Archive for April, 2011

Just thought I’d say…

April 27, 2011 1 comment

… I ‘m still here. Just not blogging as much because I’m working hard on some new projects, some educational and some more speculative and fiction-based (I was tempted to day they’re fictional projects but that would give the wrong impression). As someone or other said on another blog I sped past the other day, I don’t have enough bandwidth to progress those projects and find interesting things to blog about. You don’t really want to know what I had for dinner and what time I got up this morning, do you? (If you’re really curious the answers are chicken risotto and 7am, which is uncharacteristically early for me since I’ve worked graveyard shifts for the last couple of decades – evening teaching, overnight editing, working until dawn to finish stories and so forth.)

One thing I have been tracking, though, is the ‘progress’ being made in universities to rationalise degree programmes (i.e. close many of them down), merge schools and faculties in order to effect budget cuts, and so forth. The Times ran a story last week about how some universities were likely to end up being taken over by private education companies. I haven’t seen other papers, even the Times Higher Education, run with that story though a more general one about cuts in humanities degrees is here.

It’s difficult to see quite how the government could force the issue (since universities are founded by royal warrants), though presumably reducing funding for selected programmes would close down financial options to the point that it becomes the least worst option for some institutions. How that would affect student experiences is a whole other question, I guess. In some respects it might make universities more ‘client centred’ though having worked with quite a few large companies in my time, I’m yet to be convinced that mainstream managerial culture is quite up to the job of managing degree programmes. Which is not to say some companies aren’t good at it – they are – but that it has very specific challenges that require specialised expertise to address.

I’ll add that to my list of things to blog about another time, though…

See? It’s not just me

April 10, 2011 Leave a comment

David Puttnam has also weighed into the debate on arts, in an interview in The Observer today: Arts spending will be vital for economic revival, says Lord Puttnam.

Headline quotes:

“We have no chance of an economic revival without a full understanding of the role that creativity plays. It is warm words and apple pie at the moment.”

“In the House of Lords, the same 15 people turn up to discuss the sector every time. Most members, I am sure, think of it as a good thing, something they might go to once a fortnight. But do they realise what an economic driver it is?”


Cafes and munches – a new strategy for education outside traditional structures?

April 9, 2011 6 comments

This is really just a brief note. The higher education sector in the UK is going through a period of more than usual austerity, and the funding of universties is about to be substantially shifted to students who will later be are faced with massively increased student loan debts.

In the face of this, part-time distance learning degrees may well become a much more viable, thinkable option for many intending students. It’s not exactly a ‘study at your own pace’ and ‘pay as you go’ model these days, because once you commit, you may be expected to complete a module within a defined period of time and complete your degree within a specified time period. That said, a degree that can be completed while working and where study materials can be delivered online may be attractive for many people.

Distance learning degrees these days aren’t the solitary pursuit they were in the past. There are online discussion forums, tutors available by email, phone and Skype, webinars, and in some cases even lab situations can be recreated in Second Life.

The book situation is easier as well, in the UK at least. Institutions offering degrees should have facilities enabling access to journals via ATHENS, and inter-library arrangements enabling students at any one institution to visit university libraries elsewhere. As many books go online, university libraries are making arrangements for online access to them. Though Google Ebooks is still in its infancy, Amazon, Alibris and other portals enable buyers and sellers of secondhand print books to connect.

What’s missing from all this is face to face human contact. And that may be the key factor that remains a barrier to distance learning. Places like the Open University have for years – decades, even – solved this by running summer schools, but if you’ve got a job and a family that’s a hell of a commitment.

There are halfway houses, though as far as I know distance learning providers thus far haven’t experimented with them or explored their possibilities.

One is the idea of the ‘munch’. Munches – informal meetings in pubs or cafes – started in the US, where they were a way for computer geeks with broadly similar interests to know that at a particular time and place every week or month, people like them would be hanging out. Just about every subculture and specialty interest you can think of has, or has had, its own set of munches, meets, moots, gatherings, community evenings, or whatever name the particular subculture wants to apply. They’re informal: one or two organisers who will show up regularly and maintain a discussion group on a social networking site, and maybe some regulars who become sociability stars, paying specific attention to new attendees and performing a ‘meet and greet’ function. For those in distance learning, the likelihood that they’d find someone else studying the same programme as them in the same place is perhaps quite low, but the likelihood they’ll find others facing the same issues and questions is high – and the simple fact of knowing that there are other people around them who are also involved in the same activity is often a support in itself.

Another is the idea of the informal university. When I was a student, which is now some years in the past, there were spasmodic, occasional ‘pub universities’ in which someone or some group made an informal arrangement to run a seminar series in the back room of a pub. It was, perhaps, the French who developed this idea most fully with the Café Scientifique and Café Culturel (NB these are UK sites and the latter is a link to one near me – there doesn’t seem to be a specific national website for Cafe Culturel that works. But here’s a regional one for the northeast of England). These run, not just in France but the UK and many other places as well, and usually comprise a seminar series run in a café once a month. Often the scientifique and culturel – and maybe philosophique and politique as well – are run by the same group of people at the same place, at different times.

There are two places near me that run such events though they seem at the moment not to be as well publicised as I think they should be. In fact there appear to be around 60 running up and down the UK at the moment. Many of the speakers are invited lecturers from local universities, and often the topics are those of current interest that have attracted some media attention. Again, where these exist they’d be an ideal place for distance learning students to plug into and meet people who, again, may not have precisely the same interests as them but would certainly be able to hold up their end of an academic conversation and be interested in what other academics/students are doing.

So what can I say? While these types of events, whether munches or cafes, have historically been dependant on individuals taking informal initiatives, maybe round about now, when more traditional education is feeling the pinch, is the time for distance learning providers to put a bit of institutional support behind these things. They’re largely run at already-existing venues, glad to support them because they bring in people who buy drinks and food. Their expenses are covered from a small entrance fee, and they’re run by volunteers. What they need, really, is simply public statements of support, advertising on student materials and institutional websites, and maybe a little seedcorn money or expenses for volunteers would come in handy. The return might even be better support for existing students and maybe even some new ones. How about it?

Thinking about spending money!

April 6, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that I’m going to have to spend some cash. Probably. My wallet is famed for the number of padlocks on it, and I’m renowned for trying to find cheap solutions to problems. You know the kind of thing: the wall of your house is falling down? No problem, a bit of duck tape will solve that… But this time, I suspect I may actually have to pull some actual currency out. Maybe.

The problem is this. I want to create a PDF file with a movie embedded in it. And the various programmes I have available to me for creating PDFs won’t do it. When I export to PDF, what they do is give me a nice picture of the first frame of the movie. Some of the problem appears to be with inserting the movie in such a way that it’s not an inline file, but that’s proved beyond the apparent capabilities of the programmes I’m using. There are workarounds on some of the Mac forums but they appear to require me to know a great deal more about programming than I actually do. Having spend an entire day playing with half a dozen programmes I’m bored now, so probably paying money to solve the problem is the way to go.

Allegedly Acrobat will do what I want. And so will iWork (I hate that over-stylised lower case ‘i’; nO wOnder kIds don’t uNderstand wHere uPper-cAse lEtters aRe sUpposed to go but i rAnted aBout that a wHile back).

The one saving grace is that fortunately both have a ‘try before you buy’ policy so I should be able to assemble the stuff I’m working on and see if I can make it work. If I ever do, it’ll be here before it’s anywhere else.

Meanwhile if anyone has any ideas that would work on a Mac, are free, and don’t involve Word, OpenOffice or Scribus (which I’d thought originally would be the ones most likely to work), I’d be interested to know.

Feelgood music for hard times?

April 4, 2011 2 comments

I do, albeit fitfully, try to Keep Up With Things. I get tired of doing the y6dsl;ltgg ting thing (i.e. beating my head against the keyboard in the hope that words will flow from it painlessly). I make a coffee, watch a snippet of TV or radio, or see what’s new on Youtube. And what’s new suddenly seems to be the lambada. All over again.

The lambada, for those who haven’t come across it, is a dance. It seems to have originated in the north of Brazil, and Wikipedia describes it as ‘generally danced with arched legs, with the steps being from side to side or turning, and in its original form never front to back, with a pronounced movement of the hips. At the time when the dance became popular, short skirts for women were in fashion and men wore long trousers, and the dance has become associated with such clothing, especially for women wearing short skirts that swirl up when the woman spins around.’

It became very popular internationally in 1989 when a French musical producer encountered it, returned to France, created a band (Kaoma) and put out a lambada style single sung in the original Portuguese – the video for which included some very suggestive dancing. If that isn’t a good enough example of globalisation, it then turned out the song he’d chosen was an unauthorised use of the translation of a 1981 song by a Bolivian band. Law suits followed and money changed hands. The actual song involved, in Portuguese, was ‘Chorando se foi’ (‘Crying, he/she went away’). Whether that was apt given the legal battles is of course a whole other question… but is seems Kaoma are still around, judging by recent Youtube video of them performing in various cities in Europe.

Anyway. The thing is, this was a song from the 1980s that suddenly seems to have been recovered, plundered, and given a new lease of life. In the last week or so I’ve been hearing techno and trance versions, quotes from it as four and eight bar breaks in the middle of other sings, and Youtube seems to have recent lambada-derived music from all over the place – including among other things a Russian version.

It is a known feature of global, postmodern culture that artefacts are taken and transplanted from one context to another, and the past is ransacked for ideas that can be recycled. I have no particular issues with the lambada being recycled. It was a catchy summer tune and while it’s not quite my style, it does have a certain something. I do have an issue with my brain putting on constant loop as an internal soundtrack but that’s not the lambada’s fault.

I do wonder, though, what drives the seemingly random processes of creative people selecting this or that tune for recycling, and what drives the fact that it’s suddenly taken off again. The best I can do is suggest that it was feelgood music in an era of economic hardship; now we’re back in austere times, feelgood music is suddenly important again and maybe the tunes from previous periods of economic downturn are the places people are looking for it.

Thoughts welcome…

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