Trusting the teachers #2

Over a year ago, we were encouraged to think that teacher assessment should be the way forward, even after we’ve returned to normal. But now, after a dreadful summer and ahead of another cancelled exam season, the experts are less sure.

A-level and GCSE grade inflation ‘inevitable in English system’The Guardian
“The system is fraught with problems,” added Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former head of Ofsted. “We know teachers err on the side of generosity. They will always give youngsters the benefit of the doubt and there will be grade inflation. It’s a question of how much. I think we will see roughly what we saw last year which was 10-12% grade inflation, somewhere in that region.”

It’s good to see the beginnings of normality on the horizon, but another year of inflated results is going to prove awkward next year, when school performance slides back down to what it was before all this.

Is there a vaccine for ‘meh’?

This article from The New York Times has been pointed out to me several times now, it must have resonated with a large number of people. It’s certainly captured a mood I’ve been in recently, as you can probably tell by the increasingly large intervals between posts here…

There’s a name for the blah you’re feeling: it’s called languishingThe New York Times
Languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health. It’s the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either. You’re not functioning at full capacity. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work. It appears to be more common than major depression — and in some ways it may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness.

It’s not just down to you-know-what, though this feeling of life being held on pause for everyone is obviously a huge part of it.

Neither depressed nor flourishing? How languishing defines modern lifeThe Guardian
Sounds to me as if there’s nothing wrong with these languishing types that isn’t wrong with the rest of us. That’s the problem – languishing may well be a great undiagnosed epidemic. Long before Covid, Keyes’s studies suggested as much as 12% of the researched population fit the criteria for languishing.

Is it a mental illness, then? No, but while the symptoms may not be clinically significant, languishing is a potential risk factor for future mental illness.

I really don’t feel that bad – just the usual sort of, you know, not good. Languishing may itself cause you to overlook the symptoms of languishing.

Don’t be misinformed

A worrying essay from Aeon on the dangers of misinformation. As we’ve seen before, it’s not just a case of finding and presenting the facts of the matter.

The misinformation virusAeon
Misinformation isn’t new, of course. … What’s different today is the speed, scope and scale of misinformation, enabled by technology. Online media has given voice to previously marginalised groups, including peddlers of untruth, and has supercharged the tools of deception at their disposal. The transmission of falsehoods now spans a viral cycle in which AI, professional trolls and our own content-sharing activities help to proliferate and amplify misleading claims. These new developments have come on the heels of rising inequality, falling civic engagement and fraying social cohesion – trends that render us more susceptible to demagoguery. Just as alarming, a growing body of research over the past decade is casting doubt on our ability – even our willingness – to resist misinformation in the face of corrective evidence. […]

I’ve wondered recently if, like school violence, misinformation is becoming part of the culture, if it persists because some of us actively partake in it, and some merely stand by and allow it to continue. If that’s the case, then perhaps we ought to worry less about fixing people’s false beliefs and focus more on shifting those social norms that make it OK to create, spread, share and tolerate misinformation.

How about this for a mad theory? Can you even imagine asking this question?

Is it true? Can COVID-19 vaccines connect me to the internet?Australian Government Department of Health
COVID-19 vaccines do not – and cannot – connect you to the internet. Some of the mRNA vaccines being developed include the use of a material called a hydrogel, which might help disperse the vaccine slowly into our cells. Bioengineers have used similar hydrogels for many years in different ways. For instance, they’ve used them to help stem cells survive after being put inside our bodies. Because of this, some people believe that hydrogels are needed for electronic implants, which can connect to the internet.

Back to school #5

Here we are again, then. Let’s see how long it lasts this time.

Millions of children back to school in first step of ‘road map’Evening Standard
Although some scientists have raised concerns the increased levels of interaction could push the reproduction number – the R value – above 1, Mr Johnson said that more damage was being done to children by keeping them at home. He also said he believed pupils, parents and teachers were “ready” to go back, with more than 20,000 schools set to open their gates.

Jubilation and fear as English schools reopen amid continuing confusionThe Guardian
Headteachers earlier appealed to the government for greater clarity on masks to avoid conflict in school and ensure greater safety, but the children and families minister, Vicky Ford, maintained that while secondary students should be “strongly encouraged” to wear masks, their use was not mandatory.

School rapid test cannot be overruled, says ministerBBC News
It will mean a pupil who tests positive at home with a rapid on-the-spot test – known as a lateral flow test – will have to isolate on the basis of that test, but will be told to get a PCR test which is processed in a lab. If that PCR test is negative they will be released from isolation. But for those done in schools – pupils are being offered three tests in the next two weeks – it will be assumed the lateral flow test is right. A PCR test cannot overrule the lateral flow test.

Can you be fined for not sending your child to school?Gazette
Yes, the guidance states that it is now mandatory for all children and students in primary, secondary school and college from today. It means that when your school gives the go-ahead for your child to return, you have a “legal duty” to ensure this takes place unless your child has tested positive for Covid, or has to self-isolate.

When everyone else goes back, will we then be at the ‘new normal’?

What will it be like when we go back to the office?Reuters Graphics
If absence makes the heart grow fonder, what will a pandemic sabbatical do to your feelings about the office? You may miss the way you set up your cubicle, recall fondly the water cooler conversations, or can’t wait to use the office printer again. But for as long as COVID-19 remains a threat, and possibly even after most people are vaccinated, office life will be very different from what it was before the global pandemic.

To understand what that might feel like, we spoke to some experts on work and workspaces who predicted that social distancing measures and hybrid work models are here to stay. Walk through our simulations below to experience what going back to the old/new office might be like.

Coronavirus guidance variants

One of the issues education providers have during this pandemic is keeping up with all the ever-changing guidance.

Higher education providers: coronavirus (COVID-19)GOV.UK
Information on the return of students from January 2021 and NHS Test and Trace channels. Updated ‘Students returning to, and starting higher education in spring term 2021’ with changes to when students can return to campus, updates on testing asymptomatic students and international students, and added information about Erasmus+.

Actions for schools during the coronavirus outbreakGOV.UK
What all schools will need to do during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak from the start of the autumn term. Updated with latest changes to: system of controls, attendance, recruitment, free schools meals, estates, wraparound care, physical activity in schools, remote education, catch up, assessment and accountability, and exams.

Providing apprenticeships during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreakGOV.UK
Find out how apprenticeships will continue during the coronavirus (COVD-19) outbreak. Added a new version of ‘Providing apprenticeships during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak’ with updated information on face-to-face training and when to consider a break in an apprenticeship.

Protective measures for holiday or after-school clubs and other out-of-school settings for children during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreakGOV.UK
Protective measures for providers of community activities, holiday or after-school clubs, tuition and other out-of-school settings offering provision to children during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Updated the home education section with further information on vulnerable children who have difficulty engaging in remote education. Also added a section on Test and Trace Support Payments.

Coronavirus (COVID-19): guidance for children’s social care servicesGOV.UK
Advice about coronavirus (COVID-19) for local authorities and their partners to help support and protect vulnerable children. Updated sections on ‘Educational settings’ and ‘Alternative provision (AP) schools and providers’ within the main guidance document.

Happy shopper #2

The shops need customers, but do the customers need to be in the shops?

Black Friday’s just round the corner, or is it?

When is Black Friday 2020? The deals aren’t canceled, but shopping will look differentGood Housekeeping
Black Friday is going to look a little different this year. Even if you’re used to going in person to a certain store every year for its Black Friday sales, this year you’re going to want to call ahead and confirm that they’re going to be open on the big day. If you are going out, you can assume most stores will have COVID-19 safety protocols in place and limits on how many people will be allowed in the building at once, so endless lines and door-buster stampedes are going to be a thing of the past.

Holiday shopping will certainly be different this year — less crowds, more clicks.

Reinventing online shopping on Microsoft EdgeMicrosoft Design
As new shopping behaviours emerge and retailers revamp their selling strategies, we investigated how the browser can play a more active role to help navigate online shopping instead of being the traditionally dormant gateway to websites. Our vision is to empower people to make confident purchase decisions by saving time and money. By automatically applying coupons and surfacing price comparisons in the browser, we are taking our first step towards realizing this vision.

So it’s safer online, but safer for who?

Amazon says more than 19,000 workers got Covid-19CNBC
The information comes months after labor groups, politicians and regulators repeatedly pressed Amazon to disclose how many of its workers were infected by Covid-19. Early on in the pandemic, warehouse workers raised concerns that Amazon wasn’t doing enough to protect them from getting sick and called for facilities with confirmed cases to be shut down. Lacking data from Amazon, warehouse workers compiled a crowdsourced database of infections based on notifications of new cases at facilities across the U.S.

Almost 20,000 Amazon workers in US test positive for Covid-19The Guardian
Athena, a coalition of US activist groups campaigning for greater regulatory oversight over Amazon, called for immediate investigations into the company by public health officials as well as regular reporting on the number of employees with Covid-19. Athena’s director, Dania Rajendra, said in a statement: “Amazon allowed Covid-19 to spread like wildfire in its facilities, risking the health of tens of thousands of people who work at Amazon – as well as their family members, neighbours and friends. “Amazon is, in no uncertain terms, a threat to public health.”

Inside an Amazon fulfillment center, masked up and spaced apart during COVID-19GeekWire
Not far from where hundreds of robots were buzzing about the floor of Amazon’s sprawling BFI4 fulfillment center south of Seattle this week, a human stood in her own wheeled contraption. The innovation-in-progress, intended to allow a supervisor to roll up to various work stations and provide support behind a protective barrier, is one of the more striking ways the tech giant is addressing employee safety in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But we just can’t get enough of it, can we?

How Amazon became a pandemic giant – and why that could be a threat to us allThe Guardian
A few weeks ago, Amazon announced results from the following quarter, and yet another boost to sales and profits. Now Christmas looms, while lockdowns have returned across the world, sending even more customers its way. Every time “nonessential” bricks-and-mortar shops are told to close, you can sense the company once again seizing its chances, and a great social and economic transformation gaining pace. […]

“You’ll never get a major retailer boasting about opportunity in the middle of a pandemic,” [says Natalie Berg]. “But it’s clear that the timing and very nature of Covid has been fortunate for Amazon. I think they’ll be the only retailer in the UK, possibly the world, to come out stronger on the other side. If there are winners and losers of the pandemic, Amazon is hands-down the winner.”

The Truth About AmazonAll 4
As the high street goes into lockdown, Amazon is booming. This Supershoppers special reveals how to buy smart off the online retail giant, from the best bargains to avoiding scams.

Had enough?

Covid-19 had a kind of birthday yesterday.

Today marks a year of Covid-19Kottke
According to an unpublicized report by the Chinese government, the first documented case of Covid-19 was a 55-year-old person living in Hubei province on November 17, 2019. That makes today the first anniversary of the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A year later, and 1,340,000 people have died. That might not be enough for some, though.

Solve suffering by blowing up the universe? The dubious philosophy of human extinctionThe Conversation
At a time when humans are threatening the extinction of so many other species, it might not seem so surprising that some people think that the extinction of our own species would be a good thing. Take, for example, the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, whose founder believes that our extinction would put an end to the damage we inflict on each other and ecosystems more generally.

Why stop there?

Hartmann was convinced this was the purpose of creation: that our universe exists in order to evolve beings compassionate and clever enough to decide to abolish existence itself. He imagined this final moment as a shockwave of deadly euthanasia rippling outwards from Earth, blotting out the “existence of this cosmos” until “all its world-lenses and nebulae have been abolished”.

Can you keep it down?

Some positive news about the global response to coronavirus, for a change.

Coronavirus in Africa: Five reasons why Covid-19 has been less deadly than elsewhereBBC News
Many African countries have been praised for waging an effective campaign to combat the spread of coronavirus despite their reputation for having fragile state heath systems. The continent, which has a population of more than one billion, has had about 1.5 million cases, according to data compiled by the John Hopkins University. These figures are far lower than those in Europe, Asia or the Americas, with reported cases continuing to decline.

They list the following reasons — quick action, public support, young population and few old-age homes, favourable climate, good community health systems — but I think they’ve missed one out. No yodelling!

Finger pointed at Swiss yodelling ‘superspreader’ concertFrance 24
“We can’t do anything about what happened with this yodelling group. We found out nine days after the performances that several people from the group were infected,” event organiser Beat Hegner told RTS public television. Now the pandemic has spread through the region, with 1,238 cases compared with just 500 in mid-September. On Wednesday alone, 94 people tested positive, twice as many as the day before.

Herd it all before

The ‘herd immunity’ approach has been criticised from at least March (I still think this article from The Outline has my favourite heading and subheading), but it keeps being touted as an alternative to all these restrictions, a way to get back to normal.

There is no ‘scientific divide’ over herd immunityWired UK
There’s a lot of talk of scientists divided over Covid-19, but when you look at the evidence any so-called divide starts to evaporate.

Can we actually learn to live with coronavirus? Not until we have a vaccineThe Conversation
Take the example of smallpox – a very infectious, scary disease and the only human virus we have ever eradicated. Unlike COVID-19, people who caught the virus always showed symptoms, so they could be found and isolated. Anyone who did not die would have life-long protection. But we only completely rid the world of it through a coordinated vaccination campaign. This was the only way that high enough levels of protection could be achieved across the world to reach the threshold for herd immunity.

Time for some quick maths. As of today, there have been 635,000 cases of Covid-19 and 43,018 deaths in the UK. That’s a very rough mortality rate of 6.8%. The population of the UK is 66,650,000. Multiplying that by that mortality rate gets you a total of 4,532,200 deaths.

Over-simplified, yes, but still…

Is three weeks enough?

So there’s to be a three-week delay for ‘most’ GCSE and A-level exams in England next summer. The main set of exams will start on 7 June and run until 2 July, apart from the English and Maths GCSEs, which will be held before the May half-term. Here’s the press release from the government.

Cancelled exams and dodgy data

A couple of education news stories to keep an eye on. None of this seems to be getting easier.

Scottish Government confirms National 5 exams won’t take place in 2021 but Highers will go aheadDaily Record
Swinney continued: “In a normal exam year, National 5s constitute more than half of all exams taken. From a public health point of view, not running these exams significantly reduces risk. National 5 pupils will receive awards based on their coursework and the judgement of their teachers, with robust quality assurance. We have learned lessons from this year’s initial SQA gradings – there will be no algorithm for moderating grades in 2021.”

Scotland’s National 5 exams to be cancelled next yearThe Guardian
In England the Department for Education and Ofqual, the exam regulator, are adamant that GCSEs and A-level exams will go ahead in 2021. The education secretary in Westminster, Gavin Williamson, is expected to shortly announce a three-week delay in the exam timetable and other measures.

The DfE’s problems keep coming, it seems.

DfE broke the law on pupil data protectionTes
The audit found that the department has been in “direct breach” of data protection law, as there is “no clear picture” of what data it holds, and therefore “no Record of Processing Activity (ROPA) in place”. It also found that the DfE “cannot demonstrate accountability to the GDPR”, as there is “no formal proactive oversight of any function of information governance, including data protection, records management, risk management, data sharing and information security” within the department.

Department for Education’s handling of pupil data ruled illegalThe Guardian
Sam Grant, the policy and campaigns manager of Liberty, said: “This report displays a shocking failure of privacy protections, which is dangerous for our rights. The type of data collected by the DfE can reveal a huge amount of sensitive personal information about us, and often about children and young people. The government has routinely misused this data to enforce cruel and oppressive policies like the hostile environment. This cavalier attitude to our personal information puts people, including the most marginalised, at risk.”

“Without adult supervision”

I enjoyed, if that’s the right word, this description of us from across the Atlantic, taken from The New York Times Morning Briefing: Europe Edition newsletter. Their description of us certainly feels quite accurate. Unfortunately.

Trump, Coronavirus, Sanda Dia: Your Monday BriefingThe New York Times

Britain, operating without adult supervision
Coronavirus cases in Britain are rising rapidly, with a record 12,871 new cases reported on Saturday evening. But as our correspondent Peter Goodman writes, you would scarcely imagine it on the streets of London, where masks hang below chins, punters cluster in pubs and cafes and rules around mask wearing or social distancing are frequently ignored.

Beyond the obvious ways that this cavalier behavior is disconcerting, it has enhanced a widely shared sense that Britain — famously rule-abiding — is now operating without adult supervision. Public confidence has plummeted, with more than half of respondents in a recent survey declaring the government has botched its handling of the pandemic, up from 39 percent in May.

The current crisis seems exacerbated by an offshoot of the very virtue celebrated in Britain’s conventional historical narrative — an admirable refusal to bend. A national mantra, “keep calm and carry on,” seems to have been reconfigured into the misguided notion that nothing is amiss.

And as if to further illustrate the point about a lack of supervision.

Botched Excel import may have caused loss of 15,841 UK COVID-19 casesArs Technica
Public Health England admitted on Sunday that the agency has under-reported COVID-19 infections by 15,841 cases in recent days due to a “technical issue.” The missing positive tests were conducted between September 25 and October 2 and have since been added to national statistics, the agency said.

Excel: Why using Microsoft’s tool caused Covid-19 results to be lostBBC News
“Excel was always meant for people mucking around with a bunch of data for their small company to see what it looked like,” commented Prof Jon Crowcroft from the University of Cambridge. “And then when you need to do something more serious, you build something bespoke that works – there’s dozens of other things you could do. But you wouldn’t use XLS. Nobody would start with that.”

Feeling uncertain? Certainly!

The latest news isn’t very promising.

About 40 universities report coronavirus casesBBC News
Health minister Helen Whately said “it must be really tough” for students, but they wanted outbreaks “under control”. Universities were working hard to be able to resume some face-to-face learning, the health minister said. But some students have questioned why they were told to leave home when most teaching is being done remotely.

Students ‘scared and confused’ as halls lock downBBC News
Up to 1,700 students at Manchester Metropolitan University and hundreds at other institutions, including in Edinburgh and Glasgow, are self-isolating following Covid-19 outbreaks. In Manchester, students are being prevented from leaving by security.

It’s difficult dealing with all this uncertainty, but perhaps I just need to re-think things?

The value of uncertaintyAeon
Understanding our own relationship with uncertainty has never been more important, for we live in unusually challenging times. Climate change, COVID-19 and the new order of surveillance capitalism make it feel as if we are entering a new age of global volatility. Where once for many in the West there were just pockets of instability (deep unpredictability) in a sea of reliability – albeit sometimes in disagreeable structures and expectations – it lately seems as if there are just pockets of stability in a swirling sea of hard-to-master change.

Five rules for thinking about risk during the coronavirus pandemicWired UK
Navigating the constant risk assessment that life has now become is frustrating, but changing how we think about risk can make things easier. WIRED spoke to two experts in how humans perceive and respond to risk to figure out how adjusting our attitude to uncertainty can help us make better decisions

One certainty I’m still clinging to is that everything will be OK in the end. If it’s not OK yet, it just means we’re not yet at the end. I was happy to jump to the end of this roundup of expert opinion on how the next year may unravel unfurl.

The Road Ahead: Charting the coronavirus pandemic over the next 12 months — and beyondSTAT
Perhaps by the holidays in December 2021, life will feel safe enough that memories of the anxiety and fear of spring 2020 start to blur. After all, the typical final act of health emergencies is “global amnesia,” when people forget the lessons of what they just lived through.

But let’s return to the topic we started with.

“Online art school is not art school”: The future of creative higher education in the age of Covid-19It’s Nice That
Amid much controversy, institutions began digitising all interactions and creative output months ago as part of their emergency response to the global crisis. Aside from the exam results fiasco of last month, students and tutors alike have been told to embrace the “new normal” this coming term, even if their creative futures depend on it. We’ve seen an uproar from students around the world questioning how teachers are able to measure creativity through a screen. It begs the question: if online learning proves to be successful, what does that mean for the future of creative higher education?

Ed-tech mania is backThe Chronicle of Higher Education
[The] problem for today’s charismatic technologists is that the types of disruption they envisioned haven’t happened. MOOCs, adaptive tutors, chatbots, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, learning analytics, and other recent innovations have played very minor roles in higher ed’s crisis pivot to online learning. Instead, the pandemic has seen us embrace two dominant technologies. The first is the learning-management system — a place to distribute and collect resources online. Learning-management systems were theorized in the ‘60s and ‘70s, commercialized in the ‘90s, and made open source in the ‘00s. The other major technology we’ve embraced is similarly old school: it was called “videotelephony” when it debuted in the 1930s, and it has gradually morphed into today’s videoconferencing. Faculty members have simply turned from the classroom lectern to their home-office webcam without the assistance of chatbots or AI tutors.

Tracking uptake

After a considerable false start, the long-awaited new NHS Covid-19 app is now available. Have you downloaded it yet? Even if take-up is as low as some are gloomily predicting, it could still be worthwhile.

Take-up of NHS contact-tracing app could be only 10%The Guardian
Officials at the test and trace programme, however, believe there will be benefits even if few people adopt it. A recent study by the same data team at Oxford University, looking at the experience of Washington state in the US, found that if 15% used an app that notified them of exposure to an infected person, infections were reduced by 8% and deaths by 6%.

But even the best only got up to 40% take-up.

Everything you need to know about the NHS Covid-19 tracking appWired UK
The country with the highest download rate is Singapore, which was the first nation to introduce a contact tracing app. The TraceTogether system has been downloaded 2.4 million times as of September 9. This accounts for around 40 per cent of Singapore’s population. The country has also moved beyond the contact tracing apps by trialling a Bluetooth ’token,’ a wearable device, that people can use for contact tracing purposes.

Update: 28/09/2020

So far, so good.

Happy new (academic) year!

Yes, there’s a global pandemic, but that doesn’t stop the university league table business.

Oxford University takes top spot in Guardian’s annual university guideThe Guardian
This year’s Guardian university guide sees Oxford moving up from third to first, while the University of St Andrews stays in second place and Oxford’s ancient rival Cambridge drops to third after occupying the top spot for nine years.

There were a number of significant worries about what the start of this academic year might look like for university recruitment. But perhaps things will be OK.

The results comes as British universities are becoming cautiously optimistic that most have avoided the worst scenarios anticipated following the worldwide coronavirus outbreak and the exam grading turmoil that engulfed UK schools. Several institutions have said that student recruitment has held up across the board, with few domestic students opting to defer their studies, while international students numbers appear not to have fallen as feared.

There’s no shortage of advice out there, for universities …

Higher education: reopening buildings and campusesGOV.UK
This guidance is designed to help HE providers in England to understand how to minimise risk during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and to provide services to students to ensure they can have an enjoyable experience, while staying as safe as possible. We recognise that providers have been working to prepare for safe reopening and this update is designed to support finalisation of these preparations and provide clarity on some issues raised by providers.

… as well as students.

‘Don’t buy grated cheese’: student cooking tips by top chefsThe Guardian
Cooking as a student can be tough because you often have a small kitchen. In our kitchen in student halls there were four burners on the hub. Two didn’t work and the others timed out after an hour for safety. You’re also sharing a fridge. So the key is to start simple.