Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Trust or Trussed?

Regulation in an economic system is often used to protect consumers where market failure cannot be remedied through encouraging competition. Profit is often the measure of market failure as less competition motivates suppliers to maximise their market advantage.
At the root of these motivations is a profit motive.
Regulation in Higher Education also aims to protect "consumers" but from what?
Do Universities have a profit motive? Do they abuse the position of trust that society has bequeathed them? Are academics out for what they can get? ( well, perhaps some are).
Regulation ties Universities up in knots, requires them to comply with ever more detailed rules and regulations, and actually deflects them from their key purpose to educate, inform and to create knowledge.
So do we trust our institutions or do we truss them like the Christmas turkey in red tape, law, regulation and rules?

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Be a teacher - the holidays are brilliant!!

As we enter the festive season and contemplate a well earned Christmas break we need to recognise that the positioning of terms, academic years and vacations are a by-product of history, culture, climate and religion - almost nothing to do with education and learning.
But what would an academic year structure look like if we started from scratch?

  • Would we start in September?  at least this would give a reasonable term of 11 - 12 weeks before the winter / summer (depending on hemisphere)
  • Would we have such long holidays? Primary and Secondary School students can "forget" what has been taught but college and University students often need to work to afford higher education.
  • Would we break again at Easter (a moving feast - literally - from the Christian tradition) - other religions seem to be able to manage study during Ramadan, Eid, Festivals and significant birthdays of prophets.
But in many countries the needs of parents, employers, the economy,  and, in Universities, those focused on research rather than teaching, will prevail and nothing will change.

Happy Christmas.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Teaching Grandfather

In 1986 The Insolvency Act heralded an era of professionalism in the insolvency industry by requiring all holders of insolvency offices to hold a license.  Such a license could be withdrawn (but few have been) for breaches of regulations and guidelines and following receipt and investigation of complaints by disgruntled creditors and others.
So, on 31 December 1986, when the Act came into force, there was a risk that there would be a shortage of  Insolvency Practitioners.
As Regulatory Bodies, such as the Insolvency Practitioners Association, moved towards setting up career paths in insolvency, insolvency examinations and qualifications - a feat that would take years to manage and even longer to graduate its first qualified license holders - a stop-gap needed to be found.

The solution? Grandfathering.

Grandfathering is a UK legal concept based on the concept of legislation NOT being retrospective - whereby those who had acted as Liquidators, Receivers and Trustees in Bankruptcy in the past (and who were not obvious "cowboys") could receive a license on application.

The result - a smooth transition.

Jo Johnson's Teaching Excellence Framework highlights University academics and their qualifications.  Many, in the past 20 years, since the inception of the Higher Education Academy and its forerunners , have gained "teaching" qualifications.  However, many older and senior academics who already held tenure or at least jobs before the notion of qualifications arose have not.  Amongst them, brilliant teachers, enthusiastic and expertly informed communicators, leaders in their fields.  Are they to be less valued under the new TEF regime?

The solution? Grandfathering.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Market failure in HE

New and “alternative” providers of HE in the UK sector not only have financial, reputational  and resource barriers to overcome to be able to compete with established Universities but also legal ones that curtail access to systems and groupings built up by Universities over the years.  The Uk government's consultation paper on Teaching Excellence Framework wonders if the playing field should be levelled.
 New providers (Pearson / BPP in the business sector, for example) – enjoy the ability to invest in new technology without legacy costs and without the need or requirement to establish a research presence or suffer its expensive overhead.  But is PRICE the only component of the market?  How do traditional Univesities add value to teaching and learning?
The clear way for traditional Universities to compete with the “alternative” proposition is to ensure that the research undertaken actually adds considerable value to teaching.  In terms of “research” we must see the value of “scholarship” in its wider sense and not simply 4* papers appropriate for REF.
An alternative way to approach the “new” providers is to embrace them in mutually beneficial partnerships.  They are different bodies, not interested in becoming Universities per se but interested in exploiting the market opportunities available through traditional provider failure.

New providers threaten the “easy money” previously enjoyed by Universities -and it’s about time they stepped up to the plate and competed on grounds of quality.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

"Second class" lecturers

Business Schools teach about successful (and sometimes unsuccessful) businesses where strategic missions are fully supported by an appropriate mix of resources.  Taking Google as a success story we can see clearly the mix of technical, entrepreneurial, marketing , financial and people management expertise that combine to make the company a good place to build a career (so we are told) and a successful place to invest the pension pot.
So, you would expect that a Business School would balance in the mix of lecturers and professors in business education as suggested in AACSB Standard 15 ?
In brilliant business consultancy style AACSB identifies a 2 x 2 matrix of academic staff sorted by sustained activity (either scholarly / research or applied / practice) and point of entry (either PhD route or via a professional career).  This gives 4 "classes" of lecturer:

Key: SP = Scholarly Practitioner; IP = Instructional Practitioner; SA = Scholarly Academic and PA = Practice Academic.

Clearly SAs are the traditional model of Research focused academics, able to command the title "Professor", be feted in International conferences, draw high salaries...  If they can communicate with mere earthlings in order to be effective teachers then that's a bonus.  SP's can also gain this academic high ground, through embracing the SA career path.  Often SAs have enough about them to communicate well with students and teach effectively - "real world" experience it is called - as if Business School s are not actually "the real world".

IPs and PAs, however, are the second class lecturers.  These are often effective and popular teachers, charged with student satisfaction, programme management and delivery, recruitment and retention etc.  Typically they do not enjoy the title of "Professor", do not draw high salaries but quietly ensure that the main source of revenue for the School (its student fees) are maintained.  And, let's not forget the administrative and support staff who sweep up after all of the academics.

When a successful Business School needs a mix of resources you would expect to see equal incentives and rewards for all of the AACSB categories - wouldn't you?

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Quick and dirty beats slow but measured feedback

Let me warm to the theme started in my last blog - the need for lecturers and students to know where the "goalposts" are in relation to assessments in their HE studies.
Clearly lecturers need to develop a clear, consistent, relevant, appropriate and communicated set of assessment criteria to allow their students to achieve the learning outcomes for the lesson, course or programme.  These can often be expanded to a range of descriptors that explain a particular level of achievement - such as the example from a FHEQ Level 6 taught module for the assessment criterion "Analysis / Discussion / Evaluation":

By selecting the descriptor for the chosen criterion the marker can begin to indicate the level of performance of the individual student.  There is also good scope to add some "feed forward", a suggestion, or two, about how the work could be improved.

So, for an assignment scoring 60 - 69% the feedback could be:

A good attempt to analyse or prioritise issues and to draw conclusions.  The example of XYZ corporation's new JIT system showed the key costs and benefits clearly.  To improve the work an example of JIT failing to work would give a more rounded picture.

So, well considered and well designed marking criteria, communicated at the outset, become the basis for clear feedback that can be made to have an individual focus for each student - as the following continuum shows:

Contrast this will the in-line comments on a script, the careful summary of points at the end of a piece of work.  Yes, it is less focused on the individual, yes, it can look like the tutor is using a mechanical way of marking but it does have the advantage of quicker turnaround for the student, efficiency for the marker and a clear and consistent set of standards - whether the paper is marked on a Monday morning or a Friday evening.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

"Goal Line Technology" in Higher Education

So was Geoff Hurst's wonder goal in the 1966 World Cup final actually a goal?  English (and Russian standards say - "yes" but German standards say "no") - and all that had to be decided was whether a ball had gone over a line...

So how much more tricky is it for the University teacher to decide whether a piece of work meets the standard when there's so much more to it than simply going over a line on the grass.

Standards for Higher Education are set by articulating learning outcomes (intended learning outcomes (ILOs) , that is) for particular courses of study.  Often learning theories such as Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning Outcomes is used to show progression of achievement and expectation as studies progress.  These can include the ability to describe or explain, apply a concept, analyse and evaluate data or information and synthesise information from a number of sources.

So, when ILOs are articulated, it becomes relatively simple to design assessment that has the aim of assessing a student's ability to - describe, apply, analyse etc.  It then becomes simple to set the "goalposts" by writing and sharing with students the clear criteria to be used in assessing their work.  Students know what to aim for and teachers know what they are looking for (this becomes very important when marking a large cohort of students' work as part of a team of markers).  Further, ranges of achievement against specific criteria can be articulated.

Then, and here's the beauty of the scheme, feedback can be structured to respond to the student's abilities in that particular aspect of the criteria.  Feed-forward can show students how marks can be improved in the future.

If the 1966 World Cup happened today we would (just) have goal-line technology to determine whether England's third goal was actually a goal.  So why do University teachers still resemble the Russian linesman in the way that they make decisions?  Vague, uncertain, subjective - in fact no help to the students who should be learning through the whole experience.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

But will I ever have to write an essay after University?

Assessment in Higher Education has had a familiar feel and look for many years.  Whilst many disciplines focus on exams - although these have more to do with memory and the examiners sure knowledge that it is the unadulterated work of the individual student - others favour coursework.  But how often does that coursework take the form of a knowledge based test, an academic essay masquerading as an assignment or some steps in the preparation of a dissertation or research project?

Business programmes need to prepare students for business careers - where knowledge will not be remembered but "googled" as it goes out of date so swiftly - and the analysis carried out in order to compile a report, briefing or presentation.

Clear parallels exist between the business report or presentation and an academic assignment:

  • Both must be focused on a key issue,
  • Both must communicate their key message clearly,
  • Both must provide evidence to support claims and contentions,
  • Both must analyse the data and information researched,
  • Both must provide evaluation of the evidence in the form of a conclusion or recommendation
Authentic business mechanisms can readily be used to illustrate academic learning outcomes by teachers and lecturers familiar with "industry", "business practice" and "the real world".  It just needs a little thought, a little embedding of real business skills in the curriculum and a move away from the academic comfort zone of the quasi-thesis or mini-research article.

Authentic assessment is capable of measuring learning outcomes but is business education really authentic?  Check out the Key Information Set (KIS) for any "top" UK Business School and ask if coursework values below about 50% really represent authenticity?

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Games students play

In my last blog I extolled the virtues of group work and even group assessment in Higher Education. Profit for learning but Pain for tutors.
Part of the pain involves the setting up of a system or process that either monitors individual effort within the group or allows students, through a peer review process, to influence and moderate the group mark so that individual contributions are recognised.
But let's now consider the students, themselves, the natural competition between humans, especially young ones and the desire to "win", the strategic approach to learning and anything to do with it, and the opportunity that group work, however carefully it is designed, provides for the achievement of individual objectives. Let us also consider the natural sense of justice and fairness that is embedded in most human nature and the potential for both punishment and forgiveness for group members. In short, Games that students can play.

Consider the following:

Free riders - perhaps the most obvious beneficiaries of group work. These students rely on the efforts of group members and their unwillingness to punish too harshly.

Dominators - those able to select weaker group members, dominate the group effort but exact unequal benefit by negotiating favourable peer review scores in exchange for better than expected group marks.

Collaborators - these students join "friendship" groups and agree that all members of the group will score each other equally in the peer review - whether this is justified by effort or not.

Traitors - those who agree scores with their group as collaborators but then cheat their friends in order to gain higher marks individually.

To avoid these issues, which happen rarely in practice, group work is often reduced in scope and impact in later stages of degree programmes. No one single mechanism for peer review will iron out all problems but perhaps that is just the point. To avoid the "learning effect", whereby the above student types "game" the peer review system, tutors need to deploy a variety of methods over time.

Tutors need to "game" the " gamers" to achieve the full benefits that collaborative learning can bring.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Group work in Higher Education - Pain or Profit?

In most areas of my life I rely on other people:

  • A Family, where my long suffering wife contributes skills and attributes that I never perfected.
  • A Team, where work colleagues combine resources, talents and ideas to ensure that 2 + 2 equals much more than 5.
  • A work group, where we all learn from each other and modify our ideas to produce effective outcomes.
In each case I hope that I contribute my skills, ideas, talents and learning too...

So why should working in a group be so alien in Higher Education where students have an excellent opportunity to combine their skills, produce better work together than alone and undertake learning from each other?

The answer, I fear, is in the twin fears of:
  1.  the complexity of managing groups - they can go horribly wrong!!, and
  2. the nagging suspicion that lazy students can free-ride on the efforts of others.
There is PAIN in setting up, managing, supervising, marking and allocating individual marks to groups of students.  And the PAIN is normally up-front whereas PAIN from marking a summative exam or assignment from individuals is deferred.

But there is PROFIT too in enhanced learning, enhanced skills such as organisation, communication, negotiation and compromise.  PROFIT comes in the quality of the work too.  Well designed pieces of group work and well considered mechanisms for reflection and peer review can deliver higher quality outcomes for all students.

So, don't deny students the PROFIT because of the PAIN for the tutor.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Old is the New New

Teaching awards are sprinkled liberally around many of our Higher Education institutions.  They celebrate and give a pat on the head to "creative" and "innovative" teachers (they sure ain't going to get paid more for mere teaching - so give them a prize and tell them how important they are).  But just what are these innovations in Higher Education?

Technology Enhanced Learning - that was what happened when Guttenberg printed the first Bible - is it innovative to simply use the current technology?

Authentic assessment - actually measuring what you set out to measure  - isn't that "common sense"?

Flipped Classrooms - does this mean reading the book before going to the "lecture" - I was doing that in the 1970's

Activity based Learning - now I remember that from Primary School!!

Good teaching is undertaken by engaged, informed and passionate communicators who succeed when they transform the lives of their learners.  There's nothing truly innovative about that - good teaching has always been good teaching.

Is good teaching actually innovative in many Universities?

Thursday, 8 October 2015

It’s like déjà vu all over again

The recent passing of Yogi Berra, US baseball star and pundit - and his quote that is the title of this post - gave me cause to reflect on the lack of reflection evidenced in the typical Higher Education offering.

Quality Assurance systems force academics to review performance and feedback as they tweak their teaching for the next Semester to reflect the concerns and changing needs of their students...or NOT. How many QA systems simply go through the motions and fail to fully reflect?  How much teaching is undertaken in a mould cast many years ago when certain assumptions about student preparedness, ability to undertake independent learning and thought were well founded?  How many changes to assessment, contact hours, teaching styles etc. are founded in "supply side economics" i.e. timetable constraints, academics teaching their research topics and the knowledge that "we've always done it this way"?

And yet, those same academics are now asked (actually they have been asked for many years but there's a big difference between hearing and listening) to encourage their students to reflect on their own skills and their development through a programme of study in order to enhance their learning.

Reflection is a key part of learning.  It processes experiences, feedback, lecture and reading inputs and needs to be encouraged and supported at module and programme level.  So, when do you find time to reflect?

Oh, and just in case readers think that these posts are rather cynical and could get me into trouble...."I never said most of the things I said" (Berra)

Thursday, 1 October 2015

CHEAT!! is Plagiarism a failure of students or academics?

I wonder how many start of term induction talks that threaten dire punishment for the commission of PLAGIARISM (a.k.a. Cheating; IP theft...) are going on this week?

Western academe protects its purity by exhorting students not to commit that most heinous crimes of 
  • daring to omit citations and references
  • failing to paraphrase adequately
  • Copying substantial quotes from the work of others (whether cited or not)
And you will be found out!

Through the 24 billion+  stored documents boasted by everyone's favourite text matching software, Turnitin, academics can spot crime and often use the "evidence" of the high "matching" score to punish wrongdoers.

Equally, how many academics recognise that actual cheating is very, very, very rare?  and that timely intervention with appropriate academic skills training and practice can not only prevent plagiarism but can also boost independent learning and cognitive development in a way that purely subject based fare cannot?

So, academics.  Get off your moral high-ground and realise that your world is alien to most students entering HE or FE, they need to be trained, acclimitised and nurtured, not caught, punished and humiliated.

And an exhortation NOT to plagiarise emitted during a packed induction day alongside orientation advice about the nearest coffee machine or lavatory is simply a cop out.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Have a relationship with a fresher

Now, it's a very very long time since I was a fresher and so my reflections are tinged with mild dementia, willful amnesia and the rosy glow that experience of life brings to almost everything.

Today's fresher, however, arriving at University,

  • Perhaps, for the first time, living away from home
  • Perhaps, for the first time, with loan (i.e. someone else's non-earned) cash in the bank and
  • Certainly, for the first time, being expected to determine his or her own priorities,
is beset with so many different choices, smells, sounds and temptations that the purpose of being at University - Learning, can be a distant but tangible consideration in that heady week of wonderful independence.

So forgive the freshers their hangovers, their inattention and their confusion.

Rather, pick up that learning relationship that started when the student saw the brochure, the web page or came to an Open Day, support the transition to academic study as and when it is needed and develop that relationship so that the student (as bemused about what might constitute a "good 2(i) or "merit" level of work" as many staff members) develops over time.  Students should not be expected to know and understand what it means to "read for a degree" on arrival - it's not 3 more years of school, it's a relationship that lasts a lifetime (if Universities get it right).

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Student Engagement

The excellent Chartered Association of Business Schools' Student Experience conference for 2016 has been announced.  One of the key themes is "Student Engagement" and I, for one, will be responding positively to the call for papers.
The conference is in its fifth iteration, taking the mantle from the Business and Management Subject Centre Learning & Teaching conference.  The tenor of the conference has changed from a workshop and sharing orientation to a more formal research one and could lose its identity if it goes too far (but that's for another day).
So, back to "Student Engagement" - although I wonder why we do not see, in the call for papers, an area on Staff engagement?
Conference participants will. largely be from the Teaching and Scholarship " underclass" from within our marvellous Universities.  All are "engaged", otherwise they would not be there, although a lot of the conversation around the coffee breakout areas will be about less engaged colleagues, systems that do not reward nor motivate staff to be engaged with teaching and stunted careers when compared with discipline focused research colleagues (the same ones who are so disengaged from the key source of their salary - the students).
It was ever thus.....but isn't it about time it began to change?

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Publish and be damned!

Attributed to the 1st Duke of Wellington, this immortal phrase has new resonance in 21st Century Higher Education.  According to Research Excellence Framework fixated Universities the phrase should actually be modified - "Don't publish and be damned!" but they are wrong.

Publication appears to be the aim - not good research, well considered and well funded projects designed to answer real problems.  Academic careers are measured by and advanced by the metrics achieved by so called "research".

I'd like to suggest that the rush to publish in ever growing and ever marginal virtual and physical journals and academic conferences damns the authors to be associated with some poor quality, ill considered and incomplete work that adds nothing to the knowledge they purport to illuminate.

So, Sir Arthur, you were right in 1824 - "Publish and be damned!"

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Supply, Demand and the market for Learning

I remember my first encounter with the study of Economics at school and how I did so well there that I was selected to (literally) sit at the feet of an eminent Professor of Economics (he did not have many chairs in his office).  The confidence and enthusiasm of my teachers and the practicality of the  subject just made sense to me and, over the years, the key concepts learned have allowed me to see the different forces that set the world in balance.
And so I understand that on the Demand side (the consumers / students, employers, government bodies etc.) have different expectations of University qualifications.  On the supply side (The Universities, individual Schools and Lecturers) the expectations are equally clear - but often different to those of the Demand side.
Let's stop talking in riddles.
A degree programme is a compromise.  A market compromise, where a point of interaction (purchase) is arrived at not solely on the basis of price but also on the basis of a programme structure, the availability of staff, the likely outcome for graduates...............................

Good programmes of study are designed by institutions that take into consideration the needs, wants and appetites of the Demand side whilst making efficient use of teaching and other resources (the Supply side).

So why do programmes start in October and not at any other time?
Why do employers bemoan the preparedness of graduates for work?
Why do academic staff members appear to have such long periods away from their work?

Thursday, 27 August 2015

How many fish do I need to graduate?

Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.

This axiom is reflected by a number of cultures - look no further than this source to see the competing claims but I want to use the fish analogy to help differentiate between teaching philosophies in the area of Business teaching. 

Business and Management (especially Accounting and Finance) courses, diplomas, programmes and workshops are a mass market product. They are:

 - Easy and cheap to deliver (nothing more than an iPad or laptop as equipment)
 - Accessible at all levels of academic achievement and,
 - Valued highly by students as part of their future aspirations.

Often, in my experience, programmes of study have, as an ultimate goal, the achievement of a certificate or diploma that qualifies the student for the next diploma or degree or even to enter a profession.  Even those that purport to develop learning still conform to the norm of content shovelling, memory tests, modular design that makes a mockery of progression in studies.

So how should a degree course be designed IF we had a blank canvas?

NOT, in my opinion, as a progression of fish provision but as a voyage of discovery from tributary to river, to the open sea and out onto the ocean as actual experience is used as the learning mechanism, familiarity with increasingly complex issues and tools is developed and true learning is achieved.

So put your own programme up to the light and reflect whether it is a voyage of discovery or a bucket of halibut.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

KIS my ..............

Amongst other League tables, "helpful data", information, rumour, branding and hype that bombard the prospective HE student in the UK comes the Key Information Set - KIS for short.  The KIS for a degree programme contains useful information on costs, "satisfaction" as measured by the National Student Survey, Graduate destinations (employment %), entry qualifications and, oh, what's that lurking near the bottom of the page? -STUDY INFORMATION.
In KIS terms the study information comes from the accounting perspective of valuing what we can measure rather than measuring what we value (and acknowledging that, sometimes, there are features and aspects of experiences that cannot be measured).  So, what do we have?

1. % of assessments represented by exams
2. Contact hours

Errr that's it.

What can that possibly tell prospective students about the quality of teaching and learning?  Such a pity that the designers of KIS and those Universities (all of them) that rushed to abide by such stupid rules did not read Chris Rust's excellent "What we know about Assessment" and Graham Gibbs' "Twenty Terrible Reasons for Lecturing".  Both books are entertainingly written, free!!!! as ebooks and research informed (you have to say that to get the attention of research academics).  Gibbs' book may be dated (1981) but still echoes loudly as successive generations, in larger numbers, are subjected to a system that considers that TEACHING (and the more of it shovelled at students the better) = LEARNING.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

NSS - something for everyone

This week sees the publication of the 2015 National Student Survey (NSS) on the Unistats site.  Higher Education institutions will have been poring over the data for days in order to find something in the survey responses where they have either improved a score, improved a rank position or exceeded the sector average - anything that will persuade this year's crop of A level students (results also out this week) that THEIR institution is the best place to go.......

Of course, the NSS says much about how closely the institutions have met the high expectations of students, even how much the students, in their crucial final year as an undergraduate, feel "satisfied".  It says little, however, about the quality of learning and teaching.

Listen to this excellent talk by Professor Graham Gibbs on Youtube.  The talk is based on his HEA reports on "Dimensions of Quality" - strangely unavailable from the HEA website at the time of blogging - but do keep trying.

Will the much heralded Teaching Excellence Framework learn these lessons?  Quality of Learning has little to do with satisfaction, less to do with Technology but much to do with the engagement of both students and staff.

Monday, 15 June 2015

The second curve

Charles Handy's latest offering is The Second Curve.
I'll let you discover how Charles weaves his many years of experience and ideas with anecdotes and examples to provide a convincing vision of society and work in the future.
Fortunate enough to see Charles present at EFMD in Brussels I find his insights deeply sensible and a wake up call that will go unheard by so many.
Ever heard the response " but we have always done it that way" or " if it ain't broke don't fix it?".  Prepare to rethink your attitude to these.
Change we must. Improve we must. When change needs time to establish its benefits, however, we must deconstruct those things that are working OK to make them suited for the next iteration.
Penguin/ Random House.