Artificial wombs and the law

Claire Horn is in the first year of her PhD in Birkbeck’s School of Law. She is researching the legal and ethical implications of artificial wombs.

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Credit: Partridge et al. Nature Communications

A few weeks ago, a team of scientists published their research on “An extra-uterine system to physiologically support the extreme premature lamb” in the journal Nature Communications. Within a few days of being posted online, the study had received enthusiastic coverage from major international news outlets and popular think-piece platforms alike. In the media, the language around the research changed: the “extra-uterine system” was redubbed “the artificial womb.”

Currently fetal viability in humans (the time at which a foetus can survive outside the mother) happens around 28 weeks. As the original article states, recent developments have pushed this timeline back to 22-23 weeks, but not without continued complications for the baby. The Biobag, designed to mimic the womb, has allowed a lamb foetus inserted at the developmental equivalent of 23 human weeks to survive and grow to healthy viability.

While, as the scientists who conducted this research state plainly, this technology is still a long way from being trialed with humans, and while the Biobag is only a partial artificial womb (an artificial womb proper would entail the foetus growing outside the body for the duration of gestation), the popular presses which picked up this news focus on questions emerging from the presumption that an artificial womb is inevitable. Their queries range from what an artificial womb might mean for how we conceive of personhood, to discussions of the ethics of research on foetuses, to debates over what impact such technology might have on the infants who are born through it.

In one way, these are very old debates that have echoed throughout science—and science fiction—for centuries. But the artificial womb has never felt closer than it does today, and while it is the work of scientists to proceed with caution, scepticism, and the suspicion that what aids a lamb may not aid a human, it is the work of legal scholars and bioethicists to imagine the possibilities, dangers, and issues inherent if this technology does in fact arrive.

My PhD research begins with these premises: that the artificial womb is on its way, that the law is rarely prepared to meet the challenges of new reproductive technologies, and that we should consider the different frameworks available to us ahead of the artificial womb’s arrival. Thinking about the ethics of the artificial womb allows us to consider new ways in which we might approach reproduction, familial relationships, and gender in the future. AAs the primary tool that structures the rules of engagement in our societies, legal frameworks can be introduced or renegotiated in ways that could make space for new social developments.

The artificial womb is an opportunity for legal scholars to consider important questions in this regard. With the artificial womb—which could constitute the growth of a foetus separately from the mother even at the earliest stage of development—might we be able to beneficially renegotiate abortion law to protect womens’ bodily autonomy? Could the artificial womb prompt us to reframe legal doctrines of parenthood in ways that offer greater protection to trans and queer parents, and greater equality in co-parenting? Could it render gender entirely irrelevant to parenting roles?

A central consideration in my work, and one that I have found absent in many media discussions of the artificial womb is the ways in which reproductive technologies have historically been used to benefit some communities while subjugating others. As Deborah Wilson Lowry writes, “new technologies, when not accompanied by equal access or distribution, can increase existing disparities related to race, class, and gender”. Such inequalities have been starkly demonstrated with regard to the introduction of the pill (which, prior to being marketed as the key to sexual liberation was tested on poor women and women of color, often without their consent), and with regard to surrogacy (only available to those with financial and social means, often outsourced to poor women in the global South), to name just a few examples.

Like these technologies before it, the artificial womb is unlikely to have either purely utopian or purely dystopian results, and it is necessary to be attentive to the dangers it might present for those who have been made vulnerable by these technologies in the past. Research by legal scholars and bioethicists which places marginalized people at the forefront, work which is lead by and consults with diverse groups of women, including women of color, trans women, and women with disabilities, is necessary in advance of the artificial womb’s introduction.

Scientists may be rightly skeptical of the speed at which humanities scholars have rushed from the growth of a premature lamb in a Biobag to heralding the growth of human babies outside the body. But proceeding with this future in mind, and carefully considering the ethical dilemmas that it presents, will allow us to interrogate its dangers and consider the best possible legal frameworks and policies to protect women when it arrives.

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Guardian University Guide 2018

Today’s 2018 Guardian University Guide league tables include Birkbeck, University of London, for the first time, with Philosophy ranking  3rd in London and 17th in the UK, while English as well as Modern Languages and Linguistics feature in the capital city’s top 10.

However, the value of what Birkbeck offers in changing lives is not always well represented in league tables and rankings. Birkbeck remains true to its founding mission of widening access to education for all Londoners and our evening teaching makes Birkbeck uniquely different from all other universities included in the Guardian’s ranking.

Many of our full-time undergraduate students are the first in their families to study at university, or are returning to education after many years of lacking the confidence to do so. The Guardian league tables measure, among other things, the qualifications that students arrive at university with. Across the sector, just 2% of full-time undergraduates begin university without A-Level or equivalent qualifications. But Birkbeck demonstrates an unstinting commitment to accepting applicants with non-traditional qualifications: 35% of our part-time and 21% of full-time students arrive without A-Level or equivalents.

And our students have outstanding success in progressing to further study and rewarding, fulfilling careers, with 95% of our full-time students and 97% of part-time students in employment or further study upon graduation.

Birkbeck’s appearance for the first time in this ranking is a consequence of the College’s innovation in offering three year evening undergraduate degree courses which are classified as full-time.

Many years of hard work have gone in to establishing Birkbeck’s full-time undergraduate degree programme: in less than a decade the College has gone from having no full-time undergraduates to over 3,000. However, like all other Birkbeck undergraduate courses, they are accessible to motivated students without formal qualifications, and most importantly, take place in the evening, allowing students to work during the day.

Birkbeck is a research-led institution and this directly informs our teaching of predominantly non-traditional students but the Guardian’s league tables do not take research metrics in to account. Our scholarship informs public policy, delivers scientific advances, supports the economy, promotes culture and the arts, and makes a positive difference to society. Over half of our research was in the top 20 in the UK in the most recent REF exercise and our 40+ research centres and 700+ research students play a vital role in our success. Birkbeck has corresponding excellence, too, in postgraduate programmes, which have a superb reputation both nationally and internationally.

The College’s world-leading reputation for both research and teaching is well established. Birkbeck has been ranked in the top 250 universities worldwide in the latest THE World University Rankings and has been placed within the world’s elite institutions in a number of subjects in the QS World University Rankings by Subject, published earlier this year.

In the most recent Research Excellence Framework (REF) Birkbeck was ranked 30th nationally in terms of research intensity, with three departments in the top 10 nationally. Birkbeck’s academic staff are active researchers, many with world-leading reputations, and no fewer than 83% of the eligible academic staff were returned to the REF.

Birkbeck’s track record of opening routes to highly-skilled employment, in particular for students beginning their studies without standard academic qualifications, demonstrates that learning gain is a core aspect of teaching excellence at Birkbeck. Our mission is to make previously unthinkable life choices thinkable and achievable; a transformative impact demonstrated by the core metrics and the high proportion of undergraduate students who go on to postgraduate study.

“We offer all our undergraduate students, of which a sizeable proportion come to us with no formal qualifications at all, rigorous teaching and a transformational intellectual experience, enabling them to achieve a University of London qualification,” said Professor David Latchman CBE, Master of Birkbeck.

“Since its inception, Birkbeck has offered a distinct opportunity for working Londoners to gain qualifications through evening study. Nearly 200 years later, the College is still unlike any other higher education institution in the UK today – a distinctiveness of which we are proud.”

In issuing its league tables today, where Birkbeck entered the rankings at 113th, the Guardian University Guide noted: “Birkbeck is ranked alongside other universities in the league tables for the first time this year. It has not appeared in our league tables before now because its full-time provision is a relatively new development. The majority of Birkbeck students still study part-time, alongside full-time students. However, Birkbeck remains unique in that all its provision (full-time as well as part-time) takes place in the evening. This needs to be kept in mind when making comparisons with the rest of the sector.”

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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.

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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.

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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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Will 2017 be 1984? Rethinking Orwell’s dystopia

This article was written by Dr Ben Worthy from Birkbeck’s Department of Politics

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George Orwell

Nineteen Eighty Four tells the story of Winston Smith, a lowly member of the ruling party, rebelling against the totalitarian rule of Big Brother and The Party in Airstrip One (formerly England), part of the vast empire of Oceania. George Orwell’s novel shows with a terrifying clarity what a totalitarian regime looks like from the inside, with its propaganda, controlled hatred and perpetual war. The book was considered so realistic that when copies were sneaked illegally into the USSR, illicit readers presumed it was written by someone close to Stalin.

As others have pointed out, what makes it so powerful are the details that we all recognise. The dictatorship is all powerful yet the in the England of ‘Airstrip One’ sinks are still blocked, greasy canteens serve sloppy food and tower blocks smell of cabbage. When Winston Smith sleeps and dreams of freedom he wakes up with the name ‘Shakespeare’ on his lips. Unlike the brilliant abstract novel We that inspired Orwell, this dystopia, like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, feels very close by (see Orwell’s review of We here).

The world in which Smith moves also feels scarily relevant. The leaders in Oceania control their people through targeted hatred and predict what they do before they do it. There are uncomfortable echoes of the dark side of a surveillance society and big data: they can even monitor you through your television. The book is also full of ‘political language’ that ‘is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind’. Double-think dominates a world where those in power can believe contradictory things simultaneously and bend reality at will. Opening up Orwell’s book today, Oceania’s propaganda slogan ‘ignorance is strength’ rings far too familiar for comfort.

Alongside the torture in Room 101 and the mind reading Thought Police, the truly terrifying feature of Winston’s world is the lack of objective truth. In Oceania it is impossible to establish something as a fact: what the Party says is true is the only truth. Winston Smith works in a Ministry constantly amending previous editions of newspapers, altering the past to control the future. Orwell’s fictional Oceania does what the truly horrific regimes of the Twentieth century tried to do: create their own ‘moral universe’ insulated from reality. Primo Levi wrote of how those in the camps in Nazi Germany were taunted by the guards with the constant gloating that ‘no one will ever believe this happened’.

Orwell’s original title for the book was ‘The Last Man in Europe’. Smith’s struggle to love and live in Oceania is a struggle to preserve his humanity. Despite its reputation as a vision of an alternative future, the dystopia of Oceania is as much a warning as a prophesy. Orwell’s book, written in beautiful clear prose, offers us a frightening glimpse of what life was like for many people (and still is like in many places). Is it completely bleak? Read the mysterious appendix on Newspeak that Orwell eccentrically insisted on keeping in, even for Reader’s Digest. It’s written in the past tense.

Listen to Jean Seaton, Ben Worthy and Caroline Edwards discuss 1984 at Birkbeck Arts Week event ‘Will 2017 be 1984? Rethinking Orwell’s dystopia’ on 17/5/2017 at 6pm. For tickets click here.

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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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Take a virtual tour of our campuses

Explore our beautiful Bloomsbury campus in the heart of London and state-of-the-art Stratford campus in east London.

Both campuses offer all the facilities you need, which all Birkbeck students are entitled to use. They are also well-served by public transport, making it easy to get to and from the College.

 

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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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