on that yesterday - given the publishers make all their money from institutional libraries, why don't the do a reverse pay-wall where you only pay for articles if you're accessing from a university IP address. It's not as if they can make any moneyfrom the individual payments?

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Why do I blog and should I bother?

In a moment of over-indulgence, this time last year I did a couple of self-congratulatory blog posts reflecting on the previous year. It seems it is still the thing to do, as this excellent review of the year by Alex Marsh suggests.

As I put it quite bluntly to Alex on Twitter, my blog is no way near as good as his. In fact it was his blogging and that by Alasdair Rae at Sheffield, which gained him the attention of the Graun, that inspired me to start blogging in the first place.

However, my latest few posts have given me pause for thought – well, essentially I’m turning into this:

Back in the summer, if I put up a post then I could guarantee that in a day it would reach over 100 hits. My all-time most popular post (970 hits and counting), on housing and planning wasn’t written by me, but by a wonderful colleague at Sheffield Dr Sarah Payne. My other guest post by my colleague Dr Kirsten Besemer was also popular with 335 hits. My own most popular post was one of my rants about cycling with 691 hits. This obsession with audience was not helped by watching the excellent film Julie and Julia the other night!

It’s the funny thing with blogging – you get a good idea of your audience from these stats, which you rarely get with other written media, although Facebook insights allows you to become even more obsessive. What do all these numbers tell me? Well, reading them straight off, it seems I’m not a very good blogger and my two guest authors have written better than me. Well, I am when I rant about cycling, but people are less interested in my academic work, particular around public sector reform and regeneration (apart from this post which went bizarrely viral among people employed by the Scottish Government). More realistic is the link between Twitter and the blog. Somehow, I’ve ended up with over 1,200 followers on Twitter – my unique blend of tweets on RCTs on the best fat to cook roast potatoes, cucumber special offers in Tesco and random musings on local government seem to float people’s boats. As I said to academic lawyer Malcolm Combe when he started blogging and joined Twitter, Twitter and blogs go hand-in-hand – if you build up sufficient followers on Twitter then when you tweet out your new blog posts, and get retweets, then it drives traffic to your blog.

So, if I wanted to drive more traffic to my blog I should write more rants about cycling and tweet about it more. I’m not sure about the former, but the latter is something I should think about – I don’t tweet as much about my blog as I used to as I find the self-promotion a little awkward.

I used the classic clip of Norma Desmond for a reason – you’re supposed to pity her over-inflated ego. I don’t want my concern about falling audiences on my blog to give you the impression that I spend my days in my office worrying about it. It’s just something I had noticed. And anyway, people reading what I write is not really why I started to blog in the first place. I presumed no one would read it and if people did it was a bonus. I mainly write because it is a form of analysis. I can have ideas and arguments in my head, but they only really come to anything if I write them down. This has led onto work being published in academic journals, for example this post became this Viewpoint in Local Economy journal; and this post by Kirsten is being worked up into a bigger piece of work on deprived neighbourhoods and sexual orientation in Scotland based on some more analysis of the Scottish Health Survey. Blogging is just a nice way to get ideas out there and reflect on practice and research.

Looking back at my self-congratulatory post a year ago, one thing I said I would do, that I haven’t really, is blog about the exciting Ladders to the Cloud project in Wester Hailes. This was very remiss, as a lot has happened, as these two posts in the Hailesmatters blog show. The Totem Pole is now up, with the Lord Provost of the City of Edinburgh unveiling it and Jennifer Jones is now working in the neighbourhood for a few months to build up some citizen journalism capacity.

Another set of posts that people in HE seemed to enjoy were my “reflections on teaching practice”. That I could do these was fortunate due to the fact I was completing my Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice and had to produce the work and I’m coming to the end of this now. However, I want to keep up to these as reflections on teaching practice as it shouldn’t stop just because I’m not studying – it’s the only way to improve on my excellent practice so far, after all.

All-in-all, I think my blogging New Year’s resolutions will therefore be:
  • To keep blogging;
  • To make sure I publicise my blog through Twitter;
  • Make sure I blog about Ladders to the Cloud as the project comes to an end;
  • To keep blogging about my teaching experiences.
Oh, and the other thing I’ve noticed, is if I link to my own blog in my blog posts it drives traffic no end! And with that, I’ll leave you to go and read a proper academic blog post over at Alex’s Archives.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Investment in cycling, really?

In Scotland we have free personal care for the elderly, free undergraduate higher education for Scottish students and free bus passes which even mean Scottish older people and disabled people can travel on intercity buses for free. And now the government announces £3.9 millions investment in cycling provision. Truly, the country is a green, social democratic utopia.

You might detect a hint of sarcasm in the above paragraph. When I first saw this announcement I initially thought it was a good thing – the government have at last realised that building decent cycling infrastructure in our towns and cities is a “shovel-ready project” (it just needs some TROs, very rarely planning permission) that ticks green and public health boxes. As ever, the devil is in the detail. The vast majority of this investment is going on a tourist cycle path along the Great Glen, with £500,000 on cycle parking at stations on the Bathgate-Airdrie line and £400,000 on new bike parking at primary schools.

To apply some basic policy analysis thinking to this, it is quite clear that this will not solve the policy problem it is intended to. The policy problem is that people make unsustainable transport choices – they drive their car for short journeys that could otherwise be done on foot or bike adding to congestion and pollution. The policy outcome we want to achieve in the short term is modal shift in transport choice. In the long term this will lead to positive outcomes in terms of health and carbon emissions (possibly on the latter). Investing £3 millions in a tourist cycle route away from our large towns and cities is not going to produce modal shift. It would be interesting to follow this with a baseline survey to see if anyone at all decides to cycle this route instead of driving it once the cycle route is complete. Like new road building, I imagine this will just create more journeys by bike and marginal economic development opportunities around outdoor activities tourism  along the route.

When it comes to the other £900,000 then this will be an utter waste of money. The basic problem is – parents do not want their children to cycle to school because the roads are not safe. People will not cycle to the train stations in great numbers because the roads are unwelcoming and dangerous to all but the most fit and active cyclists. You see this quite a lot because cycling infrastructure in terms of pointlessly short cycle lanes and cycle parking are usually requirements of planning permission these days. Planning conditions can only be applied if they are directly related to the development and most commonly are therefore also on site. But because all this new infrastructure is not connected to anything approaching a strategically planned, joined-up network of cycling infrastructure it remains underused to all but the most enthusiastic cyclists. I would hazard a guess that bike parking is a condition of building the new, identikit, Scottish Futures Fund schools across Scotland (that are replacing buildings that should be listed with ersatz white harling and grey windows crap; but that’s a whole other blog post) have to include bike parking. I would also hazard a guess that outside of affluent suburbs, this infrastructure is massively under used. As this rather depressing post from the Richmond Cycling Campaign showed – kids are really enthusiastic about cycling in the safety of a school playground but our roads are simply too dangerous for them to feel comfortable on.

And I don’t wish to question the Scottish Government’s pledge to deliver “sustainable economic growth” too much, but the First Minister does seem rather more keen to support the oil and gas industry than green transport solutions.

/edit two hours later - after an interesting debate on twitter I thought I should clarify what wouldn't be a waste of money. What would be much better is if £400,000 was spent on cycle lanes to one primary school and cycle parking there. This would, the evidence suggests, deliver a big modal shift at that school and also become a demonstrator for how future investment in roads can deliver modal shift.