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.

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.

OERs: Using Free, Shared, Information Literacy Resources

rose_bowl_building

“The what and how of using, re-writing and sharing Open Educational Resources in HE and FE library contexts”. A one day conference run by the Yorkshire and Humberside Branch of the Academic and Research Libraries Group and hosted at Leeds Beckett University (in the Rose Bowl building, above).

Who Needs a Repository When You’ve Got Google?
Nick Sheppard – Repository Developer, Leeds Beckett University
http://www.slideshare.net/MrNick/cilip-oer

Nick started his presentation by exploring the differences between the Green and Gold models of open access publication of research papers and the current recommendations of the Finch Report and HEFCE, and the implications on library departments, particularly the potential for additional costs. He then moved on to demonstrate an OER resource he has created in Xerte, an interactive exploration of the SCONUL Seven Pillars model of information literacy, itself based on Creative Commons licensed OERs he found in Jorum. (And an hour later the news broke that Jorum would soon be no more!)

CoPILOT: What Can We Do For You?
Nancy Graham – Research Support and Academic Liaison Manager, London School of Economics

Nancy led a discussion on how to convince academics to use OERs and contribute their own materials to repositories. Challenges and barriers we identified included where to find suitable materials, concerns about quality, and relevance to their subject areas. Nancy then shared some of her research into reasons why people choose to use OERs which included personal recommendations from colleagues, reputation of the repository and relevance to their subject area, and clear Creative Commons license indicating allowed re-use. Finally Nancy told us about the Lilac Credo Award for Digital Literacy and recommended we put any good uses of OERs forward for consideration.

Skills@Library: Using and Creating OERs
Helen Howard – Learning Services Team Leader, University of Leeds
http://www.slideshare.net/hehoward/oers-at-skillslibrary

Helen gave us an overview of the Skills for Learning provision at the University of Leeds and shared their experience in developing their resources. Considerations included identifying core skills which all students should have and how best to present the Skills for Learning material to those students. From their experience Helen recommended working with academics to embed the Skills for Learning materials in student’s core curriculum, ideally linked to learning outcomes and including an element of assessment. All of their materials were published as OERs accompanied by lesson plans and notes on how to use them.

OERs for People With no Technical Skills and No Money
Sarah George – Subject Librarian, University of Bradford
http://www.slideshare.net/sgeorge71/creating-oers-with-no-technical-skills-and-new

Sarah presented an extended case study of their experience developed OERs in very short timescales and with no budget. One thing they tried was re-purposing OERs from other institutions and Sarah discussed some of the problems they experienced, including the difficulty in removing the branding from certain types of document, such as PDFs, and the inability to do any kind of editing of others, such as those created with Storyline. One tool they used successfully was SlideGo, an online tool that converts PowerPoint files into HTML5 web presentations, to good effect according to Sarah. Something else which she demonstrated was a home-made method of doing simple quizzes in PowerPoint by utilising internal links applied to objects and shapes.