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It’s a sad fact of life in and after lockdown that everything is a bit rubbish. We have called groups of friends a few times to chat via Zoom. It’s nice to see everyone but the conversation doesn’t flow. You can’t pick up the cues to detect who wants to speak next and if everyone talks at once you can’t hear anything. Zoom quizzes are fun, but, for the same reasons, they lack the banter of a real pub quiz and are therefore focussed and functional. A couple of times we have sat down as a family to watch streamed theatre performances. They were very good but it’s not the same as a night at the theatre and, without the atmosphere of a live performance, you might as well watch a TV drama which has been written for the medium through which it is presented. Things which were once simple are now complicated – you need an appointment to go to the tip for heaven’s sake! And while Peter Crouch: Save Our Summer is quite amusing, it is no substitute for the live international football that the Euros were promising.
On 23rd March 2020, the Parole Board made the decision to postpone all face to face hearings with immediate effect. The decision was inevitable – prisons had closed their gates to visitors and it was no longer possible for members and witnesses to travel the country for hearings. A couple of weeks of frenzied activity followed as cases were reviewed. Some were deferred, some were decided on the papers, others were converted to telephone or video hearings. Since then, I have participated in 20 remote Parole hearings, all conducted by Skype / telephone. So, has the Parole process, like so many other things, become a bit rubbish?
The simple answer to that is, surprisingly, no. Remote technology has been available to the Parole Board since I was appointed ten years ago. A new “Parole Hub” had just been established and its virtues were extolled at my initial training. The idea was that the panel would convene in a suite in London while the prisoner and witnesses would join via video link. It was to be the future. In reality, hub hearings never took off in the way that was hoped. While the Parole Hub has been running continuously, only a few prisons have the necessary technology. Most cases were considered too complex to risk making a decision without seeing the prisoner. Any suggestions of learning difficulties, mental health problems, serious or unusual offending meant that cases were deemed unsuitable to be heard remotely. Despite expressing a willingness to conduct hub hearings, I have only done two in ten years.
All that changed on 23rd March. If we had deferred every “complex” case, we would have a massive backlog by now. Instead, after the initial confusion of the first couple of weeks, the Parole system has adjusted. We are now hearing just as many cases as we would have expected in normal times and the backlog is reducing rather than increasing. Telephone hearings are by no means perfect. Sometimes the line crackles and you have to ask people to repeat themselves. Sometimes participants disappear altogether. In one of my hearings, the chair vanished for 10 minutes but after a few frantic e-mails he was able to re-join. Sometimes witnesses don’t pick up the non-verbal cues that they have answered the question and ramble on for longer than they may otherwise. As a result, remote hearings tend to take slightly longer than face to face hearings.
But there are advantages too. In my experience, telephone hearings start on time – everyone logs on when they are supposed to, no one gets stuck in traffic. From a personal point of view, I can wear what I like, I can get up and stretch, I can drink coffee and eat snacks during the hearing, all without looking unprofessional. Hearings may take a little longer but I don’t have a long drive home afterwards, so they are less tiring. If one of my hearings is cancelled, it is relatively easy to find another one to take its place because I’m no longer restricted by geography – I can pick up a vacancy anywhere in the country. And remote hearings cost the tax payer a lot less in travel expenses and hotel costs. As long as solicitors are able to consult with their clients by telephone prior to hearings, they are able to represent their interests effectively. Several of my remote hearings have involved vulnerable prisoners, with learning difficulties, mental health problems, physical health problems and dementia. Prior to 23rd March, none of these would have been considered for remote hearings but in most cases, despite these challenges, the prisoners were able to participate just as effectively as they would have been in face to face hearings.
The crucial issue, however, is whether the quality of our decisions is affected by our new way of working. That remains to be seen. We will have to wait for the statistics to see whether we are more risk averse and reluctant to release from remote hearings. Time will tell whether serious further offences by prisoners on Parole increase. In theory, the fact that we don’t know what the prisoners we are dealing with look like, may help to reduce unconscious bias and make our decisions fairer. It is very difficult to tell whether someone is lying to you, whether you can see them or not. Not being able to see the “whites of their eyes” is unlikely to make much difference to whether or not we are fooled by prisoners who present themselves well but have made little genuine change to the risk they present.
So remote Parole hearings are probably here to stay. While face to face hearings will return for the most complex and vulnerable prisoners, the majority will continue on the telephone or video link. COVID-19 has forced technological change on the Board in a way that the Parole Hub did not. This may be a good thing or it may not – we will have to wait and see.
It’s my first days off after a set of shifts and I’m sitting here thinking that I am quite happy to spend my days off sleeping, spending time indoors and going out to exercise once per day. I am happy to rest on my days off for a few months as work is more tiring than usual.
I am relatively ‘new’ to my team of work colleagues but I still I miss them. I miss working with them rather than working with less people/alone. I miss their support, help and company. I miss dealing with familiar and usual situations at work. But I am not complaining, as the virus has thrown a spanner in the works of many organisations.
After finishing my last night shift I went to the shop to collect some essentials. Then I realised that I missed ‘normality’. Like not having to do strange distanced dances in shops with strangers whenever we find ourselves near to breaching the 2 metres of proximity rule with each other. And being able to cough in a shop without having to see the look of sheer panic plastered on the faces of those near-by.
Going to and from work has been a different experience, as the city centre is very quiet. Part of me likes this- it’s because my pace of everyday life can slow down a bit. There is less traffic, getting onto public transport is no longer an ‘every person for themselves’ situation. I have not had to watch as a train takes off without my said self being able to fit on it. And I don’t have to pretend that I am playing dodgems as I rush through hoards of people every time I reach the city centre.
I am no longer rushing around on my days off, making sure all tasks are completed, all purchases have been purchased, and that I have socialised enough before starting my next set of shifts. My once a day dogs walks are fabulous; the views are great, the flowers are beautiful, the sun is shining, there is no litter on the floors and it is quiet enough to hear the bird singing late into the afternoon.
I do miss seeing people though. I miss going to the pub/food places with friends and meeting up with my family. I miss going to my local park and seeing everyone enjoying themselves in the sun. I miss not doing the things that I had planned to do this spring and summer; like going to festivals, going abroad, and going on days out to the seaside with others.
Whilst technology has helped me to keep in contact with people I care about it just doesn’t feel the same as being in the constant presence of other humans. As it turns out, I cannot live with people, but I cannot live without them either.
I seem to be reading more and more reports on the need to retain lectures as a form of teaching, as it is claimed to ensure students are more engaged and committed to their studies when this method is used. Well, these findings have come to my attention just as I am testing online technologies to replace the ‘traditional’ lecture, via Collaborate on the new Waterside campus. Collaborate is a tool in Blackboard which opens an online classroom for students to join, listen to the lecture and see slides or other media, while also being able to pose questions via a chat function.
On the face of it, not so different, just the physical world replicated in the real world, right? Well, I will reserve judgement as I am still coming to grips with what this technology can do, I am aware younger generations of students may embrace this, and the reality is, it is the only forum I have to offer teaching to large numbers of students. I suspect student experiences are mixed, I know some really like it, some are not so keen, so again, not so different to lectures? The article in the times suggests that students are less likely to drop out if they are taught via lectures and have perceptions of good one-to-one contact with staff. Some more interesting issues were raised from replies in the tweet about the story, raising questions about the need to focus on quality, not method, that many universities are playing catch up with new teaching technologies and that this needs to be better understood from social and cultural perspectives. I think it is also worth picking up on perceptions of students, along with their expectations of higher education and remember, they must develop as independent learners. The setting in this respect would not seem to matter, it is the delivery, the level of effort put in to engage students and reinforcing the message that their learning is as much their responsibility as ours.
There is certainly a lot to grapple with, and for me, just starting out with this new technology, I myself feel there is much to learn and I am keeping an open mind. I do feel there are aspects of traditional teaching which must be retained and this can be done via group seminars, with smaller numbers and an opportunity for discussion, debate and student-led learning. If we see the lecture as the foundation for learning, then perhaps its method of delivery is less important. Given the online provision I must use for lectures, during seminars, I step away from the powerpoint and use the time I have with students in a more interactive way. For those modules where I don’t use online lectures, not much has changed on the new campus, but I am always keen to see how online teaching methods could be adopted – and I am prepared to use them if I genuinely can see their value.
It would be easy to offer only critique of this technology, and I think it is also important not to see it as an answer to the perennial problems with lack of engagement and focus many lecturers experience from mid term onwards. Perhaps online provision can at least overcome barriers to attendance for commuting students, those who feel intimidated in large lecture halls, and those who simply find they don’t engage with the material in this setting. At a time when some courses attract high numbers of students, and the reality of having lectures with 150+ students in a room means potential for noise disruption, lack of focus and interaction then maybe online provision can offer a meaningful alternative. There is provision for some interaction, time can be set aside for this, students can join in without worrying about disruption or not being able to hear the lecturer and it removes the need for lecturers to discipline disruptive behaviour. It does require some level of ‘policing’ and monitoring, but the settings can enable this. Having done lectures with 100 plus students, it is not something I miss – I’ve always preferred smaller seminar group teaching and so I can see how online provision can be a better support for this.
Currently, I use the online session as a form of recap and review, with some additional content for students. This is in part due the timing of the session and I am sure it can work equally as well as preparation for seminars. Students can then use the time to clarify anything they don’t understand and it reinforces themes and issues covered in seminars as well as introducing news ways to examine various topics. As with any innovation, this needs more research from across the board of disciplines and research approaches. In order to move such innovation on from ‘trial and error’ and simply hoping for the best, as with any policy we need to know what works, when it works and why. Therefore, along with my colleagues, I will persist and keep a watchful eye on the work of pedagogic experts out there who are examining this. There have been the inevitable issues with wifi not supporting connectivity – I can’t believe I just used this sentence about my teaching, but there it is. I am optimistic these issues will be overcome, and in the meantime, I always have a plan B – relying on technology is never a good plan (hence the featured image for this blog), but this is perhaps something to reflect on for another day.
Upskirting for anyone who has not come across the term is the act of taking unauthorised pictures under a skirt or kilt to capture images of the crotch area and sometimes genitalia. It tends to happen in crowded public places making it difficult to spot when it is happening. The resulting images are often distributed on the internet, usually interlinked with pornographic or fetish sites and present a multitude of moral and legal issues surrounding privacy, decency and consent. In some instances, the victim is identifiable from the image but in many they are not and are often unaware that such images even exist. This type of behaviour is not new but the development of technology, most notably camera phones has facilitated the practice as has the ability to share these images online. In England and Wales there is currently no specific legislation banning such action because voyeurism only covers private spaces and outraging public decency requires a witness. As such, when victims of upskirting come forward there is currently little scope for prosecution although some successful prosecutions have occurred under the offence of outraging public decency.
Gina Martin, a freelance writer and victim of upskirting launched a campaign to get upskirting recognised as a specific crime and punishable under the Sexual Offences Act. This campaign has gained considerable momentum both publicly and politically and in March 2018 the Voyeurism (Offence) Bill was presented to the House of Commons. The bill was blocked by the objections of one MP on the grounds that there had been a ‘lack of debate’ and thus a breach of parliamentary procedure. The backlash to this objection was interesting, rather than acknowledging that this is a serious issue worthy of parliamentary debate a humiliating and somewhat bullying approach was taken in the form of ‘pants bunting’ being hung outside of his Commons office. While I might not agree with some of the past actions of this MP his argument that new laws need to be debated if we (the UK) are to stand up for freedom and democracy is an important one. Upskirting is a serious breach of privacy and decency and therefore needs proper debate if the resulting legislation is going to be more than a knee-jerk reaction to public outrage. Such legislation often results in the need for multiple revisions in order for it to efficiency and effectively tackle such behaviour. For example, the proposed burden of proof in the original bill alongside the limited scope of the bill would likely have limited prosecutions rather than facilitating them. Unfortunately, with just three months between the original bill and the revised Voyeurism (Offences) (No.2)) Bill, which was successfully introduced to the House of Commons in June 2018, the extent to which sufficient informed debate has occurred remains questionable.
 See the comments by Clare McGlynn (professor at Durham University) in Sabbagh and Ankel (2018) Call for upskirting bill to include ‘deepfake’ pornography ban. The Guardian [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/21/call-for-upskirting-bill-to-include-deepfake-pornography-ban. [Accessed: 17 August 2018].