Sunday, 9 August 2009

Eddie Playfair's Utopian Vision

I've just read an inspiring piece by Eddie Playfair, who sets out a vision for where we will be in the next ten years. His description includes the following passage:
Staff and students see themselves as lifelong researchers. Every student engages in at least one major research project with clear social benefit. These are often collaborative and involve placements, in some cases abroad. Research themes arise from students’ interests or may be stimulated by one of the many speakers or debates on campus. These research projects stimulate passionate discussion on campus and students offer advice and support to their peers and take pride in producing valuable work. These are published and are a vital part of the college’s contribution to the community. Producing a worthwhile project is an important rite of passage.
This sounds like a great vision for Higher Education, albeit one that sets the bar rather high. In fact, as careful readers (or anyone who followed the hyperlink) will have noticed, Playfair isn't writing about Higher Education at all - he's writing about sixth-form college.

This should be a wake-up call for those who regard 'research-led teaching' as something that is unique to Higher Education, since only universities are 'research institutions'. I've been thinking about this recently, because of a quote from a senior academic that I read in Lisa Lucas et. al.'s recent report on Research and Teaching for the Higher Education Academy:
You’d have to be a very, very special type of individual to be able to enthuse year upon year upon year about a subject in which you have no involvement ... other than teaching. How do you keep updated on it? How do you keep motivated on it unless
you’re involved in pursuing knowledge frontiers yourself? (p. 54)
This sounds good until you think about the teachers you had before university. None of the (extremely inspiring) history teachers that taught me in secondary school were researchers, but they were enthusiastic, erudite, and familiar with developments in the field. The line between 'research-active' and 'teaching-only' staff is a fuzzy one, and the same can be true of the line between 'research-active' and 'teaching-only' institutions. Playfair's article is a useful reminder that while we may focus on integrating research and teaching at a university level, we should not expect integrated research and teaching to be limited to universities.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Dan Ariely: Undergraduate Researcher Made Good!

I've just started reading Dan Ariely's very entertaining book about behavioural economics, Predictably Irrational. In his introduction, Ariely describes a class that he took as an undergraduate at Tel Aviv university which, in his words, 'profoundly changed my outlook on research and largely determined my future.' The class was on brain physiology, and the lecturer was Prof. Hanan Frenk. Ariely writes that struck him most about the course was Frenk's 'attitude to questions and alternative theories.' Here's what was so distinctive:
Many times, when I raised my hand in class or stopped by his office to suggest a different interpretation of some results he had presented, he replied that my theory was indeed a possibility [...] and would then challenge me to propose an empirical test to distinguish it from the conventional theory (p. xi).
During the semester, Prof. Frenk gave his student the resources to test a theory about epilepsy on fifty rats. 'In the end,' he writes, 'it turned out that my theory was wrong, but this did not diminish my enthusiasm.' Ariely now teaches at Duke University, and his blog makes it clear that he's taken Prof. Frenk's example to heart - see this post on the launch of a series of short stories by undergraduates that illustrate principles of behavioural economics.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

LTEA conference-Day 2

Some highlights:

I came in right at the end of Nadine Wills' presentation about widening the university expectation of 'enquiring' academics and students to include enquiring academic-related and administrative staff. Really compelling stuff, and she'll be writing some of it up over the next couple of months.

Phil Askham gave a strikingly candid talk about being charged with the task of 'embedding' good Enquiry-based Learning practice so that it penetrates throughout Sheffield Hallam University's Faculty of Development and Society.

After this, Norman Powell from the Centre for Excellence in Enquiry-based Learning ( CEEBL) at the University of Manchester spoke about the challenges of evaluating Enquiry-based elements that are introduced to modules. He's written a nice document on CEEBL's evaluation strategy, which you can download here.

The presentation just before my talk was a report on some of the goings-on at Sheffield Hallam University's Centre for Promotion of Learner Autonomy (CPLA). There's some SERIOUSLY cool stuff going on here - an 'eco-house' that students built on the roof of a university building, for example. Also, next year they're planning to replace their presentations with a twenty-minute shot (and translated into Spanish) by students.

Daniel Wilding and Paul Taylor from Warwick's Reinvention Centre gave a really good talk about students being part of a research community, in which they pointed out that no less a figure than President Barack Obama has called for research to be an integral part of the undergraduate curriculum. He brought it up in his speech to the National Academy of Sciences, and here's what he said:
The Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation will be launching a joint initiative to inspire tens of thousands of American students to pursue careers in science, engineering and entrepreneurship related to clean energy.

It will support an educational campaign to capture the imagination of young people who can help us meet the energy challenge. It will create research opportunities for undergraduates and educational opportunities for women and minorities who too often have been underrepresented in scientific and technological fields – but are no less capable of inventing the solutions that will help us grow our economy and save our planet. And it will support fellowships, interdisciplinary graduate programs, and partnerships between academic institutions and innovative companies to prepare a generation of Americans to meet this generational challenge. [full text]
Needless to say, there was a lot more to Danny and Paul's presentation than that, but that's pretty cool in itself.

The last paper I saw was John Creighton's absolutely fascinating analysis of research-teaching links, testing for correlation between departmental RAE results and the results of a Student Survey carried out by Reading, which is itself an extremely interesting evaluation instrument. John is the head of Reading's CeTL in Applied Undergraduate Research Skills (CeTL-AURS), who, by the way, hosted the conference. His findings call into question many of the assumption of Hattie and Marsh's often-mentioned (but perhaps seldom read) paper, 'The Relationship Between Research and Teaching: A Meta-Analysis' (Review of Educational Research, Vol. 66, No. 4, 507-542 (1996)).

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

LTEA conference at Whiteknights Campus-Day One!

(The LTEA conference is taking place on the 'Whiteknights' campus of the University of Reading, which put me in mind of The White Company by Arthur Conan Doyle - who's much more famous for Sherlock Holmes)

I just got home from day one of the LTEA conference, where I gave a presentation about my oral history project, 'Teaching the Talk', in collaboration with Adam Smith. Really, Adam gave about 90% of the presentation. I introduced the project, but he talked about being an oral history interviewer, as an undergraduate student - a story that begins with him nearly signing up to the project as a first-year, and ends with him managing an oral history project at St. Catherine's School in Sheffield.

Here's a few highlights from the day:

Ursula McGowan gave an eye-opening presentation about citation, plagiarism, and following the Boyer Commission's much-quoted (and less often followed) recommendation that undergraduates should be treated as 'apprentice researchers'.

Ursula's key point was that, in her words, 'whenever we ask students to cite sources, we are asking them to be researchers,' but that rather than saying 'you're now part of a community of practice, and one of our conventions is that we cite sources, for the following reasons...' we just say 'you've got to cite your sources, or else it's plagiarism, which is unforgivable' (I'm embellishing - her description was more measured). She's designed an excellent audio-narrated powerpoint presentation about plagiarism and academic writing, which puts it in the context of the core functions of academia.

Joanna John talked about an undergraduate survey that's been conducted on the impact of UROPs (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programmes) across the UK. There's a PDF from another UROP powerpoint presentation (this one by Joanna's collaborator, John Ceighton) here. Very interesting stuff about research skills, understandings of what research entailed, and whether or not people wanted to pursue research careers before and after taking part in a UROP. Joanna's based at the 'Applied Undergraduate Research Skills' CETL at Reading (CETL-AURS). Their UROP page is here.

And one more paper: Rhi Smith's talk on the great stuff she's doing with undergraduates at the Museum of English Rural Life.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

New downloads: Questionnaire and Powerpoint slides

We closed the Undergraduate Survey on 20th June and presented some preliminary findings today at the second annual Institutional Research Conference at Sheffield Hallam University.

We'll be giving another presentation next week at the Learning Through Enquiry Alliance conference at the University of Reading next week- if you won't be there, or just can't wait to hear about our findings, you can download our powerpoint slides as a PDF from our homepage, We've also posted a hard copy version of the undergraduate questionnaire- check them out!

Monday, 22 June 2009

Getting the Skills to Pay the Bills

I’ve been thinking about skills: what skills students are supposed to acquire, why they’re supposed to have them, and how they’re supposed to get them. This is on my mind because of an article I just read from Arts & Humanities in Higher Education called 'The "Research-Teaching Nexus" and the Learning-Teaching Relationship: Who's in charge?', by Christopher Rowe and Eleanor O'Kell.

I like this piece a lot, but there was one passage near the end that disturbed me, and got me wondering about both the 'why' and 'how' of skills:
But now we need to ask the larger question: do we believe that Extended Projects and their HE analogue, dissertations, provide the kinds of skills that employers are supposed to be looking for, and that we therefore (presumably) owe it to our students to be offering them? (187).
First, the 'why' of education: is the aim of A-level and higher education really to 'provide the kinds of skills that employers are supposed to be looking for'? Personally, I don't think businesses are the ones who should dictate the profile of the ideal graduate, if only because what they will be looking for in three years is not necessarily what they want now (what traits, for example, was the Royal Bank of Scotland looking for from its future investment bankers in 2006, when this year's graduates started their degrees? Whatever they were looking for then, I hope they've changed their priorities during the course of the past year). Not only that, but a student who graduates in 2009 will probably be working until 2049 - so universities owe it to their students to take the long view, which doesn’t necessarily mean following the lead of today’s employers (think about the skills that businesses were looking for in 1969).

And now, the 'how' of education: the quote's phrasing assumes that educators can 'provide' students with 'skills', such as (to take a classic example) 'critical thinking'. But such power is not given to us: we can tell students about critical thinking, we can model it in our own practice, we can create circumstances that are conducive to it, and we can incentivise it, but we can't 'provide' it to anyone. Skills can be acquired by students, but they cannot be granted by teachers.

This might seem like a matter of semantics, but semantics often matter a great deal. Pretty much everybody talks about 'providing' skills to students (I know I've done it), so it's good to remind ourselves that it's not an act that anybody actually has the power to perform.

[Incidentally, if you want to know more about the Royal Bank of Scotland's problems, read John Lanchester's excellent article in the London Review of Books.]

Friday, 12 June 2009

Return to the Nexus

Having talked about jargon in my previous post, I'm now going to do my best to steer clear of it, and discuss current Higher Education research in such a way that anyone who works in HE (and indeed, anyone outside HE) will be able to follow what I'm talking about.

Right now, what I'm talking about is an article in the April 2009 issue of Teaching in Higher Education. It's called 'Re-conceptualising the concept of a nexus? A survey of 12 Scottish IS/IM
academics' perceptions of a nexus between teaching, research, scholarship and consultancy,' it's by Kevin Grant and Sonia J. Wakelin, and it's in Vol. 14, No. 2, April 2009 (pp. 133-146).

Before I go any further, 'IS' stands, in this article, for Information Systems, and 'IM' stands for Information Management.

Grant and Wakelin conducted 12 interview with IS/IM academics from one teaching-oriented university and one research-led university, both in Scotland. They found that for most of the interviewees, 'research-teaching' was less a nexus than a one-way street:most of the academics said their research informed their teaching, but no-one suggested that their teaching influenced their research.

They conclude by arguing that a 'process view' of the 'nexus' is more useful than a 'substantive view'. That is to say, focusing on 'process' rather than 'product' (two concepts that it is often difficult to disentangle when you're looking at academic practice).

Here's what they say about the 'substantive view':
This substantive view seems to suggest that when academics make/take gestures towards the nexus, for example, using a journal paper to teach a particular concept, then they assume that they can control and predict the impact of using that particular journal paper on the students’ learning and, indeed, on their teaching practice, a notion which may be inherently flawed (p. 141).
In place of this, they draw on Complex Adaptive Systems (CASs) to propose a model based on three parts: 'the set of considerations, the network definint the relationships between all elements and the set of outcomes or consequences of the processes' (p. 141). Here's what they suggest, on a practical level:
Academics should not try to control and ‘over plan’ for a nexus to emerge, but instead they should encourage themselves to engage with students in dialogue regarding the topic area and to use everybody’s experiences to support learning in themselves and within the class group. It is further advocated that, when seeking to create a nexus in class, academics should not focus solely on the actual products of academic processes, that is, a particular journal paper, and/or a consultancy experience. Rather, they should find ways to help students to make interconnections themselves, by giving students an insider’s view of the process of research and/or consultancy in their domain.
I think this product/process distinction is useful, and worth exploring further.

Incidentally, this article has a good literature review at the beginnig, so if you're trying to get a sense of the lay of the land in this field, you could do worse than read the first four pages.