Blog Archives

What is says on Ninth Level

Alas alas alas, this blog’s been neglected this last while.  Such are the demands on me at the moment (and the time taken up with Twitter!).  Anyhow, for the extra hour, the holiday weekend, the Halloween sound-effects that prohibit any work requiring concentration, and the current catch-up with, a post is forthcoming.

Here are some Ninth Level contributions of late:

  •  Apparently €5,000 is an annual fees figure that is being thrown around.  Hmmm. My humble opinion is that if students genuinely want to go to third level education they will find a way to do so, regardless of cost.  Paying one’s own fees  has a way of focusing the mind in a way that freebies do not.
  •   So that’s the guy’s whose visage is gracing the entrance to TCD over the last while!
  •  The University of Cambridge and research as “inherent to the very fibre of a university” calls for putting research back into the heart of the system.  The rift between the economic and intellectual research comes to the fore once again.  No prizes for guessing which side I am on.
  •   A study of undergraduates use of social media is under the spotlight.  Their use of Facebook is taken alongside other typical “identity markers of emerging adulthood”.  I wonder what that means for the use of Facebook for older people, and how the current 18-year-olds’ use of Facebook will evolve in years to come.
  •    Apparently, Facebook use in Harvard classes “has become so ubiquitous that no one even questions it”—not even professors.  Yikes!  The reasoning given is that lectures are boring, the lecturer repeats him/herself too often, and the lecture content is irrelevant because “much of knowledge has become commoditized on the web”.  Now, this is one more reason to flip the classroom / nonclassroom activity structure.  That is, the lectures can be put online for students to peruse in their own time. Then, classroom space and time can be freed up for discussion, and practical applications of concepts, software etc.  This is, of course, far more demanding on the cognitive abilities of students and there is the concern that many will not be able for it.  Whatever, it’s more constructive than students Facebooking their way through class.  I’m not against Facebook per se but students facebooking their new hairdos and night-out socialising is not the way to spend classroom time.
  •   It seems that some universities, (Oxbridge is singled out) bundle a BA with an MA.  The idea is that the student studies for and achieves their BA and are automatically awarded an MA to go along with it.  I am in total agreement with the author that this devalues the work of the many many postgraduates taking MA qualifications at other universities.  It makes one wonder what exactly a Masters qualification is.  What is the transition point from undergraduate to postgraduate?
  •   Prof Susan Greenfield is being her usual controversial self.  Her latest is that computer games could cause dementia in children.  Now, to be fair, I like to keep an open mind about scientific findings.  Unfortunately, Prof Greenfield tends to make this difficult.  As a result, I find myself thinking ‘here we go again’ when her latest research emerges.  Besides, think about it – how many children do you know who play (or have played in the past i.e. children who are now adults) computer games?  How many of those suffer from dementia?
  •   Here’s a quote from the study (carried out by the Irish Times): “Fourteen per cent of its (UL) graduates gained first-class honours, while 34 per cent achieved a 2:1. This 2:1 rate is by far the lowest in the country, a full 19 per cent behind the highest, which is TCD, and 9 per cent below the national average”.  Flash back to the later part of the last century when I was a graduate of that same institution (UL).  There were approximately 200 of us business graduates.  5 achieved a first class honours.  That’s 2.5%.  Enough said.

How many points did you get in your Leaving Cert?

No, I can’t remember mine either.  Granted, the points systems worked on a different grading system back then, and while there was a “points race” it was nothing like it is now.  Somehow, over the years what should be a fair, objective and all-equal HE entry mechanism of separating the academically deserving from the not-so-deserving seems to have veered off course.

Now, our new Minister for Education wants rid of the points system.

No-one will question the decision.  However, the obvious question is what he will replace it with.  Here’s where our crafty Minister shows his power of delegation.  Instead of getting the thinking-caps of the department of education onto the job, he’s put the task to the university heads to sit down together and trash out an alternative. And they have until September to come up with a solution – a tall order indeed?  The solution even has to be solid, that’s nothing “wishy washy” now.  The solution has to be realistic, solid, workable with all strands working together.

The plus side is that the universities have been given power on a plate to design, develop and implement a system they would like.  The problem is what it might possibly look like.

  • Should it have formal end-of-year exams?
  • Should it have more continuous-assessment (CA) through-out the year?
  • Who sets, approves and grades this CA?
  • There is a call for more thinking and analytical skills. What is the best way to teach and assess this?
  • Should Leaving Cert students have more of a say in their assessment and curriculum?
  • Should Irish remain a compulsory subject?
  • Is the concept of splitting content into “subjects” old-fashioned?
  • How might extra-curricular activities be incorporated into the mix?
  • How might the role of the teacher change with a new system?
  • What impact might there be on physical (or other) resources (individual recyclable science kits anyone?) and who will fund them

I am curious as to the university heads come up with, and how they will implement it. Exciting times are ahead.

Laptop battery – not that kind of battery

We are all only too well aware of the problem of student focus.  The teacher turns her back for two seconds and at least one student is taking a peek at Facebook, or Youtube, or something else they shouldn’t be looking at.

The question – what do you do about it?

Apparently, you do not close down the laptop screen while the student is in mid-surf.  You might get arrested, suspended and find yourself on the receiving end of a battering case.  This is what happened to a lecturer in Valdosta State University in Georgia recently. I accidently slammed a laptop shut quite hard on my fingers (purely by accident of course, and now I cannot for the life of me remember why!) a number of years ago.  Both laptop and fingers survived undamaged. I imagine it would take some severe force indeed to cause injury to either.

Student inattention and self-distraction is a problem that is not going away.  Stories like the one in Georgia don’t help.  They just add to the frustrations of the problem.

There is increasing evidence that our young folk are experiencing addiction problems with their technology devices.  Headlines such as” Facebook generation suffer information withdrawal syndrome” and “Student ‘addiction’ to technology ‘similar to drug cravings” are frightening but need to considered and acted upon.  Students are reported as “having withdrawal symptoms, overeating, feeling nervous, isolated and disconnected, they don’t know what to with themselves or their time” when they are deprived of their technology in the “Unplugged: living without the media” study currently underway. The action of the student, reaction of the lecturer, and subsequent reaction of student in Georgia doesn’t seem quite so strange now.

Plenty of suggestions are given of alternative courses of action.  Examples suggested by commenters on the students’ behalf include: don’t be so rude in a classroom, don’t take the laptop to class, or don’t take yourself to class if you plan to play on your laptop right through it.  This is all good advice but unlikely to be taken up by a student who simply cannot resist the temptation to sneak a peek at that Facebook.

For the lecture, advice seems to follow on practical terms e.g. “the student should be asked to desist, asked to leave the lecture theatre if they won’t desist – but if they refuse to do even this, then it wouldn’t be fair to the other students to disrupt the lecture further – so a formal verbal warning should be issued, and from then on, a formal disciplinary process should be commenced”.  The commentator then goes on to say that very few universities are likely to have such a formal system in place. There is no mention either of what to do there and then when the student refuses to leave the room and refuses to un-facebook.

Another commenter laments the banning of internet connectivity in the classroom, suggesting that the lecturer integrate laptop usage into their lesson plans.  The commenter goes to say that s/he has “established a back channel chat room in which students can discuss the class or anything else for that matter during the course discussion. This keeps them from going on Facebook and focuses them at least marginally on the business at hand”.  Hmmmm, one wonders about the “marginally” and what the “anything else” is.  Integration of the social tools so beloved of our students is not easily integrated into every facet of classroom teaching.  While I like the idea of the back channel, it is difficult to see how it solves the problem.

What, then, is the solution?

Do we need yet another label to slap on students?  No!

Do we want to ban technology from the classroom? No!

Do we simply ignore the student(s) who Facebook their way through class? No!

Do we bar the Facebooking student from ever sitting in class again until they mend their ways? No! (we might be kept waiting some time for them to return)

Do we have individual lesson plans for each student so they cannot claim to be bored or that the teacher is moving too slow / fast for them? No! (how many students do you have, on average, in your classes?)

Do we…………….

It’s Sunday night, I’m back to watching the golf.

The TCD Provost election – the final hours

The #tcdprovost campaign comes to an end tomorrow as the academics of #tcd meet to elect a leader to take them through the tough times ahead.  This is an event that occurs every ten years, and this is the first time I have had an interest – something to do with being a PhD student in that fine institution.

The whole election has been a strange one to me as a postgraduate.  I am a part-time student and cannot physically attend many Provost campaign events.  The final hustings on Wednesday night was the first event I could attend.  As such, I am very reliant on internet communications.  I am likely to learn little of a candidate if they chose not to tweet or engage in website communications.  A quick Google search shows there has been large variation among the candidates in this area.

PGs have a lowly weighted say in the election but the organisation of this was so poor it meant nothing.

  • We were told in an email by the GSU that we could vote for the candidates at such a time and place the following week.  This was very early in the election period and most people were still concerned with the general election (#ge11).  We were given almost no info on the candidates, nor many pointers as to where we might find any.  Most students had little insight into the candidates at that point and many including yours truly (I am ashamed to say) ended up not voting.
  • The candidates did try to send us manifestos and other documentation to inform us of their priorities …. until they were inexplicably informed not to by the GSU.  Why, oh why, did the GSU think it was in our interests not to engage with this election?
  • The University Times made approaches to take the GSU to task over their behaviour.  There was criticism of GSU personnel favouriting a particular candidate when they, of course, should be neutral.
  • The GSU personnel have 4 votes of their own which they can use at they wish i.e. they are not under an obligation to follow the preferences of the students they are purporting to represent.  This is a bizarre arrangement to say the least.
  • The GSU say they received few if any complaints.  Perhaps this is the case.  I discovered earlier this academic year on an unrelated matter how futile complaining to the current GSU is.

Back to the election – the final hustings on Wednesday night was my first opportunity to see and listen to all the candidates together up close.  It was an interesting experience.  I was more than impressed at how civilised and professional it all was.  There was no verbal punching among the contestants, there was no overt refutations of each other’s points, there seemed to be much mutual respect.  It made for an interesting and informative evening.

Jane Ohlmeyer and Colm Kearney seemed to me the most impressive candidates.  I was particularly taken by Jane’s strength of character, leadership, vision, and sheer enthusiasm for the job.  She strikes me as someone who is skilled and able in terms of large-scale fund-raising for the college through Government and more importantly non-Governmental (international) sources.

Now the end is nigh and it is likely most of the academics voting tomorrow have decided on their preference list.  May the best candidate win.

What will happen in higher education this year?

So far I’ve managed to avoid the new years list idea.  The new years resolution and/or predictions phenomena just don’t work for me. Anyhow, with all the political happenings taking place at the moment in the country. the implications of associated “cost-savings” methods that some people seem certain will be implemented, along with some interesting websites I’ve come across, I’ve changed my mind.

Adrian Wreckler (he of the SBP) isn’t very complementary in this piece. One first reading, this type of content produces a whirl of annoyance. On reflection, I have to admit that it has some truth. Quote: “It’s sad. There is little or no debate about quality in third-level education. It’s all about access and free fees”. That’s a true statement.

The piece ends with some interesting questions for whoever might be the new Minister of Education.  He also gives the public-pressure “politician” answers.  Thinking and planning ahead into 2011, what should the answers really be.

  1. How are colleges to improve standards (recruit top people, attract best students, create the best research) without the reintroduction of student fees or additional exchequer funding?
  2. At a more general level, Irish third level institutions currently trail their counterparts in leading European and US cities in innovation and achievement. Is this of concern and, if so, how can it be reversed?
  3. Eircom wants the state to help fund a new fibre network. Do you intend to do that? (Note: that’s a spending commitment.) If not, do you have a plan (or any thoughts whatsoever) on how high speed broadband should be rolled out nationally outside urban centres?
  4. If elected, what kind of industry development would you prioritise, and how?

These are important questions and require constructive intelligent answers and subsequent action.  The problem is that we may have a weak incoming Government what will not have funding or the belief that answers and actions are required. We will likely end 2011 trundling along as we are now. with our existing problems getting worse, and a few more added along with way. Standards will continue to deteriorate, Irish colleges and universities will fall further behind their European / US counterparts, and Eircom’s fibre will remain dark.

On a more positive note. the guy behind Speed OF Creativity has launched an interesting project.  He wants people to outline their perspective of “vision for educational leadership in 2011” in a 30-second videoclip.  Upload your contribution to youtube with the tag “digitalvision2011”.  There’s an associated wiki here. This is an interesting opportunity to see what priorities educators in different international locations are setting for 2011. I wonder how many will address Adrian’s questions.

Yesterday’s social networking report – part 2

Seems like that survey published yesterday about our younger folk benefitting enormously from hanging out in cyberspace has got people talking. How about this list from Google?

The titles are particularly interesting. Here’re a few I like –

What are they all saying? In essence, the problem isn’t with the kids and their online explorations and discoveries, its with the parents.

It’s time to lay off the scaremongering and negativity. The online world is not full of predators and fraud scams. There is a lot of good in it and perhaps parents should join instead of criticising from the sidelines. Kids are more savvy than today’s over-protective parents give them credit for.

What does it mean for us educators? Freedom to do what we’ve suspected for a while now might actually work – go to where the kids are and work with them in their own space where they’re comfortable.

The report suggests that kids prefer to learn from their peers than from adults and parents. To me, it’s not the content of the learning that’s important here per se, it’s the mechanisms of learning we should focus on. What are peers doing to inspire each other to experiment with online tools and activities, how is the momentum created and sustained, what blocks are educators (inadvertently) putting in front of students that are not present in their online activities.

I’m not saying that education should move wholesale to the net. That would lose many of the benefits that face-to-face learning gives us. I am saying that the internet is a platform that many young students are comfortable in, so why not embrace it for teaching and learning purposes.

How to reach everyone?

I find myself asking this question every year as I grade exam papers that are supposed to be the summation of students learning for the year. Some students you expect to do well and that’s exactly what they do. Some you know just wont get there (despite your best efforts throughout the year) and indeed they dont.  Some end up underachieving and you’re gutted for them. Others exceed expectations and you’re thilled for them.

However, in many cases it’s the reasons why some students do well and others dont that are most interesting. A student who chooses to spend their study hours working in McDonnells (or wherever) to earn enough money to pay for the course they then dont have enough time to devote to is just heart-breaking, but you understand where they are coming from.  Students who do badly because they cant or dont want to study are even more heart-breaking. These are the ones you need to reach the most, and you need to reach them before it’s too late. After the exam is too late.

I’m a big fan of awareness. Just how aware are our students of what they are learning and how they are learning it.  The traditional model of education looks at the product only and not so much at the process. How does an 18-year-old know what is and is not important for the professional world they are graduating into, a world they are sheltered from in their college environment? How much learning happens outside of the classroom that is invisible to the teacher? How much of this are students not given credit for?  Like how exactly do students organise themselves for project group work? How do we know that person X in the group didnt do all the work and person Y didnt do much at all? How do we know if person X was the inspiration behind person Ys contribution that caused a grade jump? There are a lot of how questions.

Answers on a virtual postcard please while I go back to marking….

Do it yourself… you might even learn something :-)

We all know the value of outsourcing – getting someone else to do the work you should be doing yourself. Oh, of course, you pay the outsourcer a nice hefty sum based on how much and how well they do the job for you. Outsourcer goes off and does whatever he/she has signed up to do, happy that a cheque will be forthcoming. Outsourcee goes off and spends their time on something of more interest to them. But what if the outsourcee has previously entered a contract to undertake the work themselves. Can they then outsource it? Is it in their interests to outsource it? Hmmm.

Take the increasing problem of students outsourcing their college assignments. Websites offering to take this workload off their hands are touting for business. But, it’s a lose/lose situation so why bother. The student (outsourcee) doesn’t learn anything about the course they signed up for. The outsourcer cant very well put this one on their cv. If todays piece in the Guardian is anything to go by, the quality of the work is most definitely more trouble than its worth. Their Josephine scrapped a 40% in her outsourced computer programming project that she then couldn’t explain to her lecturer who kept having to chase her for the omitted components. Her history project ended up being plagiarised by her plagiariser and lands her in a date with her college’ disciplinary board.

So why are Josephines flocking to these dodgy charlatan websites? Here’s some speculation –

  • Josephine is working 2 part-time jobs as well as her full-time college course and simply doesn’t have time for doing assignments
  • Josephine is over-whelmed by her course and needs a get-out-of-jail card
  • Josephine was out on the tiles the weekend / night / week / day / (delete as appropriate) before the assignment submission
  • Josephine has no interest in her course, she just wanted to go to college
  • Josephine’s parents have far more interest in her course than Josephine does
  • Josephine can’t resist the temptation of an easy let-off

The thing is, whatever her issue, Josephine has voluntarily lost an opportunity for learning. Who’s fault is that? The even more ironic thing is Josephine would have been better off had she saved her time and her money and did the projects herself. She might even have learned something….!