Open Day and Why Do We Do Research?

Birthplace of LogarithmsOverview

We had an open day at the university yesterday, and I loved speaking to new candidates and their parents about the opportunities to become the architects of the future. It is within the Internet and the Cloud that we are building a new World, and one which does not differentiate any class or nationality, as it completely inclusive for everyone in the World. Few technologies have ever managed to make such an impact on our lives, and our new Computing candidates will build these systems. In time, too, the Internet will improve our health and social care, and will deliver education to every single person, also providing everyone with a voice and a platform to showcase their talents (I appreciate that it can go the other way, and that it can provide a barrier to these things to, but our new architectures have the chance to improve things, and not see national or physical barriers getting in their way).

The Career for the Future and Edinburgh

Stunning Beauty of Edinburgh
Stunning Beauty of Edinburgh

So why is it so easy to sell Computing as a career, and why come to Edinburgh Napier? Well it’s actually quite an easy … there are so many opportunities just now in Computing, and it is one of the few areas which there is such opportunities, and also that there is such chances to move around within an undergraduate programme. So it’s possible to just tell it how it is.

The other thing is this great city, which provides virtually everything that anyone would want in their studies. It is an educated city, with one of the highest percentage of graduates anywhere in the UK. It’s also a tolerant and all-embracing place, which accepts people from around, and then acknowledges that they make a significant contribution (in a recent survey, 9 out of 10 people in Edinburgh thought that incoming workers made a positive impact – the highest across the whole of the UK). For me, these are great things, but it has so much more: it’s beautiful and culture; it’s manners and friendliness; it’s the history and it’s dignity; it’s the enterprise and innovation, and so many other things. You might question why I say friendliness, well I think it is such as a friendly place – not an in-your-face friendliness, but a respectful friendliness, where there is often a shared love for the place, and for anyone who wants to contribute to it.

So my city is a trump card for an open day, and, yesterday I played it, as I am so proud of this city, and what it is able to do – basically change peoples lives and provide them with a support for every stage of their life. Parents can thus feel happy that they are sending their child to a place which will allow them to grow, but, most of the time, it will be a safe place, where they can learn not only about Computing, but also grow as a person. I appreciate that no city is perfect, and there are risks everywhere you go, but hopefully it’s as safe as any place that they could go. Everything is basically within walking distance, or a short taxi ride, or you can pop on the amazing (and safe) buses that Edinburgh has, or get a flight or train to anywhere in the World.

Why Not More Academics and Researchers at Open Days?

Computing - The Opportunities
Computing – The Opportunities

One thing I’m always disappointed in with open days is that it tends to be the same staff there every time making a contribution, and that there isn’t more staff making a contribution. Surely an Open Day is the chance to showcase teaching, industrial links and research, and how an academic department does things well? Luckily the staff that do turn up are first class at this, and provide a friendly face, and are so helpful in articulating the best way to go with the candidates, whether it be to reassure parents that there children are making an excellent choice coming here, to this city, and picking their course. It is, though, disappointing that there isn’t more contribution, as this is the chance to change someone’s life, and get them to appreciate all the great things that are happening in Computing just now. The software engineers, the security consultants and Big Data analysts are truly the architectures of the future, and without them few industries could exist these days. If we unplug the Internet, and disconnect from social media, and do not use on-line TV, then, okay, there’s no need for them. From where I stand, there is a constant stream – virtually every day – of companies asking for more graduates – so demand can only increase … and Edinburgh is truly a great place to be just now, as we’ve got such great companies who are here for the long-term, and who want to attract the best that our universities and colleges can provide.

I must admit, you get kinda desensitised after a while with general perceptions of institutions, and of league tables, and of research assessment exercises, and open days provide us with the one true time that we can actually show how well we look after our students, and the support we can give them. There’s nothing nicer than seeing a candidate smile, knowing that this is where the want to be, and for their parents to know that their child’s future is in safe hands. One thing I loved yesterday, was that we provided so many ways to student, from direct entry into Year 3 (BEng) to providing a work placement for students, and then providing routes to MSc level and PhD. We are about providing for every type of candidate, and do not want to exclude anyone, no matter their circumstances or background. As someone who has come through a non-traditional way of translating through the education infrastructure, I appreciate this greatly.

Why Do We Do Research?

It's all going to the Internet ...
It’s all going to the Internet …

Why Do We Do Research? … this is a question which has been going round my head, and I cannot find an answer. Please forgive me for adding my own viewpoint to this, as no-one has ever told my why, as an academic, I should do research.I appreciate that it is key in promotions in academia, and that it improves the reputation of the institution, and all these great things, but fundamentally what is the point, as we seem to be fostering a culture where academic research is drifting away from its core function – to teach better.

Just now we have a research assessment (RAE 2014), and it all feels a little like a game sometimes, which departments are playing, in order to maximise their ratings. I appreciate that this is not the case for most, but it can feel like a game, where you are playing your cards to optimize your score. At present it all seems to come down to paper publishing, the higher the quality of the journal, the better the rating. While this is fine, surely this is not really the end point of any research, and what we are asking for, from the taxpayer, is to fund the publishing of academic material in journal, which can have little impact on the economy or contribute to society – surely these are the main reasons that, as a nation, that we do research? But we are missing out one key thing here … surely we do research in order to teach better? We thus do research in order to go into the classroom, and tell students about the great things we are working on, and how relevant the material is, and the areas that are holding back our technology. Unfortunately there is a dilemma that active researchers, especially high active ones, can distance themselves from any form of teaching, and any form of real engagement with schools, open days, graduations, and so on, as they see it as an important part of building up a research career, especially in scoring highly in research assessments. If this is the case, then it is a sad reflection of our academic research environment, and something needs to change. Hopefully, after this current research assessment, things will settle down, and we will see a renewed focus on supporting spin-outs, and in contributing to teaching and all the associated things which should stimulate and encourage our next generation.

Engaging with those outside academia

Once thing that I’ve observed over the past few weeks in some of the events I’ve been too, is that often academia can be so insular, and not engage with anyone outside their own closed area, which means that everything that happens only has an impact within confined walls. For me, in Computer Security and Digital Forensics, the links to those outside computing departments is the key to providing proper impacts. It is law enforcement who need the tools, and it is industry which has the data and the issues to solve, and academia must to everything it can to support knowledge exchange, and use PhD work to address some of the key issues within society, and which long term benefits to the nation. So when an academic team at the end of a PhD try and find a commercial application of the work, and put it in content, in order to find funding, has probably missed an opportunity to bring benefit back to the funders of the work – which is normally the tax payer.

Concluding Remarks

I’ve covered a lot of things here, and it’s really just observations I’ve made over the past few weeks. I really worry the way that we have created a research system, which seems to be forgetting about what we are really trying to do – improve our societies – support innovation and enterprise – stimulate the new generation – protect our ideas and commericalise them – work with others to support knowledge exchange. I can only see large gaps appearing which move researchers further away from what higher education is supposed to provide. I remember, a few years ago, that an academic from a local college came to see me about how he could integrate multimedia into teaching Physics to nurses – not an easy thing. He was so dedicated, that he gave up his work, and went to a university with a top ranking for research – thinking that it would inspire him, and that he would come out of it complete changed. What he observed was a complete and utter disappointing – the teaching was abysmal – both generic and boring, the teachers were not interesting in discussing anything, and often it was lower-level staff who had very little interesting in teaching, and much more interested in getting their research done. While this may be just an isolated example, it does worry me, that there could be a game going on here, which individuals, groups and universities are playing, and you must worry that it is generally not good for students and societies.

We did a Cyber lecture last year, and one of the main comments was “So happy that this is happening, there seems to be little provided by universities to engage with pupils”, so there may be a problem there in terms to placing top academics/researchers in Computing with schools. I also give a plug here for IT4U (IT For You), which aims to integrate schools with university within Computing/IT. At one time there were three universities involved with it in Edinburgh, and now it’s just my own university, and we have even scaled it up … I must admit I am so disappointing, as a tax payer, that universities can walk away from any commitment that they need to make into articulating their subject.

So well done to Edinburgh Napier (our own team here … Frank Grieg, Richard Macfarlane, and many others), Abertay University (Ian Ferguson), SISCA (Martin Beaton), Police Scotland (Eammon Keane), the Scottish Government (Keith McDevitt), and industry sponsors for sparking interest with schools in Scotland, and put something back, in order to showcase our great industries, interesting research projects, and tell our next generation — that they are the architectures of the future of cities, our nation (and, basically, of the World)! From the people who build the city scape of the Old Town and the New Town of Edinburgh, our graduates can build our communities in the same way, but in a virtual World, and help put this great city back where it deserves to be!

I must admit … when I hear someone asking for a workload allocation to attend a school/open day/engagement event, I switch off … it is something that should be done from the heart and not that someone is forcing you to do it.

Oh … and finally … thank you Edinburgh for making my life so much easier.

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