Friday, November 10, 2006

Powerful prose - 'Memoir' John McGahern's last book

I described earlier how much I appreciated McGahern's 'That they may face the rising sun'. Now, having read 'Memoir' it is possible to comprehend and appreciate the seminal childhood experiences from which his writing emerges. For me, he summed up what it was like growing up in his Ireland when he says:

'In that country [Ireland], individual thought and speech were discouraged. Its moral climate can be glimpsed in the warning catch phrases: a shut mouth catches no flies; think what you say but don't say what you think; the less you say, the more you'll hear. By 1950, against the whole spirit of the 1916 Proclaimation, the State had become a theocracy in all but name. The Church controlled nearly all of education, the hospitals, the orphanages, the juvenile prison systems, the parish halls. Church and State worked hand in hand. Women and single men were in a lower scale on the public services, a higher scale was in place for married men. The breaking of pelvic bones took place during difficult births in hospitals because it was thought to be more in conformity with Catholic teaching than Caesarian section........ People did not live in Ireland then. They lived in small intense communities,which often varied greatly in spirit and character over the course of even a few miles.' (p.210).

If one needs it, his experience provides a powerful, personal rationale for the separation of powers - of church and state.

We benefit immensely from his capacity to rise above his experience, generate such prose and to conclude:

'Through work and reading and reflection I had come to separate morals and religion, to see morals as simply our relationship with other people and the creatures of the earth and air, and religion as our relationship with our total environment, the all that surrounds our little lives. I had come to see the story of Jesus as a story among other sacred stories that sought to explain and make palatable the inexplicable.' (p.222)

As I read I wondered what the book evoked for my colleague John, who grew up in a similar Ireland and, as with McGahern, lost a Sue, whom he loved dearly, to breast cancer.
I am sometimes surprised how little some people know about the Open University
This experience mainly applies to people I would expect to know better (they have usually been involved in Higher Education for some time but seem to have a very limited appreciation of the diversity of 'university models' that exist).

The OU pioneered supported open learning. It has a main campus at Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, where about 3000 staff work. It has traditional academic Faculties such as Science, Arts, Humanities, Business School, Technology, Maths & Computing (the latter two are about to merge), Health and Social Care, Education & Languages. In 2004/5 there were 202,853 students in total of whom 162,966 were from the UK. There were 782 part-time and 724 full-time post-graduate research students among these. Staff numbers in 2004/5 were 1114 salaried academic staff, 1409 academic related staff, 1909 support staff and 7497 associate lecturers. Academic staff are engaged in teaching, research, administration and third mission activity as in other HE institutions.

In the 2006 UK National Student Survey a total of 95 per cent of the OU's survey respondents reported that they were satisfied or mostly satisfied with their experience of studying with the OU; the figure puts the OU ahead of all other surveyed providers. The average "overall satisfaction" score of 4.5 of a possible five marks was the highest of any of the 129 institutions across the UK for which the survey results have been published. The OU has retained the overall satisfaction rate that it achieved in 2005. The OU were also rated first for assessment and feedback (as we were in 2005), and third for academic support (as we were in 2005). More than 157,000 students - of whom 8,800 were from the OU - took part in the survey. Further details of the survey can be found at the Teaching Quality Information website.

The achievement of this level of overall satisfaction for the second year running emphatically demonstrates the quality of the OU's teaching and student support.

The Open University's commitment to broadening access to education is being taken to another level with the launch of OpenLearn, its major new open content initiative. The OpenLearn website makes educational resources freely available on the internet, with state-of-the-art learning support and collaboration tools to connect learners and educators.

This £5.65 million project, generously supported by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, will cover a full range of subjects from arts and history to science and nature, at all study levels from access to postgraduate. Available to learners and educators throughout the UK and worldwide, the project will be of particular significance in The Open University's efforts to widen access to hard-to-reach groups and tackle educational disadvantage both within the developed and developing worlds.

On the OpenLearn site material relating to Systems can be found under the Technology heading.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Understandascope - a second order perspective

On Monday I had a very enjoyable and long lunch with Frank Fisher whose work I have admired over many years. At one stage I tried hard to set it up so that Frank could take a sabbatical at the OU or that we could collaborate on systems-informed environmental education (particularly our Masters in Environmental Decision Making), but in the end it did not eventuate. The good news is that despite the demise of his very influential MSc (due to structural and cost changes in the local MSc 'market') he still has a project based at Monash and a new book which brings together most of his work.

The project is aptly called 'Understandascope' and uses one of Michael Leunig's insightful cartoons to symbolise the project. Frank and I are both interested in taking a double look - understanding understandings! (At the OU we use the same cartoon as an organising metaphor in our course 'Managing Complexity. A systems approach').

The book, 'Response Ability' is doubly welcome - it brings together an important set of ideas developed over a lifetime of contributing to making the difference that makes a difference. It also, perhaps for the first time, makes Frank's ideas accessible as it has sometimes been difficult to keep track of the range and scope of Frank's work.

Frank Fisher also lecturers at the National Centre for Sustainability.

His new publication is entitled RESPONSE ABILITY - Environment, Health and Everyday Transcendence the collected works of Frank Fisher.

Interested readers can purchase a copy of his book for $34.95 (plus GST) from the National Centre for Sustainability, Swinburne University of Technology Hawthorn Campus. Please call +61 3 9214 5997 to place your order.

Or contact the publishers: Vista Publications PO Box 76 St. Kilda Victoria, Australia 3182 Telephone: +61 3 9534 8881
Connecting for Health - the saga of systemic failure?

The saga with the NHS Connecting for Health (CfH) IT project continues unabated. This article from the Telegraph suggests a government moving into damage limitation mode.

"The Government has admitted that Connecting for Health, the Department
of Health agency in charge of its disastrous NHS IT programme, could be

The admission comes amid growing alarm in the Government at the
spiralling cost of the programme which is likely to end up at £20
billion — £7.6 billion more than its original budget."

Our group of 23 Professors of Computing and Systems (see earlier posting) has continued to monitor what has been happening with CfH and now have a public Wikki with a very wide ranging set of comments and critiques. It includes details of some further actions we have taken as a group (e.g. more letters etc) in our attempt to get government to take seriously our initial request for an independent review.

This recent action suggest that others are now beginning to recognise that they are staring systemic failure in the face!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Managing strategic risk systemically - the case of Indonesia, Australia and nuclear power

History is a good starting point for appreciating strategic risk - history of understandings, practices and situation. For example anyone entering the nuclear 'debate' ought first, amongst other things, read Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith or visit Chernyobyl in person.

Australians who have lived, worked, or visited Indonesia might also do well to reflect on their experiences there in the light of today's announcment of a new 'security pact' to be signed by both countries. This pact was negotiated secretly and has cooperation over nuclear power development as a key component. From my experience 'nuclear' and 'Indonesia' are not two terms I would ever choose to associate!! I have lived in Indonesian and have the greatest respect for Indonesian citizens but, reflecting on the physical geography of the archipeligo and the political and institutional history of the Indonesian nation, I am alarmed. Australia's own record in relation to 'technology push' onto Indonesia is also not good. Nor is the record of mine management in relation to the environment.

It seems the setting for yet more systemic failure is being created! to bring its system of social organization to the highest level of development yet achieved in the world

I have been wondering what lessons Australia, as a resource rich nation, could learn from Norway. Here is some background on Norway and its social model, as the first part of my inquiry.
Chemical pollution 'responsible for silent pandemic of brain damage'

For those who know about The Natural Step's conceptual framing of issues associated with sustainable development this new report will only confirm what they already know and accept. It is none-the-less frightening that we have been so reluctant to adopt the precautionary principle in relation to man-made chemicals (in addition to transgenics and, possibly, nano-'organisms' - all 'man-made'). The TNS claim is that it 'uses a scientific, systems-based framework to educate both corporations and governments in how to understand and apply the principles of sustainability in all that they do'.

This disturbing new article says:

"An explosive report from researchers in the United States and Denmark talks of a "silent pandemic" of neurodevelopmental disorders caused by toxic chemicals spilling into the environment.

They include conditions such as autism, attention deficit disorder, mental retardation and cerebral palsy.

The scientists identified 202 industrial chemicals with the potential to damage the human brain, and said they were likely to be the "tip of a very large iceberg". More than 1,000 chemicals are known to be neurotoxic in animals, and are likely to be harmful to humans."