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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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.

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!

Three simple reasons why MOOCs are a good thing

A group of UK universities (mine included) have embarked upon a new initiative called “FutureLearn” which seeks to take the raw success of MOOC providers like Udacity, EdX and Coursera (almost exclusively North American) and build them into a diverse and viable teaching framework.  This is a really exciting opportunity for the UK universities involved, and I am looking forward to seeing how it turns out.  I also have a vested interest, as I am (as of a couple of weeks ago) chairing a Faculty committee on the integration of technology into student learning.  However, I have been reading a lot of material about MOOCs that has been less than positive and so I think it is probably worth pointing out some important benefits of MOOCs to help balance the debate:Read More »

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 III: How to post lectures/talks online

Next post, I will deal with one of the main barriers to the implementation of blended learning: the fear that providing online content will lead to a drop in student lecture attendance or performance.  However, the other side of the coin is that the academics who populate our universities simply do not want to have to learn new technologies to use in their teaching.  In a bizarre state of affairs, those researchers who are at the forefront of the most technological fields consider themselves incapable of learning a basic piece of software.  I’m going to try to make it clear how easy these tools can be to use, so that there are no such excuses!  All of these examples will be based around the provision of online lecture recordings.Read More »