Friday, 28 February 2014

Thinking of Venezuela!

Venezuela has and hasn't been in the news a lot recently, and for both reasons it's disturbing. Who knows what's really going on there at the moment. The last I saw was that there was a media blackout and not only kicking out the news channels, but even blocking twitter. I've got friends over there as I spent two trips of 3 months each there at the end of 2009 and then at the beginning of 2010, so I listen and watch with empathy and interest whenever I hear anything in the media about the country.

I went to do voluntary work and ended up living with missionaries, first of all in the more affluent city of Puerto Ordaz, neighbouring the poorer shanty town area of San Felix; both running alongside The Orinoco River. Although I lived in Puerto Ordaz, I spent most of my days over in San Felix, where Guyanese immigrants lived in shacks made of corrugated steel sides and roofs, sewage ran from houses into the streets, and people got electrical power by tapping into the local pylon. I once went to watch a DVD with some friends in one such home, and to turn the TV & DVD player on the man of the house nonchalantly walked over to a low hanging junction of wires under the 'living room' ceiling, unwrapped the black tape that held the wires together, took one out and then fed it into the TV & DVD power port.

The country is oil rich so you'd think they'd have no problems with power supply to homes. Not so. Most days I was there there'd be a power cut and water cut of some length. It was the norm. People carried torches (I ended up having one in my handbag) and in the kitchen it was the done thing to have a large plastic bin filled with water for when you couldn't get any from your taps. Although being oil rich, the country is very dependent on hydro-power, so when there is little rain people worry. No rain equals more power cuts and water cuts for energy saving purposes. Petrol was a gift though, just a few pence to fill your tank, literally.

Supermarkets stocked basic stuff, but not as much variety as back home or as you would get just over the border in Brazil. The cost of things in supermarkets wasn't much different to Tesco's for most stuff, which was alarming considering most Venezuelans were on a minimum wage far, far lower than ours. And things were always running out in supermarkets and shops. You'd go down to a local store to try and buy sugar or flour and the shop keeper would just shrug their shoulders; there wasn't any. In the news recently, and from what I've heard from a friend who lives over there, now there is even less on the shelves in the supermarkets, and most shops are empty most of the time. There are queues running round street blocks, of people waiting in line outside shops because they've heard via the grapevine that there's going to be a delivery of something really basic that nobody has. The something arrives. People dive in. It's quickly sold out and then there's nothing again.

During my second trip I lived in "The Kilometres", an area so named because it runs along the road from prison town, Eldorado (where Papillion once did time), all the way down through the lush Gran Sabana to the border of Brazil, and the small settlements along the way are given names based on their distance in kilometres from Eldorado, rather than actual names. I lived at kilometre 46, San Flaviano, with a little indigenous community of Arawak Indians, formerly from Guyana.

Although it was a remote place to live, San Flaviano was lush. I used to step out of the door to see and pick fruit from orange, mango and coconut trees. There were toucans and parrots resting in the branches.

The local school at KM46 was a wooden hut, one room, with broken walls, for a group of kids aged from about 5 to 11. It was just one class for the mixed age group. I took some photos:

This wasn't too far away from kilometre 74, Las Claritas, a town where the gold miners lived, a town where every second building was either a brothel or a bar, a town where people carried guns like in The OK Corral. The 'streets' were red and dusty in dry weather, and dark red and sludgy when it rained.

One day I went with the woman whose house I was staying in to do some shopping in Las Claritas. I was glad because you could get a mobile phone signal there. At KM46 the only signal you could get was on top of the hill behind the house, a short walk past some nasty dogs, and then a total faff where you could just sit in one particular spot to get the signal. Your phone had to be tilted to exactly the right angle and a precise height above the ground, roughly level with your chest if you were sitting down. There was always a queue for the precise spot you had to sit in.

(Queuing for the mobile phone signal spot; Liliana was getting a signal, the other two girls behind her weren't)

Anyway, my landlady had heard there had been a delivery of cheap chicken in Las Claritas. We got a taxi down to KM74 and queued in a line for about an hour and a half just to buy one chicken. Think on that we were queuing outside, in the blistering heat in a country where the temperature doesn't drop below 35 degrees C most of the time, and definitely not in Las Claritas at kilometre 74.

That was then, a few years ago when things were normal. When queuing for a chicken for an hour and a half in the near Amazon heat wasn't such an ordeal. Imagine now? Queuing all day for anything or something, and then nothing? In that heat! There is no wonder the people are out on the streets and burning rubbish in protest. Where will it end, what will happen next?

Next few months MSc supervision topics...

I'm thinking about HE again today and looking forward to my second year supervising a batch of MSc students (another part time job I have, in addition to teaching GCSE English at an FE college - I know, very diverse working life I have :-)) while they do their end of year dissertations within the School of Mechanical, Aerospace & Civil Engineering at The University of Manchester.
A few weeks ago I was given the final word on a list of topics and students who will be researching on them, and it's not a bad list. Topics include:

1. Adapting to change within a project lifetime
2. An analysis of trust development methods between project partners & stakeholders
3. To what extent does conflict occur within multicultural teams in a project environment and how much conflict is due to diversity in cultures?
4. Project management in different cultures
5. Project management and internationalisation - effectiveness in a multinational environment
6. An analysis of management responses to uncertainty within a project lifetime
7. Cross-cultural literature relating to the management of projects
8. Conflict management within projects
9. Benefits of knowledge management in project management
10. Project management in different cultures

The topic titles are just a starting point for students really; they get to refine the project and make it their own as they go along. Some of them overlap a little, but you tend to find that even if you get students doing the same topic/title, they'll each take it in their own separate way, and hopefully synthesise, conceptualise and identify some pertinent gaps in knowledge and new research questions. Students don't have much time or resources to do their project in / with, so more often we encourage them to do a literature review type study. In this case, to make it more 'rigorous', they are strongly encouraged to follow the systematic review method.

Ever heard of systematic review? It's considered to be an approach which has more validity and reliability in it to a more meandering style of literature review. An expert panel agrees on the gap in knowledge / need to pursue the topic. You search on key terms and key words, recording the quantifiable aspects of the search. You attempt to exhaust all possible avenues of search for relevant literature. Having done this you are meant to have avoided any possible personal biases in searching for literature (so you can't just pursue a study of personal whim and fancy). Finally having then assimilated, synthesised and conceptualised the results of your systematic review, you are supposed to get it validated by an expert panel - have you missed anything? The whole process is meant to reflect the style of review done in the medical field to justify new paths for exploration - there's a lot riding on those decisions and they cost lots of money so they need a firm foundation to lean on.

I do think there is value in the systematic review method, but I can't help feeling that a thesis has to be a personal journey as well. It's like a product of you; your baby. You deliver it; it's got your DNA all the way through it. Well it should have, you spend enough time and energy on it! So although I recommend that my students do check out systematic review, and definitely consider it as a research path, I also challenge them to articulate the other route, and justify that as a valid strategy. One student last year did so, very nicely. He wrote:

"The research adapted a qualitative approach which lies between meta-synthesis and narrative review. The choice of literature review decided the nature of the qualitative research. According to Greenhalgh and Taylor (1997, p741), qualitative research is 'non-standard, unconfined, and dependent on the subjective experience of both the researcher and the researched", which was discussed not suitable to apply heavily quantitatively oriented systematic review approach as the "raw data" of management study are often made unavailable and the heterogeneity of management studies prevents the integration of results (Tranfield et al, 2003). However, narrative review is the basic attempt to summarize what has been discussed under a topic without much effort to seek generalisation (Greenhalgh, 1997), thus it is not desirable for to make ideas persuasive. Meta-synthesis, which was discussed by Sandelowski et al (1997, p336) to be used on "theories, grand narratives, generalisations, or interpretative translations produced from the integration or comparison of findings from qualitative studies", on the other hand, integrates groups of studies on the same phenomenon with similar or contradictory findings in different aspects (Beck, 2001). Most important of all, meta-synthesis shares the same goal with systematic review to overcome limits of narrative review, making it the most desirable method for management study (Tranfield et al, 2003). Thus, the author of this dissertation will try to fully adapt the meta-synthesis method, however, due to the limitation of this dissertation, some parts of the discussion may be based on narrative review of some major research."

I liked this because the student has gone to some length to justify an approach which will allow him to do the kind of research he feels will fit the constraints of the study, and it doesn't bind him to the very onerous and burdensome commitment of the absolutes of a systematic review. I also like his final sentence in the above paragraph, which more or less allows him to do what he likes in the end anyway ;-)

What I learned in China about students and education

I've had some really great opportunities as a researcher within HE in the past to engage in fascinating work with interesting people in some brilliant places. One of those places was China. At the time I probably didn't appreciate it enough and found the physical and cultural experience a bit of hard work sometimes. It was exciting though. I went twice under the auspices of an EU-Asia Link funded project.

The project was about taking an MSc curriculum for teaching change management and integration of IT systems that had been developed by partner universities in the UK and Holland, and passing it over to our Chinese partners to deliver as part of their curriculum over there. To do this we had a few project meetings, one in the UK, my boss went to the Dutch partner university a few times, and two meetings at Changsha University in Hunan Province. To visit Changsha we flew the first time via Beijing, and the second time via Shanghai. Each time, with each visit, my boss had built in extra HE networking opportunities in the landing city as well, so as to maximise the value of the trip overall. In Beijing he set us up an afternoon meeting and presentation session at the Beihang Aeronautical University. In Shanghai we met with a professor in a university there to develop some collaborative proposal ideas. It was really cool stuff :-)

In Changsha itself, kind of an industrial backwater city with lots of World War 2 motorbikes still in action along with other contraptions seating sometimes up to families of four or five people on them, we spent a few days each time we went in project meetings, but we also had the opportunity to observe some lessons (to learn, not to judge I hasten to add!!! ;-)). The one I observed that sticks in my mind most was a young female teacher, lecturing to undergraduates on economics. Students were sitting in rows behind desks, the lecturer was using a bit of PowerPoint, and talking, a lot. As lecturers do :-) I had a colleague with me who was bi-lingual and she told me much of what was said, and from context and PPT slides you could pick a lot up yourself, too. Yes, even in Chinese. Ok, maybe I guessed wrongly :-)

Students were sitting listening and taking notes, quietly. But a few were also texting under the tables on their mobile phones: respectfully compliant overall, but not much different from being in the UK, I felt.

The content of the lecture, on Economics, touched on the story of Nick Leeson and Barings Bank. It was told under the umbrella of ethics and morals, and it was highlighted how his wife sticking by him was an act of loyalty and moral strength. If I understood correctly, I was later told that many lessons are given more than a dash of ethics (central to the educational policy over there) and moralistic overtones. In terms of the teaching style, there were no seminars with opportunity for discussion or engaging critically with learning. This is something that Chinese students often have difficulty in engaging with when they come to learn in the UK university system; i.e. difficulty in engaging critically with theory and case studies, as well as difficulty in engaging in verbal debate where it is considered ok to have a different point of view and quite necessary to come up with original thought.

From another angle, working with Chinese students in Changsha was an eye-opener in terms of work ethic. I remember giving a heap of praise to one student once for a report she had done for the project. I was telling her that I was impressed with her academic ability as well as ability in English. She was very embarrassed. She went bright red and looked quite sternly at me, saying, "No! It was my duty! Only my duty that I did this!" I was slightly surprised, but reflected that perhaps the communist regime might instil that kind of mentality on its workers. Nevertheless, she did great work, whatever the motivation :-)

Maybe it was the cold showers that made the students compliant and duty-driven? I was moaning about having to be back at the university hotel between certain hours in Beijing to make sure I got hot water in the 2 hour time slot it was available. The students I was moaning to then enlightened me that in the student accommodation they didn't have hot water at all!!!! This is something I really don't like.

I did like the hospitality though; we got taken to karaoke, wined on five rice wine (as strong as vodka), and dined on lots of interesting dishes going round the circular whirly-gig table we all sat before, including frog soup. New word I learned: "Gambei" (bottom's up!). If someone came up to you, chinked your glass and said that, you had to down your five rice wine. I never thought I'd see so many squiffy Chinese university SLT level staff. Great fun :-)

My own stance on learning styles and preferences

Zoiks! It never fails to amaze me how impassioned people become over their own bugbears, foibles and red rag to a bull zones. Don't get me wrong, I've got lots of my own, but I was knocked back a few weeks ago when I was idly tweeting (@cazzwebbo) and made the mistake of mentioning the words 'learning styles and preferences' together in the same breath.

I can't remember the little backlash I got exactly, but it left me feeling a tad attacked, which I am now smiling about while writing as I'm very over it. It took me by surprise because the way I'd come into knowing about learning styles and preferences a few years ago was while I was doing my PhD. I read a paper by Boyle (2005), and thought it worthwhile to mention in my thesis. I didn't give it too much critique as it was very much a way to just explain in part some of my findings from my research. I thought the topic of learning styles and preferences was quite a juicy one actually :-)

It appealed to me that you can categorise certain styles of learning at all, and it did make sense that when exploring, learning and sense-making individually, not in the context of guided learning, adult learners did seem to show leanings towards engaging with learning new stuff according to their own favoured methods for doing so. Some people expressed absolute disdain for reading lots of text, "it's just many, many words", said one research participant (or something to that effect). He was somebody who had studied to MSc level and was a practising consultant in a field that valued conversation between people, rather than lots of individual, atomised tasks, e.g. reading (although some might argue that even when reading you are kind of engaging in a two way conversation with your thoughts and the words on the page).

A few of my other research participants were artists and, guess what, they had big leanings towards engaging in the abstract, conceptual and image based media. One of them showed me her dream diary when I interviewed her. It was a very pleasurable conversation and I really enjoyed meeting her and reading the diary entries she sent me as part of my research project.

So learning styles and preferences, beyond those spoon fed to kids at school as teaching styles and preferences, may come into their own more when people really just follow their own paths in life. It doesn't mean for me that it's a written in stone, the only way someone can learn type thing. It just means, given the choice, a person would probably veer in a certain direction if they were to pursue learning about something their own way. Because of that, I do believe that there is nothing wrong in tapping into that a little bit in order to engage with particular people. I think any marketing professional would agree that if you are selling something to somebody, it pays to know customer background. If you wanted to sell somebody a car and knew that their favourite colour was black, would you insist on making them have a white one if it was just as easy to give them a black one? Maybe this is too simplistic an analogy, but mass customisation as a marketing strategy has certainly attempted to cater more and more to individual customer preferences.

Anyway, another blogger earlier this week wrote about their mother and her learning preferences. So I think in a nod of agreement I'll mention mine. She was quite creative, made lots of soft furnishings at home, was a great sewer, made my sister's wedding dress and our bridesmaid dresses, upholstered furniture, was great in the garden - she was the Capability Brown visionary planner and nurturer, while my dad was the brawn and the one who learned all the Latin names for the plants and the trees in the garden - and she was good in the kitchen, too. So she had visual and kinaesthetic strengths, but she also talked for England, and loved to read (she had a dictionary by her armchair at all times and we frequently discussed etymology). But she had left school at 14, without taking any exams, and felt a failure academically for the rest of her life. After she died I read her old school reports, and time after time she got negative comments from teachers about lack of effort, laziness and talking. She often said she wasn't encouraged by her parents, which I can see how that may have been true (my grandma worked in a fish and chip shop and my granddad was a miner, although he used to lay on the sofa and wear books out reading them by all accounts, and was very into understanding all things electrical and mechanical, taking apart TVs and motorbike engines on the hearth :-) I digress). So why did my mum do so badly at school? Who knows! But she was great afterwards, and pursued her own lifelong learning until she died, in the way she wanted to, according to her own preferences. Learning isn't all about school, is it???