Monday, 15 October 2018

#32: The Open University

Wandering around the Open University campus in Milton Keynes recently, I was reminded of that old academic ‘joke’ that universities would be wonderful if only there weren’t any students. Here, there were very few to be seen. The library, ‘Hub’ restaurant, nearby church, flowerbeds, sculptures, signs – all bespoke a peaceful well-equipped institution dedicated to civilised learning – except that the students would all be beavering away off-site, presumably. 

In fact, it seemed rather like an organisation run for the benefit of its staff, who walked hither and thither, identity passes flapping gently.

I particularly enjoyed dropping into the library – no pass required! – where an intriguing mix of displays made a wonderfully stimulating environment: a huge 3D map showed the drastic fall in world poverty over the last 200 years (from 85% in 1800 to 15% of the world’s population today); shelves held a mix of the OU’s learning materials – creative writing, sociology, classics, law – which on a quick flick through still seemed to be of the highest quality; a display case had photos of women who had contributed to making the OU what it is, including former Speaker of the House of Commons Betty Boothroyd, OU Chancellor from 1995-2006. 
In his memoir Time of My Life Denis Healey names the OU, set up in 1969, as Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s standout domestic achievement, and many people would agree.

It opened university doors to many who would not otherwise have been able to get in, helped improve the skills of the UK population and gave a big push to the use of technology in teaching (remember those late night TV broadcasts?). It is still the biggest university in the UK for undergraduate education.

So how is the OU doing these days, in the age of the MOOC (Massive Online Open Course), free Harvard lectures online and student loans? 
Not well, apparently. Since 2010/11 OU student numbers have fallen by 30% (overall there has been a 56% fall in numbers of part-time students, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency). When the cap on part-time fees was raised in 2012, so universities could charge more, many prospective students were priced out. In addition, funding was withdrawn for students who already had a qualification at the level they wanted to study at – so if you already have a degree, you can’t get a loan for another one. On top of that, you need to be studying at least 25% ‘course intensity’ – in other words, in order to get a loan, your course cannot take more than four times as long as a full-time one. 

All these things hit prospective OU students hard, since they are often older students who may already have qualifications, want modules spread over a long time and may be more risk-averse than younger applicants, so less likely to take out loans.

In a THES article in April this year, three OU academics (Mark Brandon, Joe Smith and Martin Weller) bravely suggested the OU change its role to produce ‘core online methodology modules’ which could be used by a range of universities and that its partnership with the BBC be changed to include the production of an ‘interactive learning resources lab’. Both these take advantage of the OU’s expertise in design of learning resources. 

However, my own experience of producing HE learning resources (mainly with museums) suggest that university tutors want to use their own materials. Unlike schoolteachers, who need to follow the National Curriculum, and who often welcome targeted learning resources, HE staff are often fiercely protective of their own interests and approaches and want any learning materials to mesh with these. Universities also want to champion their own ‘brand’ and may be reluctant to use materials from their competitors.

Access to brick and mortar universities is much wider now than when the OU started, and many of these run their own distance learning courses. The HE learning landscape has changed considerably since the late ’60s, and of course there is no reason to keep a venerable institution going for the sake of it. But I hope the OU can reinvent itself and keep going, and that that student-free campus will not close any time soon.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

#32 paper encyclopaedia

Do people still buy paper encyclopaedias? According to a feature in my local paper interviewing local second-hand booksellers, they are very hard to shift (although I can’t find wider sales figures). And are companies still publishing them? Apparently not – the last 32-volume printed Encyclopaedia Britannica (with new entries on global warming and the Human Genome Project) appeared in 2010 and it is now online only. It appears Wikipedia and the web have put paid to them.

But I found myself reaching for this bulky object recently when I wasn’t feeling in the best of spirits and was staying at a friend’s house. There was something peculiarly comforting about learning, or relearning, the names of the muscles and bones in the human body, the speeds of trains planes and automobiles, the properties of different plants, the development of cinema. 

In his poem ‘Ode to an Encyclopaedia’ James Arthur praises ‘the Questing Beast of blue and gold’ thus:
my narrative without an ending, you had a diagram of a cow
broken down into the major cuts of beef, and an image
of the Trevi Fountain.

This sense of comfort and relaxation would not be quite the same on the web and I’m not sure why – perhaps the attractive feeling of a stable canon of knowledge rather than an ever-changing hive mind, or even that encyclopaedias are still thought of as partly for children (although apparently the word comes via the Greek for ‘well-rounded education’).

Anyway, here is a short quiz based on things I learnt from this (admittedly 1995) encyclopaedia. Scroll down for answers.

1. Which country has the densest population?
2. Which planet has the longest seasons?
3. Which fish swims the fastest?

1. Bangladesh 2. Uranus (each pole gets 42 years of light, then 42 years of darkness) 3. Tuna

PS for an interesting analysis of Encyclopaedia Britannica’s early battles with Microsoft’s CD encyclopaedia Encarta, see this article by Shane Greenstein of Harvard Business School.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

#31: Collecting the World

By the time Hans Sloane died in 1753 he had amassed and catalogued vast numbers of natural and artificial objects from around the world. In his will he stipulated that these should be kept together, housed in London, and available to anyone who wanted to see them. He asked a knockdown price of only £20,000, to be given to his two daughters. Parliament, pressed by trustees who he had lined up, eventually agreed and so the British Museum was born.

Collecting the World promises an exploration of ‘The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane’. So how much of his ‘life’ and ‘curiosity’ do we get? We learn that Sloane suffered a long childhood illness, and always ate and drank healthily afterwards. When young he was enthralled by gardens, talking admiringly of an early greenhouse in Chelsea Physic Garden which the head gardener Mr Watts warmed with ‘a great fireplace’ under the floor.

He was, says Delbourgo, ‘a cautious, sober and doggedly unimaginative Protestant empiricist – all of which he considered positive virtues as a man of science’. He saw his role as gathering fragments of nature, not interpreting them. (It would fall to later experts such as Linnaeus to use Sloane’s specimens to help build categories for understanding nature which we still use today). 

But generally Sloane does not emerge from the book as a distinct personality, and aspects of his personal life, such as his marriage, are not dwelt on. Instead, he’s interpreted in terms of the influences upon him – of the patrician Protestant Ulster where he grew up, of the ‘genteel and learned society’ of the London in which he moved, and of slave-era Jamaica, where he went as personal physician to the governor Christopher Monck, Duke of Albermarle, and where he collected large numbers of plant specimens.

A strength of the book is that it gives us hefty chunks of background to help us understand these influences. When Sloane calls Jamaica an island ‘in the torrid zone’, for example, we are told exactly what ‘torrid’ meant at the time, and given a brief outline of European attitudes to weather in the tropics, starting with Aristotle. When we read about visitors coming to see Sloane’s collections in London, we learn a bit about the tradition by which people toured collections and wonder cabinets in Europe, and how this linked with pilgrimages to saints’ relics. The book is perhaps aimed at the specialist rather than general reader, but such information makes it more widely accessible. 
Sloane's box of medical specimens

And what do we learn about the Sloane’s curiosity? ‘Curiosity was the currency of learned exchange and favour’, says the book, and there is plenty of detail about how the trade in objects bought influence and how Sloane, not having a university education, had to cultivate influential contacts. However, in this book Sloane’s love of exploration and discovery takes a backseat to the author’s interpretation of the pursuit of knowledge as a product and symbol of money and power. For example, the financial reasons for Sloane’s journey to Jamaica, and the likelihood that he would earn money from keeping slaves alive, is given more space than his desire to see new plants at first hand.
One result of this is to call into question the value of Sloane’s collections, since according to the book they are ‘an artefact of British imperial power’, and in fact I remain unclear about their value as continuing research resources or even just as interesting objects. Delbourgo’s view is that understanding the ‘global journeys’ of the objects Sloane collected reveal the origins of the British Museum, show us that objects’ meanings change over time, and highlight the ‘extraordinary variety of people – from savants to slaves’ who helped to contribute to the first public museums. I would like more evidence that they are relevant to our own time and even to the future. Still, the author also makes clear that much of Sloane’s collections have still not been examined properly, such as a 16th century watercolour of a ‘great temple’ at Constantinople by the English galley slave Thomas Morgan.

I also missed an enthusiastic voice – the book is a result of years of research and as so often in scholarly works, I would like to understand more of the researcher’s enthusiasm. There is even sometimes an undertone of distaste for its subject, perhaps because of Sloane’s links with slavery and Empire or because he was a very rich man who charged high fees. For example, we are told that Sloane was ‘harping on a familiar theme’ when he said insects on Jamaica were similar to English ones – but is it not natural to try to understand something new by comparing it with what you already know?

The book is wonderfully illustrated and I would recommend it to anyone who would like a detailed account of Sloane’s collections, interpreted according to the social and political mores of our own time.

To learn more about Sloane’s collections online see the Reconstructing Sloane project, which aims to digitise all Sloane’s manuscripts and collections. To see some of them in reality, visit the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum.

Sir Hans Sloane by Stephen Slaughter (1736)

Sunday, 18 February 2018

#30: Coffee

‘Coffee strengthens memory and intellectual capacity’, says this sugar sachet. Is this true? I was all set to dismiss this as a marketing ploy, but there does seem to be some evidence to support the claim.

Overall, the results about the effect of caffeine on memory are mixed.

In the short term, caffeine can ‘strengthen intellectual capacity’, particularly in sub-optimal conditions – i.e. if the drinker is feeling tired or working at night. If the drinker is working on more complex tasks, there are still positive results linked with caffeine consumption but it’s not so easy to say that this is actually down to the caffeine, rather than other factors. And in some studies, caffeine was even found to impair memory.

This 2002 literature review in the Archives of Medical Science in the US National Library of Medicine states that regular caffeine users have higher mental functioning (!), although again this may not be down to the coffee on its own.

An article from the same source  says that caffeine improves reaction time but has no effect on long-term memory.

To my surprise, drinking coffee in midlife is linked to reduced incidence of  dementia, although this may not be down to the coffee – correlation does not mean causation, of course, and it’s not clear what the exact mechanism might be. Randomised controlled trials (isolating caffeine as far as possible as the only variable) are lacking.

Commentators agree that the safe limit for coffee is 400 mg a day – about 4 cups. ‘It seems safe to inform the general public that coffee drinkers need not fear for their health’, says this 2017 article. Reassuring, but certainly no good for a sugar packet slogan.

So how should that sugar packet slogan be rewritten to be more rigorous? Something like: ‘studies show that coffee might strengthen memory and intellectual capacity in the short term’. Not as catchy, but still… surprising, I must admit.

And let’s not forget the other benefits of coffee – the way it brings people together, offers a break from work and is of course is a good procrastination tactic. So here’s Meret Oppenheim’s 1936 surrealist work Luncheon in Fur to highlight the cuddly side of coffee.