Sunday, September 28, 2008

Commandments of religious blogging

I thought that church leaders issuance of "ten commandments of religious blogging" was a bit hilarious. But I guess they were timely given the nature of content that is being spawned on the Internet. Hope this is another stub at co-creation woes. What would be the "ten commandments of educational blogging?"

Monday, September 15, 2008

Co-creation: Selecting Wheat from Tares

I am not sure if the people who are alarmed or sending warning on the future of the internet can be labeled as pessimists, or they are just timorous of the potential of the web. The BBC online today reports of one Sir Tim Berners-Lee worries about the spread and propagation of misinformation on the web. (For those who don’t know Sir Berners-Lee, he is the inventor of the World Wide Web). Sir Berners-Lee with others is now looking for ways to help people discern the integrity and reliability of the information contained on the web. A tough call.

I applaud this initiative and appreciate the difficulties in the nature of the task and its importance. But should we be ringing alarm bells? I don’t think so. While I acknowledge that, we should not think that all people making contributions on the web are people of goodwill, and that everything they post would pass Sir Berners-Lee’s trustworthiness and reliability criteria. I guess we should be moving toward educating the masses and especially the Internet community on the importance of verifying any suspicious piece of information through refereed means and channels. Without sounding pessimistic, I do not really think a movie-rating kind of approach is likely to achieve the desired results.

To argue my point, I will use Tim’s examples of conspiracy theories and cults. The American Heritage Dictionary defines conspiracy theory as “a theory seeking to explain a disputed case or matter as a plot by a secret group or alliance rather than an individual or isolated act.” This is done intricately accounting for evidence presented either by showing of “the cover-up, which the conspirers are attempting, or “showing discrepancies in the received explanation.” (Clarke, 2002). Further, a conspiracy theory always seeks to deceive and always targeting the anti-elitists and populists and always have more visible evidence than the convectional elitist theory. Due to their populist agenda, conspiracy theorists are likely to convince most of the unquestioning and non-inquisitive minds against the conventional science, just like the case of MMR and LHC. (It is worth noting however that the original evidence of the link between MMR and autism was published in Lancet, a recognized scientific journal). What we get after a conspiracy theory, is either total silence from the mainstream bodies, or branding of the conspiracy theorists without providing evidence that would convince even the undecided. It would not be surprising if the conspiracy theorists come up with a good explanation as to why we should not use Sir Berners-Lee’s approach for authenticating web content, rather we should use their content as it has passed all the known tests.

Like a conspiracy theory, cult is a blind following that is also against the mainstream doctrines. One of the definitions given by the American Heritage Dictionary for cult is an “obsessive, especially faddish, devotion to or veneration for a person, principle, or thing.” In the history of human history, cults and cultism have been known to exist – from the religious, political and social followings. That would probably explain why people would, for example, come out in numbers to support some politicians and political causes that are detrimental to the wellbeing of forward-conscious society. Take for instance the ongoing talk here in South Africa of people in some high offices claiming they are ready to kill if one of the politicians is convicted of corruption. Here, the blind masses have been indoctrinated to think that their preferred politician is being persecuted. While there seems to be conspiracy theories surrounding the case, I would want to think most of the people who are seen following the politicians are just cultist. In the same note, followers of any ideology would follow what they think (or are made to believe) is within their leaders – blindly. By implication, even if we rate web-content, we are unlikely to change their way of thinking or approach to life. They would not believe the ratings anyway.

So, exactly what can be done? The bulk of the work should be in educating the masses – creating in them inquisitive and questioning minds that will always seek to know the truth in neutrality following facts and ideas that are testable and can withstand scrutiny. Another tough call. But, it is my submission that if all the minds are inquisitive they will question the relationship between say the LHC, the Black Hole and the end of the world, or the relationship between MMR and say autism, or why following a certain politician or political ideology is in the best interests of their great-grand children. Perhaps this neutrality is what Jimmy Wales had in mind when he conceptualized Wikipedia. Are we likely to reach any semblance of neutrality in our discussions based on the facts and ideas on the ground? Very unlikely. That creates another catch-22 situation. Just like the two sales people, we will conclude different things given the same facts and ideas. But at least they are based on facts and ideas – not blind following, or na├»ve falsificationism.

Clarke,S. (2002). Conspiracy Theories and Conspiracy Theorizing, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 32(2), 131-150

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Government funding in Higher Education

This week there are two articles on the funding of Higher Education (HE) that have caught my attention. One of the articles talk of a professor who has just discovered a “Better way to cut up of the pie” in South Africa, while the other one talks of a noble way of “Paying universities to lower their standards” in Italy. What is particularly interesting, Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, the Vice Chancellor of one University of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa considers it pretence in the government approach of seeing the 23 universities in South Africa as the same and using the same blurred vision to dictate their kind of funding. He advocates for the recognition of the “different histories, different capacities, different resources, and different visions and missions” each of the 23 universities in funding them.

What is intriguing is his argument for more funding for Humanities than science in South African universities. (This is not only a surprise because he is of a medical background, but also for the prominence science is being given for the economic development in Africa. I would argue also, given the AIDS scourge a person of his background would advocate for more funding for medical research especially in HIV/AIDS and TB). That is not to say that humanities (or social sciences) are lesser than the natural sciences. Indeed his proposal looks more proactive than reactive on one angle – that we need to first deal with our social and individual needs before we turn onto other areas like science. That is not to say I agree with his point of view. I would add that South Africa as a country as without doubt the rest of Africa need a proactive approach to the funding of projects and by extension higher education. That is, our reason for funding more humanities projects than science and technology projects in higher education should not be based on factors like the number of Nobel prizes we have in humanities as compared to sciences. Neither should it be pegged on the areas that we are good at, we need to explore new and diverse galaxies to find if there can be better life.

Just because South Africa is good in “international mediation, non-racism, reconciliation, justice, equity and even xenophobia” we should focus all our funding there. In fact, we can use that as a step towards exploring other areas like sciences or even medical research that is of betterment of the citizenry of this country and Africa as a whole. What the old professor seemed to ignore is that, despite what we can achieve in humanities, at the end of the day the “hungry child is going to aim to become a great scientist” not because there is lots of humanities in universities, but because there is food. In a time like his where everyone in the world has been alerted of a looming food shortage (although some are saying is artificial and speculative while others attribute it to the use of foodstuff in fuel/power generation), I would have expected the professor to advocate for some funding in food and agricultural research to feed the “hungry child”. Humanities won’t feed the child. In addition, it is time we changed the meaning of struggle from the mere creation of “a humane and just society... largely [based] on humanities”. Rather, we should transform the struggle to creating opportunities for the populace. I am yet to see a humane and just society where a section of it is destitute and hungry. While the iconography, native knowledge (and I may add wisdom), and unique history should be explored further, wide and deep, it should not be at the expense of science and technology. Well maybe I did miss a point.

In Italy, the economics are working. Universities (just like in SA incidentally) get subsidies from government based on number of graduates who “pass” through a university system. In this system, government “funds allocated to a university increase with the total number of full-time equivalent students (FTE), which is defined as the ratio between the number of exams passed and the number of exams that students should have taken.” The major concern of this approach is the allure of making more money by lowering academic standards. This especially becomes a problem because all universities are meant to be autonomous and offering their own examinations. In fact, as Professors Manuel F. Bagues and Mauro Sylos Labini and Ms Natalia Zinovyeva report, “graduates from universities with a high relative number of FTE students tend to do significantly worse in the labour market.” While this might be attributed to the high number of graduates the mills are producing (as compared to those graduating from high-grading university), there should be mechanisms of regulating the quality of academic offerings and standards at universities. Perhaps such mechanisms are favouring universities that “produce higher value added”, using “system based on external examiners” and “foster[ing] reputation effects in the market for higher education”. The latter could be done by “publicising data about how graduates of different universities and disciplines perform in the labour market.”

Let us see which university publishes data on employability of its graduates first!