Peer instruction – interactive teaching in a large lecture class

I attended a webinar before Christmas that was hosted by Eric Mazur, a well-known Harvard physics professor.  Setting aside how exciting it was to have a guest speaker talking live and taking questions from his office in the US, the subject of his talk was really fascinating.  Mazur has developed a series of techniques that can change the way we teach and here he was discussing “peer instruction”.Read More »

PhD opportunities in ecology and evolution

As part of the new NERC Doctoral Training Program at the University of Leeds, I have two PhD projects to advertise that are now (as of 15th November 2013) open to applicants:

1: DragonFlight: Linking the mechanics and energetics of flight to conservation status and responses to climate change in dragonflies

dragonfly-177338_1280The DragonFlight project builds on my earlier interests in dragonfly dispersal (1), macroecology (2), and flight morphology (3).  There has quite a bit of work done on the flight of dragonflies, but much of this has taken place in the laboratory and has not considered what goes on in the field.  Similarly, there has been quite a lot of landscape-scale work done in the form of mark-recapture studies or analyses of historical records (including my own), but none of this has really tested for the traits that underlie flight ability.  This project will link detailed biomechanical measurements of dragonfly flight to our knowledge of responses to climate change (i.e. range shifts) or conservation status.

2: Teaching old beetles new tricks: applying novel genetic techniques to re-establish a classic ecological model system, Tribolium

I’m really excited about this project.  Andrew Peel, a colleague at Leeds, has been working on the evolution of beetles (and animals in general) for a while and uses Tribolium as a model system.  I have been interested in the ecology of this system for some time and this project represents us banging our brains together. In particular, there are lots of nice ways that we can incorporate Andrew’s contemporary genomic techniques (e.g. RNAi) to test for genetic drivers of ecological phenomena.  The species is also an important pest species of stored grain, making any advances potentially applicable to pest control.

Note that both of these are “competitively funded”, which means that there are more projects than we can fund.  We interview candidates for all projects and then award the best candidates the projects that they applied for.  There are more details on the website, including how to apply.  Deadline is 24th January 2014.


References:
(1) Hassall C, Thompson DJ (2012) Study design and mark recapture estimates of dispersal: a case study with the endangered damselfly Coenagrion mercuriale. Journal of Insect Conservation, 16, 111-120.
(2) Hassall C, Thompson DJ (2010) Accounting for recorder effort in the detection of range shifts from historical data. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 1, 343-350.
(3) Hassall C, Thompson DJ, Harvey IF (2008) Latitudinal variation in morphology in two sympatric damselfly species with contrasting range dynamics (Odonata: Coenagrionidae). European Journal of Entomology, 105, 939-944.

A new MOOC from Leeds: “Fairness and Nature: When Worlds Collide”

Picture1It’s a pretty exciting time to be teaching in higher education.  There has been a wave of critical evaluation (mostly by the teachers themselves) which has led to a great deal of progress over the past couple of years.  This has led to a recognition that lecture-based courses are not the “be all and end all” of university teaching, and that there are better ways to do things.  Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs for short) are playing quite a large role in redefining how university teachers engage with their students and how we think about delivering the student experience.

The new MOOC from the University of Leeds is called “Fairness and Nature: When Worlds Collide”, and is being run by Professor Jon Lovett in the School of Geography. Jon is a charismatic and passionate guy with a wide range of experiences in the interaction between people and the nature world, and it is these themes that are explored in the course.  If you want to find out more, head over to the FutureLearn site and sign up (it’s free!).  Here’s a taster:

There are some key characteristics of MOOCs that make them different from conventional university courses:

  • Variable length – MOOCs can be anything from 1 week to 12 weeks, with the breadth and depth of content varying accordingly.
  • Entirely online – with no need to rely on built infrastructure, MOOCs can (and, indeed, do!) cater for tens of thousands of students, rather than the usual hundred or so.
  • Flexible study – because of the online nature, students can participate whenever is convenient for them.  Sometimes this means that students drop-off entirely (completion rates are relatively low) but that isn’t really the point of MOOCs.  MOOCs are frequently designed to provide access to education for as many people as want it, and any learning is a bonus.
  • Flexible structure – the online platform allows a wide variety of multimedia, interactive, connected resources to form the backbone of a course.  These make for a very engaging learning experience.

All these factors combine to make a new and interested way of teaching and engaging a wider range of students, and I look forward to seeing where the MOOC movement goes.

League tables and “Rate Your Lecturer”

RateYourLecturer
Grabbed this before the site started properly!

So I had a pretty interesting little exchange with the organisers of a new university lecturer-rating website today…  We’re in a peculiar place with university education these days.  There are a lot more universities these days and students are being a lot more picky over places of study now that they are (in the UK, at least) paying £9k per year to study.  This has put an increasing emphasis on league tables and metrics of quality.  I thought I would share a few thoughts on these developments because I am both personally interested and professionally invested in the success of my institution in the great scramble to adapt to a new way of “doing university”.

Rate Your Lecturer

It started with this:

People were negative:

I was curious:

We had a bit of an exchange after that, and Twitter isn’t really the place for reasoned discourse.  Most of the issues that I wanted to raise are fairly well documented at the Rate My Professor Wikipedia page.  Still, I’m always willing to try new things, so I did this:

..and then to the heady heights of number five on what must a very sparse league table!  I stand by my concerns.  People might think that academics are all unfeeling researchers who only teach when they have to, but I can’t think of anyone among my colleagues who thinks like that.  We all put our hearts into our teaching and find it very rewarding (most of the time, anyway!).  More than that, we have lots of ways in which we can see what the students think of our teaching:

  • We have staff-student committees where student representatives let us know what we can do better and liaise directly with the staff who make the decisions about teaching provision.
  • We have module feedback forms (which aren’t used by the students as much as we would like) on which we collect objective and longterm, comparable data on student satisfaction and teacher performance.  This is extremely important to us.
  • Finally, we ASK THE STUDENTS.  I like to think that I maintain a fairly informal teaching environment, and I always ask the students if they find things useful/irrelevant, interesting/boring, and what else they would like to do.

This is not even including the Key Information Set that already contains data comparing student satisfaction with teaching in particular programs.  My main concern is that students will be presented with too much information to use to make these decisions and that they will not be sufficiently aware of the limitations of different datasets to make good use of them all.  Ironically, this is what we teach them once they get to university!

The final point about the Rate Your Lecturer movement is that it seems to miss the point of universities.  They are very much emphasising the teaching role, which ignores the fact that academics have a tripartite job (some would say we have three jobs) as (i) administrators who run the departments and faculties, (ii) researchers who generate ground-breaking research, and (iii) teachers who educate the next generation of citizens.  ALL academics do this.  We are not “teachers”, “researchers” or “administrators”.  We are all three.  Which would you value above the others?  With a funding crisis brought on by small falls in student enrollment, perhaps we should be focusing on teaching.  But where does that leave research?  And what about making sure that there is a well-run department in which we can teach and research?

League tables, generally

In general, universities are under a great deal of pressure to perform, and by “perform” I mean increase our rankings in league tables.  The Research Excellence Framework is the UK’s main method for judging research outputs and impact, and that is coming to a head in a few months time.  The National Student Survey is the other important metric by which we judge ourselves.  This covers the teaching aspect, but from the students’ perspective.  These vast number of different league tables that are constructed out of these combinations of metrics are extremely confusing for staff, so they must be confusing for students…  On the plus side, if an institution isn’t doing well on one table, they’re probably doing well somewhere else!  You’ll probably see “ranked in the top 10 in the country” on far more than 10 universities’ websites…

So what do we do?

To be honest, I don’t have a plan.  We are in a time of change, and I can’t help but feel that the successful universities will be those that are able to enact transformative policies (i.e. those that change their way of doing things in a BIG way, rather than incrementally).  Whether the bigger, older universities have that kind of manouverability remains to be seen, but I’ve seen some really important steps forward in the few months that I have been at my institution and that makes me really excited for where these new challenges are going to push us!

Launch of a new project: the West Yorkshire Ponds Project (WYPP)

I feel that I should demote myself from “blogger” to “occasional blogger”…  But I have an excuse!  Exciting things are happening, and I have been involved in some new projects which have taken up a considerable amount of time.  Aside from a massive EU grant application (which has taken an inordinate amount of time to produce 25,000 words), I have also been finalising the launch of the West Yorkshire Ponds Project (WYPP, click the image to go to the page):

WYPP is the beginning of a new research project that I have had in the pipeline for some time.  The aim is to spread knowledge about the value of urban wetlands (focusing on the West Yorkshire region for now) while seeking collaborations with which to advance that knowledge.  Feel free to browse around the www.wypp.org site to find out more about the value of ponds (flood prevention, pollution reduction, biodiversity enhancement), and how school ponds can bring nature within reach of the most inner-city of schools.

I’d appreciate feedback or comments on the site, and I’d love to hear from anyone in the West Yorkshire area who might be interested in working with me on this project.  It is going to be very community-oriented so the more the merrier!

Open Education I: Why is open access to education important?

Classroom
Are classrooms outdated? (image by Flickr user frwl)

I have blogged before about why I feel that open access to research and educational materials is an important step forward for society.  This promotes the learning of those who struggle to access conventional learning modalities (e.g. lower socioeconomic groups who are traditionally excluded from universities) and those who are simply casually interested in learning something new without the need to commit to long-term and expensive courses.  The release of data also helps to facilitate the verification of findings in the scientific sphere to avoid the problems associated with scientific publishing.

Read More »