Monthly Archives: March 2011

Why I went on strike yesterday. #ucustrike

(photocredit from UCU Action Live)

Yesterday I was on the University and Colleges Union (UCU) picket-line at DMU from 8-12, protesting in solidarity with other institutions around issues of pay and pensions. Up until last week, I didn’t know I could be part of the UCU due to the nature of my sessionality (I work part time, in different roles, at several institutions) and the fact that I only get paid hourly (limited support for holidays, limited support for sickness – I just go without a wage in January) – I’m also a “funded” PhD student (on a half bursary which certainly doesn’t increase with the cost of living) so essentially could define myself as a ‘freelance’ lecturer/researcher. In fact, somebody once suggested that I register as a contracter and deal with universities as if I was an outsider, billing them for my time and outputs (not a route that I wished to go down) – a cash-in hand academic. 

I am a student and a part time lecturer and exactly the type of person who (when I finish my PhD) be expected to work in an academic institution where the students will be carrying a burden of debt larger than I could ever imagine taking on myself (even if when I was 16 I had an idea what higher education actually might be), where my subject area and research interests will be considered unprofitable by the ‘market’ and all these bonkers, and frankly transformative experiences which have made me who I am during my PhD will be considered as disruptive and out-of-place as any other commerial, private business I’ve worked for in the past. My postgraduate survey asks me (on behalf of the position that my university will suffer in the ranks if I do not fill it out) if I my institution’s postgraduate degree has (finally) prepared me for the world of the work system. Tick a box. Agree or disagree. Nothing else. This is before I even get into the issue of what I get paid, what I prepare for the future and what rights I’ll have in this new world.

But with support from my colleagues, I found out that not only could I join the union, but also UCU offered a wide range of support and action around people like myself who exist between the cracks of the institution (which is not always a bad thing – I get a lot of ‘freedom’ to explore things that I wouldn’t get to do if I was tied to just one place) – union support is just not built into the literature that comes with a monthly time-sheet where I am expected to quantify the amount of time I spent thinking about stuff that I deliver in the classroom into 3 or 4 hour chunks. I guess it is also worth noting that none of my family have been in unions (all but a small minority have worked in the private sector) and my involvement in Scottish student politics got as far as a NHS woman’s conference where I didn’t feel like I identified with enough -isms to contribute to the (same old?) organisational structure of the event.  

Not only did I feel like it was my duty to strike, to withdraw myself from the labour market for the day (although what does an academic do when it is on strike?) I felt that it was my duty to make explicit my concerns about the future of the university and higher education. Or society in general. Who knows? As I said before, I have no experience of striking, nobody in my family ever has (so I can’t ask them), I had no idea what to expect nor what to do – and reached my decision on my own consensus based on the thoughts I’ve been having for a long time (yet possible struggled to articulate) Working through my PhD research which was orginially framed in the context of transformative work practices of creative industry workers (thanks to digital technology) and the conflicting nature of mega media events have on the transformation and privatisation of space under the guise of ‘solidarity’ and (potentially) psuedo-philosophical concepts has led me here (and should help me finally articulate my first chapter – I’m obsessed with the purpose of the university in the whole of this madness. Embedded research, removed from institution, crossing between environments, shutters coming down, technology as an enabler – it frames the whole thesis, it is to even be a considered a hardback beyond the viva anyway..)

So strike I did – and I listened to the excuses and the apoligises for the people who decided to cross the picket line. Some were like me, and identified as freelancers – who had travelled miles to teach one class a week, others didn’t agree with what we were doing (but didn’t articulate exactly why – they didn’t have to), some had arranged ‘guest speakers’ who could only speak on the same day as national union action (did you really need the university building spread your message, probably), some thought it was a selfish act, some didn’t agree because they had essays or lectures or work they needed to be doing – they wanted their university education. The line was symbolic – but gave me an idea that the world that I was feared might come has always been here – just I didn’t feel so alone in it. My pocket was buzzing from support towards the third university, many other universities were tweeting about their solidarity, students were occupying and for once the physicality of the environment did not matter. It did not matter if people felt they had to take an important phone call as they passed us – avoiding eye contact, it did not matter when a young girl shouted at us for handing her a leaflet about the strikes or when others blogged about why they weren’t striking (using terms like selfish and dissapointing towards the action of the UCU)  as or many years we’ve expected to put up and shut up around the situations which are local to, that we are phsyically attached to, the person we live and work beside – and if they don’t agree, then it is time to quieten down and accept that things have to change in the way that is dominant. We have instruments such as the mainstream media to provide us with those community experiences and group concenseus on topics, with the news focusing on football and celebrities before social unease (unless it involves “troublemakers”) – the media is an educational tool and anybody that questions that purpose is participating in an act of soft pointlessness. 

So why did I strike really? When I called my mum on the drive up to Scotland last night, I said I did it because I want to show that I appreciate the help and support they’ve given me to allow me to be in the position I am in order to make decisions about my position in the system (where there struggles may have been around different contexts) and that I want to stand beside anybody who believes that the privatisation of spaces which exist for transformative good is intrinsicly wrong. I’m also about alternatives and how we can use what is available to us in order to achieve great things – so perhaps the symbolic nature of protecting the building in which the university is housed is not the right action (although powerful in its device to communicate unease) From now on, I will be there without question – regardless of how much stuff I need to catch up on.

Under my watch, I want to pass on whatever the hell somebody passed on to me to make me feel this way about the world (not what I think about the world – there are no experts), something I’ve always felt uncomfortable with in the past but now beginning to accept is part of who I am. You have to be a particular type of crazy to reject the system as it stands, but I like it.

 

#mc539: The half-way point (reflection on yesterday’s activism project)

So this week was week 7 in to #mc539, the 2nd year alternative media and web production module I’ve been running at BCU. All the course content so far has been posted on the class blog (as I delibrately wanted to encourage ‘openness’ which required the course to lead by example) There is still a moodle “space” for the module – but it really only concerns assessment and to give the students a choice to engagement (as the majority of courses are delivered behind a moodle-wall.) 

Last week the cass submitted the first part of their assignment, a manifesto towards a web project to be delivered by the end of the term. Yesterday, we decided to try something different and left the day entirely open and free from lesson plans. They were asked to plan, prepare and deliver a social media activism campaign within the 3 hours of the class – based on *something* that was happening during that week. It was hard to predict that UCU would be on strike, that the government would have voted for action in Libya or proposed cuts in teaching grants at the University – but with so much to choose from, and the lesson to be led by the students themselves, they decided to pick a topic which was close to Birmingham – the infrastructure and public transport woes in the city. I live blogged the seminar whilst they were doing it so they could concentrate of the action (taken from the class blog):

Hour 1:

They have decided to focus on the cuts to services/staff (and public transport in general) in Birmingham. They have decided to approach the project in solidarity with the union – and will be drawing attention to poor service caused by cuts in budgets and staffing in local stations.

Their larger objective is to make people aware of the importance of trains in a world where resources are becoming scarer (and how one train could take x amount of cars of the road) and to do this they will making the services aware of how bad they are and how better they could be.

They will be defining what is ‘poor service’ – delays, cancellations, low staffing, frequency.

They will be drawing attention to the under-promoted “delay/repay” scheme which London Midland offer when the train is more than 30 minutes late, a refund is automatically offered. They do not promote this on their twitter account so the group will making a tool to make it easier to claim a refund.

They will be setting up a blog to share information about their cause and will be using twitter as their main vessel of promoting the cause. The hashtag to follow is #trainFAIL – which people already use to tweet their train woes.

Hour 2:

Having decided to go with a combination of posterous and twitter for their campaign, the group are now using research gathered from several members around their campaign.

Twitter account: @BhamTrainFail

Website: Birmingham Train Fail

Points of note:

  • Channel 4 Dispatches showed a programme called “Train journeys from hell.” last night which draw attention the poor service provided by train companies in the UK. Channel 4 were encouraging people to tweet using #TrainPain – however #TrainFAIL was also being used and picked up on. Therefore, the topic is relevant and timely in terms of “what people were talking about on twitter.” but also is seen as a ‘back channel’ to the back channel, provoked by general complaints on trains. 
  • They also found a press release from the last 24 hours regarding potential strike action from London Midland around pay and conditions which suggests that the staff are unhappy too.
  • They will be calling train company press offices to find out how many services were delayed in the last year.

Action:

  • Target the campaign specifically at Birmingham – and London Midland, who have a twitter account (responding to complaints) but they were unclear of the transparency of the account (i.e. where they just retweeting information from National Rail records, rather than looking at wider contexts of problems) It was also seen as a brand management exercise rather than something that can provoke change to practice.
  • It is also raises awareness to the issues which face Birmingham, especially with its city design being geared up for change. The group want to be able to use anger in a constructed way.
  • The blog will be seen as a hub which will be populated with information relating to the campaign and the wider context of problems.

Hour 3:

The blog and twitter account have now been set up. They have been listening to people who have 1) used #trainfail #trainpain (from the previous night) asking them to respond with their #trainfail issues. They also have been contacting people who have been using the @londonmidland service and not received a satisfactory response to their problem.

The group made a call to the London Midland press office to enquiry about archives of statistics relating to their services and access to a history of delays. The press office could not provide the statistics and said that “1.5%” were delayed over the last couple of weeks. The group were not satisfied with the response and decided to blog about it.

From twitter it was not clear what the objectives of the campaign was, so they decided to halt promotion until they had added those details to the blog. They needed to make clear exactly who they were supporting, why they were doing it and what they wanted from the project. They also decided to make all the objectives ‘tweetable’ so under 140 characters. 

The have also decided to create content around the delay/replay scheme and the union disputes. These will be shared before 1pm.

Summary:

Overall I was impressed by the actions and the way in which the class worked together to get the campaign up and running – and it was good to see them refer to some of the themes we had discussed in the previous weeks. This class does have a wider purpose of course, as it gets them to consider what happens once a project is up and running and how it can be sustained (if it is to be sustained at all) in order to prepare for next week’s lecture on sustainability (in more ways than one!) I have asked them to consider the following questions in advance:

  • Give a brief overview of the project and your role throughout.
  • Provide the objectives of the group.
  • Detail what steps were taken to achieve the objectives.
  • How did you know it was a success/fail?
  • What surprised you about the result? 
  • What could you have done better?
  • How can the project be taken beyond the classroom?
  • What do you think ‘sustainability’ can mean in this context?
  • How can you relate the experiences to your own manifestos?

As an exercise, it was probably the most exciting that I’ve tried out so far – it reminds me of projects we did when I was an undergraduate and how I found it much easier to get a grasp on ideas and concepts when we were actually doing something, rather than simply discussing it in a classroom. Sure, that space is required in order to introduce the concepts – but several ideas and examples which I had demonstrated by lecture actually occurred during the project, which was pretty awesome but also showed how close we are to this world (there are no test runs!)

So now we are at the half way point, I look forward to reading and marking the manifestos and seeing them take shape within the #media2012 context – it feels very real.

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Olympic Media: An Overview (Guest lecture for Ithaca College London)

As part of a series of workshops delivered around the Olympics to visiting students from Ithaca Collage in the states, I was invited to speak about Olympic media and give an overview of its history and its challenges.

The session was roughly two hours long and covered media contexts, history of Olympic media, media technology and the games and some of the research case studies that I’ve been working on around Vancouver 2010 and London 2012. The prezi from the workshop is below:

Free education with every hot drink. @thirduniversity

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Last week I got to do a bit of travelling around – beginning with a trip to Lincoln to meet Mike Neary, Joss Winn and David Young from the University of Lincoln who are working towards setting up the Social Science Centre within the city. The social science centre aims to be run as a not-for-profit cooperative educational space where it will offer courses taught and assessed at the same level as mainstream courses currently available.

It’ll take place in Lincoln itself I’d been following the activities in Lincoln for a while now (as well as being signed up to their mailing list) so it was really exciting to head over and be part of the discussions. I’m definitely up for getting involved (hopefully a bit of teaching, bit of research, bit of web stuff) and already helping out with getting the centre’s ‘infrastructure’ up and running ahead of activities in the near future.

I love the idea of coming up with alternatives, especially when there is potential for the university to become a dark, depressing place in the coming years. I’m blogged about my feelings about how my own teaching/PhD environment may/will be affected (although, it’s taken me a while to get used to ‘being here’ in the first place.). I feel like they are closing the shutters down on the generations behind me, like I’m in a transitional phase myself – everything I think I know about doing a PhD is not “the norm” and it will be rare to take on a research topic such as mine without footing the (heavy) cost. Before I go off topic, I read these this great analysis this week about how the cuts in higher education affect the research student. For instance, I’m in two minds about filling out the postgraduate survey – the questions are bizarre (especially when I deliberately subvert location and format – although completing a pretty standard 80000 word thesis) , but I know if I don’t do it, my institution will suffer from it. It’s statistics by blackmail. Nevertheless, the act of questioning everything still has its place and question it I will (they must be so sick of me…)

With the UCU strikes on Thursday (all HE and FE institutions across in the country) and the imminent TUC march on the 26th March, I’ve been thinking about where I would like to be during this time. Not entirely happy with the system as it stands (although it’s certainly not as bad as it is going to get quite rapidly post-2012) I decided that I would support any action that offered an alternative. That alternative will be Leicester’s Third University – a floating and autonomous space where education will be offered with every hot drink. I’ll be speaking at it about citizen media campaigns on the day (between 12-4, coffee republic, granby st) (adapted from #mc539 – the joys of open course planning) and educating the filthy masses in filthy media studies (soon to be a luxury for those who can afford it.)

Yeah – so that’s it, hopefully see you there.

Exploring the themes of twitter archives (resource-making, databases and documentation.)

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Backing up tweets: Reopening the dilemma.

The forthcoming closure on the 20th of March of TwapperKeeper’s ability to export and download tweets from Twitter API has sparked me to think about potential alternatives for storing twitter data for later use (as a humanities researcher AND as somebody who experiments with twitter in the classroom). It is well documented online (but not so much treated as common knowledge) that Twitter only stores and allows for the ability of search on tweets for around 5 days (or 3200 tweets) depending on what happens first. Therefore, the reliance of twitter as a dataset or resource is often misrepresented due to the myth (often touted by the media) that the internet never forgets. The problem is that it does, not so much around the individual occurrences of data (that may be stored until the end of time in one way or another) but more around the ability to provide contextual data. For instance, we use hash-tags in tweets and blog posts in order to contextualise information in a sharable and searchable way, but if we can’t therefore search for that data even a week afterwards, the purpose of the hashtag becomes little more than an ephemeral gesture. 

Clearly in some areas, it is a desire to be able to save and search data at a later date. For instance, if you are running an event which decides to use a shared hashtag in order to allow for a back channel, you probably want to be able to save those tweets for a later date (perhaps for research data, perhaps for feedback, perhaps for more informal reflection) This goes for topic specific areas which are managed by the participants (as in there is a collective decision to adopt a hashtag/language in order to express and organise shared interests). On the flip side, you could be looking at phenomena in which you don’t participate (or don’t participate enough to make a decision) and/or is an organic topic/meme which has appeared before structures could be set in place. And example of this could include the work of Truthya research project at Indiana University which can identify in real-time popular discussions on a macro-scale. 

The mega-event (World Cup, Olympics, Royal Wedding etc) fall into this – they are going to be popular topics – regardless of social media platform, they are designed to provoke commentary, spectacle and almost act as a crutch for online discussion (and according to twapperkeeper records, hashtagged content around recent events such as World Cup in South Africa reaches upwards of 6 million tweets) Here we are dealing with a different needs as apposed to making sure useful information is saved, shared and organised as a resource, it is being able to make sense of self-generated data-sets that we’ve never encountered on this level before. 

In terms of collecting data, twapperkeeper covered all bases -at least, if you were proactive enough you could assure that for at least a brief period of time (between 2009-2011) your tweets were being stored *somewhere* (even if you weren’t totally au fait with the processes that were behind the archive) In terms of a small scale research project (or a PhD thesis) twapperkeeper was a reliable tool to help quickly generate data around particular topics (and helped harness the powerful nature of twitter’s ‘real-time’ search facilities beyond the initial occurrence of the tweets themselves.) Also, at least for me, I could encourage people who I knew might be embarking on a project which involved twitter hashtags to at least consider proactively backing up their data somewhere so that they could return to the whole ‘dataset’ when the project had been completed (especially if it runs longer than 7 days)  

Where we stand now is coming up with a set of ‘best practice’ ideas and tools for overcoming some of the gaps that twapperkeeper is leaving behind. Although there is potential to explore alternatives to database capture (TK is offering yourtwapperkeeper up for grabs to host on your own server), there is actually a lot more to it than simply collecting a whole bunch of tweets. There are a number of things which are happening here and there are infinite number of ways in which those collecting the data might want to use it. Similarly, if I’m in a position where I am to help point colleagues in the right direction in terms of collating tweets, it would make more sense to pick on something a lot simpler than generating vast databases. The ability to embedded a dynamic (but archivable) tweet stream within a blogging platform like wordpress or posterous would be more useful in some instances.

Therefore, I think a discussion needs to be had over the particular themes that are encountered around this particular dilemma. I’ve detailed some of the areas that I would be interested in exploring further:

Search & Display (as a resource)  

My UWS colleague Stuart Hepburn blogged recently about the use of twitter as a teaching aid on his contemporary screen writing degree. He is using the hashtag #TWFTV as a agreed binder for discussions around the “Team Writing for Television” module. Stuart has detailed in depth how he uses twitter and what he has found successful about using a hashtag outside of classroom activity (certainly more active that the VLE in this case) – but something that is not considered (because it’s not really where ‘learning’ is happening) is where the twitter data is being kept and stored. One option could be to simply copy and paste the tweets into a word document (a self serving task – for reflection, feedback, ‘paper’ trail) and they are being kept *somewhere* – but ideally, it would be great to have a embedded widget that pulled in all the tweets (like search.twitter.com), is saved & stored, can be searched and context is retained. 

This would also be useful if we were to use the hashtag #uwslts (UWS learning and teaching strategy) to aggregate discussions and useful links. Not just for the benefits of hardened twitter users, but also perhaps a technique to encourage colleagues to add their thoughts to the discussion in a similar way (whilst introducing twitter in a useful way – rather than taking it on cold, much like Stuart’s class.)

Nevertheless, there needs to be something in place to make tweets generated in this way useful and adaptable as a resource. There is a geniune interest in taking on social media in education at UWS, but without adequent resources around particular platforms, we might as well be projecting our discussions into thin air. 

Archive (as a database)

This is probably the most obvious reason for collecting massive quatities of data – coding content, turning it into a spreadsheet and banging it through a visualisation tool.

There is already alot of discussion around this themes and I think it will probably be the area (open data etc) which will blossom just fine. I have to admit, I’m keen but not an expert in data management. Often many of the solutions to the ongoing data archival problem of twitter involve slightly more coding and practice than simply navigating the 4th party programs that exist of the back of twapperkeeper. Ideally I would like to learn, I am keen to learn, but I’ve also got a list of other things I need to get my head around. So in terms of databases, this is an area that I will look on avidly to those who are working on such tools. (I’ve also got friends who can do this better than I can – that I can bribe with beer and pizza ;-))

Document (as a agreed event tag)

Documenting events (the aftermath) do not need to be as dynamic as a resource would need to be – think about it, the event has happened – an archive to prove it happened is enough. It’s even better if that archive includes video footage, user comments, audio, pictures, slides and documents and tweets from the backchannel – it provides an in-depth record of that event occuring. Nevertheless, if there was a particular tool that pulled together all this data in a way in which the event could be explored in its own time, after the time in which it occured. Thus, a how-to and/or best practice guide to collating data for future searches would be appropriate to tackle this theme. In the past I’ve used a wiki to collate information (including all tweets from that event) which is actually more useful than a raw database of tweets which compliment other activities that exist online. 

This is only ‘brief’ (ha!) reflection on what might come, but I am interested in what others think about this area – what are your needs from twitter and how can that be backed up (if you think it should be backed up at all?)

Using a kindle as a teaching aid. #tmayr

My normal procedure for 1st year seminar prep (specifically for theory class) involves making notes on the lead lecture slides, re-read the set reading and prepare a set of questions to kick start classroom discussions. Pretty straight forward as I’ve taught the class before.

Normally I just do this on my laptop (via dropbox) and work from notes on the screen during the class. Through one reason or another, I have managed to rinse my data allowance on my phone this month. It’s meant that this week I’ve not been able to tether my laptop to the 3G connection in order to get as much work as I would usually do on the train. So this week I thought I would stick the reading on the kindle and make notes on it instead.

However- I realised that powerpoint presentations can also be converted to .pdfs and viewed on the kindle. Seems totally obvious, I know – but when you are using an object as a book (and only a book) you don’t really think about what else it could be used for (that’s probably the simplistic beauty of a e-reader compared to a tablet computer) 

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It was easy to whiz through the powerpoint, highlight bits that needed to be expanded during the seminar and make notes on other points that would be useful for discussion (basic annotation.) But the really cool thing was when I viewed all the notes together and it looked like this:

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Easy, lesson plan – done.

But more importantly, instead of using paper (which is clutter and I always end up losing somewhere) or having to position myself behind the laptop for the entirely of the class (which create a little bit of weirdness in terms of learning space – there is a barrier between me and students), I was able to use my kindle as a really small note pad that actually contained all the details that I needed to touch on (without simply copying it all out into a separate document) This freed me up to encourage proper discussions, rather than simple replicate the lecture from the previous day – because I didn’t need to try and cram all that information into my head prior to the class. The lecture was only ever to be considered as a starting point – so having it close by, without putting a barrier up was quite a nice feeling.

Also, I had my PGCE observation yesterday so I had to be on my best-est behaviour. :-)