Archive for June 2011

Anti-grunt technology

June 30, 2011

I am genuinely so glad that technological work is being done to protect the more sensitive television viewers; more precisely, to protect viewers of the Wimbledon tennis tournament who blush, or otherwise react in a way to suggest that smelling salts are called for, whenever a tennis player is heard to grunt.

But first, let’s have a look – or a listen – at what this is all about. Let us go to the champion grunter, Ms Maria Sharapova. Here she is. This is indeed distracting. Then again, recently I heard someone say that the tennis was distracting him from her grunting, so maybe not everyone feels the same way.

But for those who do, the fiendishly clever technological experts at the BBC have come up with something. Here’s what we’re told: they have invented something that will leave your Wimbledon enjoyment grunt-free. Yes indeed.

‘The noise reduction programme, called Wimbledon NetMix, allows people to fade out the sound of the players grunting on court, and turn up the volume of the commentators.’

Yes, human progress moves ever onwards. Every year our life is made a little better.

Tackling basic literacy skills

June 30, 2011

According to Patrick Kinsella, Head of the School of Communications in Dublin City University, journalism students enter the university with excellent final school results but with major ‘gaps in their grasp of basic English, including spelling, grammar, punctuation and word usage.’ According to a report in the Irish Times, DCU will now ‘allocate more time to the teaching of basic writing skills to first-year journalism students’.

Many universities in the English speaking world now have similar experiences. But not everywhere. A colleague who recently came back from two months teaching in India told me that students there write in ‘beautiful English’ and with hardly any mistakes in spelling and grammar. When I attended an event at which a number of students spoke in China, not long ago, I was also hugely impressed with the standard of English in evidence there.

This is not a minor issue. Many institutions in these islands derive a considerable income from teaching English as a foreign language, and people coming to Britain and Ireland often do so to learn the language. In addition, the capacity of our students and graduates to express themselves clearly and correctly matters in all sorts of settings, including journalism, business, education, the arts and others.

The DCU initiative is to be welcomed, but others also need to address this problem. The English language is an important resource for us; we need to treat it well.

University governance review in Scotland

June 29, 2011

I have previously pointed out in this blog that I have been asked by the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell MSP, to chair a review of university governance in Scotland. The remit of this review was published by the government on Wednesday. The key principles against which governance is to be assessed are democratic accountability, autonomy, transparency, the effectiveness of management and governance, the clarity of strategic purpose, and its efficient implementation.

The review panel is now calling for submissions from interested parties. My invitation to do so can be found here. More specifically, those wanting to submit are invited to answer a number of questions, which can be found here.

This review will benefit from the submission of a wide range of views, and I hope that readers of this blog will be willing to support the exercise in this way.

Tuition fees in Scotland for students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland

June 29, 2011

Recent events in England have created an issue for Scottish higher education. While in Scotland the principle of free access to universities is a central part of public policy, English higher education institutions can now charge tuition fees of up to £9,000, and most as we know have chosen to set fees at or near that level. This created a potential problem for Scottish higher education: if there were no fees for students from the rest of the UK, or low fees, the student places in Scottish universities would come under pressure from demand from south of the border, and this would create significant problems for Scottish students.

On Wednesday the Scottish Government took a significant step towards addressing this concern. The announcement by the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell MSP, that students from the rest of the UK will be charged up to £9,000 to study at Scottish universities will protect student places while allowing the institutions to recruit students from the rest of the UK in a sensible manner. While this is a difficult decision, it is the right one and Scottish universities have welcomed the announcement.

In England there has been a rush by the majority of universities to charge the full permitted £9,000 tuition fee.  I am inclined to doubt that, in relation to fees for rest-of-UK students, this will be reflected across all Scottish universities. I would at any rate hope and expect that many will set fees at below this maximum level.  All will have to take decisions on this over the next two or three months, so that students who will shortly make choices about where to study in 2012 will have this information available to them.

Given the rather chaotic higher education policies being implemented in England, it is not easy for Scotland to maintain a different ethos in its system. So far it has been able to do so, and while there are some issues to be addressed, Scottish universities are able to operate in a much more stable and predictable setting than elsewhere in these islands. That is worth preserving.

The future of higher education: the outlook from England

June 29, 2011

The British government has now issued its long-expected and somewhat delayed White Paper on the future of England’s system of higher education. The title - Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System – gives a clue as to how the government wants to present its new educational order. It is being presented more as a framework for empowering students than as a framework for adjusting funding methods and sources.

It seems to me that the following three paragraphs (6, 7 and 10 in the executive summary) describe the essence of the government’s higher education policy for England.

’6. The changes we are making to higher education funding will in turn drive a more responsive system. To be successful, institutions will have to appeal to prospective students and be respected by employers. Putting financial power into the hands of learners makes student choice meaningful.

’7. We will move away from the tight number controls that constrain individual higher education institutions, so that there is a more dynamic sector in which popular institutions can grow and where all universities must offer a good student experience to remain competitive. We will manage this transition carefully to avoid unnecessary instability and keep within the overall budget.

’10. We will make it easier for new providers to enter the sector. We will simplify the regime for obtaining and renewing degree-awarding powers so that it is proportionate in all cases. We will review the use of the title ‘university’ so there are no artificial barriers against smaller institutions. It used to be possible to set up a new teaching institution teaching to an external degree. Similarly, it was possible to set exams for a degree without teaching for it as well. We will once more decouple degree-awarding powers from teaching in order to facilitate externally-assessed degrees by trusted awarding bodies.’

On the whole, early reaction has been fairly balanced, as this site maintained by the Guardian shows. But the substance of the White Paper has been described by some commentators as a further move towards the commodification of higher education. I’m not sure I necessarily see it that way. Rather, the British government is presenting higher education as part of a new competitive environment, in which institutions compete for students and the resources they bring, and with each other and with new entrants (many of them private and for-profit).

The question that this poses is whether such competition will prompt excellence and innovation, or whether its impact will be less desirable. For example, will new private teaching institutions raise the overall pedagogical game as the government anticipates, or will they merely produce commercial advantage for the new players? Could leading global news organisations – the New York Times being the latest one that is making such a move – introduce something innovative and interesting? Or might this be just a corporate land grab that won’t add anything to higher education innovation and quality?

In fairness we probably have to say that the jury is out. The government is presenting its ideas as being about institutional responsiveness to student interests (which some students might find hard to recognise given the new fees régime) – will they also be able to prompt educational excellence? What makes at least this commentator sceptical about that outcome is that the White Paper is focused primarily on process and resources, rather than on pedagogy and scholarship. Chapter 2 of the document does address teaching excellence, but places it mainly in the context of contact hours and course information. In the end though it is the content and method of teaching, and the link between student learning and staff scholarship, that determine excellence. They are more important even than money, or at least they come before money in higher education planning. And for reforms to work, that must be understood.

Good teaching is about passion

June 27, 2011

When I was a law student in the 1970s, we had one lecturer whose teaching was simply appalling. He sat while lecturing (with no physical reasons for doing so). He never looked at the class. He never asked questions, rhetorical or otherwise. He never encouraged analysis. His delivery was monotonous. He never showed or used humour. He never varied the content of his lectures from year to year. In examining, he rewarded (and therefore got) the uncritical regurgitation of his own views. He was a kind of icon of pedagogical awfulness.

What made this particular lecturer so terrible was that he seemed to have no passion of any kind for his subject, or for the topics that he covered. His teaching, if it was that, was simply something that got him from the beginning to the end of the lecture, and from the beginning to the end of the academic year. It had no purpose other than that of filling an allotted slot in the syllabus. This kind of emotional disengagement is however contagious. A lecturer who shows no real interest or spirit stirs up similar apathy amongst their students. Despite that, some of them will base their careers on the topic in question, and will become another generation of the disengaged.

All subjects, if they are worth teaching, are worth getting excited about. When I was a PhD student in Cambridge, I occasionally amused myself by attending the lectures of a Botany lecturer who had this extraordinarily infectious enthusiasm for his subject. I knew nothing about the subject, but I loved the passion he showered on it.

There are many things that make a lecturer good. Charles L. Brewer, Professor of Psychology in Furman University, in a well known address in 2005 on the Joy of Teaching, stated that he had always ‘tried to teach with passion, preparation, parsimony, perseverance, and patience.’ I would suggest that the greatest of these is passion.

The Ten Commandments of online teaching

June 27, 2011

I suspect that nobody is yet quite certain on how prevalent online teaching will become, and whether it is always the same thing as elearning. We know that there exists a fair amount of online material now to record or complement classroom teaching. We know that there are materials available online that are, in essence, traditional classroom materials that have been uploaded and made available somewhere, but which were not really designed for online use. And we know that there are programmes that are now delivered fully online without any physical classroom dimension. Of course we also know that there have been some excellent early adopters in the academic community of online education in its various forms, but equally we know that there are some academics who still struggle to switch on a computer, never mind doing absolutely anything online.

In the meantime, Penn State University’s World Campus has produced what they are calling the Ten Principles of Effective Online Teaching, these being:

 • Show Up and Teach
• Practice Proactive Course Management Strategies
• Establish Patterns of Course Activities
• Plan for the Unplanned
• Response Requested and Expected
• Think Before You Write
• Help Maintain Forward Progress
• Safe and Secure
• Quality Counts
• (Double) Click a Mile on My Connection

The key ingredient of these principles is to be much clearer about what online education is about and what it is supposed to deliver:

‘What we know about teaching in the classroom, good or bad, may not translate well online with somewhat complicated technologies, new social orders, and media-rich resources. Without express guidance on what is expected of the online instructor, they are left to “figure it out,” leading to frustrated students and probably a less than desirable teaching experience.’

What is also clear from this document is that the role of the online teacher is, if anything, more demanding and complex than that of the teacher in the traditional classroom. In particular, the management of students and their interaction with the teacher and with each other is vital and not easy.

It is my suspicion that some universities are slipping into aspects of online education that may not be as fully grounded in pedagogy as would be ideal. Too often online courses are just traditional programmes, slightly (but not sufficiently) adapted. It may well be that online learning will become the norm. If this is so, it had better be properly planned and designed, and indeed properly resourced.

From writer to reader, directly

June 26, 2011

Until recently one of the most basic pieces of advice given to any author was to avoid vanity publishing. In other words, if you have a book, make sure you publish it via the normal routes, usually with an agent and a publisher, and for money. The book will be printed and distributed to bookshops, and every so often you’ll get a royalty statement which will tell you how remarkably little you have earned.

Is that all about to change? J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, has announced that her next book will be self-published in ebook form. For someone of Rowling’s fame this should be a commercial success easily enough, but it is possible that even people with far more modest reputations will in future be able to make some money by offering electronic versions of their work without the intervention of the traditional publishing industry. Perhaps even hard copy printed versions can in future be much more easily sold directly online.

It is to be hoped that this is exactly what will happen. An ever smaller number of ever more powerful publishers have been holding both readers and writers to ransom. It is time to break free.

Animal farms in global politics

June 25, 2011

Today, June 25, is the birthday of the English writer and journalist Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell. Known everywhere and chiefly for his books Nineteen-Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, Orwell in fact was a prolific writer of novels, documentary books, pamphlets and poems. A democratic socialist by conviction, he was also a strong opponent of totalitarianism, and this latter pre-occupation – worked out in the two works referred to above – has immortalised him in the term ‘Orwellian’.

Those who may believe that Orwell’s work is of historical interest but no longer addresses issues of current significance should think again. Orwellian conditions exist in many countries, and with the capacity that now exists for technology to be used to extend state controls and intrusions no country can be declared with confidence to be immune.

It is entirely desirable that every new generation should read Orwell’s work.

Sporting a university ambition

June 23, 2011

The former Harvard University President, Derek Bok, commented in his book Universities in the Marketplace that the creeping commercialisation of higher education that he so disliked began with the development of sports in universities. As is well known, in the United States many universities give special prominence to athletes and sportsmen and women, and some of them are able to enter their chosen institution without necessarily having the required academic qualifications. Organisations such as the University Sports Program exist to help young American athletes find an institution that best suits their sporting abilities and interests.

Universities on this side of the Atlantic have now also begun to take a much greater interest in sport, including my own university, Robert Gordon University. In most cases this is underpinned by an academic sports programme, often degree courses in sport science. My last university, DCU, has a Sports Academy which gives special support to young people with exceptional talents in athletics or GAA football (Gaelic football), who are however also expected to perform to a high standards in their academic work. My current university, RGU, runs a sports scholarship programme that helps talented men and women develop their sporting talents while also completing their academic studies. And in passing, I cannot help liking the fact that RGU, too, performs really well in GAA football, connecting my current university with my Irish background. Both universities have been able to support international sportsmen and women – with RGU’s Hannah Miley a 2012 Olympic medal hopeful.

If a country wants to participate at the highest levels in international sporting competitions the universities need to play a key role. Young athletes will need to get some of the best coaching and training just at the time when they are also likely to want to (or need to) participate in higher education. They will also need to achieve academic success to ensure that they have a future beyond the age at which they can compete in their sport. Furthermore, recruiting top class faculty in sports science and developing the necessary physical infrastructure allows universities to introduce important elements in the science curriculum and in health research.

It is true that care needs to be taken that sporting activities are properly integrated into appropriate academic strategies for the university, but where that is done sports can play a very significant role. We probably do not want to go down the road taken in many US institutions, where academic pursuits take second place to sports and where sports coaches can be the institution’s highest earners; but we should recognise the developmental and even academic value of sports and we should support university sporting programmes.


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