Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Leading the Pack

Time for a tidbit of self-promotion--on Friday, May 6, I was lucky enough to be a panelist in a "live" online discussion on the site, which has a special section for postsecondary education. The topic of the day was "How do you promote female leadership in higher education?". You can check out the "Q&A best bits", which are a kind of summary of what each panelist contributed to the discussion. The full discussion with over 250 "comments" is available here.

Thankfully I can say that in sharing the links to our panel, I'm also promoting the other participants, all of whom were more experienced and knowledgeable than myself! Many thanks to Mary Churchill of University of Venus for "recruiting" me for the panel.

If you click through and take a look at the short version of the discussion, you'll notice that I made a point of highlighting the structural nature of women's work in the university, e.g. the fact that certain work tends to be recognised as more "feminine", including teaching and low-level "service"--a phenomenon not confined to the university. I also emphasised the historicity of the problem, that universities have for thousands of years been elite institutions operating in patriarchal societies.

I'm reminded of that last point as I research a presentation (and paper) I'm writing about gender, science, and meritocracy (using the Canadian CERC program as my example). It's a testament to the tenacity of gender norms/ideologies that we can still blame women for lacking "merit" when they "fail" to achieve high-ranking positions in scientific communities. To me it hardly seems like a matter of "excellence", when for so many centuries women have been excluded from participation in knowledge creation in its formal settings. Yet the arguments persist, as I've seen quite clearly in the news articles and comments I've been analysing.

Plus ├ža change...

[EDIT, June 6, 2011] Here's the link to the Prezi for my CERC talk on June 1st. I hope you enjoy it!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Tech Round-Up

It’s time for another technology update, as a follow-up to the two previous posts on the tools I’ve been using for research and for connecting with others. Since I’ve been checking out a number of new and nifty tools recently, I thought I’d share the goods.

Diigo: an important change I’ve made is a switch from to Diigo. When Yahoo! announced that they would cease to develop, there was a sort of general uproar from committed users (myself included—I’d come to rely on it for bookmarking articles for media analyses) since we were afraid of losing such a great tool. Even though it became apparent that Yahoo! would not shut down, I decided to switch to another bookmarking tool for the sake of stability. I admit I’d also been tempted by the many options available. As it turns out other sites, like Diigo, have been developed more than and so they provide helpful features such as highlighting on web pages, caching pages for later reference, and the option to add notes to a page (which others can view). Most of these features are only fully available with Premium service, but I’m considering buying in (it’s only about $5 per month).

Scrivener: Thanks to Dr Inger Mewburn (@thesiswhisperer) for continual praise of Scrivener that prodded me into giving it a try. I think I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of its capabilities, but already I love the way I can create a “project” in Scrivener and include not only Word files but also .pdfs, images, web pages (html files) and even sound files—all relevant research materials in one layout. Scrivener’s handy “splits” feature allows you to view two files at once in the same visual space, invaluable when you’re looking at information on web pages or copying notes into a draft of a paper (for example). For those of us who need to organise things visually, Scrivener has an iTunes-like format that allows you to places files and folders in easy-to-access order, to easily add/create new files and folders and add documents, and to write different sections with the full structure in view. Another great thing about Scrivener is that you can download a 30-day trial, which I did, and that helped convince me that it was worth purchasing a copy. Bonus: if you pay for Scrivener you can install it on multiple computers without paying any additional fees. The bad news: it's only for Mac, as is another suggested tool, DevonThink.

Below: an example (screen-shot) of a Scrivener project layout, showing the outline for a paper in sections and also a series of .pdf files of articles I've used in the research.

Prezi: I first saw a demonstration of Prezi at the Georgetown University Round Table back in March of this year. As an alternative presentation format (alternative to Powerpoint, that is), I immediately liked the look of Prezi and was eager to find it online and try it out. Once I got going with the site (Prezi is not downloadable software, rather it’s an online tool) I enjoyed the way in which it facilitated my thinking as well as the creation of my presentation; whereas Powerpoint always makes me feel boxed in, with Prezi I can move objects around to see how they might “look” in another order, or indeed how ideas might make more sense in a different sequence. The one complaint I’ve heard from those who aren’t keen on Prezi is that it makes them feel “seasick” or nauseated because of the “zooming” motion that happens as the program moves from one “slide” to the next. So far I haven’t given any presentations using Prezi, but I’m attending a conference at the end of the month and will give it a try for at least one of the two presentations I’m planning. I’ll be keeping the zooming to a minimum, given the complaints about it.

Scribd: Though I haven’t used it much, I realised the potential usefulness of Scribd when I came across a cache of letters and other documents relating to my dissertation research. In order to download from Scribd, you have to upload documents of your own; this wasn’t a problem since I was able to connect through Facebook and complete an upload easily (taking into account the relevant copyright restrictions). I think as a document sharing site Scribd actually has a lot of potential and I’m gradually starting to upload more items (generally reports from Statistics Canada and from think tanks, relating to post-secondary education).

Zotero: Zotero is a citation manager that works both as an add-on to Firefox and as a web site through which users can sync their account across multiple computers (great for me, since I use a desktop and a laptop); it’s similar to sites like and Diigo in that way. Zotero was suggested to me by a number of people, but after an initial try I found it clunky and didn’t see how it would be of any use to me. Recently I was prompted by Dr Lee Skallerup (@readywriting) to give Zotero a second chance, and thankfully this time I’ve figured out where it fits in to my personal media/technology ecology. I use Zotero now for the search process, so that as I browse online I can create citations without having to go back and document everything later. (If you’re not keen on Zotero, recommended alternatives include Mendeley and Endnote).

Dipity: Suggested to me by John Dupuis (@dupuisjohn) of York University’s Steacie Library, Dipity is a site for constructing timelines. This became important for me because of the nature of the research I’m doing for my dissertation—i.e. I am mapping institutional developments onto provincial and federal policy and political trends, so for me it really helped to be able to see those things in a kind of linear, comparative way. My “Post-Secondary Education in Canada” timeline is still very much under construction, but I think it will eventually be a time-saving tool for others looking at the same topic.

Moo: A final nod goes to Moo, not technically a “tool” but rather a site through which you can design your own business cards, post-cards, and so on. I wrote a bit about Moo in a post in my other blog, where you can also see the images I chose to use. I love this idea of having my photos in this miniature form that I can hand out to new acquaintances. The cards arrived the other day in the mail, and they look lovely; I can’t wait to start dishing them out.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Market Fail: UK Attempts at Marketisation Bring a Cascade of Troubles

Many articles over the past little while have been looking at the failure of government marketisation efforts in England. Following last year’s Browne Review (which recommended that university fee limits be lifted), the UK government dropped the policy bomb that universities had long feared—massive funding cuts (including 40% cuts to teaching), a drop from £7.1 billion to £4.2 billion, and a marketisation scheme to be implemented through raising the “cap” on tuition fees to £9,000 from £3,290. The idea was that universities would voluntarily differentiate their fee levels in order to capture different student demographics/groups, creating a quasi-market. However, when faced with the option of setting fees of "up to" £9,000, the majority of universities opted to charge the highest possible price. They did this in spite of the government’s threats to penalise them in various ways for inhibiting accessibility.

Why has the UK government's marketisation scheme failed so dramatically with regards to fee levels? Surely the less well-known universities knew that in claiming the maximum possible tuition, they would now be charging the same fee as heavyweights such as Oxford and Cambridge. The government assumed that universities would naturally want to compete for various student “markets”, relying on institutions to create an appropriate distribution. However, such a tactic doesn’t ensure that a market will emerge. That outcome still depends on the behaviour of individual institutions. Since universities operate in competition for prestige at least as much as for revenue (the two are closely connected), their “behaviour” as actors in a market is unlikely to mirror that of (e.g.) a pet food company or an automotive corporation. So the relationship between price and prestige is undoubtedly one factor in the equation; no-one wants to be a "low-cost provider".

In keeping with this logic, students do not behave like regular consumers when "shopping" for a university degree. They don't necessarily seek out what's affordable or reasonable in terms of cost; they are making an estimate on the future returns from their short-term investment, and education is not something that can be traded for a "better model" later on when one has more money to spend. Students are in a bind of their own, with those lacking present income being encouraged to take on debt in order to finance their future employability.

Lastly, it's very difficult to create “economies of scale” in education (in my opinion it can’t be done, but that’s a whole other blog post). Thus universities cannot easily expand enrolment while also keeping tuition low, offering "discount education"--though this has happened to a certain extent with for-profit, online providers, mostly in the United States.

Another important aspect of the UK government’s plan was to remove funding from teaching, already an under-valued aspect of university work (international rankings are based on research); and from what I understand, this funding was taken only from the arts, social sciences, and humanities. But it seems that that the very universities that depend most on those enrollments will now have to raise tuition even more to make up for the significant loss of revenue--more so than, say, a university focussed heavily on the sciences. Is the UK government asking students to pay more for degrees that they (the government) have demonstrably judged to be less valuable-? (NB, I don't personally believe that degrees outside STEM areas are less inherently valuable; but they are certainly less marketable according to the logic being employed.)

As it turns out, in most cases students will pay the same (increased) price for their degrees no matter where they choose to enroll; but clearly they won’t all be getting a better “product”. One reason is that the tuition money is replacing government funding that had been cut, rather than augmenting current income in order to increase “quality”. If the funding estimate of cost per student was considered insufficient to begin with, then it makes sense that universities would raise the level of tuition to the maximum possible (£9,000). So it seems there might be a fundamental disagreement between universities and government about the “cost” of educating a student in a certain discipline or area of study (not a surprise).

On a more theoretical level, I don't believe it's possible for students to “receive” a uniform education since every person brings something different to, and takes something unique from, their educational experience.

Overall I think this is a good example of some of the problems with trying to marketise education as a “product” with an inherent economic/monetary value. Universities in Britain are now stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place: if they charge higher fees (i.e. above £6,000), they are more likely to be penalised by the government for inhibiting accessibility. The necessity for this stop-gap measure demonstrates the failure of the initial policy to establish the desired equilibrium. Such radical policy change within a short period is likely to have deep effects on the British universities, including changes to student decision-making and to the faculty workforce.