20 March 2010


'Colour me puzzled', as one friend says, on reading the announcement of a coming event at the UC Teaching & Learning Centre Hothouse, where the presenter will demonstrate
how he is using Web 2.0 technologies, particularly blogs, wikis and media sharing applications, to assess traditional learning outcomes. In a recent classroom activity, it was discovered that less than 2% of the students had ever blogged before, proving that many of the assumptions about 'digital natives' are blatantly wrong and making the Web 2.0 classroom a difficult beast to manage. This workshop will assist beginners to teach Web 2.0 communication skills without compromising existing learning outcomes. Participants will learn how to set up their own blogs, wikis and media sharing tools and receive practical tips on managing the online classroom. It will also provide teachers with the skills to give the 'digital natives' the 'digital education' they should have had already.
Top marks to the presenter for grappling with pedagogical challenges, in a hothouse or otherwise. However, in reading that promo we might ask some questions.

In my opinion the value of a program to "provide teachers with the skills to give the 'digital natives' the 'digital education' they should have had already" is debatable.

As part of that opinion I wonder -
1) If the 'natives' do not have the 'education' already perhaps that is because they do not want or need it.
2) who says "they should have had" the "digital education"? Why? What is the basis for the statement?
3) what are the implications for legal academics in world of web 2.0 (or web 3.0)?
4) is teaching web 2.0 more critical, of a higher priority, than teaching law and teaching critical thinking (or with some students ensuring an awareness of basic grammar)?
Elsewhere I've expressed my opinion regarding some of the enthusiasms for web 2.0, pointing to statistics that on occasion dishearten web 2.0 true believers and questioning glib characterisations such as 'digital natives'.

Few people blog for very long and it is unclear that blogging per se strengthens an author's capacity to critically read, analyse and write. Merely having a keyboard does not an author (or an especially readable) make. We might indeed be thankful that the evanescence of blogs from the under-25 cohort - most as long-lived as a fruitfly but without the flavour - spares the world from a plethora of announcements that x is so so in love, y ate a cheese sandwich and z got munted after Facebooking through an online/offline lecture on pedagogical theory. Contrary to hype about crowdsourcing and the virtuous information commons few people contribute to wikis (as distinct from copying & pasting from them). Much of the web 2.0 education activity appears to be crude repackaging of very traditional exercises, valorising shiny new technology over substantive performance. It is questionable whether transferring the traditional 500 word answer from two A4 sheets onto a blog screen or two transforms the development of generic skills among students, whether asking questions on a wiki is necessarily superior to face-to-face seminars and whether tweets are sublime.

Much of the enthusiasm for web 2.0 strikes me as redolent of past vogues for education by broadcast television or the rollout of VCRs: potentially useful tools whose history induces a certain wariness about the breathless prose and problematical assertions coming from some enthusiasts in the US and elsewhere.

I've meanwhile turned to a recent Pew Internet & American Life report, this one about online US teens.

It claims
a decline in blogging among teens and young adults and a modest rise among adults 30 and older. In 2006, 28% of teens ages 12-17 and young adults ages 18-29 were bloggers, but by 2009 the numbers had dropped to 14% of teens and 15% of young adults. During the same period, the percentage of online adults over thirty who were bloggers rose from 7% blogging in 2006 to 11% in 2009.
The report suggests that
Much of the drop in blogging among younger internet users may be attributable to changes in social network use by teens and young adults. Nearly three quarters (73%) of online teens and an equal number (72%) of young adults use social network sites. By contrast, older adults have not kept pace; some 40% of adults 30 and older use the social sites in the fall of 2009. ...

New survey results also show that among adults 18 and older, Facebook has taken over as the social network of choice; 73% of adult profile owners use Facebook, 48% have a profile on MySpace and 14% use LinkedIn. "Blogging appears to have lost its luster for many young users ...The fad stage is over for teens and young adults and the move to Facebook - which lacks a specific tool for blogging within the network - may have contributed to the decline of blogging among young adults and teens."
There's bad news for microblog enthusiasts -
teens ages 12-17 do not use Twitter in large numbers – just 8% of online teens 12-17 say they ever use Twitter, a percentage similar to the number who use virtual worlds. This puts Twitter far down the list of popular online activities for teens and stands in stark contrast to their record of being early adopters of nearly every online activity.

19 March 2010

Sorry, so sorry, but not quite yet

Michael Kirby's stirred anxieties and resentments with another forecast that Australian governments will eventually apologise for two centuries of law and administrative practice that discriminated against - and often criminalised - same sex activity and people in same sex relationships.

His latest statement is found in Future Justice, a collection of essays for secondary school students that also features contributions by Julian Burnside QC and Peter Doherty. The book
is concerned with what those living today leave behind for future generations. In the first part ... leading academics and thinkers explore the meaning of future justice and our responsibilities with respect to the environment, Indigenous Australians, refugees, science, human rights education, sexuality, economics, Southeast Asia, a Human Rights Charter, the United Nations and the Australian Constitution. The second part of the book features writing by young people on violent conflict, dementia, identity, death, love, celebrity creation and climate change.
The former High Court Justice is reported as commenting that -
Openness about sexuality helps to destroy the foundation for prejudice and discrimination. One day there will be a big parliamentary apology ... to gay people for the oppression that was forced on them and the inequalities that were maintained in the law well beyond their use-by date. Just like the delayed 2008 apology to the Aboriginal people of our country.
That apology would be consistent with the belated acknowledgment by Australian governments of wrongs to Indigenous people and to 'child migrants'.

Kirby argues that a key to overcoming homophobia in Australia is through law reform. He indicates that -
I also do not doubt that, in a comparatively short time, Australia will move towards same-sex civil unions and gay marriage ... No one has satisfactorily explained how my 40-year loving relationship with my partner Johan in any way affects (still less undermines) heterosexual marriage.
In 2008 he was reported as referring to calls -
that I should apologise for being in a relationship with my partner at the time that homosexual acts were a criminal offence. I suggested that this was like saying that Nelson Mandela should apologise for ... breaching the racist laws during the apartheid days. When the law changes, it is sometimes appropriate to provide apologies to those who were oppressed by the old law. More important than apologies, however, are practical measures that remove the discrimination in the law books. Fortunately, this is now happening in our country, slowly but surely.
In commenting on the federal Government's cautious reform package he stated that -
The reforms, if adopted, should not only remove personal inequalities for citizens from sexual minorities, they should enhance self-respect and human dignity, which is the right of every individual in a society like Australia's. Future generations will look back in astonishment at the past discrimination, just as we do today to the previous legal discriminations against Aboriginals, women and Asians in Australia.
He went on to note -
Further reforms are needed for transgender and intersex people. To reform the law is one thing. To secure changes in social attitudes is another. ... Changing attitudes may be difficult; but it can be done. In my lifetime, I have seen changes of attitudes towards Aboriginals, women and Asian and other non-'white' races in Australia. There is a big difference between 'tolerance' (a most condescending word) and 'acceptance'. It is acceptance that we should work towards. I have a feeling that we in Australia are in an important cross-roads in the evolution of acceptance of difference and diversity in our society. I hope that this will come about and we must all do whatever we can to promote acceptance and to grow out of infantile attitudes that insist that people must all be exactly the same.
The Herald Sun charmingly editorialises "No More Sorries".

18 March 2010


The national Attorney-General has announced passage of the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Sexual Offences Against Children) Bill 2010 (Cth) [here], aimed at strengthening child sex tourism laws and at introducing new offences for dealing in child pornography or child abuse material overseas.

The legislation strengthens existing national law by -
* increasing to 20 years imprisonment the penalties for Australians who travel overseas to sexually abuse children;

* introducing new aggravated offences with penalties of 25 years imprisonment where the offender was in a position of trust (eg as a teacher or aid worker), the child was mentally impaired or the offender engaged in a sexual relationship with a child "over a period of time";

* increasing penalties for online child pornography offences and creating a new high penalty offence for online child pornography networks;

* introducing new online offences for sending indecent material to, or for sexual activity with, a child;

* introducing a suite of child sex-related postal service offences; and

* introducing a new scheme for the forfeiture of child pornography or child abuse material, or items such as computers containing material.
The Explanatory Memo for the Bill notes that -
The Commonwealth's regime includes offences criminalising child sex tourism (sexual offences against children overseas) and using the Internet or postal service for child sex-related activity. These offences are generally directed at persons under 16 years of age. This is consistent with the age of consent in the majority of Australian States and Territories. The Government believes that setting the age of consent at 16 years of age strikes the appropriate balance between the need to protect vulnerable persons from sexual exploitation, and the need to allow for sexual autonomy.
The Bill will amend the Crimes Act 1914 (Cth). The new legislation will -
repeal the existing child sex tourism offence regime in the Crimes Act and move the provisions to the Criminal Code. It will also strengthen the child sex tourism offence regime by introducing new offences for steps preceding actual sexual activity with a child, improving the operation of existing offences for sexual intercourse or other sexual activity with a child and by introducing new sexual activity offences directed at aggravated conduct, persistent sexual abuse and sexual activity with a young person (between 16 and 18 years of age) where the defendant is in a position of trust or authority in relation to the young person.

[The amendments] will also introduce new offences for Australians dealing in child pornography and child abuse material overseas. Commonwealth, State and Territory offences criminalise dealings in child pornography and child abuse material within Australia and through the Internet. However, there are currently no offences applying extraterritorially to dealings in such material by Australians overseas. Accordingly, Part 1 will introduce new offences for possessing, controlling, producing, distributing or obtaining child pornography or child abuse material outside Australia.

The purpose of the amendments ... is to ensure that all behaviour relating to sexual offences against children by Australians within Australia (covered by State and Territory offences) is also criminalised when committed by Australians overseas.

[The new legislation] will introduce new offences for using a postal or similar service for child sex-related activity. While there is a general offence of using a postal service to menace, harass or cause offence (carrying a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment), there are currently no specific offences for using a postal service for child sex-related activity. This had lead to inconsistencies in how child sex-related activity using a carriage service and comparable activity using a postal service, is treated. Accordingly, [the changes] will introduce a comprehensive suite of offences that criminalise the use of a postal service, mirroring existing, and proposed, carriage service offences and penalties.

[It] will also enhance the coverage of offences for using a carriage service (eg the Internet) for child pornography or child abuse material or for sexual activity with children. In 2005, new offences for using a carriage service for child pornography or child abuse material, or for grooming or procuring a child for sexual activity, were inserted into the Criminal Code. [The changes] will extend and improve the operation of these existing offences. It will also introduce new offences for using a carriage service for indecent communications with a child or for sexual activity with a child.

15 March 2010

Disability Standards

The national Government has launched formal Disability Standards for Access to Premises [here]. The Standards, in the form of a 54 page document, articulate minimum access requirements for people with a disability - in practice a physical disability - in relation to publicly accessible buildings (ie buildings such as office blocks, shops, hotels, motels and common areas of new apartment blocks rather than to private houses). Existing buildings are "covered to the extent that they undergo significant upgrade work" and the Standards contain an exemption for circumstances where compliance would "cause unjustifiable hardship for the persons undertaking the upgrade".

The Standards cover features such as accessible lifts, corridors, stairs, ramps and toilets. The expectation is that -
by requiring better access to buildings, the Standards will ensure that people with a disability can access employment, services and the community on an equal basis with other Australians.

The Standards will also provide greater certainty for business by providing for national consistency and reducing different regulatory arrangements. They will also provide the basis for improved arrangements for disability access in the Building Code of Australia. ...

The finalisation of these Standards represents an important part of ensuring an inclusive Australian society that enables people with a disability to fulfil their potential as equal citizens.
The Standards will commence on 1 May 2011; the Government has agreed to undertake a review of the Standards within five years. They inform the 10-year National Disability Strategy, to be released later this year.

Finalisation of the Standards has been informed by the Access All Areas: Inquiry into Draft Disability (Access to Premises - Buildings) Standards report [PDF] from the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal & Constitutional Affairs. (The Government's response to that report was also released today.)

14 March 2010

Permeable barriers

The Hon Brendan O'Connor, national Minister for Home Affairs, has announced passage of the Crimes Amendment (Working With Children - Criminal History) Bill 2009 (Cth) [here].

The legislation is promoted as "a crucial part of the Government's strategy to help protect children from sexual, physical and emotional harm", given that "children deserve our utmost efforts to ensure their safety and wellbeing".

The Bill will amend the Crimes Act 1914 (Cth) -
to expand the range of criminal history information that can be exchanged between jurisdictions for the purpose of assessing the suitability of persons to work with children.

These amendments will allow authorised screening units to receive a greater range of Commonwealth criminal history information in order to assess the risk a person poses in working with children.

The use and disclosure of the information will only be for this limited purpose, and will be subject to strict safeguards.

Screening units will be required to comply with applicable privacy, human rights and records management legislation and to reflect the principles of natural justice in their screening processes.
Reviews of the legislation, which implements a November 2008 agreement by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), will be conducted in 2011 and 2013. As part of the 2008 agreement, each Australian jurisdiction is required to remove any legislative impediments to the exchange of criminal history information for people working with children. The current Bill removes the legislative barriers at the Commonwealth level to ensure that the national government can provide information in accord with the COAG agreement.

The legislation aims to -
help protect children from sexual, physical and emotional harm by permitting criminal history information to be disclosed and taken into account in assessing the suitability of persons for work with children.
Work includes -
(a) work:
(i) under a contract of employment, contract of apprenticeship or contract for services; or
(ii) in a leadership role in a religious institution, as part of the duties of a religious vocation or in any other capacity for the purposes of a religious institution; or
(iii) as an officer of a body corporate, member of the committee of management of an unincorporated body or association or member of a partnership; or
(iv) as a volunteer, other than unpaid work engaged in for a private or domestic purpose; or
(v) as a self-employed person;
(b) practical training as part of a course of education or vocational training;
(c) acting in a prescribed capacity or engaging in a prescribed activity.
In essence, the Bill contains amendments to Part VIIC of the Crimes Act. That Part governs the disclosure and non-disclosure of pardons, quashed and spent convictions. It provides that a person whose conviction is 'spent', pardoned or quashed does not have to disclose the fact of the conviction. It also prohibits others from disclosing the conviction without the person's consent and from taking it into account.

The amendments would create an exception for convictions of persons who work or seek to work with children, so that those convictions can be disclosed to and taken into account by a wide range of Commonwealth, State and Territory screening agencies in determining whether the person is suitable to work with children.

The amendments thus repeal existing exclusions in Division 6 regarding disclosure by bodies such as CrimTrac and the Australian Federal Police of spent convictions information in relation to the care, instruction or supervision of minors. Those provisions are replaced with new exclusions that allow the disclosure of information about a person's spent, quashed and pardoned convictions to entities permitted/required to obtain and deal with information about persons who work, or seek to work, with children.

Section 85ZU of the Crimes Act currently provides that, where a person's conviction has been quashed, in particular circumstances and for particular purposes, it is lawful for that person to claim that he/she was not charged with, or convicted of, the offence, and other people may not disclose or take into account (for the particular purpose) the fact that the person has been charged or convicted, without his or her consent.

The Bill amends the section so that it is subject to exclusions, meaning that those restrictions will not apply to the disclosure of quashed convictions for the purpose of assessing the risk a person may pose to the safety and well-being of children if they are engaged in child-related work. That will permit agencies such as CrimTrac to disclose quashed convictions for the purpose of assessing a person's suitability to engage in child-related work.

That disclosure is problematical and the Government has indicated that
A comprehensive regime for assessing people who work, or seek to work with children must be balanced with a person's right to rehabilitation, privacy and employment. Accordingly, the use and disclosure of extended criminal history information will be subject to stringent safeguards and conditions.

One safeguard included in the Bill is that the criminal history information received may only be used for the limited purpose of assessing the risk that a person may pose in working with children. The information may not be used for the purpose of a general probity or employment suitability check.
Given misadventures with information going for a wander outside state/territory government offices (and nongovernment bodies gifted with such data) the Government has announced that -
Another important safeguard under the COAG agreement is that certain participation requirements must be met before a person or body can receive the information. In accordance with the COAG agreement, a person or body will only be prescribed for the purpose of enabling them to receive conviction information if the person or body:
. is authorised by the government of the State or Territory in which it operates
. has a legislative basis for screening that prohibits further release or use of the information (except for legislated child protection functions in exceptional circumstances)
. complies with applicable privacy, human rights and records management legislation
. reflects principles of natural justice, and
. has risk assessment frameworks and appropriately skilled staff to assess risks to children's safety.

Fear and Loathing at Curtin U?

Perhaps some people at Curtin University have been reading too much Hunter S Thompson, judging by Niall Lucy's Pomo Oz: Fear and Loathing Down Under (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2010). It's a splenetic attack on "piety", "sanctimonious politicians" and "Conservatives" who fail to appreciate the greatness of Jack Derrida and say bad things about "postmodernism". Make the bad men go away, mummy, make them go away.

In a word it's a hoot - one of the funniest books I've read this year, although presumably not in the way that Lucy intended.

After the preceding post I'm tempted to say that it as a luscious work, a work of gonzo-ish excess that like much of Derrida, Zizek and Lyotard embodies a fundamental slipperiness.

Lucy frets that -
The problem for those who oppose postmodernism, as I see it, isn't 'postmodernism' as such; the problem is that there's too much questioning of authority going on nowadays, especially among young people, which is troublesome for the powerful interests that authorities - government, businesses, the churches, the media and so on - represent. 'Postmodernism' is only ever condemned in order to protect the interests of a particular authority or even the general concept of authority'.
Really? All business and "the media" are the same? Any criticism, any questioning of "postmodernism" is repressive?

Is all "authority" bad? Lucy apparently doesn't think so, given recurrent invocations of Derrida and Kinsella, along with snark such as his dismissal of Gavin Kitching -
... a professor of politics who is not, in any sense that an accredited philosopher would acknowledge, a philosopher! This also from someone who can't read Wittgenstein and doesn't understand postmodernism, who's spent the past fifteen years of his career supervising and examining Honours dissertations on postmodern (or, as Kitching prefers, 'postmodernist') theory without actually having any expertise in the field.
Criticism is "breathtaking in its presumption", apparently, when one doesn't have "expertise in the field" - an absence that's apparently demonstrated by the act of criticism. To adopt Derrida's aphorism, "There is nothing outside the text" - his text, it seems, or the text of the brave band of heroes who are fending off the relentless attacks of The Conservatives and those with a different interpretation of Wittgenstein.

Pomo Oz is an echo of The War on Democracy: Conservative Opinion in the Australian Press: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the Australian Dream (University of Western Australia Press, 2006) by Lucy & Steve Mickler, intermittently entertaining but vitiated by a caricatural view of "conservatives", "business", "the media" and "democracy". Margaret Simons acutely reviewed that work by saying -
Why have conservative newspaper commentators been more successful than the left wing in capturing public debate? After reading this book I am tempted to answer "because they write better".

Getting to grips with Lucy and Mickler's arguments involves wading through a sea of double negatives, more qualifying clauses than News Limited has neo-cons and sentences that seem to exist in fear of the full stop.

After the self-conscious prose, one is left with a few good points spoiled by the authors' seeming inability to acknowledge a simple fact: that it is possible for people of goodwill to fundamentally disagree. Instead, the authors seem to believe that those they dub "conservatives" must necessarily be fools, charlatans or both. ...

The definition of conservative seems to be circular. What makes these commentators conservative? The thesis of the book is that they are anti-democratic. Democracy is defined as being more than a system of representative government. It is an "idea as well as an ideal" - the never completed process of spreading freedom and justice. Hence the "war" of the title. The conservative columnists are united, in the authors' view, in their hatred of emancipation and their defence of the established order.

This is promising ground for intellectual analysis but the guts of the book disappoints. The logical leaps are breathtaking. One example: the authors point out that the head of asbestos manufacturer James Hardie, Meredith Hellicar, is also chairwoman of Gerard Henderson's Sydney Institute and speculate about whether this means the institute is funded by James Hardie. But from this speculation, they move seamlessly to this: "While (Henderson is) up to his neck in asbestos filings, he's never been made accountable for this in the public sphere."

It's quite a slur, and without the benefit of any evidence. The legitimate point - that Henderson rarely turns his critical faculties on corporate Australia - is lost. There is a leap of logic like this in almost every chapter.

I would like to like this book. I find some - not all - of the columnists the authors attack fundamentally intellectually dishonest, relying on labels, abuse, while often eschewing or distorting all evidence that does not reinforce their argument.

But this book doesn't help things much. In its worst excesses of ad hominem argument, generalisation, leaps in logic, smear, labelling, pretension and attack-dog attitude, it matches the worst excesses of the columnists who are its subjects - but in more turgid prose.