Falling off the ethical happy path

It’s Sunday morning. I’m currently surrounded by books, academic papers, highlighter pens and lots of scrappy notes. I’m ploughing my way through the individual at work module in an attempt to start the last assignment of the course, excluding the dissertation. It’s been hard to concentrate on this module during January, partly because of work commitments, partly because of a stinking cold I’ve had for the last week, but also because of the wrestling match I ended up having with the newly-automated ethical approval process.

Some hints for future students (based on my experience of the process in January 2016):

  • Your dissertation supervisor is actually your co-researcher as far as the ethical approval process is concerned.
  • The departmental ethics officer (DEO) that you’ve been assigned (by dint of the first letter of your surname) is your ‘module leader or authorising supervisor’. Providing the details of the actual module leader or your actual dissertation supervisor is definitely the wrong thing to do.
  • If you get this step wrong, it appears that there’s no way that anyone can re-route your application to the correct place, so you have to start the process again.
  • It’s (at least) a two-step submission process. Once your supervisor (co-researcher) has approved the application it ends up back with you to submit manually to the DEO. Unless you remember to check your emails and hit the submit button again, the DEO won’t see your application. I’m unsure as to why this is the case – all of the routing information has to be provided up-front by the applicant – so it simply seems to introduce an unnecessary time-lag into the process.
  • Once you’ve made a mistake and you (reluctantly) decide that the best course of action is to start again, the system won’t allow you to clone or cut and paste information from a ‘stuck’ application into a new one (well, unless you know how to use the ‘view source’ option in a web browser of course …).

In conclusion – don’t fall off the ethical approval process happy path – it’s frustrating if you do. But given how easy it is to make mistakes, my professional persona would love to spend some time with the designer of this system to help them make it just a little more robust. So here’s my offer – if you’d like to get in touch with me, I’ll happily come and spend a couple of hours with you in Leicester, free of charge, to help you improve the experience for future students and researchers. I’ll also bring cake.

Which takes me back to my current module assignment – it focuses on ways of dealing with stress at work. Given the month that I’ve just had (and I don’t mean dealing with the frustrations of the ethical approval process – they were the least of my worries), it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Eating cake while working on improving things would seem to be an excellent way of reducing stress, but sadly, there doesn’t appear to be any research evidence out there to suggest that it would be effective. Unless, of course, you know differently …

 

A version of this article was previously published at the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 31st January 2016.

In praise of Baroness Sharp – the Lords debate adult education and lifelong learning

Last week, the House of Lords debated the current state of adult education and lifelong learning. I’ve now taken some time to read through the transcript and I’ve picked out a number of highlights from the excellent contribution made by Baroness Sharp. The debate was also notable for providing a vehicle for the farewell speech of Baroness Williams to be delivered, which was well reported on Liberal Democrat Voice.

That aside, the motion debated (and agreed) was:

That this House takes note of the role of adult education and lifelong learning and the need to develop the skills needed to strengthen the United Kingdom economy.

and was moved by the Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Sharp of Guildford. In opening the debate, she said:

The trends [concerning adult education] are not good at present. Since the introduction of the full-cost £9,000 fee at universities in 2012, while the number of full-time undergraduates has increased, part-time numbers have plummeted by 58%. Today, there are 244,000 fewer part-time students studying at our universities than in 2010-11. This has hit the Open University and Birkbeck hard, but it has also led to course closures elsewhere because part-time courses become unviable. We know from the research undertaken by Universities UK that part-time students are indeed a somewhat mixed bunch, but we also know that a large number of them are mature students, many from disadvantaged homes and often with existing debt and family obligations, which makes them much more wary than their younger counterparts of taking on the debt obligations. Part-time study has been a powerful access tool. For those wishing to retrain and take up a new career, the ELQ rule, which excludes those who already have an equivalent level of qualification from getting grants and loans, has proved a substantial barrier to course take-up.

Yes, we’re definitely a “mixed bunch”! Baroness Sharp made a very pertinent observation about ensuring that the provision of adult education opportunities isn’t solely employer-led, but also considered the needs of individual learners.

I am calling for a more comprehensive skills strategy which addresses helping the over-24s improve their lot if they want to. What happens now if you are made redundant and cannot find an employer who will offer you an apprenticeship? What if you are self-employed, the fastest growing sector in the labour market at present? Who is responsible for training you if you are one of the army of people working as agency staff in one of the many areas in both the public and private sectors where work is now subcontracted out? If you are on a zero-hours contract, who is responsible for your training? There has been much talk about training needing to be demand-led, but demand in this case is always referred to as employer demand. I argue that the individual is an important part of demand.

In concluding, Baroness Sharp made three recommendations:

First and foremost, we need a more comprehensive approach that pulls together adult education and skills. This requires much closer working between colleges, universities, the independent training providers and not just employers but the local authorities and other public sector organisations, such as the NHS and DWP, as partners at a local level.

Secondly, we need to empower the individual to take more control over their own training. … given the risk-aversion shown by many mature students to loans, how about allowing 40 year-olds to draw down a proportion of their pension funds to meet training costs?
Thirdly, we need some incentive for the individual to invest in themselves. It is time, I believe, to look again at the idea of individual learning accounts … At the very least, it would be good to allow the individual to claim tax relief on the money that they invest on bona fides education and training courses.

The response from the government at the end of the debate came from Baroness Evans of Bowes Park. It was interesting that significant chunks of her response focused on pre-21 education, training and the provision of full-time apprenticeships, perhaps showing that despite the encouraging noises being made by her, there is still a failure at the heart of government to understand the needs of part-time, mature adult learners. She did, however, conclude that:

The Government recognise that there is more to be done to ensure that the UK has the skills and flexibility it needs to grow in the global economy and that all people in this country have the skills they need to do what they would like to in life.

… which is encouraging, but fine words butter no parsnips. Until there is a greater focus by government and politicians of all parties on the needs of part-time, mature students and an understanding of the value generated by people treading this path, then the decline in this sector can only continue.

Open University student numbers fell 12.2% in 2014/15

The number of students studying at The Open University has fallen for the 5th consecutive year, according to figures released by The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

Data for student enrolments in 2014/15 were published a few days ago. It makes dismal reading for HE part-timers. Overall, the number of part-time students fell 6%, to below 600,000. This compares to the 800,000 recorded in 2010/11. Chart 1 of HESA’s analysis provides the details.

The 6% fall is concerning enough, but the decline in Open University student numbers has been even more dramatic. Overall, across the OU in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, HESA reports total student numbers at 132,365. This is 18,470 (12.2%) fewer than reported in 2013/14.

The data shows that 11.4% fewer students are Open University undergraduates, making a total of 122,805. Postgraduate numbers have sunk to 9,560, down 21.8% on 2013/14. The full breakdown of figures across all UK HE providers can be found in Table 3 (Microsoft .xlsx format).

I’ve added this data onto the chart that I’ve been keeping for the last few years and it’s – well – terrifying.

Open University Student Numbers 2008-09 to 2014-15I continue to fear for the future of part-time education under the Conservatives. However, no political party is blameless in this unfolding scandal. Labour damaged the sector by withdrawing ELQ funding. The coalition rarely acknowledged that the sector existed. They understood it even less. They were particularly bad at recognising that the needs of mature, part-timers are very different from those of young, full-time students.

We’re still a little way from the end of OU transitional fees in England. The majority of Open University undergraduates live there, so I expect that the next couple of years will be equally tough. I hope the Open University survives. I hope that part-time education as a whole survives too! There’s no doubt that it is a significant enabler of social mobility. But as the Conservatives continue their relentless attack on aspiration elsewhere, I’m not confident that my hope is rational.

Things that I said I’d never do, number 94

One of the things that I said I would never do is buy a Fitbit. Well, yesterday, I did (a Fitbit surge, seeing as you didn’t ask) and it arrived this evening. For posterity, here’s a record of my first short walk wearing it.

My first Fitbit walkAre there things that you said you’d never do and have done – or am I alone in my hypocrisy? Please confess in the comments below and I’ll absolve you.

Can you see the real me?

Over the Christmas break I had a couple of photographs taken of me that I like for completely different reasons. The first is one that was taken by a professional photographer, James Brokensha, and was part of a surprise present given to Jane and me by our daughters. Without us knowing, they’d hired Jim to take some family portraits of us while we were in Devon. The results are brilliant (even though in my case he had to work with some distinctly average material) and Jane is currently in the process of ordering lots of prints.

The image below is from the end of the session when we all had individual pictures taken. I love this one in particular because I look relaxed – I was – and most photographs of me look as if I’m a rabbit caught in headlights. I also like to think that it shows that I have considerable depth of character … (ahem).

Tim Holyoake - December 2015The second was taken while we were out walking the Raptor Trail in Haldon Forest. I was particularly disappointed as we didn’t see a single dinosaur, let alone a raptor, anywhere on the trail. I bet no-one saw any butterflies on the butterfly trail on the day we were there either. So obviously, to counteract the disappointment, here’s a selfie of me pretending to be a raptor with the long-suffering Jane.

Me being a raptor, Haldon Forest, December 2015.Other than the sheer comedy value this photograph has, the reason I’ve posted it here is that it’s the first photograph of me that I’ve seen which shows a noticeably enlarged lymph node directly under my ear. It’s clearly the angle that I’m holding my neck at that makes it so pronounced, as you can barely see it in the first photograph taken a day or so later.

Of course, the “real me” is neither and both of these photographs at the same time. The mantle cell lymphoma may be advancing, but I refuse to let it define me. Equally, I’m rarely the calm, collected, all-wise professional that the first photograph suggests. (Stop laughing – I can hear you!)

What occupational psychologists get up to in January

Happy New Year!

This week I’ve had the pleasure of spending three days at the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology annual conference, held at the East Midlands Conference Centre in Nottingham. It’s the first time that I’ve attended and it was fascinating to listen to the breadth of the research being presented. It was also good to meet up with a number of past and present Leicester students as being on a distance learning course you don’t really get much of a chance to do this otherwise. Even more encouraging was that three recently graduated Leicester MSc students presented the results of their dissertation research to the conference, reinforcing the value of the course. Hopefully I’ll be able to do the same at some point in the future – if I manage to execute my own dissertation research well enough.

The conference timetable was HUGE!

2016 DOP conference timetable

In the end, I managed to attend around 25-30 different sessions, with the highlights for me including:

  • The keynote presentation from Professor Steve Peters on optimising the performance of the human mind. In recent years, Steve has worked with a number of high-profile sportspeople, but freely admits that he isn’t really all that interested in sport. Instead, he’s able to help them understand the way that their minds work, enabling them to cope with the irrational and fast acting ‘inner chimp’ that he claims is inside us all. While the keynote wasn’t filmed, he has previously presented a 10 minute summary of his ideas in a TEDx talk from 2012.
  • The symposium of five papers on the impact of technology on work-life balance, which provided some very useful material for thinking about my current module assignment as well as complementing the material in the paper presented by The Future Work Centre on the impact of email pressure. You might have seen Richard MacKinnon, one of its authors, on television or in the press talking about their research early in January.
  • The fringe event delivered by Rob Bailey on the secret science of mind reading. I now know that I’m just as blind to really obvious changes in the environment as everyone else is. I also picked up a couple of tricks that I might be able to impress my work colleagues with – if I can get a large enough group of them together!
  • … and of course, being able to successfully navigate my way around the huge agenda and conference centre to see a couple of the Leicester MSc student presentations – thank you Karen and Melvyn for sharing your research into teacher wellbeing and workplace bullying respectively, and my apologies to Melissa for somehow managing to miss yours.

If you’d like to see what others thought of the conference, searching through the #dopconf hashtag on twitter will give you a good impression of the event.

It was definitely one of the friendliest conferences that I’ve attended and the ambassador programme they run for first time attendees like me was a great way to break the ice and meet new people (Thanks Angie!).

Next year’s conference is in Liverpool between 4th – 6th January and I certainly hope to be there.

A version of this article was previously published at the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 9th January 2016.

Spondon Caravan Centre in the early 1950s

While going through a box of my grandfather’s photographs, I came across this picture of Spondon Caravan Centre that I believe is from the early 1950s – possibly taken at around the same time as these pictures of Spondon Garage. I don’t have the negative, so the image was taken directly from the print using my Epson V550 scanner.

Spondon Caravan CentreThe picture looks to have been taken from near the junction of Willowcroft Road and Nottingham Road. The mock tudor building in the background is the Moon Hotel on Station Road.

My guess is that the reason the picture was taken was that my grandfather purchased a caravan from there. The two pictures of his caravan that follow were stored with this one.

Caravan exteriorCaravan exterior

Caravan interior   Caravan interior

It all looks rather basic compared to the fully fitted, double-glazed and heated caravans of 2016.

Whetstone FORTRAN benchmark on the Raspberry Pi Zero

I eventually succumbed to my gadget cravings over Christmas and spent the princely sum of £4 on a Raspberry Pi Zero(*). This has enabled me to re-run the Whetstone double precision FORTRAN benchmarks that I’d previously tried out on my original model B and the Pi 2 last year.

Pi Zero and a 1964 penny coinMy Pi Zero with a 1964 penny coin for scale …

My configuration is currently headless as the HDMI output appeared to stop working after around 5 minutes use. At less than the price of a sandwich at an average motorway service station, it’s not worth the hassle to send it back for the refund graciously offered by the supplier to my somewhat tetchy tweet … I’ll simply replace it with another one when they’re a little easier to obtain.

Anyway, taking an average of 10 runs over 100,000 loops, the benchmark indicates a performance of 201,159 double Whetstone KIPS (thousands of instructions per second), which puts it squarely between that of the original model B (150,962) and a single core of the quad-core Pi 2 (276,369).

The Raspberry Pi Zero running the FORTRAN Whetstone double precision benchmarkBenchmark output

Hmm. Now what?!

(*) In reality £18.50, including postage and packaging, an 8Gb micro SD card and the Pi Zero essentials kit from The Pi Hut.

The 12 posts of Christmas (part 2)

The sixth most read to the most read post published during 2015 (12 – 7 are here).

6. Welcome back – the OU re-launches psychology masters degrees for 2016. Too late for me, but many former and current OU students are happy that these courses are to be re-introduced at last (It now looks as if these courses have been postponed until October 2017).

5. Benchmarking the original Raspberry Pi Model B. A follow-up to the most read post of the year.

4. Spondon Garage in 1952. Two black and white photographs of motoring in days gone by.

Pump attendants at Spondon Garage, 19523. Spondon in colour 1956: Before the Borrowash bypass. The picture below shows the view from near Spondon Methodist church. Today, the A52 leaving Derby runs through the field in the foreground, bisecting Kirk Lees Avenue.

Kirk Leys Avenue 19562. The construction of the A52 at Willowcroft Road, Spondon, 1956-57. A collection of black and white photographs showing how the Borrowash bypass was built.

1. Benchmarking the Raspberry Pi 2. <geek> Running ancient FORTRAN benchmarks on a brand new £30 computer. I haven’t yet got hold of the £5 Raspberry Pi Zero to repeat the feat, but it’s probably only a matter of time … </geek>

Double Precision Whetstone Benchmark Results, RPi 2A Happy Christmas to all my readers. I look forward to seeing you again in 2016.

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