August 27, 2015

Non-disclosure, plausible deniability and lack of transparency in leadership: UBC and the Duffy trial

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John Moltalbano, Chair of the Board, and Arvind Gupta, the President , in happier days at UBC

John Montalbano, Chair of the Board, and Arvind Gupta, the President , in happier days at UBC

The need to know

Even if you have been holidaying in outer Mongolia, you are probably aware (if you are Canadian) of the trial of Senator Duffy and the sudden resignation of the President of the University of British Columbia. These two seemingly unrelated events however have common themes which I wish to explore.

First, let me be clear. I have no inside information on either event. I don’t know whether or not the Prime Minister knew about the $90,000 payment to Senator Duffy by his chief of staff, nor the ‘real’ reason for President Arvind Gupta’s resignation from his position as President of UBC, after only 13 months into a five year term. But that is exactly my point. Other than those on the ‘inside’, no-one knows. And we should.

Plausible deniability

We don’t know whether Stephen Harper was a party to the deception being perpetrated by the Prime Minister’s Office about getting the Senator to appear to repay his expenses, because the whole premise of the PMO’s office is to enable ‘plausible’ deniability by the Prime Minister if anything should go wrong with the various scheming carried out by his office to protect the ‘brand’ of the Conservative Party. Damage control is the prime mandate of this office. The less the public knows of what it does and what the Prime Minster knows, the better – for the Conservative Party.

Non-disclosure

The Board of Governors at UBC also has used a common tool to manage damage control, a non-disclosure agreement which prevents anyone involved in the decision-making that lead to the resignation of the President from speaking about it. To give some idea of the legal power of a non-disclosure agreement, not one of the more than 20 members of the Board, including student, staff and faculty representatives, has given any hint of a comment about this very unusual decision. Clearly, from the Board’s perspective also, the less the public knows about it, the better.

So here we have two clear instances of leaders hiding behind damage-control tools to avoid explaining their decisions and in essence denying their responsibility for such decisions. And it looks like they will both get away with not accepting responsibility or avoiding explanations if they can sit tight and keep quiet until the public gets tired, or gets distracted by other events.

The consequences

I am angry about this, not because I feel I have a right to know what the Prime Minister or UBC’s Board of Governors does or why they did it, but because without the acceptance of responsibility for their decisions, our ‘governors’ have carte blanche to do what they like without restraint. All power corrupts and total power corrupts absolutely.

The UBC case

With specific respect to the UBC context, it seems beyond plausible that the President voluntarily stepped down after only 13 months, and so soon after setting out a bold and personal vision for the university. The reason given in the only public statement by UBC is as follows:

This leave will enable him to focus on his research and scholarly work that will be of mutual benefit to Dr. Gupta and UBC.

If you believe that then you believe the Toronto Maple Leafs will win the Stanley Cup next season. There aren’t many plausible reasons why he would resign:

  • overwhelming personal circumstances, such as a terminal sickness in the family
  • malfeasance of some kind
  • a sharp difference of views with at least the more powerful members of the board about the President’s policies or management decisions.

Let’s look at each of these reasons. It is hard to see why a non-disclosure agreement would be necessary for overwhelming personal circumstances. Most people would understand and feel great sympathy for the President in such circumstances, and the Board would really have no reason to feel responsible for this.

There has been no suggestion of malfeisance – wrongdoing by the President. However, in the unlikely and hypothetical case that it was malfeisance, then the Board might want to cover it up to protect the university’s reputation, but this would be totally the wrong decision. This would be a perversion of justice. I personally do not think this could possibly have been the reason. No Board would be that stupid.

So we are left with the most plausible reason – a disagreement between the Board and the President about policy and/or management. Now maybe the public and students (who after all pay the taxes and tuition fees that keep the university running) may not be in a good position to judge who is right on such issues, but certainly the faculty need to know whether or not there was a basic disagreement between Board and President, because faculty are tasked with moving the university in the direction set by the Board and President.

To give just one instance, two or so years ago, under the previous President, the university launched a visionary and ambitious flexible learning strategy that would transform teaching and learning at UBC. Do faculty continue to move in this direction, was it supported by the new President, or was it supported by the Board but not the President? The reason for the disagreement of course may have been over something completely different, but we don’t know and in such circumstances the university is on hold with regard to all its previous initiatives until a new (permanent) President and administration is in place.

What should we do?

What can the public do about these decisions? In the case of the PMO’s office, I will vote for any of the opposition parties that comes forward with a practical plan that will make the Prime Minister and his/her office more accountable for the consequences of their decisions, and will put in place policies and procedures that will make government more transparent.

UBC is more difficult. I no longer work there, although I have a complex love/hate relationship with the institution. It is easy to be an arm-chair quarter-back over someone else’s decisions. Personally, though, I think there were problems with the new President, such as his firing the VP Administration within days of taking office (see here). If so, the Board should be commended for making the right decision in difficult circumstances (after all, they are the ones who hired him in the first place). However, the Board needs to come clean and give its reasons and not hide behind a non-disclosure agreement.

Lastly, I think politicians should look carefully at the use of non-disclosure agreements. They are too often used as a tool for covering up the paying off of incompetent leaders or for covering arbitrary firings when there are personal issues between a board chair and the CEO or President. Non-disclosure agreements too often encourage both bad governance decisions and above all a lack of transparency over how tax dollars are being used. But it will be a brave and clever government that finds a way to get rid of non-disclosure agreements while still protecting the charter rights of those involved.

In the meantime, both the Duffy and UBC cases point to a lack of transparency in decision-making at the highest levels in Canada. We should do better.

Book review: Teaching and Learning in Digital Worlds

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Workspace in the EVEA3D platform

Workspace in the EVEA3D platform

Gisbert, T. and Bullen, M. (2015) Teaching and Learning in Digital Worlds: Strategies and Issues in Higher Education Tarragona Spain: Publicacions Universitat Rovira i Virgili (pdf version available online for 2.84 Euros).

What the book is about

From the Introduction

[The book] examines the teaching and learning process in 3D virtual learning environments from both the theoretical and practical points of view. It is divided into four sections:

  • the first section discusses education in the 21st century from the perspective of learners in a digital society and examines the basic competences students need to respond to the personal and professional challenges they are likely to face. It also explores the issue of quality…..
  • the second section focuses on the educational and teaching strategies higher education professionals must take into account when developing educational processes in technology environments…in such environments simulation will be our best teaching strategy and evaluation our greatest challenge.
  • the third section explores the use of 3D virtual environments in education in general and in higher education in particular….
  • The fourth section examines the range of experiences we consider to be good practice when applying 3D technological environments to the teaching of competences at secondary and tertiary levels of education both nationally and internationally.

However, this doesn’t quite capture for me what the book is really about, so I will discuss a little more closely below some of the themes addressed by individual chapters.

As a point of clarification, I will use the term ‘immersive environments’ as a shorthand to describe simulations, games and virtual reality, a point I will come back to in my comments at the end of this post.

Who wrote it

The book is edited by Mercè Gisbert of the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Catalonia, Spain, and Canadian Mark Bullen, formerly of the University of British Columbia and the Commonwealth of Learning. However, the majority of chapters are based on a study (Simul@) funded by the Spanish Ministry of Education and coordinated by Universitat Rovira i Virgili, but involving universities in Spain, Germany, and Portugal, thus providing a valuable insight into the thinking about immersive environments for education in Europe.

Full disclosure: I wrote a short prologue for the book.

Themes covered in the book

Rather than a chapter-by-chapter summary, I have selected certain themes that re-occur through the book.

1. Digital learners

There is a lot of discussion in the book about the nature of digital learners and their ‘readiness’ for learning through digital technologies. In particular, Bullen and Morgan summarise the conflicting views and the research around digital natives and digital immigrants, and provide a more ‘nuanced’ profile of categories of digital learners.  Martinez and Espinal in their chapter provide a detailed description of digital competence and how to assess it. Throughout the book there is emphasis on the need to ensure that learners have the necessary ‘digital competences’ to benefit fully from the use of immersive technologies for learning purposes (although the same applies to teachers, of course). For instance, de Oliveira et al., in their chapter, identify various components of digital competences.

2. Competences

One of the strengths of the book is that several authors make the point that the main educational value of immersive learning environments is for the development of ‘general competences’ such as learning to learn, teamwork, communication, problem solving and decision-making. Astigarraga provides a very good overview of the definition, identification and evaluation of competences, and Isus et al. develop this further with a chapter on evaluating the competences of teamwork and self-management. Larraz and Esteve devote their whole chapter to evaluating digital competence in immersive environments. These chapters will be valuable for anyone interested in competency-based learning, whether or not using immersive learning environments.

3. Key educational principles and affordances of immersive technologies

Another strength of the book is that several authors related the features of immersive environments to possible educational affordances, and the educational principles needed to exploit such affordances. Camacho and Esteve-Gonzáles have a list of 14 educational reasons for using immersive environments for learning and Cervera and Cela-Ranilla have collated from the general research literature about 15 key pedagogical principles ‘to be observed during learning processes’ when using immersive technologies for learning purposes.

4. Planning and implementing virtual learning environments

Towards the end of the book there are several chapters focusing on more practical issues. Marqués et al. describe the planning and implementation of a virtual world built in Sloodle, which combines OpenSim with Moodle, for educating both physical education and business management students. Estevez-González et al. take this further with a chapter on the tools used in Sloodle and the necessary steps needed to integrate OpenSim and Moodle. Lastly, Cela-Ranilla and Estevez-Gonzàlez provide an educational rationale for the design of the project. Garcia and Martin set out a design methodology for an immersive learning environment.

5. Experiences and good practices

The book ends with five chapters that describe actual applications of immersive learning environments, including PolyU developed at Hong Kong Polytechnic University (hotel and tourism management), a review of applications in economics and business courses, the use of an educational platform Virt-UAM developed at Universidad Autònoma de Madrid, and applications in law and psychology, and lastly a review of applications in secondary/high school education.

Critique

First, this is a very welcome and timely publication for several reasons:

  • it sets out very clearly the pedagogical rationale for the use of immersive learning environments;
  • it links immersive technologies very strongly to the development of competences;
  • it provides practical advice on the planning and implementation of immersive learning environments;
  • it provides a welcome European perspective on the topic.

From a personal perspective, it complements very nicely my own open, online textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, where, because of space and time issues, I was unable to give this topic the treatment it deserves. Although not an open textbook, it is very accessible, available online for less than three euros ($3-4).

Given the book is mostly written by people for whom English is a second language, the chapters are clearly and well written, mostly free of the European English associated with European Commission projects.

Nevertheless, the European Commission has adopted the term competence rather than competency, which really irritates me, and this term is used throughout the book, when what the authors are really talking about are skills. Competent is an adjective meaning a minimal capacity to do something; incompetent is more frequently used in English English, and it is used to describe inadequacy. What we are really talking about here are skills, not competence. Skills have no limit, while competence tends to be categorical: you either have it or you don’t, which is why competency-based learning often requires 100% pass-rates. But skills such as problem-solving can get better and better, and that’s what we should be striving for in higher education, not a minimal pass requirement.

The editors have done a good job in ensuring that there is a coherence and progression between the different chapters, always a challenge in a multiple-authored book. However, I would have liked a summary chapter from the editors that pulled all the threads together, and also some more information about the authors.

The books strength and its weakness is the academic nature of the book, with more focus on theory, competences and affordances, and less on the actual technology design issues, although to be fair these start to appear at the back of the book. I would have liked to have seen more integration in the writing throughout the book between theory and practice.

The main omission is any discussion of costs in planning and developing immersive learning environments, which are time demanding of both learners and teachers. There are clear economies of scale that need to be employed to justify the high cost of initial design. If a virtual world and allied teaching strategies can be shared across several courses or even disciplines, the cost becomes more acceptable. There is also a high cost for students in terms of the time needed to master the technology and its educational applications if they only get one course in a virtual world. So it is a pity that there was so little discussion of costs and time in the book, and about the transfer of innovation into mainstream practice, which are significant challenges for the wider adoption of immersive technologies in education.

Nevertheless, this is a book I would highly recommend to all concerned about the implications of technology for learning design. Virtual learning environments hold great promise. We need more concerted efforts in higher education to use immersive learning environments, and this book is an essential guide.

Is Blackboard Inc. really worth $3 billion?

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WebCT to BB 2

Baker, L., Roumeliotis, G. and Stone, M. (2105) Education company Blackboard seeks $3 billion sale – sources Reuters, July 28

Fleming, B. (2015) The Real Vision Behind the New Blackboard, Eduventures, July 31

Phil Hill (2015) Blackboard Potential Sale: Market timing, financials, and some thoughts on potential buyers, August 4

I have a special interest in Blackboard. In 1995, I gave a grant of $25,000 from the university’s fund for distance education to a young, untenured associate professor named Murray Goldberg in the Department of Computer Science at the University of British Columbia, to cover the costs of two of his research assistants who were finalising the development of WebCT, the first real LMS.  In 1999, WebCT was sold to ULT, who then in 2006 sold the product on to the current owners of Blackboard, Providence Equity Partners LLC, who further developed the product to its current state. So in a sense I was a midwife to Murray’s Blackboard baby. From a small acorn grows an oak.

So I was particularly interested when Reuters reported that:

Blackboard Inc… is exploring a sale that it hopes could value it at as much as $3 billion, including debt.

Now $3 billion is a lot of money for a company that specialises in software mainly for the higher education market. (It’s a lot of money for a company specialising in anything, for that matter). So what makes Blackboard think it is worth this amount to a buyer?

Blackboard Ultra

It’s probably no coincidence that Reuters reported this at the same time that Blackboard announced its new learning platform called Ultra. (Yes, groans from all the faculty who have just moved up to the latest version of Blackboard Learn). However, although I have not yet seen Ultra in operation, it is reported to be much more than just an LMS.  According to Brian Fleming, a senior analyst at Eduventures:

Ultra consists of an integration of three core products (Learn, Collaborate, and Mobile) into one coherent, responsive, and immersive platform. It includes a radically improved user experience (UX) and a number of improved workflows, including drag-and-drop capabilities, embedded grading tools, mobile communication features, and expanded analytics.

In other words, it’s more of a complete learning platform than an LMS. Fleming believes this makes Blackboard Ultra a:

product that is on par, if not prepared to outmatch, its most agile competitors (ahem, Canvas).

More importantly, according to Fleming,

Bb now has the foundation it needs to develop a comprehensive learning analytics platform unlike anything the education world has seen.

But before you rush out to buy Blackboard stocks, you might like to listen to this old midwife (especially as the company is private at the moment and isn’t publicly listed, so it has no stock to buy.)

Risks and opportunities

I’m not a financial analyst (for a good discussion of the financial aspects, see Phil Hill’s blog post), but I do know a bit about learning technologies, and here are some of the risks or challenges I see for Blackboard in the future that might influence whether or not you rush out to buy the stock of any company that buys Blackboard. (I doubt whether anyone actually contemplating buying Blackboard will read my little blog, but the advice is free.)

1. A maturing market 

There are signs that the rapid growth in online learning is beginning to slow down, if not flatten out. The Babson Surveys had been recording growth of between 10-20% per annum in online enrolments in the USA over the 10 years up to 2012. However, the U.S. Federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) survey showed an overall decrease in DE enrolments of 4% from 2012 to 2013. The biggest area was the for-profits, which declined by 17%. Even the Babson Survey recorded a slower growth rate in online enrolments in 2013.

There are technical reasons that make measuring the growth in online learning very difficult, and one year is not enough to determine a trend. However, the rate of students taking fully online courses in the USA (and Canada) is likely to slow in the future for two reasons:

  • there is a limit to the market for fully online studies and after 10 years of fairly large gains, it is not surprising that the rate now appears to be slowing down
  • as more and more courses are offered in a hybrid mode, students have another option besides fully online for flexible study.

However, offsetting this is the much bigger move to blended and hybrid learning, resulting in the use of online learning in campus-based classes. This is a much bigger overall market than the fully online student market, and has hardly been touched yet outside North America (Blackboard is actually used more for on-campus than fully online courses in the USA). As more and more institutions move to blended learning, so will the demand for software to support such course designs. So while the market is changing, the demand for some kind of platform to manage the online, and increasingly the on-campus components, is likely to continue well into the future. The market then may be maturing but there is still plenty of room for growth, especially internationally. At the same time, the product has to meet the demands of new blended course designs and not be merely an online platform somewhat adapted to use on campus. It remains to be seen whether Ultra can really respond to that requirement.

2. Increasing competition from other integrated platform providers

This is probably Blackboard’s most obvious (but not necessarily most serious) challenge. It is operating in a market with more than 50 direct competitors, and the list grows almost daily. Some of the later entrants, such as Instructure and Desire2Learn, have been taking a big bite out of Blackboard’s market in recent years. Learning platforms still require a relatively low-entry level of technology/software development and it is not difficult to design alternatives on the general theme. While Ultra certainly will help Blackboard to push back against its competitors, they too will not stand still in new software developments and approaches. So while the overall market may be maturing, the consolidation into two or three dominant players seems to be moving even further away.

3. Alternatives to course platforms

The design of Ultra in bringing together a range of disparate but proprietary products into one integrated, consolidated product or platform is being countered by moves to lighter, stand-alone, often ‘open’ technologies that the end-users (both teacher and learners) integrate on an ‘as needs’ basis. This can be seen particularly in the use of social media, such as blogs, wikis, You Tube videos, and mobile apps.

On the other hand, I have also argued elsewhere that the need for some kind of platform that enables learning materials to be stored and organised, limits access to registered students and appropriate teaching staff, provides secure assessment and learning analytics, and offers a central, single location for student work, is not likely to go away well into the future.

The question though is whether the kind of proprietary system such as Ultra is the best way to provide such a platform. Open source solutions such as Canvas and WordPress provide more flexibility and allow more easily for future technology developments and new teaching approaches to be incorporated.

Watch this space

These arguments of course may be actually just academic. No-one has yet made an offer and although suggestions have been made that Oracle, Microsoft or some other company with data-based products might be interested, Blackboard sits in a fairly small, niche market.

In the meantime it will be interesting to see how many institutions, having made the investment in Blackboard Learn or some other LMS, are willing to go through the major upheaval needed to move to a new platform such as Ultra. If I had $3 billion to spend, I’d wait and see – but then that’s why I don’t have $3 billion in the first place.

 

Appropriate interventions following the application of learning analytics

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Humble Pie 2

SAIDE (2015) Siyaphumelela Inaugural Conference May 14th – 15th 2015 SAIDE Newsletter, Vol. 21, No.3

Reading sources in the right order can avoid you having to eat humble pie. Immediately after posting Privacy and the Use of Learning Analytics in which I questioned the ability of learning analytics to suggest appropriate interventions, I came across this article in the South African Institute of Distance Education’s (SAIDE) newsletter about a conference in South Africa on Exploring the potential of data analytics to inform improved practice in higher education: connecting data and people.

At this conference, Professor Tim Renick, Vice-President of Georgia State University in the USA, reported on his institution’s accomplishment of eliminating race and income as a predictor of student success.

This has been achieved through implementing various initiatives based on data mining of twelve years’ worth of student data. The university’s early warning system, based on predictive analysis, has spawned a number of tested and refined low cost, scalable, innovative programmes such as:

  • supplemental instruction by former successful students;
  • formation of freshman learning communities which entail groups of 25 students enrolled in “meta-majors” ;
  • block scheduling of courses ;
  • re-tooled pedagogies involving adaptive learning software;
  • and small, prudent financial retention grants.

The combination of the above has resulted in phenomenally reduced student attrition.

I have no further comment (for once!). I would though be interested in yours.

Incidentally, there were other interesting articles in the SAIDE newsletter, including:

Each of these reports has important lessons for those interested in these issues that go far beyond the individual cases themselves. Well worth reading.

 

Privacy and the use of learning analytics

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Image: from Michael Radford's movie, 1984 - Big Brother is watching you!

Image: from Michael Radford’s movie, 1984 – Big Brother is watching you!

Warrell, H. (2105) Students under surveillance Financial Times, July 24

Applications of learning analytics

This is a thoughtful article in the Financial Times about the pros and cons of using learning analytics, drawing on applications from the U.K. Open University, Dartmouth College in the USA, student monitoring service Skyfactor, and CourseSmart, a Silicon Valley start-up that gives universities a window into exactly how e-textbooks are being read.

The UK Open University is using learning analytics to identify students at risk as early as a week into a course.

An algorithm monitoring how much the new recruits have read of their online textbooks, and how keenly they have engaged with web learning forums, will cross-reference this information against data on each person’s socio-economic background. It will identify those likely to founder and pinpoint when they will start struggling. Throughout the course, the university will know how hard students are working by continuing to scrutinise their online reading habits and test scores.

The article also discusses Dartmouth College’s mobile phone app which:

tracks how long students spend working, socialising, exercising and sleeping. The information is used to understand how behaviour affects grades, and to tailor feedback on how students can improve their results.

The article also tries to get a handle on student attitudes to this form of monitoring or surveillance. Not surprisingly, students appear to be somewhat ambiguous about learning analytics and differ in their acceptance of being monitored.

Rationalisations

What was particularly interesting is the range of justifications given in this article for monitoring student behaviour through data analysis:

  • the most obvious is to identify students at risk, so that appropriate interventions can be made. However, there weren’t any examples given in the article of appropriate interventions, highlighting the fact that it is one thing to identify a problem and quite another to know what to do about it. For instance we know that from previous research that students from particular socio-economic backgrounds or students from particular ethnic backgrounds are potentially more at risk than others. What does this mean though in terms of teaching and learning? If you know this is a challenge before students start studying, why wait for learning analytics to identify it as a problem?
  • the next argument is the need to ensure that the high investment each student (or their parents) makes in higher education is not wasted by a failure to complete a program. Because of the high cost, fear of failure is increasing student stress. At Dartmouth, a third of the undergraduate student body saw mental health counsellors last year. However, the solution to that may not be better learning analytics, but finding ways to finance students that don’t lead to such stress in the first place;
  • another rationale is to reduce the financial risk to an institution. The Chief Technology Officer at Skyfactor argues that with revenues from tuition fees of around $25,000+ per student per annum in the USA, avoiding student drop-out is a financial necessity for many U.S. institutions. However, surely there is a moral necessity as well in ensuring that your students don’t fail.

Making sense of learning analytics

The Open University has always collected data on students since it started. In fact, McIntosh, Calder and Smith (1976) found that statistically, the best predictor of success was whether a student returned a questionnaire in the first week of a course, as this indicated their commitment. It still didn’t tell you what to do about the students who didn’t return the questionnaire. (In fact, the OU’s solution at the time was not to count anyone as an enrolment until they had completed an assignment two weeks into the course – advice that MOOC proponents might pay attention to).

As with so many technology developments, the issue is not so much the technology but how the technology is used, and for what purposes. Conscientious instructors have always tried to track or monitor the progress of individual students and learning analytics merely provides a more quantitative and measurable way of tracking progress. The issue though is whether the data you can track and measure can offer solutions when students do run into trouble.

My fear is that learning analytics will replace the qualitative assessment that an instructor gets from, for instance, participating in a live student discussion, monitoring an online discussion forum, or marking assignments. This is more likely to identify the actual conceptual or learning problems that students are having and is more likely to provide clues to the instructor about what needs to be done to address the learning issues. Indeed in a discussion the instructor may be able to deal with it on the spot and not wait for the data analysis. Whether a student chooses to study late at night, for instance, or only reads part of a textbook, might provide a relatively weak correlation with poorer student performance, but recommending students not to stay up late or to read all the textbook may not be the appropriate response for any individual student, and more importantly may well fail to identify key problems with the teaching or learning.

Who gets to use the data?

Which brings me to my last point. Ruth Tudor, president of the Open University’s Students’ Association, reported that:

when the data analytics programme was first mooted, participants were “naturally” anxious about the university selling the information it collected to a third party.

The OU has given strong assurances that it will not do this, but there is growing concern that as higher education institutions come to rely more on direct funding and less government support, they will be tempted to raise revenues by selling data to third parties such as advertisers. As Andrew Keen has argued, this is a particular concern about MOOCs, which rely on other means than direct fees for financial support.

Thus it is incumbent on institutions using learning analytics to have very strong and well enforced policies about student privacy and use of student data. The problem then though is that can easily lead to instructors being denied access to the very data which is of most value in identifying student learning difficulties and possible solutions. Finding the right balance, or applying common sense, is not going to be easy in this area.

Reference

McIntosh, N., Calder, J. and Swift, B. (1976) A Degree of Difference New York: Praeger