This is the second day of the PASCAL conference 2015 which is being held in Catania.
First of all a few words (or sentences) about Catania – it’s Mediterranean! very very Mediterranean with its wonderful climate
and the beautiful surrounding sea, cultural richness, and crazy crazy driving.
The Universita’ degli Studi di Catania, has been a very gracious host, providing a very nice setting for a great kick off to the first day of the conference yesterday.
I have to say that this is the first conference I am attending in a long time, where education is really at the focus of the discussions. Usually the conferences I attend, tend to be more on the computer science with a side of education. But here education is being discussed from all its multiple facets and perspectives and this is fresh! Technology is being granted ubiquitous credit as its use is subtly implied and definitely visible in many aspects of the research being presented. Technology becomes the underlying foundation for the research practices impinging on the real societal issues being discussed here.
On the first day, we had two very good keynote sessions, the first one being delivered by Professor Piyushimita Thakuriah, from the University of Glasgow, focusing on big data and its impact on the urban economy. In essence big data can be defined as that data which is being continuously generated by humans but which has not really been designed for research purposes. Most often we are designing research processes so that we collect specific data which we need to analyse to answer a specific research question or address a problem. Big data starts from the data. The data is out there – being generated. The question is: how can we harness it and use it to help society grow and overcome its many rising challenges? Professor Thakuriah, describes this process as the Big Data process, a pyramid structure where urban infrastructure can feed the data analytics for knowledge discovery to ultimately lead to an impact on the urban economy itself. So as an example – in Malta we have this huge traffic problem – did I say huge? let’s make it massive. Weather predictions, Twitter or Facebook data, can be used to predict traffic conditions identifying the areas that would suffer the most, thus finding strategies to overcome the challenges. Of course one actually does need to get down and tackle the problems in a pragmatic tangible way once these have been identified but the use of this lurking data, can certainly help to that extent.
The keynote that followed was from Professor Ronsisvalle from the University of Catania. His keynote that was about the Future of the University was just brilliant. It was sharp, witty and funny in the right measure – and it struck some chords. Professor Ronsivalle started his keynote by questioning the realistic nature of the universities’ objectives and targets for their professors and their students. The reality is that some of these expectations are not really realistic IF we want academia to work and function according to its true spirit. Unfortunately speaking from the perspective of the Maltese experience the pressures on University and Higher Education from society are huge – and these are in my opinion partly due to the fact that there is ignorance about the roles of the academics. Such enlightenment can only come through the dissemination of what universities actually do. Again speaking from my own experience at the University in Malta, I would say that the university tries quite hard to push its message across society through a variety of initiatives and events. But my concern really is that this message is still not coming across as it should be, at times giving more rise to polemics. Of course I am not saying that there is no room for improvement and that we can’t be criticised but the issue here is that community outreach needs to be more pragmatic – more tangible.
On the matter of communities – I think that my take home key word for this conference has been Communities. Most of the presentations I have sat through yesterday afternoon and this morning focused on the following keywords: Communities, Collaboration, Engagement. It is possible that one of the ways, in which to really get the message across is that of actively involving and engaging specific sections of communities to tangibly reach solutions to problems and challenges that are affecting the local society.
Sometimes, we have to come off our high horses and remember that our primary role as academics, is to research ways on how to improve the quality of life in society and to inform, guide and help the implementation process for this.
On this subject, tomorrow I will be speaking about the possibility of using MOOCs and alternate reality games to engage citizens more actively in societal issues. More to come in the coming days…