Celebrating Women in STEM

Today Birkbeck celebrates the women working in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields as part of a campaign led by Media Planet, and supported by organisations such as the Institute of Engineering and Technology and The Women’s Network.

Across the STEM industries, women make up only 12.8% of the workforce in the UK, and encouraging more women into these fields is vital to address skills shortages in the UK economy, as well as to ensure there is a diversity of voices in the field.

As Alexandra Poulovassilis, Professor of Computer Science and Director of the Birkbeck Knowledge Lab puts it: “Since technology and science are shaping our societies at an ever increasing pace, it is important that the people who are making decisions on where to focus and how to prioritise innovation funding are representative of all our society globally.”

We spoke to women working in various STEM fields in Birkbeck about why they chose their careers, what excites them about their work and why it’s important for STEM disciplines to be diverse and representative.

Alexandra Poulouvassilis: Why is it important that STEM fields are diverse?

Jessica Swainston and Iroise Dumontheil: What excites you about working in STEM? 

Tingting Han: Why did you choose a career in Computer Science?

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General Election results: Birkbeck comments

The shock of a hung parliament following what only a few weeks ago looked certain to be a landslide victory for the Conservative Party has made this election one of the most unpredictable in recent generations.

The election also saw a number of Birkbeck alumni elected or re-elected as Members of Parliament: congratulations to: Kemi Badenoch (Con, Saffron Walden), Kwasi Kwarteng (Con, Spelthorne), Gloria Di Piero (Lab, Ashfield), Lisa Nandy (Lab, Wigan), Lucia Berger (Lab, Liverpool Wavertree), John McDonnell (Lab, Hayes & Harlington), Tulip Siddiq (Lab, Hampstead and Kilburn) and Sir Ed Davey (Lib Dem, Kingston).

Since the election was announced six weeks ago, Birkbeck academics have been using their expertise to offer insightful analysis of the unfolding political developments.


The Queen’s Speech

“While there is no specific Higher Education legislation the Government are still committed to an Industrial Strategy of which skills and training are a component and they are further committed to creating Institutes for Technology at locations throughout England. Whether these will embrace FE and HE qualifications or delivery we don’t yet know. The Conservative manifesto had also committed to a review of Tertiary education funding. While this is unlikely to happen more due to parliamentary arithmetic legislation would not be required should it choose to undertake this review. Finally, the Queen’s Speech is not the only opportunity for a Government to bring forward new policy. It is almost certain there will have to be a Budget and many positive measures for Birkbeck eg: PG Loans have come about that way. Let’s watch this space!”

– Jonathan Woodhead, Policy Advisor, Birkbeck


sarah-childsLet’s put the champagne on ice: the Commons’ missing women

With a record high number of women elected to Parliament, was the 2017 general election something to celebrate? Professor Sarah Childs (who will join Birkbeck’s Department of Politics from 1 September – pictured left), Meryl Kenny (University of Edinburgh) and Jessica Smith (Birkbeck PhD student) re-assess the recent result and consider what it means for women’s political representation.


almuth-mcdowallWhat can organizational psychology tells us about the calibre of our political leaders?

Organizational psychology provides substantial evidence about the characteristics of a successful leader, yet, as Dr Almuth McDowall explains, this knowledge is not consistently used when considering the suitability and capability of our political leaders in the UK.

 


ben-worthyWe need to talk about Jeremy: why I was wrong about the 2017 General Election

Dr Ben Worthy, Lecturer in Politics, examines why so many people underestimated the effectiveness of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign prior to the election.

Hung parliament

As it becomes clear that the most likely scenario following last week’s election is a minority Conservative government, with the backing of the Democratic Unionist Party, Dr Ben Worthy, Lecturer in Politics, discusses what a hung parliament is – and how long it is likely to last.


Results day reaction

jason-edwardsDr Jason Edwards, Lecturer in Politics :

“The election result reflects important and ongoing changes in British politics and society. First and foremost, it shows how far  the old ways of doing politics have declined. The vitriol against Labour and Corbyn expressed in the traditional right-wing press seem to have had little impact. Social media now seems to be of much greater importance in motivating people to vote, and in shaping who they vote for.

“One effect of this is that the electorate is much more informed and policy-focussed than usually thought. This can be seen in attitudes towards Brexit. The lazy belief that most people either want to remain in the EU on current terms or have a ‘hard’ Brexit has been exposed. There is no clear divide between remainers and Brexiteers and people’s attitudes are much more nuanced.

“Above all, and some might say encouragingly, the election shows the clear limits of populism. The Conservatives played the populist card fully in this election and paid the price for it. UKIP were demolished. Labour, despite some calls to transform itself into a leftist populist movement, and while undoubtedly playing on some populist tropes (‘for the many, not the few’), set out a relatively clear and detailed programme that, despite widespread doubts about Corbyn’s leadership, attracted large numbers of people.

“Some will despair at the messy outcome of the election, but it marks significant shifts in society that offer great opportunities for – as well as threats to – democratic renewal.”

ben-worthyDr Ben Worthy, Lecturer in Politics:

“Theresa May’s premiership looks over almost before it has begun. So how did it happen? And how do Premierships unravel? Here are three rules that, if broken, can get a Prime Minister in severe trouble:

  1. Don’t take too many risks

Leaders need to take risks but they should be calculated. Eventually a leader will simply run out of luck. Though she styled herself as the careful and thoughtful Vicar’s daughter she was actually a terrible risk taker. May gambled on being able to negotiate Brexit in secret (and failed), gambled on article 50 not going through Parliament (ended up in the Courts and failed) and then decided on an election. In the election she then gambled on a UKIP vote, her own leadership abilities and a set of untested policies (all of which failed). The old adage is that successive Prime Ministers are successively vicars and bookies. Theresa May posed as vicar but punted like a (rather reckless) bookie.

  1. Don’t underestimate your opponents

May clearly believed she could beat her rival and capitalise on his unpopularity. She thought wrong. Corbyn has energised young voters and, unbelievably, also appears to have won over the over-65s, gaining a remarkable 40% of the vote. Corbyn’s campaign has somehow united Remainers and Leavers and young and old. It may be, as some have argued, that the non-stop Conservative and right-wing media barrage at Corbyn boomeranged straight back at them. After two years claiming the Marxist extremist Corbyn would have us all ‘wearing overalls and breaking wind in the Palaces of the mighty’ the public just saw a reasonable, positive man promising more money for public services.

  1. Don’t overestimate yourself

Hubris is always lurking. May clearly somehow came to believe that she could carry an election based on herself, a kind of cult of personality built around her ‘strong and stable leadership’. The campaign ruthlessly exposed May’s many weaknesses and Michael Crick memorably said how ‘strong and stable’ had become  ‘weak and wobbly’. In the space of six brief weeks, as Paul Waugh put it ‘the cautious pragmatist allowed herself to be portrayed both as a Leave-loving zealot and a flip-flopper’.

So now Theresa May’s premiership is unravelling before our eyes. Whatever deal is done with the DUP May is in her end game. Any Prime Minister that has to announce they won’t resign is already in deep, deep trouble. She has few allies and has fallen out with her Chancellor and isolated herself from her party. Even if May survives and limps on, she is damaged, captured and will be portrayed as being controlled by others: hanging on by her constitutional responsibility rather than her authority. Theresa May broke the three rules and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.”

woodheadConsequences for Higher Education
Jonathan Woodhead, Policy Advisor at Birkbeck:

“As the dust settles on what has been an extraordinary General Election campaign and result we ought to take time to see what this means for Education and Universities in particular. The ink hadn’t even dried on the Higher Education Act when the election was called and that Bill was as a result of a number of changes committed to in the 2015 Conservative manifesto. It shows how long the political process can take.

At the start of the election campaign and the subsequent manifesto launches it was quite clear that Education along with Brexit and Social Care would become one of the key issues. Labour’s commitment to scrapping tuition fees and introducing grants was a bold policy (costed around £10bn) but was clearly designed to appeal to the under-25s. This is a demographic that rarely voted and felt, particularly after the EU Referendum that they were not being heard. Many seats where universities had residential accommodation saw surges in the electoral roll. Curiously when the Lib Dems tried the same policy in 2010 which secured them a record 57 seats but when in Coalition and compromises had to be made it was abandoned and support from students ebbed away. On top of scrapping fees Labour also offered a review into lifelong learning which would have been relevant to Birkbeck but little detail was given.

The Liberal Democrat manifesto went into some detail about research funding and restoring student grants again to appeal to its university heartlands of Cambridge, Sheffield Hallam and Bath however they were only successful in the latter of these seats. While the Lib Dems wanted to put Brexit at the heart of the election campaign it seems that the electorate didn’t have the same priorities.

Turning to the Conservative manifesto there is mention of a Tertiary Funding review, the creation of Institutes for Technology and the Industrial Strategy Green paper – all with a focus on Education and Skills. There is also a looming question as to whether there will be further restrictions on international students coming to the UK. Depending on the stability of the Government it will remain to be seen how many of these manifesto pledges can be implemented or whether we will in fact be in election mode so soon after this one…”


How people decide who to vote for

rosie-cPolitics Professor Rosie Campbell reported on how people actually decide how to vote for the BBC, noting that ‘more of us are changing our minds,’ citing the framing of campaigns by the media, as well as major national or international events (such as recent terror attacks), and emotional influence as likely to change the course of a vote.

 


Iconography in politics

Sue Wiseman, Professor of Seventeenth-Century Literature at Birkbeck discussed the iconography of hair of different politicians, and how it affects perceptions of the politician.


Theresa May – leaking leadership capital?

Shortly before the election, Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister commented on the diminishing leadership capital of the Prime Minister, and how leadership can be measured.

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Theresa May: leaking leadership capital?

Ben Worthy, Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, and Mark Bennister explore Theresa May’s leadership capital. They conclude that although she may gain capital after an election win, her strained relations with her Cabinet and the ongoing crises of Brexit, Scotland, and Northern Ireland may eventually diminish her reputation.theresamay

Measuring leadership is a tricky business. Our work has experimented with the concept of ‘leadership capital’ to analyse a leader’s ‘stock of authority’. Journalists and commentators often talk about political capital as a sort of ‘credit’ stock accumulated by and gifted to politicians. Leadership capital is, we argue, made up of three attributes:

  • Skills: personalised ability to communicate, present a vision, and gain popularity
  • Relations: with the political party, the voting public, and colleagues
  • Reputation: levels of trust, ability to influence policy, and get things done.

Our Leadership Capital Index tracks the trajectory of leadership capital over time. The general tendency is for capital to be high when a leader gains office (because they win an election, are popular etc.) and to inevitably decline over time as mistakes, scandals, and inability to solve ‘wicked’ public policy problems diminish it. High capital leaders tend to be transformative, pushing change, and presenting bold policies. Low capital leaders struggle to have an impact and are often consumed with fighting off threats to their leadership, both at elections and with internal challenges. We apply this approach in a new edited volume published by Oxford University Press, using a range of case studies. So how does Theresa May’s leadership capital look so far?

leadershipTheresa May seemingly accumulated high levels of leadership capital when she assumed office in July 2016 in the wake of the EU referendum result, even though, like many prime ministers before her, she came into power by ‘taking over’ rather than winning a General Election. May arrived after a vicious and very public internal party war, to become the unifier for both the Conservative party and the country in the grip of uncertainty and division.

In terms of skills, May championed a clear, if rather succinct, vision of Brexit (‘Brexit means Brexit’) while her forthright and direct style offered a contrast with Cameron’s slick and rather too smooth rhetoric. She entered power with high poll ratings and levels of trust and, perhaps most remarkably, a relatively united party after the civil war over Brexit. Her experience as Home Secretary was seen to demonstrate both firmness and a mastery of details.

In policy terms, May blended a wider policy agenda of reforming capitalism with a populist agenda pitched on the side of working families. Her uncontested party leadership coronation left no rivals with only Boris Johnson in the ‘gilded cage’ of the Foreign Office where he could do no harm. May was the candidate who could and would ‘get things done’ with plenty of leadership capital to do it.

Jump forward to June 2017 and May’s capital looks a little different. It is still high. May retains her high poll ratings and trust: May is much more popular than her party while the reverse is true for Corbyn. Perhaps most remarkably, the Conservative party has fallen into line behind her stance on Brexit. The General Election of 2017, and with campaign emphasis on May herself, has hinged on these positives. This election, in a sense, is a leadership capital election as this Populus party leader polling shows. The strategic, personalised focus on her leadership was a deliberate approach to contrast with her opponent.

But there have been signs of fraying capital. Her communicative style has been derided as robotic, under the intense media scrutiny of a campaign. Meanwhile her firmness and mastery of detail have been exposed as less positive attributes, once her tendency towards secretive and closed group decision-making became evident, and after some less than certain public performances. The Brexit process has seen White Papers and speeches that appeared less than detailed, while electioneering slogans have glossed over a lack of depth of policy planning. The reformist agenda so far has been a little underwhelming.

When a leader’s communication and policy control falters, leadership capital – gifted to them by supporters, commentators and electors – declines. May’s problems are exemplified by the U-turn on social care policy, an embarrassing volte-face during an election campaign. As a poorly thought through policy, it apparently by-passed Cabinet and so damaged her relations, not only with colleagues, but also the grassroots members busy knocking on doors. May’s attempts to defend the policy left the party rather unhappy and less convinced by her competence. As Janan Ganesh argued:

“Her self-image as a firm leader hinged on her fidelity to this brave, contentious idea…Colleagues who defended her proposal in public, lobby interests who fought it and any EU negotiators tuning in from the continent will infer the same lesson: this prime minister is strong and stable, until you test her.”

The social care climb down has not been an isolated incident. It follows a series of mistakes and retreats from National Insurance rise to the fundamental decision to hold a snap election. There is also a tendency towards blaming others in a crisis – whether the EU for leaking or her own Chancellor for the aborted National Insurance rise. Recent headlines perhaps tell us the reputational damage. George Osborne’s London Evening Standard editorial described May’s campaign as an ‘abortive personality cult’ that, after the ‘self-inflicted wound’ of social care, could be summed up as “Honey, I shrunk the poll lead.” The Times ran with the headline ‘Mrs May has been rumbled as not very good’ and Paxman, with a phrase that could haunt May, suggested she was a blowhard who collapses at the first sign of gunfire.

May appears set for a convincing win, if not a landslide. Her polling and personal ratings mean she retains more than enough leadership capital to make this victory her win – though expectations may make a smaller win rather Pyrrhic. Framed as the Brexit election, she can still present herself as the leader with the capital and mandate to see it through, but her personalised campaign has been dented under close scrutiny and in the face of an unexpectedly resilient opponent.

She may gain capital on the back of an election win, but expect her to lose capital in her relations with her own cabinet: collegiality has been with her own Chancellor, tension between her team and the Cabinet, muttering in the party over U-turns and mistakes. Aside from the deep rolling crisis that is Brexit, many other problems will still loom large on June the 9th: from Scotland to the too long neglected divisions and stalemate in Northern Ireland. May’s leadership capital could well diminish swiftly after her election victory. As she faces the huge complexity of Brexit, her skills are not so evident, her relations are frayed, and her reputation dented.

Worthy and Bennister are co-authors, with Paul ‘t Hart, of The Leadership Capital Index, available from Oxford University Press.

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The story behind Birkbeck’s new web design

Dr Ben Winyard, Senior Content Manager at Birkbeck explains the research and process behind our website’s new look. 

The Birkbeck website serves many vital functions simultaneously: it must be an authoritative, accurate source of information; a gateway to services; easy to navigate and search; aesthetically pleasing; accessible to all; and it must reflect and advance Birkbeck’s mission. The experience of using our website is often absolutely central to a person’s decision to come and study in the evening with us.

In our digital age, having a professional, beautifully designed and practical, easy to use website is absolutely essential for any university or organisation. Users need to get where they want to be quickly and easily, feeling confident that what they’re reading is accurate, while enjoying the tactile and visual experience of moving through our site.

The Birkbeck Digital project is a hugely ambitious, wide-ranging and on-going project to redesign, redevelop, restructure and re-present Birkbeck’s web presence based on research, evidence and over 50 user-testing sessions. Every longstanding website – and Birkbeck has been online for around twenty years – has a natural history of expansion and growth. The ambition of this project has allowed us to research and reconsider everything about our site – the design, the layout, the navigation and the content – and the opportunity to field staff and student feedback to ascertain how people use, and feel about, our website.

The project has been divided into stages, as the Birkbeck website extends to many thousands of pages. Stage 1, which is being delivering on schedule this month, includes the redesign of the Birkbeck homepage, of our ‘corporate’ site, which includes all of the key information for prospective students and covers many of our most important professional and student services departments, and, lastly, the online prospectus, which includes over 3000 pages of course and module information across all levels of study, from short courses to PhD research.

Our first task was to organise user feedback sessions, to help us map and improve the experience of visitors to the website. A series of workshops, one-to-one interviews and group sessions, were bisected by ‘type’ of user, from ‘young undergraduate’ and ‘mature postgraduate’ to international students, MPhil/PhD researchers and staff from across the College.  From this research we were able to compile a rich analysis of who is using the Birkbeck website, what they are looking for, and what delights and frustrates them. This invaluable feedback has informed every step of the design process, the reviewing and refreshing of content and the build of the new website.

The feedback was often interestingly divided according to the age of the student: in general, users above the age of 30 were positive, describing our website as ‘modern’, ‘clear’, ‘precise’, ‘professional’ and ‘mature’; while younger users were less positive, describing our website as ‘traditional’, ‘outdated’, ‘plain’, ‘dull’ and lacking colour and media content such as videos. Many users expressed frustration with the navigation on our site – the menus, signposts and links that you click on to move from one page or section of the website to another – and felt we don’t adequately convey what it is like to study at Birkbeck. Users also struggled to access vital information, including bursaries and financial support.

Embedded accessibility software, including screen-reading, enables visitors to customise our site in the way they need it to work

Embedded accessibility software, including screen-reading, enables visitors to customise our site in the way they need it to work

The task of converting all of this, sometimes conflicting, feedback into a new design fell to the design company, Pentagram, who created our new visual identity last year so had a head start in understanding Birkbeck’s unique mission and our diverse staff and student community. Over the course of many brainstorming sessions and meetings in the autumn of 2016, Birkbeck’s content (External Relations) and technical (IT Services) experts worked together with Pentagram to translate our new visual identity and user feedback into a stylish, clear and colourful new design.

The mammoth task of translating Pentagram’s beautiful designs into a functioning website fell to our hugely talented and hardworking CIS & Web Team in IT Services. This type of translation work – of turning a design into functioning code on a webpage – will always involve cutting your coat to match your cloth – i.e. working out what can be done given the challenges of schedule, staff capacity and budget. The developers were astute at breaking down each element of the design and explaining the best way of turning them into a digital reality. Extensive user-testing was carried out in the team as well as research to makes sure our site is sector-leading in terms of accessibility. This sort of cross-team working carries its own challenges, but IT Services and External Relations have worked strongly and successfully together.

The new pop-out menu

The new pop-out menu signposts visitors to important pages

This new design has adapted our visual identity for the Web, incorporating new typography and standards of layout. On the redesigned Homepage, we now have the images, clear, graphic signposts to important pages that users have asked for, brought together on a new, easy-to-use pop-out menu on the right-hand side of the page.

 

Finding a course is usually the number one task of a new visitor to our site, so we have incorporated a prominent keyword course search box at the top of the Homepage, to get students started on their journey as quickly and easily as possible. We’re also showcasing the best of what’s happening at Birkbeck – as a lot of user feedback articulated a sense that Birkbeck is ‘hiding its light under a bushel’ and not trumpeting its achievements and strengths. So we are featuring news, events, blog posts and podcasts on the Homepage and on landing pages, singing loudly and proudly about our world-class research.

research-tile

Birkbeck’s unique qualities are showcased with eye-catching statement tiles

Birkbeck’s unique mission makes us genuinely different to other universities and the new website is all about making this clear upfront, celebrating it and helping prospective students see the many ways in which studying with us could have a real impact on their lives. We are also making videos more prominent, as a way of telling our unique story and dusting away some of the fustiness that frustrated our younger users. Finally, the new website has been designed responsively, meaning that, whatever device you are using, the website will look great and be easy to use.

newwebsite6phone

The website is optimised for browsing on any device

On our online prospectus, we are presenting each course page as a gateway into Birkbeck, as many prospective students come to our website through our course pages after a Google search. Thus, we now include links to important information on fees and funding, making an application, entry requirements, accommodation, our research culture and other key areas of interest for prospective students, depending on the level of study. We have also reviewed the content on all of our course pages, stripping out duplication and generic content and simplifying, consolidating and improving.

Redesigning and restructuring the website gave us a golden opportunity to review, assess and edit our content. The pages on our ‘corporate’ website include absolutely crucial information on fees and funding, student services, careers and employability, and research, while our online prospectus is the most visited area of our website and absolutely central to attracting new students.

Like most organisations, Birkbeck has seen its website expand exponentially over the past decade and, as with any large, complex organisation, content on our website has not always been kept up-to-date or focused on the needs of users. Seizing this opportunity, we have reviewed and refreshed over 1500 items of content, which includes webpages, images and files, in line with the newly created House Style and tone of voice guidelines – the first time Birkbeck has ever had a comprehensive style guide.

Duplicate and obsolete material has been removed, written content has been reviewed, rewritten where necessary, and adjusted to meet our House Style. User testing and workshop sessions with content owners across the College mean that we have been able to reorder material based on user needs, giving prominence to the material that matters most to visitors and giving answers to their most pressing questions. Areas of the website that had been structured to reflect the internal organisation of Birkbeck have been reordered to bring users’ needs, questions and tasks to the forefront. Thirty new landing pages have been created, giving essential content areas a fresh, vibrant new look that also makes the website easier to navigate.

Throughout this process, when considering the design, layout, structure and content of the website, we have been guided by the following ideas and principles:

  1. To focus on and prioritise the needs of the website users, whether staff, students or visitors.
  2. To simplify, clarify and reduce, while avoiding duplication, obfuscation and verbiage. Our written content should be truthful, clear, concise and easy to understand.
  3. To ensure our site is accessible to all users and optimised to enable disabled, blind and visually impaired users to access the information they need.
  4. To increase the aesthetic appeal of the website, particularly through the greater use of images, videos and other media. To this end, nearly 600 new images have been uploaded to the site.
  5. To simplify the structure of our website, to enable ease of navigation and quick access to the information that users need.
  6. Apply our new House Style and deploy a more consistent, positive and appealing tone of voice.

And this is just the beginning. Going forward, we will be redesigning and relaunching other parts of our website, utilising new technologies, implementing new principles of digital governance, rolling out our new House Style and tone of voice guidelines, and working towards the shared goal of a website we can all feel justly proud of.

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User-testing Birkbeck’s new website design

Naomi Bain, Web Officer (Training and User Experience), at Birkbeck explains the way student feedback informed our new web design. 

webOver the course of the past few months, throughout the redevelopment of the Birkbeck website, I have carried out more than 50 user testing sessions. These have sought to ensure that the changes and improvements we are making to the website are firmly rooted in research and evidence about how the website is used in real life, rather than how we might imagine it is used.

After each round of testing I reported back to the web teams, both technical and content, about any issues that came out of the sessions. These reports led to some changes being made, helped with decision-making processes and provided reassurance.

There have been four rounds of testing with students, gathered with the help of Team Birkbeck. As well as this, I set up sessions with students with dyslexia and related conditions and students with visual impairment, who I contacted with the help of the Disability Office and External Relations. The students who have participated are studying all kinds of subjects and come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Testing has included a number of older students, and students who do not speak English as a first language.

In the early stages of testing we just looked at PDFs of the new design. Students were asked for their response to the appearance of the site, and I did ‘first click’ tests to assess their understanding of the layout of the pages and how they would find something on a live version. We then moved on to testing some mock up stand-alone pages, concentrating in particular on testing the course finder and the menu.

For the final round, we had something approaching a complete test version of the new site, and focussed in particular on course information. In addition to this, students with disabilities assessed various accessibility tools, and also talked about how their disability could affect their use of websites.

All sessions took place at Birkbeck and were recorded using Panopto, the university’s video content system. All students used the site on a PC, and some also searched the site on their phone.

Feedback on the new site has been overwhelmingly positive. People described it as “clear”, “modern”, “colourful” and “engaging”. It compared favourably to both the existing Birkbeck site and to other university sites.

Observing students carrying out searches on the site enables us to quickly see whether they understand how the design “works”. Several minor issues with the design have been brought to light as a result of these user testing sessions and changes have been made, or potential problems flagged up.

The intention is to do some follow up testing post-launch, as part of an ongoing iterative process of development and improvement, which will ensure that Birkbeck sites are attractive, usable and accessible to all our students.

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Getting our Act together

After 700 amendments and some heated debates, the Higher Education and Research Bill finally became law last week. Birkbeck’s Policy Communications Officer, Fiona MacLeod, has followed its parliamentary progress from First Reading to last week’s ‘ping-pong’ between the two Houses of Parliament, and outlines what changes it will bring to the Higher Education sector.parliament
The Higher Education and Research Bill ended its lengthy passage through Parliament last week and is now law. With both Houses agreeing on the exact wording of the Bill, it received Royal Assent on Thursday 27 May with a flourish of Norman French – a declaration that ‘La Reyne le veult’ – to become the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.

The ‘ping-pong’ process between Commons and Lords to agree a final version of the Bill began the day before, when MPs rejected earlier amendments made in the Lords and agreed a raft of new Government amendments in lieu. These final amendments were designed to achieve compromises acceptable to Peers and get the Bill passed speedily before Parliament’s formal dissolution this week ahead of the 8 June General Election.

The 2017 Act has been hailed as ‘the most important legislation for the sector in 25 years’ but getting it to this point involved more than 700 amendments and some major concessions from the Government.   So what key changes to UK higher education does the 2017 Act bring?

The Act establishes a new regulatory body, the Office for Students (OfS), to replace the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), and integrates the UK’s seven research councils into a new body called United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI).

Among its regulatory changes, the Act will make it easier for new higher education providers to gain degree awarding powers and university status, while the OfS will implement a new mechanism to recognise and reward high-quality teaching, already underway, known as the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

The TEF will rate universities as Gold, Silver or Bronze, and results of the initial TEF trial will be published in June.  The TEF will be used to set university tuition fees, but any differentiation of fees based on its controversial Olympic medal-style ratings will not happen until 2020/21. Until then, future increases in fee limits – in line with inflation – for universities participating in the TEF will require the approval of both Houses of Parliament.

The Act also requires an independent review of the TEF in 2018 which will look at how ratings are decided and what they should be called; whether the metrics used are appropriate; the TEF’s impact on institutions and indeed whether the TEF is in the public interest. This goes further than the earlier ‘lessons learned’ exercise offered by the Government. The review’s conclusions will be considered before the 2020 timeframe for fee differentiation based on TEF ratings. The Act ensures the TEF can’t be used to limit international student recruitment figures and will require institutions to publish specific data deemed ‘helpful’ for international students.

For Birkbeck, a major problem with the early draft of the Bill was its failure to reference part-time study and its importance for the country’s future skills needs. It also failed to recognise the particular needs of mature or part-time learners when outlining the future role of the OfS.  Working with MPs and Peers, including College President Baroness Bakewell and Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Garden, Birkbeck lobbied successfully to gain explicit recognition of part-time study in the Bill; the OfS will be required to promote choice in the way university courses are taught, including part-time study, distance learning and accelerated courses.

We’re also pleased that the Act will help make alternative methods of financing available to those unable to take out student loans, including for those who require ‘Sharia-compliant’ finance.

The OfS will be responsible for quality and standards in the HE sector and will absorb the work of the Office for Fair Access.  Universities will be required to publish information about the fairness of their admissions as well as information that might be ‘helpful to international students’.

The Act also confirms that International students will continue to be included in the net migration target. Media reports suggesting that the Prime Minister was softening her stance on this in order to get the Bill passed proved to be inaccurate, and Peers reluctantly accepted the status quo.

Among other hotly debated aspects of the Bill, the Act confirms that University title, even those granted by Royal Charter, can be removed by Government.  But the Secretary of State will have to consult representative bodies of higher education providers and students when giving guidance to the OfS about its power to grant university title, and the OfS must consider this guidance before allowing a provider to call itself a university. There will be a full review to look at the shared features of a university – such as excellent teaching, sustained scholarship, learning infrastructure, pastoral care and knowledge exchange.

Similarly, the Bill was strengthened to provide better oversight of OfS’s powers to grant, revoke or vary degree awarding powers (DAP): the OfS will have to notify the Secretary of State when granting DAP to institutions which have not previously had a validation agreement with another higher education provider or OfS, and degree-awarding powers will be automatically reviewed following a merger or change of ownership.

Peers welcomed the many changes made to the Bill during its parliamentary progress and there was much mutual congratulation last week on the Government’s willingness to listen and the degree of cross-party collaboration in the Lords.

Lord Stevenson, Labour’s spokesman on higher education in the Lords, said the amended Bill would ‘improve collaboration within the sector… help reverse the decline in part-time students…assist mature students who wish to come back, and … pave the way for more work to be done on credit transfer and flexible courses’.  Let’s hope he’s right.

See the Parliamentary process of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 here and Read debates on all stages of the Act 2017 here

 

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Overcoming mathematical anxiety with customised support

evaszatmariDo you have a fear of mathematics?  Have you always avoided percentages? Do you want to run away when you see algebraic expressions?  If you think it is time to conquer your maths demons, then Eva Szatmari can help.  Eva works for the School of Business, Economics and Informatics, and enables you to customise your learning and go at your speed through her one-to-one sessions. She tells us how she can help you solve your maths and stats knowledge and support you in your studies.

Eva, what do you do?
I help students learn mathematics and statistics, working one-to-one. When he/she comes into my office, I always start by asking what would they like to work on. In this way, I am tailoring the session to the individual student need.

I also run workshops in which I try to make sure that everyone in the class is able to follow the teaching, so no one is left behind.  I make sure I create an atmosphere where students feel safe to ask questions that they think might be too simplistic in their usual lectures. Birkbeck students have very busy lives so I have made video tutorials available online including instruction on Boolean logic, the binary number system and various scientific calculator tutorials so students can access my help wherever they are. More details of this can be found here.

Could you tell us a little bit about your role and the kind of support you offer?
Students who have maths anxiety often have previous life experiences that discourage them from ever wanting to learn maths again.  Suddenly on some degree courses, they are forced to come back to maths to ensure they complete their course.  I would like to prove to them that maths is enjoyable, rewarding, and accessible to anyone.  Therefore my challenge is forensic – to detect the right mode and language for communicating to each student.  I make sure I create an encouraging environment where students can ask even the most basic maths or statistics questions.

Why is it important to offer a customised approach to learning?
The School of BEI recognises that customised approach to learning is important and it adds to the experience a student can have at Birkbeck.  We want to give every student the necessary support to excel in their studies. This ties into Birkbeck’s central mission to offer flexible education to meet the widely varying needs of our students and to help them fulfill their potential and their ambitions.

Have you seen this approach make a practical difference?
Definitely yes!  I would like to give you two examples of students I helped.  One of them had severe maths anxiety and approached me for some extra tutorials not believing he would understand it.  He had no maths experience because of disruptive schooling.  We started with the basics, and gradually he got really to like maths and he enjoys the course he was on more because he no longer feared the relevant sessions.  He went on to pass his maths exam which was part of his course.

I am not here only for the weakest students, but to help anyone at whatever level.  In another example, a student came to see me needing a 1st Class Honours degree to get on her chosen Masters and I am happy and proud that she got accepted for Oxbridge to do what she wanted.

It has repeatedly been shown that there is a correlation between better numeracy skills, and better life chances – the higher your mathematical abilities, the higher your job prospects and your earning potential.

Why is this customised learning approach unique?
There are many initiatives out there which provide support for literacy skills, but considerably fewer that develop numeracy skills. This is particularly true at university level. This customised learning approach makes a real difference to improving the confidence and mathematical skills of students. This means they may achieve more in their courses than they would otherwise and often they surprise themselves at what they can do.

Birkbeck is in itself unique when compared to most other universities for two particular reasons. A significant proportion of students are already in full-time employment, or they are hoping to use the skills they learn at Birkbeck to change their existing careers. There is a particular need for additional numeracy support in the School of BEI, where mathematics may feature significantly in a course or module, but where many students join from a different academic discipline, or from a professional environment where they have not used formal mathematics in the same way.

Finally, how can BEI students at Birkbeck get in touch with you if they want to work with you?
They can email me on e.szatmari@bbk.ac.uk to book a one-on-one session. These normally last about an hour. They can also see the BEI Workshop Timetable on my staff web page for module specific workshops.

The sessions I run are completely confidential, and it’s important that students know there’s no need to be embarrassed about asking for assistance – it’s what I’m here for. It’s worth any student who is unsure about a particular aspect of mathematics coming, especially with exams on the horizon!

 

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How to get a job interview in digital technology

This blog was written by Frederic Kalinke, an ex-Googler who is now Managing Director of agile marketing technology company AmigodigitaljobsoriginalOne of the most common questions I get asked following my workshops with the UpScale programme is: how can I land an interview in a digital technology company? Tech firms like Google and Facebook revel in the aura that has been created around their application process. Movies like The Intern and The Social Network and books like Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google? add to the mystique. In this post, I want to outline a few tips on how to create a powerful application that will give you the best chance of landing an interview in digital technology. In short, it’s about creating an application so good that they can’t ignore you.

I believe that too many graduates struggle with finding jobs because they don’t put enough thought into understanding what they want to do and then do not try hard enough in their application. The default behaviour upon graduation is to create a generic CV (A4; one-sided; Arial font) and hand over the reins to a recruiter who will find you a suitable position (read: fire your CV in a scattergun to hundreds of employees and see what sticks). This is not a good approach as it reflects a lack of thoughtfulness and tenacity on behalf of the applicant, which are two qualities that every employer treasures.

Created View, not Curriculum Vitae

Instead I suggest graduates should be highly targeted in their approach. They should think carefully about the sectors that interest them and then do more thinking to create an argument as to why companies in this sector should hire them. It’s all about taking a position; more power behind fewer arrows. If one wants to apply for a marketing role at a fintech company that is trying to create a new form of bank, one should do some competitor analysis on their positioning, pricing, marketing strategy and visualise it in a colourful presentation. If one is after a software development job in an organic food business, evaluate their technology systems and website, and offer a technical SWOT analysis. A CV should stand for ‘Created View’, not Curriculum Vitae. So how do you create a view?!

The first step is to analyse relevant data. Google Trends is a fantastic resource that provides search query volumes for any word or phrase. This is a goldmine as it enables you to understand brand affinity by the amount of times people are searching for a set of firms. You can easily plug in the names of the firms you are applying to and their top five competitors. If you look hard enough, there are several other data sets or reports available to provide the ingredients you need to construct your argument.

The second step is to construct an argument. One of the first warm-up exercises I do in my UpScale workshop (see this Birkbeck blog post for more information), is to get participants to imagine they are an alien marketer who wants to convince decision-makers back on Planet Zog to adopt the internet, as an alternative to billboards. I ask them to list the six key attributes of digital marketing that make it so powerful versus traditional advertising? If I was applying for a role at a traditional billboard advertiser (such as Clear Channel or JCDecaux), my argument would be that their strategy should be to make their product comply with the attributes that make digital advertising so powerful.

The third step is to present your argument in an engaging way. Don’t put all your eggs in the A4, one-page CV basket, but supplement it with a colourful presentation, a website, a video, an audio file. Anything to mark yourself out as thoughtful and tenacious.

Contact the CEO

The last step is to send your application (your ‘Created View’) to the CEO. Their email address can be easily found by combining tools like LinkedIn, hunter.io and ceoemail.com. Contacting the CEO is a fantastic tactic as he or she will not receive direct applications, especially ones with well researched arguments. The worst outcome is that he or she will not reply directly but send your application to the HR department who will then be compelled to reply.

I’ve suggested this approach to so many people with great results. One of my friends wanted to get a marketing job with an eponymous fashion brand. I suggested he created a view by evaluating the brand’s use of social media and then displaying his report on a website. He built a WordPress site (www.why[brandname]needsme.com), and emailed it to the CEO. Within a day, he had a call from the Chief Commercial Officer who offered him a paid summer internship!

In short, getting a job in digital technology is not easy. But you will stand the best chance of landing an interview by being thoughtful and tenacious. Target a small set of firms by sending the CEO a well informed argument that will help his/her business. Remember: don’t create a Curriculum Vitae, Create a View.

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Developing digital skills with UpScale

This blog was written by Frederic Kalinke, an ex-Googler who is now Managing Director of agile marketing technology company Amigo.digitaltechoriginal

I am a big fan of the UpScale programme at Birkbeck, which inspires students to work in the wonderful world of digital technology. Several big brands like LinkedIn, ASOS, JustGiving and MediaMath are partners, offering dedicated seminars to aspiring students. I have delivered a number of workshops focused on the power of Google and online marketing. In this article, I want to share why I believe UpScale is so important, as well as some tips on how to learn digital skills effectively.

I started my career at Google. Besides overdosing on sushi and chocolate, I learnt everything there is to know about Google’s marketing tools, which help businesses acquire customers online. I was also lucky to discover a passion so early. The thing that got me out of bed in the morning was developing novel and effective ways to teach companies about how Google products work. Before I dive into these, it’s worth spending some time exploring why working in technology is a fantastic place to be.

Never get bored

The UpScale programme focuses exclusively on the digital technology sector. Why? The UpScale website talks about employer demand. As the world gets increasingly digital, companies will continue to require and reward people who have technical skills and interests. This is undeniably true. You only have to look at the market salaries for software developers, data scientists and digital marketers to understand that demand for digital talent outstrips supply.

I would argue, however, that there is an intrinsic reason why technology is a fantastic career choice: it never gets boring! By nature it constantly evolves and never lies still. Here’s a clear example. Before the internet, the hotel, taxi, retail and entertainment industries remained largely unchanged. Hoteliers and taxi companies enjoyed oligopolistic privileges so could charge whatever they wanted to customers; high street shops enjoyed healthy margins based on the fact that customers had no other choice but to purchase their goods and services from them; and content producers, movie distributors and cinemas moved in lockstep, creating a profitable triumvirate. Then the internet arrived. And so did AirBnB, Uber, Amazon and Netflix, which have completely transformed their respective industries. It’s mind-boggling to think that two of these companies did not even exist 9 years ago. And none of them existed 23 years ago.

I was given the recommendation to work in digital by a wise CEO of a large FMCG company whom I met at university. He told me to forget the FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) sector as, despite its name, was the “commercial snail”. It turns out that washing powder and toothpaste don’t really change that much.

So if you want excitement and constant innovation, digital technology will not disappoint and UpScale will equip you with the skills and networks to help get you there.

How to learn digital effectively

Having established the significance and thrill of working in technology, I’d now like to outline three ways to learn digital skills effectively. These insights are based on my experience of running several UpScale workshops.

  1. Interactive learning: From the very start of my workshop, I involve everybody in warm-up exercises and thought experiments to get people thinking. I am a big believer in the saying that if you “tell somebody to do something they will forget, if you show somebody they will remember, but if you involve somebody they will understand”. Because digital technology touches every part of our life, I advise students to get together in small groups to debate digital and challenge each other with questions like: why is Amazon so successful? Why is Twitter’s stock price so low? If you had £100k, what business would you set up and why? Why is using data important in decision-making? Which industry will be disrupted by technology next?
  1. Metaphors: I use a lot of metaphors to teach digital marketing concepts. For example, when we look at keyword planning, the bedrock of Search Engine Marketing, I use fishing and football; when we discuss Website Optimisation, I use the metaphor of a great restaurant. Metaphors make new things memorable and familiar. I always advise students to devise their own metaphors for newly learnt subjects and try them out on friends. As the Feynman Technique tells us, explaining something to a newbie is the best way to master any topic.
  1. Get practical: The last part of my workshop is about applying theory to practical exercises. Participants create their own Google AdWords campaign for an industry of their choosing. In whatever technical subject you are learning, there is always a practical application. If you’re learning a computer language, grasping data science or building a Microsoft Excel dashboard, get stuck in by building something. You will be amazed at how much this aids the learning process.
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Populism and the question of political time

Dr Jason Edwards, Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, comments on the quickening pace of politics in the context of a resurgent populist movement.populismoriginalThe many remarkable political developments of the last year – most notably the vote in favour of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election as President – are less extraordinary than they may seem at first sight if we regard them as recent moments in a longer-term acceleration of political time. It was Harold Wilson who (supposedly) said that ‘a week is a long time in politics’, but fifty years later this seems like an understatement. The pace and rate of political change today seems unprecedented.

One way in which we might view the current success of ‘populist’ political parties and movements is that they are a response to this acceleration of political time. Populists often berate politicos obsessed with the minutiae of political intercourse, hooked on Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle. But of course, there is a paradox here: populists have come to prominence and to power precisely by the use of those media that most readily lend themselves to the acceleration of political time. Donald Trump’s victory would not have been possible thirty or even twenty-years ago: not just because of the direct line he had in the election campaign to his followers on Twitter, but by the saturation coverage he received in the ‘mainstream’ media.

Populists have thrived on the permanent election campaign that has come to characterise the politics of democracies. It was not their invention. Nor was it a simply technologically-driven process, made possible by innovations in broadcasting and digital communications. Rather, the permanent election campaign is a central feature of neo-liberal governance. The logic of neo-liberalism transforms citizens into consumers, and political knowledge into a marketable commodity. Political knowledge was once tough to digest and even tougher to produce; but today it has been broken down into eminently digestible, often tasteless nuggets, and virtually anyone can add to the stock of knowledge through a tweet or by posting in the comments section on the website of a national newspaper.

Populism seems like a reaction against neo-liberalism. But, in fact, in its most prominent contemporary form – that is, the populism of the authoritarian nationalist right – it follows the same relentless logic of commercialisation and de-politicisation. A politics that promotes dissent, or even that calls for careful deliberation of important matters is routinely dismissed by populists. It promises instead to outdo the technocrats by providing quick and ‘simple’ solutions to what are deeply complex, and often intractable problems. Most obviously in the shape of Donald Trump, it offers the prospect of an effective politics by adopting the ruthless efficiency of the modern corporation (or at least what is supposed to be its ruthless efficiency, which in reality often masks inefficiency, inertia, and corruption).

By appealing to an idealised past of social harmony and effective authority, populists may seem to venerate a simpler and more authentic world, where politics was not driven by the permanent election campaign. But this is a veneer – populism in its contemporary forms is very much a product of a (hyper-) modern world of accelerating political time and diminishing public space. It is driven along by these transformations rather than presenting a challenge to them.

Populism might prompt us to think more seriously about the question of political time, because it may frame certain central problems about how we are governed in the present. Despite its avowals, populism does not slow down political time but accelerates it to the point of permanent crisis and reaction. We are seeing the manifestation of this ever-greater acceleration in the multiple crises of politics. How we slow down political time is a question now worth asking.

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