Friday, May 28, 2010

10 techniques to massively increase retention

This is the classic ‘forgetting curve’ by Ebbinghaus, a fundamental truth in memory theory, totally ignored by most educators and trainers. Most fixed ’courses’ or ‘lectures’ take no notice of the phenomenon, condemning much of their effort to the world of lost memories. Most educational and training pedagogies are hopelessly inefficient because they fail to recognise this basic truth. Smart learners get it. They revise over a period, with regular doses to consolidate their memories.

Little and often

The real solution, to this massive problem of forgetfulness, is spaced practice, little and often, the regular rehearsal and practice of the knowledge/skill over a period of time to elaborate and allow deep processing to fix long-term memories. If we get this right, increases on the productivity of learning can be enormous. We are not talking small increase in knowledge and retention but increases of 200-700%. It has the potential to radically alter the attainment levels in schools, colleges, universities and organisations. OK, that’s the theory, what about the practice?

What strategies enable spaced practice?

I’ll start with a few ‘learner’ tips, then a few ‘teacher/trainer’ practices and end on some technical techniques.

1. Self- rehearsal – This is very powerful, but needs self-discipline. You sit quietly, and recall the learning on a regular, spaced practice basis. The hour/day/week/month model is one, but a more regular pattern of reinforcement will be more successful. Research suggests that the spacing different for individuals and that it is good to rehearse when you have a quiet moment and feel you are in the mood to reflect. Recent research has shown that rehearsal just prior to sleep is a powerful technique. Another bizarre, but effective, model is to place the textbook/notes in your toilet. It’s something you do daily, and offers the perfect opportunity for repeated practice!

2. Take notes – write up your learning experience, in your own words, diagrams, analogies. This can result in dramatic increases in learning (20-30%). Then re-read a few times afterwards or type up as a more coherent piece. It is important to summarise and re-read your notes as soon as possible after the learning experience.

3. Blogging – if the learner blogs his/her learning experience after the course, then responds to the tutors’, and others’ comments for a few weeks afterwards, we have repeated consolidation, and the content has a much higher chance of being retained.

4. Repetition – within the course, but also at the start of every subsequent period, lesson or lecture, repeat (not in parrot fashion) the ground that was covered previously. Take five or ten minutes at the start to ask key questions about the previous content.

5. Delayed assessment – give learners exercises to do after the course and explain that you will assess them a few weeks, months after the course has finished. This prevents reliance on short-term memory and gives them a chance to consolidate their knowledge/skills.

6. Record – it is education and training’ great act of stupidity, not to record talks, lectures and presentations. They give the learner subsequent access to the content and therefore spaced practice.

7. Games pedagogy – Games have powerful pedagogies. They have to as they are hard. It works through repeated attempts and failure. You only progress as your acquired competence allows. Most games involve huge amounts of repetition and failure with levels of attainment that take days, weeks and months to complete.

8. Spaced e-learning – schedule a pattern in your online learning, so that learners do less in one sitting and spread their learning over a longer period of time, with shorter episodes. Free your learners from the tyranny of time and location, allowing them to do little and often. In education this is homework and assignments, in training subsequent talks that need to be emailed back to the trainer/tutor.

9. Mobile technology – the drip feed of assessment over a number of weeks after the course or redesign the whole course as a drip-feed experience. We have the ideal device in our pockets – mobiles. They’re powerful, portable and personal. Push out small chunks or banks of questions, structured so that repetition and consolidation happens. This usually involves the repeated testing of the individual until you feel that the learning has succeeded.

10. Less long holidays – it terms of public policy, increasing school results would be betters served by avoiding the long summer holiday and restructuring the school, college and University years around more regular terms and less long vacations.


The retention benefit works like compound interest as you’re building on previous learning, deepening the processing and consolidating long-term memory. It is, in my opinion, the single most effective strategic change we could make to our learning interventions.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Traci Sitzman - happy sheet killer

Do happy sheets work? Ask Traci Sitzman who has done the research. Her work on meta-studies, on 68,245 trainees over 354 research reports, attempt to answer two questions:

Do satisfied students learn more than dissatisfied students?

After controlling for pre-training knowledge, reactions accounted for:

  • 2% of the variance in factual knowledge
  • 5% of the variance in skill-based knowledge
  • 0% of the variance in training transfer

The answer is clearly no!

Are self-assessments of knowledge accurate?

  • Self-assessment is only moderately related to learning
  • Self-assessment capture motivation and satisfaction, not actual knowledge levels

Self-assessments should NOT be included in course evaluations

Should NOT be used as a substitute for objective learning measures

Additional problems

Ever been asked at a conference or end of a training course to fill in a happy sheet? Don’t bother. It breaks the first rule in stats – randomised sampling. It’s usually a self-selecting sample, namely those who are bored, liked the trainer or simply had a pen handy. Students can be ‘Happy but stupid’ as the data tells you nothing about what they have learnt, and their self-perceptions are deceiving (see Traci’s research).

Sitzmann, T., Brown, K. G., Casper, W. J., Ely, K., & Zimmerman, R. (2008). A review and meta-analysis of the nomological network of trainee reactions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 280-295.

Sitzmann, T., Ely, K., Brown, K. G., & Bauer, K. N. (in press). Self-assessment of knowledge: An affective or cognitive learning measure? Academy of Management Learning and Education.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

10 ways to keep courses short

Cognitive overload is the norm in education and training. New teachers present too much too soon, to bewildered learners. Lecturers hammer out dense, hour long lectures. Trainers construct overlong, padded-out courses. Whether it’s classroom, lecture, conference talk, workshop or e-learning, it’s usually too long. Don't take a scalpel to your courses, take an axe - aim for 30% reduction on first pass.
1. Learning objectives – if your course has these up front - ditch them. They’re boring and irrelevant. You need to interest learners, not turn them off.
2. ‘Introduction’ – if this appears as your first module, chapter, slide etc – cut it. I don’t mean make it shorter, I mean massacre it. ‘The history of…’ is particularly irrelevant.
3. Pretty but useless graphics – all those graphics that simply illustrate and don’t instruct –stock photos of over eager people in smart offices. Don’t insert graphics that simply match key nouns in the text.
4. Text – cut, cut and cut again. All those adjectives, clichés and long sentences. Forget the language of print such as ‘With regard to ‘ etc. Use short sentences. Use more bullet points.
5. Audio – if it’s background music get rid of it. Annoying beeps on input will also drive people crazy. Extraneous audio is a waste of time and may actually distract from learning.
6. Annoying animation - Animated words and transitions, that are all whiz-bang but serve no instructional purpose. Use sparingly. Animation is only useful if you have to show movement. Flash is the usual suspect – reign those flashers in.
7. Video – anything longer than a TV ad is suspect. Keep as short as possible. Think YouTube, not TV.
8. Glossary – only in very technical courses. If you’re using words the learner doesn’t understand, rewrite, don’t rely on a glossary.
9. Abandon fixed times – don’t do the ‘1 hour’ of learning or 1 hour lecture or full day course. Make it only as long as it needs to be.
Happy sheets – they don’t tell you anything about learning, so abandon them altogether.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Donkeypedia – dumb ass idea

Donkeypedia is my favourite ‘crap’ European project. How could a social networking initiative, led by a donkey, get through any procurement process? It takes a sort of mad genius to dream up such a useless idea, then convince budget holders to hand over the loot (7 million Euros).

The site looks like a spoof, but no, they really have spent 7 million Euros to send a donkey around Europe with a solar panel, video camera and GPS, for marking images and videos on a map. It was meant to foster European identity by reporting on its findings. Talking out of your ass, I presume.

But the project, I hear, has run into problems in certain countries. In one Spanish village, the locals wanted to throw it off the church tower and it was almost eaten (as a delicacy) in Romania. Then, in the UK, it was mistakenly rescued by NEDDI (New European Distressed Donkey Initiative). Yes folks, this organisation also exists.

Donkey Divide

There is, apparently, a follow up project mapping the number of donkeys that have online access across Europe. Exposing the ‘Donkey Divide’ has become a European imperative, after discovering that the ‘donkey’ presence on the web was significant, but largely confined to hardcore porn sites. This has led to a separate organisation being set up (REDFIST) Rescuing European Donkeys From International Sex Trafficking.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


A few years ago I was invited to attend a one week trip to Spain, paid for by some European grant. I was the UK rep and there were reps from each of the other 14 countries. It was a revelation, in that it was a complete waste of time. At the end of the fact-finding trip we got together to discuss our findings, which to paraphrase the discussion, showed that Spain was milking European grants like a starved piglet at the teat, but to no great effect in terms of entrepreneurial progress (the trip was about entrepreneurship). I was the only business person of the 14, and was politely told to forget the criticisms and write the report free from any negative conclusions. It was a shocking introduction to the neverneverland that is the Eurozone. As the Eurozone implodes in a sort of low key rerun of the second world war, one wonders what all that money spent on ‘euro-learning’ actually brought us?


Answer - nothing. Academics have been sqeezyjetting around Europe for years to conferences and meets that were little more than excuses for short-breaks or a nosh-up. The collaborative projects weren’t designed around competences or goals, merely a bunch of people who were good at form-filling. Then there’s that obnoxious group of middlemen, no better than street drug runners, who promise to get you a chunk of the motherload (for a fee of course). The whole sorry tale is one of useless research on useless projects set up by worse than useless hustlers. In practice, the real work was being done by hard-working people in real companies and organisations doing things with real people in the real world. European projects are like the Eurovision Song Contest, countries send their least talented people to a contest that is best known as a parody of the real world and the output is woeful. It used to be something to laugh at, now it’s a politicised, block vote idiotfest. I’m positive about Europe as a single market but sad that so much money has been spent with so little meaningful output.

One market myth

Europe is not a single market in education and training because people learn best in their first language, and in the UK we don’t have a second. Almost all education and training in Europe is delivered by local and national suppliers. To their credit, the only notable exception in the e-learning world is Edvantage. There has been this effort to create pan-European companies by supporting pan-European research, but it hasn’t worked. Giunti Labs seem to have been on some sort of permanent financial drip from Brussels, along with several other companies that would never have survived in the commercial world.

Let’s take the ‘E’ out of e-learning

ELEARNINGEUROPA, EU4ALL, ERGO, ECLO, ELIG, EDEN, EFQUEL, EIFEL, EMDEL and on and on it goes…..Dozens of crap acronyms all staring with ‘E’ and hundreds of administrators, unread reports, AGMs, meetings and conferences. When I ran an e-learning company I had absolutely nothing to do with any of these or any other European quangos. Have they delivered? I think not. Would the world miss them, I think not. Let’s take the ‘E’ out of e-learning – Europe that is!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Short primer on post-election education and training?

So the election has finally reached its logical confusion. Did anyone really read the manifestos of any of the parties in this election? Nope. Did it matter? Nope. Why? The main issue was strangely absent – CUTS.

Bonfire of the quangos

The Lib Dems want to eliminate learning quangos, but by that old tactic, creating new mega-quangos. Their Education Standards Authority will fold in all those old quangos that oversee schools, and continue to do what those quangos did – quango-away. The Lib Dems also want HEFCE and the SFA to combine into a mega-quango called the Council for Skills and Adult Education (CFSAAE for short). The Conservatives are simple souls and, bluntly, want to “Abolish many of the further education quangos”. Cameron fingered BECTA for extinction some time ago in a conference speech. They’ll be one of many.


On schools they’re remarkably similar, although Gove has the job, and we're back to calling it the Deaprtment of Education (what comes around!). Both instinctively dislike Government interference and want a bonfire of educational quangos. Both want to cut down on National Curriculum. Both want to expand Teach First. Curiously, this seems to be what teachers and their unions want. They’ve been screaming like gulls about government interference, boycotting SATS and dissing quangos like OFSTED. What is it with teachers thinking that they can veto government policy and override democracy? Imagine if Doctors decided to boycott diagnostic techniques, or policemen boycotted the right of suspects to see lawyers. They should careful what they wish for.

Both like the idea of new schools set up by parents, sponsors, churches, cults whoever. It’ll be interesting to see how long parent interest in starting up schools last, after their kids have left said schools and they realise how tricky the whole business can be. In any case, we’re in for at least four or five years of cuts and an instinctive Conservative view that state schools are inferior and badly run. When it comes to the contradictions the Conservatives will surely win and Gove has some novel ,ideas - teacher must have 2:2 degrees, soldiers brought in to improve discipline, wearing of ties, no vocational subjects in league tables......There will be no Lib-Dem reduction in class sizes and their General Diploma won’t see the light of day.


David Willets has been out in charge of Universities, as Sectretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, a poisoned chalice. Clever move that Mr Cameron. The Lib-Dems promised to abolish tuition fees over six years, so that won’t actually happen as the Browne report, that is likely to recommend the very opposite. Treasury figures suggest cuts of 6-7% a year over 3 years (not counting current £449m and £600m between 2011 and 2013).


Willets also has the ‘skills’ portfolio but that’s straightforward, and probably good for all those in this area, as he’s a kind-hearted man, likely to chop of fingers and toes, rather than entire limbs. Again lots of common ground here with a promise to scrap Train2Gain (easy as it had already been scrapped) and focus on Level 3 and apprenticeships. In fact, the Lib-Dems want to fully fund off the job apprenticeships, which means robbing some poor Peter to pay Paul.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Why I'm bored with F2F apologists!

‘Face-to-face’ –God I hate that phrase. Don’t get me wrong, F2F has its moments, like sex, although I can think of many, equally pleasurable positions! That’s the problem with the F2F mob – they’re missionaries with only one position, their face in your face. In the pub, out for a meal and in small discussion groups, that’s fine by me. In other words, it’s small intimate groups I like. But F2F on scale isn’t intrinsically good. It can be time consuming, unproductive and boring.

Trainers, with faces like thunder, whine about how it is necessary condition for learning (it isn’t), coaches and mentors (old counselling in disguise) see it as their lifeblood, teachers insist that children learn nothing without them being there, lecturers insist (against all the evidence) that it’s how real knowledge is transferred. Haven’t we all spent far too much of our lives in overlong and unproductive face-to-face meetings. In general, I’d argue that, in lectures, conference talks, training, classrooms and large meetings – being F2F is generally long-winded and unproductive.


There’s some curious contradictions here. Many of those who push the face-to-face argument, usually on social and collaborative grounds, work largely from home and support remote working. OK for me, but not for you, obviously. For a nation that fiercely defends F2F one has to wonder why no one speaks to anyone else in the train, on the bus or on aeroplanes. The English positively hate unplanned F2F encounters. F2F is great, they say, but only under strictly controlled conditions, and certainly not with strangers. F2F is only good when they get paid to tell you things.

The whole sorry F2F brigade present the case as if the world would collapse without it. What they really mean is that their world would collapse, as the recipients of their techniques are abandoning them for more convenient approaches free from the tyranny of time and location. F2F isn’t intrinsically good or bad, it’s just that too much of it is hopelessly inefficient.

Volte face

F2F training companies are now facing the financial music with falling demand and prices. The old model is shot to pieces. Meetings increasingly use conferencing software. In marketing and training webinars have gone mainstream. In the face of mobiles, texting, messenger, laptops, iPads, Facebook, Skype, which all increase collaboration and communication, at the expense of the old inconvenient F2F model, society has gone volte face.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Future of learning – mind boggling

Jaron Lanier, the VR expert, vividly describes his work in You Are Not A Gadget, where the brain starts to believe in the virtual world instead of the physical one. Lanier takes this one stage further describing the experience of extending your body through morphing. In other words, you can become a lobster with extra limbs or have an arm that is ten feet long. This is because of the homuncular plasticity flexibility of the body image.

We experience virtual worlds every day when we get caught up in a TV programme, movie, computer game or theatre. This is involuntary. In other words our perceptual systems and brains are hard-wired to believe that the simulated is real. Even at very low levels of fidelity and interaction, for example simple e-learning, Nass and Reeves from Stanford University, showed through a series of ingenious experiments, that we regard the computer and the people presented in such programmes, as real.

I’m labouring this a little, because there are still plenty of people out there who seem to regard our minds as not having this ability (this includes many educators and trainers). Time and time again you see statements to the effect that cognitive and behavioural change can only take place through real world face-to-face interactions with real people. The most obvious objection to this is the success of flight simulators, where complex cognitive and behavioural change is effected in a way that is far superior to any classroom experience, and there are many others.

Patrick Dunn, a respected learning expert, had an epiphany recently. In his blog, he described experiencing the power of the mind in learning through a mind control demonstration. He told us how Ian Glassock had demonstrated of a game at a recent Learning Games Conference that allowed you to control a fish and get it to descend to pick up a coin. Trivial you may think, but the potential is huge. In terms of training the mind (and in the end that’s all education and training is) this technology has the potential to allow us to control our emotions in simulated scenarios, cure phobias, tackle post-traumatic stress disorder.

The important point here is that we have to literally ‘change our minds’ and practice ‘actual belief’ in simulated situations. Anything is possible in this most flexible of all possible worlds. In fact, it is more flexible than any real world situation, as any unusual and dangerous situation can be simulated. Clive Shepherd and I used to sell this stuff way back in the 80s where we had a PC stress game that measured skin resistance through a headband, but things have certainly moved on.

The games world is now producing a slew of technical inventions that we should take note of, for this is a glimpse into the future of learning. This stuff is huge in the games world. Nintendo have sold more Wiis than the Playstation and Xbox put together, all on the back of a new interface controller – the Wii Chuck. However, both Sony (Playstation) and Microsoft (Xbox) are fighting back with astonishing new devices. They fall into three main categories:

1. Handheld controller

2. Look no handhelds

3. Mind blowers

Handheld controllers

Wii Motion

Nintendo’s Wii Motion Plus is an enhanced Wii controller that fits onto the existing controller and, through a gyroscope and rate sensor, measures motion much more accurately for sports games and other physical acts. This type of sensor really comes into its own in sports simulations such as tennis and golf, where tiny variations in wrist movement result in hooks, slices and mishits. The Wii with its health sensors and Wii Fit board has already moved firmly in the direction of home health and learning.

Jonathon Flynn at the University of Huddersfield has been doing great work in physiotherapy with the Wii Fit. From sprained ankles to broken bones, osteoporosis and strokes, it really can help with rehabilitation, by retraining the mind. The advantages are clear; you can do it at home, it’s cheap, it’s fun increasing compliance. As usual, the resistance he’s had has not been from patients but senior managers in his institution!

Johnny Lee has used the Wii remote to create 3D VR. He uses the WII remote backwards to head track. This video is truly fantastic. The effect is stunning.

Playstation Move

Sony’s has its own Playstation Move, using the PlaystationEye technology and a controller with motion sensing. The sphere on top lights up and allows the sensors to accurately track position and distance. Internally motion sensors track acceleration and motion. A magnetometer also measures movement relative to the earth’s magnetic field. The advantage of the physical controller is that haptic dimensions are still present, including feedback. The orb itself will provide light feedback, such as muzzle flashes. This is pretty smart stuff.

The difference between the Wii and Playstation is largely in terms of the fidelity of the graphics, but we can expect controller and console advances to reach a level where the application will hold ‘ideal’ model as and you as a learners will be taught to mimic those models e.g. Federer’s forehand, Beckham’s free kicks and Tiger Woods missionary position. In the non-sporting world, any physical task, and there are thousands of them from manual handling to precision surgery, can be taught using these devices.

Look no hands

Natal it’s cracked up to be?

Afraid it is! Natal (named after a city in Brazil), launched at E3, is one of many technical initiatives that are literally game-changing. Imagine interacting with NO controller, keyboard or mouse. It knows how many people are standing there, at what distance and so on. The compute will know your every movement and allow you to drive, exercise, or whatever. No more searching for the lost TV remote; just a relevant hand gesture to sweep to the next channel, stop the action or increase the volume. Facial gestures are recognised for the reading of wishes, reactions and emotions. It also has voice recognition that can distinguish between voices and the voice of the application. None of this is science fiction – this is exactly what the future XBox Natal interface promises.

When Stephen Spielberg says, "This is a pivotal moment that will carry with it a wave of change, the ripples of which will reach far beyond video games" he’s more prophetic than even he realises. This may herald a new era, not only in games but in simulations. Peter Molyneux, genius games designer, rightly says that this means a slew of new genres but if we take this a little further we can also speculate that it leads to technical advances in learning. The very idea that one can just step into a world and experience meaningful interaction that allows you to experience and learn is literally mind blowing. Human interaction where all of your movements, gestures, facial expressions and language are understood is now starting to be realised.

Mind blowing

But there’s more, and this is literally mind blowing. We are now seeing signs that mind control is entering games and simulations.

Mind Flex

Matel launched a game in January 2008 called Mind Flex (with slogan Think it. Believe it. Move it). This is literally mind over matter, using power of your mind through three sensors (one on your head two on your earlobes) Your mind controls the speed of a little fan which controls the height of a ball (like blow football). You turn a set of obstacles on the course. One could call it mind-eye co-ordination.

It uses Neurosky’s ‘ThinkGear’ EEG technology (Electroencephalography) to read theta brain waves with a wireless headset. In effect, it’s reading the ‘complexity’ of the signal. EEG is busy and noisy when you focus but less noisy when you relax, so it’s not the level of data that is produced but its randomness that matters.

I also like this spin on the famous Milgram electric shock psychological experiment. These guys hacked Mind Flex to give you an electric shock if you concentrated too hard. What a wonderful way to raise learners’ attention!

Force Trainer

The Star Wars Force Trainer is a £45 toy available on Amazon now that allows you to train yourself in the Jedi ways, well, to raise a ball in a tube. It has some great sound effects and works

Other spins on EEG technology include the Neural Impulse Actuator from computer supplier OCZ, that allows your brain to control the pointer on your PC screen and Neurosky have their own Mindset pack.

Future promise

It’s too early to even grasp the possibilities of mind technology but it’s not too early to speculate that this will have significant impact at some time in the future. It makes 3D cinema look decidedly dull. I, personally, think that the next generation of games controllers has much more to offer learning than games.

Role playing for real

This is role playing for real, where you really are being someone in an environment, not just manipulating an avatar like a puppet on a couple of awkward strings. You’ll be able to walk the walk and talk the talk.


Model behaviours can be taught by giving you corrective feedback on variants from the model e.g. presentation skills, coaching skills, interviewing skills and so on.

Attention Deficit Disorder

One can easily imagine how children, or adults, with attention difficulties, could be trained to focus more on learning, or at least recognise the difference between their attentive and non-attentive mental states.


Recovery from physical injury and illness can include everything from the rehabilitation of amputees to basic physiotherapy. The new interfaces can provide amazingly accurate feedback on position and movement.

Sports coaching

The technology is now reaching levels of fidelity that bring them close to training people in the optimal use of their body, club, racquet or bat. No surprise then that the first crop of games using these newer interfaces are in sports simulations.

Tools and instruments

The physical use of tools in trades and engineering can be measured along with most sophisticated use of scalpels and surgical instruments, where keyhole surgery had demanded higher and higher levels of dexterity.


These different technologies, separately or together, offer mind boggling possibilities in learning. They will become smaller, faster (less latency) and cheaper over the next few years. In practice a ‘Bird in hand, may be better than bird in bush?’ Retaining the physical controller may not be such a bad idea, as many games and simulations have the manipulation of an object as their goal. If you want to perfect that golf swing, then the enhanced Wii controller or Playstation Move may be better in terms of accuracy and feel. In terms of learning the manipulation of tools, instruments in surgery, sports racquets, bats, manual handling, button pressing and so on may be betters served by this approach. Recent interface advances on the WII, Natal, sensors and cognitive controllers (using just your brain to do things), all point towards a future where learning by doing trumps the hokey, training world of role playing and breakout groups. Another relevant advance is the recent introduction of real time brain scanners which can (to a degree) evaluate the success of such training. Mind control and mind reading are now firmly on the horizon.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

University of Cumbria: the perfect storm

The University of Cumbria is the perfect storm, where all the mistakes I pointed out in my last post have come together on a huge scale. Mismanaged, obsessed by campuses and buildings, over-staffed, far too many courses and third rate research. It was meant to solve the low HE rates in rural Cumbria, but went for the full blown University experience, despite the fact that it’s courses are almost all purely vocational, oh and they also spent £30 million that they didn’t have.

It’s been a disaster from the start. When you merge lots of different and disparate organisations you need a really good management team, with focus, to rationalise them, prevent duplication and get down to core competences and deliverables. You also have to get rid of those sites, courses and staff that are most inefficient. The University of Cumbria did the opposite. Its lacklustre and inexperienced managers had too many sites, too many courses, too many lecturers, too many researchers, too many administrators and too many buildings. In fact, bizarrely, they decided to build more. No wonder Alan Langlands cut the capital budget for Universities. Cumbria were on course to build a spanking, brand new £70 million headquarters in Carlisle. Rumour has it that it was to be a huge, white, Frank Gehry-style pachyderm. This was an academic Titantic that actually set itself on a deliberate collision course with icebergs.

So where are they now? Having to be bailed out, as they don’t have enough money in the bank to pay the wages, a stupid amount of campuses and buildings, many new, that need to be maintained. far too many staff and worse of all, 533 courses, some that attracted ZERO students. This is mismanagement on a gargantuan scale. The UCU falsely claim that the trouble is the result of ‘cuts’. This is complete nonsense. Someone in that union needs to attend a financial literacy course. Bailing out an organisation that has a £30 million deficit is not a consequence of cuts, it’s a consequence of idiotic mismanagement. Far from being a forward looking institution they were held back by trying to create something from the past.

I also have some concerns about the range of courses here. I’ve never believed that purely, vocational courses are best delivered by Universities, with their lecture-obsession and constant demand that teachers be researchers. In practice, Cumbria is a huge FE college masquerading a University, with a myriad of courses covering health, education, forestry and farming. The quality of the research is, of course, woeful.

To be credible, and to survive at all, they must make cuts, I’d guess of well over £13 million i.e. a third of the deficit. This can’t be difficult, as they have lots of courses with very low student attendance and clearly far too many staff and buildings. They’ve already had to mothballed one campus. What’s dismaying here is the impact on students who signed up to an institution that was so poorly led – truly lions led by academic donkeys.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Salon debate: What are Universities for?

Just been speaking in the Brighton Salon debate against two University (Derby and Sussex) academics. This was ‘Election TV Debate’ night, so the people who turned up were almost all hardcore academics and students. So I opened with a question, “Does anyone know the names of the two shadow ministers for Universities?” Not one person in the audience could answer (David Willetts, Stephen Williams). In a way that’s a bit symptomatic of the problem - few care that much to do the deep thinking and refection. I've often noted a sort of 'tunnel vision' in debates on HE, as if the sector existed in splendid isolation, with values different from the rest of us unwashed and intellectually inferior beings, as if it is beyond criticism. There’s often a dearth of real facts in debates like these. Everything is discussed at an abstract level, ignoring the political context, economic realities and often the uncomfortable facts of the matter.

Coming back to politics, five years ago Universities were a big part of the election debate, Tuition fees were seen as the new poll tax and getting more and more kids to university was the aspiration. This time round the mood is of complete indifference. Universities are the invisible policy of this election. Loan-loaded students with low job prospects, the shambles that is the student loan system and an increasingly inward looking sector, over-reacting to any attempts at change, had led to it being totally ignored.

Management malarkey

Professor Dennis Hayes, from the University of Derby, kicked off on a philosophical riff about ‘not liking the question’, questioning the question being a standard philosophers’ reply to any question. He gave a defence of the University system as the protector of intellectual endeavour and values “without fear or favour”. I liked this definition, but can’t for the life of me see that fear or favour is any way the norm, now or in the near future, in universities. The only 'crisis' of values is in the heads of some academics.

The second speaker, Dr Blay Whitby, again defended the “eternal values” of the system. Both saw ‘managerialism’ as the Trojan horse that was eating away at these values from within. I’m not convinced by this image of the Universities as having a set of enlightenment values that have and will outlast political and cultural change. Academe is often well behind actual changes in society. I made the point that it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that they dropped religious affiliation as a condition for study, women couldn’t get degrees in some universities until well into the 20th century and their track record in terms of the meritocratic principle of entry has been appalling. The modern British University is largely based on the German (Humboltian) model and is largely a 20th century construct, not an enlightenment model.

‘Managerialism’ and ‘Managerial capitalism’ are the sort of pejorative terms you often hear from academics who need to blame something or someone -they're bogeyman terms, and were thrown about like rocks in riot tonight. The tone of was - we university bods are very smart you know – we don’t need this managerial malarkey. This is, of course, fatuous and hollow. First, Universities are large and complex institutions with large budgets and they NEED to be managed. Well managed institutions will provide better research opportunities and better teaching. Academics, who have rarely managed anything, assume that things just sort of coalesce into an organised structure - they don't. Secondly, the people they brand as ‘managers’ are often academics and ex-academics. There is this illusion of a Machiavellian, managerial class that is out to stymie the poor lecturers, kill freedom of speech and close down all the universities. It’s nonsense, of course, but when you’ve got loads of time on your hands you can constantly flame the blame. The abstract concept of ‘management’ is their bete noir, no better than paedophiles, grooming their way into positions of power, then pouncing when least expected. Being a Finance Director in a university must be one of the worst jobs on the planet. Thirdly, since most prestigious universities have lucrative Management and business schools, shouldn’t they be good at this? If not, why don’t they close them down?

Senates, Courts and Councils

Fewer still understand the way in which UK universities are run and managed. After the debate one person attacked, what she called the 'managers' at Sussex, but clearly had no idea who these 'managers' were. There was no knowledge of Senate, Court and Council structures and their very different roles or how they are elected.

Senates are dominated by academics as they are responsible for teaching and research and far from being loaded with private sector types or managers, normally have the head of libraries, trade unionists, student union rep and so on. Similarly with Councils, that have some external bods but are constrained by statutes. The Court is a sort of check and balance mechanism that normally meets once a year. It's all very driven by charters and statutes and really isn't a culture of managerial capitalism. Some Universities have a more streamlined structure, especially those that did not arise out of Royal Charters, these, in my opinion, tend to better run.

I’m a fan of the University system, and see them as institutions that are worth preserving and fighting for, but I despair at the idea that Universities are beyond criticism. Academics who defend freedom of speech and intellectual debate are very uncomfortable when it comes to criticism of their own methods and institutions, and often make outrageous claims about how decisions are made without any real knowledge of how their university is actually managed.

Sussex cuts or retailoring?

Many in the audience (they mostly taught or studied there) had strong views on the current attempts at Sussex to re-orientate the University for the future, with some job cuts. So here’s my first challenge. Some universities are well managed, others are not. The University of Cumbria has a £30 million deficit and is badly managed. Others have modest surpluses to build for the future and are well managed. Attempts to clear up bad management, by clearing up departmental deficits, poor research performance and overruns on spending, are seen as an attack on academic values. In fact, these are managerial devices designed to support academic activity. Let me illustrate this by example.

Sussex University want to do something about their crèche (I got hisses in the audience at even mentioning the word ‘creche’). Here’s the facts. The crèche had an OVERRUN of £350,000. I put that word in bold as it is usually deliberately ignored in the debate. The OVERSPEND is £5,600 on each child. This is public sector money and no way can you spend this sort of extra money without some fallout. What they’re trying to do is get the thing in line with other publically funded creches in the region. The University is not a bunch of childcatchers. They simply want to get the thing aligned with normal spending. Academics are not some special race who need special treatment, they’re people who deserve support at the same level as others.

Historical hysteria

Then there’s the supposed job cuts. I was accused of being ‘patronising’ for even putting a case here. It’s weird how even putting an alternative case is seen as morally evil. What’s worrying is the fact that academics and students have such narrow views of open debate. One attendee, who announced herself as a Professor of History, the head of the department no less, described the University of having ‘fingered’ certain staff (unfortunate use of language) in her department. Now I’ve been told by several people that Sussex plan to “stop teaching all pre-1600 history” (to be fair she didn’t make that claim). This is, of course, nonsense. Undergraduate teaching of pre-1600 will continue, however, there has been specialisation in the department around research and post-grad modern history (her speciality in fact). Without this sort of specialisation, most Universities would be in real trouble. It’s good for the system, good for students and good for researchers.

Sure there are job cuts, in the life sciences, engineering and history. But when you have dropping student numbers and declining research activity and performance you are duty bound to readjust for other future courses and research agendas. You can’t just add new courses and research topics at the top end without looking at poorer performance at the bottom. You must weed and feed to have a healthy, academic ecosystem. In fact, most of those job cuts will be handled through redundancy and adjustments to requested part-time work. What is ignored are the jobs that will be created and the research funds that are likely to flow, when these new research leaders (in cancer) bring their teams and fuel newer and better research.

Agricultural calendar and emptiness

The recent brouhaha over the general cuts in HE by Mandelson led to some hysterical exaggerations by the HE community and Mandelson found it easy to counter the hyperbole. What the critics conveniently ignored was the fact that the cuts were largely to the capital expenditure budget (zero on research). Now I’m in and out of Universities all of the time, and it is astonishing how underused and empty most University buildings are in practice. Some are like ghost towns. This is confirmed by HEFCE’s tracking of occupancy rates.

One major problem here is the agricultural calendar. Universities are empty for huge stretches at a time, as their timetable is based on the pre-industrial, go home for the harvest, timetable. If you want to do a course in October, you’ve got to wait eleven months to start. A simple adjustment to a Summer Semester, like many US universities, will increase occupancy and get more students through the system. This, I suspect, will be forced on the system.

Who goes?

The current University model is based on the 18 year old undergraduate. The whole university experience, for many a drunken meander through a three year degree, where you attend as few boring lectures as you can get away with, crib from your mates, then cram for finals, is as embedded today as it was thirty five years ago, when I attended. Yet more and more older students and part-time students, with a more focussed agenda, are doing degrees. The drunken meander is perhaps a luxury we can no longer afford.

Another solution to the clearly inefficient system is the use of technology. The Open University has nearly 200,000 students, nearly 20 times more than Sussex, yet none are on the campus. Learning, has to a degree, freed itself from the tyranny of time and location. I’m not saying we should abandon all face-to-face activity, but we can at least introduce a better blend of delivery.

Don’t lecture me

I’m no fan of the lecture, as there’s nothing in the psychology of learning that supports it as an efficient method for the transfer of knowledge. But what really annoys me is the refusal to record the damn things. The advantages are clear – students get a second bite at the cherry, with time to review, reflect and take notes. It’s an anachronism that needs to be addressed. What's so galling is that despite clear evidence that this increase student performance and attainment, the teachers won't do it. Research evidence, it would appear, counts for nothing when it comes to their own profession.

The failure of Universities to share has also led to huge duplication of effort and inefficiencies. It drives politicians to distraction. Clearly, IT and a host of other services could be shared. It worked with Janet and Superjanet, why stop there? Even at the level of teaching, why not re-use lectures and content from other institutions. In fact, students do, with textbooks and the millions who look at lectures online, when their own lecturers fail them. Look at the stats for MIT's Professor Levin in physics.

Teaching versus research

At one point the second university guy said that “teaching is incidental to a university”. This really annoyed me. For him a University is quite simply a body for research, with students as a sort of adjunct activity. Sorry, teaching is a core activity. He was disparaging about Open University students who he described as “not able to talk much” and many other students who he clearly saw as time wasters. This is a very common view among academics, that the quality of students is to blame, and that bad teaching has nothing to do with it. Their view is that 'I lecture, and no matter how bad I am, they should turn up and listen!' In the real world, students desert the lecture room, often after hearing a very poor first lecture. They retreat to the library and the comfort of their own room to study because they quickly learn that they’ll get their degree anyway.

One also has to wonder at the explosion in the quantity of research in the system, especially after the 1992 reforms. My suspicion is that we’ve had a flood of second and third rate research that does little to advance humanity and knowledge. One of the best questions from the audience was around the changing nature of knowledge and knowledge transfer. It got a little lost in the heat of the debate, but the academic speakers clearly were of the view that they had the knowledge and that people had to turn up to their lectures to get it. Sorry, it's about a thousand times more complicated than that. The lecture is a throwback to a time when there were no books. One need not attend any live lectures if they were recorded. There is room for lectures, but only if they're of sufficient quality in terms of content and delivery. Most, especially at undergraduate level, could be shared from the best lecturers in the world through recording and distribution.

Making the future

John Fulton, the founding Vice Chancellor at Sussex got it right when he described universities as 'Making the future’. All too often they get drawn back into defending the past. In any case, if this election delivers a Tory victory, the cuts will be savage and got help those Universities that Tory MPs did not attend. My guess is that fees will rise, deep cuts implemented and certain Universities left to merge or go bankrupt. Rather than let this happen, I’d like to see academics go for a ‘more for less’ agenda by being as bold in their institutions as they are in their own research. Here’s a shortlist of seven for starters:

  1. Loosen up the agricultural calendar – fast track and two year degrees
  2. Summer semester to increase capacity and reduce low occupancy
  3. More sharing of resources between universities
  4. Record lectures and use of pre-recorded, world-class lectures
  5. Weeding and feeding of departments for future health
  6. Cull of third and second rate research
  7. Every University mandated to adopt distance learning


Next months Brighton Salon talk will be by our Professor of History; on ‘Burlesque’. She is, apparently, an expert on glamour. Good to see that academia is holding fast onto those ideals of intellectual rigour and endeavour.