November 27, 2009

Moving on from Warwick

At the end of this week I move on from Warwick after 7 years in the comms team. Whilst I am sad to move on, I am looking forward to the new challenges and opportunities ahead.

It is nice, however, to reflect on that time at Warwick and it’s a good opportunity just to say a few things about this and that.

Whatever has happened over my time here has been based on a set of strong collaborations of extremely talented people who have (largely) been a joy to work with. Warwick is blessed with a great community of people who are passionate about their discipline (and I include administrators in this, not just academics and students) and the institution. There are many great minds around here that are capable of great things.

It’s been a considerable pleasure to work with many people and teams at Warwick and I would like to just thank a few of them here.

eLab are a fabulous asset to the University and a provide pool of skills and knowledge that is the envy of many. Despite the odd hiccup, usually thanks to me, the development team have proven themselves to be an outstanding group – creative, insightful and able to navigate paths through challenges in a way that is always accessible. John, Chris, Karen, Sara and Julie have always been great to work with and serve the interests of both parties in an exemplary fashion – which is not always easy! If I have one frustration with the team it is that they don’t tell their own story half as well as they should do.

I have to also give due credit to Steve Carpenter, Rob O’Toole, Stephen Brydges and Chris Coe for being great to work with and helping me navigate through the elearning world so effectively. And yes, I do mean that to apply to Mr O’Toole, tortured genius that he may be.

Steve Carpenter has also been a massive help (along with the King of Wales, Mr Mat Mannion and the patient Nick Howes) in getting many of the video and related projects going. I hope I have given good value in return. Keep the flash faith my friend. Keep the faith.

I have to admit that the podcasting and video work has probably been the most fun I have ever had in a job (to date, future employer….). It has been an absolute pleasure to have worked with academics and students across the University. All the innovation in the world counts for nothing without the ideas and insight to grab the imagination of audiences. I feel lucky to have been able to have had access to some brilliant academics and discuss their passions and interests in such an intimate and privileged way.

I can’t think of many academics I have had problems with in these projects (though 2 spring to mind, no names – this is a positive reflection). In particular I would like to comment on a few close friends and colleagues.

David Morley is a creative whirlwind and you can judge just how much people value his ideas by the responses to the Writing Challenges series. It has been a great experience to work with David and I count it amongst some of the most rewarding things I have ever done.

The team at CAPITAL – Carol, Susan, Johnny, Nick and the others put up with me for 3 whole months. It is rare to get that sort of time to breath and think but I found it really valuable and insightful. They are a great team of people who are passionate about their work and gave me a great deal of confidence to deal with academic subjects in a more considered way.

Nick Barker, Jeremy Ireland and the wonderful Stefan Bon – how we generated so many great plans and delivered so little ;-) but always with a smile and a laugh.

David Davies and friends at the med school; Peter Pormann in Classics, the brilliant Ian Stewart in Maths. All those in engineering and WMG who were happy to get their faces on film.

Too many to mention really – sorry i can’t name you all.

The thing that this has left me with is a deep respect for the academic community at Warwick in terms of their knowledge and expertise but also in the way that with few exceptions they have been willing to embrace new (stupid!) ideas and grab opportunities to try new things and push creativity and ideas. Please don’t lose that enthusiasm and continue to be brilliant at this stuff.

I also have to talk about the students I have worked with over the years. Warwick should be (and is) rightly proud of its student community. They are capable of great innovation and can deliver fantastic results. I have infinite respect for them and what they can and will achieve. Special mention to Alex Dzeigel who I hope goes on to all the success that her talent deserves.

There are many within the University administration that I could mention, so I won’t bore you with a long list of beaming comments.

As for the Communications Office. It’s a great team of people to work with and I have learned much from one of the best in the business. They have accommodated many of my wilder moments and put up with a large dose of grumpiness with good humour. I only ever once came close to lamping a colleague and that’s not a bad record for 7 years (they would have deserved it too…).

In particular I have to say thanks to Emily and Lesley for their commitment to the icast and digital press projects over the last few years. They have both been invaluable in supporting me in developing these programmes and making them successful. That we were able to make the case to retain their services is testament to just how good they are at what they do.

Ian Rowley and Peter Dunn – between them they have probably stopped more lunacy and supported more craziness on my part than anyone else in this place. If we have clashed it is only because we all care so damn much.

As for the rest – Trevor, Alison, Jackie, Jo T, Kelly, Natalie, Julia, Sam, Suzanne, Jess, Roberta, Jo E, Helen, Peter W, Casey, Tracy, Varsha and the rest – a great time and thanks!

Have I left anyone out?

Oh yes.

About 4 years ago Trevor Seeley and I recruited Ellie Lovell as a communications assistant to help us do a load of things. She has proven herself to be a fantastic addition to the team and has saved my arse on numerous occasions! Never afraid to tell me to shut up when needed and with the patience to cope with regular requests from Peter Dunn she has lived up to the potential Trevor and I saw in the interview. I wish her every future success and hope that she goes forward with the confidence that her abilities deserve.

So, what would I say to my replacement (other than duck… run…. :-). I think working at Warwick has been a privilege and a great experience. Despite difficult times Warwick remains an institution blessed with great talent and commitment that should see it to great success in the future. Any replacement will find talent, capability, confidence and a willingness to embrace change and new ideas. That is a precious thing and should be celebrated. I hope that there remains a culture of trust and creativity for this to thrive.

Oh – and try and avoid committees – an approach that has served me well for 7 years!

October 20, 2009

Marc Reeves on the future of local and regional media

Writing about web page

Big announcement today about the future of the Birmingham Post:

Warwick hosted an event last week where Post Editor Marc Reeves talked about the future of local and regional media, including some discussion on the situation at the Birmingham Post.

Here is the presentation:

The other presentations are at:

July 13, 2009

Media outcries, military tactics and the problems of Afghanistan

Much of the reporting of the current British military involvement in Afghanistan has left me somewhat irritated and has caused some discussion in the household about the current state of war reporting and of people’s understanding of military matters.

Two things to say first.

1. None of this discussion is intended to lessen the individual tragedy of any death or injury or the impact of this on families and loved ones – it’s all horrid and awful

2. I say this stuff as a reflection on various reading and study over many years rather than from any direct experience of military engagement.

So, firstly. Some of the debate about ‘are our troops getting the protection they need’ or ‘we need more armour, helicopters, bigger, heavier, stronger’ leaves me wondering about what people understand about military operations.

Lets think about helicopters first.

Helicopters are great for getting from one place to another very quickly and in moderate safety. Not complete safety mind you. Helicopters are still vulnerable to ground fire – Black Hawk Down is a useful reminder of this.

The other thing about helicopters is that they are great for rapid response to a situation, but they don’t allow for long term domination of territory. The American experience in Vietnam is a useful comparison. Helicopters allowed US forces to move quickly around zones but with a few problems. Landing zones attracted a lot of attention from enemy fire making them dangerous locations. VC forces would get wind of the approaching US troops, leave an area wait for the patrols to leave and then come back. It made it very difficult for the US to actually gain long term control of areas. To do that you need men on the ground over a long period, not jumping from zone to zone to zone in an endlessly futile dance.

At some point you also have to get out of the helicopters and actually spend some time on the ground. You can’t effectively search an area using helicopters – you need to talk to people and get a grounds eye view, and that means risk.

And on that point – piling up armour seems to me to be an odd response. There are many occasions where fast and light wins over slow and heavy, especially in areas of uneven terrain and against a lightly armoured fast enemy. Yes, it means accepting greater risk but there are reasons why it can useful to be quick and manouverable.

Take for example a much older scenario. The massed ranks of French cavalry on the field of Agincourt were feared as the ultimate shock troops of their age. Heavily armoured, a mass charge was a terrible thing to experience, let alone be on the end of. However, as history illustrates, a muddy field and an opposing line of lightly armed English Longbowmen soon brought the medieval tanks to a grinding halt.

Similarly there are plenty of examples from more modern time where quick infantry have knocked out heavily armoured tanks and transports. Sure, you’d give the odds to the tank but then you can still get occasions when a plucky soldier armed with just a PIAT (basically a high explosive round stuck on a spring – not kidding! Afghanistan would not be the first time British Troops have been sent into combat with crap weapons!) can take out a heavily armoured German self-propelled gun.

And again, at some point you have to get out of the tank and walk about and that means risk.

The heavy armour approach leads you down the line of American Forces – big tanks, big guns – and this is not necessarily going to win hearts and minds.

The Russians had this same problem in Afghanistan – they had plenty of helicopters, tanks and more, and they couldn’t manage it.

This is a difficult conflict in military, political and ethical terms. I worry that the way it is reported turns it into the sort of debate we have about England’s lack of a genuine left-footed winger. It’s a gross over simplification of the reality of modern conflict.

And on this subject. The media representation seems to have drifted into a position where death and injury is a surprise. Do we think this is a zero-cost engagement? What is the agenda here? Do we think that with more equipment we can make soldiering a no-risk activity?

Some numbers:

Falklands – 74 days, 255 British and 649 Argentine soldiers dead
Battle of Ia Drang in Vietnam (where they had plenty of helicopters!) – 307 US killed
Allied dead in WW2 – 16 million in 6 years – of these 382,000 were UK
UK losses on D-day – 2,700
At Monte Cassino allied forces could lose 100s of men in hours of fighting, let alone days.

and that’s not to mention the terrible attrition of the first world war.

Not sure what the point here is – do we think that we can minimise risks in a combat situation? Considering where we have been the forces in Afghanistan seem to be doing a rather effective job of managing risk.

If you look at those numbers it’s simple – this is a risky business and if we are going to take military action then people will die, regardless of how many helicopters, tanks, sets of body armour and the like we can provide. Indeed, over reliance on these things may in fact reduce operational effectiveness both in terms of getting the locals on side and being able to respond to a mobile enemy.

It’s all a damn sight more complicated than the reports on the 24 hour news channels would like it to be.

July 01, 2009

The disruption of scienctific publishing – is this a wider issue?

Writing about web page

A very interesting post from Michael Nielsen on the disruption faced by the world of academic publishing:

What I find challenging about this post is that you can take the arguments and apply them beyond that context. So, when you hear ‘oh, HE won’t be effected that much’ or that ’ all this disruption talk is over-hyped’ we should bear the following in mind.

1. Industries and sectors do fail – there are plenty of examples of long established sectors and industries that do suffer significant upheaval, often without warning. HE is not immune to this by any means.

As my recent podcast interview with Steve Fuller reminded me, our modern concept of HE and universities is just that – a modern view. Who is to say that this view is not likely to go through a major readjustment as a response to digital developments.

2. The case of the music industry is characterised as – they were too stupid to see it coming or they are evil so deserve what they get. This may or may not be the case, but as Michael points out, just thinking you are smart and good is not a get out of jail card.

‘But if disruption can destroy even the smart and the good, then it can destroy anybody.’

I guess Universities see themselves as being on the site of progression and social good. This should not render us complacent to the challenges of digital disruption.

3. Michael points out that blog news sources are a lot cheaper and a lot more flexible than traditional newspapers, and so seem to be kicking the ass of print media. Universities are generally not cheap or flexible. We should be wary then, right?

This paragraph is interesting in this respect:

The same basic story can be told about the dispruption of the music industry, the minicomputer industry, and many other disruptions. Each industry has (or had) a standard organizational architecture. That organizational architecture is close to optimal, in the sense that small changes mostly make things worse, not better. Everyone in the industry uses some close variant of that architecture. Then a new technology emerges and creates the possibility for a radically different organizational architecture, using an entirely different combination of skills and relationships. The only way to get from one organizational architecture to the other is to make drastic, painful changes. The money and power that come from commitment to an existing organizational architecture actually place incumbents at a disadvantage, locking them in. It’s easier and more effective to start over, from scratch.

4. Another quote:

One common response to such predictions is the appealing game of comparison: “but we’re better than blogs / wikis / PLoS One / …!” These statements are currently true, at least when judged according to the conventional values of scientific publishing. But they’re as irrelevant as the equally true analogous statements were for newspapers.

Universities may think they are the best at research and teaching, but what if values change? Change happens.

5. What about risk taking:

When new technologies are being developed, the organizations that win are those that aggressively take risks, put visionary technologists in key decision-making positions, attain a deep organizational mastery of the relevant technologies, and, in most cases, make a lot of mistakes. Being wrong is a feature, not a bug, if it helps you evolve a model that works

It is hard to see how big organisations like universities are able to take big risks, especially as we are publicly funded. This is not a problem for other groups getting into this space. Apple, Academic Earth, YouTube and so on – they can take risks we can’t.

So, should troubled financial times be a stimulus to change? Probably. Inertia is a killer and reputation matters little when things shift so quickly, especially in a globalised environment.

Big disruptive change may or may not occur, but if we kid ourselves that it is impossible, then we or any of our peers are as likely to fail as any other organisation.

Warwick should be well able to deal with disruption – we are a disruptive force ourselves!

facebook groups part 2

Follow-up to and facebook freshers groups from Contemplating the Frame

So, I had an interesting exchange with the owner of one of the facebook groups relating to Warwick freshers.

Essentially they denied any connection to faststudentcash or to the 118 other groups with identical content. In the absence of further evidence to the contrary I will give them the benefit of the doubt. This is not to say that the other ‘official’ groups are in the same boat.

Note that in general this is not a call for Uni’s to seize control of facebook or prevent people from setting up groups relating to specific institutions. I have no issue with unofficial groups and am happy for students, present future or past, to do what they will with FB.

Where there seems to be something systematic though, this should be raising eyebrows.

Where this is useful is in reminding HEIs that they need to be active in their engagement with these channels, rather than passive. The creepy treehouse effect is a strong argument for non-involvement – do you want your dad at the school disco? However, a vacuum is there to be filled and so as Brad Ward argues, better to have a University sanctioned presence so that there is some clarity as to the official line rather than a free for all where no-one is clear who is official or not.

June 30, 2009 and facebook freshers groups

You may be aware of a scandal that hit the US last year – facebookgate – an investigation co-ordinated by the excellent Brad Ward.


looks like the UK is not immune to this either.

We became aware of a growing number of facebook groups claiming to be ‘official freshers groups’ for Warwick Uni. This seemed odd as the owners had nothing to do with us.

A bit of detective work lead us to find a few common threads – thanks go to John Waller for helping with this BTW!

Firstly – many of these groups repeated content lifted from the Leeds University Union freshers guide.

Secondly – many of these groups had a discussion post or similar advising students to register for

This site is an extremely dodgy one , recommending a series of schemes and grey area activities that students can use to generate cash. At it’s heart is a referral scheme that pays reps money for recruiting other students. A quick google search confirmed misgivings and revealed a comment on a Brian Kelly post that confirmed suspicions – comment 2

A bit of extra work revealed similar groups for Birmingham Uni, London Unis, Leeds, Bath, Manchester and no doubt there are many others.

My concern about this is not that anyone can create these – that’s the fun of Facebook – but that students are going to get caught out by a site that ends up causing them grief.

The other issue here is of course the degree to which students signing up to these groups are providing access to personal data that they may not wish to share with what is essentially a marketing programme.

Also noticed that in many instances the admins that are set up for these are xxxx uni or xxxx university – so in that sense the process is seeking to actually hide the fact of who is really setting these up.

A quick search for some common text reveals a small part of the problem

June 03, 2009

Knowledge is Power

I spent a rather interesting hour talking with Steve Fuller this afternoon about his new book on the sociology of academia.

Now, I know that Steve is often a controversial figure but there was quite a lot to discuss. The recording of the conversation will be available later, but for now here was one train of thought that occurred to me after the discussion.

Early in the book Steve talks about the slogan Knowledge is Power.

I have often thought about this phrase in a negative sense, or at least the contexts in which I have heard it used have been in the sense of Knowledge gives you Power OVER something or someone. Knowledge creates division and a position of advantage. This accentuates difference and in an economic sense makes knowledge something to be protected, siloed or closed off as to make it a social asset is to give away your advantage.

Some might argue that this attitude should be an anathema to Universities but economic realities and the systems of oversight that govern research funding and league tables to a certain extent demand that we move towards this stance.

However, the phrase Knowledge is Power could also be seen in a different perspective. How about Power meaning motive force? Knowledge provides a motive power that opens opportunity, either for the individual or for a community or society? Knowledge is the mechanism that powers creativity and innovation, the catalyst for change, growth and improvement.

In this context rather than restricting access to knowledge, the socialisation of ideas is a more desirable outcome. The more accessible knowledge becomes the more opportunity there is for creativity, innovation and improvement.

The former position in Steve Fuller’s argument is one of the generation of social capital – I guess largely driven through economic considerations. The latter position is about social value – and the issue for society is which is more desirable. The University process of research and teaching should see a transition between the former – research generating new knowledge as social capital and teaching as the process of dissemination – i.e. learning translates social capital into social value.

From my own interests I relate this to the examples of MITs Open Courseware programme, iTunes U, Steeple and other open learning projects. These strike me as extreme examples of generating social value from the capital available in academic institutions. Who benefits from this process? Well, if we take a position of knowledge as a motive power rather than an elitist asset then potentially we all do. By socialising knowledge we create far more opportunities for creativity and new ideas than we do by locking knowledge up – we create opportunity by creating social value.

So, should we be encouraged to open up learning in this way. I don’t know if the economics allow us to do so at this time. Sustainability is a long sought for goal in this sphere and is yet to be established as the norm for many of these projects. It is interesting though that MIT Open Courseware is funded partly through a charitable foundation grant but also through public donations. The idea that social value does not deliver economic reward to the originator of the idea is perhaps something that needs to be tested. We can look to other sectors for examples of how economic models are shifting to digital realities. What is the case, though, is that current frameworks of funding and IP do not perhaps support an easy or rewarding transition from a state of capital to one of value. Steve Fuller indicates an increasing separation of research and teaching across HE and expresses concern that this differentiation damages the overall role of academic institutions, especially in an increasingly complex market for ideas and intellectual authority.

I don’t know if this stacks up but it is an interesting starting point for debate. Better minds than mine may provide a damning critique of this, but hey! I’m learning this stuff again right?

May 26, 2009

Anarchism and Digital Media

Warning – this may be a bit rambling and maybe not well thought through, but here goes:

You sometimes hear it said that the web is an anarchic place. It can certainly feel like it.

In doing some research in Buenaventura Durruti and the Durruti column in the Spanish Civil War I started reading up some materials (well, Wikipedia articles) on Collectivist Anarchism and was struck by the parallels that you find between this political position and the ideas of many writers and activists in the digital media world – especially in relation to Open Source, Open Learning, Creative Commons, podcasting and Web 2.0 services, such as DIGG, Facebook, YouTube and so on.

A quick background. Collectivist Anarchism is s political doctrine first championed by Mikhail Bakunin who was the primary opposition to Marx at the First International proclaimed at the St. Imier Congress (1872).

The basic doctrine:

‘advocates the abolition of the state and private ownership of the means of production, with the means of production instead being owned collectively and controlled and managed by the producers themselves.’

What distinguishes it from other systems, especially Communist Anarchism is that it allows for money, or at least reward for effort -

‘while communism and collectivism both organise production in common via producers’ associations, they differ in how the goods produced will be distributed. Communism is based on free consumption of all while collectivism is more likely to be based on the distribution of goods according to the labour contributed.’

So – to summarise. The means of production and distribution are collectivised with individuals paid a wage based on the amount of effort they supply to the collective – a wage that is agreed by the community.

A few quotes:

from Anarchist Collectives about the SCW:

‘In distribution the collectives’ co-operatives eliminated middlemen, small merchants, wholesalers, and profiteers, thus greatly reducing consumer prices. The collectives eliminated most of the parasitic elements from rural life, and would have wiped them out altogether if they were not protected by corrupt officials and by the political parties. Non-collectivised areas benefited indirectly from the lower prices as well as from free services often rendered by the collectives’

from James Guillaume:

‘such a society would “guarantee the mutual use of the tools of production which are the property of each of these groups and which will by a reciprocal contract become the collective property of the whole … federation. In this way, the federation of groups will be able to … regulate the rate of production to meet the fluctuating needs of society.’

from Wikipedia about Bakunin:

‘By “liberty”, Bakunin did not mean an abstract ideal but a concrete reality based on the equal liberty of others. In a positive sense, liberty consists of “the fullest development of all the faculties and powers of every human being, by education, by scientific training, and by material prosperity.” Such a conception of liberty is “eminently social, because it can only be realized in society,” not in isolation. In a negative sense, liberty is “the revolt of the individual against all divine, collective, and individual authority.”’

Let’s pick this apart a little.

The idea that the means of production are collectivised is very common in web 2.0 – from blogging onwards the principle is that the tools for production are available to all and not controlled by specific interests (though some may query that…).

What is interesting is that on top of this is a layer of rewards that makes the current digital environment closely aligned to the system outlined by Bakunin. Whether we are talking about donations to wikipedia or to the students working on a neat little app in their dorms, to the satisfaction given to a viral video maker on YouTube these services are designed to stimulate further effort by demonstrating a return to those willing to invest. This is not necessarily financial, but it is there. The implicit understanding is that the more you put in, the more you can get out. Wikipedia, for example, is great for browsing information, but are the rewards greater, for you and the community, when you actively put effort into creating and editing articles.

It is also worth noting that as outlined in the example from the Spanish Collectives, much of this cuts out the middle men – publishers, broadcasters, distributors etc etc. This is not an exclusive element of collectivist anarchism as opposed to communist anarchism, but the latter emphasises a central decision about the distribution of rewards whilst the former makes it more of a community decision. This to my mind is more in line with the way the web structures these things.

It’s also important to see the emphasis placed on the social as opposed to the individual. Bakunin felt that progress, whether community or individual, was essentially a social phenomenon. It is in social and community interaction that we find the ability to reach our potential, and the web is the means par excellence for making those connections.

Open Source is a collective exercise that is beneficial to the whole, and individually rewarding to the architects and builders of materials.

Blogging is a collective exercise that whilst highly individualized, could not realise its potential without the network of social connections that underpin it.

Web services and digital media production take the tools of production and collectivise them whilst open distribution networks reward the producers of content in the form of kudos or cash.

I recognise that better brains than mine may choose to pick this apart, but I am open for debate on this.

April 15, 2009

Ban Ki–moon – UN Secretary General and Spammer!

not really of course but what a great bit of spam:

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon


Attn: Sir/Madam,

Note! after series of meeting that lasted for three (3) Months with the secretary General to the UNITED NATIONS. You fall on the names submitted to receive a United Nations Compensation. This goes to all the people that have been scammed in any part of the world, the UNITED NATIONS have agreed to compensate them with the sum of US$120,000.00 (One Hundred And Twenty Thousand United States Dollars)This includes every foreign contractors that may have not received their contract sum, and people that have had an unfinished transaction or international businesses that failed due to Government problems etc.

Your name and e-mail was in the list submitted by our Monitoring Team of Economic and Financial Crime Commission observers (EFCC) and this is why we are contacting you, this have been agreed upon and have been signed. You are advised to contact Mr. David Avarlos, as he is our representative in United Kingdom, contact him immediately for your International Bank Draft of USD$120,000.00 (One Hundred And Twenty Thousand United States Dollars) This funds are in a Bank Draft for security purpose he will send it to you and you can clear it in any bank of your choice. Therefore, you should send him your full Name and telephone number/your correct mailing address where you want him to send the draft to.

Person to Contact Mr. David Avarlos

Phone No: +44 7035 9855 47

Good luck and kind regards,

Dr. Ban Ki Moon.

Secretary General (United Nations )
Making the world a better place

A better place indeed.

April 14, 2009

Tate joins iTunes U

Interesting to see the Tate and Palace of Versaille listed on iTunes U today.

Some great content there as well, plus it raises some interesting debate about academic content.

iTunes U has long had the Beyond Campus section – an area for institutions that have an educational remit but are not universities.

I find this interesting for several reasons.

1. Many of these institutions have a better track record at public engagement than the HE sector and so much of this sort of thing should be easier for them.

2. The Tate gets a lot of support for its digital work from private sponsors – Bloomberg, BT to name two. What happens if a University of Warwick Economics series is sponsored by Barclays International Capital. Does that devalue the content? iTunes U is an expressly non-commercial environment, but sponsorship seems to be ok. We’ve shied away from this is the past but maybe we need to embrace it.

What is also interesting is the degree to which this blurs the distinction of what is an educational provider. Much of the Tate content would not look out of place alongside a Fine Arts History course, the only real difference is that they cannot issue a degree.


BTW – I don’t have a problem with the Tate in iTunes U – fantastic stuff in my mind and a great call to action from the HE sector which has rather had this intellectual space to itself for quite a while.

It is interesting to muse though on the impact of the Tate, Science Museum, Natural History Museum, competing for eyeballs and ears in this space. Universities could end up sidelined by slicker, more focussed content providers.

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