Thoughts from the criminology team

Home » Independent learning

Category Archives: Independent learning

Meet the Team: Stephanie Richards, Student Success Mentor and Associate Lecturer in Criminology

A Warm Welcome

Hello all! I would like to introduce myself. My name is Stephanie Richards and I am your Student Success Mentor (SSM). Some of the criminology and criminal justice students would have already had the opportunity to meet me, as I was their Student Success Mentor previously. So, it will be great to touch base with you all and it would also be great for the new cohorts to say hi when you see me on campus.

It is that time of the year when we see new students and our existing students getting ready to tackle the trials of higher education. Being a SSM I am fully aware of the challenges that you will face, and I am here to support you throughout your time at UON. As a previous student I can testify that studying at university is incredibly challenging. The leap from school/ college can be daunting at first. A new building that seems like a maze or the idea of being  surrounded by strangers that you probably think you have nothing in common with can be enough to encourage you to run for the hills….stepping into a workshop for the first time can give you a stomach flip, but once you take that first seat in class you will come to realise it does get easier.

Upon reflection of my experience as a new undergraduate student I would have to be honest and express the difficulties that I suffered adjusting to my new way of life. I could  not keep my head above the masses of reading, and when I did manage to get some of the seminar prep completed, most of the time I struggled with the new questions and concepts that were posed to me. This will be the experience of most, if not all the new students starting out on their university education. This is part of the complex journey of academia. My advice would be to pace yourself, time management is key, if you struggle to understand the work that has been set, ask for clarity and develop positive relationships with your peers and the staff at UON…………..being part of a strong community will get you through a lot!

My role is not just about assisting the new students that have started their university journey, I am also here to help UONs existing students. Getting back into the swing of studying can be daunting after the summer break. Adjusting to face-to-face education can be an overwhelming process but one that should be embraced. We will all miss our pyjama bottoms and slippers but being back on campus and getting some normality back in your day is worth the sacrifice.  

The team of SSM’s are here to support you throughout your journey so please get in touch if you require our assistance. We never want you to feel alone in this journey and we want to assist you the best ways we can. We want you to progress and meet your full learning potential, and to get the most out of your university experience.

Meet the Team: Francine Bitalo, Student Success Mentor and Associate Lecturer in Criminology

Hi everyone! My name is Francine Bitalo and I will be your new Student Success Mentor for this year. I am looking forward to meeting and assisting you all in your academic journey. Feel free to contact me for any support.

Being a graduate from the University of Northampton I can relate to you all, I know how challenging student life can be especially when dealing with other external factors. You may go through stages where you doubt your creativity, abilities and maybe even doubt whether the student life is for you. When I look back at when I was a student, I definitely regret not contacting the Student Success Mentors that were available to me or simply utilising more of the university’s support system. It is important for you seek support people like myself are here to help and recommend you to the right people.

Besides everything, Criminology is such an interesting course to study if you are anything like me by the end of it all you won’t view the world the same. Many of you have probably already formed your views on life especially when it comes to understanding crime. Well by the end of it all your ways of viewing the world will enhance and become more complex, theoretical and constructive. The advice I give you all is to enjoy the journey, be open minded and most importantly prepare for exciting debates and conversations.

Look forward to meeting you all.

Prison education: why it matters?

Five year ago, Dame Sally Coates released an independent report on prison education. Recently the Chief Inspector for Ofsted, Amanda Spielman and The HM Inspectorate of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, made a joint statement reflecting on that report.  Their reflections are critical on the lack of implementation of the original report, but also of the difficulties of managing education in prison especially at a time of a global pandemic.  The lack of developing meaningful educational provision and delivering remote teaching led to many prisoners without sufficient opportunity to engage with learning.   

In a situation of crisis such as the global pandemic one must wonder if this is an issue that can be left to one side for now, to be reviewed at a later stage.  At the University of Northampton, as an educational institution we are passionate about learning opportunities for all including those incarcerated.  We have already developed an educational partnership with a local prison, and we are committed to offer Higher Education to prisoners.  Apart from the educational, I would add that there is a profound criminological approach to this issue.  Firstly, I would like to separate what Dame Coates refers to as education, which is focused on the basic skills and training as opposed to a university’s mandate for education designed to explore more advanced ideas. 

The main point to both however is the necessity for education for those incarcerated and why it should be offered or not.  In everyday conversations, people accept that “bad” people go to prison.  They have done something so horrible that it has crossed the custody threshold and therefore, society sends them to jail.  This is not a simple game of Monopoly, but an entire criminal justice process that explores evidence and decides to take away their freedom.  This is the highest punishment our society can bestow on a person found guilty of serious crimes.  For many people this is appropriate and the punishment a fitting end to criminality.  In criminology however we recognise that criminality is socially constructed and those who end up in prisons may be only but a specific section of those deemed “deviant” in our society.  The combination of wrongdoing and socioeconomic situations dictate if a person is more or less likely to go to prison.  This indicates that prison is not a punishment for all bad people, but some.  Dame Coates for example recognises the overrepresentation of particular ethnic minorities in the prison system. 

This raises the first criminological issue regarding education, and it relates to fairness and access to education.  We sometimes tend to forget that education is not a privilege but a fundamental human right.  Sometimes people forget that we live in a society that requires a level of educational sophistication that people with below basic levels of literacy and numeracy will struggle.  From online applications to job hunting or even banking, the internet has become an environment that has no place for the illiterate.  Consider those who have been in prison since the late 1990s and were released in the late 2010s.  People who entered the prison before the advancement of e-commerce and smart phones suddenly released to a world that feels like it is out of a sci-fi movie. 

The second criminological issue is to give all people, regardless of their crimes, the opportunity to change.  The opportunity of people to change, is always incumbent on their ability to change which in turn is dependent on their circumstances.  Education, among other things, requires the commitment of the learner to engage with the learning process.  For those in prison, education can offer an opportunity to gain some insight that their environment or personal circumstances have denied them.      

The final criminological issue is the prison itself.  What do we want people to do in them?  If prison is to become a human storage facility, then it will do nothing more than to pause a person’s life until they are to be released.  When they come out the process of decarceration is long and difficult.  People struggle to cope and the return to prison becomes a process known as “revolving doors”.  This prison system helps no one and does nothing to resolve criminality.  A prison that attempts to help the prisoners by offering them the tools to learn, helps with the process of deinstitutionalisation.  The prisoner is informed and aware of the society they are to re-join and prepares accordingly.  This is something that should work in theory, but we are nowhere there yet.  If anything, it is far from it, as read in Spielman and Taylor’s recent commentary.  Their observations identify poor quality education that is delivered in unacceptable conditions.  This is the crux of the matter, the institution is not really delivering what it claims that is does.  The side-effect of such as approach is the missed opportunity to use the institution as a place of reform and change. 

Of course, in criminological discourse the focus is on an abolitionist agenda that sees beyond the institution to a society less punitive that offers opportunities to all its citizens without discrimination or prejudice.  This is perhaps a different topic of conversation.  At this stage, one thing is for sure; education may not rehabilitate but it can allow people to self-improve and that is a process that needs to be embraced.  

 

References

Coates, S. (2016), Unlocking Potential: A review of education in prisons, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/unlocking-potential-a-review-of-education-in-prison

Spielman, A. and Taylor, C. (2021), Launching our Prison Education Reviewhttps://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/launching-our-prison-education-review

Originally published here

Finding focus in office exile

Photo by Ann Nekr on Pexels.com

I have now passed a year of being exiled from my office, separated from people for most of the time. A couple of weeks before the first lockdown I was working in another university and we had just a day or two notice to switch to online teaching. As a doctoral candidate I valued the flexibility of being able to work from home, in the office, and in overpriced coffee shops in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. The weather helped with the first lockdown. I would have virtual office working sessions with my colleagues in the criminology department in my garden. I thought I was coping but the reality was I was masking any fear, sadness and the effects of having no human contact. I was training two or three times per day, counting every calorie I ate. I lost a few pounds, got stronger, fitter and felt physically amazing.

We got some respite in the summer when lockdown restrictions were lessened. However, I lost a family member to Covid-19 and still felt unsure and anxious about going out so I didn’t make the most of it. I did have a couple of work sessions in my local library which was a welcome change of scenery. This was short lived as I currently live in Manchester and we have been in either lockdown or tier 3 restrictions for most of the last year. My saving grace was my gym. We had outdoor sessions, new members joined, and I got to see real people, albeit in socially distanced marked off squares of territory on the gym floor. Life was much better then. I left the house most days.

By December’s lockdown I was starting to struggle. With dark mornings and nights there would be days when I wouldn’t leave the front door. I went from training daily to training once or twice per week and some days I wouldn’t get any more than 2,000 steps in. For my, training is my anti-depressant. It keeps me sane, it keeps be focussed and it keeps me connected to a community of people who value it too. For me, this was a worrying sign.

Fast-forward to today, a year on from lockdown 1. I sit here in front of my laptop day in, day out, trying to concentrate, trying to find the perfect playlist to make me concentrate, taking nootropic supplements (legal, not the drugs), brain vitamins and high caffeine supplements to make me concentrate. I sit here researching symptoms and self-diagnosing ADHD. But really, I just need my office. I need an over-priced lemon and ginger tea, I need a commute, I need people, I need to get out of my living room. But I don’t need it at a cost of losing more lives to Covid-19 so I’ll sit in my living room and wait.

For now, as difficult as it is to focus, I manage. I just have to work harder than ever at it. So for all of our students who are also struggling, I will finish with some of my top tips but bear in mind we all learn differently so find what works for you.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Amy’s top study from home tips:

  • Host virtual study sessions with colleagues. I have at least 2 sessions per week with a colleague. We start the session by saying hi and having some human interaction before stating our goals. We keep each other accountable by asking if our goals are achievable within the 2 hour frame and suggesting more specific goals. We then mute and work, coming back at the end of the 2 hours to hold one another accountable and share how we have done. I cannot emphasise enough how much this has helped me!
  • Write a to do list each day and week with SMART goals. You’re better off having smaller goals that are achievable than bigger goals that are not
  • Use the Pomodoro technique. Ordinarily this is 25 mins work followed by a 5 or 10 minute break. There are online tools and apps or you can set a timer. One of my supervisors recently suggested to me to reduce the working session to 15 minutes to account for my reduced concentration span. This is helping!
  • Don’t have the same expectations on yourself as you ordinarily would. These are not ordinary times
  • Work with your own mind. My brain works well early in the morning so sometimes I have my laptop open at 5.30am. I have friends that work late in the night. I also know I read well in the afternoon and I do my best thinking when I am on a solitary walk in nature
  • Set yourself little goals with rewards. Currently, if I finish editing 5 pages I get an episode of Grey’s Anatomy or a cookie (bad idea) or a 10 minute browse on Instagram
  • Lean on the resources available to you. At UoN our students are lucky to have a tonne of informative resources on Skills Hub (see the section on ‘How to Study’), our Learning Development team to help with academic skills, a mental health team who can help support mental wellbeing, and a whole host of other services. Ask for help and accept it when it is offered (this I need to work on)
  • Listen to a focus playlist. My go to Spotify playlists are here and here

Let it be Light

You may have probably heard of the title before and you may or may not be able to place it.  It is a quote from the bible!  It is profoundly creationist proclaiming the world created in days; from the 1st for the light and the 6th for the people and animals.  A seemingly busy week for an almighty being who needed a day of rest afterwards.  The contribution of organised religion to everyday life, the realisation that people need rest and recuperation from the labours of work.  This however is not the reason I chose this dive into scriptures.  I am not a theologian so I will not examine the religious content. 

Instead there are two different reasons I have chosen to start with this quote; the first is the positive affirming message it conveys, the second is its immediacy.  What we have here is light and brightness that is instant gratification.  This message feels like a piece of chocolate melting in your mouth, releasing sweet sensations, as a flooding of smooth cocoa disintegrates, releasing its sensual solids.  Therefore, the command on creating light resonates; we rejoice because unlike reality we find pleasure in immediate gratification.

Would we care that light was not created but emerged after the Big Bang and took billions of years to form in the way we now recognise it as our sun?  Does it matter that progress is long and arduous and not immediate as the command suggests?  Our sense of time dwarfs in the time required for events to happen.  It is astonishing that we still try to comprehend the vastness of time through human lifetime.  The command is also palatable because it happens without virtually any real effort.  It does not represent the labours, pains of creation and development.  In short, evolution is painful, long but here is presented as something immediate and effortless.  In that a series of commands completing complex processes seems preferable to the reality of evolution. Maybe it is pertinent to point out that the command reveals the “majestic totalitarianism” of the divine against the great equalizer of nature and progression.  

In life however, big creations cannot happen by command.  “Let it be Baby!”  I wonder how many mothers would favour this one, or in our line of work “let it be knowledge” how many will choose this option.  This is when we realise that this pleasant message is shielding us from the reality of the process and the nature of reality itself.  We may want things to happen immediately, but this is not necessarily the best option.  In parenting, if you could more forward into having a baby, why not move further past the terrible twos or even further into the dreadful adolescent years of having your authority challenged.  Essentially have a child created fully functioning and obedient to parental will.  Maybe because this is not parenting.  The stories that remain are those of growing pains; without growth there is no parenting.  Let’s explore it in knowledge; can we find shortcuts in the way we learn a trade, an education, a professional identity?  Maybe skipping the first parts on getting to know how to write in the appropriate conventions; perhaps we can skip on the tedious referencing process that only anally retentive individuals apparently enjoy.  What if instead of books and hours of reading different texts we got laminated sheets with terms and conditions and whenever we embark on writing we are told step by step what we write.  Because this will not be knowledge.  The slow and arduous process has an exceptional trait within it; insight!  After reading my books, making notes on my articles, going over my notes and trying to make sense of what it the point I am trying to make; in a moment after hours and hours of studying, suddenly and unexpectedly, the “penny drops”!  This moment of insight is like a lightbulb moment…and that is light!  A light, not by magic or immediate gratification, but the sustained understanding that comes from knowledge.  It has been a difficult year for all of us but please remember that light comes from inside and to quote a great teacher Goethe, “more light”.  

Helpfully unhelpful: The pathology of being too supportive

https://theconversation.com/sublime-design-the-london-underground-map-26240

When I first arrived in London, I needed to find my way across the city to the now former site of the Home Office at St Anne’s Gate.  I didn’t have a clue about how to get there so I asked a member of staff at St Pancras railway station. He helpfully pointed me in the direction of the London Underground.  I was swept along by a torrent of people, all going about their business with a purpose, I however, didn’t have a clue where I was going.  Finding sanctuary in a quiet eddy and desperately looking around I spotted a member of staff across the concourse. Fighting against the current I scrambled to where the member of staff was and implored upon them to rescue me. Thankfully the underground staff had all been briefed, not specifically about me, I should hasten to add, but about how by being super helpful they could increase customer satisfaction, reduce complaints and attract even more customers.  And having explained my dilemma, I was very helpfully led through the ticket barriers, now struggling to hold back the surge, and down the escalator to the platform below. I was told to get on the next train and to get off at St James’ Park. Having arrived at my destination I became confused as to which exit to use and once again found a very helpful staff member who led me part way to the exit, where I spilled out into the sunlight a matter of yards away from my destination.

The following week I once again plunged into the torrent and confident that I knew which underground line to take I allowed myself to be swept along to the barriers and through, and then panic.  Which platform and am I sure that was the right line? Once again, a beacon of hope shone across the dark morass, a member of underground staff. Once again, I was led to the platform in a super helpful way and got on the first train. But this time I didn’t arrive at my destination for some, I have to say, traumatic hours. The problem was the first train was not the train to catch, it was the second that I needed; I will most definitely have to complain about that member of staff being unhelpful.

This pattern of visits to London and assistance rendered by sometimes grumpy but always super helpful members of underground staff continued for some weeks. Often, I would stay in London for a week at a time before returning home outside of the metropolis at the weekend.  During my stays I visited numerous police stations as part of my work and every time I used the underground, I sought out a helpful member of staff to assist me.  Sometimes, if they rather unhelpfully simply pointed me in the right direction, I would set off and then return to them explaining that I didn’t understand their instructions.  Armed with more information I would again purposefully set off and then duly return until the succumbed and rather reluctantly but helpfully led me to the correct platform. 

Then in a fortnight, two things happened. Firstly, the underground staff went on strike and on arriving at the gates of St James’ Park underground station I found the gates closed. There were a couple of members of staff there, but they weren’t very helpful.  ‘What should I’ do I asked, ‘Dunno’, was the reply.  Now that was not very helpful, complaint forthcoming I feel. I didn’t make my appointments that day and the following day had to use taxis to get around.  Much easier to use taxis you might say, yes but not really justifiable in terms of cost, my boss told me when I suggested I would forego using the underground altogether.  After three days the underground opened up again but for some reason there were no staff around to ask for help. I became increasingly anxious and found myself avoiding the underground, using taxis at my own expense, and walking long distances. I was exhausted I can tell you.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/cgpgrey/5050728957/

The next week I ventured into the underground again, I couldn’t avoid it forever.  I found a member of staff and duly asked them, in an almost ritualistic fashion, how to get across London to another underground station near yet another police station.  Instead of pointing me in the right direction, which we all know by now is a rather fruitless, time wasting and unhelpful exercise, or super helpfully taking me to the correct platform, they took me to a rather large underground map on the wall. ‘This is where we are’, the very nice lady said, ‘and this is where you want to be’, she added. She then continued to explain how to use the map, how to follow the signs dotted around the stations, how to look for the signs before entering the platforms so as to work out which platform to be on and how to ensure I get on the correct train. I was nervous following her instructions as I made my way to the platform, but I got to my destination and I made my own way back, with help of the wall map of course.  From that point onwards, I made my way around London on the underground with increased confidence, I wouldn’t say with consummate ease, but confidently. I made mistakes but because I knew how to read the map, I was able to rectify them and if I couldn’t I knew that I could ask. Of course, now that I drive, I use maps, I would probably have been pestering police officers and random members of the public otherwise and we know how the rare the sight of the former are on our streets. Anyway, I don’t think they’ve had the ‘super helpful’ briefing. Lately though I’ve been using my satnav, and sometimes getting into a right pickle. It seems you can’t beat good old-fashioned map reading.

What’s the point of this nonsensical tale? Well the clue is in the title. As educators we need to consider the purpose of what we are doing and how this will add value to students’ learning and knowledge.  We can give students the answers to the essay questions, how to structure a particular essay, what arguments to include, what books and journal articles to read.  We can supply them with reading lists that contain links to the books and journal articles, we can coach them to such an extent that their journey is in fact our journey, just as my journey to the underground platform was the staff member’s journey. We can repeat this many times over so that students are capable of completing that essay, but like me on my journey through the underground, they will need the same coaching for every piece of assessment and whilst they may complete each journey as I did, they have learnt very little and become increasingly disempowered and crippled by our helpfulness and their increasing reliance on it. Our jobs as educators is not to provide answers but to equip students with the tools to find the answers themselves. That process requires a willingness to learn, to discover and to take risks. Super helpfulness should not be an organisational strategy to ensure each part of the journey is easily manoeuvred and completed, it should be about ensuring that people can complete any journey independently and confidently.  Sometimes by appearing to be super helpful we are simply being very unhelpful and disempowering people at the same time.

Keep Calm and Forget the Pandemic or What to do in a pandemic? Take advantage of the situation

Eleven months now and there is a new spectre haunting Europe; a plague that has taken hold of our lives and altered our lifestyles.  Lockdowns, the r rate, viral transmission, mutations are new terms that common people use as if we are experienced epidemiologists.  Masks, made of cloth or the surgical ones, gloves and little bottles of antiseptic have become new fashion accessories.  Many people report mental fatigue and others a state of confinement inside their own homes.  Some people have started complaining that there is no light in this long tunnel, in country after country face with overwhelmed medical staff and system.

The optimist in me is unequivocal.  We can make it through.  Life is far more powerful than a disease and it always finds a way to continue, even in the most hostile of conditions.  In my view however this is not going to be a feat of a great person; this is not going to be resolved by one solution.  The answer is in us as a collective.  Humanity thrived when it gets together and the ability to form meaningful bonds that is the backbone of our success to survival.

Imagine our ancestors making their first communities; people that had no speed like the felines, no strength like the great apes and no defensive shell to protect them.  Coming out of Africa thousands of years ago, this blood creature had no offensive nor defensive structures to prevail.  Our ancestors’ survival must have been on the brink.  Who could imagine that some thousands of years ago, we were the endangered species?  Our endurance lies on the ability to form a group that worked together and understood each other, carried logic, used tools and communicated with each other. 

The current situation is a great reminder of the importance of society and its true purpose.  People form societies to protect each other and advance their opportunity for success. We may have forgotten that and understandably so, since we have had people who claimed that there is no such thing as a society, only the individual.  The prevailing economic system focuses on individual success, values individual recognition and prioritises individual issues.  In short, why worry about others, miles away, feet away, steps away from us if we are doing well. 

It is interesting to try to imagine a society as a random collection of indifferent individuals, but more people begin to value the importance of the other.  After years of austerity and the promotion of individualism, more people live alone, make relationships through social networking and mostly continue to live a solitary life even when they live with others.  Communities, as an ex-prime minister claimed as broken and so people waste no time with them.  We take from our communities, the things we need, and we discard the rest.  Since the start of the pandemic, deliveries, and online companies have been thriving.  Whilst physical shops are facing closure, online ones can hardly cope with the demand.  As a system, capitalism is flexible enough to retune the way wealth is made.  Of course, when you live alone, there are things you cannot have delivered; intimacy, closeness, intercourse.  People can fulfil their basic needs apart from the one that makes them people; their socialisation.  We will have to address it and perhaps talk about the need to be a community again. 

In the meantime, what happens at the top? In the Bible there was the story of the pool of Siloam.  This miraculous pond blessed by an angel offered the opportunity for clemency for those who swam in the waters.  Wipe the slate clean and start again.  So, what do governments do? Interestingly not as much.  Right now, as people try to come to terms with loss, isolation and pain, different governments try to address other political issues.  One country is rocked by the revelations that its head of state has created a palace to live in.  Another one, has finished construction of his summer palace.  In another country they are bringing legislation to end abortions, in another they propose the introduction of police on campuses.  Others are restricting the right to protest, and in a country famed for its civil rights, legislation is being introduced not to take pictures of police officers in public, even if they may be regarded in violation of duties.  It seems that it is open season for the curtail of civil liberties through the back door.  In an island kingdom the system has ordered and moves forward with the construction of more and bigger prisons.  A sign that they anticipate public upheaval. Maybe; whatever the reason this opportunity to supress the masses may be tantalising, but it is wrong.  When ever we come out of this we need to reconnect as a community.  If this becomes an opportunity for some, under the suppression of civic rights, things will become problematic.  For starters, people will want to see their patience and perseverance rewarded.  My advice to those who rule, listen to your base. 

Reflecting on reflection

For some years now students taking the third year Critiquing Criminalistics module on our criminology course at the university have had an assessment relating to a reflective diary. Most educators and those in other professions will be aware of and understand the advantage of reflection and reflective diaries so it is probably not necessary to revisit the well-rehearsed arguments about benefits to learning and personal development.  Each year, I have found that over the course of the module, the students have come to recognise this and have intimated how they have enjoyed reflecting on what they have learnt in the class or how reflecting on personal experiences has been beneficial. And they comment on how they have sought out further information to gain additional knowledge or to put what they have learnt in some form of perspective.  It is of course what we as educators would want and expect from a reflective diary assessment that after all counts towards their marks for the module.

What has surprised me though is how much reviewing these modules has benefited me.  I have learnt from and continue to learn my students. We all recognise or at least should the old saying ‘the more I know, the more I realise I don’t know’ or similar.  My students prove that is the case often with each round of diary entries I review.  The diaries can provide an insight into students lives and thoughts.  For some of them it may be a cathartic release to capture their feelings on paper, for me it is enlightening and provides a greater understanding of some of the challenges they face not only as students but also as predominately young adults in a challenging and at times hostile social and economic environment.  Perhaps what is equally as enlightening is the additional knowledge that students provide about the subject area being discussed and taught. It is almost like sending out my own little army of literature reviewers with a challenge to advance their knowledge and ipso facto, mine.  I am clear that part of the reflection process is about taking what you have learnt further and as this an assessment, demonstrating this additional knowledge with some academic rigor.  And so, I find that in some cases what I have stated in the class (currently online) is challenged and that challenge is supported by academic reading. When I read some of these little gems, I smile but alongside this is the additional work created as I review the journal article they have referenced and then decide whether to revisit my lectures to add in the additional information. Even if I don’t, it all adds to my knowledge and, on reflection as my students are proving, there is plenty of scope to find out more.

Data collection in a pandemic: Discovering what’s up with WhatsApp *or any other instant messaging service

Photo by Cristian Dina on Pexels.com

Many of our students will be thinking about or preparing for, their dissertations. Ordinarily this is the fun part of a degree. The part where you have the freedom to research a topic of interest. Two or three years ago, none of us could have predicted we would be in the midst of a global pandemic which limits research opportunities, particularly for undergraduates who have practical and ethical limitations. One thing that I would encourage students – or indeed anyone doing research in the pandemic – to do, is to be innovative and think outside of the box when planning research. Here in the UK we are lucky enough that most of us have access to the internet. The way I communicate with friends, family and colleagues most frequently is using instant messaging services and so I incorporated this technology into my own research. In sharing my own experience of using instant messaging as a data collection tool, I hope to offer some hope that where there are obstacles, there are also ways to overcome them.

I conducted my most recent research prior to the pandemic, however I had other barriers to navigate. I was researching the victimisation of asylum seekers, and wanted to understand if, and how, they coped with these experiences. I was lucky enough to undertake two face to face interviews with most of the participants which helped me to gain an understanding of their life histories and the broader aspects of their experiences but I also wanted to understand the day to day stressors and how they coped with these events. I knew that a diary method would be an appropriate approach to elicit the data I required, however there were some limitations with using traditional written journals. All the asylum seekers who participated in my research spoke some English as a second language and some spoke the language but could not read or write proficiently. In addition to this, traditional journal entries can be time consuming and there were additional practical considerations to consider such as how I would retrieve the journals. To overcome these obstacles I decided to use digital technology to collect diary data, in part because electronic methods have been found to increase response rates, but also because most asylum seekers I have come across own a mobile phone. Mobile phones are essential to enable to contact their family in their country of origin as well as maintaining contact with their solicitor and other agencies working with them.

Once I had decided to use mobile technology, I sent weekly messages to each of the people I interviewed, asking them how they were that day and how their week had gone, what were some of the good and bad things that had happened. I did this for 12 weeks before conducting their follow up interviews. For the purpose of my doctoral thesis, the method provided data that would help me understand the day to day stress of being an asylum seeker, often resulting from structural harms perpetrated by the Home Office. This may be the mother feeling guilty after being late to pick her children up from school because she had to catch three buses to report to the Home Office and fulfil the conditions of her immigration bail; or the feeling of dread in the pit of her stomach when a brown envelope came through the door, fearful that this may be what feels like a death warrant from the Home Office ordering her deportation. Events such as these were often not mentioned during interview, when interviewees would often recall the major life events and forget the moments of everyday life. Using mobile technology meant that participants could write in their first language and either them or I could translate it. It also meant that they could quickly send a message in the moment, while a particular event was fresh in their minds.

Using mobile technology to collect data worked well for me as it helped me to stay in contact with participants and inform my follow up interviews as well as providing the information I required to answer the research questions. As anticipated the response rate was good – even those who could not afford credit were often able to access Wi-Fi and send a message from a public space. The use of mobile technology to collect diary entries overcame more barriers than it presented, and the method proved fit for purpose, gaining the data required to get a fuller picture of those I was researching. For students planning dissertations or other research projects that are to be undertaken soon, I urge you to think creatively about your research methods and modes of data collection. Although a large part of our teaching focuses on traditional methods, I encourage you to be independent thinkers and so solve the problem of doing research in a pandemic.

Education, education, education: We’ve lost the plot

Some of you might remember Tony Blair’s speech introducing the Labour party’s education manifesto in 2001. In it he proclaimed that education was at the forefront of government policy.  Education is often high on government’s agenda even if it is only to berate previous administrations for failing our youngsters. I have watched with interest the current government’s farcical approach to education and in particular the attainment of qualifications during the first period of Covid lockdown and to some extent even felt sorry for them as they grappled with what were not insignificant problems.  My benevolence, however, has long been drained as I watch the news more recently only to see the same farce emerging.  But what really intrigues me is the conflation of the notion of qualifications and education.  It seems to me the clamber to get children back into school is only right given that they are missing out on education and other social aspects. However, I cannot see how the dealing with the qualifications issue can ignore the fact that the students have not received all of their education.

In a previous blog I have used the analogy of a driving instructor giving lessons to a pupil.  In that blog the point being made was that the education of the pupil was a two-way enterprise.  If the pupil didn’t engage or didn’t turn up for their lessons, then the instructor could not be held responsible for the pupil’s failure in the driving test.  But what of the test itself, what is that designed to achieve? It is not simply to provide a person with a driving licence, what would be the point of that? It is to ensure that the person taking the test can drive to a satisfactory standard that would help ensure the roads were safe for all users. So, the point of the driving lessons is to provide the education in ‘road craft’ and the point of the driving test is to test knowledge and ability in that ‘road craft’ to ensure it meets satisfactory standards.  The driving licence is a form of certificate that states the driver has achieved the knowledge and skills required.

So, what of education?  Surely GCSEs, A levels, BTec and so on are a test of the knowledge and skills acquired.  A degree is the same, is it not?  How then could we reasonably expect students to pass any of these tests if they have lost significant periods of tutorship or teaching?  The suggestion, dumb down the tests in some way by only testing what they have been taught, or as in the case of university students suggestions, be more lenient with the marking.  Now as I understand it, that would be akin to saying to a learner driver that because through no fault of their own, they could not engage in all of their lessons, they will only be tested on their ability to park and not on their ability to carry out an emergency stop as they hadn’t been taught the latter. How ridiculous would that be? Imagine then that the very same driver, who now has a driving licence, goes onto some advanced motoring course.  A course that starts with the premise that they have all the skills tested in a ‘full’ driving test. 

Whilst, I can understand students’ preoccupation with tests and qualifications, I somehow think that government and teaching establishments should be more concerned with education and the knowledge gap. How will they ensure that students have the requisite skills and knowledge? Tony Blair may have said ‘Education, Education, Education’ and subsequent governments might well nod in agreement, but somehow I think they’ve all lost the plot. 

%d bloggers like this: