söndag 31 mars 2013

Visitor flood

The previous blog post, "On students' cognitive inability" proved to be very popular. Very very popular. It was in fact the most popular blog post I've ever written. So how did that happen?

- I published the blog post a week ago, on Saturday (March 23).
- I thought that particular blog post could be of interest also to others (beyond my ordinary readers), so a I sent a mail about it to some blogger friends of mine (March 26).
- One extremely popular blog (Cornucopia) wrote a blog post of his own one day later (March 27), linking to my blog post. This is what happened afterwards to the number of page views of my blog:

The number of visitors on that one day would in fact have made it (that day) one of the very most popular months ever as the visitors (page views) for March shot through the roof:

Here's what the number of page views for all the blog post published in March looks like:

Do also note the number of comment; 20 comments during the month of March of which 19 are comments to the very last blog post (several of the comments are written by me though).

This has happened once before, when I wrote the blog post "Can a student fail at a Swedish university?" two years ago (838 page views as of now). The same blog linked to the blog post and set a recored that was beaten only this past week. One reason there were more visitors now than two years ago is that his blog has become more popular since.

So, based on this event as well as earlier experiences, I can safely draw the conclusion that the way to get many visitors to a blog has less to do with the topic and the quality of what you write and more to do with getting linked-to ("I think, therefore I am. I link, therefore you are"). That would include finding your appropriate "blog neighbors" and then reading and linking to their stuff (in the hope that they will link to your stuff of course). You could also leave comments and link back to your own blog ("read more about this in a blog post I wrote last week...").

I don't really work on that in regards to this blog. I'm not aiming for maximizing the number of readers and visitors; people who find the blog find the blog, people who don't don't. But it's fun to get a lot of readers now and then anyway. The easiest way to make that happen would be to write about controversial topics and to become a pundit (expressing strong opinions about this-and-that). I don't aim at doing that, but it might happen that I have strong opinions about controversial topic X now and then anyway...

lördag 23 mars 2013

On students' cognitive inability


You might think the title of this blog post is bordering on the slanderous, well think again because I didn't choose it. It's the cover story in my union magazine "The University Teacher" (20 000 copies in print); "Students cognitive inability changes the teacher's role". And the term "cognitive inability" is used descriptively.

The article reads like a joke. I think we got the latest issue in the mailbox on Friday and I had to check the calendar, but no, it can't be an April Fool's joke since it's 10 days to early, right? And they would never have printed the April Fool's joke on the cover because that's way too obvious, right?

My number one most-read blog posts ever was published two years ago and is called "Can a student fail at a Swedish university?".  A high-traffic blog linked to it and drove people here in the hundreds. I wrote about problems in my daily practice with, let's say, "under-performing students". It spells out my position and I think I even succeeded in being both realistic, diplomatic and pretty empathic too in that text. "Severely underperforming students" are fortunately a rare problem in my everyday life at KTH.

This article describes a problem that is 10, or perhaps 100 times worse. The articles itself is called "Students at the level of 13 year-olds demands new ways of working" and the teaser continues "How should university teachers, without sacrificing academic quality, teach students who can't read, can't make themselves understood through written language and who have problems understanding simple instructions?". My counter-question (in line with the blog post I wrote way back) would of course be "what do these people do at a university in the first place?"

I'll refrain from expressing my own opinions for a while and will instead quote liberally from the article (here's the original text in Swedish). The article expresses the opinions of Ebba Lisberg Jensen who has a Ph.D. in human ecology, is an assistant professor and also program coordinator at Malmö University. The article is brimming with shocking quotes, so the lists goes on for quite a while:

- higher education now has to deal with an epidemic spread of a lack of knowledge and skills [on behalf of students]
- [Ebba] emphasizes that it is definitely not about teachers requiring advanced academic language or "older" traditional dissatisfaction with youth language. These are not students with dyslexia or those who do not have Swedish as their mother tongue. [...] she describes something completely different; students with a non-existent sense of what the written language should look like. 
- There are those who, to take two examples, do not know that a sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with a period. The teacher must decide where sentences begin and end.
- The language becomes Lego bricks, they have a difficult time to read, to think and to write in their own words, and the practice of learning is gone. We can talk about cognitive apathy, a cognitive gap. One can not, and therefore it becomes impossible.
- three-four years ago, deficiencies that had been rare exceptions among individual students became increasingly frequent.
- Last fall, she and her colleagues were forced to flunk two-third of the students on the exam in an introductory course, "and we were still nice [passing as many as one-third of the students]."
- If university teachers ask their students to give three examples of something, they may get eight or fifteen examples back. Not to show that they can (the examples are not necessarily correct), but rather because many are unable to limit themselves. 
- She does furthermore not interpret it as these students making some kind of rebellion [statement] against, for example, the scientific forms, but rather as an inability to learn. 
- Substantial problems with a text that really disturbs the experience of reading the text in question will often remain even after the teacher has explained [what needs to be done] both verbally and in writing. An assignment can be re-submitted many times, without the student correcting what is wrong.
- From having been a demanding, but creative and free profession, the job of a university teacher has become something different. They risk losing the power over their profession if higher education merely comes to be regarded as a product that universities should deliver, a product without intellectual challenges.
- But you can't just wish it away, there are those [students] who in addition to severe problems with the course contents, assumes that the teacher will provides them with timetables for the buses and with other everyday problem solving, students who will be appalled and offended by criticism and by not getting "help".
- Many students are just not accustomed to face discomfort. We also notice the role of parents, those who call us and explain why their son or daughter did not arrive in time for the [course] enrollment.
- Many have great self-confidence, but low self-esteem. Some demand explicit positive feedback, even when it is obvious they have submitted something sub-par in great haste.
- As for her own behalf, Ebba Lisberg Jensen sees explanations in a school system the believes it is enough to give the students a number of books for them to learn.
- When [Ebba] was a student (in the 1990s), you were one of a mass of students up until C- [Bacherlor's] and D-[Master's] level studies. But that does not work [now], students nowadays must have a direct relationship with the teacher, from the beginning. We need to support, assist and coach. It is time to rethink higher education. The question is how we do it, without letting go of the academic content?

Ok, shocking as it is, I have to say that this is not my reality. Fortunately. I believe that the students Ebba refers to don't ever bother applying for an engineering degree from KTH. And how could they if (as Ebba implies) they think that 3 might very well equal 8 or 15? So I don't know how true this picture of "higher" education in Sweden is. To people reading this text - can you corroborate? Can it really be as bad as as what Ebba describes where you're at? Or even halfway close? (It's ok to answer anonymously...)

Second, if I felt this was a fair description of the place I was working, I'd seriously consider a rapid change or career paths. I have a hard time seeing the difference between being a "university teacher" of such students and of being in one of Dante's circles of suffering. Seriously. The only problem I would have is determining if this was just the first circle of hell, or if it was worse than that.

Searching the web, I of course found others who disagree with Ebba. The Chairman of the Swedish National Union of Students (SFS) doesn't disagree head-on, but he prefers to point at university teachers' lack of pedagogical skills (!). Yeah, right. Well, he does correctly point out that teaching skills systematically get sidelined on behalf of research skills in terms of university professors'/teachers' careers and salaries and all that, but while that is correct, what does that have to do with the experiences and problems Ebba describes above? Does he imply that she is only "experiencing" these problems because she and her colleagues are not skillful enough in their role as teachers? That's hard to believe.

Well, I was a lot more upset and indignant when me and my wife read the article the first time around Friday night. Now, the second time around, it feels like a bad dream or an urban legend. Or an April Fool's day joke on me. Let's hope that's what it is... Or can this be an accurate view of the present and the future of the university system in Sweden? That would certainly be depressing.

Some things make it possible for me to believe so. The funny-mirror system of financing higher education puts huge pressure and incentives on universities to accept all comers and make sure they "pass" their courses (we get money for each student and for each student who passes a course). There is, as far as I can see, little incentive for maintaining a high quality of the education, except for "traditions" in the form a high-demaning (or reasonable-demanding) teachers who continue to demand what is their due.

What I just can't get is why "everyone" has to have a university degree nowadays? I agree with my colleague Ambjörn who says that "we need to create a society for mediocrity". We can't create a society that "works" only for the best, or for the best of the best. And mediocrity is relative. Most of our engineering students are average engineering students and only a few are exceptional. Most people in society are average and, I would argue, most people don't (or shouldn't) need to go to university. It has to be possible to have a nice, satisfying, fulfilling life where you excel at what you work with (some craft for example) without an university education!

Let me conclude by being polemical and facetious. Emperor Caligula famously planned to make his favorite horse Incitatus into a consul. Let's say that some genius wants to "lift Sweden" to new levels of innovation and prosperity [insert more verbiage and airy rhetoric here] - by having the best-educated horses in the world and by forcing universities to start admitting horses to a variety of university educations. This will cause no end to the sorrow of husbandry-deficient "university teachers" who all of a sudden will have even less time for their human pupils (busy as they will be leading horses between lecture halls and shoveling shit all day long). It seems in fact that this would be a idea of outmost stupidity. The university is a specialized instrument and can in fact not do everything for everyone. A university teacher is a specialized instrument too - not suitable for teaching illiterate 20-year-olds to read or to administer therapy to (have long heartfelt talks with) those with large blustering unjustified self-confidence but tender egos (for example those who didn't pass the introductory course).

How different is the horse-scenario though compared to teaching students who "can't read, can't make themselves understood through written language and who have problems understanding simple instructions"? Please don't misunderstand me - my heart goes out to them as they have been terribly abused and betrayed by our educational system. But when did the education of these students become my problem as a university teacher? How would it ever be possible to teach them "without sacrificing academic quality"? Talk about mission impossible! I'm fond of the expression "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't force it to drink". Well, the best I can do as a university teacher is to lead students to knowledge, but I can't force anyone to drink any of it. It requires both ability and hard work to acquire knowledge - even with the help of a teacher. But how can you teach those who are unteachable? That problem is up there together with making the blind see, and making those who suffer blissful.

Post-script (130327). This blog post was linked to from a high-traffic blog (Cornucopia) and will probably be my most-read text before the day is over. 

Post-cript (140319). This is a good Swedish-language summary (with further links) to the ongoing debate about the quality of higher education in Sweden.

torsdag 21 mars 2013

Books I've read recently

"Books I've read lately" is a recurring topic and here is the previous blog post (same topic, different books). I read the four books below between November and mid-December last year. Yep, I'm behind again, but I aim to slowly catch up (with one blog post per month about read books). 

The first three books below plug a gap in my knowledge about social movements. I realized that "social movements" was an area that could be of strategic interest to me and did some research on it a year ago. In one of the research grant applications I/we submitted, I wrote:

Within social movement theory (Tilly 2009, della Porta and Diani 2006), the focus of industrial society on economic justice (eg the labor movement) later and within the New social movements extended to include also "post-materialist" values ​​and rights (eg the women's movement, gay rights, environmental issues) (Melucci 1996). ICT plays an increasingly important role in the social movements of the 21st century (Diani 2001, Bennett & Segerberg 2011, Earl & Kimport 2011). How can online communities that are focused on crisis-proofed lifestyles be understood in terms of social movements? How are conflicting demands on organizational identity vs. openness to the outside world, information vs. mobilization, transparency vs. protected sections for members balanced (della Porta & Mosca 2009)?

After having read some of the articles I referred to in that paragraph, it was now time to also read the books I referred to!

The first edition of this book was called "Social Movements 1768-2004" but since I read the second (2009) edition, the title was updated and extended to encompass "Social Movements 1768-2008". First author Charles Tilly apparently died just before the second edition (with help from Lesley Wood) was published. I just noticed there is a third edition of the book out, "Social Movements 1768-2012".

The book covers topics such as "where do social movements come from?", "what was there before there was social movements?", "why do social movements look so similar around the world?", "what is the connection between social movements and democracy?" and "what does the future of social movements pertain?". A new term I learned was "WUNC displays", i.e. social movements' repertoire performances in terms of Worthiness, Unity, Numbers, Commitment. The book was well-structured but I found it to be slightly boring, perhaps because I'm not well-read on the topic.

"Social movements: An introduction" (also the second (2006) edition) is written by prolific Italian social movements scholars Donatella Della Porta and Mario Diani. I did finish the book but I found it to be more than just slightly boring. Here are their four core questions for social movement analysis:
- What is the relationship between structural change and transformations in patterns of social conflict?
- What is the role of cultural representations in social conflict?
- What is the process through which values, interests, and ideas get turned into collective action?
- How does certain social, political, and/or cultural contexts affect social movements' chances of success, and the forms they take?

You should probably have grappled with at least a few of these questions before you read the book to be able to appreciate it fully. I had not and so the book didn't really touch me. At all.

Having read the previous two books about social movements and finding them lacking, I had high hopes for a book with the enticing title "Digitally enables social change: Activism in the Internet age" (2011) by Jennifer Earl and Katrina Kimport. While the book discussed "e-movements", i.e. "movements that emerged and thrived online", the book only treats specific forms of activism, namely "e-tactics", i.e. petitions, letter-writing campaigns, email campaigns and boycotts. I would have preferred to know more about different movements' use of the Internet for mobilizing, but was instead treated with the results of a comprehensive (quantitative) study of a small number of huge "warehouse sites" and a large number of smaller sites with petitions, letter-writing campaigns etc. I have a healthy dis-respect for petitions in the age of Internet after I came across the Repetitionr website a few years back ("Tired of ineffective democratic processes?", "Discover the new click-democracy!", "Learn how to comfortably change the world from your armchair", "Democracy 2.0: Just a click for a million signatures!", "Do-It-Yourself Democracy. A million people can't be wrong."). I created my own petition and lo and behold, I got 50.000 signatures in to time at all. Repetitionr is a real website but it is also the product of an Italian duo of artists who call themselves "Les Liens Invisible" and they do great work of problematizing and poking fun at social media "solutions" (social media absolution?). I wrote about them on the blog two years ago - but the blog was new at the time and only 30 people have read that (really funny and really upsetting) text - so go read it now!

Despite this, I found this book to be the most interesting of the three books on social movements since it was the one book that most comprehensively covered the specific topic I am interested in; social movement and social media (or "activism in the age on the Internet"). It wasn't what I expected or would have wished for but it was still ok. Still, it sort of makes me wonder. Is "writing boringly" a prerequisite for becoming a social movements scholar?

T.L. Taylor's "Raising the stakes: E-sports and the professionalization of computer gaming" (2012) was great! I have recently submitted two abstracts (paper proposals) about sports, computer gaming, programming, competitions and sportification to a conference on sports and another conference on cultural studies and will for sure have a lot of use of Taylor's book when we write these papers. I met T.L. at one of the events (World Cyber Games, WCG) she writes about in the book six years ago and I knew already back then that she planned to write a book about competitive computer gaming, but I didn't know it would take another five years until the book was printed... Also, I attended her workshop "Beyond sports vs games" in Copenhagen a year ago and wrote about it on the blog.

Different chapters in the book treat whether or how computer games can be considered a sport, the e-sport players themselves (the development of an e-sport career), the business of e-sports (teams, owners, leagues, competitions, referees, sponsors) and finally media and spectatorship in pro gaming. The book "asks us to confront our notions about what play, work, and sport are."

tisdag 19 mars 2013

Young faculty & research financing

Our vice-dean organizes regular "Young Faculty" meetings. Since it's the time of the year for writing applications to the Swedish Research Council's (VR) General Call, she organized a "project proposal writing workshop" three weeks ago that I attended.

I did hand in an application to VR last year, but to no avail. As part of the preparations for this workshop, we read the "testimony" of David Sands, professor of computer Science at Chalmers and chair of the VR Computer Science Panel 2011, 2012 and 2013. As part of the preparations for the workshop, I decided right before the workshop not to hand in an application to VR this year, but I still went to the workshop.

This text is not about that workshop though, but rather the add-on, follow-up lunch meeting one week later, where I discussed my experiences of preparing five research grant applications last spring and the conclusions I drew. To prepare for the lunch meeting, participants were asked to read two earlier blog posts of mine:

Do read them if you haven't already! I won't repeat what I have already written, but will rather touch upon a couple of conclusions that I drew last year but never wrote about at the time. The two blog posts above really should have been followed by a third blog post but that blog post never got written.

Conclusion 1:
I estimated that I had spent between/at least 200-300 hours working on/writing these five applications during the last (academic) year. In the last (and smallest) application, I asked for money to finance a pilot study (344 hours). That still becomes a lot of money since my time is expensive (calculations show that I (someone in my position) cost more than 700 SEK/hour when I apply for research money). My own price for my own time, i.e. the hit I take in my wallet (taxed salary) when I ask for a leave of absence is only 150 SEK/hour. An alternative to applying for money is thus to work less than 100% and do the research you really really want to do (but can't get financed) on the side. This opens up very sticky questions about the proletarianization of university teachers, but having to spend 200-300 hours of non-financed time writing research grant applications could also be discussed in the same terms, right? And it would be a hell of a lot more fun doing the research in question, rather than just writing about doing the research in questions...   Still, this is an issue I find very interesting, and I would want the local university teachers' union (SULF) to do a panel on the topic - perhaps I should get in touch with them and suggest so...?

Conclusion 2:
Any applicant should spend more time and effort thinking about the strategic level rather than just the tactical level of the application. An application could be excellent but still not get funded because 1) there are more excellent applications than there is money and 2) the excellence (or not) of the application in questions is also a function of who (what person) judges the excellence of the application. It's thus a good idea to try to find out as much as possible about the application process, about the criteria for evaluating the application, about the persons who will judge the application etc. Perhaps add a reference or two to people likely to evaluate the application since no one is immune to flattery... Perhaps there is a need for a co-applicant not because he or she has a huge amount to contribute to the project in question, but because that person('s CV) will "look good" and "fit" the application? I stop short of hiring a private detective to find out everything there is about the people likely to judge the application... :-) Although it doesn't really sit right recommending people to "waste" their time doing these "irrelevant" tasks (playing a meta-game of sorts), I still think this is a much better investment of 20 or 40 hours of time rather than yet-again polishing and already-polished application.

Conclusion 3:
The application process is in itself pretty bankrupt. I spent massive amounts of time together with my co-applicants writing these applications and truth be told, I couldn't get away with giving such poor feedback to my students on a seminar assignment as I got on the majority of the applications (i.e. no feedback at all except for the binary decision that I didn't get funding). That is unreasonable and it shows a remarkable lack of consideration for applicants' time and effort. There really should be some kind of balance (and respect) between the time applicants spend writing applications and the time and quality of the feedback they get in return. Was my application "close" or "far away" from getting funded and if so, why? Was there something missing or was some part in particular considered weak? I understand that the process of reviewing numerous applications is a drain on qualified researchers' time, but this then points at an inherent weakness of the current system. Perhaps research grant money should be allocated in some other way?

Conclusion 4
The grant application system is "overloaded" - there are just too many applications. There is thus a decreased or even negative marginal return of even more competition for limited research funds. A larger number of applications would mean less time to judge each application and an even lower proportion of applications getting funded - without any apparent gains at all in terms of quality. I here assume that even filtering away 75% of the applications, there will still remain a larger number of "excellent" applications than there is available funding. Chance as much as anything else will thus in the end determine who gets funding and who doesn't (much like at an employment interview where many applicants could manage the job). It would be interesting to know (to study?) how many hours or researchers' time the different grant agencies fund, how much they pay for administration of their funds and how many hours researchers (applicants) in total spend on writing applications. What is an acceptable tradeoff in terms of time and money? At what point would the system become absurd (i.e. agency X funds Y number of hours research every year, but applicants' together spend Y/2 (or 2Y) number of hours every year writing applications to the agency). Complexity costs, and those costs cannibalize whatever it is you really wanted to do in the first place (i.e. "worthwhile things" and good research). I believe this is a case of decreasing returns of increased complexity (á la Tainter). This line of reasoning supports conclusion 1 above; a viable alternative could be to decrease the time I officially work in order to be able to do some of the research I really want to do. That is the no-complexity, no-filled-out-forms (no-taxes-paid) "informal economy" solution (also used when taking care of ailing parents, exchanging services with your neighbor, baking cookies for the school sale, a grandmother taking care of an ill grandson (so dad can go to work) etc.).

To end this blog post about research financing, I found a suitable quote from Boltanski & Chiapello's hefty "The sprit of new capitalism". It's about winners and losers in modern society, but equally well fits this blog post about research grant applications:

"what we have is [...] winners and losers at the end of a series of tests which were largely invisible, barely specified, poorly supervised and far from stable."

söndag 17 mars 2013

End-User Development and hacking sustainability

Only a week ago, I wrote about being the opponent at Jorge Zapico's "final seminar" and about his draft ph.d. thesis "Hacking for sustainability". This week me and Jorge have written and submitted a workshop position paper together. The paper, "Hacking sustainability: Broadening participation through Green Hackathon" actually has no less than four authors (in order): Jorge Zapico, Daniel Pargman, Hannes Ebner and Elina Eriksson.

We sent the paper to a workshop that is organized in conjunction with the Fourth International Symposium on End-User Development (IS-EUD) and the workshop is called "EUD for supporting sustainability in maker communities".

The story behind the paper is pretty interesting and haphazard. I forwarded the workshop call to a colleague who then asked whether I was going to the workshop or not. I was just in the process of writing an e-mail back, saying that I wouldn't go, when I just stopped in my tracks and realized a topic for such a paper. This was less then 10 days before the workshop deadline. The process since then has been extremely effective and we managed to whip together an 8-page paper in no time at all.

Yet, one or two more days would have been beneficial for the quality of the paper. Should the paper be accepted to the workshop, we have asked for the chance to revise the paper before it is further disseminated.

Still, it was pretty impressive to draw up a frame for the paper and divide the work up before getting to work on the shared Google document. The workshop invitation starts as follows (see our abstract further below):

There has been a recent proliferation of Do-It-Yourself (DIY) communities that can broadly be included under the maker movement umbrella. Many of these groups are engaged in DIY projects in areas that relate to sustainable living, such as urban gardening groups engaged in growing their own food in urban areas, home energy monitoring communities interested in improving their homes to support a more energy efficient living, and textile crafts people who engage in home production, as well as recycling and upcycling of textiles. Spurred by the possibilities of digital fabrication and the Internet, the maker movement has a great potential to support sustainable living by fostering related innovations, fostering their appropriation and propagating their practical use. However, technology-driven maker communities associated with FabLabs or Hackerspaces are often perceived as places for tech-savvy people and have difficulties to instantiate a sustainable dialogue with the society at large. Hence, attracting wider categories of public, as well as sharing innovations created by users are still seen as challenges.

Green Hackathon is an international series of coding events with sustainability purpose. Developers, researchers, environmental practitioners, and anyone interested, work for a limited and focused amount of time to create innovative software solutions for sustainability. These events have explicitly invited a broad spectra of expertises besides technical ones. This article presents the experiences and tensions of including these end users in a mostly technically oriented event, and discusses how end-user development could be used for a more reflective practice empowering broad participation and interdisciplinary collaboration at these events.

onsdag 13 mars 2013

The future of the Media Technology Program

We had a workshop last week (under the auspices of our new full professor Haibo Li) about the future of the engineering program in Media Technology the we (KTH) offer. Ten persons - mostly senior teachers - showed up. This was the first meeting about the future of the five-year long engineering program we offer. The very first students started already back in 1999 (years before I  started to work at KTH), and the original work on planning the engineering program was thus done some 15 years ago. Although there have been changes since then, much of what we do today is still predicated on decision that were taken 15 years ago. It might be time to think about the education and the program we offer today and what we want to make of out it in the future. What do our students need in order to be gainfully employed in the future, say, five or ten year from now (2018-2028)?

I won't go into details about what specific persons said at the workshop - the plentiful notes that I wrote down are best to be regarded as "internal work documentation" at this point, but I will still sum up some points that I personally thought were interesting and that I think are ok for "public consumption".

Due to the results of recent evaluations (the Education Assessment Exercise in 2010, the evaluation of our education that we ourselves wrote for The Swedish National Agency for Higher Education (HSV) at the end of 2012 as well as a relatively recent student survey), there are reasons for us to take a step back and reflect on how we should think about some of the critique that has been raised against our program. As to what we need/should do, the answer is however sometimes "nothing" - since critique at times can be misguided and/or irrelevant. People who do fly-by evaluations don't always know enough and can just plainly draw the wrong conclusions based on relatively superficial impressions. It is easy to misunderstand or get the wrong impression if time is limited and the clock is ticking.

There should thus be a healthy "discounting" of others' opinions in comparison to our own (admittedly also less-than-totally-comprehensive) knowledge about our own education. I myself know a lot about the specific courses I am involved in (around half a dozen), but I know less about some other courses in our program and we all know less-than-might-be-wished-for about courses that our students take that are offered by other departments. Still, me and my colleagues work with these courses and meet our students every single day, so it is not very strange that we sometimes can disregard the opinions of others whose knowledge (as it is) mainly comes from interviewing the teachers, i.e. us. Another important thing to keep in mind is that external evaluations partly can be based on "beauty contests", i.e. when we get to write a text about our own education, we will naturally tend to stress the things we are happy about and gloss over or leave out things we are less satisfied with... Looking at it from that perspective, it is strange that not more evaluation is done on as local a level as possible, but with the help of (and perhaps mediated through workshops etc. by) external agencies - instead of them trying to poke us and evaluate us "from the outside" so to speak.

Another source of information is of course the students themselves. While I think their opinions should sometimes be taken with a grain of salt, I still think it is sensible to listen more closely to their opinions than to those of outside agencies with limited insights into the educational program.

However, it is time not just to "fix" a few problems that have been identified by teachers, students or outside agencies, but rather to think about the direction in which we want to develop our educational program during the next couple of years. Where do we as a department want to go and where do we want to be five years down the road? How do we get there? What should we start doing this or next year in order to reach our goal five years down the road? As it is, we don't really have a vision of exactly where we want to be five years from now, so there is a need to start by developing such a vision and the workshop was the first occasion for initiating that task.

I realize I have to navigate carefully in this blog post, because it is at occasions such as these that differences in opinion about what different persons think really is important comes to the forefront. People who accept each other('s work) and cooperate on a daily basis (or to be honest, don't care too much about each other's work and don't meet or interact on a daily basis) might have varying opinions when it comes to developing a vision about "where we should go" in the future. This very first workshop was more a beginning - a meeting of minds and an exchange of information and opinions rather than the endgame. Here are a few things that were said and that I think is of interest:

  • We wish we knew more about other educational programs in Media Technology (in Sweden, Scandinavia and Europe). What do they have that we don't? What do we have that they don't? What could we "borrow" or be inspired by, and what should we stay away from (not interesting for us, or they do it better than we ever could)? How can we develop a profile and work towards being best in these areas? My personal suggestions is that we send a delegation (perhaps two persons) on an educational journey through Europe. Björn should be one of these two persons. Speaking for myself, I think it would be a great idea to claim/specialize in ICT/media technology and sustainability/sustainable development. We have already started that work by forming a team around these topics at my department!
  • The research base for the education is (apparently) sometimes weak (according to outside agencies). This problem is hard to fix. One fix could involve recruiting new faculty, "developing" current faculty or developing our courses. Another problem is that students themselves might not always see this as a desirable goal, especially when (if) it comes into conflict with hands-on knowledge that increases their employability in the short run. But, we shouldn't educate our student with the goal of short-term employability in mind, but rather with long-term employability in mind! What do students need to get from the university experience that will make them employable a decade (or two) from now? Any current fad/hype when it comes to systems and concrete tools is not the answer (even if the students often think so).
  • Students are sometimes dissatisfied. I'm personally not sure exactly what they are dissatisfied with because some students will always be dissatisfied with things that other students like fine thank-you-very-much - and vice versa. Some students want more hard (engineering) emphasis/topics in our education, others prefer the soft (aesthetic, social science) topics. The best-case would be for students to appreciate both "sides" and then make the best of the overlap - and this really is (or should be) an area where we could excel! What are all or most students dissatisfied with? I don't have a clear picture of this. I personally prefer to listen more to what (most) students dislike than to listen to what their (partial, probably varying) suggestions or proposed solutions are. Students oftentimes just don't have "the larger picture" (as seen from "above" and that I and fellow teachers can have - especially if we talk with each other and compare notes). 
  • Another problem is that if/when we develop a vision and a roadmap, there are though, gluey structures to navigate at a university to get from here to there. The administration involved in trying to make changes and to change course should not be trifled with unnecessarily... Also, we might have great ideas for the best possible education, but these ideas have to to be economically viable within the funny-mirror-system of financing higher education (university courses and educational programs). How do our potentially high-flying visions work within the framework of the concrete economics of giving university courses? These are the nitty-gritty details of getting from here to there that are best forgotten at banquet speeches, but that incessantly pops up when the agenda is the real work of making change happen. 
  • I believe we kind-of agreed that incremental change can be fine at times. We might for example not always have to develop new courses, but could instead update or more radically change the way we teach our current courses. We could for example "re-possess" courses that have been outsourced to other departments. My own course on "Media Technology and Sustainability" is an example of this. Other computer science educations have outsourced their ICT+Sustainability courses, but we opted for keeping this course in-house/to ourselves, and it is now very clear (to me) that this was a very good move. With the course as a base, we can develop our own competence in this area and I also arrogantly believe that we, with our superior knowledge of our own students, can create and deliver a much better course than another department ever could. This could be a model for other courses and other topics in our education...
  • Another issue is how we should navigate in relation to "industry needs". What needs? What industries in the first place (since our alumni get jobs "all over the place")? And how much should we listen to the needs and wants of industry in relation to our own visions about the education?
Here is a selection of some additional personal thoughts of mine:
  • Top-down visionary change is fine and even necessary, but we live in the real world where what we do is (over-)regulated. Revolutionary change is thus out of the question and we have to work more with evolutionary/incremental change - incremental improvements based on practice and on our experiences.
  • We should use the MID teams (like for example the MID sustainability team) better, also in terms of education. Sustainability shouldn't be about me personally, it should be about the MID sustainability team. Things change, people are busy or can move on to elsewhere. We shouldn't make ourselves overly dependent on specific persons, but the team should be responsible for (for example) courses.
  • Also, there should never be teachers who teach courses all by themselves - there should instead always be side-kicks (assistant teachers - could be ph.d. students). This also makes specific courses less vulnerable and makes it much easier should someone else have to take over a course.
  • We shouldn't necessarily listen to students and "give them what they want". Who really knows what they want - perhaps even they themselves don't (not even alumni really know in retrospect what their education "should have been like"). We should instead strive to give students something that is really good and that surpasses their expectations. 
  • We should work more (and more informally) with the students/alumni. Björn apparently already has such contacts on a regular basis, but I didn't even know about it so he has obviously not disseminated his findings to his colleagues in a good way.
  • We can recruit people who are both good researchers and good pedagogues, but "what you are" is not set in stone! So how can we develop the personnel we already have? How can we work towards creating a better faculty based on who we are and the people we already have? In my own experiences, the students who take one of my courses (Future of Media) have steadily become better each year. But is that because progressively better students take the course every year - or because I am better at setting their expectations and giving them clear instructions each year? If the answer is the latter (which it of course is), then how can the same kind of reasoning be applied to the faculty? How can MID work better and more effectively with incentives to create the faculty we want/need/should be(come)? What is desirable behavior in teachers? Should for example presence/involvement in departmental matters be encouraged/rewarded? Some teachers do it and others shirk (it's not formally in their set of responsibilities to be "accessible" and show up at department coffee/information meetings - but a lot of issues can be handled informally around the coffee table!)? The answer is of course "yes, these behaviors should be encourages/rewarded". But are they? I would say not really. A more detailed discussion on this topic has to wait for another day and another blog post...
  • One idea is to use the courses where teachers naturally work close together (for example our program-integrating course and the bachelor's thesis course) as templates for how to get people to work more together, share experiences and develop channels for lateral communication between teachers. Also on that note, there should be a program-integrating course (or a continuation of the current course) for our 4th and 5th year students. That course is really great both for students and teachers and constitutes an invaluable backchannel for informal feedback about courses, about the program and about the students' experiences of studying at KTH.
  • I personally like low-admin actions/drives. I liked the CSC school call for internal pedagogical developmental projects last year as well as the CSC school current call for small visionary projects with a one-page limit for applications! More bang for the buck = "more action and less administration"!

söndag 10 mars 2013

Zapico's Hacking for sustainability


Ph.D. student Jorge Zapico (at my department - Media Technology and Interaction Design) had his final seminar at the end of the week. I was the designated opponent. That means it was my task to read a draft of his ph.d. thesis and critically examine it. Or, my task was rather to think about ways that it could be improved and find things that was unclear and could perhaps be explained better or exapanded.

The task in this blog post is however not to examine the (draft) thesis critically (I already did that last week), but rather just to write a few lines about the thesis and about what makes this thesis interesting and perhaps to some extent unique. I do also have to say that it was a little strange to spend the morning working together with Jorge on a text of ours, and then spend the afternoon trying to point out weaknesses in his ph.d. thesis...

Jorge's thesis is called "Hacking for sustainability" and the thing that mostly stands out is his skill at building pretty comprehensive frameworks that looks and sounds good ("data-driven sustainability"). But most noteworthy is the fact that Jorge's "prime evidence" in is a series of "hacks", or small-ish programs on the web that makes data about sustainability-related issues become more accessible and easier to understand.

A thesis usually has a chapter called "Results", but Jorge instead has a chapter called "The hacks", so these hacks/programs are presented as the "tangible" results of his research. The research (and the hacks) have already been documented in a number of articles, but these texts themselves are not included in the thesis. Five hacks are presented and they can all be accessed on the web:

Green Hackathon is a special case and in mind not very representative as it isn't so much a hack (computer program) as it is an event. I wrote a blog post about the first Green Hackathon that Jorge organized (in Stockholm in October 2011) - stay tuned for more info about Green Hackathons on this blog in the near future...

As to the thesis, Jorge's hope is to be able to present it before the summer. After the seminar, it is up to Jorge and his main supervisor (Marko Turpeinen) to discuss what to do about my comments and my critique. I didn't really see why it wouldn't be possible for him to finish his thesis and present it before the summer (except perhaps for the fact that he's a pretty recent first-time father who now has taken on a new set of responsibilities).

I wish him the best of luck with writing up and finishing up the thesis! 


onsdag 6 mars 2013

From movement to sport and to sports without movement

Less than a month ago I wrote about handing in an abstract ("Being a good sport? On the sportification of professional practices") to an upcoming conference about "sport science" together with Ph.D. student Daniel Svensson from the Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment.

Today we handed in another abstract to a conference with a very different focus. Instead of an international conference about sports, we aimed for a national (Scandinavian) conference this time around. The conference in question is the annual conference on cultural studies and it is organized by ACSIS, Advanced Cultural Studies Institute of Sweden.

This year's theme for the conference is "movement" or "on the move" ["i rörelse"] and the organizers invite contributions that treats "spatial movements", "physical movement", "cross-border movements", "movement as change", "social movements" and "conceptual and methodological movement". We wrote an abstract that relates to several different interpretations of "movement" (see below).

Do note that the deadline for abstracts is April 1 so there is actually plenty of time to submit a paper of your own! You can find the call (invitation) for papers to the conference online both in Swedish and in English.

“Från rörelse till sport och till sporter utan rörelse”

I begynnelse skapades de första idrotterna utifrån fysiska praktiker för att förflytta sin kropp - från rörelser. Denna process skedde parallellt med moderniseringen och industrialiseringen och exempel på sådana idrotter är längdskidor, rodd, skridskor, simning och löpning. Dessa idrotter utgick inte sällan från en arbetsrelaterad praktik, till exempel skogsarbete, och blev genom standardisering, organisering och rationalisering till såväl tävlingsrörelse (för de aktiva), evenemang för stillasittande beskådande (för åskådarna) och till föreningsliv/sociala rörelser (för amatörer och professionella utövare, tränare, administratörer, sponsorer/investerare). Man kan inom alla idrotter se en rörelse mot en större "sportifiering" (Guttman 2004, Yttergren 1996, Yttergren 2012).

I dag finns det idrotter där utövarnas fysiska rörelser är starkt begränsade, men där rörelser av annat slag spelar desto större roll. Datorspel har gått från att vara ett fritidsnöje för ungdomar till att också bli en tävlingsidrott, "e-sport", med internationella tävlingar och professionella utövare (Rambusch, Jakobsson och Pargman 2007, Taylor 2012). Inom e-sport sker rörelserna företrädesvis inuti datorspel och det finns såväl likheter som skillnader mellan dessa typer av nya sporter och mer traditionella idrotter. Där vissa idrotter tidigare har betecknats som "materialsporter", bygger e-sport instället fullständigt på en fungerande teknisk infrastruktur av datorer, nätverk och servrar. Inom idrottsvärlden har vidare rörelser över gränser ökat i betydelse i och med framväxten av fler internationella, globala, och vad beträffar e-sport också internetbaserade gränsöverskridande arenor (Findling & Pelle 2004). Träningens allt större betydelse och en allt tydligare teoretiska/vetenskapliga underbyggnad är också en viktig del av sportifieringen (Heggie 2011, Hoberman 1992, Svensson 2013).

Vi menar att även om idrotter kan särskiljas vad gäller rörelsernas utövning och betydelse så styr ändå liknande processer både de arbetsintensiva idrotter som sprang ur tungt kroppsarbete under 1900-talet och de digitala sporter som är på frammarsch i dag. Både modern och "postmodern" idrott rör sig mot standardiserade, rationaliserade, medialiserade och kommersialiserade tävlingar. 


lördag 2 mars 2013

My new year's promises

I've never been a big fan of new year's promises, but this year I'm committed to no less than two (work-related) promises and they both seem pretty doable now, two whole months into the new year. These two promises are both spin-offs from the 30-day club at my department that I wrote about on the blog last year.

The first promise is to clean out and organize my room. There are basically piles of papers and stuff on all horizontal surfaces, the detritus of 10 years of "deferred maintenance" and of just shoving a pile of papers out of the way to make room for the next pile. Having to put piles on the floor to make room for new piles was the straw that broke the camel's back. Before Christmas I acutely felt that this just can't go on!

Picture: It's actually worse than it looks. In the cupboards (just below the bottom of the picture) are gigantic piles (2/3 meters) of paper. Piles of varying height also adorned all three of my desks.

Ongoing courses each have a pile of their own with the most recent/important stuff at the top of the pile. This works great and is an excellent way of organizing current courses, but something is wrong when the pile from a finished course just lies around for months and then becomes the foundation of next year's pile for the same course... 

Picture: To the left: a huge pile from a course (containing unorganized contributions from several years back, but with the most recent stuff on top). Top of the picture: super-organized color-coded folders, each containing a separate task that needs my attention at some point during 2013.   

More concretely, I have pledged to spend 30 minutes every day sorting though piles either throwing away or organizing stuff - later to be neatly put away in binders. Even if a pile easily can take a week (or two) to process, the very act of spending 30 minutes per day and feeling that the work of organizing years of accumulated backlog progresses in small-but-certain steps is to me similar to meditating. It feels really good to know that I'm taming the piles - despite the fact that progress is not visible from one day to the next for a casual visitor who passes my room by.

As to the rule of spending 30 minutes per day at this task, I already from the beginning decided not to be too dogmatic about it. It seems this promise works out best during those days when I don't have a meeting before 10 and when I thus can spend the very first 30 minutes of the day in my office, sorting things out. I also skip keeping the promise when I'm generally stressed and have a lot of things that needs to be done before I go home. I guess that means I only keep the promise, say, three days per week or so. Still, that's good enough for me. I do believe I will need to make use of the whole year and perhaps be finished with cleaning out my room at the end of the year. If necessary, I might consider making the very same promise also next year. 

The second promise it to read more scientific articles. I already have the habit of reading academic books (two+ per months). Scientific articles just don't seem to get read on a regular basis though. So my nerdy solution is to invent a rule (a new year's promise) in order to make it happen. My rule is thus to read 10 pages of academic articles per day and preferably to do this at work (rather than at home, in the evenings). 

So every four weeks I add articles up until I get to my goal - 200 pages. I then divide these into four piles with around 50 pages per pile, put each pile in folder and allocate each folder to a week (1-4 during that particular month). Then I read. Afterwards I write a blog post about the articles I have read. I did do this back in April and May as part of my 30-day-promises.

I have by now diligently read articles during both January and February, but I'm behind with writing a blog post each for these two months. Also, during these two months I did not actually manage to reach the goal but have rather clocked in at around 150 pages (i.e. the articles that were supposed to be read during the fourth week of January were transferred to the first week of February instead). Despite slipping, I'm really quite happy about reading more or less one new article per day. Stuff I have wanted to read for a very long time do get read instead of warming yet another pile on my desk (or worse, being lost in one of my many piles).

I believe I will be able to keep this promise during the spring (March - April - May - June), but the autumn is a more uncertain bet. This past autumn I was totally swamped with work and just didn't have the time to read as much as I would have wanted to. This coming autumn will hopefully be better, but I wouldn't be too sorry if I "just" manage to keep this promise during six out of twelve months.