Rob Watson

Sep 142015

This weekend I was at the Community Media Association conference in Luton. The annual get-together of people who run and support community media across the United Kingdom.

The conference is organised by the Community Media Association to bring together volunteers and activists who run community radio stations, community art projects, community newspapers, and so on. I always enjoy being with people who volunteer in community media, they have a passion and commitment to transforming people’s lives through participation by making media for themselves.

We all have stories of how transformational this process can be, and what a difference it makes to the people who volunteer for community media. Changing lives and a sense of expectation about what can be achieved is a powerful selling-point for community media.

Chris Burns - Radio Academy

Chris Burns – Radio Academy

We were addressed by Chris Burns from the Radio Academy. What was interesting was the extent to which she was concerned to address common standards of training between the radio sector, ‘the industry’ as she kept calling it, and the community media sector.

I’m sceptical about linking to closely with the major broadcasters and following their agenda for skills and training. People who support community media have plenty of experience working with non-traditional learners who would struggle in an industrial environment. This suggested to me that there is a gulf of understanding about what community media is about, what it tries to do, and how it tries to do it.

I’m sure that there is a lot of well-meaning and good intentions from people who want to see a vibrant community media sector, I’m just not convinced that community media can thrive if it is only viewed as a poor-relation to the ‘grown-ups’ in the national media businesses.

Community media has to fashion an independent identify that is different from professional media. An identity that is focussed on social and personal transformation, and which is clearly marked as different from the game that is played by the BBC or the Radio Academy.

Sep 102015
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Who does Jamie Oliver think that he is? Is he some messiah figure who has come to save us from the perils of eating too much sugar? Or is he a self-aggrandising minor TV celebrity who is very good as convincing the people around him that things are his idea in the first place?

I’ve watched two films today about the dangers of sugar in our diets. The first was That Sugar Film with Damon Gameau. The second was Jamie’s Sugar Rush on Channel Four. Both have a very worthwhile message about the use and consequences, not only of excess sugar in our diets, but also the daily use of sugar as a staple of modern industrialised cooking.

But where That Sugar Film attempts to explain the issues in an entertaining, visual and personally engaging way, Jamie Oliver just comes across as being a quick leap onto the passing bandwagon.

Yes, Oliver’s name and record has a bit of pulling power in terms of getting the issue talked about, but when he comes across as the first person to have discovered the crisis of obesity and diabetes, then his film loses credibility.

Where That Sugar Film demonstrates the effects of sugar consumption on an otherwise healthy person, Damon Gameau himself, Jamie’s Sugar Rush just comes across as an indignant lurch that offers only a knee-jerk response from Jamie and his multimillionaire friends who run the chain-restaurants in the UK.

Both films have heart-wrenching moments that everyone should see, and I certainly don’t doubt the sincerity of Oliver’s response. I’m just a bit cynical, perhaps, that the real answer lies elsewhere, and that challenging the food giants to stop killing people with their food-like products, and their aggressive marketing techniques, is a bit like standing in front of an army of tanks and waving your shopping bag at them, screaming ‘no sugar in my bag!’

Sep 092015

I don’t know if it is just me, but is the quality and availability of decent greengrocers and market stalls selling fruit and vegetables in decline? I’ve largely stopped buying my fruit and vegetables from supermarkets, because the produce is too uniform, too expensive and over-packaged.

So I try to shop at independent stores and Leicester Market as much as I can. I enjoy shopping at a market rather than in the clinical space of a supermarket. It’s a bit more haphazard, but I tend to get a wider range of food at a much cheaper price.

Leicester Market has a proud history selling fresh food, and the re-vamped indoor market has given the meat, fish and dairy side of the market a massive boost. No doubt the planned redevelopment of the outdoor market will do the same.

At least I hope it will? Because is it only me but is the standard of intendent greengrocers dropping like a stone? Not only is the range and selection of produce becoming more uniform, but the quality is dropping massively as well.

Yeah, I know, Leicester Market is renowned for being as cheap-as-chips, with its bowls of banana for a pound, and its wide range of international foods. But I can’t help but feel that the availability, the number of stalls and the quality of a lot of the fresh food is heading in the wrong direction.

Quite why Leicester Market has stalls dedicated to selling accessories to stoners I don’t know, but is this sending out the wrong set of signals and reinforcing the idea that markets are a no-go area?

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in putting my money where my mouth is, so I will continue to shop at Leicester Market. But I was wondering what the general state of fresh food shops is in the UK, and how much of this is a barometer for the ailing health of the nation?

We seem to be good at opening bars, bookies, coffee shops and charity shops, but butchers or greengrocers are an endangered occurrence these days, and I’m getting worried that its gone too far.

May 242015

I was won over to Liverpool Sound City a couple of years ago, with it’s innovative mix of music festival, conference and the creative opening-up of regular and hidden music venues across the city. I could book into a hotel then dodge between bands, coffee shops, and shopping. Chilling out and exploring some amazing temporary venues, like Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, or a run-down car park that had been turned into a performance space.

This years Sound City Festival has a new format though, and it’s taken away the joy and the pleasure that made this a unique festival.

Firstly, getting to the new site down on Bramley-Moore Dock, is a major pain. There are no regular buses that service this part of Liverpool. There is a train service that runs nearby, or a special bus service, but otherwise it’s a good half-hour walk away from the Pier Head.

The site is now a self-contained festival with restrictions on what you can bring in, and bag searches to get through the gates. In the past the major venues operated a bag-check policy, so it’s not much different, but the big difference now is that the site is locked-down, and once you are in you can’t get out. So if you don’t like wraps, burgers, noodles or pizza then you are pretty limited in what you can eat.

It sounded worse than it looked!

It sounded worse than it looked!

There are few places for sitting and chilling out. A couple of wooden pallets have been set-up for people to sit on, but otherwise its hard to find a space among the rubble and the hard-standing dock-sides. This isn’t a space to relax. Quite literally it’s an industrial dock, with metal railings erected to keep people in or out.

Being on the banks of the Mersey seems a lovely idea, and when the sun is out it’s pleasant. But once the weather changes and the wind whips-up, then there’s no protection from the harshness of the Irish Sea.

These are small complaints though, compared to the quality of the sound of the festival. Whoever chose the locations for each of the stages and tents never gave a thought for the way that they would sound. The central area around the North Stage is surrounded by five other stages. The bleed of noise from each of them is overwhelming and exhausting.

The main stage sounds anodyne and insipid as most of the sound is whipped-off by the strong winds in a vast riverside open space. This is not a natural amphitheatre that would enhance the delicate nuance of the performances. Instead it’s a harsh, post-industrial concrete landscape that is unforgiving to anything but the most brutal sounds.

The Baltic Stage should be more interesting than it is, as it’s inside a warehouse. But by blasting the sound systems to their maximum it’s generally impossible to hear anything of the performances. I measured 100db on my phone sound meter. I’m sure people left with permanent damage to their hearing.

I thought I would be writing about the bands and the music, but the environment and the sound management of this festival is so poor that I can’t really tell if the bands that I’ve heard and seen have been any good. It’s become just another boring rock festival. I won’t be coming back next year.

May 142015
Email is a Tyranny?

I caused some consternation earlier this year when I told my students that I did not want them to email me unless it was an emergency. At the start of the academic year I made an announcement in one of my lectures and labs that I would not answer any emails unless the senders arms or legs where falling off – yeah, a genuine emergency.

This caused something of a rumpus, because it seems students are expecting, or have grown used to the idea, that a lot of their contact with their tutors will be done by email. When they have a question or need to solve a problem, often the first thing that students expect is to be able to email their tutor.

This seems reasonable on the face of things, but as Cary Cooper points out in an excellent article in The Guardian, we are in danger of allowing email to become an “unending electronic overload” that damages our work-life balance, and therefore our mental health.

I explained to my students that I would not be sitting at home checking my emails while I watch Strictly Come Dancing (not that I do). Nor would I be issuing guidance and instructions for the completion of assignments as I sit in bed with my novel before I go to sleep.

Instead, I suggested that we do what every other generation of scholars have done, and that any questions anyone might have gets written into a notebook, and then the questions are asked in our workshop sessions, either as part of our group discussion or in an individual basis. Or, if that wasn’t felt to be appropriate, students could come and see me at one of my three office-hour sessions I had available each week.

I can’t blame my students for their reaction, because like most workplaces and universities, email has become the default form of communication. The problem is that it has reached the level of absurdity, with thousands of emails being sent, complex instructions being issued, and a general lack of face-to-face contact as a result. As Gary Cooper makes clear

“Email and social media have served a very important purpose in the workplace, and have been an enabler in communications and virtual work relationships. The downsides, however, now outweigh the benefits, and these include: unmanageable workloads (when faced with an excessive email inbox), the loss of face-to-face relationships with colleagues; and the misuse of emails to avoid having face-to-face discussions about difficult work-related issues. As Einstein once wrote: ‘I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction, the world will then have a generation of idiots.’”

In ditching email as a primary form of contact with my learners, however, I’ve been able to focus on the direct, face-to-face interaction. This works so much better. Being able to speak directly with one another, being able to look in each other’s eyes, questioning and double-checking what’s being said, rather than assuming that we have understood each other in the flurry of electronic messages.

There is a very important lesson for us all in recognising that remote-control learning and email management doesn’t work, and so I will be pursuing this approach in the scholarship experiences that I design for next year’s learners. Lets get people talking directly to one another, then our learning will be less overloading and we can, most importantly, directly acknowledge our personal successes.

May 102015

In June 2014 I spent some time in Loughborough on election day for the European Election with the Labour Candidates Rory Palmer, Khalid Hadadi and Matthew O’Callaghan, who was standing in the Westminster seat. I was able to get some photos as I went around with them.

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May 082015

This is a post I’ve held back from writing because I didn’t want it to sound tetchy and add a siren voice to the election campaign. But now that the result of the general election is history, I can say what I think more openly. Like that’s ever really bothered me you might rightly add!

I left the Labour Party last year and joined the Greens because I didn’t have any hope that the policy ideas being offered by Ed Miliband where adding up to a winning platform for Labour for the election.

While I hoped that Labour would come-up with the goods, I continually felt I wasn’t going to be satisfied. Instead, every time I looked at statements being made by the Green Party I found myself agreeing not only with the sentiment and the way it was expressed, but also the practical reality of what was being put forward. There was no prevarication, no coded messages, no empty aspirational gestures.

Instead, the policies of the Green Party were clear and forthright. I kept asking myself when would a policy I agreed with come out of the Labour Party? When would I see a distinctive campaign be launched that I could get behind and know that it would make a difference?

It never came.

What confirmed my decision to leave Labour was hearing Ed Miliband welcoming delegates at the Labour Party Conference and Manchester, by declaring the city a ‘Tory and Lib-Dem free zone.’ It was at that point that I knew that Ed Miliband was only going to try to appeal to the core vote of the Labour Party and wouldn’t bother to try to reach out to Conservative or Liberal Democrat voters.

I’d been disillusioned with Ed Balls for some time also, and for two reasons. Firstly he spent more time learning to play the piano and running marathons while he was shadow chancellor than he did crusading against the evils of inequality and for social justice; and secondly, as William Keegan in the Observer noted, Ed Balls u-turn on attacking austerity was a huge error.

As Keegan wrote in June 2013 “We now seem to be witnessing a collective failure of nerve. At just the moment when even the International Monetary Fund is owning up to having got it wrong, Labour, fearful of entering the next election campaign being pilloried as the spending party, gives the impression of being trapped in the headlights. And just for good measure, those highly respected independent thinktanks, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Institute for Government, have lamely accepted that it is going to be a case of “austerity, austerity, austerity” for the remainder of the decade.”

What was perfect ground for a coherent and clear economic policy, against austerity, instead got crowded out by an over-projection of personality and spin. As the result, as yesterday’s election proves, people saw right through Labour’s lack of policy.

There’s no point in opting for austerity-lite under Labour when you have George Osborne on hand to offer you a full-strength glug of masochistic austerity-max!

The Green Party is clear. Austerity sucks.

I’ve been a bystander in this election, the first time in twenty years of being politically active, as I need to finish off my PhD thesis, but once that is out of the way I’ll be stepping-up my support for Greens in Leicester and their rejection of this stupid form of economic flagellation.

By the way, when I was in the Labour Party I voted for the other Miliband – I bet a lot of people are now wishing they had as well.

Apr 022015

I’ve been marking for the last couple of days, and as It’s going to continue to take a couple more days, I thought I would go through some of my old CDs from when I used to DJ in the 90s, sort them and rip some so I can listen to them when I’m training.

There’s a lot of crap – how come I have Michael Jackson remixes? But among the crap there are some good remixes that sound surprisingly fresh. A lot is coming back into fashion again, I believe, especially after the death of Frankie Knuckles, with the piano-based house sound of the late 80s and 90s.

Who knows, I might invest in some decks and relearn how to mix – not that I was ever any good.

Apr 012015

The past year has been one of curriculum development, in which I have primarily focused on the leadership and delivery of the modules TECH1002 and TECH3022, supervising project students, and supervising the delivery of TECH3026. This involved:

  • TECH1002 Social Media & Technology – this year I have further developed lectures, workshops and assessment activities to support learners understanding of digital mediation, network culture, digital identity and collaborative media. This year I introduced the DMU Commons Wiki as part of the module activities in order to promote and test collaborative learning practices and skills. I have further developed the use of blogs as part of the role of a social media practitioner that learners are modelling. I have strengthened the approach to the examination and the expected requirements for associated reading.
  • TECH3022 Advanced Social Media Production – this year I have introduced and developed a focus on digital capabilities, digital activism, digital literacies, and digital sociology (netnogtaphy). Engagement with social media has centred on a campaign to raise awareness about processed food, sugar and carbohydrate rich diets. Learners participated in a social media project to support a campaign directed through the site. Learners worked collaboratively using the DMU Commons Wiki and other social media tools.
  • TECH3026 Creative Media Entrepreneurship – while I failed to win support for the continuation of Seed Creativity Ltd running this module, I am satisfied that the operation and standard of delivery of this module will produce satisfactory learner engagement and progression.
  • TECH3010 Project Supervision – there has been a low turn-out from learners at the regular supervision sessions I held.

In addition to the above teaching duties I have contributed to the validation of the BA Communication Arts course, by writing three templates for modules based on Community Media. I have continued to build my external academic profile, both in terms of research, teaching & learning and support for external community media. I am an active blogger and social media user. I am an external examiner at Liverpool John Mores University. I am a council member of the Community Media Association. I have asked for an extension to my PhD registration so I can continue to collate and write material. My submission deadline is now expected to be the end of September 2015. Following advice from the (now former) Deputy Dean I have continued to refraining from engaging in administrative initiatives and management activities in order to focus on academic work and the completion of my PhD, and to maintain a satisfactory and work-life balance.

Three priorities have emerged that I wish to take forward in both my learning and teaching activities, and in the support I can offer to colleagues in the Leicester Media School. All are associated with the idea of Social Learning.

Firstly, I wish to reinforce the practice of verbal instruction and note taking with undergraduate learners. There is a low sense of expectation demonstrated by new learners on TECH1002 that they are required to take notes in lectures and workshops. Many learners seem to have only a limited sense that they are expected to attend lectures and workshop sessions, and that when they do they are required to make notes. Subsequently, learners who do not attend, and who do not make note, are often the ones who struggle to perform at the required level, and often find it difficult to complete assignments independently. While this can be expected as part of the process of orientation and enculturation to different learning styles at Level Four, the speed at which learners make this change can be uneven, and for some, problematic. I will therefore trial the Social Learning approach, and test through the use of small-group discussions and ‘talk-aoke’ sessions, if learners can be encouraged to engage with informal discussion of the reading material associated with the weekly taught sessions. I will be looking for them to use appropriate academic language and concepts in these discussions, and to exhibit some fluency for the concepts that are considered. Learners will be given clear expectations that evidence of reading and discussion ought to be reflected in their blog and wiki posts. In addition, and as a fundamental principle of delivery, I will primarily engage in face-to-face interaction with learners. This face-to-face interaction will be clearly signposted as an alternative to email, Blackboard and other forms of electronic communication, and will stress the benefits of learning how to interact with tutors directly. The lab arrangements for the delivery of the social media modules are at present far from satisfactory, with no regular activity-base to work from that is dedicated to the development of a social-learning approach (i.e. café style seating, comfortable sofas, round table displays). It is a common occurrence for many learners from other courses to use the same rooms (often being the only place that the can access bespoke software), which puts additional stress on the learning sessions being developed here, and provides an inappropriate justification for a significant number of learners to consider being absent – i.e., that the room is full and they won’t be missed.

My second priority is to support colleagues in the Leicester Media School to develop the capability and use of social learning tools, and collaborative development/production tools. Often the general approach to communication within the Faculty of Technology is to cascade emails. This is a failing approach that doesn’t build knowledge communities based on collegiality, mutual engagement or transparency. Email and hierarchical management practices don’t allow for the shared and de-centred approach to learning, curriculum development and professional practice. By identifying and testing different models of social collaboration, learning and peer-based project work, it should be possible to iron-out many of the communication issues that are prevalent in a large organisation such as the LMS. With the aim to reduce operational log-jams, improve two-way communication, facilitate longer-term planning, allow for a more inclusive set of decision-making practices, and to build an identity around the core practices of the community of learners that make up the LMS. These peer-based learning and professional practice approaches are difficult to integrate within standard daily routines, but when established they will help to foster a ‘community of practice’ type approach and support a shared and collective intelligence ethos among colleagues that might otherwise go unrecognised, unreported and unsupported.

The third priority I wish to continue to support, is the work I have started in TECH3022, looking at social media as an advocacy tool for digital activists, ethnographic researchers and campaigners. Working with issues associated with the Obesity and Diabetes epidemic gives learners an opportunity to develop social media skills related to a platform of action and awareness raising that satisfies a clear social need; questions established social values, and, allows learners to practice creative forms of social media production. By questioning the prevailing culture of processed food and carbohydrate-rich food-like-substances, and by advocating the Low Carb ethos, learners have to demonstrate their ability to research, comprehend and situate a complex and controversial set of issues. Learners also have to be able to reflect on their own experience of food consumption, and generate insights that are relevant to the wider social discussion about obesity and diabetes, particularly as issues of weight carry a significant social stigma. As well as practicing creative approaches to producing engaging content that resonates with an audience of engaged participants, the social learning approach adopted here also allows for the clear demonstration of the impact of practical literacies, skills and know how (in this case food but with a reference to digital media), and how media/digital literacies might similarly be adopted and sustained on a grassroots and participant-led basis. There is considerable scope to develop a research platform within this topic area and subject, that can be linked with credible public services and advocacy bodies, as well as the LMS being seen to take a lead on a debate of significant public interest. [Prof Richard Hall has cited this as an example of good practice on his blog posted on The DMU Centre for Pedagogic Research]

I am aiming to submit my PhD thesis for September 2015, and hope to continue to be associated with the Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility afterwards. I will be submitting a separate IRP outlining this. Upon completion of my PhD I want to aim for Readership so that I can develop my research and publication paper output in issues around collaborative and community media. This will involve developing research projects that support community-based organisations who seek to build and sustain capabilities, skills, resources and awareness in the use of digital tools for social media production, social learning and social network development, either as communities of interest, identity, practice or locality. I aim to do this within the CCSR’s remit as a learning community that accounts for the use and deployment of computer mediated communication practices and their ethical and social consequences. I believe that this will support the aims of the Media, Design & Production Subject Group, as a community of practice itself, and the wider Leicester Media School, by fostering collaboration and engagement with partners in other academic communities.