srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education

Ian Mc Nay


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Some reflections on learning during lockdown…

by Ian McNay

This is a listing of thoughts that came over 3 months of isolation when learning was in a different context.

  •  Policy based on science becomes policy blamed on science in the hands of politicians, who rarely, if ever, admit being at fault, which they see as weakness.
  • Researchers therefore need to be very sure of what they publish or advice they give, because the nuances of conditionality of research findings do not transfer easily to a political mindset. Do not rush to publish when data are still emerging in a fluid situation. Rigorous peer review becomes even more important, but seems to have been neglected by The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine over hydroxychloroquine. The reputation of the Imperial group and their influential model was also called in to question when examined by the excellent Radio 4 programme, More or Less, and later in Private Eye (19 June) which discovered that their forecast about the rate at which infections doubled – 5 days – neglected data from Italy and the early days of the UK experience – which gives nearer to 3 days – and therefore led to a delay in lockdown. Maybe not a 4* rating for impact, after all. The cherry picking by ministers and the pressures to edit findings from those in a draft (I have experienced both) may have been a learning experience for some.
  • The definition of ‘world leading’ adopted by government in reviewing its own policy in operation over Covid-19 must use criteria even lower than those in REF derided by Johnston (Ron, that is – ex-VC of Essex, then professor emeritus at Bristol)
  • Presentism was shown to be less essential than Jacob Rees-Mogg thinks. I won’t comment much on the teaching experience since most of mine has been at a distance for some years. Some research approaches – interviews, focus groups – needed to be adapted by my students, whose field work was disrupted. Anthropological immersion in a community for study purposes was challenging – but there is a lot of material being gathered virtually and more to follow when retrospective work is done. Anthropologists and ethnologists may have a field day examining how societies and communities changed – norms, habits, rituals, relationships, communications – and how quickly they responded to crisis: better locally than when driven from the centre. Outside the academic, meetings were shorter with more respect for others in terms of interruptions. Some international conferences had higher attendances than at times in the past when the time and cost of travel was a deterrent. This has been true of SRHE, where some events offered by Networks have had over 100 participants, when the room they were held in BC (Before Covid) could hold a maximum of 50. A higher proportion were from overseas. Currently, therefore, some people, less advantaged because of geography or funding, may get access they could not previously afford. Fees for non-members have also been suspended, though this has led to a drop in the number of members joining or renewing. Please do pay membership fees – they give value for money.
  • The opposite is true for some students where they do not have home technology, and so inequality of opportunity has increased. Universities need to reflect on this and recall that in the first years of the Open University students were provided with not only home experiment kits (including a rotor arm which one postal worker left outside the door of a 7th floor flat in Toxteth: I had to argue hard with the administration to stop the student being charged), but with home computers, so all had access.
  • Working from home had its challenges. As someone who has always gone to work to work, with the journey allowing a role transition from place to place, entering the dining room to work at the table does not have the same liminal impact. The morning walk to the newsagent, which allowed thoughts to organise themselves and next paragraphs and passages to be planned, has been suspended. Papers are now delivered. Lockdown has had a differential impact by gender. Submission rates of journal articles have gone down for women, up for men, with a knock on consequence for REF submissions.
  • The ‘unknown knowns’ of inequality, prejudice and discrimination are now out in the open and, if continued are deliberate and systemic, done knowingly, not some deterministically ‘systemic’ feature about which we can do nothing. The claim that Covid-19 hit high and low alike was based around two people – the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister – neither of whom died. The figures I quoted on deaths of clinical staff last time became even more alarming, with 94% of doctors killed by Covid-19 reported as being from BAME backgrounds. The interconnection of class and race in the distribution of infection and deaths shows that responsibility rests with policies on disadvantage of the poor increasing exposure. We should also have absorbed another ‘known’, that value is not reflected in wage/salary levels, but should be. Humanity and decency should mean that policy seeks to redress inequality, and universities have roles to play in this and need to commit to performing them, beyond looking at their own patterns of discrimination. Especially, perhaps, those running police training courses, who need to review them as economists needed to review their courses after the 2008 crash (some even did so) and those leading MBA programmes after the report from CIPD that only 8 per cent of managers thought about the relevance of values. The history curriculum at all levels needs examining for balance. One of my newspapers surveyed decolonisation and found only 20% of universities had done anything and even fewer on a whole university basis. The ubiquitous media academic de nos jours, David Olusonge, who as I write, as well as appearing on the news, has just started a BBC4 programme on Black British History to sit alongside one on BBC2 about a house in Guinea Street , Bristol, built by a likely slave trader, could be the person to lead on it.
  • Of course universities are not racist; senior managers have issued statements saying so, not after the glaring picture of the statistics but by joining the Black Lives Matter bandwagon of corporate guilt, denial and claimed commitment following recent police killings and decades of discrimination. The heads of Oxford colleges did it most publicly through a high profile letter in The Guardian; others were less limelight-seeking. I did not see any comment from David Lammy, but the next day the Guardian had a report of racist language and harassment in election hustings at an Oxford college … for a cake representative (I kid you not; this is Oxford, remember). More seriously, the day after that came a report that BAME student societies had withdrawn involvement in Oxford’s outreach programme because of the perceived lack of support following student entry. Lessons for us all there. Only three percent of Rhodes scholarships go to those from Africa. The governors of Oriel College have now decided to remove the statue of Rhodes: sometimes people power can achieve things mainstream processes of deliberation do not.
  • Lessons, too, on leadership, where what has emerged during the crisis echoes work by myself and others. What people want is: clarity of policy, so there is certainty about expectations; consistency and continuity rather than constant change, which makes us feel like experimental guinea pigs where different things are tested on us (REF 2021 has 12 major changes); and confidence in leaders, which the first two will help promote, but which also needs a sense of common identity, where we are visibly and evidentially ‘all in it together’. There is a Leadership Foundation in HE report saying exactly that https://uwe-repository.worktribe.com/output/828871 . (Thanks to Rob C for digging that out) The involvement of those at devolved level with expertise is also essential; driving from the centre, with autocratic control, is neither efficient nor effective, and, in some cases not economic. True at university institutional level, too.
  • We have learned that the crisis, like others, offers opportunities. HEPI had a report outlining possibilities for enhancing access; for many, the exposure to distance learning has stimulated broader thinking about curriculum process, and there will be strategic thinking about the portfolio of provision, though English government decisions on extra undergraduate numbers give them to elite universities whatever their TEF grade and ignores many judged excellent by TEF judgements. Yet the elite universities are dropping down international league tables because of, say the compilers (according to a report in…The Guardian 10 June) ‘poor teaching and declining research impact’. Of the 84 in the rankings (very few were modern universities, though Greenwich made it) 66 had a drop in SSRs, 59 a drop in research citations, and 51 a drop in international student numbers, who, for them, will now be replaced by extra domestic students.
  • Finally, we have learned that some academics are market sensitive and see a promotional opportunity when it comes. For those on television, bookshelves became advertising hoardings, with their latest output showing, cover to the front, not spine, just over their shoulder and very legible. In one case, a blown up photograph had been framed and hung on the wall.

SRHE Fellow Ian McNay is emeritus professor at the University of Greenwich

Marcia Devlin


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Reimagining the lecture

By Marcia Devlin

The research around university learning and teaching shows that didactic teaching and passive reception do not result in deep, lasting or meaningful learning for most students. It is curious, then, that despite knowing this, we persist with lecturing at students in large groups in most universities. Worse, one of the most common lecturing practices is to ‘stand and deliver’ notes and/or PowerPoint slides.

It is important to acknowledge that lectures probably worked as a form of teaching for many academics – who were, as students, particularly intellectually able, intrinsically motivated and keenly focused and clear on their educational and vocational goals, that is, to continue to pursue knowledge throughout their career through research and teaching. But it is equally important to acknowledge that this approach is not effective for the majority of students, who go on to fill other roles and pursuits outside of academia. The challenge is that the lecture persists and is assumed to be the basis of effective teaching practice when it may or may not be, depending on the student and context.

If you doubt my argument, take the time to stand at the back of a typical lecture theatre (if many – or any – students have turned up at all past Week 5) and scan the students’ screens. You’ll see Facebook, Messenger and other social media channels getting a good workout, along with search engines and search terms that may or may not be related to the lecture topic. That kind of workout happens much less often in smaller classes where the teaching is interactive and the students are co-creating their learning through being engaged and active.

It should be said that not all lecturing is bad. A lecture hall can be led by a gifted, enthusiastic, well organised teacher with outstanding communication skills, who builds and maintains rapport, shows respect for students and their learning, engages all present in activities and critical thinking, enables collaborative approaches to problem solving within the class, provides stimulus for deep thinking during and after the lecture, makes concepts come alive through examples and the use of various media, provides ‘aha’ moments for those in the room, and so on.

The challenge is that the vast majority of lecturing is not like that, which is why students generally don’t bother coming and instead either watch it online (at double speed – ask a current student) or skip the class altogether.

At Victoria University (VU) in Melbourne, Australia, we are acutely aware of the massification of higher education, the worldwide widening participation movement and the increased student diversity that this brings. We know that students’ lives are increasingly characterised by multiple and competing priorities in a distracting and at times overwhelming digital context. We understand that students want personalised, flexible learning opportunities that enable them to manage their multiple work, family, social and other commitments outside of university, while getting the most out of the financial and time investments they have made in study.

With all of this in mind, VU has radically and successfully reimagined our approach to learning and teaching by drawing on the evidence base of what works. We have, therefore, done away with large, passive lectures in first and second year and will do the same in third year in 2020. We have replaced semester-long units of study with a structure where students focus on and study one unit at a time over an intensive four-week period, in small classes of no more than 30 students, and through active, engaged, collaborative and deep learning with their teacher and fellow students. This is supplemented by both high quality online materials and wrap around, just in time, study and learning support. We call this The VU Way.

The focus is on the individual learner and their success. The impact has been extraordinary, with pass rates, grade distributions and retention dramatically improving in the units where this model has been introduced in both first and second year. This approach helps us address both our promise to be the University of Opportunity and Success, and the increasing accountability inherent in measurements of teaching and learning and in performance-based funding being introduced in Australian higher education. We hope that this approach and its extraordinary successes in terms of learning will continue to help us be competitive in a global tertiary education marketplace where transnational and globalised approaches to education are growing.

As the Australian economy moves, albeit very slowly, from a reliance on mining and manufacturing, to a new era in which new knowledge and ideas are precious commodities, universities have a critical role to play. Internationally, the role of universities is even more important as innovation, the transformation of businesses, technology and access to knowledge and education take place amid prevailing inequalities, political tensions, environmental challenges and huge economic changes.

While we tend to revere research that creates new knowledge in universities – and there is good reason to do so – we are significantly less enthusiastic about sharing that new (and existing) knowledge through our other core business of teaching. We need to be cognisant of the tendency to chase the prestige of research at the cost of effort and resource being put into university teaching quality and into university teachers.

Sharing knowledge more effectively

Many universities will be hesitant to move away from traditional modes of learning and teaching. Institutional culture, an undervaluing of teaching compared to research and the effort and the volume and breadth of the resources required to make a major transformational change in learning and teaching all probably play a part in the sector’s reluctance to significantly change teaching practices.

Of course, there are many alternatives to didactic, PowerPoint-driven stand-and-deliver lecturing that are currently used across the sector to great effect by individual teachers and teaching teams, including:

  • Blended learning, incorporating the integration of modern and interactive eLearning;
  • Flipped classrooms;
  • Problem-based learning;
  • Work-integrated and work-based learning of a wide range of types;
  • Simulations and other opportunities to develop practical skills; and
  • Collaborative approaches to constructing and sharing knowledge, incorporating multidisciplinary contributions from: internal colleagues (‘peeragogy’); external MOOCs; industry educational offerings; and formal recognition of prior and concurrent student real-life learning outside the classroom.

Much of what I have listed in this incomplete list will be familiar to many. There is, of course, significant innovation and outstanding teaching practice going on in pockets of the sector by individuals and small and larger teams. However, VU is the only tertiary institution in Australia to completely throw out the old way – including lectures – and truly transform university teaching and learning.

The VU Way won’t suit all institutions, and for those who would benefit from using it, the change may simply be too hard (it is certainly very hard). What is important is that the approaches to teaching used in universities must align and keep pace with the disrupted and changing contexts in which university education takes place and with the changing needs and preferences of students.

The lecture has never been recognised as the best way for the modern university student cohorts to learn. As the global, digital and societal upheavals we are experiencing continue, and we begin to see more examples of ‘the student-free lecture’ where no-one but the well-meaning, well-prepared lecturer turns up, the lecture as the staple approach to university teaching should probably start to go the way of the once ubiquitous handwritten overhead transparency. Both have probably had their day.

Professor Marcia Devlin is Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Victoria University, Australia and a Fellow of SRHE.  An earlier version of this article appeared in Campus Review in September, 2019.


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The scholarship of learning and teaching: a victim of its nomenclature?

by Nathalie Sheridan

Scholarship historically suggests there are elements of reading, of engaging with other scholars’ and researchers’ thoughts and publications. It is a historical exercise analysing and critiquing a body of existing knowledge. The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) also necessitates a strong element of reflectivity – or better reflexivity – to become a meaningful activity. However, SoTL is more than ‘just’ scholarship. Indeed, it would be of little use for educators, if it would not involve for instance researching the impact of learning and teaching strategies, or interventions.

There is debate about the definition for SoTL and it has not yet reached a satisfactory conclusion or sound framework, despite attempts such as that by Miller-Young and Yeo (2015). However, most of the publications trying to explore positioning SoTL assume that it involves some form of research, as they speak of methods, methodology, and theories. That SoTL tends to focus on a specific context, very often a narrow view of a classroom, a course, programme or a faculty, does neither mean it is not research. Nor that the way we collect data should not adhere to research processes and standards (Reinman, 2019). If educators in their subject disciplines aim to gain meaningful insights about their practice, the data needs to be meaningful and this is done by research design.

The nomenclature is confusing. I would like to get away from the notion of equating a term for a specific context with the meaning behind it. The actual philosophies, methodologies, and approaches to which this this subfield of educational scholarship and research relates are the same as those employed generally in scholarship and research in education. SoTL is the context of educational research in higher education, with an emphasis – but not exclusionary – on exploring the effects of learning and teaching strategies on the students’ learning experience and often attainment and retention, usually with a very specific focus. However, the content of SoTL, the stuff people who ‘do’ SoTL engage in, is research and scholarship of education within the higher education context. Therefore, SoTL ought to use the same tools and rigour as educational research (and scholarship). When teaching my masters level course ‘Approaches to Educational Inquiry’, I try to convey that SoTL goes beyond an evaluation of a new classroom activity, or the use of end-of-course questionnaires as the sole measurement for course evaluation.

As an Erziehungswissenschaflter (Learning Sciences Scientist, there is no actual translation for my discipline) who moved into the English language context, it never sat easy with me that my Wissenschaft ‘science’ – simply because I changed language – suddenly was a little less and I am not a scientist anymore. Educational research has attracted a barrage of not unreasonable critique as to its quality. But it also attracted critique which demonstrates a lack of understanding of Erziehungswissenschaften (learning science, education).

A recent critique (Hazel, 2019) was that educational research does not even use the scientific method. This point of critique is based on a flaw in thinking; unlike in a chemistry or engineering lab, the variables and factors affecting our learning and understanding cannot be controlled nor can all of them be observed (at the same time). In our team we joke about learning following the Heisenberg principle; one cannot observe all variables at the same time, and the act of observing will change at least some of them.

To suggest testing and modification of hypotheses as a reasonable approach to understand an effect on learning shows a clear lack of understanding the complexities of learning. Learning is a social, neurological, cognitive, and personal process. The effects of one learning instance cannot often be predicted. As an example, if you have been teaching for a while, you will have noticed that an activity which worked well with one cohort, completely flatlined with a different cohort, or the same cohort on a different day. Experienced educators might be able to draw from tacit knowledge and make decisions that lead to planned outcomes but this is a whole other debate. However, we need to remain vigilant in addressing the various levels of theoretical framing and not confuse worldviews, theories, paradigms, methodologies and methods. If we, for the sake of simplification, cut out these steps it will just lead to more confusion and less sound scholarship or research.

Valid points in the aforementioned critique (Hazel, 2019) were the lack of replicability and sharing of data in educational research. Sharing data about our learners might appear to be in conflict with open science. However, there is an imperative for the public sector to share data, and institutions work towards making it ethically possible (UKRIO, 2018). The often narrow focus on exploring the effect of an intervention cannot tell us much more than an analysis of a conjunction of circumstances within a certain period of time. Will we know that evaluating one cohort’s reaction to a change in assessment, is transferable to another cohort, in another year? If so, how do we know? To ensure replicability we need to attempt to answer these questions. Replicability is a complex issue, which I can’t address fully within the word-limit here. Maybe one point to make would be to explore the emergence of patterns amongst similar projects. I was taught that any educational research which claims an undisputable truth is flawed, due to the complexity of influencing factors. It is near to impossible to isolate influencing variables and draw conclusions that are generalisable; this is due to human nature not due to lack of research rigour.

Let’s embrace the chances for gathering rich data and gaining in-depth understanding which the use of SoTL permits us, and explore how to strengthen the validity and reliability of our approaches to data collection and analysis.

Nathalie Sheridan is a lecturer in academic and digital development at the University of Glasgow (LEADS). Her first degree is in Erziehungswissenschaften (Learning Sciences, TU Dresden) with an MPhil (University of Glasgow) and PhD (University of Strathclyde) in education. She has worked in culture and museums education throughout her studies and been teaching in higher education since 2006. Her focus is the translation of creative learning and teaching practices into higher education, through active pedagogies and rethinking learning spaces with the aim to improve the student experience and include disenfranchised learners and educators.


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Two information revolutions

Gavin Moddie

Gavin Moodie

by Gavin Moodie

As mooc mania approached its peak, the president of edX Anant Agarwal claimed in his video launching the platform on 2 May 2012 that ‘Online education for students around the world will be the next big thing in education. This is the single biggest change in education since the printing press’.

The claim was repeated many times and indeed had been anticipated 15 years earlier in 1997 by the management guru Peter Drucker who claimed: ‘Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive. It’s as large a change as when we first got the printed book.’

http://www.forbes.com/forbes/1997/0310/5905122a.html

That seemed improbable since university lectures have been as important in the five and half centuries since the invention of printing as they presumably were for the three and a half centuries before Gutenberg. Continue reading