30 April 2011

Google Friend Connect allows you to follow my blog now!

I have just embedded GFC and now you can finally follow my blog with Google or Yahoo!

Uusually it is possible to 'Follow' a blog from a link in the NavBar but since none of the default NavBars fitted with my customised template, I removed the NavBar.

If you already have a Google or Yahoo account, adding my blog to your profile should be easy. If however, you would like a vibrant instruction with screenshots from fellow blogger Chick That Bytes, excerpt here:

Friends, we have a problem.  You find a terrific blog, and excitedly press on the "Follow" button, only to be taken into a deep dark hole -- the unknown of the Cyber Underworld.  Quickly, you close the page, your heart beating wildly as you sink back in your chair and think, "Phew!  That was close!"  You are glad you obeyed your instinct and that your computer did not blow up in the process.  You pursue it no further.
Friends, THESE THINGS MUST NOT BE!!!  Your friend writes a blog because your friend wants YOU to follow it.  When their friend follows their blog, other people will see their blog and more traffic will be sent to their blog, which is what your friend wants and needs.  That is how your technically advanced friend finds their way into Cyberspace.  Your friend NEEDS YOU.
Here is your remedy for this, and please understand that there ARE a few steps that you much take on your own, but DO NOT BE AFRAID!!!
(From "How to follow a friend's blog for dummies")

For any concerns about privacy have a look at the GFC FAQs.


29 April 2011

iStudent - Part 1 of 2: Navigating through university in the digital age

This is the first of a series of blog posts about my thoughts on how the revolutionary way social media alters our daily lives in the 21st century. I might spice up the order with some unrelated topics in between but the working titles are:
  1. iStudent - Part 1 of 2: Navigating through university in the digital age
  2. iStudent - Part 2 of 2: "When *I* was in school...": Reminescing school in the early days of the internet
  3. Expressing yourself through the typed word
  4. iAnthroPod: Of e-storians and v-ethnographers (THIS is gonna be really interesting!)
  5. The digital revolution: How social media impact on politics and popular culture

Studying has incredibly changed in such a short time. Whoever has been in the SOAS library during exam period will have seen the study spaces packed with students consuming their e-journals, browsing e-bibliographies or organising their material on Papers (unfortunately, for Apple only) on their iBooks while listening to their iPod (or the other way around). There is usually not a single student to be found without a computer and/or a smartphone close-by. The sight is stunning and worrying too, for I know all to well the immediate exclusion and apocalyptic consequences of what happens when technology suddenly fails you. This is why I suggested the School adopt my innovative idea of emergency laptops: A pool of laptops that are school property and that you as student can sign out after presenting your broken laptop, under guarantee that you will return it in the same condition or risk having your diploma/degree progression/exam results retained until you have paid up for it (which is what they do for unpaid library fines anyway). But let me start from the beginning.

Universities, just like companies, are under pressure to keep up with the demands of a constantly technological advancements but also use them to improve their competitiveness.
Apple collaborates with universities world-wide in an offensive to create a new generation of non-Windows users. In the UK, students get a 10-30% discount on laptops and iPods and in the US, more and more IT labs are 100% Apple which makes it also easier for the increasing number of students who are already Apple users. In a radical trial, the University of Notre Dame is starting an entirely paper-less class by handing out (loaned) iPads to the students attending it.

Despite the questionable commercialisation of education, a real gem are high school musical-based video productions that advertise their respective feautures. Yale was the first one to launch it and one or two unis followed suit. The video quickly went viral on the web. It's a hilarious ad which is so incredibly well done that you cannot help but be entertained whether or not you find the idea ridiculous! What a way for universities to stay competitive in a higher education 'market' where (changes in) reputation spreads fast through the internet.

Once you decided, after much comparison through googling, which universities you want to apply for, the technological challenge continues: Many universities do not post information material anymore (some do on request though and charge you for P&P) but instead publish everything on their website. Also, admission departments almost warningly tell applicants to follow deadlines, updates or news on their admissions blog or on Twitter, and only (dare) contact them if they 'have to' as particularly popular universities would have high(er) volumes of emails otherwise. The next step is the actual application form which is either an embedded form in your online account or a fillable PDF that must be filled out all in one session as your changes are otherwise not saved (hosting is expensive and surely there are also many applicants who change their minds for whatever reason). You have to attach any (scanned) supporting documentation but I think the school directly gets in touch with any previous institutions/employers about grades or references (you give them permission to do so by electronically signing the form). While this is an extreme example, some universities really only accept online applications.

From the first day at university, you spend the first week or so familiarising yourself not only with the university's physical but also with its virtual environment. At enrolment, you are given a CD-ROM with the School's regulations and the authentication certificate to get WiFi access on campus. Someone at SOAS suggested that it might be useful to add a downloadable app/podcast with instructions how to walk from Russell Square campus to Vernon Square campus with adjacent halls of residence, and vice versa (it is a 20min walk most freshers get lost on at the beginning). 

All students at SOAS automatically get a google account with gmail and personalised dashboard (which I hardly use anymore after they removed the default sticky note app due to IT security reasons). You can do project work online by use of GoogleDocuments you can share with selected users (I never heard of anyone using it but I assume economics/business students do that). Technically, I can chat or even v-chat with my tutors if I have a question. The Google account is standard for many universities in the UK and US and is really useful for filtering and organising large amounts of data. Every day, I get about 10-20 emails from departments/newsletters I subscribed to/general announcements, informing me about anything from reported broken toilets,  start/completion of any refurbishment around the college buildings (that might affect noise levels near teaching rooms or the library), careers updates, public lectures, debates, concerts or the soas e-news (a relatively new electronic interactive newsletter which I assume was created to further develop the school's vibrant community by aiming to eliminate the barriers between students, academics and less known departments that keep the place running).

Podcasts are another popular way of sharing guest lectures, debates, research with the public. The ODI occasionally even does vodcasts of their highly popular panel discussions, well-attended by students, aid practitioners, campaigners, government workers.

MIT students download their lecture podcasts from iTunes or the MIT website (under  OpenCourseWare, there are heaps of AV course materials publicly accessible and even translated into several languages) and obviously use and develop a variety of course-related apps.

At SOAS I emailed a professor about a reading list (as I did not have access to BLE at the time) with a note that I would like to make a list with classmarks and was equally creeped out and immensely impressed when she emailed me a reading list version with hyperlinks to the library catalogue entry or online document! She also did the same with her power point slides and embedded links to videoclips online to show during the lecture. Another professor who was absent for half the term (a court case in India), recorded his lectures as high-res videos and posted them on the online platform from India. We did have a human tutor for that module but since I found the subject a quite vast theoretical field that was not narrowed down in scope for the class and the structure of the course was so chaotic and the online platform completely disorganised, I did not have a positive experience with that class at all and dropped out after the first few weeks – probably the best thing that happened to me because I got to join a really interesting class about a non-Southeast Asian region that I would otherwise never have chosen!

Most if not all teaching rooms at SOAS have been upgraded to include AV equipment including power point projectors. It is only a matter of a few years until universities around the world will upgrade to touch tables, like featured in CSI NY, wherefrom they can 'flick' any slides etc to their students' tablet PCs (which by then might have largely replaced 'conventional' note-taking equipment like paper).

In the classroom, students take notes with their netbooks or macbooks or (still) plain paper. The student union shop doesn't sell as much college pads anymore as it used to but sells USB sticks, skype-compatible headsets, disks, mice, cables and even laptop wipes. At the Vienna University of  Economics and Business (Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien) and in many US universities, new students are given chip cards with campus credits which you can use in the stationery shop, cafe, printing room etc.

As more and more companies/institutions/organisations etc realise that website appearance is a crucial factor of identity and representation, universities are overhauling their websites, too. SOAS for example changed from its outdated previous layout and design to the vibrant and colourful current design about two years ago, reflecting the School's unique character and just a month or so ago, the Refugee Studies Centre went online with their new website which admittedly, is much better than the past but still could use some improvement in usability and functionality (it is a small centre within Oxford University but it IS the leading one of its kind world-wide).

SOAS News: Support for Those Affected by the Japan Earthquake: The School has joined the Japan Earthquake Relief... http://bit.ly/dUY8qI
less than a minute ago via twitterfeed Favorite Retweet Reply

Modern libraries now have blogs (such as the SOAS Southeast Asian and Pacific Studies library blog) and tweet (the SOAS library) any updates about changes in opening hours, new additions to online and print collections, e-libraries and actively encourage you to use GoogleBooks. There are links to all libraries and union catalogues. When there is a book or a DVD (after all, culture is also represented in movies and even if still small, SOAS has probably the most intercultural collection of foreign films from Africa to India and Asia) that I want to recommend, I send an email to the responsible librarian and usually, they immediately hit the internet and order a copy (they are amazing).

When I first arrived in Oxford and used the RSC library (facebook)for the first time, I already knew where everything was as I had downloaded their walkthrough podcast. They also lend USB sticks for free for use within the library or sell them and the copiers scan to and print directly from USB without need to log into a computer (wicked!). I also heard that at the RSC, students also write their social science exams on a PC with access to the internet (I have been told though that you barely have time to use it as you are so focused on typing as much as you can, especially if it is a law exam). At UCL and to an extent, SOAS, essays are submitted via an online learning platform and are automatically checked by Turnitin, a software that detects plagiarism.

When you enter the LSE library, you immediately see a flat screen (there is also a web feed) that tells you how many of the hundreds of work stations are free and how many occupied, just as if they were parking space (and in a way, they are). It like many other libraries now, also has animated library announcements in a screen saver loop that you can absorb when you are queueing at the help desk for instance.

Libraries/IT departments from larger universities also do IT trainings for staff and students who sign up, in all kinds of things, from SPSS (usually introductory workshops open to anyone, the real deal workshop from the software company or accredited institutions costs AT LEAST 300 GBP), using Skype for telephoning abroad (academia IS an international field after all), and even video editing, publishing on- and offlline and documentary film-making.

There also is software for visually-impaired students and for those with learning difficulties. Language students can benefit from access to foreign TV channels (via IPTV) and their own selection of language learning software.

Once you reach the end of your formative years, you can make an online entry into your graduation yearbook on the website of a printing/publishing company. Graduations are now streamed live which is great, given limited seating. After your big day, you stay in touch with people you met at university through Facebook (obviously) or increasingly, LinkedIn. Alumni departments actively engage in expanding alumni networks online, organise events and SOAS for example, has regional sub-groups on LinkedIn so you can meet new and old friends/contacts who are in your area, which is great, given that many SOAS students venture into the WIIIDE, wide world! In Canada and the US, grad students are actively encouraged by careers departments to create a LinkedIn identity and although some universities still give/sell their students some 200 business cards at the beginning of the year (that they are supposed to get rid off as quickly as they can), some quering on LinkedIn shows that they are doing just that - online. I guess contacts have become the currency of the digitalised world where in addition to symbolic capital and human capital you now need to keep up with electronic capital as well. This might generally be even more so for business and finance students than for students of humanities and social sciences.

Generally, I find that internet technology, including the sharing of media content, has enabled scholarship to be more inter-related between and across disciplines and has allowed jumps in academic thinking. It has also made it possible for students to study better and faster, increasing their potential to contribute in an increasinly digitalised working world. As empowering as internet technology can be, however, lack of access to it also creates additional hurdles for students from less fortunate backgrounds and I am going to talk about that in one of my upcoming posts.

10 April 2011

'Burqa ban' in France: housewife vows to face jail rather than submit

Muslim woman says that she will not accept pressure from mosques or state over 'burqa ban' that begins on 11 April.

The Observer 10 April 2011.
[...] Drider says it is only since Sarkozy's government began discussing the veil ban that she has been subject to insults, harassment and death threats. "When President Sarkozy said: 'The burqa is not welcome in France', the president, my president, opened the door for racism, aggression and attacks on Islam. This is an attempt to stigmatise Islam and it has created enormous racism and Islamophobia that wasn't there before."

[...] "For me this is women's liberty, the liberty to wear what I wish and not be punished for it."

[...] "If women want to walk around half-naked I don't object to them doing so. If they want to wear tight jeans where you can see their underwear or walk around with their breasts hanging out, I don't give a damn. But if they are allowed to do that, why should I not be allowed to cover up?"

There's some food for thought.
She's been visited by a lot of large media outlets from around the world. It's going to be an interesting week.

08 April 2011

Petition "UK scientists oppose cuts in the Arts and Humanities"

As you might be aware, the UK government has announced cuts for funding for Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences last year. Lord Mandelson, the business & education secretary has ordered budget cuts of £600m by 2013 and as a consequence, had to deny allegations of a "utilitarian" agenda in which academic institutions were seen as a production line dedicated to delivering graduates to meet industry's needs (Guardian, ibid). Leading academics, university chancellors and MPs have prominently condemned these and many other cuts in higher education and public spending in the UK media. A week ago, 500 000 people demonstrated in London after the deadline for universities to submit their new tuition fees expired and it was revealed that the majority of universities will raise their tuition fees from £3000 to the full £9000 amidst fears of reduced funding, eventually confirmed by the recent release of 2011-12 funding figures by the Higher Education Funding Council  for England (HEFCE).

Therefore, if you are a scientist based in the UK and oppose the cuts in funding for Higher Education in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, please take the time to sign and circulate widely the following petition, put forward by a group of concerned scientists. If you are not a scientist or not based in Great Britain, please forward it to your scientific colleagues based in the UK.

Background (Preamble):
The government has announced huge cuts to the funding of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. Whole departments are to be closed. One persistent theme in the framing of this decision is the claim that these subjects are not strategically important and do not contribute economic value.

As researchers and teachers in the natural sciences, we know that the balance of teaching and research subjects at each university cannot be remade by a product-oriented central plan, and we strongly believe that our universities are indivisible.

Healthy natural science teaching and research are inseparable from healthy humanities and social sciences; witness the tremendous investment of world-leading technology universities such as Caltech and MIT in their schools of humanities and social sciences.

Computer scientists collaborate with linguists and psychologists on translation software; mathematicians collaborate with economists on financial models; social scientists collaborate with biologists to guide the application of genomics discoveries; and all depend on philosophers and historians to establish the foundations of their subjects. Students who are preparing for the challenges of the 21st century need to be exposed to this thriving interdisciplinarity.

Lord May, former president of the Royal Society, expressed this well in 2002: “Science does no more than setting the stage, providing and clarifying the choices. Our values and feelings about the society we wish to build, in this wiser world of tomorrow, then will write the play. But whence the values? What shapes them? What guides the subsequent choices? These are hugely difficult, yet utterly fundamental questions. Ultimately the answers ... will illustrate better than anything else just how indivisible is the continuum from the arts and humanities through to the sciences. Studies in the arts and humanities continue, in many different ways, to illuminate the mechanisms of social interaction and cohesion in human institutions.”

We, the undersigned scientists, who are concerned with the long-term viability of British research and teaching, urge the government to reconsider its hasty plans to cut funding for higher education in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

Sign the petition here:

07 April 2011

Madonna in Malawi: Project for elite school halted over allegations of financial mismanagement

Digital Design of Madonn's school

15m US-$ go a long way in industrialised countries. They go a much, much longer way in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world (GDP per capita is 800 US-$). I was therefore shocked to read last week that all of this money goes into a project by Madonna to build an elite (!) academy for girls and even more shocked about the contradictory news on the internet, bouncing back and forth between local project staff embezzling money for luxury cars on the one hand and them suing Madonna for being unlawfully dismissed on the other hand. There have also been rumours that Madonna was being investigated by the FBI and IRS for fraud, which her spokeswoman firmly denies in a statement on the website of Madonna's high profile charity, Raising Malawi

The Guardian wrote:
"Eight charity workers in Malawi are suing Madonna after the collapse of her $15m (£9.4m) academy for girls cost them their jobs. The employees' lawyer said they are taking the US singer to court for unfair dismissal and non-payment of benefits.
The board of Raising Malawi was ousted after failing to start the building of an elite girls' school amid allegations of financial mismanagement, including lavish spending on offices, cars and golf membership.

Madonna, who adopted a boy and a girl from the southern African country, loaned $11m (£6.9m) to the charity and now sits on the board. The charity workers' lawyer, Mzondi Chirambo, said the singer had 14 days to respond to their concerns.

"Their employment was terminated by the trustees of Raising Malawi Academy for Girls ostensibly following the change of plan not to build the school as planned," he told Reuters news agency. "My clients are also being forced to sign a discriminatory termination agreement before they are paid their benefits."
The papers were filed with Malawi's industrial court, which handles employment disputes. Madonna's US representative was not immediately available for comment, but there were reports that the singer is considering filing a counter-suit.

Chirambo said some of the workers he represented were directly connected to the school project, while others taught Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism of which Madonna, 52, is a devotee.

The group includes Dr Anjimile Oponyo, who had been recruited to head the school. An audit by the Global Philanthropy Group, brought in by Madonna to rescue the charity, reportedly said of Oponyo: "Her charisma masks a lack of substantive knowledge of the practical application of educational development, and her weak management skills are a major contributor to the current financial and programmatic chaos."

The school was to take 500 girls and prepare them as female leaders of the future. When news of its demise emerged two months ago, the Malawian government expressed concern and there was anger among villagers who sacrificed their homes to make way for the 47.4-hectare (117-acre) site near the capital, Lilongwe.

It was reported by the New York Times last week that $3.8m (£2.4m) had been spent on the abortive project. The charity's executive director, Philippe van den Bossche, the boyfriend of Madonna's former personal trainer, left in October amid criticism of his management style and cost overruns."
- Posted by the Guardian on 28 March 2011 here.

What I miss in this wild media frenzy are facts: What was Madonna's statement about her vision for the school in the first place? Who are the people involved in the project and which experts in educational development were consulted, if any? What measures were put in place to ensure accountability of the multi-million dollar budget? What about community participation? Was there any consultation or public debate besides coordination with government agencies? In other words: Were Malawians asked if they wanted the school and how they wanted it? There appears to be relatively little information on the Raising Malawi website which considering the scale of the project and funds raised, seems to be lacking in press releases or at least field updates. As for the mainstream Western media, nobody seems to have picked up on the corruption scandal revolving around Malawi's Ministry of Education in 2004 that involved the greater part of the ministry's budget going into the pockets of around 100 employees. At least that is what I found on the website of the Institute of Democracy in Africa, a prominent South Africa-based "independent public interest organisation committed to building sustainable democratic societies in collaboration with African and global partners":

"A press statement issued by the Civil Society Coalition for Quality Basic Education (CSCQBE) observed that the ministry is failing to meet activity targets outlined in policy documents and the Malawi Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (MPRSP). "The ministry failed to meet the target of training 6000 teachers and recruiting 6000 teachers by only training 4007 and recruiting 5116; it failed to construct 800 teacher's houses; it failed to integrate crosscutting issues of gender and HIV/AIDS and failed to increase teacher salaries; so many failures despite the fact that the ministry got a lion's share from the government budget". A study report released in March 2004 by the University of Malawi pointed out that the ministry of education provides little value for money. The study concluded, amongst other, that the sector spends more than 80% of budgetary allocations on personnel costs and less than 15% on core project activities.

With regard to corruption the general public still awaits the outcome of the K187 million fraud case. The case involves 100 people, including the former secretary of education, Sam Safuli, accused of receiving payment for unfinished school construction as well as receiving inflated payments on poorly built school structures. Apart from this high profile case, the Ministry of Education loses large amounts of money to ghost workers who siphon off millions of kwacha.

Expenditure-related information is difficult to access in the ministry of education. Despite an explicit commitment to transparency and the release of monthly expenditure figures as provided for in the MPRS and Public Financial Management Act, one hardly finds any information on the implementation of activities by the education ministry."
- From the original article here.

A project of this proportion with such little oversight was bound to end in a disaster. Do I think that children should get more than "just" classroom chairs and the most basic teaching materials? Yes. Does that mean that a handful of children should get "spoiled" by a dramatic transformation of their identity and social status through an elite academy as development project? Not so sure. Maybe it is the term "elite" and my association of it with such exclusive establishments as Eton that makes me question the ethics of "spoiling" a handful of students in one super school when the money could be more equitably spent. For example to build several schools throughout the country so even children in rural areas can have access to education. Or to alleviate the country's root cause for poverty and long-term demographic challenge: The HIV/AIDS epidemic.

For every 50 000 people in Malawi, there is one doctor. The average life expectancy is 36 years. There were 120 000 children between 0 and 14 years of age infected with HIV and about 1 million between 15-49 are living with HIV (UNAIDS 2009). Clinics are overcrowded and of the ca. 20 medical doctors who graduate each year in Malawi, the majority use their privilege to emigrate for better opportunities in countries like the UK, the US or even Australia. Given the reduced labour force and quick turnover of employees as well as frequent number of sickness days that go hand in hand with an HIV/AIDS epidemic, it is hard to create a diversified economy that can absorb those who manage or make it to a degree and offer incentives to keep them from moving abroad. Therefore, it is not surprising that school curricula are more designed towards offering agricultural and vocational training rather than learning for intelectual achievement, or why enrolment levels in secondary schools are low. If the medical brain drain is a story to go by, I wonder how Raising Malawi's vision to help children become "future leaders of their country" is supposed to realise its goal, as admirably idealistic as it is.
THAT is the real story but who writes about it?

Digital design of Madonna's school

While it is generally commendable of celebrities to give their name to a cause in order to raise awareness and funds, a lot of damage can be done if they try to go it on their own without proper planning. There is after all a reason why people study development at an academic level, constantly evaluate projects and create guidelines for best practices! And guess what, the involvement of celebrities in activism has been given increasing debate in academic discourse as well (see links below).

And by the way, 15m US-$ is 3/5 of the budget Malawi's Ministry of Education had at its disposal in 2004!

Links of interest:
Link #1: UNICEF on recent achievements in Malawi with a brief video featuring 5-year-old Leviticus and his school
Link #2: Synopsis and trailer of award-winning documentary I Am Because We Are which describes "the journey that Madonna embarks on, exploring the lives of the children who have been orphaned by AIDS, and have suffered more than one can sometimes imagine"
Featuring kids, teachers, Bill Clinton, Desmond Tutu and Jeffrey Sachs.
Link #3: Documentary on Malawi's Deadly Brain Drain (20min). Really insightful interviews with an overwhelmed Ugandan UNV doctor showing the overcrowded and under-equipped clinic he manages in Malawi. Also interviews with expat Malawi doctors in the UK. 
Link #4: NYT article: "Madonna's charity fails in bid to finance school"
Link #5: The sketches for Madonna's eco school: photovoltaic roof panels, energy-efficient design. Library, administration building, dining hall, gymnasium, wellness center (!), sports field, 30 classrooms, 12 dormitories and 18 staff houses on 46 hectares (!). Quite smart design actually if the wasn't so over the top.
Link #6: The Downside of Celebrity Diplomacy: The Neglected Complexity of Development (Dieter 2008 in Global Governance)
Link #7: Angelina, Mia and Bono: Celebrities in International Development (West 2008, Brookings Global Development Conference)