Twenty years of network learning

Malcolm Ballantyne reflects on how this unique model of blended learning developed at Birkbeck.Picture of Organizational Psychology students in 1958 and 2008.

As far as we know, the MScs in Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behaviour were the first degree courses in the UK to require students to interact online. So why did it happen at Birkbeck? As is often the case there was no single reason, there were three contributing factors.

First, in the mid-1980s, the whole of Birkbeck faced a financial crisis. There was a change in the funding formula for part-time students that assumed that a university’s core funding should be based on full-time student numbers and that part-time students were a marginal additional cost. It didn’t work for Birkbeck and for a while it looked as if the whole College might close. The matter was resolved, but only for undergraduate students. Postgraduate departments had, in effect, to double the number of students. In Occupational Psychology (as it then was) we quickly realised this meant extending our catchment area beyond London.

Quite coincidentally, the Psychological Services Division of the Manpower Services Commission approached the Department, asking if we could develop a distance learning version of the MSc for their psychologists who were based throughout the country. If so, they could support the necessary curriculum development.

Lastly, I had been experimenting with on-line tutorials on my second-year module ‘People and Advanced Technology’. The technological support for this was very crude but I had actually done it as early as 1981. Looking back, I think I was the person who needed persuading the most but we brought these three factors together and the result was Network Learning.

A story which hasn’t been told is how, as an occupational psychologist, I was running on-line tutorials in the early 1980s. I came to psychology relatively late in my career, I didn’t get my BSc until I was 30. For the first ten years of my working life, I worked as a television technician for the BBC. I quickly discovered that a technical career was not for me, but the work was interesting, and I became absorbed by the experience of technological change. Between 1960 and 1970, the original 405-line television system was replaced by the 625-line system, colour television was introduced and, less obviously but more profoundly, valves were replaced first by transistors and then by the first generation of silicon chips. The work I and my colleagues did was transformed dramatically.

Having got my degree, I then worked as a psychologist for British Steel and saw even more dramatic effects of technological change on heavy industry with essentially heavy manual jobs becoming mechanised and computer-controlled.

And so, in 1974, to Birkbeck, as one of the two last lecturers to be taken on by Alec Rodger – Leonie Sugarman and I were interviewed on the same day. I covered ergonomics and work design and, when we redesigned the course in 1976, I started my second year module on the effects of changing technology on people’s working lives.

In the summer of that year, the College very generously supported me in attending a NATO ‘Advanced Study Institute’ – two weeks in Greece working with some of the world’s top human-computer interaction specialists and it was here that I first became familiar with the work which was being done on the organizational impact of IT. This also led, three years later, to being invited to join a British Library funded project in which we aimed to replicate the production of an academic journal on-line. The software we used was an early computer conferencing system called Notepad which, incidentally, gave me access to e-mail for the first time. In 1979, there weren’t many people to send messages to.

In 1978, a very influential book on computer mediated communication was published, Hiltz & Turoff’s ‘The Network Nation’. This described how computer conferencing systems had first been created and, significantly from my point of view, raised the possibility of interactive learning systems. I had to try it and persuaded Brian Shackel, the director of the BL project, to allow me to register my 1981 students on Notepad. It was immensely difficult. The computer was at the University of Birmingham and there weren’t that many dial-up terminals at Birkbeck. The telephone system was quite unreliable in those days but we actually managed to make contact and run some on-line discussions.

Following this experience, I applied for funding for more reliable technology. The feedback I received for these unsuccessful bids suggested that what I was proposing wasn’t really understood. So, with the arrival of the first Birkbeck VAX computer, I wrote a system myself – OPECCS, the Occupational Psychology Experimental Computer Conferencing System. It was very simple – and by this time we had e-mail in the form of VAXmail – but it worked quite well and I think it must have been around this time that my colleagues became aware of what I was doing.

So, why has Network Learning been so successful? It’s difficult to be certain but my own feeling is that it was because we had a clear philosophy from the start. We started with the assumption that what made the Birkbeck approach distinctive was the opportunity for students to meet face-to-face and discuss things informally – allowing for what John Dewey called ‘collateral learning’, learning which is neither planned nor intended but which nevertheless happens and is significant. In taking on students from a wider geographical spread, the face-to-face element would have to be less frequent but should remain an essential part of the process. The purpose of the technology was to be that of maintaining continuity of discussion between these face-to-face meetings. This was quite unlike the Open University’s approach where the process was seen as a distance learning experience where the technology was an additional, and optional, means of support.

More recent ideas, particularly from knowledge management, would support the Birkbeck approach. The debate on ‘stickiness’ and ‘leakiness’ of knowledge in organisations (why is it so difficult to get ‘best practice’ transferred across an organization while the company’s best guarded secrets disappear out of the back door to one’s competitors?) recognises the importance of face-to-face contact in the transfer of tacit knowledge. Even Microsoft, determined to operate its R&D function in Washington State, eventually had to relocate to Silicon Valley. I’ve never been able to understand those who maintain that for ‘true distance learning’ there must be no face-to-face contact.

I left the Department at the time that Network Learning was starting in earnest. We had one year of a pilot with Manpower Services Commission psychologists as students – it was shaky but it worked. Today, it’s wonderful to see the success that has followed.

Further Information

Share
. Reply . Category: Business Economics and Informatics . Tags: , , , , , , ,

What’s the best way to raise funds for a startup?

Alexander Flint Mitchell, MSc Business Innovation with Entrepreneurship alumnus and founder of Blind Cupid shares his experience of raising capital for his business venture.

Picture of business man launching into the air.

Like most first-time entrepreneurs, Alexander was a total novice when it came to funding startups before setting up his own business.

Having now secured £175,000 to launch, with the prospect of completing fundraising over the next six weeks, he shares his experience of raising capital for a startup.

Angels and venture capital

When Alexander began fundraising for Blind Cupid, a matchmaking app that uses systematic philosophy and artificial intelligence to match users based on their fundamental values, he took a traditional route of approaching angels (high net worth individuals who provide financial backing for startups) and venture capital firms.

“We contacted many venture capital companies and had some very successful conversations with them,” explains Alexander. “These companies are usually specialists in a certain field and it’s common to be asked to deliver as many as five or six presentations to secure funding. While we would obviously spend some of this time talking about the business idea, the key thing to get right was the financial information.”

The downside of this method of fundraising? Time.

“Venture capital funders are demanding and even getting a response from them, never mind retaining their interest, requires a lot of time and effort,” explains Alexander. “There’s a lot of back and forth, often with your whole team needing to attend calls or presentations, which can feel never-ending when you’re in it.

“We also faced difficulties with our product not fitting neatly into a specialist area. The app we’re developing combines matchmaking with brand new artificial intelligence that has never been built before, and so there are no investors currently specialising in it. Given the amount of money that venture capital funds invest, it’s understandable that they would prefer to go with something tried and tested. We raised around half the funds we needed through this method, but I began to look for alternatives to speed things up.”

Gaining crowd appeal

Many different methods of fundraising are covered in the Entrepreneurial Venture Creation module taught at Birkbeck, among them crowdfunding.

Alexander admits to being sceptical to this approach: “I had the impression when I started that crowdfunding was on a smaller scale and more about conventional ideas than disruptive new businesses – I had no idea that companies do their series A and series B rounds on crowdfunding.”

While individual investment amounts can be much smaller, as little as £10, on crowdfunding sites, Alexander now sees this as an opportunity:

“Compared to venture capital, crowdfunding is a really quick and innovative way to finance startups,” he says. “The main difference is that our investors through crowdfunding are likely to also be our users, which is really exciting. Even if they only invest a tiny amount, they will benefit from a future IPO – it’s similar to holding shares in the stock market.”

The personal touch is also something that appeals to Alexander and the ethos of Blind Cupid:

“We aren’t just trying to match people together; we really want to make sure that these matches are accurate and that once you meet someone you will stay together. We’ve done it for 80% of our beta test users, and now we want to do it throughout the rest of the UK and world. It’s an unusual business concept in a way, because we don’t want people to come back – we want people to find the person that’s right for them.

“Our business model is very different from other players in this market because of this — and other reasons. We offer a premium service which gives our users access to podcasts, blogs and more written by experts that advise them on every aspect of their lives. Topics include how to discover who you really are, what self esteem is and how to build it, how to nurture a healthy relationship and more.”

Blind Cupid have now launched their crowdfunding campaign on Crowdcube. For Alexander, it will be a relief to move to the next stage:

“When you’re looking for funding, it feels like it’s never-ending, but I know that when it’s complete I‘ll forget the months that it took. Many things in life are a learning curve and you find what suits you best. It’s great to finally see it all come to life.”

Further information

Share
. Reply . Category: Business Economics and Informatics . Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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?

Share
. Read all 2 comments . Category: Business Economics and Informatics, Science . Tags: , , , , , , ,

Do we still need public research funding?

This article was written by Dr Federica Rossi from Birkbeck’s Department of Management and Professor Aldo Geuna from the University of Torino

r-and-dThe last few decades have witnessed the increasing privatisation of the public sphere – even in the realms of education and research, which, until recently, almost exclusively pertained to the public sector. Evidence from Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries shows that the slow but steady increase in private sector Research & Development (R&D) expenditure as share of GDP has been accompanied by a parallel drop in public R&D expenditure since the 1980s. A mere handful of economies buck the trend, such as that of South Korea. This has recently been referred to by Birkbeck’s Professor Daniele Archibugi and Dr Andrea Filippetti in their new paper as the “retreat of public research”. In the most advanced economies this retreat might seem, at face value, to support the claim that public intervention in research is unnecessary, if not completely counterproductive to sustain technological progress.

Most economists agree that public research funding is crucial for economic growth…

The mainstream view that public funding of basic research is necessary for technological progress to occur, relies on two, intertwined arguments that were first put forward in the 1940s and 1950s, and have been reiterated in various forms ever since. The first is the argument, which is embraced by scientists but originated in management schools, that innovation is a linear process whereby basic research discoveries pave the way for subsequent applied research and technological development. The second is the argument put forward by economists that basic research is characterised by large externalities and extreme uncertainty in the timing and nature of its outcomes, which make the computation of returns extremely difficult and discourages private companies from investing. Basic research outcomes tend to be very abstract and codifiable; this vulnerability to copying further discourages private investment in their production.

Together, these arguments suggest that, in order to sustain a rate of technological progress that is sufficient to drive continuous growth, the economy needs to produce a continuous amount of basic research outcomes, which would not occur in the absence of public funding.

…but some think that public research funding is unnecessary…

Those calling for a reduction in government funding of science have, in turn, put forth several arguments to oppose the mainstream view. The first is that the linear model of innovation is not only too simplistic, but wrongly organised: throughout history, technological developments have more often than not originated from efforts to solve practical problems without prior scientific basis. Rather than underpinning technological development, basic research has a habit of following promising technological developments. As Matt Ridley interprets in a recent article on the Wall Street Journal: “The steam engine owed almost nothing to the science of thermodynamics, but the science of thermodynamics owed almost everything to the steam engine.” The second is that basic research effectively crowds out private funding. In the absence of public funding, private companies would still invest in basic research to further consolidate their knowledge of how previously invented technologies actually work, which assists further innovation, and would want to do so in-house, rather than free ride on competitors’ basic research outcomes, to generate tacit knowledge which would give them a competitive advantage over rivals. Indeed, free from the crowding-out effect of public funding, private companies might have invested in basic research, which may have yielded more productive outcomes than the basic research funded by government.

…The middle ground: public research funding for the knowledge economy

As  is the case for most complex social phenomena, the nature of technological progress is probably best understood by combining different theoretical perspectives. Suggesting that all technological developments would have occurred in the absence of prior scientific knowledge is just as simplistic as the opposing argument – that basic research is always the first step of a linear innovation process. While the rich history of technology can be mined for examples of each of these extremes, most innovations tell a complex story of coevolution between basic research and technological development, where both private and public research funding play a role. For example, Dosi and Nelson (2010) have suggested that, while the development of the steam engine in the early 18th century preceded scientific developments in thermodynamics and the theory of heat, this technology was indeed built on the foundations of earlier scientific developments (the understanding of the properties of atmospheric pressure investigated by Torricelli, Boyle and Hooke in the 17th and 18th century). This coevolution between science and technology would explain why the steam engine was not invented in China, where all its components (pistons, cylinders, etc,) were known and employed.

Basic science and technological development coevolve, and the problem begins to look like the chicken and egg situation. Nonetheless, there are several compelling reasons for continued public funding of basic research. On the one hand, private companies in the main cannot commit to continued funding of a research programme in the long or even medium term; not only because they tend to respond to short term investor concerns, but also because their very survival is not guaranteed. Even if some companies committed to keep their lines of inquiry open in the absence of early promising research outcomes (something which few companies appear willing to do) there is no guarantee that that programme would not be destroyed by business failure – an increasingly frequent and rapid occurrence even in larger corporations. Public funding provides a buffer to research exploration, which opens up to society a range of research avenues that simply would not occur in its absence, and whose results may be reaped many decades later, benefitting the economy in unexpected ways. Sometimes, basic research is so distant in time and origins from the innovations it contributes to, that such contribution goes unnoticed; current developments in text mining and even speech recognition technology owe a huge debt to many decades of obscure publicly funded research carried out in linguistics departments but this contribution is hardly something that springs to mind when thinking of Siri or Alexa bots. On the other hand, as Archibugi and Filippetti point out, private companies and governments have different incentives in the dissemination of research outcomes: private companies as a rule will give away as little as possible or will only give away knowledge under certain conditions, which again limits the range of research avenues that can be explored starting from existing research.

What the knowledge economy needs is a functioning ecosystem where both public and private research contribute to the creation of new knowledge, its dissemination and commercial exploitation, and create the conditions for further knowledge production. The better interconnected the two spheres, the better the system can promote an efficient division of labour between privately funded and publicly funded research, and the better it can discourage the duplication of research effort. Moreover, the better it can ensure that knowledge can be freely disseminated as much as possible without hurting commercial interests. The economic impact of the “retreat of public research” might not be negative if it has been accompanied by the growth of a more interconnected research system in which public research has become a more efficient complement to private research. However, this is a rather unexplored hypothesis at the macro level – and even if this were the case, it would still not imply that the latter can replace the former. Public research continues to play a vital role in the knowledge economy.

Professor Aldo Geuna and Dr Federica Rossi are the authors of The University and the Economy Pathways to Growth and Economic Development Cheltenham: Edward Elgar (2015). Now available in paperback.

Share
. Reply . Category: Business Economics and Informatics . Tags: , , , , ,

Women in STEM campaign 2016

Today (23 June) sees the launch of the Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) campaign 2016, supported by a wide range of partners including Department for Women and Equalities and The Equality Challenge Unit and led by MediaPlanet.

To mark the start of the campaign, Birkbeck spoke to women working in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) departments across the College to find out more about what excites them about working in their research fields, how they came to follow a career in STEM and who inspires them.

The Departments of Biological Sciences and Psychological Sciences at Birkbeck have been awarded Athena Swan Bronze awards. Athena Swan awards are given by the Equality Challenge Unit in recognition of commitment to advancing the careers of women in STEM subjects. Other departments and the College are working towards further awards.

Read more content from #BBKWomeninSTEM

BBK article: This year’s BBK magazine featured a profile of Rosalind Franklin, the “dark lady of DNA” #WomeninSTEM16

Video
Inspired by science: women in science share their stories
What can we learn from the Apollo samples? Dr Louise Alexander

Share
. Reply . Category: Science . Tags: , , , , ,