iPad apps for academics (Part 2)

I wrote earlier about a few apps that I had found useful in my first weeks of owning an iPad. Well I’ve been actively pursuing opportunities to learn more about the learning applications for tablets like the iPad and wanted to share some of what I have found. A lot of this comes from a workshop by the brilliant Joe Moretti, who came to my university to run a workshop on iPads in education. I hope these are useful to you, too:Read More »

Flipping the classroom – how to make lectures engaging and interactive

I’ve been taking a teaching course that requires me to change the way that I teach to explore new techniques. At first it seemed like it was going to be a lot of effort, but it turned out to be a fascinating and enjoyable experience.  I was experimenting with a type of teaching called the “flipped [or inverted] classroom“.  Here’s how it works:

Flipped vs traditional teaching models

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Funding for academic outreach in biology (and other sciences)

I recently heard a keynote talk by Sophie Duncan, the Deputy Director of the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement, and was really impressed by her enthusiasm for embedding outreach and engagement at every stage of research. Sophie pointed out that there are a number of problems with public engagement as it stands:

  1. There can be a lack of support and reward for good engagement within departments.
  2. Outreach tends to be centred on the academic, rather than on the public.
  3. Groups outside of academia tend not to pro-actively seek academic collaborators.Read More »

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 »

League tables and “Rate Your Lecturer”

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!

Blended Learning Techniques: Audio and video feedback

FeedbackOne of the biggest problems that teachers face is providing prompt and useful feedback to students.  When 200 students all hand in a piece of work at the same time, it can take over a week of solid marking time (9-5 for 5 days) to adequately assess all of those assignments.  Meanwhile the students would like to know what they have done wrong and how they can improve, and in an era of immediate communication over a week can feel like a long time!  What I will advocate here is a style of feedback that does not replace that in-depth marking, but can be a useful, complementary tool.  I suggest that teachers try to use audio or video recording as a way to provide general feedback immediately following an assessment.  This doesn’t have to be based on an overview of all the work that has been handed in, but can be indicative of some of the patterns that emerge as teacher works through the assignments.Read More »

Blended Learning Techniques: Online office hours

At a time when student : staff ratios are relatively high, it can be difficult to provide the one-to-one attention that students might need in order to get the most out of their time at university, school or college.  Office hours are one way in which we as teachers can set aside some of our time to deal with pressing issues.  However, the regular format of these office hours tends to be a long queue of students in the hall outside a teacher’s office, and limited contact with individual students who might all have the same question.  There are a number of ways in which this process can be improved, and I’ll discuss two of those here.

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Blended Learning Techniques: Blogs

Scientists have always been very good at jargon-filled articles, to the point that the academic literature itself can be almost completely inaccessible to non-specialists.  In more recent times, there has been a big push for scientists to complement those articles with simpler pieces that communicate that research to the general public.  In a similar way, we make a point of encouraging science students to adopt the more formal, technical aspect of science writing, but we tend not to focus on providing the skills that the students need to communicate science outside of academia.  Web logs (better known as “blogs”) can be a useful medium through which to develop these skills.

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Our Skeptical Inquirer article has been published!


The Skeptical Inquirer piece on climate change denial in universities that I wrote (along with my co-conspirators) has just been published in the May/June 2013 print edition!  It’s a bit strange to be listed alongside people like Ben Radford, Sharon Hill, Joe Nickell, Massimo Pigliucci and Massimo Polidoro, but we’re all delighted that Ken Frazier and the rest of the SI team saw enough value to accept our little piece.  Many thanks to them all for a smooth and efficient editorial process.  I’m afraid that there’s no online version yet (they don’t publish all the print articles online, and those that they do publish online come along a month or two after the print edition) but I’ll post a link if/when it does appear.  All the more reason to go and subscribe to the print version!

Blended Learning Techniques: Using Google Forms for in-class quizzes

I was looking around for an alternative to “clickers” (Who-Wants-to-be-a-Millionaire-style audience response technology) for use in a classroom.  These tools really do help with classroom engagement, and the students seem to appreciate the opportunity to interact with the material while the teacher is present (rather than having to wait until the exam!).  This also allows anonymous recording of results, banishing the fear that many students have of putting their hand up in the middle of a crowded lecture theatre. There are a few options, such as www.polleverywhere.com, www.qidiq.com, and www.soapbox.com.  All of these sites use a web-based approach through an app or website to feed student responses back into a webpage or Powerpoint slide.  They work reasonably well, but are limited by either (i) not being free (a problem in this time of university cost-cutting), or (ii) being a tiny bit complicated to use at first (a major issue that reduces the adoption of new technology in teaching). I went looking for an alternative and found Google Forms to be quite a useful little tool.Read More »