I have launched a new website!

October 28, 2011

I have taken the plunge and moved my website over to www.johncanning.net using wordpress.org. You can subscribe to my posts on the new website.

Go to my new website


The UK Citizenship test: Making sure that all new citizens have a good short term memory.

October 12, 2011

assessment is about measuring that which we should be trying to measure.

Phil Race Making Learning Happen.

The Guardian website quiz ‘Life in the UK: could you pass the citizenship test?’ has been provoking a lot of discussion amongst my friends. None of my friends, UK citizens or otherwise, have been able to pass the citizenship test yet.

I suspect that the Guardian has selected some ‘greatest hits’ amongst the questions and that most obscure questions have been deliberately chosen. But, if the citizenship test is really about assessing British values, British history and British culture it is a total failure. We can’t be sure that new British citizens are able to participate fully in British society, appreciate British history and understand British customs but we can be sure that all our new citizens are successful learners of trivia.

Does it measure what we are trying to measure? The Home Office need to read Phil Race.

The case for open access to research and the problem of reputation.

October 11, 2011

For £25 you can buy a pdf copy of my 2005 article “Placing Quebec nationalisms: constructing English identities in Quebec’s Eastern Townships,” which was published in the British Journal of Canadian Studies. The article is just 16 pages long, but costs more than most 200 page books. I have no idea how many people have actually paid £25 for my article, as I do not receive royalties and I did not receive a one-off fee. The University of Southampton was not paid for my contribution and neither were the two peer reviewers. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) which funded the research on which this work was based (with money from the UK taxpayer) won’t get any of that money either.

This is well known within academia, but those outside academia are mostly surprised to learn that neither we, nor our employers receive any payment for our work. This youtube video produced for open access week shows a conversation between a researcher who has been asked to assign copyright to the journal publisher and the publisher himself. (In practice these conversation do not happen—we just sign the form and stick it in the post).

Open access journals allow anyone with Internet access to have access to research. In some cases the researcher can pay the publisher a fee to make research open access, though this form of open access is scarcely really in the spirit of open access to research.

The aims of the open access movement are honourable. The researcher, reviewers, universities and government don’t make any money from putting research behind a paywall. This also means that the public, whether they be interested amateurs, independent scholars, advocacy groups or academics in universities without the funds to pay thousands of pounds a year for journal subscriptions—this is a key issue for academics working in poorer countries. The Open Access Pledge reads

I pledge to devote most of my reviewing and editing efforts to manuscripts destined for open access. For other manuscripts, I will restrict myself to one review by me for each review obtained for me by an outlet that is not open access.

Here, manuscripts destined for open access mean those that the authors or journal post on institutional or university repositories, or those that are made open access by the publisher within 12 months. Because I believe that access to publicly funded research should be free, I will also support open access in other ways.

At first glance it appears that the only winner in this process is the publisher. Therefore, why not just publish research on your own or your employer’s website? The answer is that academics and universities do gain from publishing research in good and prestigious journals in terms of reputation, prestige, potential for further research funding and promotion and rewards for the researcher him/herself. It is not the just the research that matters, it is where it is published. A pile of bricks in my garden is a pile of bricks—a pile of bricks in the Tate is art.

The reputation of journals is the principal barrier to Open Access.  As long as academics and their employers want to publish in the ‘best’ journals (of which few are open access) journal publishers will continue to make their profits from the labours of academics and taxpayers’ money.

New article: Communicating the sustainability message in higher education institutions

October 3, 2011

A. Djordjevic and D.R.E. Cotton, “Communicating the sustainability message in higher education institutions,” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 12 (2011): 381-394. Available from http://www.emeraldinsight.com/journals.htm?articleid=1953898&show=abstract

This paper from the most recent edition of the International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, provides a poignant illustration of the challenges faced by those promoting sustainability across their university.

Even in an institution known for its commitment to sustainability where (presumably) senior management buys into the vision, barriers remain:

  • Not seen as relevant to individual/ subject area
  • About recycling/ estates/ printing on both sides of the paper
  • Senior management enthusiasm/ support can be interpreted as ‘an agenda’ (‘agenda’ never seems to be viewed positively when used of senior management)
  • Different views about what ‘sustainability’/ sustainable development means
  • Lack of dialogue/ too much communication is electronic
  • Attempted ownership by one discipline/ department

The authors’ recommendations can be found by reading the full paper (!)

NSS: What does “The course has helped me to present myself with confidence” mean?

September 29, 2011


The report from the LLAS Subject Centre National Student Survey project last academic year is now online. In the project we focused in on eight of the 22 questions. Whilst many of the questions were found to be problematic, this one was especially difficult to unpack.

Question 19: The course has helped me to present myself with confidence.

From the report

When answering this question, many students initially thought about giving oral presentations.  It was also linked to employability and interviewing skills, but the question of whether this was about personal confidence or academic confidence was unclear. And where students reported an increase in confidence, was this down to the skills their course had given them, their year abroad, their work placements, or was it just part of being four years older?

One member of staff observed that the NSS is carried out at a time where students are at their most anxious, perhaps looking for work, perhaps worried about the future. In languages it was suggested that this question might be thought about in the context of L2 competence or confidence in dealing with people from other cultures. ―It’s a bit of a weird question said one student. ―It really wants you to say “yes”, because if you say “no”, you‘re saying something bad about yourself.

Further thoughts

Some further thoughts here. Some a little pedantic maybe, but that’s what happens when you start to unpack the question with students and lecturers.

What this question might mean Possible assumptions Other issues

Doing oral presentations

Feeling confident in person

Interviewing skills


Able to express opinions without fear.

Able to challenge the opinions of others.

Not anxious

Students can stand up for themselves

Students are confident they will get a good job.

Students were unable to present themselves with confidence at the beginning the course.

Confidence comes from going the course.

Presenting oneself with confidence is a good thing (some students might benefit from being less confident)

A course which does not help students present themselves with confidence is not a good course.

The student who answers this question in negative might have been better off doing a different course or studying at a different place.

Confidence might come from sources other than the course e.g. student societies, increased age, work experience, time spent abroad

Does a negative answer to this question suggest that the course was in any way inadequate?

Some evidence of students thinking about L2 language confidence, but this question was for students of all disciplines.

Students who answer this in the negative are saying something bad about themselves.

Student anxiety or lack of confidence indicates poor teaching or course design.

Words I don’t like: delivery (in an educational context)

September 20, 2011

Delivery: The action of handing over, or conveying into the hands of another; esp. the action of a carrier in delivering letters or goods entrusted to him for conveyance to a person at a distance (OED).

I know that I am not alone in my dislike of the word ‘Delivery’ in an educational development context. Delivery requires no knowledge of what is being delivered on the part of the deliverer. As a schoolboy I had a part-time job delivering newspapers. I would go down to local newsagents, he would give me the newspapers and a list and I would deliver the right newspaper the to right house. There were some basic skills or course — I needed to know how to read the list, know where I was going and have the ability to ride my bike around my route. However, I required no knowledge of the media industry or the events being written about in the newsletter. At no point was I asked my for my opinion on world events. My job was to carry a physical object (a newspaper) from one geographical location (newsagent) to another (the customer’s house).

I refuse to therefore to suggest that I deliver ‘training’, ‘development’, ‘a/ the curriculum’, CPD, courses etc. To deliver means to hand over a product from one party to another – a teacher/ lecturer/ educational developer needs to understand the content, be able to answer questions about the content and know the content well.


Leadership and role-play: A few thoughts on the LLAS Head of Departments’ event.

September 15, 2011

Our first event of the ‘new LLAS’, Thriving in the New World of Higher Education: a workshop for heads of department and leaders in languages, linguistics and area studies took place yesterday. We had an overview on the state of Modern Languages in the UK from Jim Coleman (Open University and Chair of UCML) and Pam Moores talked about the resources developed as part of Shaping the Future, a project set up in response to Michael Worton’s report into Modern Languages in English universities. Our Director Mike Kelly had some good tips on managing relationships with senior managers in the university, and on the importance of understanding your university’s mission and making sure you know who you should go to for what.


My own contribution was in the form of role-play exercise in which participants ‘played’ a Head of Languages meeting her/his Dean to discuss either a faculty reorganisation or a curriculum change programme. I enjoy role-play as a way of learning, but I realise that not everyone does. However, it seemed that most people enjoyed the exercise and benefitted putting themselves in the position of another person. Some of our HoD’s are very good actors it seems.

As the author of the role-play scenarios, it was interesting to observe the numerous directions in which a situation can play out. The briefs for each role included a section entitled ‘What is on your mind’. It was interesting to see the ways in which people used or did not use this information to their advantage (some of the items were put in as deliberate distractions, e.g. your feelings about other people). I will write more about using role-play in this context at a later date.

For me the key lesson from this event is on the importance of working relationships. In these uncertain times for higher education, how we manage our relationships is more important than ever.