Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Hear Hear

📥  Comment, News and Updates

The Guardian carried a welcome story at the weekend about an alternative [or, in the first instance, a complement] to university degree classification through the higher education achievement report (HEAR).   The report begins:

Every university in the country will be asked to adopt a new detailed electronic record of a student's achievement to replace the "blunt instrument" of the traditional first, second or third-class honours degrees.  The new higher education achievement report (HEAR), which gives an in-depth portrayal of students' abilities, will be rolled out nationally from next autumn after being trialled at 27 universities this year.  Robert Burgess, vice-chancellor of Leicester University and head of a steering group that has co-ordinated the new approach to measuring student performance, said the ambition was to replace the current "crude classification system".  Every university is being asked to take up the new system from next year to meet students' expectations of a better service in exchange for higher fees, Burgess said. The two systems are due to run in parallel, but the expectation is that firsts and seconds will be phased out once employers become used to the richer information available in the new report.

This has been carefully developed over a number of years, and I can only wish it well.  I hope that People & Planet are watching carefully.


Last Word

📥  Comment, News and Updates

Comments posted on the blog have suggested to me that I may not fully understand the methodology behind People & Planet's league tables, and that I should look at them more closely.    This sounded all too likely, I have to say, and so I've had another trawl through the data.  Having done this, I still think that there are problems.  Here are a couple of examples of why I think that the '37 is excellent (but 36.5 isn't)' is a hard line to justify:

1. If you take the number of solid green stars awarded, as opposed to the number of solid red exclamation marks, into account, there are anomalies:  John Moores get 0 stars but 2 exclamation marks (and gets a First), whereas UWE gets 2 solid green stars but 0 exclamation marks (and doesn't).  Perhaps the numbers are getting in the way of a finer judgement here?   NB, why doesn't Gloucestershire (with 7 solid stars and no exclamations at all) come top?   On the face of it, it seems to be doing much better than Nottingham Trent), although none of Gloucestershire's solid green stars are for "performance", which seems a problem in itself.

2  It still seems a long stretch from Gloucestershire (7 green stars) to Oxford Brookes (none), yet both get Firsts.

3. Anyway, should any institution be given a First if it has no solid green stars for  "Performance"?   This year, 23 are.

Enough!  This is my last word on the tables (for at least 12 months).


£9000 Spendid – £18000 Terrible

📥  Comment, News and Updates

It is not only this week's Spiked that is wondering about all the bile that has been heaped on poor old AC Grayling's head over the last few days – just Google "New College Grayling" to see the wide-ranging abuse – I have managed a modest bit of puzzlement myself.   I can understand New College, Oxford's being a bit miffed that there is to be a new 'New College (but only for the Humanities)' in the HE sector – imagine all that extra confusion it will cause for students already busy with Facebook, but why should anyone else get so upset?  I can't be the money, can it?  After all, it's not as if English HE is actually free any more (actually, it's never been free unless you conveniently forget the taxpayers' pockets out of which most money comes).  Sounds more like craven envy to me: just think, this institution won't have to listen to Hefce, Offa, or Vince Cable!   And, whisper it gently, it might even be a success – what then?  Where would that leave the rest?   I was pleased to see a bit of balance from the Guardian.  For what it matters, I welcome any (much overdue) experimental innovation within the sector; just a pity the bursaries for really good students from non-conventional backgrounds seem, thus far, so skimpy.


The Olympic Flame is not for Recycling

📥  News and Updates

I learnt today from a member of LOGOC that the Olympic flame is not any old recycled flame, but is brand new for each games.  Phew!   We were reassured about this at the Wiltshire Assembly meeting today (we were there to discuss the county's Olympic legacy – don't scoff).   So, all those cherished thoughts about keeping the flame burning don't apply – I must have got confused with the tomb of the unknown warrior.   Good news on the CO2 front, of course, and no worries for the Greeks about the gas bill between games.

Folk at the Assembly had other worries though.  The man from Visit Wiltshire wanted to know whether the flame could be photographed at Stonehenge.  Not a chance, it seems, as when it travels round the country on its trek to Stratford will spend a lot of time on a bus – especially when it gets anywhere near neolithic sites.  Why?  Simples really: if there is no promise of crowds, then the flame won't get out of the bus.

Obviously LOGOC can't have been to Stonehenge on a wet summer Sunday, though, as the crowds stop the traffic.

From Bonn to Tokyo - traveling with with Chuck Hopkins

📥  Comment, Talks and Presentations

It was great to see Chuck Hopkins at a CREE [University of Bath] seminar yesterday.  He talked about the roads both to and from Bonn, and on to the culmination of the ESD Decade in Tokyo (we presume).  These are roads that he has personally travelled in the long years of conferences and declarations as (environmental and sustainability) educators have tried to squeeze some commitment from educational policy makers towards a re-orientation of education systems, and the experiences that they provide, so that young (and not so young) people can be helped to prepare for the times to come – as opposed to those now gone, which is the hapless focus of much curriculum reform.  It was refreshing to hear someone consistent in his message that it's not the adjectival ESD with its special interests that matters here, but the full experience of education as a whole, and it is a real shame that more people do not understand this.  And an especial pity that this view seems so misunderstood within UNECSO itself.

Chuck seemed in good heart and health, and so will likely be in Toyko to help sign off a Decade that he has invested so much restless energy in.  I'll drink a glass of saki to that, though I'll not be in Japan to do it.


Grade Inflation hits the University Green League

📥  Comment, News and Updates

The 2011 university green league tables are published in today's Guardian.  The usual suspects skulk near the top, but the University of Bath has managed to make it to 31st equal (6 others share this triumph) – up from a miserable 77th in 2010, thereby halting a near vertiginous plummet over the past few years.  Huzzar for that.

What is really notable about this ranking, however, is that it is enough to earn Bath a 1st class honours degree from People & Planet.   In all, 36 institutions got a first in 2011, whereas in 2010 it was only 26.   In 2009 it was 20,  in 2008 18,  and in 2007, 15.   These numbers really do speak for themselves.

Of course, like many another educational institution, People & Planet must be feeling the heavy pressure of expectation.  What a pity, though, that they seem to have responded.

Welcome clarification from the TDA

📥  Comment

In my readings around UNECE’s latest edicts around the teacher competencies that will be needed if they (teachers, that is) are to save the planet, I thought it best to reacquaint myself with what the Teaching Development Agency (TDA for schools) says about all this – after all, the TDA is the guardian of the nation’s (England’s, that is) career-spanning teacher professional standards, and whatever UNECE’s dreams are for English teachers and ESD, they will need to be grafted onto (not entirely sure that’s the best metaphor here, as it does seem rather horticultural) what the TDA already thinks is important.

Well, good luck with this, as the TDA has never taken learning and sustainability seriously.  However, whilst TDA meets UNECE might not have the same immediate appeal as Mumsnet v. Tiger Mum – somebody might buy a ticket.

Meanwhile, the standards documents that can be downloaded from the TDA contain pearls of delight.  I particularly commend this one to confused readers everywhere:

"Where the phrase ‘parents and carers’ is used,  it is understood that the term ‘parents’ includes both mothers and fathers".

Reassuring stuff – no wonder the TDA survived Mr Gove's dissolution of the quangos.  I don't suppose that this is something that even UNECE has thought it wise to clarify.

Report from the bottom line: the UK National Ecosystem Assessment

📥  New Publications

I woke up today to discover that this significant publication has emerged.   As the Independent puts it:

A view of green space from your bedroom window?  That's worth £300 to you each year.  The total value of British woodland to the national economy in sucking in carbon every year: £680m.  The country's bees and other pollinating insects are, meanwhile, worth £430m.  That is the verdict of the first report to place a monetary value on the economic, health and social benefits of the UK's environment – a report commisioned by the Government and sponsored by the Department for the Environment's chief scientist, Professor Bob Watson.  The National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA) aims to put a price on the hidden value of Britain's natural heritage, from marine fisheries and species diversity to the pleasure experienced when walking along a sandy beach.

And here's today's Guardian (and Wordsworth by proxy):

In praise of… the unquantifiable.

It says something about our culture if the only way to make the nightingale's song heard is to contort it into national income.  Nature hates calculators," said Ralph Waldo Emerson, but that won't stop the number-crunchers. Inspired by a worthy desire to ensure public policy respects the natural world, the National Ecosystem Assessment yesterday delivered a 2,000-page report totting up the economic contribution of woodlands, coasts and open spaces. There are of course gaping holes in GDP as a gauge of the good life, but it says more about our rotten culture than it does about economics if the only way to make the nightingale's song heard in Whitehall is to contort it into national income. Is it really more helpful to put a £1.5bn price tag on inland waterways than to read Walt Whitman musing that "a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars"? What is the more persuasive argument to run against sprawling development: the NEA's £430m valuation of pollinating insects, or Wordsworth's tribute to "These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines / Of sportive wood run wild"? Shakespeare found "tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones", while Einstein promised understanding would come from looking deep into nature. These authorities, not export earnings, convey the real worth of our fields and woods. As for our duties as stewards for our children, Wordsworth makes the point – "pleasing thoughts / That in this moment there is life and food / for future years" – without recourse to discount rates. It is high time to draw a distinction between what can be counted, and what truly counts.

I think I shall delve into this one before I think about what UNECE has to say about competences.  In particular, I wonder what value it will put on domestic gardens as biodiversity resources.


UNECE's Miracle Birth

📥  New Publications

I have written before about what I see as the ineffectiveness of UNECE's work on ESD, so I approach its latest outpourings with my normal skepticism.  After much gestation, it has at last given birth to its Competences in ESD for educators.   This nativity is accompanied by the usual flummery about how expert it is

The mandate for this exercise was to prepare:

[a] General recommendations for policymakers, so as to provide them with a tool to integrate ESD into relevant policy documents with a view to creating an enabling environment for the development of competences across all sectors of education, with particular emphasis on formal education;

[b] A range of core competences in ESD for educators, including defining these, as feasible, to serve as a tool to facilitate the integration of ESD into all educational programmes at all levels, as well as guidelines for the development of these competences among educators.

It's all too easy to poke fun at UNECE and its grandiloquent self-importance, but this should not stop one doing it.  However, it does behove us all to give this latest infant a chance to overcome its parentage and show what it's made of.  In the unlikely event that you've not seen it (I swear I must have been sent 16 copies), Here it is:  UNECE

Enjoy.  I shall try to do so, and to see its value, and will return to comment on it later on.


Wind Energy, the 2nd Law, EVs, Jim Bullis, David MacKay, ...

📥  Comment

Catching up this morning with the Economist's bloggers, I read a Babbage column on wind energy and the Californian dream.  As with many other science and technology blogs that I read, the interest comes as much from the discussion as it does with the originating column.  This was a case in point where a couple of contributors had a lively interchange about [i] the 2nd law of thermodynamics and the extent to which it applies to wind energy / power given that these do not derive from heat energy (with inevitable commensurate losses), and [ii] the extent to which electric vehicles [EV] can be said to be efficient.  It seems (see below) that the USA has followed the EU is deciding not to think about the source of the electricity when considering EV efficiency.  This has the advantage that EVs are portrayed as super-efficient compared to almost every other kind of road transport; its disadvantage is that the laws of physics have either been ignored, suspended or repealed in the process.  It also means that, in the short-term at least, EVs are more justifiable in carbon terms in a country like France (all that nuclear) or Norway (all that hydro), compared to the UK and Germany (all that oil / gas / coal – and CO2).  Do you suppose that this will be reflected in advertising for electric cars?  Neither do I.

The most interesting contributions to the column came from No Mist and Jim Bullis (who, like Babbage, writes from the USA).  Jim is no stranger to the Economist's blogs, as this link to a recent discussion shows.  Here, there is an interchange with Cambridge's David MacKay (whose book Sustainable Energy without the hot air I have already commented on), around the efficiency of EVs – which is also a feature of the Babbage column.

This is a far from arcane dispute about the rate at which electricical and thermal energies equilibrate.   Jim Bullis:

Look at the site and go to the electric vehicle tab. You will eventually discover that a gallon of gasoline represents 33.7 kWhr of electric energy.  A gallon of gasoline has never produced more than about 11 kWhr of electric energy. Not in the USA or the UK at least, due to that nasty old Lord Kelvin and his stupid law.  Under Kelvin's crusty opinion, the only equivalence is the amount of heat that can be produced by these two forms of energy. Seriously, MPGe as thus defined by our EPA is an outrageous lie. And it will trick people into buying electric vehicles that have no special merit in limiting CO2.

Of David MacKay's book, Bullis adds: "Other than the flawed promotion of the electric vehicle, this is a well written and useful book”.   In many ways, I think it a masterly book (which I have just finished).  I found it especially clearly written but missed this equivalence point.