Tron Legacy


I went to see the film Tron Legacy the other night. The original film had a big impact on my childhood and at the time seemed to open up some important issues about our relationship with technology (OK – I was 8 at this point so it is possible that it isn’t as profound as I remember). As I write and think about technology a fair bit I was hoping that Tron Legacy would give me some new food for though.

This may seem an absurd thought. Hollywood blockbusters aren’t often particularly hard on the brain box. However I love science fiction and I do think that imaginative presentations of the future can frequently ask some really interesting things about the present – especially where technology is involved. I actually wrote a PhD about this so you can’t stop me from over-analysing this stuff.

However Tron Legacy is such a complete desert of ideas that it is difficult not to feel that you missed something. It is possible that there is a profound and deep movie in there somewhere, but it passed me by completely. What I find exciting about technology is the way that it connects us, enables new forms of communication and community and the way that it transcends geography and time zones (aka the internet). However weirdly for a film made in 2010 Tron Legacy ignores the internet altogether.

In Tron Legacy computers are powered by tiny neon goblins who spend their time alternating between hippy nonsense, fascism and thunderdome style violent games. Computers are sealed, programmes are just little people and the whole things has nothing at all to do with reality or technology as I know it. This is a tremendous shame as now more than ever we surely need a serious bit of science fiction to help us peer forward into the future and examine where the hybridisation of humanity and digital devices is taking us. However if it is taking us anywhere that looks at all like Tron Legacy I’ll eat my identity disc.

Educational Media & Technology – Editors’ Choice

We were chosen as the editors’ choice in the Educational Media and Technology collection at Routledge. See below – our article is the one on facebook and social integration.

 Educational Media & Technology – Editors’ Choice

Discover more…

To give you a taste of the content in our Educational Media & Technology collection, our Editors have highlighted a selection of significant articles for your reading pleasure. Check out recent research on
facebook & social integration? Or the latest evidence suggesting Mobile Learning as a catalyst for change? Or why not find out more about videoconferencing in English schools?

Which one’s your favourite?
Click here to take a look at the whole selection of specially chosen articles just for you!

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What are online research methods

I was hoping to embedd this little presentation of me and Jane doing our Online Research Methods thing at the ESRC Research Methods Festival into the blog. But, I can’t get it to work. So you’ll have to view it on the ESRC website at

If anyone can provide embedding instructions I’ll be very grateful.

Pathways to a sustainable future #vitae

I’ve been invited to speak at a Vitae event about the sustainability of the Roberts agenda. What I’m mainly going to be doing is running a facilitated brainstorm about what the future may hold, so I don’t pretend to have any great insights here. However I thought it might be useful to throw a few thoughts up onto the blog for those that want to discuss further.


Firstly for those who don’t know it might be worth explaining what the “Roberts agenda” is. A long time ago there was a government report which said that the supply of people and skills in STEM subjects wasn’t working as well as it could do. The right people weren’t getting to the right subjects and therefore industry was experiencing a deficit. A small but important part of this skills supply line was the production of enough very highly skilled people suitable to contribute to the nation’s research and development activity.


One of the problems that was identified was around the kind of skills which were possessed by those who were graduating with doctoral qualifications. These skills it were argued were not fit for purpose and much of the potential of people with doctoral qualifications was not being maximised because the training was too narrow and correspondingly people’s career aspirations were too limited. For those of us with doctoral qualifications this rang some bells and thankfully the research councils agreed and put up some money to develop a programme of researcher development across higher education.


Flash forward a few years and most universities have staff, or even departments, that are dedicated to training and developing both doctoral and post-doctoral researchers. While the establishment of the agenda hasn’t been completely smooth, by and large universities have recognised that they need to provide a better environment within which researchers can develop their skills and that they generally need to pay a bit more attention to the human capital that is being invested in through research grants. However it is likely that the dedicated stream of funding that has made this rapid growth of the researcher development agenda is likely to become less “dedicated”. What is more this change is happening in an environment where universities are both under financial pressure and re-examining their core rationales. So the question remains what next for the Roberts agenda?


It seems to me that there are a number of possible pathways that the sector or individual HEIs could take. The first and most dramatic would simply be to issue redundancy notices to all researcher development professionals, close down the programmes and go back to the way things used to be. This seems very unlikely to me. Universities have probably accepted some of the rationale of the Roberts agenda and would on the whole seek to maintain some kind programme of researcher development.


A second option would be a long slow decline. While universities have probably accepted the rationale for researcher development how effectively it will be able to jostle for resources in a competitive environment remains to be seen. It would be very easy to gradually reduce the amount of resource that is invested in this agenda without really making a frontal assault on it. As people leave, get promoted etc. it would be very easy to not replace them and to gradually diminish the level of provision offered. This would be relatively painless for individuals but would mean that the agenda as a whole would have failed.


A third option would be to recognise the value of the agenda and the staff who have been part of it and to stretch the skills and resources across a wider range of functions. For the last few years researchers have had an extraordinary level of training and support in comparison to other staff and student groups. It would be very easy to stretch existing resources across other groups that are currently undersupported e.g. taught postgraduates, technicians, other academic staff. One possibly appealing element of this would be that it might help embed researchers into a broader academic career path, rather than being seen as a special case aside from the main swim of institutional life. This might enable much of the spirit of the agenda and the expertise assembled around it to survive, but it would be likely to result in a reduction in the service level that is currently offered to researchers.


A fourth option would be to reinvigorate the Roberts agenda around the unique value that is offered by researchers. This approach might draw in related issues like knowledge transfer and public communication of research. This is what I’m really going to be focusing on at the Vitae event that I’m talking at. If the agenda is going to pull this one off it is going to have to find a policy relevant rationale for its existence and this is likely to mean that there is a need to re-imagine the agenda around some different concepts. I’ve pulled together a quick list of recent research and policy which people might want to think about in relation to this re-imagining. I’ll list these at the end of this post.


However it might be worth trying to summarise what I think some of the main trends are likely to be.


The first policy context that everything is going to have to engage with is the idea of austerity. We are constantly told that public finance is stretched and so everything that money is spent on has got to make strong economic sense.


The next policy context that everything has got to relate to is what is sometimes called “the gospel of skills”. Despite some peripheral critiquing, the Conservative government have largely bought into the idea that training=skills=economic growth. This is contestable as Alison Wolf’s Does Education Matter argues, but from the governments point of vi
ew this idea is likely to continue to hold sway.


An idea that is also likely to have some importance is “the BIG society”. How much the Big Society forms a part of policy rather than rhetoric remains to be seen. However for now there is some interest in community and voluntary approaches to service delivery that might chime with existing practice. Researcher development has already been exploring issues about sustainability, volunteering, social enterprise and researcher led activities. These could be easily contextualised as part of the Big Society idea.


Finally I think that idea of the individual responsibility is likely to be a very important context for training and development. Much of the governments thinking emphasises the idea of individuals taking responsibility for their own professional development, education, training and careers. Central to this is the importance of having access to good quality impartial information, advice and guidance. The Roberts Agenda has always been, in part, a careers agenda so some of these ideas should provide a fairly comfortable context for the work that is being done.


So what do you think? How should the Roberts Agenda realign itself in relation to the current policy environment?


Some policies that may have a relevance to the future of researcher development

Quality assurance ??? responding to a changing information world

I’ve been asked to speak at a Research Information Network meeting tomorrow night on the subject of “Quality assurance – responding to a changing information world”. I’m part of a panel so I’ll only get about 10 minutes – but the following is the sort of thing that I thought I’d say. As ever comments and thoughts are very welcome. If I can crowd source some brilliance it would be very much appreciated.




Quality is a difficult concept to work with. The meaning of the word has changed and it is claimed for various purposes. So I’m going to rephrase the question by asking “how can we know where valuable information resides?” As researchers our job is to find, synthesis and analyse information and so there is a common sense rationale that what we come up with is likely to be strongly influenced by the information that we base it on. If this information is rubbish, we are likely to be unable to generate anything useful from it.

The academic community has generally had a pretty straightforward answer to this. Research information is something that should be produced, quality assured and consumed largely by a professional class of researchers. Quality assurance, through the peer review system and other similar mechanisms, was therefore designed to ensure that professional researchers had their work judged by other professional researchers and that the results of the process were useful to this same group of people. This system has been enormously successful and the intention of this talk is not necessarily to call these basic systems of academic quality assurance into question.


However, we live in a culture in which people are increasingly uncomfortable with decisions that are made by a professional class behind closed doors. Because we’re in the Royal College of Physicians I’ll try and draw on some medical examples today. The days when a doctor could tell you “take two of these and you’ll be alright in the morning” are long gone. Doctors are increasingly required to explain their decisions, to educate their patients and to generally make their decisions transparent and open. There are clearly both some positive and negative aspects to these kinds of challenges to authority. On the positive side it can represent a democratic check on what George Bernard Shaw described as a “conspiracy against the laity” on the negative side it can lead people into the mistaken belief that professionals know nothing and they can pick and choose from their advice, perhaps combining it with the advice of those who have little knowledge or expertise.


In general, I’d favour an increased democratisation of information, not least because I think that this has the potential to engage people in making discovering more about the world around them and making critical judgements about it (AKA education). As a researcher this means that I’m interested ways to open up information to the broadest possible number of people. It also means that I’m interested in opening up and increasing the transparency of decisions about what information is valuable and in recognising that everyone might consider this value in a different way.


If we think of the mass of information that exists around an academic subject one of the biggest problems is dealing with the information overload. We can’t read everything. In fact we can’t even read everything that has been judged as being valuable by conventional processes of academic peer review. Our job as consumers of information is not just about quality assurance but rather about a process of filtering and streamlining. In an information rich environment this process of filtering is at least as important as quality assurance. However filtering is not something that can be done centrally by a professional class, how we filter is much more personal and represents a complex interaction between our interests, our judgement, our ability in resource discovery and so on.


If we think about all of the printed and electronic information that might exist on a particular type of cancer we are likely to see how information rich our world is. A search for “pancreatic cancer” produces About 7,880,000 results (0.16 seconds) on Google. It produces 334,000. (0.29 sec) on Google Scholar. This is simply information overload. Whether these resources are good, bad or indifferent is no longer the question. The question is how to filter and to ascertain where most value might be. Furthermore the answer to this question will be different depending on whether you are a research scientist, a doctor, a nurse or a patient (all people who might have legitimate reason to consult research based information about pancreatic cancer).


I haven’t been invited here today to discuss pancreatic cancer. I’d guess that I’m here because I’m a fairly active user of social media and I’ve been doing some research looking at how other researchers are using social media in their practice as researchers. I’m therefore going to suggest three social media-based processes that researchers use to identify where value lies in the information overload. In and of themselves none of these challenge the existing academic quality assurance process. However taken together I think that they suggest a possible trajectory in which the quality assurance of research becomes more democratic.


Trust in your networks:  Research has always been based around networks. The whole practice of citation binds papers together in ways that make academic networks obvious to even the most casual observer. Citation has also always fulfilled the function of social filtering e.g. if three articles all cite the same seminal work, you had better read it. However the development of social media tools has enhanced this process of filtering and identification of value. The people whose opinion I value provide me with constant updates about what they are reading and looking at
through a range of technologies (social citation, social bookmarking, blogging, microblogging etc). Collectively we are identifying value and enabling the individual to draw on that information when making decisions about what to read or how to read it. Furthermore our networks have the potential to challenge us by alerting us to new areas that other are drawing information from. This is where the development of a social approach to resource discovery has the potential to be far more powerful than a “search” based approach. The development and management of a network therefore becomes a central element of the professional practice of a researcher.


Moving from taxonomy to folksonomy: The research world is conventionally divided up in a taxonomical way. Our interests are divided, sub-divided and sub-divided again until we end up with an area of interest that is small and contained enough for us to be able to exercise some mastery over it. However as the social media theorist David Weinberger says, “everything is miscellaneous” and it therefore does not always conform to our structured taxonomies. These taxonomies made sense when we had to maintain a card indexes and keep books alphabetically on shelves, however once we are in a flexible, digital world everything can be labelled with as many labels as it needs to describe it. What is more everyone can have different sets of labels. What is more we can also look at what the most popular set of labels is to help us understanding how other people see a particular area. So we might ask what labels do doctors use to talk about pancreatic cancer and how does this differ from nurses or research scientists and so on.?

This discussion about metadata (labels) is important because it recognises that academic value does not just reside in the single piece of research itself. It resides in the linked communities and disciplines. Our ability to judge value is relative and related to a system of thinking. It is only when we can access what that system of thinking is that we can really understand and benefit from the value of a particular piece of information. However the idea of folksonomy makes these concepts more flexible and enables us to reuse and repurpose information so it has value to many different people.


Participatory co-creation: Finally I’d like to suggest that social media enables us to go beyond just judging value or quality assuring. Social media creates conversations around ideas and research information. These conversations are like the conversations that people have at academic conferences, but they go on for as long as participants find them interesting and they enable as many people as are interested to come together regardless of geography. This process of discussion and debate is essentially a process of participatory co-creation through which the research community and others can add value to information and ideas. In other words the process of participation has the potential to enhance quality and speed up constructive feedback. Conventional quality assurance sets a bar over which people must jump, participatory co-creation helps produce work that is able to move over this bar. It is also the case that it provides a forum for the discussion of the nature of the bar and the organisation of challenges to it.


In summary

Much of what I’ve talked about is enabled by social media, but is not dependent upon it. If there is a change in the way the research community finds, filters and quality assures information it will not happen because of the invention of a new machine. Rather, what I have described are working practices that I would argue tap into the essence of what research and intellectual enquiry are about. The ability to draw on the wisdom of others, to move between collective and individual interpretations the world and the ability to work together to enhance what others have done, these are the best traditions of research. My argument is that social media facilitates them and makes them more likely. However, at the moment these practices are still confined to a minority. How they develop will depend on the attitudes of the research community and those with a stake in it.


A strategic use of career informants in careers education

I’ve had a good idea – doesn’t happen often – but here we go.


This is an idea for a career education intervention. I’m going to talk about how it would work in an HE context, because that is what I know best, but I think that it could work with almost any group of career learners.


The idea is to train up a group of students to act as career informants who can catalyse career conversations amongst their wider peer group. There are a number of important contexts for this idea.

  • Most people never use a professional careers advisor.
  • Most people turn to a peer or similar “amateur” when they want to find out information about their career.
  • Learning tends to cascade down through groups of learners and be reinforced by interactions within a peer community.
  • We are facing considerable pressure from government to “do more for less”.
  • Without any doubt I’ve always learnt the most when I’ve had to teach others.


So how does this idea work?


A hypothetical programme might go something like this. You recruit 100 students for an employability award. The students are engaged by being promised that they will enhance their employability and their understanding of career. Ideally you will offer them some kind of certification for the learning that they are doing. This will help to engage them and to incentivise their participation over the long term.


The 100 students are going to be transformed into your career informants. They will start in this role by receiving some training about career. Ideally you’d have two or three days with them – but if you can only get one you have to work with what you can get. In this training intervention you provide them with some basic tools for having career conversations with their peers. Typically this might include the following:

  • An overview of what services are available and some reflection on when it is good to refer to professional career services.
  • Some basic career theory – what is career and how do different models suggest you should go about developing it?
  • Some relevant LMI e.g. resources explaining where graduates go, introduction to some websites where it is possible to find out information about salary, recruitment numbers etc
  • Some techniques for having career conversations (listening, probing, asking open questions etc) and some practice at doing this with other members of the career informants group.


The 100 career informants are then charged with going out and having career conversations with 10 of their peers. They have to engage them in a conversation and record the fact that they have done so and any possible outcome. This might look something like this:


12/12/2010 – Spoke to Fred about his career. He admitted that he had no idea about what he was going to do and that he was in a bit of a paralysed state about it all. I encouraged him to talk and provided him with a copy of ‘What do graduates do?’ He decided to go an see the careers service following our conversation.


Once the career informants have had 10 career conversations they should have an opportunity to reflect on what they have learnt and consider how it changes their own career aspirations. Has the process of engaging in career conversations changed the way that they think? Has hearing about the aspirations of others opened them up to any new ideas? This could be an essay, a presentation, a video or a blog – whatever you think would engage the students and satisfy whatever accreditation framework you are using.


One of the reasons why this idea should be easy to sell is its “more for less” quality. For an investment in the career development of 100 people you actually get benefits for 1100. In fact I think that if you could pull it off you would actually get even wider benefits. A big aspect of what I’m proposing is built on social marketing ideas. If we could move 1100 people within a particular context to start talking about their career we would have a good chance at setting the conversational agenda for that context. We could be making careers the water cooler topic of choice.


So what do you think? I’ll just briefly answer the most obvious downsides to try and speed up the discussion.


  1. Does this idea undermine the idea of professional careers advice? No, but it does recognise and work with the limitations of professional interventions by finding a technique to reach out to those who would not self-refer. I’d anticipate that demand on professional careers services would i
    ncrease as a result of this intervention. I’d also anticipate that it would enhance understanding amongst the general student population of what the unique value of a careers adviser was.
  2. Does this idea run the risk that people will be given bad advice? Yes, probably. However one of the aspects of the training needs to be to encourage career informants to understand the limits of their knowledge and to encourage the people they talk to think more widely. People will always talk to each other about their career, what this project does is help to connect these general and often uninformed conversations up to professional career support and good quality information.
  3. Does this give the government the idea that careers advice can be done by anyone and allow it to cut resources. Who knows? I’m not convinced that cuts are being made because of a sober assessment of service delivery models and impact. However, as I’ve already suggested this model has a substantial place for careers professionals. They can train the career informants, support them, provide a service that they can refer to and assess their reflection. This probably requires careers advisers to expand their repertoires, but it certainly does not seek to replace them with unmediated peer learning.