Archive for April 2012

My colleague the computer

April 30, 2012

It’s that time of year when academics all over the place get ready for another avalanche of marking and assessment. In my own case, while I really do miss teaching very much and am looking at ways of returning to it, I don’t miss marking. Not even slightly. And I feel for those who will, over the next couple of months, be inundated with it.

But is there another way? In fact, could we just give the job to computers? And might we find that they can grade essays and assignments and examinations just as effectively as we can? Well perhaps, according to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Akron. They compared grades given to 22,000 short essays written in American schools by live examiners with those recorded by computers running ‘automated essay scoring software’. The differences were, according to the researchers, ‘minute’.

I don’t know what kind of software this is, or how it works, or what its stated limitations might be, but this is a pretty amazing result. We know that computers can easily grade multiple choice examinations, but essays? And can we really imagine that an assignment intended to produce reasoned analysis could be assessed by machine? More generally, how much work has been done in considering the role that computers can play in designing, conducting and assessing teaching?

In fact, this is a subject of some interest in the education world. In July of this year there will be a conference in Southampton in England on computer-assisted assessment, and indeed there is a journal on the subject.

There are probably various contexts in which higher education assessment can be conducted by or with the help of software. But equally there are others where, at least from my perspective, it is unlikely that computers will be able to make robust qualitative judgements that could replicate human marking. Somehow I doubt that, in a few years, lecturers will no longer have to be examiners.


How should universities be run?

April 24, 2012

As readers of this blog will know, I chaired the panel set up by the Scottish government to review governance in higher education. This reported in January of this year, and the report was presented by the government to the Scottish Parliament. In presenting it, the Cabinet Secretary for education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell MSP, indicated his support for the report’s recommendations.

In fact there were 43 recommendations. Of these, 40 were unanimously supported by members of the panel. One member dissented from the remaining three. As is sometimes the case in such circumstances, much of the media attention consequently focused on these three issues, and in particular on our recommendation that the chairs of governing bodies should be elected.

However, the report had a much wider focus. Its key principles can be summarised like this: (a) that universities should be autonomous and independent, and that their staff should enjoy academic freedom; (b) that without prejudicing that autonomy, universities should join with the government in an annual discussion of national higher education strategy; (c) that each university’s processes and decision-making should be open and transparent; and (d) that universities should allow full participation by as many as possible in these processes. We recognised the success of Scotland’s higher education system and institutions, but we suggested that the sector needed to ensure that it had and retained the confidence and support of its stakeholders and the wider society. Beyond that, we argued that there should be a shared vision of higher education, and that reform would be more robust if there was more work on producing the objective evidence on which such reform could be discussed.

While there was some opposition to our proposals, it is my view that their implementation is vital. The intention behind this is to ensure that universities – the institutions vital to growth and prosperity – can secure and retain political and public support and confidence. Without this they will be at risk of decline.

The interview as a student selection device – any good?

April 20, 2012

How should a university decide which students to admit? Should it all be done on the basis of a formula, usually related to final school examination results? Or should there be a more detailed assessment, perhaps including interviews?

If interviews were considered the best method, not many universities would have the resources or staffing to conduct them. Two universities that do make use of interviews for student selection are Oxford and Cambridge. However, not everyone finds this method impressive. Recently an applicant to an Oxford College decided, after her interview, to write the College a rejection letter, pointing out that the setting for the interview was likely to be off-putting for students from more modest backgrounds.

Of course interviews are a standard selection tool for employment. A concern always is that an interviewer may ask inappropriate questions, or may be influenced by irrelevant considerations on meeting the applicant in this way. However, over recent years interviewing for employment has become much more professional, and interviewers are usually well trained. But those factors likely to influence selectors inappropriately – i.e. those potentially liable to prompt discriminatory or prejudiced assessments – are even more likely to be factors in student selection, with less likelihood that the interviewers would be properly trained or fully aware of the risks.

There are probably no perfect methods of student selection. But it is important, to the greatest degree possible, to use objective methods, and interviews do not particularly help. Few can afford to use them anyway, but for those who don’t it may be a good idea to stop thinking that they would be better if only they were affordable. They almost certainly would not be better.

Taking leave

April 16, 2012

Back in 1984 I was completing a book, and was finding it difficult to achieve this alongside what had become a rather heavy teaching load. So I approached my head of department, and he decided to give me a term off (this was before the age of semesters in Trinity College Dublin). So I packed my bags and set of for Berkeley in California, where I spent some time sitting in a really excellent library and enjoying the opportunities for intellectual and other stimulation in the San Francisco Bay Area. Not only did I get the time off, I was also able to get the financial support that made the American trip possible. I finished the book, developed a new course, and also discovered a lifelong fascination and love affair with California – but that’s another story.

But now to 2012. A few days ago a former colleague, who got his first academic job from me, sent me an email. He has been in his present university for 11 years, but in that time he has never had any kind of leave. Moreover, recent cuts in his department have left him with a teaching load that leaves no time for sustained research. His head of department has now told him that sabbatical leave is out of the question for the foreseeable future. But at the same time, his department is playing host to a lecturer on leave from another university. As far as my friend can tell, this visitor isn’t doing anything significant, and indeed is telling everyone that the purpose of the leave is to ‘re-charge his batteries’.

So where is all this heading? Is sabbatical leave a luxury we can no longer afford in straitened times? And when we had it more widely, was it sometimes abused?

How we handle the idea of sabbatical leave depends a little on what we think academic employment is all about. Do we want lecturers to be academic explorers and intellectual entrepreneurs? If we do, we need to give them the occasional space to pursue these aims. Equally, we need to ensure that this space is used appropriately. But increasingly we are creating a system in which academics are not designers but assembly line workers, and we are achieving this state of affairs by stealth rather than design.

There are still academics who are able to avail of sabbatical leave. But the number is declining, and the new more restrictive conditions are changing the face of the academy.

Spring 2012

April 14, 2012

In late March 2012, Aberdeen and its surrounding area had the highest temperatures in Britain – it felt more like July. Now we are back in something more like winter, with cold temperatures and changeable conditions. And here is how this looks now in the Cairngorms, not too far from Aberdeen.

Handling dissent

April 13, 2012

In 1985, as the opening up of the Roman Catholic Church in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council was gradually being wound down, the Vatican imposed on the Brazilian priest and liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff, a one-year sentence of ‘obsequious silence’. While I adored the term, and have often been tempted to find worthy subjects for such an order, in reality I was horrified by the idea that curiosity, analysis and open-ended thought could be stifled in this way.

And of course this particular approach to theological dissent has not gone away. In recent days the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (a vaguely Orwellian sounding body) has newly silenced an Irish priest known for his (relatively) liberal views, Father Tony Flannery, and has restricted the freedom to publish of the editor of a religious magazine, Father Gerard Moloney. Fr Flannery has now also been told to get himself to a monastery to reflect on his unorthodox views and (presumably) come up with something more on-message. The views he is expected to lose include support for married and women priests.

It is tempting, at any rate for me, to find this development appalling.  For anyone who is committed to a search for truth and for open-minded analysis, the idea that a group of elderly (and clearly out of touch) men in Rome could order someone – anyone – to stop all this open thinking is simply abhorrent. The consolation may be that the Vatican’s move seems to have unleashed much wider dissent in the Irish RC church.

But nevertheless, let us for a moment look at it from the perspective of the elderly men in the Vatican. For them, the church never changes. Of course in reality it has changed often and will do so again, but the institutional culture is that absolutely no change can happen or even be discussed until it, well, happens. So for them, the issue is simple enough. Fr Flannery is a Roman Catholic priest, and in that capacity he has signed up to a number of key doctrines, and as priest he needs to represent these to the faithful. The church is not a debating club, and while its members may turn ideas around in their minds, the clergy need to be steadfast.

Nor is the Roman Catholic Church alone in having such issues. A few years ago the then Dean of Clonmacnoise in the Church of Ireland, Andrew Furlong, declared he did not believe Jesus was the son of God, and expressed other views incompatible with the creeds to which Anglicanism and other denominations of Christianity subscribe. He was suspended from his ministry and eventually left the priesthood. The point made then was that you could not expect to be paid as a priest if you disagree with the central tenets that you are supposed to represent.

Perhaps the key to all of this is that while Dean Furlong was pretty far removed from almost any principles of Christianity as commonly held, Fr Flannery is looking to have some organisational rules of the church reinterpreted in the light of spiritual reflection, while holding on to the key doctrines and principles.

Dissent is an important support in any search for the truth. Dissent offered from within the fold, from someone committed to the life and health of the institution, is an asset rather than an impediment. A culture of blind obedience, or of ‘obsequious silence’, is far removed from today’s values. If the church is to thrive in the future, it needs to show an understanding of this. In short, Roman Catholicism needs to rediscover the spirit of the Second Vatican Council.

Telling the university story

April 10, 2012

Universities are right at the heart of economic and social development and regeneration. In Ireland for example, most foreign direct investment attracted by the state and its agencies is now connected with high value university research. Regions of the country without a university proclaim that they cannot be developed successfully unless they get one. As the government tries to contain the ranks of the unemployed and to re-skill those looking for work, universities are seen as key. So why do we read stuff like this, as in last weekend’s Sunday Independent? Here are universities as seen by the paper’s Eamon Delaney:

‘In fact, our universities illustrate everything that is wrong with the Celtic Tiger. From being the envy of other countries, and a hothouse of entrepreneurial and intellectual talent, our third-level sector has bankrupted itself with high salaries, poor productivity and minimal periods of actual lecturing.’

Leaving aside for now the question of salaries, none of this is true, even remotely. And yet it is clear that it is a perspective shared by a good many people.  Universities have helped to mitigate some of the worst effects of the recession, and have been willing to take on more students for less money. ‘Productivity’ has increased dramatically.

So why is this not recognised? Why, in short, are universities so appallingly bad at making their own case and putting the record straight? Why are they so reluctant to gather and disseminate the information that would balance the picture? And indeed, why are universities so bad at demonstrating that they are willing to tackle under-performance and abuse of position in those very few cases where it occurs?

Universities are rightly keen to publicise their achievements and successes, but when it comes to explaining their performance more generally they prefer to stay below the radar. This won’t do any more. There are too many sceptics out there with half understood or plain wrong information. It is time for university communications departments to step out of the shadows and make a much more persuasive case.

Returning universities to a less complex age?

April 5, 2012

The following extract from a speech delivered by Ireland’s President, Michael D. Higgins, to the annual congress of the Union of Students in Ireland caught my eye:

‘What kind of a scholastic institution or community of learning is it when you hire a very important person who can bring investment to a university but doesn’t want to teach the main body of undergraduate students?’

There are all sorts of things wrapped up in the President’s question. First, there is an assumption that generating income for a university is not particularly significant. Secondly, there is at least by implication the suggestion that research detracts from a university’s teaching mission. Thirdly, there is a criticism of staff who do not teach, and assumption that there are many of these.

The President’s picture of contemporary Irish universities does not in reality stand up to much scrutiny. Researchers play a vital role in the life of a university. They develop scholarship and knowledge, and sustain a creative and innovative society. Mostly they do teach, often enthusiastically. The quality and standing of Irish universities has improved dramatically since they embarked upon a high value research agenda, from the late 1990s onwards. Students have also significantly benefited from this.

Of course it is good that President Higgins is stimulating debate and questioning value systems. But it would be better if this did not involve a caricature of the country’s universities, or a misunderstanding of what they do and of the contribution they make. The President is suggesting that there may have been a better, purer age of higher education. In truth there are a good many things that could be done better, and there are some developments over recent years that could usefully be questioned. High value research is not one of them.

Higher education: from a ‘sector’ to a ‘system’?

April 2, 2012

Over recent years a view of higher education has developed in a number of countries that runs something like this. Universities have been essential organisations in creating knowledge-driven societies and economies, in creating high value investment and employment, in stimulating entrepreneurial economic activity, in securing innovation in industry and in the provision of services. However, the commitment to institutional autonomy has prevented the emergence of a more fully coordinated national strategy, has had wasteful effects, has encouraged bogus inter-institutional competition, and has made much more difficult the application of appropriate principles of transparency and accountability.

In this analysis, what is seen as the major problem is that universities together behave as a sector rather than a system. They coordinate action to support shared interests such as funding, government policy and the provision of infrastructure, but retreat into full competition to attract students, win research money, gain philanthropic support, and so forth. As a result, governments feel they cannot plan advanced industrial policy, or the development of necessary skills in the workforce, or spatial strategies.

As a result, governments or their agencies have started to look at how they can operate funding levers and other instruments to secure a coordinated system that fully complements public policy. Universities are told that they are still autonomous, but that their autonomy does not include full discretion in determining their strategic direction. Instead, this becomes a matter of negotiation, and through a network of agreements between the government agencies and the universities a ‘system’ is born that avoids duplication and focuses on national priorities. Typically the instrument of coordination is something called an ‘outcome agreement’ that establishes institutional targets the delivery of which is then, at least to some extent, a condition of public funding.

This particular methodology has most recently been established in Ireland. The Higher Education Authority (HEA), in its latest strategic plan, has described its role as follows:

‘Taken overall, the HEA exercises a central oversight role in the higher education system and is the lead agency in the creation of a co-ordinated system of higher education institutions with clear and diverse roles appropriate to their strengths and national needs; it acts as a catalyst for change in the higher education system, requiring higher levels of performance while demonstrating an appropriate level of accountability, consistent with institutional autonomy and academic freedom.’

The plan then indicates that the HEA will establish agreed strategies and outcomes for each institution and then ensure that the institution is held accountable for achieving the outcomes.

It is tempting to dismiss such an approach as a futile exercise in central planning, initiated a couple of decades after central planning in national economies was clearly shown to be wholly disastrous. It is in fact difficult to imagine that the great strengths of higher education – creativity, inventiveness and discovery – can be successfully nurtured through bureaucratic processes.

On the other hand, the increasing volume of funding and resources needed to operate a high value higher education sector makes it unattractive for the taxpayer to throw money in large quantities at institutions that declare they are not going to be told on what they should spend it. Some middle way needs to be found to secure more coordinated strategies that are not the product of bureaucratic directives.

It was in part for this reason that the review of higher education governance in Scotland that I chaired recommended that there should be a forum, convened by government, and involving all the key players (including academics themselves), that would consider national priorities and allow the institutions to find ways of coordinating the sector in response. This, I feel, will be a more sensitive and less bureaucratic way of encouraging the creation of a national ‘system’. It would, I think, be preferable to what is now being proposed for Ireland.