No-Platforming and a Ridiculous Appointment

Happy New Year everyone!

Now that the pleasantries are out of the way, and that I’m back at work properly, it’s time to engage with the idiotic announcements made by our government concerning HE over the Christmas break.

First up, Jo Johnson made an announcement on Boxing Day stating that the new Office for Students could fine universities if their students’ unions are deemed to be no-platforming speakers. (Guardian) My instincts are, actually, broadly in alignment. I think universities should be places where anything and everything is open for discussion, and that students should be exposed to new ideas that challenge their existing thoughts and beliefs. I’ve always been particularly sympathetic to Mill’s ‘dead dogma’ argument on why freedom of thought and expression must be allowed, that if beliefs are not subject to challenge and defence, then the reasoning for the belief is lost and they come to be held as dead dogmas. (SEP) But that’s not quite what Jo Johnson is saying, and his statement is both malicious and his argument unsound.

It’s malicious because Johnson is proposing that universities are fined, but it is students’ unions, and particularly the National Union of Students, that have a policy of no-platforming particular organisations and individuals at their events. In so doing Johnson is forcing a particular opinion held by government onto universities, and threatening them with financial consequences if they in turn do not impose and police this policy on their students’ unions. But students’ unions and the NUS are independent organisations, democratically ran by students according to their own rules and regulations. Neither government or universities have, and nor should they have, any say on the policies of those independent bodies. Free speech and the challenging of beliefs is in no danger in universities, but it happens where is should – in the classroom where controversial arguments can be introduced in a safe and responsible manner.

It’s unsound because there is an unstated premise in his argument to the effect that there is either no harm in free speech, or that no-platforming is more harmful than allowing unfettered free speech, and this is not true. This takes us back to Mill, who argued that the only legitimate limit to freedom of expression was the likelihood of causing harm to someone. The example he gives in On Liberty is the difference between saying that corn dealers are responsible for starving the poor in a printed publication, and saying it to an angry mob outside the house of a corn dealer as an act of incitement. There are limits on free speech, there must be for civil society to function properly. The more contemporary example is that you can’t walk into a crowded movie theatre and shout ‘bomb!’. The question is, as it has always been, to define those limits.

Our understanding of what constitutes harm has advanced since Mill wrote On Liberty in 1859, and even if no-one is physically harmed in a stampede of people exiting the movie theatre, I think it is uncontentious to suggest that the fear, panic and distress caused to those people is unacceptable and reasonable steps should be taken to prevent such an incident from happening. This is what students’ unions are doing when they take the decision to refuse a platform for problematic figures, such as the misogynist no-platformed by Manchester’s Students Union who has a well-documented record of using such platforms to mock and degrade specific individuals as well as entire communities.

Speaking of odious individuals, the government on Monday announced the appointment of Toby Young to the board of the Office for Students, a man utterly unqualified and unsuitable for such a role. Young’s only experience in HE was as a teaching assistant while studying for a doctorate which he didn’t complete. At most this would have entailed a few hours teaching a week. His vociferous advocacy of the government’s free school policy ended in humiliation in 2016 when he resigned as CEO of the free school he helped to establish stating that he ‘hadn’t grasped how difficult it is to do better, and to bring about system-wide improvement.’ (Independent)

That he is wholly unsuited to the post is rooted principally in the very clear and unequivocal statements he has made against inclusivity and the widening participation agenda, part of government policy since the early naughties, and which he himself benefited from, gaining entry to Oxford with sub-standard BBC grades thanks to an access programme for children educated in comprehensive schools. He’s called students from working class background ‘stains’, decried the inclusion of wheelchair ramps for accessible access, and written dozens of Tweets that are homophobic, misogynistic, or just plain vile. He’s deleted most of those now, but you can’t erase history. Business Insider has helpfully archives some of his worst. Aren’t screenshots wonderful? Almost as wonderful as Kathy Burke who was more succinct than I have been:

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I’m not sure how effective these things are, but there is a petition for his appointment to be revoked on Change.org, and you could write to your local MP asking them to raise the issue in Parliament.

Analytics 2 Webinar and Consultation

Attended a webinar for a demonstration of the new version of Analytics currently being developed for Canvas. The new version will bring a new look and make it easier for staff to get an overview of student performance in their modules and how it compares with other students. This is still in the early stages of development and the webinar was also to gain my feedback. What I think is missing from the demonstrated design is the ability to view and compare a student’s performance across different assignments in the same module, which was noted and should be fairly easy to implement, and across different modules in the same programme, much more difficult due to the way different institutions manage the relationship between programme and module spaces. With that in mind I have a follow up call next week to discuss how we would like to see this work, which is part of a broader consultation Instructure is having with the UK HE sector to better meet our needs in this area.

To Do: Take Over the World

Some very interesting and productive conversations this afternoon about my future. Last year, as part of the PG Cert AP, I taught on some sessions of the technology module, EDPM08, for experience. This year, responsibility for teaching of this module will come under full responsibility of the CELT, my team, so I’m going to be doing a lot more with it – teaching all of the sessions and acting as the de facto module leader. I won’t officially be the module leader as I don’t have experience of this, and there is a certain amount of paperwork and process which I’m not familiar with. So for this year the official module leader will be the programme leader, but they will be teaching me everything I need to know so that I can take over full responsibility next year. Exciting!

I also had a discussion about what I’m going to do next for my own professional development. Since confirmation that I passed the PG Cert AP a few weeks ago I actually stopped being a student for the first time in a decade. It’s a tad disconcerting. (Shh! Don’t tell the NUS, I still have 18 months left on my card!) The next logical step for me, in my mind, is Senior Fellow of the HEA, and based on the conversation I’m now happy and confident that I would be able to get this.

Blueprint Courses Webinar

Watched a webinar recording explaining how the new(ish) Blueprint Courses tool works in Canvas. This is the tool that allows a kind of parent – child relationship between courses which gives you the ability to add and update content in the parent course and push it into any children. Potentially very useful to us here as Sunderland has multiple instances of courses for our various campuses and partner institutes.

Blueprint Courses was released just before we went live with Canvas in June, but not in time for us to test and integrate into our deployment plans. Instead, we created a ‘Master’ occurrence of every module with no student enrolments which gave staff a space to create the generic content which can then be copied into each live occurrence, but it’s a manual process. Blueprint Courses could give us a more elegant solution, or it could be used by us to control and deploy the university module template. Can it be used for both though, a Blueprint course deployed into another Blueprint course? That would allow us to use the tool for both purposes. Something to experiment with.

PG Cert AP – It’s a Pass!

Came home late last night after a lovely day out to find my certificate in the post. I am now the happy holder of a Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice, having passed the core module ‘Introduction to Academic Practice’ and the optional module ‘Assessment and Feedback for Learning’. I’ve known for a little while, but now it’s official. The programme was just pass or fail, but there were indicative marks given out for the core module so I know it was a good pass, in the ‘upper second’ region. Not quite as good as my other PG Cert, Leading from the Middle, where my final assignment got a clear first, but I enjoyed this programme a great deal and got a lot out of it. Definitely more where I want my career to go.

CMALT Webinar for New Assessors

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Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have experienced the pleasure of my little rant as technology utterly failed me for this webinar, but I was at least able to get the recording working a little while later. (I will not be defeated by Java!) It was a very enlightening session on the process and practicalities of assessing the portfolios of CMALT candidates. I’ve actually already done my first one for a portfolio review a few weeks ago, so this was timely, and I have as a result of this webinar now signed up to become an assessor of regular portfolios too.

Unrelated, but ALT have also recently released digital badges for use in portfolios, email signatures, etc. Not actual accredited digital badges with metadata, just nice image files.

Silly Season Survived

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Having set a record for the implementation and deployment of a new VLE, it seems as though we have gotten through the start of the new academic year pretty unscathed. I still fear that there are parts of the integration of Canvas not working as they should, and the integration we do have with SITS is far from complete – doesn’t do updates or removals yet – but we are coping, and our academic community for the most part seem to be very pleased with the new system.

My team has expanded to the tune of two new interns who are here for six months to help us get over the implementation phase and the managed discontinuation of SunSpace; I finally got to do a shift with our live streaming service during graduations at the Stadium of Light in July; and I finished off another Storyline presentation for Pharmacy students – an online induction to a specific ePortfolio template they have to use.

Workplace Safety Plus

Ah, compulsory health and safety training, delivered online! Prompted by our move to new offices on our campus north of the river. Yes, my chair and computer are at the right height; yes, I do solemnly swear to take breaks from the computer for 10 minutes in every hour; no, I am not going to take a laptop riser, external keyboard, and mouse into meetings with me or when I have to work away from my usual desk.

Who’s a Jolly Good Fellow?

Me! First, and most important component of my PG Cert in Academic Practice confirmed as a pass today, making me a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. I am now a Bachelor, a Master and a Fellow, and the HE sector has a problem with gendered language. Not sure what the solution is. I’ve been a Certified Member of ALT for years, which is lovely, but it doesn’t quite have the esteem of ‘Fellow’ which I’m genuinely proud of.

Samanage Training

Training on IT’s new call logging system, Samanage, a very distinct improvement over the old system which did not set a high bar. We’re getting access to this to allow my team to log calls on behalf of students who have issues on Canvas, as it was IT who developed the integration between our student records system and Canvas and thus they are the only ones who can resolve certain problems.