Wednesday, 22 November 2017

HE explained: Academic Pensions - we are all losers

So, the USS is thinking about stopping its Defined Benefit Scheme?  The direct losers - young academics and those 20 years from retirement who have had security (but not certainty) taken away.  Other losers include the rest of us, relying on the selflessness of most academics, giving up their opportunity to earn large amounts of money in their careers in order to share their knowledge, research and insight with the world.

The outcome could well be a devaluation of University education for a whole generation.  We simply do not value what we have.

But wait, there's a solution:
Why not employ old academics beyond their normal retirement age?  Oh, you're already doing that.

OK, why not record all lectures so that the retired lecturer output can be used for future generations of students after retirement? Oh, you're already doing that.

Well, then, why not capture the academics' expertise via a well resourced and serious attempt to go on-line and offer the flexibility and efficiency that students and Universities say that they want?

Can't afford it, did I hear you say?  Haven't got the skills?

We are all losers.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Sabbatical blog:I beg to differ

If only, as a tutor, you could speak to each student at a crucial time (for them) in their study time, to remind them to prepare for a lecture, to reinforce key messages and NOT have your email go straight to the spam folder.  What would you give for that?
Academics, Learning designers and social media experts have come together at EdTech Foundry in Oslo, Norway, to offer tutors a new way of engaging students.

OUT goes the antiquated, static and inflexible Learning Management System (LMS) and IN comes DIFFER.

Why keep an old LMS that students only use to download lecture slides and fail to engage with when you can facilitate delivery of materials, engage, remind, prompt and feedback using a newer technology?

OK - so RISK is there in new technologies but there is also RISK in standing on the rails when the tram is hurtling towards you.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

HE explained: The value of TEF

Well, it would have been a goal if the goalposts had not moved at the last minute!

The 3 or 4 people who view my blog may recall my warning this July (2017) to keep an eye on the value of your GOLD.


It will only be a short-term problem but those Institutions, encouraged by whim and fashion to think only short-term, it will be all-consuming.  I refer, of course, to the freezing of undergraduate fees at a maximum £9,250 p.a. in the UK for all Institutions - including those prestigious institutions being awarded TEF GOLD in 2017.

Was I being prescient? I could claim that.

It would be too easy, however, to hurl stones at an already discredited and facile scheme.

Rather, let's imagine that Universities in the UK think longer-term.  Let's imagine that they consider Reputational GOLD to be more valuable than short-term fee hikes.  A focus on excellent student learning will achieve that golden glow even where student satisfaction, arbitrary measures and self-reported greatness are still valued by the government.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

HE explained: The multiple chance test

The multiple choice test or "objective test" is much loved and much used by busy academics not simply because the questions and answers can be purchased, reused and marked automatically, but also because it appeals to an innate desire to measure achievement numerically.

Picture by Becris at
Detractors  (like my title this week) might think that it is akin to a lottery - 4 possible answers, one of which MUST be correct, and so a 1 in 4 chance of getting it right - 25% in the bag - high 5!

Only, look closely at the design of the multiple choice question, and you will see:

a) This IS the correct answer.
b) This is the opposite of the correct answer.
c) This looks almost correct, but for a different spelling or word or even double negative construction, designed to confuse.
d) The answer is always "The Archbishop of Canterbury", which is wrong and often a bizarre response to the actual question, apart from Ecclesiastical multiple choice exams where it might be correct or even a distractor.

So, the odds for the slightly prepared student get better.  Spot the obviously wrong answer and the odds shorten to 1 in 3.  Follow the logic and you could pass with 50% by sheer deduction, rather than subject knowledge.

And, don't get me started on feedback - I have known colleagues considering feedback to be the mark itself! Of course, neither questions nor answers can be shared, otherwise, they cannot be re-used.

If you really want to provide appropriate tests online or via computer then the multiple choice test is not the best answer.  There are a variety of other types of questions that can be deployed:

  • Multiple response - where all, or none of the answers may be correct.
  • Problem-based questions using diagrams, charts or pictures.
  • Short answer questions - where the exact words are not needed but enough to show knowledge of the subject.
  • Fill in the gaps....
Question difficulty can also be graded to allow more marks for "harder" questions.

My key advice, however, is to use a test instrument that actually measures the learning goal, not the one that minimises academic effort.

Monday, 30 October 2017

#will this be on the exam?

Six little words that are designed to exasperate the average academic:

"Will this be on the exam?"

These six words betray so many competing and conflicting ideas in Higher Education.

  • Is Higher Education just about passing exams and assessments?
  • Does the love of a subject and immersion in its literature mean nothing to students?
  • Do lecturers provide lectures, tutorials, and on-line support simply to justify their jobs?
  • Is the phrase "reading for a degree" only meaningful on the BBC's University Challenge?
  • Do students think that the exchange of money is their only contribution to their education?
And, readers of my blog have long known that exams, as an assessment tool, need to be questioned in today's educational environment.

"Will exams be on the exam?"

  • Can exams test the ability to apply knowledge to real scenarios?
  • Do exams do any more than test speed writing and memory?
  • Is it acceptable for students to be able to accurately guess the exam questions by reference to past papers by the same academic?
  • Will I ever need to write an exam essay again in my life?
  • Can academics accurately mark large numbers of hurriedly scrawled exam scripts in a tight timescale?
  • Can Universities ever find the resource to provide meaningful individual feedback on exam performances?
So, let's examine the whole idea of exams and consider other forms of assessment that are timely, efficient and meaningful to the learning goals of the subject.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Sabbatical blog: Building the future of HE in Liechtenstein

A fortuitous meeting with a faculty member of the School of Architecture at Universit├Ąt Liechtenstein showed me just what is possible in curriculum design when a strong pedagogy is combined with a practical subject in a small institution.
Like so many practical disciplines, architecture has the possibility of "learning by doing".  Not only is it a professional necessity to create designs, models, and artifacts but it is also an excellent learning method when combined with the rigour of academic writing.

Curriculum design is a phrase so often used in HE but, I wouldn't mind betting that the emphasis is more often on the "Curriculum" than the "Design".

Design in HE can learn much from Architectural principles:
  • UTILITY: The purpose of the building/curriculum being constructed is of vital importance to the designer - how, where and with whom is it going to be used?  also - Budget can be seen either as a constraint or an opportunity for innovation.
  • DURABILITY: The building/curriculum must last the test of time, need little maintenance over its expected span.
  • BEAUTY: The building/curriculum must be distinctive, remarkable and pleasing to those using it.
Not too much to ask is it?

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

HE Ideas: The guest speaker

How can you fill up lecture slots without the hassle of preparing materials and handouts, but with appeal to students and good feedback (as well as alerting the Dean to links with industry)?

Yes - you have it - invite a guest speaker from industry!!

Picture by Sira Anamwong at
There are a number of important features of the successful guest slot and there are a number of pitfalls to avoid:    Whatever you do.....don't let your guest speaker:

  • Pick the topic
  • Arrive with unseen and unedited slides or handouts
  • Prepare too many slides
  • Have absolutely no idea what the students have studied or the aims of the module
  • Speak without, first, seeing them in action or getting reports
  • Use the phrase "when I was at University..."
  • Expect a high fee
  • Offer a recruitment pitch (unless its a Careers spot)
  • Drink too much at lunch
Actually it might just be easier to do the lecture yourself...