Mary Beard on big thinkers and ‘sexist rants’

Rikama Education 20th June 2018

Historian Mary Beard moves seamlessly from tackling aggressive dimwits on Twitter to talking about the politics of ancient Rome.

It’s the kind of abrupt gear change we now expect from public intellectuals.

And Professor Mary Beard – who became Dame Mary in the most recent honours – has been highly successful at mixing the realm of ideas with a popular appeal, embodied in her ratings-friendly TV history shows.

She’s also a Cambridge professor of classics who has the battle scars of the badlands of social media, facing violent threats and relentlessly misogynistic abuse.

‘Curious minds’

But how should public thinkers make big ideas open and accessible? How do they avoid being sidelined in an era of fake news and attention-seeking punditry?

This is the challenge for the British Academy, the national body for the humanities and social sciences, which is throwing open the doors of its London headquarters for a summer showcase, promising “ideas for curious minds”.

Image captionDame Mary brought the history of ancient Rome to a mainstream television audience

Getting people across the threshold is the first challenge, she says. The British Academy is based in an elegant building near St James’s Park in central London. It’s a place dedicated to public culture, but wants to stop looking like a private club.

“You can see why people might be a bit intimidated,” says Dame Mary, a fellow of the academy.

“But what the television shows you is that ideas are not the preserve of posh white men.”

‘No sloganising’

She wants to open up academic debates to a wider public, but she says a really important part of the message must be to make people realise that things can be “complicated”.

“You don’t need to be an expert to have a view of Roman politics,” she says, such as whether it was right to assassinate Julius Caesar.

Image captionThe academy’s summer showcase will present research on music, including South African jazz

But whatever your view, she says there has to be a recognition of the moral and political complexity of such decisions.

“Everyone can join in, but it doesn’t mean you can shoot your mouth off.” Opinions shouldn’t be untroubled by thought.

A by-product of the advance of social media, she says, is the tendency to “sloganise” and to turn every argument into a one-dimensional sound-bite.

Image captionDame Mary wants people to look further than their noses

Ideas can be complicated and divisive, she says, and she takes umbrage at the type of people who think everyone should agree about everything.

Dame Mary says she gets annoyed when people on Twitter say they are “disappointed” in her views. She says they’re “patronising” and can’t stand people having their own opinions.

‘Death threats’

The British Academy’s august building was once the home of 19th Century prime minister William Gladstone. It’s hard to think what such a high-minded statesman would have made of being shouted at on Twitter.

Dame Mary has been subject to dreadful online abuse, but she still argues for the benefits of engaging with people and their thoughts on social media.

Image captionThe British Academy wants to open its doors to show big ideas are not a private club

“You don’t think – great, death threats,” she says.

But she’s still ready to get into arguments, even though there is a likely risk of it all descending into “lots of sexist rants”.

“It’s a combination of anger, outrage and appalling self-righteousness,” she says of too many social media exchanges.

It’s not the rudeness that really rankles, she says, because “being rude is part of the human condition”.

What really annoys her is the over-simplification and the refusal to recognise that some problems can be complicated and nuanced and not sorted out by a shouting match.

Such public thinkers might feel that they’re not running with the grain of the times.

Fake news

The academy’s president, historian Professor Sir David Cannadine, warns against a populist mood in which decisions are made on “gut instincts” rather than evidence.

“In the world of fake news there is a distrust of experts which is wholly regrettable,” says Sir David.

Institutions such as the British Academy might be engaged in advancing knowledge, but he says they might not be “very good at explaining themselves”.

Image caption“Ideas change society,” says Sir David Cannadine, president of the British Academy

Sir David wants the open days to persuade people of the relevance of the humanities – to show that they are at the heart of “private recreations and public culture”.

The summer showcase will have talks and presentations and displays on history, music, art, literature and the future of work.

It’s also making a case for internationalism – as he says ideas and knowledge and expertise “know no international boundaries”.

“Ideas change society,” he says.

British Academy Summer Showcase is on 22 and 23 June, 10-11, Carlton House Terrace, St. James’s, London SW1Y 5AH

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Hotter years ‘mean lower exam results’

Rikama Education 30th May 2018

In years with hotter weather pupils are likely to perform less well in exams, says a major study from researchers at Harvard and other US universities.

There is a “significant” link between higher temperatures and lower school achievement, say economic researchers.

An analysis of test scores of 10 million US secondary school students over 13 years shows hot weather has a negative impact on results.

The study says a practical response could be to use more air conditioning.

Heat wave

Students taking exams in a summer heat wave might have always complained that they were hampered by the sweltering weather.

But this study, from academics at Harvard, the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and Georgia State University, claims to have produced the first clear evidence showing that when temperatures go up, school performance goes down.

Researchers have tracked how secondary school students performed in tests in different years, between 2001 and 2014, across the different climates and weather patterns within the US.

The study, published by the US National Bureau of Economic Research, found that students were more likely to have lower scores in years with higher temperatures and better results in cooler years.

This applied across the many different types of climate – whether in cooler northern US states or in the southern states where temperatures are typically much higher.

The study, Heat and Learning, suggested that hotter weather made it harder to study in lessons in school and to concentrate on homework out of school.

Researchers calculated that for every 0.55C increase in average temperature over the year, there was a 1% fall in learning.

Colder days did not seem to damage achievement – but the negative impact began to be measurable as temperatures rose above 21C.

The reduction in learning accelerated once temperatures rose above 32C and even more so above 38C.

Turning up the air conditioning

The study also found the impact of the heat was much greater on low income families and students from ethnic minorities.

There were suggestions that wealthier families and schools in disadvantaged areas were more likely to intervene if pupils were slipping behind and to find ways to compensate, such as extra tuition.

But it says a “simpler explanation” might be greater access to air conditioning in more affluent families and the schools their children attend.

Joshua Goodman, associate professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and his co-authors provide evidence that the “heat’s disruption of instruction or homework time is responsible for the observed drop in test scores”.

He says students were incrementally more likely to be “distracted, agitated and find it harder to focus”.

But Mr Goodman says it would have been harder to carry out similar studies in the education systems in the UK, because the differences in weather conditions would have been much narrower.

The wide range of weather conditions in the US allows comparisons within the same year group as well as with test performances in previous years.

Mr Goodman says the findings also raise bigger questions about whether climate change and global warming will have implications for school achievement.

More from Global education

The study also asks whether heat plays a part in the huge regional differences in achievement within the US.

Northern states such as Massachusetts have very high levels of achievement in international tests, such as the OECD’s Pisa tests, which compare teenagers’ ability in reading, maths and science.

But southern states such as Alabama and Mississippi are at a level below European countries and closer to Turkey and Mexico.

The researchers also argue there are implications for the ethnic achievement gaps – with black and Hispanic students more concentrated in hotter states of the US.

“We argue that heat effects account for up to 13% of the US racial achievement gap,” says the study, because of where black and Hispanic students live and because their test scores seem to be disproportionately disrupted by the changes in temperature.

Mr Goodman says the researchers also want to examine the long-term consequences of a hot year on a cohort of students.

If students happen to take important exams in a heatwave year, does that mean they are more likely to miss out on exam results and university places?

Mr Goodman says that policymakers and parents have under-estimated the significance of temperatures in schools and overheated classrooms.

“Teachers and students already know it’s a problem – because they’ve had to live it,” he said.

Views from the public

Ananas Kumar in India: Weather always affects the result of an exam. Having experienced both summer and winter exams I can say that summer affects your performance more due to hot temperatures, dehydration and sunstroke.

John Hammond: As a retired teacher, I don’t think this is news at all. The simple fact is that it is little to do with the actual exams and far more to do with the weather in the run up to the exams and this starts as soon as Easter. I taught in a school on the south coast and we dreaded a good Easter because the pupils all went to the beach to revise rather than stay at home and doing it properly. The study should have concentrated on the IQs of the kids involved; usually the brighter ones were more capable of resisting the pull of the beach.

Haidab Hany in Ghana: I would like to challenge the Harvard research that heat-waves affect students during exams. I live in Ghana which is a tropical country. We have very hot weather from December to April and students in schools all over the country write exams and do well. Some pupils of course don’t do well, but that’s not due to the heat just poor preparation. I’ve studied in Ghana and during heat waves and had no issues.

Afbell: As someone who took O-levels and A-levels more than 40 years ago, I have known this for over 40 years! I personally had the double whammy of suffering from hay-fever so had to put up with warm weather and the accompanying high pollen count. Antihistamines were considerably less effective in the mid-70s so I just had to suffer. My recollection of this period also includes trying to revise during very hot weather. This was actually worse than the exams; exams had a finish time, revising seemed to be endless in the heat.

Joe Field: I have been teaching since 1972, I have no doubt that test results during a heat-wave are lower than in cooler weather. Learning in general is worse during a heat wave. This appears to be one reason for the long summer school holidays in the UK, US and elsewhere.

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Oxford University involved in Twitter row with David Lammy

Rikama Education 23rd May 2018

Oxford University has apologised to David Lammy after retweeting a post labelling his criticism “bitter”.

The original tweet, sent by a student, was in response to the Labour MP saying Oxford was “a bastion of white, middle class, southern privilege”.

Mr Lammy asked if the tweet represented the university’s official position – at which point a senior staff member apologised and took responsibility.

Just 11% of last year’s undergraduates were from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Oxford’s director of public affairs, Ceri Thomas, said Mr Lammy’s comments showed “no sign of bitterness” and there was “work to do” to improve diversity among students.

Mr Lammy’s original remarks came as Oxford University data revealed about a third of its colleges accepted three or fewer black applicants in the past three years.

The university said it was “not getting the right number of black people with the talent to apply”.

Director of undergraduate admissions Dr Samina Khan told the BBC she was “pushing hard” on outreach activity to make sure those students felt welcome.

Mr Lammy told the BBC that Oxford was “failing badly”.

The proportion of students identifying as black and minority ethnic was 18% in 2017, up from 14% in 2013.

One college, Corpus Christi, admitted just one black student resident in the UK in its 2015-2017 intakes.

The number of admissions from state schools, during the same period, rose by 1%, from 57% to 58%.

The report also showed a divide between the north and south of the UK.

London and the South East made up 46.7% of UK applications between 2015 and 2017, (and 47.9% of students admitted) while the North East accounted for just 2% (2.3% admitted).

Speaking to Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Lammy said the university had to explain why – having looked at the data – a person was twice as likely to get in if they were white, not black.

Mr Lammy previously accused the university of “social apartheid“, after a Freedom of Information request by him revealed 10 out of 32 Oxford colleges did not award a place to any black British pupil with A-levels in 2015.

This prompted more than 100 MPs to write to Oxford and Cambridge urging the universities to recruit more students from disadvantaged and under-represented backgrounds.

Reacting to the latest figures, Mr Lammy said the problem was “self-perpetuating”.

“If you’re on the 20th floor of a tower block estate and you’re getting straight A’s, you apply, go for a difficult interview.. you don’t get in, then none of the other kids apply the following year.”

‘Eton row’

“It’s very elitist, very, very white,” student Taiwo Oyebola said. “For me, applying for Classics, I was very aware I’d be the only black person or one of a few people of colour.”

“We have this joke in lectures, I go in and there’s this group we call them the Eton row, because all the Eton boys sit there.”

Joshua Tulloch of the Oxford African and Caribbean students society said his organisation was involved in targeting younger black students.

“We have a vast access infrastructure which targets students from as young as Year 9,” he said.

“The university is supporting us in making sure that we are visible and people can see that they can succeed in Oxford.”

Oxford has said it must do more to attract talent from all backgrounds.

“We want a diverse university,” Dr Samina Khan told Radio 4.

The university has agreed to a scheme which would fund the interview travel fees of applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

It said it is doubling its spring and summer schools, which work with students from under-represented backgrounds.

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The YouTube stars being paid to sell cheating

Rikama Education 2nd May 2018

YouTube stars are being paid to sell academic cheating, a BBC investigation has found.

More than 250 channels are promoting EduBirdie, based in Ukraine, which allows students to buy essays, rather than doing the work themselves.

YouTube said it would help creators understand they cannot promote dishonest behaviour.

Sam Gyimah, Universities Minister for England, says YouTube has a moral responsibility to act.

He said he was shocked by the nature and scale of the videos uncovered by the BBC: “It’s clearly wrong because it is enabling and normalising cheating potentially on an industrial scale.”

The BBC Trending investigation uncovered more than 1,400 videos with a total of more than 700 million views containing EduBirdie adverts selling cheating to students and school pupils.

EduBirdie is based in Ukraine, but aims its services at pupils and students across the globe.

Essay writing services are not illegal, but if students submit work they have paid for someone else to do the penalties can be severe.

The company is not just aiming to capture the attention of university students with its advertising.

Popular YouTubers, some as young as 12, are being paid to personally endorse the service.

In some of the videos YouTubers say if you cannot be bothered to do the work, EduBirdie has a “super smart nerd” who will do it for you.

The adverts appear in videos on YouTube channels covering a range of subjects, including pranks, dating, gaming, music and fashion.

They include several by stars such as Adam Saleh whose channel has four million subscribers, and British gamer JMX who has two and a half million subscribers.

Following the BBC’s investigation, both have now removed videos with EduBirdie adverts from YouTube.

The BBC also approached the mother of one 12-year-old, who had promoted the company to his 200,000 followers. She also took her advert down.

Image captionAdam Saleh is one popular YouTuber who has advertised EduBirdie in his videos

More time for games

Channels with tens of thousands of subscribers can be offered hundreds of dollars for each advert.

They are not clearly labelled video ads, which are common on YouTube channels.

Instead the YouTuber usually breaks off from what they are doing to personally endorse EduBirdie, promising that the company will deliver an A+ essay for money.

Some YouTubers suggest that using the service will free up time to play video games or take drugs.

So prevalent is the promotion of EduBirdie that very young children are posting videos on YouTube of themselves mimicking the ads.

Image captionUniversities minister, Sam Gyimah, said he was shocked by the scale of the videos.

Sam Gyimah said that EduBirdie’s marketing was shocking and pernicious as it presented cheating as “a lifestyle choice”.

He said the YouTubers involved should be “called out” for abusing their power as social influencers.

“I think YouTube has a huge responsibility here,” he said.

“They do incredibly well from the advertising revenue that they get from the influencers and everyone else. But this is something that is corrosive to education and I think YouTube has got to step up to the plate and exercise some responsibility here.”

About 30 of the channels promoting EduBirdie are from Britain and Ireland.

They include a student vlogger at a top UK university.

Another is a popular 15-year-old YouTuber, whose mother was unaware he was promoting the company until she was approached by the BBC.

Shakira Martin, the President of the National Union of Students, said: “I think it’s totally disgusting the fact that these type of organisations are exploiting vulnerable young people through getting them to promote something that isn’t good, isn’t ethical.”

She added that students who were working to support themselves while studying might be most tempted to use EduBirdie.

Google’s own research found YouTubers were more influential than celebrities when it came to promoting products.

Toni Hopponen, from the tech company Flockler, advises businesses and some universities on how to tap into the power of social influencers.

He said this was creating new challenges as it is outside the regulations that apply to traditional advertising.

“There’s always been unethical advertising out there – but now the channels like YouTube provide a way for all of us to be publishers and the scale is huge. ”

One British YouTuber, Alpay B urges viewers in one of his videos: “Don’t waste your time doing your essays, let these people do it for you.”

In a statement, he told the BBC: “Whether a student wants to cheat or not it’s totally their choice. You can’t really blame EduBirdie or creators who promote them because everyone’s got their own hustle.”

The BBC ordered two essays through EduBirdie, opting for them to be written from scratch.

One was an English Literature GCSE coursework essay, the other a first-year degree course assignment.

Both were delivered with only the students’ names left blank to be filled in.

The GCSE essay was given a C or 5/6 and the university assignment 60% – not quite the guaranteed A+ grade promised by EduBirdie.

Serious consequences

On its website EduBirdie says the essays provided by its writers are “100% plagiarism free”.

In practice, this means the essays are written to order, rather than copied and pasted from elsewhere on the internet.

So if a student submits an EduBirdie essay as their own work, it might not be detected by anti-cheating software.

Any university student found to have submitted work done by someone else would face disciplinary action.

“If you’ve worked hard to get to university, you potentially throw it all away by cheating and getting found out. It is wrong, full stop,” Mr Gyimah said.

EduBirdie is run by a company called Boosta, which operates a number of essay-writing websites.

In a statement it said: “We cannot be held responsible for what social influencers say on their channels.

“We give influencers total freedom on how they prefer to present the EduBirdie platform to their audience in a way they feel would be most relevant to their viewers.

“We do admit that many tend to copy and paste each others’ shout-outs with a focus on ‘get someone to do your homework for you’, but this is their creative choice.”

It added that there was a disclaimer on the EduBirdie site which suggested that the work it provided should only be used as a sample or a reference.

A YouTube spokesman told the BBC: “YouTube creators may include paid endorsements as part of their content only if the product or service they are endorsing complies with our advertising policies. We do not allow ads for essay writing and so paid promotions of these services will be removed when we discover them.”

They added: “We will be working with creators going forward so they better understand that in video promotions must not promote dishonest activity.”

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Young can ‘only read digital clocks’

Rikama Education 25th April 2018

Do young people really struggle with traditional analogue clocks with hands?

That’s the claim in a debate between teachers – with suggestions that digital clocks are being installed in exam halls for teenagers.

It follows a report in the Times Educational Supplement of a conference being told that pupils needed a digital clock to be able to tell the time.

Malcolm Trobe, of the ASCL head teachers’ union, said young people were much more used to using digital clocks.

As such, schools could be trying to give them more help by letting students use digital clocks in exam rooms during the summer GCSEs and A-levels.

“To adults it might seem second nature to use a standard clock face,” said Mr Trobe, ASCL’s deputy general secretary.

But younger people were much more familiar with seeing the time in a digital format – on computers or mobile phones.

“Young people find it a bit easier to use a digital clock – and if they’re timing themselves for questions, it might make it less likely that they’ll make mistakes,” said Mr Trobe.

He said, as an example, if students had to answer a question in 15 minutes, it could be easier for them looking at a clock with a digital format, if that was how they usually told the time.

There were no official indications about taking down analogue clocks, he said, but such claims were being made by teachers on social media.

One of the examples on Twitter being quoted is from a head of English, “Ms Keenan”.

But she told the BBC that the digital clocks that had been installed had broken down – and now had been replaced by a traditional analogue clock.

She said it wasn’t the case that a majority of students can’t tell the time using such analogue clocks, but it could be a barrier for some.

For the “digital generation”, she said an analogue clock could be becoming an “anachronism”.

Will this be a trend for the approaching summer exams?

Only time will tell.

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