Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Teaching English in Cuba

Cuba heals the language rift - Matt Salusbury and Mark Krzanowski on teacher training and teacher development in Cuban EFL, based on Mark's interviews, with questions that I gave him to put to Cuban teflers.

As one teacher put it, "Our commander in chief Fidel Castro has has always recognised the importance of knowing English and studying English."

While burn-out and cycles of lay-offs in the the capitalist world mean that EFL teaching is rarely a job for life, some of Krzanowski's interviewees are redeployed Russian teachers retrained to teach English in the 1970s and still happily in post. From the July 2012 EL Gazette.

No more overnight queues for London's international students

I went down to the Overseas Visitors Records Office in Borough High Street, with a brief from EL Gazette to take some photos of this building - as depressing as possible please. I like to think I did a fairly good job of invoking the general atmosphere of despair that permeates the place, and South London in general. (A rather North Londoncentric view, I admit.) It was even raining lightly in a sort of drizzly way likely to induce a melancholy attitude - yes!

While Britain makes billions out of ripping off international students, and its politicians bang out about how essential the industry is for the economy, this didn't stop them making students queue all night (preferably in the rain) for a Form 3400 so they could register with the police at Overseas Visitors as part of their student visa procedures. If they turned up after 6.30am, they were turned away. And they paid over £30 for the privilege of this treatment, described in a letter from the heads of both King's College London and the LSE to David Cameron as "humiliating."

Unusually, such a depressing state of affairs wasn't the fault of the UKBA, as Overseas Visitors is a Metropolitan Police outfit. Needless to say, students could only register at one office for the whole of London - believed to be the world's biggest student city - and one office in a particularly depressing part of South London at that.

All it took was that one letter, and lo and behold! As of early October, students just have to show up there and pick up a pre-stamped form which they have until the end of 2012 hand in. After that, it's a queue again, but the Overseas Visitors people now claim they're on top of the backlog and waiting times for registering students will be bearable.

When I visited Overseas Visitors there were no queues but it was busy with brisk comings and goings of international students arriving ahead of the new academic year, and peering through the glass I could see it still was definitely a "please take a number" and wait at the service window gig.

There's a short picture story on this in the December 2012 EL Gazette.

Saturnalia (again!) Did the Romans invent Christmas?

It's that time of the year again. Is the "Christian" festival of Christmas really just a re-boot of the pagan Roman festival of Saturnalia or Sol Invicta, both on or around 25 December? See my article on Saturnalia from History Today (2009).

Friday, 19 October 2012

Dino-art: The Art of Drawing Dinosaurs

Event at the Natural History Museum, London, 21 September 2012

The artists correctly predicted feathered dinosaurs back in the 1980s and 1990s - in the teeth of opposition from "ultra-conservative paleaontologists" - and guess who turned out to be right?

John Sibbick - probably the world's best-known " paleo-artist" - says he couldn't make a living without keeping his copyright.

Mass signing with high-speed dino-drawings. Steve White is on the left, Luis Rey is next to him.

Steve White and Darren Naish presented a talk at the launch of the book Dinosaur Art: the world's greatest paleoart - which Steve White edited - at the Natural History Museum in September. This is a very beautiful coffee-table book on the subject, and surprisingly good value. The other surprise was the publisher - Titan Books - best known for comic anthologies such as Judge Dredd and other 2000AD strips. This is as far as I'm aware their first hardback coffee-table art book.

Let it never be said that "paleos" (paleontologists) are dull - this lot were a lot of fun, Steve White in particularly had got a big following of his rather glamorous friends onto the "guestie." Many had smuggled drinks and plastic cups into the auditorium with them, and there was even a "wine fairy" circulating unofficially during the interval, I was told she was the one to ask about red wine.

Dinosaur Art contributor Luis Rey (striped hat) and paleontologist Darren Naish confer.

Also in the audience were several mother-and-son teams, the sons in their school uniform. They sought advice from the professionals in the break on how to launch their paleo-art careers. Check-out Deviant Art, and allow other users of the site to critique you on it, was their advice.

Paleo-artist Bob Nicholls says it isn't that much harder to make a living as a paleo-artist than in any other branch of illustration - but making a living an any kind of illustrator is hard enough anyway. His illustration of two big theropods running at a sauropod (the long-necked one) with such force that they could lift it off the ground is based on "controversial physics.

Bob Nicholls has depicted a lot of Mesozoic marine reptiles (while they were contemporary, they're NOT dinosaurs!) He does a lot of research before starting work, including looking at the original fossils if he can.

When artwork is commissioned, says Bob, you get a long list with the brief with what should go in it, what species you have to put in the artwork, "the more species you put in, the harder it is to keep it realistic."

A lot of his work is murals – "you lose weight up ladders" including the mural at the Rotunda in Scarborough, based on "very few remains." And also for the Leicester Museum, where his mural depicted a Liopleurodon ripping the front flipper off a plesiosaur. This was inspired by a fossil of a finned marine crocodile that had part of its front flipper severed in a similar attack, but the stump healed and it went on swimming with it for the rest of its natural life.

Nicholls builds dinosaurs too, and as a user of Milliput putty in models, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that this material goes in to seal joins between sections of fibreglass-moulded model dino. Being a model-maker as well as a painter is crucial in getting him gigs. Just painting dinos is "like being a greengrocer and only selling turnips", he makes a living purely from paleo-art because he does "multimedia".

John Conway (shown here) and other artists signed copies with dino-illustrations done at lightning speed. Baryonyx was a popular request.

A Deinonychus with "not very flamboyant feathers"

John Conway was inspired by reading Richard Bakker's The Dinosaur Heresies aged 12, which showed him that "scientists could disagree". His art is "getting away from scales and volcanoes" that traditionally appeared in dino-art. His feathered Deinonychus is the opposite of what Naish described as "zombie dinosaurs… with the exact lines of every opening in the skull."

John has swung the pendulum back the other way, to depict animals that showed "less of the skeleton" like many animals around today. He ended up specialising in "feathered theropods, probably just because they're cool." Around 2000 he moved out of actual dino-art as it was "too crowded" and went into pterosaurs (contemporary but NOT dinosaurs).He "sometimes actually measures fossils" and works in Photoshop.

Magnolias – one of the first flowering plants 130 million years ago - often appear in dino-illustrations "tucked into the corner", but Conway sowed us one of his paintings that had a magnolia brought it into the centre, with feathered Alaskan theropods under it.

"This is in China,"said Conway as he showed his painting with some sort of iguanadontian, then he zooms into it using animation software, to show a small, hairy pterosaur, and zooms further to show the fossil wasp it's pursuing, and further still to show a micro-fossil - the detail on the microscopic grains of pollen stuck to the "hairs" on the wasp. Pollen is "practically indestructible", explains Naish, but changes quickly, so it' s a good way of dating a fossil find.

John Sibbick, possibly the world's best known paleo-artist. "Hands up who's still got David Norman's Encyclopeadia of Dinosaurs from the 1980s!" (illustrated by Sibbick,) said Naish.

Sibbick talks us through a favourite subject in dino-art - you can't depict Tenontosaurus without it being ripped apart by a pack of Deinonychus

John Sibbick recently worked on a Scelidosaurus illustration for the Bristol Museum, a very complete specimen that had probably drowned in a flash-flood, with "unexpected scutes on the leg" and goat-like horns at the back of the skull. Naish said that some of the "crazy amount of armour" that's turning up on some individuals of this species could be due to them getting "spikier as they got older," or there could be different species. Sibbick worked very closely with "paleos" on the Bristol assignment, he had "two phone calls" with one of them.

Sibbick hangs on to copyright – "the first of two books I did with David Norman" he had "no copyright" – the book's "still out there, other illustrators out there are adding feathers" to later editions. "I can only earn a living if I keep copyright," says Sibbick. "From day one, keep copyright. You can share copyright" but "I wouldn't have survived 30 years without owning my images."

Sibbick talked us through his 1992 image of a Tenontosaurus being attacked by a pack of Deinonychus. Since a skeleton of Tenontosaurus was found having apparently rolled over and crushed a pack of Deinonychus, Naish says "you can't show Tenontosaurus without it being ripped apart by Deinonychus."

Sibbick photographs lighting and water effects all the time, but he "can't do digital" as he now suffers from eyestrain. "I like to think it's science more than art" – like Nicholls, he measures specimens before he starts work on illustrating them in life. "I do get bored with dinosaurs sometimes" he confessed, to cries of "Shame!" from a not-too-serious audience. "Somebody had to say it," retorted Sibbick, who regularly goes off and does "Invertebrates, fantasy, general illustration" instead.

I met Luis Rey in 1998 when his feathered Oviraptor caused a scandal - now they're very mainstream. Now he's chief artist on Dorling Kindersley's latest Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs and you can see the possible influence of Rey in the latest generation of dinosaur toys that depict feathered therapods.

Some typically dayglo acid-coloured Luis Rey theropods. "But all my colours are from nature, he explains

According to paleo-artist Luis Rey, art collector Joseph Lanzendorf created the term "paleo-art" and bought up everything in the genre that was going, but then he "lost interest, sold his collection to a museum, paleo-art was dead." Rey started on "fantasy terror comics" but "wanted to do something for science."

He says he was "blacklisted" in the 1990s, his paintings were considered "too science fiction". Feathered dinosaurs were being depicted in the 1980s and 1990s before the evidence proved them right, says Naish. If anything, those early, controversial attempts at feathered dinosaurs weren't "flamboyant enough", given the bizarre menagerie of smaller feathered theropods that keeps coming out of China.

Quilled dinosaurs?
One of Rey's paintings of a fight between a tyrannosaur and a Triceratops has the latter with short, thick, hedgehog-like quills on its back. Naish notes that early ceratopsids (the group to which Triceratops belonged) had quills in their tails. Naish also notes that pterosaurs had some kind of hair-like fuzz, theropods had something like feathers, could this point to the ancestor of the dinosaurs having had some kind of skin covering?

Naish feels Zallinger and Burian are still beautiful. (Readers aged well over 40 may recall Zdenek Burian's black-and-white postcards in sale at the Natural History Museum, Rudolph Zallinger's much-reproduced murals in Yale's Peabody Museum date from 1941. They both depict bulky, lumbering, sprawled-limbed dinosaurs dragging their tails.) Nicholls said "A lot of what you do gets out of date," says Nicholls. Or as Rey put it, "many of our artworks are part of history."

Conway says digital "makes it easier to update", but also increases the pressure from clients to turn out work faster. While Ruiz uses 3D printing to make basic models which he then draws from different perspectives,Sibbick doesn't "do digital", his eyesight's not good enough these days. He makes plasticene models as the basis for his drawings.

A copy of Dino-Art surrounded by (left to right) Darren Naish, Luis Rey, Bob Nicholls, John Conway, Steve White, John Sibbick, and a skull I correctly identified as Allosaurus.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Jonathan McGowan's Big Cat large cat update

A display of evidence of large cat kills gathered by McGowan over the years - bones showing bite-marks and chewing that could only have been made by something like a puma, leopard or lynx. (This photo's from an earlier Weird Weekend but his display was back again this year.)

After 25 years in the field, Jonathan McGowan now prefers to call it "large cat research" - he prefers the term "large cats" to "Big Cats" because they're "not technically Big Cats, some of them… One third, maybe, of all these animals do not fit" the Big Cat description. (See a write-up of McGowan's Weird Week 2007 talk on British Big Cats.)

McGowan - speaking at the CFZ's 11th Weird Weekend in August 2012 - thinks some of the large cats sighted may be a hybrid between pumas and large feral domestic cats. Some of the black cats spotted do not have the "behaviour of leopards." Some are "big black cats with small heads" while others are heard "yowling" – very un-leopard-like. But McGowan has also heard the leopard's distinctive "coughing" alarm call to its cubs in the British countryside.

Now he's "bogged down" with the data that continues to come into him, people contact him with "up to a dozen reports a week, some are accounts of encounters dating back to the 1920s."

Says McGowan, "Deer are the key to big cats… Throughout Britain, wherever there are deer in large numbers, there a large cats. "sika deer are great breeders" and, like the large cats and "a third of our wildlife" aren't indigenous." Leopard, puma, lynx are - he believes - "a recent additive to our fauna – there are no reports before the (19)50s, 60s' 70s."

"Large cats are Houdinis... If you were to release two cats on the edge of London, they'd be in Cornwall in two weeks' time, says McGowan. They would "let themselves be known" to each other by scent-markings and scat"(poo).

McGowan talked us through slides of "cat scrapes" – visual signs when they do a wee or a poo. Sometimes these are in the form of star-shaped zigzags to mark territory. I know from taking my own domestic cats into the forest for a walk in Suffolk (see here for evidence that I'm not making this up) that doing a poo in the woods and the way they cover it up is a very serious business indeed for cats.

Apologies for my rubbish illustrations at the time (below), but McGowan also demonstrated the clear differences between dog and cat tracks. The toes on either side of the dog tracks will be level with each other, while the toes of cat tracks are not level with each other, the arrangement of toe prints is asymmetrical, in the way that the fingers on our human hands are of different lengths.

Large cats "hide behind gorse bushes to pounce" ... Heather in particular is "Big Cat country." Reedbeds are "ideal habitats for our sika deer" and therefore for large cats. And you can even find evidence of "pumas and leopards in the same territory" in some parts of the UK.

"US servicemen have admitted to releasing puma mascots" in or at the end of World War Two," claims McGowan. I'd heard that there's good evidence for this in Australia, but I'd not heard this claim made for the UK and I'd be interested to see the evidence. As a history graduate I'd be happy to follow up. The USAAF and US Army units based in the UK all have regimental archives that would point to the existence or otherwise of mascots – official or unofficial. Regiments have associations of veterans, many of whom are still alive and contactable.

He also alleges of the recent furore over a deer carcass on National Trust land in Gloucester, of which a DNA analysis came back as "fox", that the National Trust "hid data from the deer carcass" indicating it had been nibbled by some kind of cat.

If the big black cats in the UK countryside are black leopards, and breeding, then surely we should be seeing some spotted leopards as well, commented Ronan Coughlan from the audience. McGowan has heard "more and more reports of normal spotted leopard" from Kent. And there is also at least one "chocolate brown leopard in the UK." (Grey or brown "clouded leopards" are known from Borneo, where they are rare but numbers are known to be in four figures, and there's a grey clouded leopard cryptid, the pogeyan, said to be in the north of Kerala state, south India.

McGowan's as ever excellent talk was rounded off by CFZ director Jonathan Downes announcing that a new CFZ database of 5,600 UK Big Cat sightings would soon be ready, and inviting members to come up with requests to run past it. I will be putting it through its paces before long, as my next book after the forthcoming Pygmy Elephants will be Mystery Animals of Suffolk, which will look at Big Cats such as "Paws" in the 1990s as well as more recent sightings of something black in Brandon, on the Norfolk border.

McGowan told me he'd seen a puma by the side of a big road near Ipswich about two years ago. My antennae also started twitching at McGowan's mention of reedbeds, heather and gorse as Big Cat country, there are abundant habitats of all three in the Suffolk coast, and the establishment of a wildlife corridor in the north of the country means these habitats are about to get bigger. Deer are so abundant in Suffolk they're becoming vermin, (their great numbers are impacting badly on woodland bluebells in particular in the county) and while there's no established sika deer population in the county yet, they're known to be moving in and out of the county from Norfolk, and it's only a matter of time before they make Suffolk their permanent home.

(See also my review of Big Cats Facing Britain for Fortean Times.)

My on-the-spot illustrations from Jonathan McGowan's talk, based on slides he projected. They show the difference between the more symmetrical prints of a dog – the toes level with each other – and the asymmetrical prints of a cat – with each toe at a different height.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

"Sexual predator" police officers use police databases to find victims

People often say, yes, so the police have gathered data on you even though you have no criminal record, but if you have done nothing wrong, what have you got to fear? Here's another reason to be fearful of police data-gathering on all of us.

The abuse of police powers to perpetrate sexual violence is the title of the report published on 20 September jointly by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) and the Association of Chief Police Officers.

As the Guardian had commented earlier on sexual predators in the police force, "the problem is to a large extent hidden, as no official statistics are kept and few details are released about internal disciplinary action in such cases.(Guardian 29 June 2012.) All we get is the anonymised details of those who were caught - either convicted of criminal charges or booted out of the force, or at least disciplined. There are probably many more.

Some of the cases of sexual predation by police officers were the result of being able to pray on the vulnerable while they were in police custody, or police officers were pursuing and harassing women they'd encountered after getting their personal details following call-outs after they'd reported a crime, and so on.

But in many other cases, coppers had used the numerous police databases that are available to them to identify vulnerable people (usually women, but men in one case) who they could prey on. A recent FOIA request by the Guardian revealed millions of people with no criminal records are showing up on police databases (some because they were the victims of crime, had reported a crime, or - as in my case - had just been on a demo.)

In most cases there were no restrictions at all on any copper getting a peek at all this deeply personal data - something like 50,000 cops could just help themselves to the data with few if any obstacles.

The report in September arose from an earlier 2011 investigation which “included cases in which officers or staff had misused police computer systems in order to target individuals who might be vulnerable to abuse.”

In the new report, there are three "case studies" which are clear examples of police officers using police database to prey on the vulnerable - all shorn of any identifying features, of course, which is ironic given the obsessive way that police intelligence units collect the most intimate details on activists. No dates, nor even the gender of the officer are given, although their genders can be inferred by word like "his". The "case studies" make chilling reading.

Case study three - "an officer was dismissed from the police service for misusing police computer systems" after the IPCC and social services rumbled them. "The investigation found that the officer carried out 176 unauthorised checks on females over a three year period. Forty-eight of the checks were carried out after (my emphasis) the officer received a written warning for misuse of police computer systems relating to checks on himself, his vehicle, and his family."

Social services first got on this unnamed officer's case regarding "a possible offence of engaging females under the age of 16 in sexual activity. It found no evidence to support this. However, the existence of robust IT audit mechanisms identified additional unauthorised checks undertaken by the officer concerned... In common with some of the other cases in this report, the police officer involved misused police computer systems to identify women. It is conceivable that his behaviour would have escalated in the same way as the other cases discussed had it not been discovered."

In Case study five, two complaints from "members of the public" triggered an IPCC probe which led to a copper being "convicted of five offences of misconduct in public office and received a prison sentence." Other police investigated the officer and "identified a pattern of behaviour whereby the officer would use police computer systems to search for and target individuals who might be vulnerable to abuse, and then attempt to develop a sexual relationship with them. The investigation identified four women with whom the officer had had a sexual relationship. Three of these were considered to be in a vulnerable position."

One of these dated back 20 years. It was a relationship with "Ms B," then aged 17 and at the time "living in a hostel for vulnerable adults with drug or alcohol dependencies and mental health issues. On several occasions the officer gave Ms B money, which was seemingly used to buy alcohol. He requested sex, which was refused. A friend of Ms B complained to a local inspector about a police officer."

The officer in question already had "two previous disciplinary findings against him.

Both concerned inappropriate sexual behaviour. These were not considered when he applied for a role in the force’s public protection unit." Despite this history, the unnamed police officer was still allowed unrestricted access to police databases. As a result of the case, it was suggested to the police force in question (even the force isn't named!) that they should consider (not "should" or "must" but "should consider") "implementing a tiered access system to personal telephone numbers of
individuals held on intelligence systems so that there is no general access for all police staff. The fact that the officer’s behaviour continued for a number of years raises questions regarding the kind of supervision he was subject to," if any.

"Robust auditing of computer use could have identified the officer’s misuse at an earlier stage," concludes the report. When I talked to a salesperson for Memex, the company that produces most police databases (Crimint Plus, Patriarch, etc.), he told me they come with an easily accessible audit trail - it's a simple task for a police force to find out who's been accessing what data how often, when data was last amended or deleted, etc. Rocket science it ain't.

Finally, Case study six - an officer resigned from the police service and was later convicted of a number of computer related crimes" as a result of an investigation triggered "after a man made allegations of sexual assault against the officer." (So men who think they're unlikely to be targeted in this way can stop being complacent now.) "Insufficient evidence" meant the assault case went nowhere, but "auditing of the police force’s computer systems... found that the officer had improperly accessed police computer systems on hundreds of occasions over a significant period to check information about a number of individuals."

When interviewed "the officer admitted these searches were entirely for personal use; to find the home addresses of the persons searched, view photographs and, in some cases, contact the individual in order to pursue a sexual relationship. A number of these individuals were considered to be in a vulnerable position as a result of their individual personal circumstances."

"The police officer was able to make hundreds of improper searches of police computer systems over a significant period of time to target individuals for sexual purposes. What is different here is the officer targeted men. Though this type of crime disproportionately affects women and girls, some victims will be male or transgendered individuals."

Not only was there apparently no supervision of this officer and his many years' worth of "improper searches" on police databases, but "Every time the officer in the case conducted a search a warning about misuse appeared on his computer screen, which the officer felt able to ignore." He knew he was acting illegally, but also knew he'd probably get away with it. He was eventually convicted and booted out of the force.

There were some bullet points at the end of the report, on "learning", with "questions" aimed at police forces. For example, "Does your police force have the capability to monitor access to IT by individual officers, for example police national computer and other checks apparently targeting particular groups?" As the man from Memex told me at a policing exhibition in Manchester a couple of years ago (Dave Powell, who was apparently on loan to Memex from Surrey Police when I talked to him back in July 2010), the digital audit trail on most police database isn't hard to do.

I asked the Information Commissioner's Office if they had any comment to make on the revelations in the Abuse of police powers to perpetrate sexual violence report. An Information Commissioner's Office spokesman told me "Police officers and civilian staff can have access to substantial collections of often highly sensitive personal information. It is important that they do not abuse this access and only use the information for their policing duties. We expect police forces to make substantial proactive efforts to check that any access to their records is for legitimate police purposes and to take action where they discover wrongdoing. Public officials who abuse their positions can face serious consequences including criminal prosecution under the Data Protection Act."

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Radical reforms empower Kurdistan's universities

This article appeared in the EL Gazette, April 2012.

Matt Salusbury talks to Kurdistan Regional Government higher education minister Professor Delewar Al'Adeen about how the autonomous region of Iraq has transformed its higher education sector.

Photo: Kurdistan Regional Government flag, Serchinar, Iraq, 2004, copyright Matt Salusbury

Monday, 8 October 2012

Talk on 'A History of Dog-headed Men' regrettably cancelled

Update (23/10/12): This event has now been CANCELLED. The demographic of people who are (a) interested in dog-headed men (b) not doing anything over Halloween and (c) living in and around St Albans is regettably an unfeasibly small one, it seems.

I will be giving a talk on 'A history of dog-headed men' at Verulamium Museum, St Albans, on Friday 26 October. (Half an hour by train from St Pancras.) This is part of their "Superstitious" season which is why it's around Halloween.

What's the connection between St Albans and dog-headed men? It turns out that John Mandeville, author of influential pre-printing bestseller travelogue The Travels, which features dog-headed-men, was a St Albans local boy.

For background on dog-headed men, see here. This will be an update, as there's a lot more where that came from!

I last went to the Verulamium Museum on a school trip when I was about seven. All I can remember was the impressive packed lunch in a strong paper bag with a handle, and some broken pillars in a field. It's possible I mis-remembered. They say our memories aren't really our memories of the event itself, but our memory of the most recent occasion on which we remembered it again.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Nigerian imitation of EL Gazette

They say imitation is the highest form of flattery. We at EL Gazette were more amused than angry at this copy of "Educational Gazette" which my managing editor, Melanie Butler, picked up at the Study World conference earlier this week. Eagle-eyed (and indeed less observant) readers will spot the similarity between typefaces on the masthead. You could hardly miss it!

Even if EL Gazette could prove there was some offence being committed under Nigerian law, it would almost certainly be a big waste of time pursuing action through that country's courts.

The launch of EL Gazette's all-singing, all-dancing whistles-and-bells redesigned website seems to have been slightly postponed, so related articles of interest will continue to appear on this blog.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Olympic mascots already in the pound shop

Day 5 of the London Olympics and there are already mountainous displays of its spectacularly ill-conceived one-eyed official mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville, on sale at Hoxton Poundland - at the knock-down price of £1 each!

Update (8 August): A colleague attended athletics events at the main Olympic stadium last Saturday, and was mightily impressed. He said Wenlock and Mandeville mascots matching the description of the ones in Hoxton Poundland were on sale in the stadium shop for £12.

London Olympics judge's limo just went past the EL Gazette office

Just arrived at work on Day 4 of the London Olympics. As I turned off Leman Street into the backstreets of Aldgate where EL Gazette's office is, an official black BMW of the London Olympics went past.

My source who does massage at the Olympic Press Centre heard - via a driver who was in the (long) queue for accreditation passes - that the judges refused to stay in their purpose-built accommodation at the Olympic Village, and could they stay in the luxury Dorchester Hotel instead, please. There is now a fleet of these black BMWs with green Olympic logos ferrying Olympic judges from the Dorchester to points around the Olympic City.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

August's EL Gazette print edition - 'Guidance causes course chaos at US unis

The print edition of the August 2012 EL Gazette is now hitting the doormats, and it has now gone live in its online digital edition at

It includes an exclusive investigation into how a Homeland Security gaffe tripped up "Intensive English Programs" over an accreditation law change in the US.

There's also my report on an Arab League backlash against the predominance of English-medium degree courses in the Middle East. (The Gazette has been invited to attend a conference on English-medium education in Cairo in October, about which more later.)

And there's my interview with a CLIL specialist with the education ministry of Flanders - the Dutch-speaking autonomous region of Belgium - on CLIL and "bilingual education" in an officially bilingual country.

There's now a tutorial on how to register for EL Gazette digital (it's free.)

Monday, 16 July 2012

"Colloque Cryptozoolgie", Dinant, Belgium

This first appeared in Fortean Times, issue 290, July 2012. I have corrected the French-language spelling mistakes that appeared in the print article, and for which I apologise. (Thirty-year old French O Level, as alluded to in the report!)

Dinant local boy Adolphe Sax immortalised sitting on a bench in the street outside his former house

The Belgian town of Dinant lies at the foot of the Ardennes mountains and at the end of the railway line from Brussels. You've done Dinant in a couple of hours, taking in the grey, onion-domed church and the cable car ride to the citadel that dominates the town. Local boy Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, is immortalised in bronze, sitting on a bench on the pavement with his instrument outside La Maison De Monsieur Sax, "more or less on the spot where his original house stood."

But I wasn't in this underwhelming small town in Belgium to pay homage to Monsieur Sax. I had come to Dinant for the annual "Colloquium of Cryptozoology" – a whole weekend of cryptozoology talks – in French!

The eleventh colloque de crypotozoologie was in a nearby hotel that had its own forest in its grounds. The colloque had long breaks for meals – with cherry beers and chocolate mouse because, "we are in Belgium, after all." Talks were generally a shortish 40 minutes or less – of which I was glad, seeing as they were in a foreign language in which I had only a 30-year-old O-Level.

The town of Dinant, onion-domed church on the River Meuse in the foreground, citadel built by the Dutch during their brief occupation of Belgium in the background

It was a cosy affair with less than forty attendees. Most punters hailed not from Belgium but from France – a mother and daughter from just outside Paris, two Parisians of Russian origin and a retired couple the way from Marseilles, another six hours by train after a change at Brussels. This made my Eurostar commute from London to "any Belgian station" (according to my ticket) look easy. I found those from the South of France easier to understand than the Parisians and Walloons, (Francophone Belgians) whose French was harder to follow.

"Any Belgian station"

Ornithologist Jean-Jacques Barloy kicked off proceedings, lecturing on (as far as I could tell!) "Audubon's mysterious birds." Apart from his better-known encounter with a huge "Washington's eagle" (FT 262), ornithologist and artist John James Audubon described in his 1839 masterwork Birds of America other birds unknown to science (FT222:42–44). These included the small-headed flycatcher, the carbonated swamp warbler, Cuvier's kinglet and Townsend's bunting.

The mystery bunting, based on a specimen sent to the Smithsonian by one John Townsend, may have been a more colourful bird that lost its pigment during its preservation or storage. Barloy says Audubon's mystery kinglets, warblers and flycatchers were down to his tendency to name birds based on their resemblance to bird families in Europe, when they were really nothing of the sort. These birds were "misidentified or confused" rather than unknown.

Chemist and telecommunications engineer Michel Raynal said reading about the "Florida Monster" in Charles Fort’s Lo! first got him into cryptozoology thirty years ago. The lack of concrete evidence for cryptids "poses a problem of proof", but Raynal gave examples of, "in the total absence of sightings," animals whose existence was correctly predicted before their eventual discovery.

Michel Raynal

Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace both noted that Madagascan orchids "each had a corresponding pollinating insect" but for the magic orchid Angraecum sesquiipedale, the pollinator was unknown. The 20cm nectar tubes sticking out of the magic orchid suggested that whatever pollinated it would need a proboscis around 25cm (11 inches) long. Wallace compared the "search for such a creature" with the then recent discovery of the planet Neptune – found by observing "perturbations" in other planetary orbits. Walter Rothschild discovered the mystery missing moth Xanthopan morgana praedicta ("predicted") in 1902, with a proboscis of the anticipated length.

The entire population of the small, dark brown Guyanan lizard Gymnopthalamus underwoodi is female. It reproduces pathogenically. Raynal said that many pathogenic lizard species started as hybrids between two sexually reproductive species, and a sexually reproducing lizard Gymnopthalamus speciousis was known from the same habitat. Some bits of DNA in G. underwoodi weren't in G. speciousis, allowing scientists to predict the DNA sequence of the missing species that hybridised to produce G. underwoodi – with considerable accuracy, as it turned out when the aptly-named lizard species Gymnopthalamus cryptus was finally discovered up in 1993.

Raynal also noted reports of rhinos from apparently rhino-free Gabon. The African nation of Gabon does, however, have some recently evolved ticks now feeding on a range of big mammals – bison, for example – but very similar to specialised rhino ticks. Rhinos ticks are, notes Michel, easier to produce than “testimonial proof”.

A selection of rhino ticks

Doctor of cinematography Florent Barrère looked at the now well-known giant squid, and the more dubious giant octopus or "kraken octopus", once believed to lurk somewhere off the Cote d’Azur. Pierre Denys De Montfort's 1802 Histoire Naturelle de Mollusces includes a "colossal octopus" along with De Montfort's drawing from an ex-voto in the chapel of St Omar in St Malo, Brittany, giving thanks for saving the life of a sailor threatened by a gigantic octopus.

De Montfort's drawing of a common octopus, suspiciously similar to his "kraken octopus"

In De Montfort's drawing, the octopuses' huge tentacles coil round the rigging of a ship. The problem is the De Montfort's is the only existing account or image of the ex-voto in the chapel, which was destroyed by Allied bombing in 1944. The ex-voto, possibly based on secondhand accounts collected from Dunkirk sailors by De Montfort, may never have existed. And elsewhere in Historie Naturelle de Mollusces there's a drawing of a common octopus looking exactly like its colossal cousin.

We were then treated to the "Belgian premiere" of Marie Voignier's documentary L’Hypothèse du Mokélé Mbêmbé – with English subtitles, hurrah! It follows a permanently glum Michel Ballot through the dense, noisy jungle of Congo Brazzaville in search of an alleged living dinosaur. Ballot has a remarkable resemblance to scary German actor Klaus Kinski. His appearance and demeanour lend an already odd enterprise that otherworldly quality familiar from the tense Werner Herzog/Klaus Kinski going-mad-in-the-jungle movies Fitzcorraldo and Aguirre: Wrath of God. Recommended! Ms Voignier (on the left, with Ballot on the right in this photo) couldn’t make it in person, nor did she provide any more information about her mysterious film, although she hopes to do so next year.

Sunday's talks started early so those with a train to catch in Paris could get there before French presidential election campaign madness gripped the city. The day opened with sixth-form college English teacher Alain Bonet. The fortean-tinged French blockbuster movie Le Pacte Des Loupes (The Brotherhood of the Wolf) inspired him to research the "Beast of Gévaudan" – the creature (or creatures) that terrorised a region of southwestern France from 1764. Several official hunts, some with thousands of royal dragoons, led to several courtiers and military men ending their careers when attacks resumed again, before these fizzled out three years later.

Bonet found a surprising number of original documents still survive from that era. Some attacks were recorded twice or mis-transcribed – one boy victim of La Bête became a girl in the next report of the same incident. From this data Bonet has drawn up "the definitive list" of La Bête's victims – 128+ attacks, 49+ attacks with wounds, deaths 104, total 281+. Most attacks were on girls or women, or males under 16 – men outdoors would have usually carried tools or weapons.

English teacher and Beast of Gévaudan enthusiast Alain Bonet

One of the two animals shot in hunts for La Bête was an "extraordinary wolf" but smaller, with too many teeth. Hybrid wolf-dogs and unlikely wolf-hyena hybrids were among the explanations offered. Bonet suggests La Bête was a wolf showing unusual behaviour, so startling that witnesses misidentified it. While there are records of attacks on humans by wolves in Belgium, Germany and Switzerland, these were definitely wolves, not a “bête exotique”. Contemporary France had more of these, such as la Bête de Toulon and la Bête de Cote’Azur.

Father of cryptozoology Bernard Heuvelmans was, of course, Belgian, and Catherine Gravet, doctor of literature at UMONS University in Brussels, examined the 25 different "argumentative techniques" Heuvelmans employed in his apparent mission to convert the world to his cryptozoological ideas.

Dr Gravet's revelations on Heuvelmans were more bizarre than any of the weekend's mystery animals. Heuvelmans regarded cryptozoology as "more important than oncology" – the study of cancers. He was disturbingly keen on indoctrinating "the youth" to his crypto-crusade. He sent Tintin's creator Hergé a dossier of cuttings and drawings – made by one of Heuvelman's several brief wives, an illustrator – of the yeti. This insinuated its way into Hergé's interpretation of the yeti in Tintin in Tibet. Heuvelmans used his influence to ensure that bestselling Belgian adolescent paperback thriller series Bob Morane (he's a secret agent who saves the world) included a Heuvelmans-quoting sidekick and a civilisation of tool-using yetis who join Morane in fighting the perfidious Chinese Communists.

Dr Catherine Gravet

The signature of Tintin's creator Hergé greets Eurostar arrivals at the top of the escalator at Brussels South Station

And another woman who was briefly Madame Huevelmans – Monique Watteau, aka Alica Lindburgh – channelled Heuvelman's eccentric mission to convert unbelievers to cryptozoology through a series of messianic "eroto-fantastique" novels.

There was one other Brit at the Dinant gig, marine biologist Dr Charles Paxton, and we both learnt an important French word that weekend – témoignages –"sightings". With Monsieur Bonet the English teacher translating into French, Dr Paxton told how he number-crunched data from sea monster accounts from 1758-2000. He concluded that the creatures seen were "closer than you'd get by chance alone", suggesting witnesses underestimated the distance they were from the animal. He put a two-metre high model of a "tall black monster" on Lake Windermere, and asked people to describe it. While it was actually 337 metres away, most people described it as 500 metres away.

Children proved "lousy witnesses" in Paxton's Windermere experiment, female witnesses "significantly underestimated" the upright object's size, "males slightly over-estimated" its height. This prompted much Gallic giggling and a joke by Monsieur Raynal in French, the only word of which I caught was "pénis."

Dr Paxton has also extrapolated from a curve of discoveries of marine animals over two metres in length since Linnaeus that there remain quite a few whales yet to be discovered. There are only two known marine reptiles "above two metres", the leatherback turtle and the estuarine crocodile (sea snakes aren't quite long enough to make the grade). This, concludes Dr Paxton, makes it "statistically unlikely" that any sea monsters out there yet to be discovered will turn out to be plesiosaurs or other reptiles.

Dr Charles Paxton, en Anglais!

Self confessed "Belgian bigfooter" Eric Joye is the director of Abepar asbl, the organisation that organises the colloque, although Eric pretty much is Abepar asbl. Eric ended the colloque with his account of his latest trip to British Columbia in search of the elusive hominid. He had already treated attendees to his impressions of sasquatch grunts, screams and calls over dinner. He described the chilling experience of hearing a sasquatch call, imitating it and getting a response. Although coyotes are also good mimics, and Eric once got a coyote yelp in response to his impressions, the sasquatch call was "recognisably not a coyote."

Eric Joye

The French-speaking crypto-scene seems more rigorous in its researches than its English-language equivalent, which is too often reliant on enthusiasm alone. At the Dinant crypto-gig, cryptozoology was seen as a discipline, not a hobby, with consideration given to "investigative tools and "the rules of evidence". And Francophone "cryptos" understood that you also have to write up your findings in a way that engages the reader. It's a pity so much Francophone crypto-literature, of an intimidatingly high standard, never crosses the language barrier.

Next year, Abepar asbl's director promises conference-goers Dinant's famous koek biscuits traditionally made in the shape of animals, churches and such – but custom-made in the form of a sasquatch footprint.

* "Cryptozoologia", Abepar asbl's website, is at, where there are proceedings from its conferences as (paid-for) downloads. The 12th colloque crytozoologie is in Dinant in April 2013.

* There's a five-minute video of this year's event here.

© Matt Salusbury

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Private tenants protest letting agents' "scam"

Private tenants protested outside Drivers & Norris (D & N) letting agents in Islington's Holloway Road yesterday (Saturday 14 July). The action was in support of two prospective tenants who paid a total of £300 in fees for reference checks which has not been refunded, despite no services being delivered to them by D & N, and no tenancy agreement having been signed. The "D & N Three" asking for the money back - Phil Tsappas, Kyri Tsappas and a friend who is supporting them - are still homeless.

As Phil put it to me, there was "no deal, no contract signed" for a tenancy via D& N. Kyri told me that he and his fellow "applicants applied to secure a tenancy... Drivers & Norris failed to provide service."

The action was called by the newly-formed Haringey Private Tenants' Action Group (HPTAG) – the two-bedroom flat that the three people had applied for that is let by D & N is in Haringey.

The Drivers & Norris Three walked into D & N's Holloway Road office shortly after 11am, asking for the fees to be refunded, and to speak to the lettings manager, Sean Corrigan, although they were told his was out. It appeared at one point that lettings staff had phoned Corrigan and that he was on his way, but this turned out not to be the case. Meanwhile, HPTAG people assembled in the street outside, with banners and a megaphone.

Inside Drivers & Norris with the protesters (and a sales manager)

Phil Tsappas told me that their guarantor had been charged £60, and that he and Kyri had been charged £120 each for each reference check, making a total of £300 for all of them. The guarantor had failed the reference check. One of the D&N letting team told the D&N Three that the issue of the £300 fee was "not our fault, we didn't conduct it" (the reference check.) Phil told me the check had been carried out on D&N's behalf by FCC Paragon, who he says seem to do reference checks for most of the letting agents in Haringey. The Three then went to another letting agent – Winkworth, who also use FCC Paragon and, according to Phil, quoted them £150 each for a reference check.

D & N staff declined to give me their names and told me they had no comment to make.

Phil says he's done some research and the cost charged to a letting agent by FCC Paragon for each reference check is "£17-£19, we think."

A Police Community Support Officer arrived shortly afterwards and asked those protesters inside the D & N office to leave, as it was "private property" and that the D & N "guys feel like they're being harassed". Two police constables and Islington Division's CCTV van also showed up soon afterwards, with the police remaining in the D & N office for the duration of the protest.

The D & N Three left the office to join the protest outside. PC 577 at one point came to the door to tell them one of them could come into to talk to a sales manager from the lettings team. The D & N three declined – one of them told me that this was the same D & N employee who told him on the phone that he should consider himself lucky D & N hadn't kept their whole £800 holding deposit.

The Drivers and Norris Three

Despite the pouring rain, most of the 800 leaflets the protesters had brought along were handed out to mostly sympathetic passers-by, including one of the very few customers going into the D & N office on what's normally its busiest day of the week.

Jacky Peacock, director of Brent Private Tenants' Rights Group – on of very few such organisations in the UK - explained to a concerned-looking PC NI 577 that there are currently "no regulations" in place on what letting agents can charge prospective tenants. Jacky told me tenants can only go to the the Property Services Ombudsman if the letting agency is a member of one of the industry's associations. What about local trading standards officers? "Low on their list of priorities" according to Jacky.

Shoppers in busy Holloway Road were addressed by demonstrators by megaphone, who called for "affordable homes secure tenancy and end to rip-off fees!" One protester using a megaphone told the small crowd that "Drivers & Norris are having a laugh!"

In "discussion" with Drivers & Norris sales staff

One protester told me that letting agents offer "incentives that are designed to fail" - for every flat a letting agent has on books, five groups of applicants will look at it, "they take one [group of tenants], how many holding deposits do they keep?"

The D & N Three plan to return to demonstrate outside Driver some time end of next week, and until they get their money back.

Haringey Private Tenants' Action Group's next meeting is a on Saturday 21st July, 2012 11am, Cafe Life, North London Community House, 22 Moorefield Road, London N17 6QN, near Bruce Grove Station. All welcome. Email:

The police (and a PCSO) arrive


More photos from the event by NUJ freelance professional photographer Peter Marshall (please ask him for permission to reproduce!)

Haringey Solidarity Group's housing page

Recent Guardian "Comment is Free" piece "Landlords and letting agencies watch out – your tenants are angry and mobilising" by "Rentergirl" blogger

Photos: Matt Salusbury

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Every Time I Think of You - Islington in the Eighties - film is now live

The film Every Time I Think Of You has - after some delay - finally gone live on the Blueprint Theatre website. It features two of my photos of Islington from nearly 30 years ago. Read more...

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

From EL Gazette - 'digital destruction' for EFL textbook industry? Wearable simultaneous translation on the way...

The EL Gazette's website redesign isn't expected until September, so meanwhile here are some of my articles from recent issues of EL Gazette.

The Gazette now has a Twitter feed.

Publishers prepare for ‘digital destruction’ - will Apple's new e-textbook venture change EFL publishing forever?

Looking to the future - wearble simultaneous translators

When Teflers want to take Tesol to the next level - doctorates in Tesol and related subjects

UAE teachers ‘learn the wrong skills’

South Sudan students fight over outlawed language

Israeli English-medium unis ‘a cheap option for students from England’ (The Gazette avoids using the word 'English' to describe residence in a constituent part of the UK, it's easily confused with the language!)

Hong Kong reforms spell boost for UK higher ed

Press Association retracts incorrect story of 66 ‘banned’ colleges

Software ‘can tackle translated plagiarism’

Business schools scrap overseas alumni interviews

Top spot for ‘squeezed middle’ - new English phrases for an age of austerity

Qatar, one to watch

US unis favour ban on educational agents

The digital (pdf) edition of the July 2012 EL Gazette will go live on Friday 6 July, if not earlier.

When Teflers want to take Tesol to the next level…

Matt Salusbury asks academics about the motivation and choices behind taking an ELT-related doctorate

(From the April 2012 EL Gazette)

Why take a doctorate in ELT, Tesol or a related subject? We asked ELT/Tesol academics what motivates Teflers to take a doctorate, what influences their choice of university and how they go about seeking and getting on a PhD programme.

Dr Nick Andon, programme director for MA ELT and applied linguistics at King’s College London (KCL, part of the University of London) and his colleague Dr Martin Dewey say that both the proportion of international students and of students choosing ELT-related topics are increasing. There are between thirty and forty PhD students in ELT and linguistics; of these probably about half are ‘related to ELT’. About half of its PhD cohort are international students. KCL’s PhD programme includes extensive training in research methodology and academic writing for native speakers as well as non-natives.

Many PhD students know how to apply for a PhD, having done an MA, often at the same university they have in mind for a PhD. But for students coming from a different university system, it can be confusing. Andon and Dewey argue that it is essential to find supervisors who are experts in the student’s chosen field. They concede that finding information on lecturers’ expertise is not easy as there are ‘lots of ways to get information. Making this information more accessible is something we’re working on,’ says Andon. In practice, most enquiries about PhD courses come in the form of emails to individual academics – ‘Students contact us because they have heard of our work.’

One ELT and applied linguistics student at KCL surveyed fellow PhD students’ motivations for embarking on a PhD. These included ‘to pursue their own academic interests, to use the gained knowledge practically in their own contexts, and finally to further their careers’. Current PhD students commonly mention their enjoyment of learning and a PhD’s ‘value for their career advancement’. One international student cited ‘increased competitiveness’.

Doctoral candidates in EFL and linguistics choose a university for the ‘expertise of the staff members … close relationship with the staff members, supportiveness of staff’ as well as location and ‘availability of funding’, while international students ‘commonly mentioned international ranking’, according to the same survey.

English literature lecturer Leigh Wilson supervises all twenty PhD students in the University of Westminster’s Department of English, Linguistics and Cultural Studies. Of these, between a third and a half are ‘international’ and ‘probably two’ are doing PhDs directly related to ELT; English literature PhDs account for a far bigger proportion of the intake.

Westminster PhD students start their course registered for an MPhil. After about a year and a half working on their doctor ate, there’s an interview which, if successful, transfers them to the full PhD programme.

A PhD supervisor won’t necessarily know how their student’s chosen area of research fits into a particular subject. ‘You don’t do a doctorate in a particular subject,’ says Leigh, while her colleague Andrew Caink, a linguist, says of PhDs, ‘Whether it is called linguistics or something more specific, each PhD will be focused on both a very specific issue and the wider implications for the wider field.’

A UK PhD differs from one taken at a continental European university in that ‘you’re not inserted into a programme, it’s about the topic … and your relationship with your supervisor. In other countries you are much more inserting yourself into an existing programme.’ This difference is an attraction to those coming to the UK from overseas, says Wilson.

After about four years of work, PhDs in the UK end with a viva, with the candidate having to defend their work verbally to university staff and an external examiner. In continental Europe vivas are in front of an audience, but in the UK they’re always behind closed doors.

KCL offers both a PhD and an Education Doctorate (EdD). Andon says the EdD is ‘considered more professional … the EdD in King’s is more structured: students submit a number of papers, their thesis is half of the degree’, while in a PhD there is only one thesis.

Dr Indika Livange, senior lecturer at the School of Education of Griffith University in Australia, said its EdD ‘is structured and has coursework which leads to a writing of the thesis later on (practitioners such as teachers who don’t have a background in research find it more conducive), while a PhD is entirely research-based. Both qualifications are equal.’

Brett Baker of the research programmes team at the University of Melbourne’s applied linguistics department said of students’ motivation to do a PhD, ‘The main reason is professional advancement. Nearly all candidates are experienced language teachers – usually, but not exclusively, in Tesol.’ Melbourne’s arts faculty now has a first-year ‘compulsory coursework component of two subjects’ after which students have to defend a 10,000-word research proposal before they are ‘confirmed’.

After that, explains Barker, candidates are ‘expected to complete their dissertation in the following two years, though it is common to take three years’. Australia’s PhDs are ‘fast by international standards’, typically done and dusted within four years, due to restrictions on students extending their PhD candidature if they’re not finished by year three.

Michelle Plaisance of the English Language Training Institute at the University of North Carolina in the US said of their Tesl doctorate candidates, ‘Many want to pursue teacher education at the university level, while others wish to assume leadership roles’ in public-sector schools or ‘positions in global education networks and government organisations. I only know of one student in our programme who is not a native speaker. He was planning to open a bilingual charter school in a neighbouring country.’

Publishers prepare for ‘digital destruction’

Matt Salusbury investigates how Apple is set to take a bite out of the textbook industry

(EL Gazette, April 2012)

Soon after the death last year of Apple’s cofounder there appeared Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography, which claimed Jobs had identified the textbook industry as ‘ripe for digital destruction’. But the launch of Apple’s iBooks 2 for its iPad tablet in January suggests that the most valuable company in the world wants educational publishers such as Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to be partners, not casualties, in the new technology.

With an estimated 1.5 million iPads worldwide ‘deployed in an educational setting today’, according to Apple’s senior vice president of marketing Philip Schiller, what are the implications of the new, improved version of iBooks and the Apple–Pearson partnership for English language teaching and ELT publishing?

Simultaneous with the launch of the new iBooks software, publishers Pearson launched digital versions of some of its textbooks for Apple’s iPad. It was announced that ‘most’ Pearson titles would sell in this format for $14.99 or less via an education sub-section of Apple’s iTunes store. A 30 per cent cut of each e-textbook sales will go to Apple, as is already the case with each iTunes music download.

Pearson’s development labs in Chandler, Arizona and Boston, Massachusetts had been working for months in secret to produce all-singing, all-dancing interactive extra digital material for its iBook editions of Pearson’s biology, algebra and environmental science textbooks. Also in Boston, McGraw-Hill had been doing something similar to bring five of its maths and science titles out in iBook versions. Pearson geometry and algebra iBook textbooks are promised soon, as are iBook versions of natural history reference books from Pearson’s DK (Dorling Kindersley) imprint. Production costs for the extra interactive textbook material are believed to be ‘high’.

These new kinds of textbooks use Apple software and work on iPads and some iPhones. The iBooks come with ‘interactive content’ that includes videos, audio material, 3D images, weblinks, flash cards and assessment tools that can generate up to 5,000 test questions to check students’ understanding. While current printed algebra textbooks have a maximum of around 1,000 pages, Pearson’s new iBook algebra textbook has 2,500 pages, and there’s a whole picture gallery where there was once just a single illustration.

There are no ELT titles planned in the iBook format yet, but Pearson’s chief press officer Genevieve Shore told Arizona’s The Republic newspaper, ‘We see enormous potential to create these kinds of programmes for more subjects, more stages of learning and more geographic markets.’

The new format has obvious attractions for the EFL sector, which has long had to face the cost and complexity of distributing most of its physical products abroad. Fiddly and easy-to-lose laminated cardboard flash cards can now give way to digital flash cards. EFL books for beginners can have instructions that are practically language-free, mostly in the form of video animation or with links to a translation.

Apple has also released a new software title, iBooks Author, which lets anyone with a Mac drag and drop material into templates to create and publish their own multimedia textbooks to be sold via iTunes. But technology blog ZDNet has warned writers to beware of the software’s end-user licensing agreement (its terms and conditions), whose restrictions include the statement, ‘Apple may determine for any reason and in its sole discretion not to select your work for distribution.’

Apple isn’t the only company trying to crack the textbook market. Amazon recently launched the Kindle Fire tablet device that uses Google’s Android operating system. It can handle colour illustrations and costs about half as much as an iPad.

Universities will already be worrying about the fate of that nice little earner – and source of much-needed student jobs – the campus bookshop. Critics of the iBooks textbook platform note that education providers are ‘locked in’ – the textbooks will only work on Apple products, and small print means you’re only buying a textbook for one course year. Over a four-year course that could add up to more than the print version.

Dr James G Hutton, who teaches marketing and communication at Farleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, predicted that the iPad’s range of distracting bells and whistles would soon mean that ‘many students realise that e-books are not conducive to serious study, and want their paper books back’. And can students really handle at least two and a half times as much material as in conventional textbooks?

Many schools and parents would be nervous at the idea of younger students going to school with a £400+ piece of kit in their bags, although even sceptical techie website the Register praised ‘any effort to lighten the backpacks of students overloaded with hefty textbooks’.

Only time will tell whether iBooks – or other products, which could eventually include ‘open’ e-textbooks that work on any device – turn out to be just a gimmick or will change the face of ELT and its publishing sector for ever.

E-book economics in court - US Department of Justice anti-trust action against Apple and some of its iBooks partners (the Freelance, June 2012)

A forthcoming issue of the Gazette will have an "intellectual property update" of developments in this area of interest to EFL teachers.

UAE teachers ‘learn the wrong skills’

This first appeared in the April 2012 EL Gazette

CHANGES TO the school curriculum in the emirate of Abu Dhabi (part of the United Arab Emirates) requiring English-proficient teachers mean UAE universities are turning out teaching graduates with the ‘wrong’ skills who cannot be deployed in the emirate’s schools.

Abu Dhabi adopted its New School Model in 2010, for the first time requiring primary school teachers to teach several subjects and be proficient in English. But the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) director general, Dr Mugheer Khamis Al Khaili, told news website Middle East Online that teacher training departments of the UAE’s federal universities were still turning out teachers specialising in either English, maths or science and only capable of teaching one subject. And recent teacher training graduates hadn’t been familarised with the new curriculum or current methodology either.

Adec hired 314 Emirati nationals for educational jobs in the twelve months up to February, but some of these were administrative positions. The shortage of English-proficient teachers with the right skill set has impeded Adec’s drive to put proportionally more Emirati nationals into state education, forcing it to recruit 1,000 teachers from Australia, the UK and the US, while the proportion of Emirati nationals teaching in Adec schools rose only 3 per cent to 46 per cent of teachers.

None of Zayed University’s 110 teachers graduating since 2010 has found a job in Adec schools. United Arab Emirates University has begun tailoring classes to produce graduates equipped to teach to the new curriculum.

South Sudan students fight over outlawed language

This first appeared in the EL Gazette of April 2012

A FIGHT broke out in February over whether higher education should continue in ‘Arabic pattern’ (Arabic medium) or English at Bahr El Ghazal University in the newly independent east African nation of South Sudan, with two students ending up in hospital.

South Sudan’s first constitution last year outlawed Arabic and introduced English as the only language of education. Bahr El Ghazal was one of several South Sudanese universities exiled to the Arabic-speaking North during the conflict that resulted in South Sudan’s independence. It recently relocated to South Sudan, bringing with it many students who had started their degrees in Arabic. In practice, some Bahr El Ghazal faculties still offer Arabic-medium courses.

NGO the Gurtong Trust Peace and Media Project reported that leaflets said to be produced by the university started circulating in February urging students from other universities to transfer to Bahr El Ghazal to continue their studies in Arabic.

Then a lecturer told his Arabic-medium social sciences class he’d henceforth be teaching in English, asking Arabic-speaking students to ‘seek assistance’ in following his lectures. When some students ‘stormed out’, students from the English-medium course came to see what was happening. To everyone’s surprise, a fight broke out between Arabic-medium and English-medium social sciences year-two students, which ended with two students treated for serious injuries in the nearby Wau teaching hospital.

Israeli unis ‘a cheap option for English’

From the April 2012 EL Gazette

ANNUAL UNIVERSITY tuition for students in England rise to £9,000 in September, making universities in Israel – with tuition fees now at least £2,000 lower – an unexpectedly attractive proposition for students from England.

Tel Aviv University (TAU), based in Israel’s capital, recently founded TAU Trust UK. The trust’s chief executive told the Jewish Chronicle that, at a recent London trade fair, ‘so many people were enquiring about whether their son or daughter could do a full degree with us’.

Especially for students in England with Israeli family connections, a three-year English-medium TAU humanities degree at the annual equivalent of around £7,000 is suddenly worth considering.

Other Israeli institutions such as Bar-Ilan University (only £4,800 for a social sciences degree) and the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya are marketing English-medium degrees to England and elsewhere.

Since this article was first published in April 2012, we've heard that students from England are expected to turn up in large numbers in Israel, the US, the Netherlands (especially Maastricht University) and Scandinavian countries in an attempt to avoid high university fees in England.

However, we've also heard from several sources that the extremely good - and largely overlooked - deal negotiated by the Lib Dem coalition partners on the terms and conditions of the UK student loans is so generous that after the hassle and expense of travel and health insurance abroad it's not really worth the bother.

Hong Kong reforms spell boost for UK higher ed

From the April 2012 EL Gazette



EDUCATION REFORMS under way in the Hong Kong Special Autonomous Region (SAR) of China include three-year degrees being replaced by four-year programmes from September. According to World University News Service, the anticipated disruption in the higher education sector is causing some final-year school students to head for a university abroad rather than apply for one within the SAR.

Overcrowding in Hong Kong’s eight universities is expected in September when student numbers temporarily explode as students of the existing final third year and the new-style final fourth year share the same facilities. Lecture halls will fill to capacity, and the Chinese University, City University and Polytechnic University are struggling to complete new facilities to accommodate the extra students. Hong Kong University deputy vice-chancellor Roland Chin told WUNS they were in talks with local secondary schools about using their classrooms ‘in an emergency’.

University admissions are likely to come under severe pressure too, with about 110,000 school leavers competing for 30,000 Hong Kong higher education places. For one transitional year school leavers will apply for the new-style under graduate degree courses a year earlier than previously. A new, and bigger, intake of 17-year-olds will take the Kong Hong Diploma of Secondary Education alongside the usual cohort of 18-year-old applicants to universities via the old system.

The pressure on more popular subject places has resulted in many HK students trying their luck at universities abroad as a precaution. The UK has seen the biggest increase in applications to its universities from Hong Kong. British Council in Hong Kong director of education Katherine Forestier told WUNS applications to UK universities from Hong Kong were up 37 per cent as of mid-January compared to the previous year. US, Canadian and Australian universities are also seeing more applications and enquiries from Hong Kong.

Uncertainty about how internationally acceptable the new school-leaving exams will be has also led to more Hong Kong parents putting their children into UK boarding schools

Taiwan has taken in 3,000 applicants for its universities from Hong Kong so far this academic year, and expects to admit in total 3,000 Hong Kong undergraduates – a fivefold increase in student admissions from the SAR over 2010. Many mainland China universities are accepting Hong Kong exams for (already fiercely competitive) undergraduate admission for the first time.

PA retracts false story of 66 ‘banned’ colleges

From the March 2012 EL Gazette

Matt Salusbury on a tale of two lists

The UK’s largest news agency, the Press Association (PA), has retracted a November news story that incorrectly listed 66 colleges as having been banned. At least 22 of the centres wrongly named as banned were members of language schools association English UK.

The story originated in a carefully worded UK Border Agency (UKBA)/Home Office press release which featured two lists and explained the difference between them. One was a shorter list of colleges whose licences were withdrawn from the UKBA’s Register of Sponsors for breaching its regulations.

The second list named 66 private further education colleges – and some language schools – that had, in English UK’s words, ‘taken a business decision to voluntarily resign from the Register of Sponsors [for student visas for courses lasting more than eleven months] when a prohibitively expensive new inspection regime became compulsory’. The core business of most of these colleges comprises courses lasting less than eleven months (such as EFL courses). Longer courses – now requiring a new inspection regime – only ever accounted for a small proportion of turnover.

It seems the PA had conflated the two lists. English UK contacted the PA, which ‘swiftly agreed to “clarify” the story’ and sent out a corrected version, removing erroneous versions from its website.

English UK reports that by then the UKBA’s Litigation and Correspondence Team had contacted a national broadcaster requesting them to amend the incorrect story that had appeared on its website.

Software ‘can tackle translated plagiarism’

STUDENTS LIFTING text from articles and passing it off as their own work is older than the internet, and anti-plagiarism software to detect this has become standard equipment for universities. A new trend is emerging in the plagiarism arms race – ‘internet-savvy students who are proficient in English’ increasingly seek out English language articles online, cut and paste them and then translate them into the language used as their own country’s medium of education.

According to anti-plagiarism software developers iParadigms, plagiarism of English language articles which are then translated has become such a problem that their customers in the university sector regularly ask them for the means to detect plagiarism in translation.

The company has responded to this demand by producing Turnitin, which translates work handed in by students into English and looks for matches between this and material contained in its ‘massive content database’. Current and forthcoming versions of Turnitin can spot cut-and-pastes of English internet articles passed off as students’ own work even after translation into fifteen European languages.

There’s apparently no software yet to do the reverse – spotting whether English language essays by international students on English-medium courses are cut-and-paste translations of works online in other languages. Languages other than English account for an increasing proportion of global internet content, while English-medium degree courses continue to proliferate worldwide.

Since the publication of this article in the March 2012 EL Gazette, iParadigms sent me an update saying they are working on versions that can handle non-European languages, and a version of Turnitin that can do the opposite - spot cut-and-paste translations into English, is in development.