Birkbeck’s Digital Transformation Project

Ben Winyard, Digital Publications Officer at Birkbeck, discusses Stage One of our online redesign.

Stage one of Birkbeck’s ambitious Digital Transformation Project went live on 16 May 2017, with the launch of a bold new design and layout for our homepage, corporate site and online prospectus. Since then, External Relations and the ITS Web Team have busily continued with improvements that, while less dramatic in terms of immediate, aesthetic impact, are just as important for bettering the user experience, optimising the accessibility of our website for all users, and making sure visitors can get the information they want quickly and easily.

A core principle of the Digital Transformation Project is that our decisions should be evidence-based and user-focused. In pursuit of this goal, we regularly test users’ responses to our website. Since February 2017, we have run around 50 user testing sessions, which covered the pre-launch, launch and post-launch phases of stage one. Some initial changes we made as a result of user feedback were adjustments to styling and making information clearer and easier to find.

During the June user testing sessions, we looked at how users search for courses and judge their quality, using Google, UCAS, and other comparison and rating sites. As a result, we implemented improvements to usability on our online prospectus, including: rewording and redesigning buttons and signposts; adding links to other available years of entry and to other versions of the same course (‘Related courses’); retitling fields to make browsing easier; and adding career destinations information (pulled from Unistats) to all of our full-time undergraduate courses.

As well as identifying usability issues, regular user testing is also increasing our understanding of how people use our website, which informs future developments. This feedback is proving vital for the next part of the Digital Transformation Project, which is focused on improving our site and course search. We know that the majority of our visitors come to us via Google. But we have learned that an increasing number of visitors – especially younger users – primarily navigate our site via internal course and site search, or externally through Google, rather than using our menus. This makes it even more pressing to ensure our search facility is the best it can be, which is one of our primary aims for the immediate future. User testing sessions in August concentrated on course and site search; they confirmed that improvement is needed and provided vital information on how users expect a search facility to work on a university website.

We are also looking at how students use school/department content on the Birkbeck website and how this content fits into the user journey. This is with a view to launching a project to bring our school/department content into the new visual identity and web design, which will also include rationalising and improving content and navigation, in order to enhance the user experience and ensure all of our users can find the information they need.

In External Relations, our focus so far has been on improving our online prospectus, the most visited and the most important part of our entire website. Depending on the time of year, our online prospectus can total well over 4000 pages, each with its own unique content and each playing a vital role in telling prospective students about Birkbeck and encouraging them to apply. Improving our online prospectus has two strands: rewriting descriptive text for our courses and improving all of the modules that are currently available for undergraduate and postgraduate students. In both instances, we have been applying our new house style and polishing content to make our course and module descriptions accurate and engaging. Our primary aim with any online course description is to grab the reader’s attention and let them know about what is unique, interesting and exciting about the course and about Birkbeck.

An example of a programme page in our new design.

On our programme pages, we have focused attention on the overview, highlights and course structure fields. We know from heat maps and analytics that these are the most visited parts of every programme page, so we wanted to dedicate time and attention to making this text really sing. It’s important to us that we do justice to the intellectually stimulating content of our courses, to the dedicated, world-leading academics who teach them, and to the life-changing opportunities offered by Birkbeck’s unique model of evening study. We have also been working hard with colleagues to ensure our online course pages are compliant with new legal requirements from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). These changes will increase the usefulness of our online prospectus by presenting important information on student contact hours, independent learning, learning development and support, and how students are taught and assessed across Birkbeck.

Our module improvement project has one primary focus: ensuring that every available module at Birkbeck is part of our online prospectus and includes rich, appealingly written descriptive text that adheres to our new house style. We have been working closely with our colleagues across Birkbeck’s five schools to source content and have updated and improved around 200 modules so far.

So, what difference has our redesign made, in terms of the number and quality of visits? An important measure of improvement and quality is the increased amount of time people are spending on our site; visitors spend longer engaging with the improved content and are finding it easier to navigate between different areas. There has also been an increase in the number of returning visitors, so we know that people are coming back to us.

Our online prospectus remains the focus of most visitors’ attention and continues to attract the highest interest. User testing and analytics reveal that, for many visitors, our course pages are their first interaction with Birkbeck, so one of our primary aims with the new web design has been to convert each of our online course pages into a ‘mini-homepage’, with links to news, events and research across Birkbeck and to vital information, such as financial support, student services and accommodation. To this end, we added tertiary signposts to every programme page and we are now seeing that people use our course pages as their main entry route into, and the jumping-off point to, other parts of the Birkbeck website. Other parts of our site have been dramatically upgraded: there are far fewer pages and we have consolidated information in one place and converted old information into downloadable documents, where appropriate. This has led to a significant increase in engagement: visitors are now spending more time on these pages and going through the information more thoroughly, because it’s all in one place and easily navigable.

Meanwhile, we have instituted a regular weekly maintenance slot, during which three web editors in External Relations make requested changes to all areas of our new site. Since May, we have implemented hundreds of such requests, all with the purpose of improving the accuracy and helpfulness of our content.

We have also developed an entirely new Digital Standards area on our website, which provides advice, information and support to all Birkbeck staff who need to convey information online. You can read our house style guide, find out about search engine optimisation, get practical information on links, files and redirects, and learn more about our visual identity and our social media guidelines. We are working hard to supplement this online support with bespoke face-to-face training, which we are in the process of developing. We have also begun using new software that identifies accessibility, content and coding issues across our site, which is greatly helping us continually maintain and improve the new site.

We have a series of ‘conversion goals’ on our website, whereby a user’s visit is translated into an action. We primarily want visitors to: order a prospectus; or book an Open Evening; or submit an application to study. We have seen a dramatic increase in these since we launched the new website, so it is pleasing to see that our work continues to support and advance the primary objectives of the Digital Transformation Project.

 

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Building an (Inter)Disciplinary Career

Lucy Tallentire from the School of Business, Economics and Informatics explores the challenges and opportunities in interdisciplinary studies, raised in a recent seminar from the TRIGGER Project (Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research). 

Gender is pertinent to many disciplines, from literary theory to anthropology, film studies to linguistics, and sociology to geography. However, these disciplines sometimes differ in their approaches to how and why gender is studied. So what are the challenges in a field of study that spans several disciplines? And how can scholars make the most of their interdisciplinary roots?

These were just some of the questions considered at a recent event on negotiating careers as a gender studies scholar within a mainstream discipline. In her welcome address, Professor Helen Lawton Smith, who led Birkbeck’s participation in the TRIGGER Project, said: “Over its four-year lifespan the objectives of the TRIGGER project became more than just to support women in Higher Education, but to champion equality and what Birkbeck can do to support diversity.” Organised collaboratively by the Birkbeck Gender Sexuality (BiGS) research group and the Birkbeck TRIGGER project, this event is the first in a series of seminars that will be the TRIGGER project’s legacy, supporting PhD students, early career researchers and aspiring professors.

The seminar took the form of a conversation between Dr Kate Maclean, Director of BiGS, and Dr Gabriela Alvarez Minte, who recently completed her PhD at Birkbeck after many years of working in women’s rights at the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). As a feminist geographer who started her academic career with a PhD in Women’s Studies, Kate reflected on her unique experience of completing her doctorate and moving straight into a career in the “mainstream” Department of Geography:

“It is widely acknowledged that gender, queer, and feminist theory is some of the most intellectually challenging theory across the social sciences and humanities. However you may still face challenges as a gender studies scholar – it is not as prevalent an attitude now as it used to be, but intra-departmental dynamics can be difficult!  And it can be difficult to find a network of people to develop your ideas with – particularly important in the early stages of your career. ”

The conversation then moved to discuss the ways in which the challenges of an interdisciplinary field can be overcome. A real breakthrough for Kate was realising the need to network with other feminist scholars in different departments. When she found that other, even senior, staff were facing similar challenges, she organised a meeting for feminist academics across the institution to come together and discuss the need for a space as feminist academics – for both research and mutual support. The size of the meeting was a real testament to the need for this network, which gave them a space to knock around ideas in a very constructive way. As a result, the Gender Matters @ King’s research group was born.

Taking questions posed by the audience of early career researchers, both Kate and Gabriela were able to reflect on their personal academic journeys. Gabriela sees herself as a combination of academic and practitioner and discussed the benefit of field experience: “working at UNIFEM was extremely beneficial to the development of my ideas and drove me to fill out the knowledge I lacked in gender and development”. Kate recognised that she was lucky to go from a PhD straight into an academic teaching and research position, but emphasised the merits of postdoctoral research opportunities, which allow a unique insight into a different field, the benefit of another’s experience and good networking opportunities. Like in any other profession, networking is very important in academia, and refreshments after the seminar offered participants an informal opportunity to engage with one another’s work, ask questions, and learn from one another.

You can find out more about BiGs and TRIGGER on the Birkbeck website.

Click here to find out more about future seminars.

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How one student makes the most of his 24 hours a day

Samuel Harris, second year BSc Financial Economics student, discusses how combining work with study is furthering his aspirations as part of National Work-Life Week.

Time. It is perhaps the most valuable commodity an individual owns yet we all have 24 hours a day to spend as we see fit. That’s 1440 minutes or 86,400 seconds where we all make individual choices that may or may not have consequences that shape our future with most choices made in the hope it will create a better future. Getting my work-life balance is vital, in my opinion, to avoid burnout in my future career path and aspirations, and will help me be the best I can be as a person, socially and academically.

So, what are my future career aspirations? I’m writing as a member of the Birkbeck Economics and Finance Society and I aspire to, one day, own my own financial investment firm. Financial services and especially investment banking makes the news consistently on the topic of work-life balance for the wrong reasons. You hear the stories of graduates spending 80+ hours a week in the office but to me, I see people chasing a dream – a dream to be the best and to be affluent. To me, work-life balance is about always enjoying what you do, whether at the office or wherever your workspace might be, as well as when you’re out with friends or doing a hobby. If you enjoy what you do, you won’t burn out!

I am starting my second year on the BSc (Hons) Financial Economics course this October and I currently work full-time doing either 7am-5pm, 9am-5pm or during the university summer break, occasionally 9am-9pm. I am always described by my friends who are at traditional universities as crazy and the most frequent comment I get is “how do you do it?”

The answer? Very simply. Whilst they are partying away, I’m studying here in a 6pm-9pm lecture. Whilst they are being lectured to, I’m working gaining practical experience. No amount of reading or memorising will make you successful in life because it is the understanding and application of wise thought that counts – and that is what Birkbeck is all about. I will be job-market-ready. I still have the time to see my friends in London at the weekend after I finish my university work and I make visits to my friends further afield at other universities 3-4 times a year. Whilst sacrifices must be made, and don’t underestimate the sacrifice needed to work full-time and study full-time, I don’t overestimate it either as it is very feasible with a strong work ethic. It’s not for the faint-hearted and I must stress the necessity of a strong work ethic! Working part-time is also an option.

The most important piece of advice I would give to fellow students is not to lose focus on why you do what you do. Whether it is that you are academically inquisitive, or you are hoping to change career, or to become better at your current one, commitment is key. There will be challenges along the way. Being glued to my desk and the library during exam season and using every available term holiday to prepare is just the beginning. You’ll find time goes very quickly and your external commitments will need to be tapered. I manage my time by using a diary on my phone and I put everything in, no matter how small or insignificant.

Life as a Birkbeck student is tough and unforgiving but it could possibly be the best decision you ever make. Everyone who studies here has unique life experiences and you can use one another as a sounding board for great ideas and experiences. Make the most of your time here and you won’t regret it.

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Gender equality in academia

Dr Almuth McDowall discusses how Birkbeck is drilling into the data of the Athena SWAN Charter, an initiative which seeks to address gender inequality in STEMM.

Are women in STEM subjects not progressing as far and fast as their male colleagues? What should universities put in place to nurture and retain female talent? These are questions close to my own heart, not least as some of my own research on work-life balance and also on executive rewards as a science-practitioner in organizational psychology touches on gender issues.

It’s been much debated that women are more likely than men to leave academia in science subjects, and are underrepresented in senior roles. The Equality Challenge Unit’s Athena SWAN Charter, established 12 years ago, seeks to address gender equality through charters. These provide a framework for institutions to apply for an award which recognises their work on equality and diversity. Birkbeck is a member of this Charter, and a number of departments and schools hold awards including Biological and Psychological Sciences.

As a member of the College’s Athena SWAN panel, I am aware that much is being done in the institution to support direct initiatives, such as a dedicated mentoring programme through TRIGGER/ ATHENA SWAN, but also to support culture change by ensuring that any processes and activities are based on evidence and local need, and serve to further, rather than hinder, the equality agenda.

One of the challenges for everyone in academia is that our work is largely driven by the student lifecycle and a tight year-round calendar of events. Friends who tell me ‘oh you academics have all summer off, don’t you’, usually get a rather terse and detailed reply, as I list the number of tasks that have to continue all year around: student supervision, working on academic projects, updating and maintaining our records and so on.  As a result, we often don’t have the time to really drill into the data we have already gathered on issues such as equality and diversity.

Luckily, our ATHENA SWAN panel seeks to address just this. Earlier in the year, I set about a more detailed analysis of (anonymised) data from our staff survey, from all female and male academics in STEM subjects, concentrating on the free comments which people had provided. My question was: do women and men raise different things? And the short answer is: yes, they do.

On the whole, women report to be most concerned about effective communication in the institution, a sense of being valued but also the local facilities and environment. Men, on the other hand, appear more concerned with training, development and progression as well as pay and benefits. These are interesting differences, suggesting that women might focus more on how we work as an institution, whereas men focus more on how they get rewarded for what they do.

The next step is to follow up these issues in dedicated focus groups, to gain more rigorous data and insights on the issue.  Are women more likely to focus on Birkbeck as an institutional environment, but might this come at the expense of focus on individual needs and career progression? Are men more likely to ask, and get what they want? We hope to report back on these issues in due course.

 

 

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How to get your Birkbeck studies off to a flying start

Student Engagement Officer Rebecca Slegg offers top tips to new students, to help you settle into Birkbeck, get your studies off to a flying start and help you make sure you get the most out of your time here.

  1. Set up a study space at home. If possible, decide on one place where you will be able to study. Keep it free from clutter and other distractions as much as possible and make sure that your family/flat mates know that when you’re there they should avoid interrupting you, if possible.
  2. Talk to your friends and family about your course. If the people in your life know why studying is important to you and what it involves they will be able to better support you throughout your course. They’ll understand why you might not be able to go out every weekend at exam or assignment time. They’ll also be interested to hear about the new ideas and topics you’re now an expert on!
  3. Attend BBK Welcome and the Students’ Union Fresher’s Fayre on Saturday 30 September 2017. This is a great opportunity to meet fellow students, find out about life at Birkbeck and join some of the many clubs and societies open to students.
  4. Create a wall planner and use it to map out your first term. Plot on your term dates, exam dates and assignment deadlines. This will help you to know when the pressure points are so that you can plan ahead in other areas of your life to accommodate your study needs and be well prepared to meet all of your course requirements comfortably.
  5. Set up a Whats App group/Facebook group with your classmates. This will enable you to share tips and information between lectures and seminars and help you get to know each other quickly. You will probably find that your classmates quickly become a source of support and encouragement.
  6. Sign up to academic skills workshops. Birkbeck offers a wide-range of resources for students to brush up on their academic skills, whether you need a refresher on essay writing or an introduction to academic referencing – get ahead with these skills now so you’re not trying to master them at the same time as researching and writing your first assignment.
  7. Explore the campus. Get to know Bloomsbury and/or Stratford. There is a wide range of bars, restaurants, coffee shops and cultural and sporting facilities close to both our campuses.
  8. Arrange to meet your personal tutor. Your tutor is there to offer advice and support on issues that may affect your academic progress. Some of the topics you might discuss with your tutor include module choices; exam revision; meeting deadlines; any personal or professional issues that are affecting your studies.
  9. Buy some nice stationery. Investing in some nice paper and pens is a subtle reminder to yourself of the investment you have made in coming to Birkbeck and that this is something that you believe is worth doing and will help you to move ahead with your life goals.
  10. Find out about Birkbeck Talent (the in-house recruitment agency) and the Careers and Employability Service. These two services can offer advice on CV writing, interview techniques, setting up your own business and can suggest suitable short- and long-term positions to match your skills and interests.
  11. Download the Birkbeck app to view your course resources and assignments, help you prepare for the start of term, and communicate with fellow new students from your School prior to starting your course.
  12. Make sure you’ve ticked off all the items in our new student checklist, which includes all the practical details you need to have covered like enrolling on the course, paying your fees and setting up library and wifi access.

At our graduation ceremony we asked those who had made it what advice they would give new students:

If you’re a current student, why not add your own advice for those just starting out in the comments section?

 

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Everything you need to know about coming to Birkbeck as a school-leaver

This article was contributed by Cecilia Nguyen, a BA Language with Journalism student, who will be going into her second year this autumn. It was first published on her blog

What is it truly like to attend an evening university like Birkbeck? I am writing this blog as when I needed it two years ago, it was nowhere to be found.

‘Will I fit in as a school-leaver?’
The short answer to this question is yes, of course you will! I think there is a misconception that because evening studies can be more appealing to people who work in the day (of which the majority are over 25) that younger people may not fit in.

However, with the introduction of more full-time courses at Birkbeck, the number of under-25s is on the rise every year. The demographics of your classmates are highly dependent on the course you study. I study German and Journalism and find that on my German modules, there are more school-leavers, whereas my Journalism module attracts more mature students.

I truly think that you shouldn’t let this affect your decision when choosing a course if the curriculum perfectly matches your needs.

‘Is it only for part-time students?’
No, it is not. Birkbeck started introducing full-time courses in 2009 and has been working on them ever since!

But in this day and age, education takes on so many forms that I find traditional, daytime, full-time education to be highly overrated. Let’s look at an example: A full-time course takes on average 3 years to complete whereas a 75% intensity part-time course takes 4 years. The cost is the same, you get more time to study and have a healthier life balance. For me, it wasn’t a hard decision!

‘Can I change from full-time to part-time?’
Yes, you absolutely can! I think Birkbeck is rather flexible on this as they understand students’ circumstances and commitments well.

‘Is it super tiring after a hard day of work to sit in a classroom and do more work?’
Personally, I didn’t find it tiring enough to moan about. I’ve got to admit I had it relatively easy; I only worked 22 hours per week, I still live with my parents and I didn’t have any major responsibility that would induce stress.

Birkbeck campus and Senate House in springtime 

But from what my uni mates who work full-time and actually have it hard have told me, you don’t even notice the fatigue. Think of it this way, you go to a place with amazing people who challenge you academically while discussing something you enjoy knowing more about. It’s basically a fun fair!

‘Will I have a social life?’
This really amused me as it’s so typical of school-leavers to ask this question.

To put it bluntly, yes, like any other university. Or how I like to put it: you can have a social life. What I mean by that is, it’s totally up to you whether you want one or not.

At Birkbeck, I feel like you can be more selective when it comes to socialising. So if you want to join societies, go out clubbing or have fun, the opportunity is definitely there. But whenever you need to calm down or focus on work, it is easier for you to do so as everyone understands that sometimes you are studying alongside work or internships and that you need to balance all these aspects of your life.

‘You’ve been going on and on about the perks of evening study, but what about its downside?’
Everything has its downside. I personally felt that studying in the evening meant that I had almost no excuse to not find work in the day.

The opportunity is basically given to you and will give you so many things to talk about in your CV to boost your chances of getting employed. You can say things like ‘I can be fully committed as I have the entire morning free to focus on work,’ or, ‘as an evening student I get to hone my time-management skills and determination to complete tasks’. The list goes on and on.

Another downside is that studying in the evening means that sometimes you might have to come to class with an empty stomach as you rush from work to uni. But most of the time the lecturers understand that you have commitments and will allow you to have your meal in class, as long as you don’t let the rustling noises of your sandwich’s aluminium foil disturb the class too much!

Studying in the evening also means that sometimes you have to miss out on gatherings with friends or family. But if you can cope with occasionally not being able to go out, the amount of knowledge you’re getting back is well worth the sacrifice.

If you have a specific question you can leave a comment below or come meet me at Birkbeck’s Open Evening on 12 September (click here to sign up), where I’ll be working as a Student Ambassador.

Good luck on whatever it is that you decide to do and hopefully I’ll see you this autumn.

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Starting university: tips to manage the transition and be a successful student

Hanneke Kosterink, Counsellor and Supervisor at the Birkbeck Counselling Service offers advice for students managing the transition to university, and explains how visualising success can help you achieve it. 

The transition from school to university brings a range of new experiences and challenges.  During this transition period, it is essential to find the right balance between studying and everything else including:

  • getting to know the university
  • settling into your course
  • learning what is expected of you as a student
  • discovering activities and social opportunities
  • making new friends

Academic Challenges
Many students enjoy the intellectual challenge of university study, opting for courses and subjects that match their interests. However, adapting to academic study and understanding what is expected of you as a university student can be an intimidating experience and will require taking responsibility for your own learning, managing your workload and completing assignments to strict deadlines. This requires self-motivation and dedication.

In addition to making good use of the support services and study resources your university provides it may be helpful to learn the technique of visualisation to reach your academic goals.

Writing over 2000 years ago Aristotle described the visualisation process this way:  “First, have a definite, clear, practical ideal; a goal, an objective.  Second, have the necessary means to achieve your ends: wisdom, money, materials and methods.  Third, adjust all your means to that end.”

Unfortunately, many of us remain stuck at the goal stage.  We start out with good intentions and perhaps a plan, but then we can’t seem to make it happen.  A hectic social life, job, hobbies, anxiety leading to procrastination can get in the way of achieving your academic goals.

Seeing is believing
Before we can believe in a goal, we first must have an idea of what it looks like. To paraphrase the old adage: we must see it before we can believe it.  This is where visualisation comes in, which is simply a technique for creating a mental image of a future event.  When we visualise our desired outcome, we begin to ‘see’ the possibility of achieving it.  Through visualisation, we catch a glimpse of what is our preferred future.  When this happens we are motivated and prepared to pursue our goal.

In the world of sports, this has been developed into a well-researched method of performance improvement.

How do well known British sportsmen and women use visualisation?

Wayne Rooney
Footballer Wayne Rooney is a firm advocate of mental preparation and the visualisation technique. “I lie in bed the night before the game and visualise myself scoring goals or doing well. You’re trying to put yourself in that moment and trying to prepare yourself, to have a ‘memory’ before the game.” Rooney sees his approach as fundamental to his sporting success. “I don’t know if you’d call it visualising or dreaming, but I’ve always done it, my whole life.”

Jessica Ennis-Hill
Ennis-Hill revealed her mental training tactic prior to the 2012 London Olympic Games: “I use visualisation to think about the perfect technique. If I can get that perfect image in my head, then hopefully it’ll affect my physical performance.”

Andy Murray
In order to mentally acclimatise before a major event, Andy Murray visits the centre court when the area is deserted and imagines his future success. “I want to make sure I feel as good as possible so I have a good tournament.”

Applying it to your study
There are two types of visualisation which ideally should be used together.  The first method is outcome visualisation and involves envisioning yourself achieving your goal.  To do this, create a detailed mental image of the desired outcome using all of your senses.

Let’s start with the big goal: getting your degree and attending your graduation ceremony.  Visualise yourself on graduation day receiving your qualification with a good pass.  Hold that mental image as long as possible.  What does it feel like walking across the stage in your robe to collect your certificate from the Master?  Who will be there accompanying you in the audience to cheer you on when it is your turn?  Imagine the pride, relief, satisfaction and thrill as you hug your loved ones before heading for the marquee where the photographer is waiting to capture that special moment in your life.

Visualising how it might feel to graduate might help you to plan your studies and your time at university. 

The second type of visualisation is process visualisation.  It involves envisioning each of the actions necessary to achieve the outcome you want.  Focus on each of the steps you need to achieve your goal, but not the overall goal itself.   What are the demands and deadlines you will need to meet?  Create a vivid mental picture of yourself succeeding, envision what you must do during each step of the process and like Rooney, Ennis-Hill and Murray use positive mental imagery to stay focused and motivated when you experience obstacles or setbacks.

Visualisation does not guarantee success.  It also does not replace hard work and practice.  But when combined with diligent effort and a strong support network, it is a powerful way to achieve positive behavioural change and create the life you desire.

 

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Getting prospective students talking

Dave Lewis, from Birkbeck’s Widening Access team, talks about the College’s new mentoring scheme which pairs prospective students with alumni for an informal chat. If you’re interested in taking part, contact gettalking@bbk.ac.uk.gettalking

Taking the plunge into higher education can be both exhilarating and daunting. Whether changing career, leaving school or coming back to education, students inevitably have questions about the years ahead. Navigating this transition with the support of a recent graduate can make all the difference, which is why we run Get Talking.

Get Talking is a one-to-one mentoring scheme which pairs prospective students with alumni for an informal chat. After an evening of training, our dedicated alumni draw on their own experiences to provide insight into both life at Birkbeck and higher education more broadly. In turn, students are given the opportunity to talk through any queries or concerns ahead of enrolment. Students are matched with their mentor based on what they hope to gain from the scheme and as such will often receive advice specific to their chosen field.

Meetings take place in a number of coffee shops close to campus, allowing participants to familiarise themselves with the Bloomsbury area and picture life as a student here.  Once students have enrolled at Birkbeck there is a wealth of continued support (including further mentoring opportunities) throughout their time at the college.

This type of pre-entry support is integral to ensuring university is accessible to all. Get Talking is one of many Birkbeck programmes that supports students from widening participation backgrounds. The scheme really is working too, with up to 75% of students who take part going on to enrol at Birkbeck. Deon, one student who took part in the scheme this year, said:

“The meeting with Dimitrios was very beneficial to me and l hope he feels the same. I am happy to say that these programs can only be an advantage to new and prospective students starting out as l feel no one knows better than those whom have experienced the task of completing an undergraduate whilst working. Dimitrios is a very helpful and understanding young man and l can only say l am honored that l was able to draw from his experience.”

This year Get Talking also began supporting applicants to the college’s Compass Project, a fund supporting forced migrants through scholarships to Birkbeck and information, advice and guidance on higher education in the UK. One of the applicants who took part this year said: “It was great to speak to someone who was as passionate about my subject as I was”.

Finally, Get Talking speaks of how closely connected Birkbeck’s alumni remain to the college. Our alumni mentors volunteer their time to support new entrants. Prospective students are supported in their decision making and begin networking before setting foot in the lecture theatre.

Would you like to get involved? If you’re thinking about studying with us or are a Birkbeck alum we’d love to hear from you at gettalking@bbk.ac.uk.

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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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What can organizational psychology tell 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.

Rt Hon Theresa May MP, Home Secretary, UK (23261468319)

By Chatham House (Rt Hon Theresa May MP, Home Secretary, UK) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It never fails to astonish me that much of what we have learned from applying the science of the mind to the context of work does not seem to have made much of an impact on the world of politics. Politicians, by definition, are leaders – so we should apply leadership theories to our assessments of their performance. Politicians’ day job is politics, but surely they need to bring the right knowledge, skills and attitudes (KSAs) – things that we would measure in any other job to see if people are suited to what they do.

In 2007, Jo Silvester and Christina Dykes published a longitudinal study of prospective political candidates. The  researchers conducted a job analysis, which is the first step in organizational psychology for a range of activities including selection and training, to draw up a competency framework – what do politicians need to be good at? The resulting competencies (KSAs) looked very much like those we would expect to find in other organisational contexts, including ‘intellectual skills’, ‘relating to people’ and ‘leading and motivating’; the only politics-specific competency was the level of ‘political conviction’. Performance, as measured in this way, predicted political performance, but so did their critical thinking capacity as measured by psychometric tests. So what can we learn from this study? Political performance can be measured, and surely it should be transparent to both politicians, but also voters, what marks ‘good’ performance in this context. This study found no evidence for any gender differences either.

So how do Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn fare when measured against aspects of this framework, based on what we have observed of their leadership during the general election campaign? I remain unconvinced that either displayed critical thinking capacities if we take the election manifesto of either party as a performance output. The conservative manifesto was ill judged, alienated core voters (the dementia tax….) and overall just did not convince enough people that the Tories were worth re-electing. The Labour manifesto scored higher on political conviction, but had almost no suggestions for how any changes might be funded, putting strategy before any references to feasibility of implementation.

What about each party leader’s capacity to lead and motivate? Corbyn and his party clearly succeeded in mobilising grass roots support and also mobilising the young electorate which had absented itself from the Brexit referendum.

‘Communication skills’ and ‘intellectual skills’ are another aspect of the model of political performance. Taking reactions to the recent terrorist attacks as an example, May failed to show any human reaction to what were two sets of tragic events in short sequence, at a time when the general public is in great need of reassurance and support. Corbyn, on the other hand, attributed the happenings as a reaction to the UK’s involvement in war in Muslim countries; not a correct inference, as neutral countries have also been subject to attacks.

In terms of leadership, Theresa May seemed uncertain during what political commentators unanimously refer to as a disastrous and misguided election campaign. Her chief aides have now resigned, which throws into question her judgment on which advisors to surround herself with. Good advisors and teams are crucial to any political role. Modern life is so fast-moving, complex and, as recent events have demonstrated, unpredictable that no one person can lead a party, let alone a country, on their own.

In organizational psychology terms, there is a substantial body of research which demonstrates that ‘shared leadership’ across teams and organisations leads to better performance and better outcomes all around. Yet, in politics as well as in corporate life, we tend to pin our hopes on the one person at the top. Surely the time has come to change this, and make political leadership a more balanced, fair and transparent process than is currently unfolding in front of our eyes.

I grew up in Germany, learning in English textbooks about the Anglosaxon culture, about the power of the voice of the people and the unique British democratic process. Yet, recently, I no longer feel so certain that the current political system is serving us well and reading the political press in my home country, it seems other voices in Europe agree.

The time seems to have come to rethink politics and democracy to instil fairer and more transparent processes to ensure that a) politicians are up to their job and b) voters can make informed decisions.

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