All 89 entries tagged Education

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May 16, 2008

Laptops in lectures

Doonesbury on the value of laptops in lecture theatres:-

But when you think about it, is he really saying that it’s a good thing or a bad thing? Googling to find the answer to a (lecture-related!) question is way more constructive than checking your Facebook page, and is just the sort of thing that advocates of laptops in lecture theatres would be enthusiastic about; there’s a good chance he’ll remember the answer later, having looked it up himself. But then, at the end, that positive impression is undone by the revelation that he’s just checking his email. Trudeau sees both sides of the coin, curse him.

May 13, 2008

NSS fakery

Writing about web page

According to this BBC news report, a member of staff at Kingston University has been caught on tape encouraging students to rank Kingston highly when they complete their National Student Survey forms. It’s pretty sad really, but the lecturer’s comments about the consequences of a poor ranking:-

If Kingston comes down the bottom, the bottom line is that nobody is going to want to employ you…

... and on what constitutes feedback at a university:-

Feedback, in terms of this questionnaire, means what happens in seminars. Every seminar you have you get some interactive feedback from the person giving it. So if I ask a question and no one answers, and I start banging my head on the table, that is feedback. If I’m smiling and going ‘yeah great’, you’re getting feedback. If you get a mark for a piece of work, that’s what we mean by feedback.

made me at least half smile. But the most telling part of the article is the comments left by other readers, who point out that Kingston is by no means the only institution which encourages its students to respond positively to the NSS, that this is exactly what you’d expect to happen in a league table, targets-driven culture, and that people often choose to do a survey precisely because they have some kind of axe to grind, skewing the results. So we’re caught in a weird kind of Catch-22 trap where everybody wants to come high up in whatever survey or league table is currently in the news, but nobody really believes that the surveys represent any kind of objective truth. Strange.

Edit, Wed 14th May: In a follow-up story the BBC states that hundreds of students emailed them after the first story was published, stating that similar pressure was applied at their institution. Interestingly, in the comments on this follow-up, the only two comments from students asserting that this practice does not happen at their institution were from Oxford (attention drawn to the survey but nothing more), and Cambridge (Students’ Union boycotts the survey because it doesn’t reflect life and work at Cambridge accurately).

May 07, 2008

Online discussion privacy

Writing about web page

Interesting observation from David Escalante, director of computer policy and security at Boston College, made at the Educause conference on campus security last week:-

If online discussions had been around when today’s presidential candidates were in college, he suggested, their words might be dredged up and used against them now by political enemies. “Can you make a statement in an online forum and not worry that someone’s going to whack you with it later?” asked Mr. Escalante. He said that many class discussions take place using course-management systems, and that the discussions are usually archived — and sometimes even made public online. Making discussions public that have traditionally happened behind closed classroom doors could hamper freewheeling debate, he said. He suggested that colleges make sure that online discussions can only be seen by students taking the course. Or that if discussions are made public, that students be allowed to remain anonymous (except to the professor). Even so, however, there’s nothing stopping students in a course from saving all class discussion to their own drives and making it public later.

When NAGTY closed up shop, we were asked not just to archive all the messages which had been posted by its students on our discussion forums system, but to delete them completely and put them beyond the reach of recovery. But we certainly see cases of students asking us after they’ve left the university whether it’s possible to go back and remove their messages in discussion forums, or their comments on Warwick Blogs. Both institutions and students need to think carefully about the long-term implications of student comments being digitally preserved.

April 09, 2008

Do students' lecture notes infringe academics' copyright?

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A fascinating article in Wired reports that Professor Michael Moulton at the University of Florida is suing a company which has repackaged and put on sale the notes which Professor Moulton’s students took at his lectures. The assertion is that the study packs are illegal because they’re a derivative work of Professor Moulton’s lectures, which are protected by copyright.

The obvious question that this raises is, Doesn’t that make all student notes taken during a lecture de facto illegal? The lawyers involved say that yes, they are, but they’re protected as fair use. It’s an interesting and subtle distinction, and it’s not hard to think of cases which fall in between the two examples; the reason that reselling the notes seems wrong is because it’s generating an income for someone based on the work of the academic concerned – we feel that the company doing the reselling is free-riding in some sense. But what if the notes were made freely available? What if the company wasn’t charging anything to let others download the repackaged materials? Where would our sympathies lie then? I suspect that I would still feel that the professor concerned would be entitled to some protection, but it’s less clear cut. The slope from one student sharing notes with another, to a student sharing notes with everyone else on the course, or everyone else at the university, or the whole world, to a company supporting that activity on a not-for-profit basis, to a company generating revenue from it, is a slippery one. Where’s the right place to draw the line?

November 28, 2007

Comp Sci: A dying discipline?

Writing about web page,,2209741,00.html?gusrc=rss&feed=technology

An interesting article in the Guardian earlier this months notes that applications to study Computer Science at Cambridge are in steady decline, despite it being a well-respected department and (obviously) a prestigious institution. In 2000, 500 students applied and 100 were accepted. Last year, 210 applied and 70 were accepted.

Is this because of misconceptions about what a Comp Sci degree actually entails, or fears about employability after the dotcom crash of a few years ago? Nobody is quite sure, but one interesting comparison is with Southampton University, where applications are up by 20%, a rise which the department attributes to the ingenious strategy of integrating electronics and computer science, with the implied suggestion that a degree from Southampton would qualify you to build both the hardware and the software for the next iPod.

October 17, 2007

University of Youtube

It’s interesting to see that some universities are creating a branded Youtube presence. Here’s the University of California at Berkeley Youtube site, for example. And here’s the University of Southern California. Each of these sites gets an institution-specific branded home page and the ability to search or browse just within the university’s content, rather than the whole Youtube corpus. Berkeley has around 200 videos, SoCal around 50 or so, with more for sub-divisions of the university such as its law school.

It’s an interesting idea. You can direct people to your own, specific Youtube site, or you can rely on your videos being found by general searches of the whole Youtube site. The bandwidth costs are swallowed by somebody else, and you get all the infrastructure for uploading, converting, commenting, etc. for free.

The challenge for a university considering whether to do this sort of thing, I guess, is what kind of content to publish. Mostly, Warwick has elected to publish videos made specifically for the web via our iCast project. But it’s possible in principle to imagine recording ordinary events such as lectures and publishing them. SoCal has done some of this; here, for example is a lecture on evidence from July 2007. It’s 82 minutes long, and I have to say I struggled to get to the end of it. Not because it’s a bad lecture – it’s interesting and engaging – but 82 minutes, for me at least, is a long time to be watching a web video.

By contrast, the video on the USC Youtube home page is only one minute long, was clearly made for the web, and is easy to watch. So USC are experimenting at both ends of the spectrum, I guess, and if nothing else, one imagines that they’ll get some interesting data about which of their videos turn out to be popular. Do people who aren’t taking an evidence class really want to watch evidence lectures? Time will tell.

(As a matter of interest, there are 28 videos on Youtube tagged “Warwick University”. My favourite is this one, Study and chill out at the same time? Cool!)

July 25, 2007

Fees 'fail to benefit students'

Writing about web page

Both the NUS and the UCU assert that the introduction of top-up fees has not improved the university experience. NUS vice-president Wes Streeting observes that students who pay fees are in many ways customers or consumers, but have very few of the rights which consumers of other goods and services take for granted.

What I find interesting about the report is the quoted government response:-

However, the government says statistics from the university admissions service, Ucas, indicate higher fees are not putting students off going to university.

Okay, but that’s not the assertion at hand; if the question is “Has the educational experience improved?” then the answer “Higher fees do not put students off” is at best a non-sequitur, and at worst a slightly unpleasant suggestion that improvements or the lack of them don’t actually matter as long as the numbers don’t worsen.

June 05, 2007

Facebook at Nottingham

Writing about web page

Browsing Nottingham’s web site the other day I was interested to observe a few things:-

  • The Registrar there (Paul Greatrix, formerly of Warwick) has his own blog about all things Registrarial, called Registrarism, and linked to from the Registrar’s department home page.
  • The Registrar’s department home page also has a warning to students to think carefully about their Facebook publishing:-

You also need to remember that you remain subject to the University’s regulations covering acceptable standards of behaviour; IT facilities usage; harassment and bullying. In the event of a serious breach of these regulations, on Facebook or elsewhere, the University will not hesitate to take action which could lead amongst other things to withdrawal of your IT access, and to a fine or suspension (or even in the most extreme case to expulsion) under the University’s Code of Discipline for Students. So, do think carefully before posting comments about others.

And the page also includes a link to the Nottingham Students’ Union web site which has their own version of the same warning:-

University Staff members have brought to the Students’ Union’s attention that there are a number of groups on Facebook that are bringing the University’s name into disrepute. The University has advised us that they may consider disciplinary action against students who have created or are members of offensive or defamatory groups.

It raises an interesting question: to what extent can a university take disciplinary action against someone for publishing web content outside the university? The AUP for IT equipment usage doesn’t apply in such circumstances (assuming a student didn’t use university equipment to publish the content); a university could conceivably try to sue its students for defamation, perhaps, but it would be something of a nuclear option. Could a university throw a student out for bringing its name into disrepute even if it was done entirely outside of the university? Do students sign something when they arrive at university to say that they won’t do this? Or if the student posts something on Facebook (or wherever) which could be seen as harassment or abuse of another individual, does the university have the right to punish that behaviour? If so, where are the boundaries of a university’s powers to react? Is it only when the behaviour in question affects other staff or students or the institution? This social networking stuff is a great big can of worms.

May 16, 2007

Staff–student ratios

In the May 4th issue of the THES, there was an article about staff-student ratios in universities, including a league table, selected elements of which are:-

  • Best ratio: 3.6, at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
  • Next best: 5.9, at Cranfield University
  • UK average for universities and other HE institutions: 16.8
  • Warwick is in 30th place out of 118 institutions with a SSR of 15
  • The worst recorded score was Middlesex with 26.4.

These are interesting figures, and the headline of the article, predictably, reads “Class sizes spark fears over quality”. But while one can see that there may be issues with some of the out-liers, there are fifty universities who are within plus or minus 2 of the average. For those fifty universities, is there an issue? The staff-student ratio is certainly one factor to consider when trying to measure teaching quality. But the hours spent on teaching by members of staff is presumably just as important; if academics at university A have fifteen contact hours per week, and those at university B have only eight, then this will swamp the SSR number. And the expertise of the staff, both in the subject being taught and in the art of teaching, must also be important (and a separate article on the same page discusses the extent to which staff are increasingly being asked to teach subjects with which they are not very familiar).

But the most interesting data is unfortunately not included in the article; the trend. There is plenty of anecdotal stuff in the text to suggest that academics perceive that things are getting worse. But there is no comparable table of ratios per institution from five or ten or twenty years ago. More than twenty years ago, I attended tutorials with perhaps half a dozen other students. I have no idea whether that would be common-place or exceptional now.

I also wonder what proportion of prospective students (or their parents) will be aware of, or attach significance to, these numbers. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that when students decide which university to attend, the quality of teaching is not a major factor in their decision, compared with location, campus facilities, costs, and the availability of courses which match their interests. Some students have very little awareness of how their course will be taught until after they arrive. If one were to take a ruthlessly capitalist approach, would it be all together surprising if universities chose not to allocate their resources on improving an aspect of their performance which, arguably, many of their customers are not particularly aware of when they’re making their purchasing decision?

April 30, 2007

Marketing the Myspace way

Writing about web page,,2067053,00.html?gusrc=rss&feed=8

Compare and contrast; Tom Abbott here at Warwick:-

We are bringing the academe to audiences in a very new and exciting way. This is a rich window into what the university experience is, which may be impossible to articulate in a brochure.

Barrie Clark at Swansea University:-

I feel that potential students, being very media-savvy, would see universities’ use of social networking and text messaging as intrusion into what they use as a recreational space. I don’t see this trend as likely at Swansea University in the near future. I’d counsel caution here.

The two quotes aren’t strictly comparable, since Tom’s talking largely about Warwick’s use of video and audio through its iCast and podcast content, whereas Barrie is talking about Myspace and other social sites. But Warwick is also keen on Myspace, it seems:-

Looking to start a degree this year? You might find that a strange 42-year-old man is trying to be your friend. He’s a Leo, he lives in Coventry and his occupation is ‘University’. His name is Warwick. He’s rather popular; he already has 457 other friends (and counting). Warwick University is one of the first in the UK to put its profile on MySpace, one of the most popular types of ‘social networking’ websites.

So who’s right? Is it intrusive or embarrassing for a university to have a Myspace presence, like a geography teacher at a sixth form disco? Or is it just a logical choice of advertising space, since like all advertisers, universities want to display their messages in places where potential customers will read them? It’s a shame that the article didn’t manage to take what would seem to be the next logical step and speak to any actual students, or prospective students. Consultants, yes. Marketing people, yes. But if the underlying question of the article is whether students tend to value or spurn “web 2.0 marketing” (yuck), then wouldn’t it have been useful to ask them?

January 11, 2007

Smashing the mould

Writing about web page

Not just breaking the mould, mind you: smashing it.  An article on learning spaces at Warwick in the Independent today talks about the Reinvention Studio and the Learning Grid:-

Do you fancy studying in a large space containing no table but, instead, a heated rubber floor on which you can loll, soft plastic squares on which you sit, a Le Corbusier reclining chair on which one person can lie, and a projector? This is what some students are doing at Warwick, Tony Blair's favourite university, and one that sees itself in the vanguard of innovation in teaching and learning.

Warwick has opened what it calls a Reinvention Centre, in which students are handed a laptop and a tablet and undertake research as part of the university's attempt to redesign teaching. The idea is to create a place where students can work together, think, talk, write and be scholarly, using all the latest technology - and at the same time free up their minds to be original.

Do the students have to hand the laptop and the tablet back again, I wonder?  Do they all get the same tablet or is there one each?

The article is equally complimentary about the Learning Grid:-

Warwick is unusual in that it has been rethinking its library spaces. Two years ago it opened the Learning Grid, a £1m futuristic space in which students can work either on their own or in groups. The Grid won the Jason Farradane Award in 2006, an international award for innovation in library services

I like the idea that the Grid is "futuristic".  It makes me think of sixties sci-fi movies, which is the look we should be aiming for in all our learning spaces, it seems to me: something like this, perhaps:-

UFO TV show

October 06, 2006

Hooray for the British Library!

Writing about web page

“Unless there is a serious updating of copyright law to recognize the changing technological environment, the law becomes an ass,” Lynne Brindley, chief executive of the British Library, told ZDNet UK. “DRM is a technical device, but it’s being used in an all-embracing sense. It can’t be circumvented for disabled access or preservation, and the technology doesn’t expire (as traditional copyright does). In effect, it’s overriding exceptions to copyright law.”

Good stuff. Nice to see someone thinking specifically and explicitly about the impact of DRM on educational and other fair uses.

October 04, 2006

No more Physics at Reading

Writing about web page

Reading University is to close its Physics department, with this month’s intake of thirty students being the final cohort, and the department being shut down in 2010. It’s the second university to do this after Newcastle.

The Institute of Physics observes that this is essentially a market-driven problem, with funding following student numbers, and therefore universities are only able to maintain courses and departments which prospective students are willing to choose:-

At the Institute of Physics, science director Peter Main said the great paradox was that physics graduates were very employable and well paid – but departments were at risk because of underfunding. “There is a mismatch between what UK plc and employers want, and the economic drivers of universities.”

It seems almost unnatural that such a well-established, fundamental discipline can be suffering these sorts of problems. What is it that puts seventeen-year-olds off physics? Is it seen as too hard? Boring? Lacking desirable career outcomes? What could be done to make it more attractive? I wonder if the government will eventually be driven to subsidise courses which are economically important but under-subscribed, or whether there’s anything that could be done to boost the image and desirability of such subjects to prospective students.

October 03, 2006

Free iPods: Tool, gimmick or bribe?

Writing about web page

I missed this when the BBC first ran the story: South Kent College in Dover is giving its students a free iPod Nano each so that they can catch up on missed lectures or review material after the lecture is over.

This isn’t a completely new idea, of course; a number of institutions, especially in the US, have already experimented on similar lines. But what I noticed about this particular story is that the BBC managed to find someone to be scandalised about it:-

Pressure group Campaign for Real Education said it was wrong to offer bribes and it devalued education. CRE chairman Nick Seaton said: “Youngsters should want to take the courses for their own sake if they are worthwhile. Let the college keep two or three iPods to lend to the youngsters. It’s a scandalous waste of taxpayers’ money.”

The college responded that iPods would only be given to students who had completed their assignments and who had full attendance. (Do the students get to keep the iPods after they leave the college? It’s not absolutely clear.) I also notice that the scheme was paid for with “savings made on a building project”, which I think is an excellent idea, though I do foresee some objections from our Estates dept if we start asking them to hand over their spare cash in order that we can buy iPods for everyone.

August 24, 2006

Traditional lectures are over. Again.

In the Times Higher on 11th Aug (p5) there's another piece about the use of audio, video, iPods and mobile phones in university teaching. If you're being charitable, it's an optimistic, excited piece; if you're not, it's a little bit hyperbolic.

"The days of traditional lectures are over," predicts Carl Senior, a lecturer in cognitive neuroscience at Aston University. [...] "Universities are essentially service providers, and we are defined by the consumer. Our consumers are going to want to watch vodcasts and listen to podcasts in their pyjamas. We believe that what we are doing in Aston is pretty unique and at the absolute cutting edge of modern teaching methods."

What they are doing, in fact, is creating short audio and video clips which can be sent to mobile phones, though the article is curiously contradictory about what the purpose of these clips is. It says "they will, for example, summarise lectures and offer a digest of the following week's reading material". That would be the same lectures whose days are over, then, would it?

I'm particularly tickled by this suggestion:–

Physics undergradates might, for example, receive a text explaining Ohm's law

I would love to see an explanation (as opposed to just a statement) of Ohm's law in 160 characters. Any physicists out there care to have a bash?

As I've said before, I'm not persuaded of this assertion that video or audio on portable devices or home computers is likely to displace lectures. I can believe that they might usefully augment traditional teaching, but if you were offered a course predicated on the exciting idea that there would be no lectures, just vodcasts for you to watch in your pyjamas, would you really regard it as an improvment? Is this actually what our consumers (bleurgh) want?

Elsewhere in the article, Gilly Salmon at Leicester university is more cautious about the effect that podcasting may have had on a course. She says:–

[The podcasting pilot] helped to raise the pass rate for an engineering module by between 2 and 3 per cent.

Enquiring scientific minds might wonder how this figure was measured. Professor Salmon wisely includes the phrase "helped to", implying presumably that the effect was actually somewhere between zero and 3 per cent. But was there a control group? What other factors might also have helped? Is this data based on repeated trials, or just a one–time change between last year and this year? What's the average change in the pass rate from one year to the next over the last few years?

I'm being a bit harsh on people whose enthusiasm and commitment to trying new things is something I admire. But I do wonder what the best way to evangelise new and interesting approaches to teaching is, and where on the continuum from caution to hyperbole one should aim for. The THES, of course, wants stories which are dramatic and full of bold assertions, so it wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that they've cherry–picked the best quotes from much longer, more measured observations that their subjects provided.

August 11, 2006

Copyright and educational use

Writing about web page

Excellent paper on the minefield of copyright in the educational context. The paper identifies four obstacles as particularly serious ones:

  • Unclear or inadequate copyright law relating to crucial provisions such as fair use and educational use;
  • Extensive adoption of digital rights management technology to lock up content;
  • Practical difficulties obtaining rights to use content when licenses are necessary;
  • Undue caution by gatekeepers such as publishers or educational administrators.

July 27, 2006

India rejects One Laptop Per Child

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One Laptop per Child is Nicholas Negroponte's idea that supplying every schoolchild in developing nations with an inexpensive laptop – around $100 each – will aid education in those countries. Not everyone, it seems, agrees:–

The Indian Ministry of Education dismissed the laptop as "pedagogically suspect". Education Secretary Sudeep Banerjee said: "We cannot visualise a situation for decades when we can go beyond the pilot stage. We need classrooms and teachers more urgently than fancy tools."

It's an interesting question. If your education system is under–funded and under–developed, is computer hardware really the best way to spend $100 per child? Or does giving children laptops have other benefits that reach beyond the educational process?

July 26, 2006

Wireless PCs motivate students, says wireless PC maker

Writing about web page

My title is perhaps overly cynical.

About 23,000 students and 1,500 teachers in 100 Michigan school districts are participating in the program. Students get their own wireless HP notebook PCs and are allowed to learn at their own pace. Teachers, meanwhile, receive comprehensive training and curriculum guidance through a centralized learning portal. The report is backed by HP.

But if these notebooks are effectively free at the point of use for the students, and the teachers get a rich, well–supported infrastructure to help them, then it's hardly surprising that the participants regard the program as beneficial. What would be more interesting is to know whether the benefits are worth the costs of providing the program or whether the same sum spent on other activities (books? laboratories? more teachers?) would have produced equivalent or greater benefits.

University download services 'not popular'

Writing about web page

This article in the Chronicle notes that universities which had offered their students legal paid–for music download services have not had great take–up, and in at least two cases – Cornell and Purdue – have decided to abandon the service. The problem seems to be at least in part that subscription services which lapse when you leave university are innately unappealing, which I completely understand.

Warwick briefly considered whether this was something we wanted to pursue; I'm glad we didn't (and although it's easy to say so now, I didn't think it would have been a good idea at the time, either).

In more positive news about digital music, though, Radford University in the US intends to require iPods for its music students, logically enough, so that they can listen to music. They plan to build a kind of distribution hub for their students containing the set works for the course. Funny how this is the first time the primary purpose of the iPod has been mentioned as the rationale for using it in education.

July 24, 2006

Does researching make you a better teacher?

Writing about web page

It's an age–old conundrum for universities: research is what builds your reputation and lands the big contracts, but teaching is what's expected of you, and given that it's hard enough to do one thing really well, how on earth can you hope to do two? One approach is to divide your staff into pure researchers and pure teachers. Another is to expect as many academics as possible to do both teaching and research, and a popular line to take in support of that strategy is to assert that academics who are active in research make better teachers because of it.

But is that really true? It sounds somewhat plausible; research makes you better informed which improves your teaching. Or, researching something means that you're interested in it, so you'll teach it better (but then research is just acting as an indicator of interest, not as something important in its own right). Disconcertingly, though, a recent paper suggests that the answer is unambiguously no. From the abstract:–

This empirical study attempts to answer an age-old debate in legal academia; whether scholarly productivity helps or hurts teaching. The study is of an unprecedented size and scope. It covers every tenured or tenure-track faculty member at 19 American law schools, a total of 623 professors. The study gathers four years of teaching evaluation data (calendar years 2000-03) and creates an index for teaching effectiveness.

This index was then correlated against five different measures of research productivity. The first three measure each professor's productivity for the years 2000–03. These productivity measures include a raw count of publications and two weighted counts. The scholarly productivity measure weights scholarly books and top–20 or peer reviewed law review articles above casebooks, treatises or other publications. By comparison, the practice–oriented productivity measure weights casebooks, treatises and practitioner articles at the top of the scale. There are also two measures of scholarly influence. One is a lifetime citation count, and the other is a count of citations per year.

These five measures of research productivity cover virtually any definition of research productivity. Combined with four years of teaching evaluation data the study provides a powerful measure of both sides of the teaching versus scholarship debate.

The study correlates each of these five different research measures against the teaching evaluation index for all 623 professors, and each individual law school. The results are counter–intuitive: there is no correlation between teaching effectiveness and any of the five measures of research productivity. Given the breadth of the study, this finding is quite robust. The study should prove invaluable to anyone interested in the priorities of American law schools, and anyone interested in the interaction between scholarship and teaching in higher education.

Clearly there's room for debate and interpretation on the question of whether American law schools are good predictors of other disciplines and countries. But even so, the robustness of the finding is food for thought.

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