Challenges facing academic practice over next 5 years

I’ve been asked to give a talk about the main challenges facing academic practice over next 5 years and it’s quite a tricky assignment, so I thought I’d put a few thoughts down here and see if it helps. I’m focussing on the UK context, although of course increasing internationalisation would be one challenge…

The first big thing on the horizon would be the general election. There have been some noises from Labour about a change to student fee levels, although this is pretty non-committal at this stage, but some kind of change in HE funding is certainly a big possibility over the next 5 years, as well as changes regarding international students and immigration…

The 9k cap itself can’t remain at it’s current level for ever as it is ‘unsustainable‘. Whatever happens there will be plenty more discussion about value for money, and how to quantify that for students/ customers and I think that will continue to have a big impact on learning and teaching within HE. This is likely to put more emphasis on blended and online learning as at worst a cost effective way of delivering more bangs per buck, but at best a great way to encourage both formal and informal learning (alongside F2F).

This contrasts with the reduced funding for the HEA which is having a big impact on the sector, at the same time as HEA accreditation is increasingly becoming a key metric that whilst not perfect can give students an indication of the status of teaching within an institution. During a live webchat last year with the compiler of the Guardian league tables I specifically asked about the inclusion of metrics around HEA accreditation of staff in their tables, to which he replied “Accreditation of staff by the HEA / a general look at the qualifications of staff will become an option as data improves, though there are no current plans for changes.” I think if this were to happen it would have a big impact on the HEA, and efforts to encourage accreditation within institutions.

The third big thing, a bit more distant on the horizon is ref2020, which we don’t know a lot about at the moment, although for me the big thing already is the open access mandate. I have been involved in some discussions about this at faculty level and this is certainly a big opportunity, although I’m worried about the emphasis on ‘gold’ OA over green. There is definitely some exciting new stuff happening in academic publishing though that and a big challenge for academic practice is going to be harnessing that.

Cutting across both of these themes is an increasing focus on digital scholarship. Five years ago whilst at the Open University I co-wrote something about digital scholarship which still has a resonance today. I discussed how new technologies were making possible more open ways of working across academia, in research as well as teaching and public engagement. I conclused that:

“These new web based technologies are a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for a radical opening up of scholarly practice. In this sense digital scholarship is more than just using information and communication technologies to research, teach and collaborate, but it is embracing the open values, ideology and potential of technologies born of peer-to-peer networking and wiki ways of working in order to benefit both the academy and society. Digital scholarship can only have meaning if it marks a radical break in scholarship practices brought about through the possibilities enabled in new technologies.”

I think that I stand by that, even though 5 years has passed I think that there are still some big changes that are taking place (my work as a SSI fellow definitely showed me some interesting stuff that’s going on with software in research for example) and the next 5 years will no doubt be no different, even if the macro level drivers aren’t technologically related.

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How long should a student spend on an essay?

Last year I interviewed a few of my mature students and one of the things that struck me about how they worked was the length of time they spent on their essays. They recognised that it was unsustainable but I couldn’t really give them any guidance.

This year I find myself telling students not to spend ‘too long’ on their essays, and describing the law of diminishing returns  but I’m still not sure how long they should be spending. As teachers surely we should have some expectation of how much work we are asking for?

I thought I’d have a quick look at the academic literature. There is, as you’d expect plenty of stuff about essay writing, in particular in the psychology literature (and therefor studies of psychology students!). One study of note looked at the essay writing strategies of a cohort of students over their degrees, which appears to note that students stick to whatever strategy (ie how many drafts to do, if any) they start with. This study did ask students to estimate how many hours they spent writing their essay (including library research). The actual time spent on essays isn’t really reported, although the median time taken for the four writing strategies discussed is given as between 9 hours (minimal drafting) and 15 hours (detailed drafting), which gives an idea, but doesn’t really tell us the full range of time taken. We are told that “reported length of time to complete the essay was unrelated to the mark received” (p.192), which is interesting in itself.

There are a few threads on the student room forums asking this question and some interesting responses. A number of students seem to reply with a day for reading and a day for writing, which seems about right in my opinion and kind of matches up with the study above.

I guess ultimately students should spend as much time as they can on their essays, and this will vary due to outside commitments (and internal commitments to their studies!). I do think it’s odd to give an assignment without a clear expectation of time taken though, and many of my students are particularly anxious about their studies and prone to over commit an unsustainable amount of time to their early essays, which can be unproductive (in terms of mark) and could lead to them thinking that they are not cut out for HE.

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Getting organised with Outlook: Resources, tips and tools


Microsoft Outlook is more than just a way of accessing email, it’s a phenomenally powerful productivity and collaboration tool. For reference we will be focussing on the Outlook 2010 email client (ie the software tool that’s part of office) rather than the web interface which some of you may use to access your inbox or calendar (especially on your personal devices). The web based interface is accessing the same inbox and calendar as the desktop email client, and will allow you to do many of the same things, but generally it’s easier to make manage things in the email client.

Here are a Durham specific resource to get your started, in particular for synching up your smartphones

Microsoft provide some training materials and this one looks like a good starting point for getting more organized. This is a video so ideally you will have sound, but it has subtitles too (just click on CC for closed captions). Here is an article about best practices in 2010 which has lots of tips and tricks.

Here are some more targeted resources

Inbox management

To start with here is a really good blog post about information overload and managing emails. One useful tip I’ve used in the past is to re-order your inbox to sort for sender. This makes it really easy to delete large numbers of unimportant emails, but also makes it pretty obvious where a lot of your emails are coming from, highlighting possible mail rules and folders to help organise things in future.

One of the big recent ideas around inbox management is ‘inbox zero’, with the idea being that your main inbox should be somewhere that emails only stay in temporarily, being either deleted or filed away immediately as part of de-cluttering effort. Your inbox should be empty by the end of each day (even if they’re all been filed away in a ‘deal with later’ folder). Here are some resources about that, whether you achieve inbox zero, or just inbox a bit less than before, I think the effort is a worthwhile one.

How I get to zero inbox in outlook

Mashable on inbox zero

Some more critical thoughts on inbox zero 

 Calendar tips and tricks

Some people might not use the calendar at all, and some might have their whole lives on there. I definitely tend towards the latter! Having a comprehensive outlook calendar synched up to a smartphone can make managing a busy work/ life schedule much easier. Using the shared collaboration features can make it much easier to arrange and manage meetings. Some of the general resources at the top of the page deal with basic calendar management but here are some resources for getting the most out of the outlook calendar.

If you do use your calendar for personal stuff here are a couple of useful tips for managing your privacy, and here are some general tips for managing calendars

General tips and tricks

12 tips and tricks to work faster in Outlook some good stuff here, I particularly like turning off desktop notifications for all but the most important emails.

Some good intermediate tips from PC Mag 

As ever if you have any suggestions for resources or tips for Outlook let me know and I’ll update this post.

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Tools for referencing

[Below is a quick and dirty resource I put together for my students about the tools that are available for helping them reference. I’d welcome any comments or suggestions!]

Referencing is an integral part of academic writing, and has been for many years, and each academic tribe (e.g. Economists, Sociologists, Psychologists) does things slightly differently. Anglia Ruskin have a good resource about referencing in general (thanks to @emmahead2 on twitter!)

There are plenty of tools out there to help you do this effectively, there is no need to do all of this manually!


The big software tool, and one that the university has a group discount for is Endnote. There are other software packages out there but this is the most widely used by academics (I use it myself) and it is pre-installed on all university desktop computers. I’m really not sure that Endnote is an appropriate tool for undergraduate students, it wasn’t really designed for them (it’s pretty complicated!) and a lot of advantages to using it do not really apply to students writing essays (and most likely not really re-using the same references.).

A very simple to use and free online tool is Neil’s Harvard Referencing Generator. I have no idea who Neil is, but he wrote this tool a while ago (I’ve used it myself) and it is very straightforward. Select which kind of source you want to reference, input the details and it will generate the reference for your bibliography. It does not help with the in text reference (e.g. Pearce 2014) and it won’t alphabetise your references, but it’s quick and easy.

There is another class of tools which I think site somewhere between Endnote and Neil’s HRG, and they are much more targeted at undergraduate students. These are referencing apps, which enable you to use your phone to keep track of your reading (and quotes in some cases), and will generate a alphabetised bibliography. Some of them integrate into word and so will help you with you in text referencing as well.

Citethisforme does look like a pretty good web based app. There is a free version which is time limited (so you can’t keep your references for the next essay) but this product integrates with word nicely and is very user friendly. We’ve been in touch about getting a bulk discount for our students, so do not upgrade to the premium version until you’ve heard from us.

Refme also looks pretty good, in particular it enables you to scan the bar code on a book to get the reference, which I really like (less chance of typos!) although obviously this isn’t very helpful for journal articles, and in the social sciences most things will be journal articles. The overall product does look very user friendly and is definitely worth checking out, there’s a snazzy video on the home page explaining how it all works. This product looks to be free too.

Mastercite Some people at Warwick have recently developed a referencing app which appears to have a more educational focus (ie teaching you about referencing as well as making it easier). I’m not as impressed with this as other apps so far, but I haven’t really had a proper look yet. Check it out and let me know what you think!

Overall in all of your social science assignments a key skill is to find and look at a wide variety of relevant literature, and to demonstrate this to your teachers you will need to reference it correctly. The more you reference the better, so any tool that helps make this easy is really useful. Check out the tools above and let me know how you get on and if there are any other tools that you find or hear about let me know too.

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Clickolage – The movie

A few weeks ago I went to a great workshop about Creative Social-Mobile Learning and Teaching at Graz in Austria. I presented my pinterest stuff, which I’ve written up here .


I met lots of interesting people from all over Europe working on some very interesting projects, all sharing an interest in using new technologies to help learners learn and teachers teach. I’ve made a lot of new contacts on twitter and hopefully I’ll be seeing a lot of the same faces next year.

I was also interviewed by Yishay Mor about Clickolage, a term I’m still trying to introduce and promote (having written about it here). It was actually quite fun being interviewed although it was on a busy street and you can see how distracting that was!

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Reading Pack 2.0

Just over three years ago I blogged about creating a reading pack for my introductory anthropology class. I’ve just put the finishing touches to the 4th version of the reading pack so thought it might be a good time to reflect on its use in my class.

I’d produced the pack in response to students’ comments about the lack of textbook for the course, and for the first two years I recovered the costs (around £7 for 200+ pages) from the students themselves. The pack was very popular and I’m happy to say that the Foundation Centre now pays for the packs. This is generous, but in the years before the pack I would give the students module handbooks and some readings (where mandatory) so this replaces the time and resource costs of that.

Evolution of the reading pack

Evolution of the reading pack

I’ve recently updated a couple of the readings in the pack as new editions of the sources were available. 3 years ago the process of scanning the books and getting something usable into a word document was particularly laborious (something I document in the blog post) but now it was relatively straightforward. I used a dedicated book scanner in our library to produce PDFs and a web based tool to convert these into a series of jpegs. There was still a lot of work (and faff!) in cropping, resizing, and brightening the images (around half a day for 40 odd pages!) but I’m very happy with the results.

I’m currently revamping my VLE course sites and part of this will include weekly discussion boards (pre-loaded with questions) around each week’s reading.  I was wondering wether there were any tools out there that would allow me to host a pdf of each reading in a way that students could comment on or annotate within the VLE? I think this could be particularly useful for international students who I see annotate their readings in their own language.

Is anybody else using reading packs in this way? or in more interesting ways?

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Making a new banner for my course site

Well it’s that time between the admin finishing for the last teaching year and the new intake coming in, and I thought I’d have a look at my VLE course site, which I’ve neglected for too long. This is easily done when I’ve been distracted by using Pinterest, Youtube and Slideshare for my teaching, but ultimately the one thing all my students will enage with for sure is my course site, so I should probably make sure that’s top notch. I’ve also noticed that I’ve not blogged for nearly a year, so thought I may as well document what I’ve been doing today, namely putting together a new banner for the welcome page. I should probably add that this isn’t because I think I’ve done anything amazing, it’s partly to document how I did it for future reference, and I guess to invite suggestions about how I can improve the process and output!

Firstly my old banner. I’m not even sure how it came to be:

My old course site banner

My old course site banner

This banner is shit in so many ways. For starters it’s not visually appealing in any way, but it also includes completely irrelevant information (durham campus). Last year the course was split across both the campuses that I teach at, but the students know which campus they are on. This year the course is only being taught at the Durham City campus, so this really isn’t important information.

Southampton Uni have some very clear instructions on how to change your banner (apols to Durham, this was just the first and best guidance that google came up with) and they also recomended an online site to edit and manipulate the banner and this was really useful for somebody with no photoshoppy skills whatsoever (I get confused by MS Paint). This site was super easy to use, and I could straight away specify the 480 x 80 recommended image size.

I thought it would be a good idea to include some kind of relevant image, and used the creative commons search in Flickr to find something (after a bit of a distracted browse through the internet archive book images collection). So this is what I came up with:


I know it’s not very sexy, but i think it’s a big improvement ( a bit less shit). I would welcome any tips or suggestions (maybe you’ve got a great banner you want to show off??).

I did actually have a photo attribution on there but it seems to have dropped off so I’ll have to add that again.


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Notes from Compuational Anthropology workshop

As ever I was not disappointed. I always enjoy hanging out with Anthropologists, before the workshop had even started the small talk was about the evolution of Batman’s face in comic books and how this might reflect different images of masculinity, and monkey fossils.

Stephen Lyon and I gathered together computationally minded anthropologists, from Durham and Kent and from pretty much the full spectrum of anthropology, but there was still clear evidence of an anti-computational bias in some areas, with one participant noting that you get “burned as a witch for using computers in social anthropology”, and anthropologists know about witchcraft!

Whilst the carefully orchestrated programme quickly flew out of the window the wide ranging discussions had 3 clear themes, and some familiar echoes to my previous work in e-science (a fairly long discussion of ontologies for example, although the specific word wasn’t used as it has specific meaning within anthroplogy).

So one of the key themes were about social network analysis, something which has been going on in anthropology long before Friends reunited, Myspace or Facebook, or the internet for that matter. This included a memorable and relevant quote for SNA types today “one does not study networks, one uses network methods to study anthropological questions” from Sanek 1974. Replace anthropological with economic, geographic or whichever discipline, and I think that there is a useful reminder to a lot of people working with online social networks, who can get a bit overly focussed on the networks, rather than the underlying questions to be answered.

Another theme from the workshop was the fact that anthropologists in the field collect all kinds of messy data. Qualitative analysis tools such as NVIVO or Atlas.ti can now deal with multimedia content, but anthropologists need to be able to access and analyse their disparate datasets (family trees, field notes, images, videos, objects) through the people mentioned in them, as well as the themes. And obviously the people involved in a long term ethnographic investigation will be related to one another in all sorts of ways (relating to the previous theme). There is definitely scope here for some sophisticated tools, an anthropologist may publish from their initial fieldwork for the rest of their career, and others may re-analyse somebody else’s data set to come to some interesting conclusions (such as this paper).

The last theme was about the role of simulation in anthropology, which suprised me. My first degree was in economics, and my PhD meant interacting with plenty of transport researchers, so i’m quite familiar with simulations, how engrossing and absorbing they are to the people working on them, and how useless they generally are at predicting things (although in both economics and transport, the important thing is to have some sort of forecast, almost irrespective of how accurate it is).

Michael Fischer who has been programming in academic since 1976 gave a really interesting talk about the role of simulation within social anthropology. The key thing wasn’t the simulation itself, but the role such simulations play in knowledge elicitation in ethnography. The most memorable example was for Mambila Spider Divination. In a part of Nigeria/ Cameroon the movements of spiders, in a set layout of leaves and twigs is used for divination purposes. This project included a digital simulation of the process, which was a helpful tool in conversations with the diviners in getting at the complex knowledge embedded within analysing the movement of spiders. That the simulation is optimised to run on Netscape also hints at the sustainability issues which were discussed as the workshop drew to a close.

After a brief discussion the participants agree to focus on the second theme, a disparate data field notes management tool for future development and we will be putting in a bid under the SSI’s Open Call. Then, as after every workshop with anthropologists that I’ve ever attended, we all went to the pub to continue such discussions well into the night.

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Walkabout pt 1

Well I had high hopes of blogging every day while I was down here, but that hasn’t happened, partly because i’ve been too busy and partly because I’ve not had great access to wifi ( i spent 40 quid accessing my emails on my phone last week!).

I have had a great time, and I’ve met 6 people from four universities (Sydney, Newcastle, UNSW and RMIT) so far. I haven’t got time to give a detailed report, but I thought I’d post a few observations on Australian HE so far.

One striking thing is the scale. So far the universities I’ve looked at are big. The UNSW campus is physically imposing (on a hill), and Newcastle’s is a big campus. Some of the buildings I’ve seen at RMIT are architecturally bold and sydney was very pretty (and apparently home to the largest library in the southern hemisphere, australians seem to like their random claims to fame).

Also both UNSW and Newcastle were very keen to show me their centres for aboriginal studies. Newcastle had the Wollotuka Institute and UNSW had Nura Gili which had a collaboration spaces designed according to aboriginal principles, which apparently include a clear line of sight, so there were glass internal walls (i didn’t get to see this as i was in a hurry to my next meeting!).


Some boomerangs at Newcastle


This focus on the importance of design was taken up with my visit to RMIT where I saw a really fantastic building with heaps (!!) of student learning spaces. Every room had windows facing outside, which sounds unremarkable, until I saw a lecture theatre with windows showing people walking past, who could see what was going on inside (should they want to), which was definitely quite weird (but shouldn’t be really). Also the lecture theatre was full.

Openness was a big recurring theme, and the building I’m checking out tomorrow has a massive glass wall enabling the local community to see every room, and the research that is taking place there.

At RMIT the public, including primary and secondary school children are invited in and come and play around with the cool stuff, which sounds like a great way of making university accessible and appealing to non-traditional entrants.

My last observation so far picks up on this. I have learnt quite a lot so far about the kinds of programmes that they have here to widen participation (often called student equity). I’ve heard about some really interesting programmes. Having just had our Foundation Year Network I’m starting to think that the diversity we have in provision in the UK is only the tip of the iceberg, there’s some really interesting stuff going on here, and I hope to come back to learn more one day!

I’m here in Melbourne for a couple more days before heading on to Canberra and then I have a holiday! I’ve been working a lot harder than I’d anticipated, but that ‘work’ has been meeting interesting people, and hearing about so much stuff that i think I will be months digesting it when I get back.

Apologies if I’ve made any errors or omissions, i’m still pretty frazzled!

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Computational Anthropology Workshop – Sept 4th, Durham

One part of my SSI fellowship which I’m particularly excited about is the opportunity to support Digital Anthropology. For a flavour of the kinds of stuff being done in this fairly niche area (I’ve spoken elsewhere about the fairly luddite practices within cultural anthropology) have a look at a recent special issue of Social Science Computer Review.

You can see that there are anthropologists creating and using software to do some pretty interesting stuff, modelling kinship patterns , using graph theory to map burials or GIS techniques to analyse the patterns of burials plus plenty more.


Here are some of the software packages, that are, or have been, used:



CSAC Kinship Editor

CSAC Fieldnotes Editor


Kinship Algebra Modeller

CSAC ImageInterviewer

Knowledge Elicitation Tools


These projects use software that has often been developed by anthropologists, and made available to the community on sites such as SourceForge, but the take up by other developers has not been as hoped. This is exactly the sort of sustainability issue that the SSI was set up to adress, and this workshop will hopefully help create a community of users and developers to further anthropology research.

The aim of this one day workshop is to bring together anthropologists who use or are interested in using software  better suited to anthropological data production, management and analysis problems in the field, the lab and the office. Members of Durham University and the Centre for Social Anthropology and Computing (Kent) will present brief accounts of software tools designed or adapted by anthropologists to address complex issues arising in anthropological research.

Participants in the workshop will contribute to identifying a range of problems encountered by anthropologists in research and brainstorm to develop a prioritised wish list of software capabilities to address these issues. One of our goals is to ensure that development of software tools for anthropological research is driven by research priorities in anthropology.

If you are interested in coming to the workshop get in touch with me, and if you know other software that’s not in the list above, post a link in a comment below!

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