Cimate change as a social problem

We cannot rely on governments, businesses or the public to adopt technological solutions to solve the problem of climate change, instead, social solutions must be put in place, according to research published in the International Journal of Sustainable Society.

According to Stephen Axon of the School of Natural Sciences and Psychology, at Liverpool John Moores University, UK, addressing real and present climate change has looked to technological solutions. However, this has to a large extent not led to immediate action to address the severity of the imminent crisis of rising global temperatures and associated problems due to the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations due to human activity. Indeed, there has been an over-reliance on seeking out technological responses and only minimal attention paid to the role of social solutions that might actually get sufficient numbers of people engaged in the problem.

Axon suggests that following the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December 2015 there has been increased awareness of the growing problem of climate change among members of the public. There is now a need for people to demonstrate unity, use social media to garner support and attention and to ensure our young people are also educated and empowered with regards to the problem. Such social changes will help to ensure that those in power are sent a clear signal that climate change must be addressed and also show the so-called “denialists” that the public opinion expects the problem to be addressed and not ignored or rebuffed.

The transition to a sustainable society in which we have faced up to climate change and found ways to ameliorate the problems it is bringing and perhaps even halting the rise in temperatures will be characterised by social and behavioural solutions and these must be tailored to the needs of individuals and communities, shaped and reshaped in response to individual need, Axon suggests. A community-led, grassroots response is the way forward. By demonstrating a united front against climate change within and beyond communities, mirroring rhetoric with action and empowering young people to engender new sustainable habits it might be possible to remove barriers to action and make sustainability acceptable in more meaningful ways to individuals.

Axon, S. (2016) ‘Sustaining public engagement with addressing climate change and the role of social solutions‘, Int. J. Sustainable Society, Vol. 8, No. 3, pp.185-205.

Could hackers put your lights out?

The development of the smart power grid and the smart meter in our homes to accompany it brings several benefits, such as improved delivery and more efficient billing. Conversely, any digital, connected technology also represents a security risk. Writing in the International Journal of Smart Grid and Green Communications, UK researchers explain how a malicious third party that hacked into the metering system could manipulate en masse the data being sent back to the smart grid and perhaps trigger a power generation shortfall.

Carl Chalmers, Michael Mackay and Aine MacDermott of Liverpool John Moores University, explain how the implementation of the smart grid brings many improvements over the traditional energy grid by making use of the vast interconnected infrastructure that allows two-way communication and automation throughout the entire grid, from generator to consumer and back.

“A smart grid is a complex modern electricity system which utilises sensors, monitoring, communications, and automation, to improve the electricity system,” the team writes. “Smart grids fundamentally change the way in which we generate, distribute and monitor our electricity. They dramatically improve the efficiency, flexibility and reliability of the existing electricity infrastructure,” they add.

The researchers point out that a critical difference between the old “passive” electricity grid and the new smart grid, is the presence of the advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) which provides the two-way communication between consumer and generator. The flow of data between consumers and generators allows the power generation companies to match demand with generation, to spot patterns in changing demand on a day to day basis or through the changing seasons and more.

However, as the UK has shifted focus from coal- and oil-fired electricity generation to being more reliant on natural gas as the fuel of choice (irrespective of wind, solar, nuclear and other alternatives), this makes the electricity grid somewhat vulnerable to accidental and incidental problems with the flow of data and to malicious manipulation for the sake of sabotage, criminal or online military/terrorist action.

The team adds that, “Critical infrastructures in particular, present a tempting target for terrorists, military strikes and hackers wanting to cause disruption, steal information or incapacitate a country remotely.” The team suggests that now we are forewarned of the possible worst-case scenario with regard to the smart grid and smart meters, we must put in place security measures to protect the infrastructure and maintain that security as the hackers advance to stay at least one step ahead of the threat.

Chalmers, C., Mackay, M. and MacDermott, A. (2016) ‘Securing the smart grid: threats and remediation‘, Int. J. Smart Grid and Green Communications, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp.166-190.

Making MOOCs that stay the course

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are popular with educational establishments as an efficient way to deliver their materials. Unfortunately, student engagement does not match the enthusiasm of the educators and the number who complete any given course is disturbingly low, according to research published in the International Journal of Learning Technology. The authors of the paper, suggest that an engagement model for MOOCs needs to be implemented and simple steps taken to improve completion rates.

Jane Sinclair and Sara Kalvala of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Warwick, Coventry, UK, explain that the advent of MOOCs over the last few years has seen millions of people signing up for courses, hoping to improve their education, skills, job prospects, and their lives, in general. For instance, Coursera, one of the leading MOOC platforms has a portfolio of more than 1000 courses and some 22 million registered students while the not-for-profit edX platform provides access to 300 courses to more than three million students.

Attrition and low completion rates are often cited as failures of MOOCs, but in the absence of other measures of success of such courses, the team points out that the criticism is to some extent unfair. Completion of a course, is not necessarily the only measure of its success given that students who ultimately drop out may have gathered what they needed to know or have been inspired to take a different path when only part of the way through the course. There are other positive outcomes that a low completion rate would not take into account, such as the formation of new contacts and friendships among students.

There is an intrinsic problem in using MOOCs for many students. “It appears that learners on many MOOCs are spending much of their learning time on activities which are not generally associated with high learning gain,” the researchers report. “When time is limited, it may well be the more time-consuming reflective and interactive activities that are skipped.” One might assume that inefficient learning in a MOOC as in conventional education might lead to students failing to keep up with coursework and fall back in their understanding as they work through subsequent modules, all of which can lead to disenchantment with a course and ultimately a student dropping out.

However, the problem with assessing and developing MOOCs perhaps lies in the fact that they are really only distant relatives of conventional face-to-face lecture and classroom education. They are also only really kissing cousins to other types of online course. “We need to consider further the nature of the courses and the activities they incorporate,” the team says. “One approach to this is to consider them (and participants’ interaction with them) in terms of the level of meaningful, high impact, engagement activity.” In coming to that conclusion the researchers make the case for the need to understand MOOCs from the student engagement perspective and so improve outcomes and increase completion rates.

Sinclair, J. and Kalvala, S. (2016) ‘Student engagement in massive open online courses‘, Int. J. Learning Technology, Vol. 11, No. 3, pp.218-237.