The joys and challenges of inter-disciplinary working – a social science and computer science story

By Sharon Clancy

“…in our messy, fuzzy, anarchic field of practice, how can we produce neatly packaged bundles of evidence that might be useful to busy policymakers?” (Field, 2015). [see Note]

One of the joys of working on a project like ENLIVEN, which spans two scientific disciplines, is its ability to challenge ways of thinking. My own experience of working with Computer Science colleagues over the last year, and the sharing of our different models and approaches, has shown me that collaboration requires a stripping away process on both sides. Abandoning the mystique and obfuscation of specialised language and jargon, and challenging one anothers’ ontological assumptions, allows for the development of shared frames of interpretation and a genuine commonality of endeavour. But it takes you out of your “comfort zone”….

As someone with an arts and humanities, social science and community practitioner background, I was uncertain about the applicability of computer science modelling to complex, and seemingly intractable, social problems. Can algorithmic reasoning really make a difference to policy making in lifelong learning when a slew of policies has been trialled within the European Union (EU) since 1993? Issues of inequality are escalating, with one in every five Europeans under 25 now unemployed, and many without access to education or training opportunities (NEETs). And of course those who are in employment face an increasingly precarious labour market.

Such factors lead to marginalisation and Enliven is keen to address the range of barriers faced by young people furthest from the education, training and labour market which lead to social exclusion. We seek to do this by influencing policy makers in the area of lifelong learning, by stimulating debate, and through policy formation and evaluation.

The Enliven team is an interdisciplinary one. We want to find out how an Intelligent Decision Support System (IDSS) might support policymakers – we are trying to do so by identifying policies and programmes which have previously been trialled, and by allowing them to be assessed against various criteria of whether they had worked or not. The IDSS will suggest interventions to end users, enabling them to solve similar problems by identifying what worked for their particular situation in the past. Our computer science colleagues call this ‘case-based reasoning’. In order to develop and design such a system, we needed to be clear on three key questions. Namely:

  • the key attributes/characteristics of the young people most in need of support – are they necessarily NEET?;
  • the ‘end users’ of the IDSS – are they policy makers, practitioners, young people themselves, or all three?
  • what kind of data is ‘out there’ in terms of programme/initiative evaluation and how is this informing policy currently?

We immediately hit significant obstacles. ‘Policy makers’ were understood as being the critical ‘end users’ of the IDSS but talking to them proved problematic. One complexity is that who they are varies greatly across the Enliven partnership – in different countries and in different areas of activity. Another was that the evaluation of programmes/initiatives aimed at young people is inconsistent and the data collected is often not comparable. So, one programme might provide an evaluation based on individual case studies – lifelong learning ‘journeys’– whilst another only deals in meta-level quantitative statistical analysis. We need to know what key data a policymaker needs to enable decision making. Even sharing an agreed definition of NEETs has not been straightforward, as all the partners within Enliven deal with different demographics and profiles. Policy-making at the European level is anything but straightforward!

We have some way to go before we are likely to have sufficient data to ‘feed’ and develop an IDSS, but we want to be creative in our responses to this issue. For instance, we are developing a stakeholder group of policy ‘end users’ who can inform us of what they need. We’re creating a framework to analyse what evaluation data is available as finely as possible. We’re engaging with young people so they can inform us directly about their needs. We’re also working with a programme deliverer and practitioner, using this as a case study to help us understand better how programmes and programme evaluation are designed in the real world. We are not trying replace a human decision maker with a computer program but aim to provide an advisor system that simplifies data access and presents it so that users can make decisions more easily. We are keen to find out how well an IDSS can model the complexities of how people and policy interact in Europe’s complex educational and learning markets.

Most of all, though, we know the development of the IDSS needs to be supported by the expertise and knowledge of our Enliven team colleagues. The more we can talk and share, the better the model we develop will be and the more help our efforts will be to all end users, including “busy policymakers”, in making a difference amongst the messy exigencies of our “fuzzy, anarchic field of practice”. How do we best communicate amongst ourselves to achieve this? We would love to know how you feel your research could influence the IDSS or how you think the IDSS could impact upon your work.


Note:

Field, J., the Learning Professor, blog, Mechanising education policy with intelligent decision support systems, Posted on January 18, 2015, Accessed 20 September 2017).

Project presented to 2 events in Bulgaria

The ENLIVEN project was presented at two international events in Sofia, Bulgaria. The first one was the international scientific workshop for the 8th wave (2018-2019) of Photo_dissemination_BG_Oct_2017SHARE – Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe. The Bulgarian team coordinating SHARE is led by Dr. Ekaterina Markova and includes Dr. Gabriela Yordanova and two members of the Bulgarian team of ENLIVEN – Assoc. Prof. Vasil Kirov and Diana Nenkova. The meeting (25–27 September 2017) was opened by the Scientific Coordinator Prof. Dr. Axel Börsch-Supan, Munich Center for the Economics of Aging (MEA), Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy. Prof. Rumiana Stoilova, Director of ISSK-BAS and a member of the ENLIVEN project presented it to 100 scientists from Europe and Israel that took part in the meeting.

The second event was the 5th Progress Meeting of the NEGOTIATE Project – Overcoming early-job insecurity in Europe (2015-2018). The Bulgarian team coordinating NEGOTIATE includes three members of the Bulgarian ENLIVEN team – Rumiana Stoilova (team leader), Prof. Pepka Boyadjieva, and Dr. Petya Ilieva-Trichkova, as well as Dr. Gabriela Yordanova and Dr. Veneta Krusteva. The meeting (5–6 October 2017) took place at the European Parliament Information Office in Bulgaria and the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy and was opened by the Scientific Coordinator Prof. Bjørn Hvinden, HiOA NOVA, Oslo, Norway. Prof. Rumiana Stoilova presented the ENLIVEN project to 35 scientists from Europe.

Calling for workshop contributors: Developing IDSS: Societal Challenges and Technical Strategies

This workshop brings together the ideas and ways of thinking of two University of Nottingham colleagues, Sharon Clancy from Education and Claire Palmer from Computer Science, who are working on the development of an Intelligent Decision Support System (IDSS) within the context of the Enliven project which is aimed at examining policy making in the context of lifelong learning, and particularly for disadvantaged young adults.

The main social science theory underpinning Enliven is that of bounded agency which recognises the complex interplay between personal/individual motivation and the broader structural and cultural conditions in which a person has been raised – specifically the institutional and labour market settings and the social support available. The theory argues that such factors are as important in shaping a person’s decision to engage in lifelong learning/adult education as their individual drive or motivation (‘agency’).  An IDSS system “uses artificial intelligence, machine learning, taught algorithms and data analytics to help support decision-making in real-time, by setting out possible courses of action and evaluating the likely results of these proposed actions” [1] . It will suggest types of action which have been previously employed and enable them to be assessed against suitable criteria.

The workshop will focus on determining how these two theories might meet the needs of policy makers and other end users of the research and, crucially, how it can meet the needs of our “messy, fuzzy, anarchic field of practice” [2] , and with sufficient emphasis on the young people who are its chief stakeholders.

Consequently, our focus has become one of knowledge democracy and we are keen to explore the ontological differences between data expectations at policy maker level and at target community level and how data can serve knowledge creation for those most excluded in society.

Please follow this LINK for more details of the workshop.


Notes:

[1] Field, J., the Learning Professor, blog, Mechanising education policy with intelligent decision support systems, Posted on January 18, 2015, Accessed 20 September 2017).

[2] Field, as above

First meeting of the ENLIVEN’s National Youth Panel for Italy

With youth, for youth:

Youth training and inclusion into the job market

21 September 2017

On 21st September 2017, the Italian team of the ENLIVEN project held the first meeting of the ENLIVEN’s National Youth Panel for Italy. Representatives of four organizations representing students, trades, civil society and local authorities attended the meeting. Representatives of two additional civil society organisations were unfortunately unable to attend due to unforeseeable circumstances.

The participants’ common concern is to ensure that the younger generation can have decent access to the world of work in full respect of their economic and social rights.

The scope of this first meeting was to confront different perspectives and to find a common language among different organisations that care about the future of the younger generation.

After a round of participants’ presentation the morning, there was a sharing of knowledge on various initiatives that have been carried out to promote young people’s access to training and the job market. For instance, youth employment has been for years at the center of the employee organisation represented in the panel, which has launched years ago a fund (to which the top management contributes with 4% of its salary, and employees on duty with a day of holiday or leave) with the scope of curbing precariousness in its own sector of activity, by supporting enterprises wishing to undergo stable contracts or to stabilise young workers in the sector. From 2014 to 2017, the fund has led to the assumption or stabilisation of more than 16,000 young people.

The panel also debated over obstacles that hamper a full access to training and the labour market of young adults. For instance, in the opinion of some of attendees, several barriers limit the chances for young people to access or complete tertiary education successfully at university level. These barriers include scarce resources devoted to scholarships and student housing and, even more, limitations to first year intake imposed on some bachelor degree programmes. Another area of ​​concern debated by the attendees is the fighting against discrimination, which may limit the right to study and/or work, as in the case of those related to young people’s sexual identity or migration background.

An additional issue being addressed concerns the relationship between the outcomes of academic research and the policy making process, which is not necessarily linear and rational. As one participant argued and emphasised, evidence emerging from the latest OECD Education at Glance report does not lead to appropriate initiatives by political decision-makers. Furthermore, it was noted that, at the political level, data was selected and often detached from the context in order to support certain positions or to propose simple solutions that could not address complex issues effectively.In light of the above discussion, two potential areas of collaboration within the National Youth Panel were identified:

  1. To ensure that research data “speaks” meaningfully to different audiences, and support the need for knowledge that different organisations may have to operate in their respective fields of action.
  2. To restore the complexity of reality in phenomena often reduced by statistical data. For instance, the only number of people participating in training is insufficient to describe the phenomena. It is equally important to have knowledge on the infrastructure that supports or hampers access to training.

Accordingly, the collaboration between universities and organisations is valuable. Each party has its own specificity – whereas universities have “explicit” knowledge grounded in scientific research, organisations possess “tacit” knowledge developed through practices, which is equally important but usually receive less recognition. This kind of collaboration, as some experiences have shown, may increase the chance of influencing practices and policies (Schucksmith, 2016).

In the afternoon, the National Youth Panel met with representatives of a public institution that coordinates employment policies for job seekers and the relocation of the unemployed at national level.

The exchange of ideas in the morning continued into the afternoon, enriched by further contributions from new attendees who have years of experience in research and consultancy work on issues of continuing education and the entry into the labour market.

By the end of the day, the National Youth Panel of Italy and the representatives of the public institution agreed on “invisible” barriers, which are not detected but have a decisive impact on youth’s access to training and the labour market, as a focal point of mutual interest. Each of the organisations being represented has knowledge about some of these barriers, but a whole picture is missing. Therefore, the National Youth Panel foresaw a possibility to meet again in about six months to deepen discussion on this subject matter, with each of the organisations contributing knowledge from its vantage point. Representatives from the public institution willing to continue dialogues with the National Youth Panel could also bring their contribution.

Martina Lubyová appointed Minister of Education

We would like to extend a huge congratulations to our colleague Martina Lubyová, the leader of our Slovakian team. She has been appointed Minister of Education by the President of Slovakia.

The news and announcement can be found at:

https://newsnow.tasr.sk/policy/martina-lubyova-from-sav-to-become-new-education-minister/

https://www.aktuality.sk/clanok/520822/kiska-vymenoval-lubyovu-za-ministerku-vas-rezort-je-zdemoralizovany/

Second International Workshop of ISA RC45 on Social Inequality

Elena Tuparevska attended  the Second International Workshop of ISA RC45 on Social Inequality in Utrecht, the Netherlands, on 1st September 2017. She presented a paper titled ‘The 2015 Declaration on promoting citizenship and the common values of freedom, tolerance and non-discrimination through education (Paris Declaration) and the conceptualization of social exclusion and social inequality in EU adult education policies’. The paper was prepared by Elena Tuparevska, Rosa Santibáñez, and Josu Solabarrieta from the University of Deusto ENLIVEN team.

For the full programme, see http://www.isc.senshu-u.ac.jp/~thh0808/utrecht/