Monthly Archives: February 2009

Popularity… or not!

Apparently, our Government here in Ireland are hugely unpopular. As of now, only 10% of Joe Public support them.

I’m not going to comment on this, apart from saying that any political party that wants to take on the current financial debacle has their work cut out for them.

Here’s something interesting –

Our Government has been watching the Obama presidential campaign, and have decided to employ the services of the organisation who run the Obama website. Yes, Blue State Digital have proved themselves with Obama (we won’t mention their work on Ken Livingstone’s failed mayoral bid in London) but how many Irish web orgs could prove themselves if given this opportunity.

Blue Digital are upfront about recognising the total necessity for citizen relationships and getting people involved. As in the business world, interaction with the people whose support you want is paramount. This is particularly important in the current scenario where our government haven’t been exactly transparent in communications with the public.

Go have a look at www.fiannafail.ie and see for yourself. The main element appears to be an online Q&A. You can submit your questions directly and Brian will answer them via video (how is going to have time is a whole other query). However, there are no discussion boards, no blogs, no “Brian mobile” texting, no link to other web 2.0 tools such as the FF you tube channel, Facebook Pages, etc.

Perhaps, I’m asking too much. These things cost money. Blue Digital don’t work for free. And there is this recession going on.

Update 1 Mar 2009Karin Lillington was at the launch of this website. She has a podcast where you can hear the presentation by the main man behind the site. Interesting to see that Karin doesn’t hold a huge amount of hope for the same success as Obama achieved.

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Under-valued

What does “higher education” mean? What do you think of when you hear the term “academia”? When someone mentions a higher education college or university what do you think of?

What answers did you come up with – learning, teaching, students, ………….. or research?

Apparently, by focusing on the teaching aspect, I’m not up there in the valued and appreciated realms. The Times tells me that ‘driving excellence’ is in research and not in teaching.  Generation of new knowledge carries more status than the joy of passing on this knowledge to others. Who decides this, who’s calling the shots? The UK HEA seems to suggest that senior managers in a third level institution care a lot about teaching but their academics don’t seem to believe them, citing promotions as being very much driven by research achievements.

Who is doing the learning – the academics in their research. Who’s doing the teaching – the academics when they can squeeze it in.  Where do students fit in? Knowledge and pushing the frontiers of uncovering and discovering knowledge need to be constant and research is the way to do this. On the other hand, where do researchers begin their learning – by being students in  a class of fellow students. If they didn’t have this opportunity would they have become successful researchers?If their lecturers didn’t pass on their learning and research achievements to them, would they have thrived as researchers?

Its time to pass learning back to the learners. Teaching must be valued and considered on par with research activities. Otherwise, we risk losing out on budding researchers of the future, and why would we want that?

Collective power moves mountains.

If enough people feel strongly about something and are prepared to stand up and say it then results might just ensue.

Facebook users came out in their droves to react against the social networking site’s possessiveness about users personal details. The outcry was enough to cause a u-turn among Facebook mgt. They’ve backed down and reverted to original terms and conditions.

EU Data Protection laws clearly outline that a person has a right to have data about them deleted if it is not serving any purpose e.g the users has shut their account. Also, the data holder can only use the data for stated purposes e.g. facilitating the provision of social networking facilities to subscribers.The US, where Facebook is based, has similar provisions.

The question is – how can Facebook change these terms. After all, arent they law?  I dont claim to be a law expert (because I’m not) but I dont quite understand this. Mark Zuckerberg in his blog seems rather vague. Facebook seem to have something in the pipeline.

On the plus side, the internet penchant for user-involvement means that users have a say. The “Bill of Rights” gives some reassurance. There are 7,228 (as of the time of this post) user comments on the wall. The result – Facebook promises to respect your data privacy.

Crisis averted…… for now………?

Three cheers for the Gaelscoil in Newcastlewest

If this isn’t joining the Bebo generation in their own world, what is? Having a Bebo page for your school really makes a lot of sense. We know that Irish youth are heavy Bebo users, and so the pupils will be heading in there. This is a great way to show off your school and its ethos and achievements via a channel that the pupils can relate to.

Only downside is that the blog is not being kept up. I wonder could they organise something like have a particular class responsible for the blog on a weekly basis. At the end of each week, the nominated class for the week could blog about what they’ve done, found interesting, learned, are planning for the near future, etc.

Interesting that there doesn’t seem to be a word as ghaeilge for “downloads”.

Being nosy, I’ve gone and had a look at the schools non-Bebo homepage. (How interesting that I find the bebo page before the more ‘official’ page).  Have a look at the virtual tour or the slideshow – in terms of space, they have a lot going on.  They seem to have a positive and progressive attitude to technology in learning. They reach out into the community. They encourage artistic expression.

The alumni seem to be doing well. Three cheers for Elizabeth.  Three cheers for Gaelscoil Ó Doghair!!

Bizarre World

As you’ve probably gathered by now, I feel strongly about education.  My students doing well means a lot to me. I’m constantly looking for ways and means to increase their performance and achieve their potential.  I’ve found that some things work with some students some of the time, but nothing is permanent and achievements constantly need to be monitored and built on.

Seeing the policies adopted in other countries and cultures is always a useful insight. However, sometimes they are just too bizarre. What do you make of these two –

  • In the Uk, parents are jailed if their young ones consistently play truant. Scenario – difficult teen refuses to attend an institution that clearly makes him/her unhappy, that’s not doing anything for his/her self-esteem, and bringing out the worst in him/her. The penalty is to take away the key person(s) in the child’s life and lock them up for a month. Result – already having difficulty relating to adult figures in school, the child now is deprived of their primary carer and has no adult figure in their lives. If they are from a one-parent family, what happens to them while the parent is in jail? The parent risks losing their job because of the incarceration, and acquires a social stigma they could do without.
  • Even more bizarre is the scenario in Tanzania. According to this BBC report, primary school teachers who were late for class, or didn’t show up for work, or didn’t teach the official syllabus were in serious trouble if their charges under-performed. The penalty – the teachers were caned by a police officer in front of their pupils. How completely, totally and utterly inhumane and bizarre. What message is that sending easily-swayed children?

The world is indeed a strange dangerous place.

Online Teenage Angst

Another one of those the-internet-is-bad-for-our-kids report has just been released.  A review is at the Irish Times.   Here are the stats –

  • “22 per cent of teenagers were victims of some form of bullying online, while 4 per cent said they experienced it frequently”.
  • “More than three quarters said they had not reported the behavior”.
  • “70 per cent of Irish teenagers said they had been warned of the risks of being online”
  • “More than half admitted that they do not always use privacy settings to restrict who can see their personal information”
  • “45 per cent said they would post images and personal information on the internet, and only 11 per cent of teenagers said they never do”
  • “55 per cent of Irish teens have access to the internet without any restrictions from their parents”.

Do you remember being a teen?  It was a time of trying things out, experimenting, finding your identity and figuring out who you are. Todays teens have the internet to help them with all this. If you had the internet when you were a teen, what would you have done with it? Would your parents / guardians have been freaked by the media scare-mongering about the dangers and restricted your access? Would they have encouraged internet exploration in a safe and constructive manner? Are you one of those parents / guardians today?

Parenting is arguably one of the toughest jobs on the job list. The balance of allowing teens freedom of expression, space to grow and experiment but yet reining in more dubious behavior is not easy. How do you react to surveys like this one today – freak and ban internet access (the over-reaction), completely ignore it and continue to allow Tina Teen to continue whatever she gets up to on the internet (the under-reaction). The right balance is different for every parent / child pairing and is not easy to identify.

A feature of the survey is that teens are aware of the dangers online but yet contribute to it by revealing too much of themselves.  Why? That’s the real question. Did the survey ask this question? If education isn’t getting the message across, what will work?  What about the perpetrators of the bullying (I’m taking the teens here, the adult bullies and other abusers is a totally different field)? Who’s taking the teenage bullies to task? How are their parents likely to react to this survey?

One thing is for sure – there are no easy answers!  Life is as tough for the bully as it is for the victim – that’s a truth that far precedes the age of the internet.

What was that last post all about?

What are the problems –

  • Poor literacy – I’m in two minds about this one. See post on language evolution in this blog.  Yes, the proportion on students in our classrooms for whom English is a second or third language is on the rise. To what extent should we hold their lack of English against them? There are several well and widely recognized tests of English language (ielts, toefel) that foreign language students are required to take before entering a course. If they meet these standards we cannot reasonably expect a higher standard from them. Problems arise when they don’t meet these standards but enrol in the course anyhow.
  • Plagiarism and cheating – I see two issues here. Foreign students come from cultures where cheating and plagiarism do not have the same status as they do here. We expect and advise such students along the lines of when-in-Rome……. but habits and cultures of a lifetime don’t disappear quickly. Weaker students who have a strong notion that they will fail can, far too often, resort to cheating. If they are not caught they have got away with it. If they are caught, then what have they lost, they have merely failed through a different route.
  • Inability to think -The cut-and-paste-but-I-referenced-it- approach to learning is an insult to the word “learning”.   Where is the joy of learning, trying things out, experimenting, having a taster just to see, contrasting and debating differing opinions, internalizing a subject to the extent of being able to clearly talk / write about it? The grades / points emphasis of the leaving cert has reduced this considerably. How might it be encouraged in a grades driven environment (if such an environment is not dismantled) is a whole other question
  • A related problem is rote learning. This is not just creeping into higher education, It is permeating it to a great extent.  The problem is this style of “learning” is not worth much.  Coaching and grind schools in second level encourage it so as get the coveted points.  But is there learning there – love of Shakespeare, love of numbers, independent learning, initiative to explore concepts and debate ideas, build up an integrated knowledge base from which to draw intelligently on when required?  Rote memory and regurgitation on an exam paper is not learning. Ask the student the same exam questions a week after the exam and they cannot manage them. Rote memory shows excellent use of shorter term memory but it is not reflective of true learning.

Other bits and pieces that crossed my mind when reading those articles –

  • The bell curve has lost its shape.  Very few are average, most are above average (even if this is mathematically impossible). Students who genuinely score top marks are not being stretched and are in the same category with nothing to distinguish them from their weaker counterparts earning the same grade. The student reaction is along the lines of why should they bother working harder if they’re achieving high marks anyhow.
  • The competition for students among third level educational institutions is larger than ever.  The department of education say they want higher numbers in third level education. This is laudable but correspondingly there is a need to improve the career guidance at second level so that people don’t end up in the wrong courses.   But who knows at 18 what they want to do for the rest of their working life?
  • If more and more second level students are attending third level, then more and more assistance is required to get them through it. Do we have the resources to put into academic support and English language that is needed? Often, one to one support is needed but this is a considerable investment that cannot be justified from a resource perspective.
  • How do genuinely able and motivated students feel about being placed in the same category as their less able / less motivated counterparts?  Unless, they are strong personalities and are intrinsically motivated, it is likely they will risk being worn down by their counterparts who want a free ride or are permanent strugglers.
  • Quality control is a significant part of our education system these days. But what quality is actually being measured. Having done some work in a past life on quality control for software systems, I can see how “Q” can turn into a tick-the-box exercise with little meaning. Ensuring validity and reliability of quality control in educational standards requires much work and effort.
  • Mary Hanafin, the former education minister, has spoken frequently of ”world-class excellence” in the Irish third-level system.  Batt O’Keeffe seems determined to continue this tone.  But the statistics are speaking volumes.  Statistics don’t lie, our interpretation of them might suffer from subjectivity and that’s where the difficulty lies. Unless the Batt O’Keeffes of the world sit up and listen and decide to do some proper investigation, we will continue to talk and muse and wonder but nothing will be done to address the issue.

For better or worse, it’s happening…

Are our students getting smarter? IS teaching and instruction improving? Are we using (or making better use of) the teaching and learning tools are our disposal? Has there been a revolution for the better in education over recent years?

Or… did we mark to harshly in years gone by, did we set the bar far too high back then? Are we now at “realistic” levels of expectation?

Or… are we dumbing down, lowering our requirements for student achievements and performances?  Are we making assessment easier? Are we awarding higher grades for the same level of work now than we used to?

I’ve been spending time over at http://www.stopgradeinflation.ie and have been reading some of the published work linked from the site.

The Facts (taken directly from the sources given) –

“Bringing up grades by dumbing down equals failure” – Sunday Independent, 1 June 2008 –

  • Political correctness taken to extremes – an American example is given of US teachers not allowed to tell students their work needs work or not being able to fail them for shoddy work in case it damages the students’ self esteem.
  • Another example of political correctness, also American – a masters-level dissertation marker is to told by his university authorities that he can’t fail said dissertation in case the student sues for discrimination: she’s black. Yet, the students cannot spell, punctuate, or construct a sentence, much less make a literary case and follow through a literary argument. To obtain her masters she is now following a remedial level English course which, interestingly, was not needed for her under-graduate degree.
  • Closer to home, describing the Irish education system the author (Emer O’Kelly) says the system seems almost to have been designed to ensure illiteracy. It’s satisfaction without effort, a pappy mess digested without the effort and joy of tasting, analysing and swallowing. Spelling and grammar are hardly taught — how can they be, when most of the teachers wouldn’t recognise a well-constructed, properly spelled, classically syntactical sentence if they saw it?
  • We’re still perpetuating the myth that we have the “best-educated young people” in Europe. And how are we doing it? We’re doing it by dumbing down our education standards.
  • The numbers of Leaving Certificate students gaining A and B grades have nearly doubled since 1991. Yet the most recent OECD/PISA study across Europe has found that there has been no detectable improvement in mathematics, English, or science among Irish 15-year-olds between 2000 and 2006.
  • In less than a quarter of a century, we’ve reduced our education standards and requirements by 50 per cent
  • We’re already suffering because of our lack of educational depth. And I suspect we’ll suffer more when we’re found out internationally.

“Degrees are ‘losing their value”, Irish Independent, November 18 2008

  • Degrees are likely to become a “devalued currency” because colleges are awarding too many honours qualifications
  • If “grade inflation” continues at its current level, all graduates from the university sector will have first class honours by 2030.
  • In 1994, 7pc of graduates in the university sector had degrees with a first class honours. In 2005, that jumped to 17pc while between 1994 and 2004, the percentage of “firsts” in the institutes of technology sector increased by 78pc.
  • The percentage of A grades at Leaving Certificate in Higher Level Irish and English has increased threefold between 1991 and 2008, three consecutive OECD reports had shown no real improvement in reading in science and maths.
  • Grade inflation degrades education as a measure of competence and employers will eventually doubt the quality of grades.
  • While it should not necessarily be made tougher to get into college or made harder to obtain top qualifications, there should be a clear differentiation between really good grades, mediocre and poor ones
  • “If you examine the percentage of males in the medical field back in 1963, you find that 70pc of them had less than 300 points. In law 80pc had less than 300 points and in commerce 70pc had under 300 points.” Professor Aine Hyland, emeritus professor of education and former UCC vice president

“Lecturers ‘pressed to boost grade results'” – (UK) Independent – Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Professor Geoffrey Alderman, former chairman of the academic council at the University of London –

  • Degree standards in many British universities are in danger of collapsing because lecturers are under pressure to “mark positively” and turn a blind eye to plagiarism
  • “League table culture” has led to an explosion in the number of firsts awarded. Latest figures show they have gone up by more than 100 per cent over the past decade from 16,708 to 36,645 – at a time when the undergraduate population has risen by just over 40 per cent.
  • Universities have been particularly lenient with overseas students because they rely on them so heavily for fee income – so much so that they turn a blind eye to plagiarism and cheating.
  • Standards of English literacy at UK universities are often poor. To compensate for this, lecturers are pressured to ‘mark positively’
  • “I have heard it seriously argued that international students who plagiarise should be treated more leniently than British students because of ‘differential cultural norms’. It is indeed rare, nowadays, for habitual plagiarists to be expelled from their universities.”
  • A spokesman for Universities UK, the body which represents university vice-chancellors, said: “The UK model for assuring quality and standards in higher education is sound and well-established. It is also well respected internationally and has informed and influenced parallel developments worldwide. All courses are subject to regular internal monitoring and review by the university, including through the external examiner system, and the university’s processes and mechanisms are, in turn, subject to additional external scrutiny by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.” Professor Alderman – these new inspection systems concentrate on whether lecturers have followed procedures correctly – rather than questioning grade boundaries and the quality of marking.
  • Jonathan Bate, professor of English at Warwick University – “There are universities where instructions go round to staff reminding them [that] awarding more top-class degrees will push their institution up both the national and international league tables.”
  • A Higher Education Academy and Joint Information Systems Committee research found widespread variations in the way plagiarism was tackled by different universities. Plagiarism was twice as common in less-selective universities than the smaller more-popular universities. It was also higher than among members of the Russell Group – which represents the top 20 research institutions in the UK, including Oxford and Cambridge.
  • In the past decade, only one of the UK’s top universities – Cambridge – has reduced the proportion of firsts and 2:1s.

“Failures of the Leaving Cert”, Sunday Business Post, 19/08/2007

  • The Leaving Cert does not work properly, as it is merely a test of memory and learning, and not a proper reflection of a student’s ability or suitability for university.
  • If changes in the leaving cert structure improve the intake to third level, the average degree level at graduation should improve. If the Leaving Cert is not improving the academic potential of the intake, the average quality of degree should fall as the numbers in third level rise (because it is reasonable to assume that, in a competitive system, increasing the intake permits ‘less clever’ people to get in).
  • The average points level and the minimum necessary points level among university entrants rose steadily because university places expanded more slowly than the numbers taking the Leaving Cert.
  • Questions – How come fail rates and drop-out rates have not fallen at our universities?  How come there is a widespread view among university teaching staff that average ability, particularly in the humanities area, has been falling, a view based on literacy and numeracy standards among the students?   If the Leaving Cert is doing such a good job, why does the educational research establishment argue that it needs to be restructured to reduce the importance of exams in favour of increasing the importance of ‘practicals’ or ‘continuous assessment’?
  • The number obtaining over 450 points in the Leaving Cert has increased significantly. However, in critical areas (maths and science) failure rates are high, while the numbers taking honours level courses are down. The implication is that higher points reflect in part a shift to ‘softer’ subjects at the honours level.
  • Mathematical ability – as measured by performance in the Leaving Cert – is the best statistical predictor of performance at third level.  Poor and falling mathematical ability in the third-level entry cohort and simultaneous improvements in the quality of degree being awarded suggest one of two conclusions.  There has been a truly remarkable improvement in the way in which university staff enlighten the Bebo generation.   There has been grade inflation at third level that complements the grade inflation (or dumbing down, if you prefer) of the Leaving Cert.
  • The latter conclusion is supported by the uneven performance of the universities in awarding degrees.
  • The leaving cert – Jumping through mental hoops replaces the ability to demonstrate analytical skills. Rote learning replaces inquiry. Covering the course replaces reading into a subject.
  • Doing well in this particular mode of learning does not equip you per se to do well at university. . . unless, of course, universities start to follow the same structure of learning. This, alas, is exactly what is happening as third level becomes part of mass education.
  • Faced with a decline in the knowledge base of the student population, the response has been a growing emphasis on ‘remediation’ and ‘progression’ rather than encouragement of excellence and a tailoring of degree awards to accommodate the reduced ability of students and the increased demand of students, funders and university administrators for ‘good results’.

“Rise in proportion of firsts to 13% renews inflation debate”, The Times – 17 January 2008

  • One in eight students now obtains a first-class degree
  • In 2006-07, 13 per cent of students who passed received a first, the highest classification possible, representing an increase of one percentage point on the previous year. This compares with 8 per cent of students who achieved a first in 1996-97. Nearly half – 48 per cent – obtained an upper second, up from 47 per cent the previous year.
  • Peter Williams, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency, said: “If we leave it long enough, everyone will be getting a first and the degree system will have abolished itself.”
  • In 2006-07, a total of 319,260 degrees were awarded at UK higher education institutions. Of these, 36,645 were firsts, 138,745 upper seconds, 92,795 were lower seconds, 23,195 thirds, and 27,880 candidates failed their degrees with an unclassified result.