All 11 entries tagged THES

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June 02, 2006

Podcasting at Bradford

From the front page of the THES on 26th May:–

A Bradford University lecturer claims to be the first UK academic to abolish lectures completely in favour of podcasts. First year students taking Bill Ashraf's biochemistry course next year won't have to go to a lecture theatre. Instead they'll watch or listen to virtual lectures on their MP3 players, phones or computers in their own time.

It's intriguing if true. Most academics who've been experimenting with podcasting thus far have been using as a supplement to, rather than replacement for, traditional lectures. They've either recorded the lecture itself, or recorded an alternative reading of the lecture material, but either way the lecture still takes place. If there were no lectures, would students really be motivated to listen to a series of (presumably) hour–long audio sessions? Experience generally suggests that it's awfully difficult to make an hour–long audio recording which holds the listener's attention effectively (though of course the same could be said of hour–long lectures). Will it matter that there won't be slides or a blackboard or an OHP? Will students miss the social elements (and to some extent the peer pressure) of convening for lectures?

And why does Dr Ashraf want to do this?

Dr Ashraf said the move would free time for more small–group teaching, and would better suit the needs of distance learners, part–time students and those balancing study with work. He said "Some lecture classes have 250 students, so I question the effectiveness of a didactic lecture for an hour".

No problem with any of that, although I'm not absolutely clear that the didactic value of a podcast intended to replace a lecture would necessarily be any better than the lecture itself – though I suppose it need only be no worse. Next week I think I might try and contact Dr Ashraf and find out more about what form his podcasts will take and how he might be planning to measure their effectiveness during the year.


May 05, 2006

The wrath of the veggies

From this week's Times Higher comes the salutory tale of the man who wrote an essay called Why vegetarians should be force-fed lard. So far, so drolly humorous, you might (or might not) think, but what makes it more interesting is that this essay was housed on the web server of the University of Newcastle. One can only begin to imagine the joy felt by their IT department, therefore, when angry vegetarians from around the country began contacting them demanding the removal of this piece. The THES says:–

Their arguments were initially rejected by Quentin Campbell, acting for the University's Information Systems and Services. His phone number was then published on the vegetarians' website with a suggestion that he should be pestered.

The same person who suggested Operation Pester–cide also invited fellow veggies to call the Sun newspaper to generate bad publicity for the university.

Faced with the wrath of the veggies, Newcastle University apparently conceded defeat and removed the offending pages. The stick, it seems, is mightier (and tastier?) than the carrot.


March 24, 2006

Students' shameless emails

Follow-up to About email from Autology: John Dale's blog

Following on from my recent entry about email I was amused at yet another attempt by the THES to generate a shocking headline from a not-especially-shocking story: the headline reads:-

Shameless students put tutors in e-mail hell

and the article asserts that students:-

… bombard lecturers with e-mail messages at all hours of the day to make banal or impertinent queries in a manner that ranges from the overly familiar to the downright rude.

Now I'm sure that this happens. But is it a widespread problem? Is it, as the article clearly wishes us to conclude, ubiquitous? Further down the article, we're told that the examples quoted emerge from:-

an informal Times Higher survey of UK academics – who were only too pleased to divulge their experiences.

Strangely, the article declines to mention the survey size, the number of respondents who didn't suffer these sorts of problems, or how the respondents were chosen. Sometimes I think the THES aspires to be the Daily Mail of Higher Education: SOMETHING MUST BE DONE ABOUT THIS OUTRAGE!


January 16, 2006

Academics' frustrations

In the Times Higher on 13th Jan is a small survey of anonymous academics on the subject of what they find most frustrating about their students. Their answers?

  • Poor written English, especially punctuation.
  • Propensity to complain and to take complaints to extreme levels.
  • Plagiarism, expecially online.
  • Preoccupation with marks.
  • Failure to understand the difference between learning and being taught.
  • Students who fail through laziness, then try every available trick to get back in.
  • Students who don't attend lectures.
  • Lack of independent thinking.

In summarising the points made so briefly, I make these complaints sound somewhat more strident and bitter than they actually were in the article; most of the respondents noted that only a minority of students exhibit the behaviour that irked them, and that many of their students were bright, hard-working and reasonable.

I wonder if next week they'll ask some anonymous students what frustrates them most about their lecturers?


December 07, 2005

International student influences

Interesting snippet in the Times Higher on 2nd Dec: International students report the following influences – in order – on their choice of UK university:-

  1. Word of mouth
  2. Institutional web site
  3. Access to the internet when at university
  4. Good IT facilities
  5. Feeling 'safe and secure'
  6. Good teaching
  7. Library facilities
  8. Academic content on courses

Nearly half the students surveyed were dissatisfied with the cost of accommodation, low levels of financial support via bursaries, employment opportunities and experience, and university careers services.


November 29, 2005

Times Higher Award Winners 2005

The results of the Times Higher awards were announced in last week's issue (25th Nov). Thirteen categories, and what the THES describes as a "celebration of the best of UK higher education". The winners:-

  • Rana Mitter from Oxford won young academic author of the year, for his book A bitter revolution: China's struggle with the modern world.
  • UCE won the widening participation initiative of the year for their "Breakthrough to Learning" program.
  • UHI Millennium Institute won most imaginative use of distance learning for their BA in Culture Studies program. It's a four year course taught via nine academic partners spread across the Highlands and Islands.
  • Proximagen Neuroscience won business initiative of the year. It's a spin-off from King's College doing drug research into Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
  • Julie MacPherson from Warwick's Department of Chemistry won young researcher of the year for her work on science on the nanoscale.
  • Salford won outstanding contribution to the local community for their work on Community Reinvestment Trusts.
  • Sheffield Hallam was employer of the year.
  • The National Cancer Research Institute won research project of the year for their informatics initiative.
  • University of Wales, Swansea won the award for best student experience. They were ranked top for facilities, social life and prospects, and second for course satisfaction and exceeding expectations.
  • Westminster won the award for outstanding support for oversears students, for the work of their Scholarships Department.
  • Exeter won the award for outstanding support for students with disabilities for the work of their Disability Resource Centre.
  • Lewis Elton received a lifetime achievement award. He's 82 and recently accepted a visiting professorship of higher education at Manchester University.
  • Manchester was the higher education institution of the year.

November 25, 2005

Repository warning

In the Times Higher this week (Nov 25th) I saw the following short piece quoting the Royal Society:-

The push for researchers to make their papers available free online via open-access journals and repositories could be "disastrous", according to a statement released this week by the Royal Society. The Research Councils are consulting on plans to encourage scientists to embrace the open access model. But the Society has called for them to undertake a proper study first. The statement says "The worst-case scenario is that funders could force a rapid change in practice, which encourages the introduction of new journals, archives and repositories which cannot be sustained in the long term, but which simultaneously force the closure of existing peer reviewed journals that have a long track record".

Repositories are an interesting idea. In principle, collecting the research output of your institution and making it available to interested parties – your own staff, your students, other universities, researchers, the press – seems like an appealing idea. But it's hard to find examples of universities which have implemented repositories which have grown into large-scale, impressive content collections. And it's easy to find institutions with repositories which are empty, or nearly empty, or contain content which dates back to the first flush of enthusiasm for the idea, but not much since then.

So there must be counter-balancing factors which mean that even though it could be a good idea institutionally, that doesn't translate into a widely adopted practice. Why not? Perhaps there isn't enough benefit to the individuals who create the research in exchange for the effort of submitting it. Perhaps the rights management turns out to be harder than expected in some cases. Maybe the benefits aren't that much greater than just publishing those bits of your research that you want to on your existing institutional web site (or your blog!).

But a great big rock could be thrown on to one side of the scale; if the Research Councils make it a condition of funding that publications must be placed into an institutional repository, then the inconvenience to individuals, or the question of how useful the repository actually is, just get completely overruled, and whether you wanted to or not, whether you thought it was valuable or not, you'd do it. Hence, presumably, the Royal Society's anxiety.


October 12, 2005

Ethics for universities

In the Times Higher on October 7th is the intriuging headline:-

Guide steers campuses through moral mazes

On closer inspection, it seems that for a mere £25, universities can buy a guide to ethical dilemmas in HE, authored by vice-chancellors, industry chiefs, UUK and HEFCE folk. Stephen Schwarz (who's VC at Brunel) is one of the authors of the report and says "The whole purpose of a univeristy is ethical. We are looked up to, and we must make sure we act in a responsible way". My favourite bit in the report:-

Tony Blair has sent a message of support to the authors of the guide. In it he stresses the importance of universities and colleges in helping students to prepare for life's ethical dilemmas.

I have to confess that as I type this I feel a bit like Tom in Tom & Jerry when he puts out a particularly attractive piece of cheese as bait for Jerry and we see the aroma gently waft into Jerry's mousehole and tweak him on the nose. The Jerry to my Tom, of course, is Adam; are you there, Adam?


May 24, 2005

RAE at the Unseen University

In last week's Times Higher (May 13th) the THES commissioned Terry Pratchett to write a short piece imagining what would happen if the University from his Discworld series of novels were to be threatened with an RAE exercise (or its Discworld equivalent), or if it were to have targets set for its "non-traditional intake" of students.

Since the Discworld novels are as much satire as they are fantasy, this is fruitful ground, and Mr Pratchett doesn't disappoint.

On research papers:-

"I've seen some of those Braseneck papers." said Ridcully. "They've got titles like 'Diothumatic Aspects of Cheese in Mice', or possibly it was mice in cheese. Or maybe chess."

"And what was it about?" said the Dean.

"Oh, I don't think it was for reading. It was for having written." said the Arch-chancellor.

On what academics do:-

"Explain to (the inspector) that we don't do things, Stibbons." said the Lecturer in Recent Runes. "We are academics."

"Interesting idea, though," said Ridcully, winking at Stibbons. "What do you do, Senior Wrangler?"

A hunted look crossed the Senior Wrangler's face. "Well, er." he said, clearing his throat. "The post of Senior Wrangler at Unseen University is, most unusually —"

"Yes, but what do you do? And have you been doing more of it in the past six months than in the previous six?"

"Well, if we're asking that kind of question, Arch-chancellor, what do you do?" said the Dean, testily.

"I administer, Dean." said Ridcully, calmly.

"Then we must be doing something, otherwise you'd have nothing to administrate."

"That coment strikes at the very heart of the bureaucratic principle, Dean, and I shall ignore it."

On teaching:-

"Firstly," said Stibbons, "Mr Pessimal wants to know what we do here."

"Do? We are the premier college of magic!" said Ridcully.

"But do we teach? As such?"

"Of course, if no alternative presents itself." said the Dean. "We show 'em where the library is, give 'em a few chats and graduate the survivors. If they run into any problems, my door is always metaphorically open."

"Metaphorically, sir?" said Stibbons.

"Yes." said the Dean. "But technically, of course, it's locked. Good grief, you don't want 'em just turning up."

If your department keeps copies of the THES around, you enjoy Terry Pratchett's writing, and you're even a little bit cynical about the RAE, target numbers or ethic committees (and let's face it, if you're not cynical about at least one of those then where have you been?) then this is well worth a read. Sadly, I can't find it online, otherwise I'd link to the whole article.


April 25, 2005

Lecturers bored by lessons in teaching

… is the headline on the front cover of the Times Higher Education Supplement last week (April 22nd 2005).

Some young academics are so unimpressed by universities' attempts to teach them how to lecture that they are dismissing their training as a waste of time.

Fortunately, Warwick isn't one of the institutions cited as suffering from this particular malaise, but still, it raises interesting questions:-

  • Do young academics need training to teach?
  • Has the range of skills required changed much over the last few decades?
  • If so, has the training changed accordingly?
  • If training is a good idea, why do (some) young academics seem to resent it?

As is so often the case, I don't know the answer to any of those questions, but they interest me nonetheless. When I (briefly) taught a little bit of Comp Sci, I didn't find it difficult in the sense of requiring skills which I didn't have, but it was tremendously hard work – the preparation, the physical effort of the lectures, the setting of coursework and exams, and oh god, the marking. Not in a hurry to do that again. But I can't think of a way in which training would have helped any of that.


January 14, 2005

Last–minute degree bargains?

The Times Higher reports this week that universities will be allowed to offer cheaper deals to students during clearing in order to "fill gaps". The Office for Fair Access confirmed that it would not prevent universities from lowering fees or increasing bursaries during the August clearing process.

So if your A-level results match your entry offer, then you could be paying the full £3,000 rate, but if you don't meet your grades target and rely on clearing, you could get in for less. I wonder whether this is a smart marketing strategy for universities? A bit like lastminute.com, perhaps…


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