“The New Education” by Cathy Davidson

51dYKk9sOsLFirst of all, this isn’t a commissioned review – I bought The New Education by Cathy Davidson myself and am (sort of) reviewing it because I found it extremely thought-provoking. In fact, on a recent trip to the States with a few colleagues, I nattered on about it almost non-stop so I feel that I should probably share a few insights from the book. It is worth noting that the book is very USA-focused and so not everything is going to be applicable for everybody. However, there are more than enough shared issues among higher education institutions that the book resonated with me in a lot of different ways. Below, I pick out a few of the sections that I found particularly interesting, and share some of the ways in which they might affect the way that I try to influence teaching at my university:

1. Davidson talks at the beginning about “Taylorism” – the belief that rather than becoming holistically-educated individuals who are capable of perceiving big pictures, people were better trained to act as cogs in much larger machines. The result is that training (including in universities) tends to focus on disciplines, while inter-, multi-, or transdisciplinarity has been sidelined. The result is that “systems thinking” and the solving of complex problems is not at the core of university education. For me, broadening student horizons through the incorporation of real world problems and other disciplines is central to their education.

2. “In the deficit model, poor scores are a problem of the learner, not of the instructor or the institution.” – Davidson spends a lot of time contrasting community colleges (which she characterises as places where teachers help students to learn) with universities (characterised as places where students pass or fail). This idea of a deficit model posits that all students can achieve, if only they apply themselves. Universities need to acknowledge that students are not the finished article when they arrive, and need to be nurtured from a point where they know nothing.

3. The following quote emphasises a major issue with university education: lecturers and professors simply are not trained to teach:

…unlike most professors at four-year colleges and research universities, community college teachers actually train and prepare for teaching. They don’t just teach the way they were taught by their graduate school professors— the apprenticeship model of learning where you imitate your mentor. They actually study effective methods for teaching students at any level. Like K–12 teachers, community college professors take pedagogy seriously.

4. Davidson also has some interesting perspectives on technology and blended learning. This is part of her wider argument against didactic lectures and in favour of active learning. I particularly liked the quote “Every class should be an opportunity to do that which no screen can do” – a solid statement of where higher education teaching should be heading in an age of recorded lectures and YouTube. She also has some perspectives on technology in the classroom:

It is common, in the history of technology, for adults to be sure that the latest device—the one that wasn’t around when they were growing up—will somehow do irreparable damage to the younger generation. For teachers, a common technophobic response is to ban from the classroom devices that are becoming ubiquitous everywhere else… It’s odd and even irresponsible that formal education is the one place where we’re not using the devices on which we do our learning all the rest of the time.

5. In terms of assessment, Davidson has some views with which I agree wholeheartedly:

…students do not do particularly well in writing papers just for the sake of writing papers. Rather, students value writing that “makes something happen in the world.”

Students learn to write essays that only they and their professor will be reading, in a form and format that are rarely used beyond the classroom.

Writing a term paper for the sake of writing a term paper, one that will be read only by the instructor, seems pointless, even ludicrous.

6. Davidson also has some frank words about MOOCs (with which I have come to agree). The interesting aspect for me is that I have been asked to put on a MOOC in my department over the next few months. I’ll share more about that later. Davidson specifically critiques the early MOOC styles, which were largely recorded lectures:

Videos of famous professors from elite universities packaged by other famous professors who formerly taught at elite universities will not “transform” higher education except perhaps in an unfortunate way, reinforcing and spreading the nineteenth-century passive, hierarchical models of teaching and learning.

Is the MOOC really a revolution in learning or, like another era’s horseless carriage, a mechanized version of what already exists?

They joked that we were leading a Meaningful, Ornery, and Outrageous Course.

If you believe technology is the answer to everything that plagues higher education, you probably don’t understand technology or higher education…

However, as an enthusiastic science communicator (when I can find the time), this comment also resonated with me:

As one commentator notes, “Online education isn’t succeeding because it’s better than Oberlin [College – the physical institution to which a MOOC is being compared], it’s succeeding because it’s better than nothing, and nothing is what’s currently on offer for millions of people.”

Finally, Davidson concludes with a summary of problems that is perhaps more a call to arms than anything else, a much-needed list of key challenges that face higher education and for which there are solutions (demonstrated by exemplars elsewhere) if only institutions had the initiative and drive to implement them. I have broken them up here into a numbered list for clarity:

  1. The lecture is broken, and so we must think of better ways to incorporate active learning into the classroom.
  2. High-stakes end-of-semester summative, standardized testing is broken, and so we must design challenges that help students to build on what they know and learn from what they don’t, growing stronger from each test instead of feeling defeated by an exam score that cannot capture growth or change.
  3. Cost is prohibitive, and so we must adopt new models of credit, such as the Australian graduated repayment model, and far better models of support, including renewed public faith in the importance of supporting higher education for the sake of all our futures—including, for the skeptics, on purely economic grounds.
  4. The traditional professorial and apprentice models don’t teach students how to be experts, and so we must look to peer learning and peer mentoring, rich cocurricular experiences, and research to put the student, not the professor or the institution, at the center.
  5. The major in a traditional discipline no longer maps to the complex ways students encounter the world or the jobs and careers of the present and the future, and so we must champion relevant interdisciplinary projects, missions, programs, and goals, across departments and silos of knowledge and expertise.
  6. The exclusivity of more and more of our universities increasingly buffers them from the world beyond, and so we must encourage more partnerships and resource sharing across elite and non-elite institutions, including community and regional colleges, HBCUs, and other minority-serving institutions.
  7. Increasing numbers of students now attend community college, and so we must find better ways to support faculty and advisers there. We must improve systems of credit transfer and course alignment to ensure that students with associate’s degrees can go on easily and smoothly to earn bachelor’s degrees at four-year institutions.
  8. The situation of adjunct and contingent labor threatens the future of the university, and so we must insist that full-time positions be replaced with full-time faculty.

With the exception of 6 and 7, which are more specific to the USA system, these are the core problems that I have seen in higher education, summarised succinctly. For me, to read them as a solid paragraph (as in the book) is to experience the coalescence of all the little gripes and major strategic initiatives that I have been aware of or considered into a single paragraph of text. Not all are within our control (e.g. financing in point 3), but the majority are and it is the responsibility of staff and (in particular) management to solve them.

In summary, I found the book to be a succinct (it isn’t long), interesting (particularly the historical perspectives on problems that plague us today), practical (so many references and case studies of success!) guide to the big problems in universities. The book is also written in a funny and light-hearted way, despite the gravity of some of the issues that are discussed. I’d strongly recommend it to all HE colleagues, and especially to staff in managerial positions. We’re the ones who need to make the change.


What works in higher education: active learning

university-105709_640When I advocate for pedagogical research (an area in which I try to maintain an active interest), I am often told by colleagues that the quality of the research is poor. As a result, it is difficult to evaluate what actually works in higher education and so there is no real impetus to change what we already do. Indeed, I remember one academic colleague squeaking through a teaching qualification by the skin of their teeth because they steadfastly refused to cite any pedagogical literature. I wanted to write a quick post to make the case that this is not always true.

Specifically, the article I want to mention is this one:

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Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) – a highly reputable journal in which many of my colleagues would be delighted to publish their work – the paper describes a review of an approach known as “active learning“. This method is very simple: students should be actively engaged in the learning process rather than being a passive audience. From the article:

The studies analyzed here document that active learning leads to increases in examination performance that would raise average grades by a half a letter, and that failure rates under traditional lecturing increase by 55% over the rates observed under active learning. The analysis supports theory claiming that calls to increase the number of students receiving STEM degrees could be answered, at least in part, by abandoning traditional lecturing in favor of active learning.

The authors compared 158 active learning studies to 67 traditional lecturing studies to find these rather startling effects. Unsurprisingly, those studies that used a typical lecturing style had significantly greater failure rates. This likely stems from the student’s lack of evaluation of their own learning during the course, which is only revealed when the exam marks are returned at the end of teaching. Through active learning, students gain a greater appreciation of their progress through a continued self-reflection on progress made. Similarly, the increase in performance is not surprising: students who have errors in their understanding discover those errors and can take steps to remedy them when engaged in an active learning environment.

So why aren’t we all doing active learning? The simple answer is that active learning requires an investment of time and a different perspective on teaching. Most university lecturers have never actually been trained as teachers, and their only experience of teaching was the old-fashioned exposition style of didactic lecturing. They are doing what they know. Workloads are at such a level that retraining and refocusing efforts on new ways of teaching is occurring piecemeal, rather than through large-scale redesign of teaching based on empirically validated methods.

So what is the solution?

For me, there has to be a community of practice that allows academics to help one another to enhance teaching. Since teaching in higher education tends to be relatively siloed into modules, academics often develop their own teaching style with relatively little input from colleagues. A greater awareness of best practice and learning from one another could bring about considerable enhancements, with support and guidance (and, sometimes, copying wholesale if appropriate!) in the implementation of new techniques. I’d be interested to hear whether anybody has found a solution to this problem and any interesting case studies where the transition from exposition to active learning has been achieved successfully. Feel free to drop a note in the comments below.

Overassessment, stress, and university education

homework-2521144_640On 1st August 2018, I took on a new role as Director of Student Education in my department and that has got me thinking more practically about the higher education teaching stories that I read. Since I now have a position where I can effect change, are there positive steps that can be taken? The first story I came across was this from the Times Higher Education Supplement:

The modular structures of degree programmes have resulted in a stressful assessment environment for students in UK universities, according to a recent study. It is not just the volume of assessment but also the ways that students are evaluated that is hindering meaningful learning…

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An example of progressive peer-review in a scientific journal

Almost all scientific papers are peer-reviewed.  This means (typically) that between one and three researchers from the same field as the paper’s topic offer (sometimes constructive) criticism and a judgement as to whether or not the paper merits publication.  There is a strange ritual to it, whereby the authors submit, the reviewers critique, then the authors rebut or acquiesce to the reviewers’ demands, while the editor acts as ringmaster and makes the final decision.  The main problems are that (i) there is a lack of dialogue (you only get a very small number of opportunities to engage), and (ii) your manuscript is in the hands of a very small number of reviewers with their own particular foibles and hobby horses.

A solution to this is to have either (i) open pre-publication peer-review, or (ii) open post-publication peer-review.  This means that the paper is discussed by more people and in a medium which encourages dialogue, such as a blog comments section.  Even better, each element of the dialogue can feature as a subsection of the paper itself, making each section citable in its own right.  This encourages reviewers and commenters alike to produce high-quality criticisms and has been implemented in some journals. Here’s an example of the process in action in a particularly controversial climate paper at Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics:

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This is certainly the way forward for open science.

One quick trick to increase visibility and citations of research papers

digitization-of-library-3068971_640Since I’m “young” (whatever that means) I sometimes get asked to advise on how to disseminate research outputs through new-fangled doohickies like “the social media” (like writing click-baity headlines). This came up in a School Management Group meeting today, in the context of trying to increase visibility and citation rates for papers published by our faculty. It was something that I was quite interested in, so I spent about an hour doing some quick literature searches and then implementing some of what I found. Here’s the gist:Read More »

Tweeting over the Great Firewall

Wow, six months without a post is the longest I have neglected the blog for a while! I’ve got a couple of posts to write now that the summer is over, but I thought I would start with something that was a bit of a challenge for me over the summer. I spent a couple of weeks in Beijing in August, including five days attending the International Congress on Ecology (INTECOL). Usually, I like to try to promote the work that is going on at conferences and contribute to the general online science community by live-tweeting. The only trouble is that in China Twitter is banned… I came up with two solutions:

Solution 1: VPN

I used a virtual private network to bypass the firewall. That worked pretty well, and while VyperVPN cost about $12 for a month it gave me regular access to the web for the duration of my stay in China. Not bad value. However, part of my reason for going to China in the first place was to exchange ideas with Chinese researchers, and that’s tough if they can’t see what you are tweeting.

Solution 2: Weibo

My second solution, then, was to take to Chinese social media to try to communicate. There is a fair amount of guidance on Twitter and conferences, but I couldn’t find anything on Weibo and conferences. Also, Weibo is very much Chinese (as opposed to global) and so there wasn’t much hope of me communicating in the local language. Still, I tried my best and punted most of my first day of tweets (in English, unfortunately, and one as an experiment in Chinese via Google Translate) out through Weibo as well.

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The results were not that surprising…  I got a bit of interest on the Twitter feed (interestingly, many many bot accounts, which has never happened before), but very little on the Weibo feed. In fact, I got absolutely no interaction whatsoever. The Twitter feed was completely out of sync with the rest of the planet (or so it seemed), but at least a few people both saw and understood them!

So, what I learned here is that social media is tough to crack in China, even when trying to use local tools. It’s also tough to sign up for Weibo because the authentication uses Chinese mobile phone numbers… Aside from that, the hashtags are a little different (note the “#” at the beginning as well as the end of the hashtag above) and I really never got to grips with finding profiles of people who might be interested and trying to add them to “Weibos”. Has anybody else had any success? Are there academics using both Weibo and Twitter in their social media arsenal?

PS: If you are interested, here’s a quick run down of the conference via my tweets and another from another attendee.

Update on Community Collaborative Impact

A few months ago I wrote a short blog post about “Community Collaborative Science” as a model for impactful teaching and research in UK universities. As I mentioned back then, this kind of “service learning” is a core part of the curriculum in many US universities, but has not taken off in quite the same way in the UK. I was discussing the idea with my partner and we ended up putting together a pitch for a NESTA seed grant. The grant would have been used to build the system and pilot a few projects through an online collaborative workspace. Here’s the pitch:

Unfortunately, the pitch wasn’t successful, but there seem to be other people thinking along similar lines. If you are interested in this kind of topic then please do drop me a line and we can discuss this in more detail.