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Browsing youtube

It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m messing around on youtube.  Here are some gems I’ve stumbled cross.

First up, what might an honest and upfront conversation with a particular type of student look like?  Oh dear, oh dear!  Go on, admit it, you smiled, just a little bit…..

Second up: there are a number of these type of videos blowing about on youtube and to say they annoy me is putting it mildly.  No, I don’t have a problem with the message.  There is a lot of truth in the message.  I have a problem with how it’s put across. Isn’t it ironic that the kids are using hand-written cards to get across the message that they want to use more technology?  And why are they so glum?  Cheer up, for crying out loud, and go read a book.

Actually the video reminded me of a comment I read recently (apologies, I cannot remember the site) from a first year undergraduate complaining that they don’t do anything interesting in IT class  Instead they spend the time doing the ECDL syllabus. While I commiserated with the student’s position, the student needs to know that syllabi are not always decided by the teachers who deliver it, quality control procedures typically mean that a syllabus cannot be deviated from much, what one student considers boring is highly stimulating to another, and finally, ECDL is a good foundation in IT. A problem is that ECDL might not been studied by all students in their prior learning while others proudly show off their certificates.  This causes particular problems for a teacher – what do you do when the majority of a class have already done all the material while it’s brand new for a sizable minority – without causing feelings of inferiority / superiority, without operating double standards, etc?

Third on the list: I quite like the ideas in this one, even if the whole thing is meant to be a parody.  The iPaper is an interesting idea in and of itself.

Fourth is another futuristic one.  This one takes a pot shot at the nonotechnology movement. How small can things really get?  Have we reached the practical  limits on size?   Or, the more likely scenario, are there applications out there for tinytech that we are still exploring – those applications are just not the ones we already have?

And, finally, a century of educational technology chronicled in one youtube video. The early part of the 20th century had the radio, gramaphone, and the silent / talkies movies but not all educators used them.  Then along came WW2 and things really sped up technologically but to what extent did the tools make it into the classroom?  By the time the 1970s calculators were the cool learning toy of the day.  Yet, as I recall, it was to be many years later before students were allowed use them in exams. Scroll on further and you have youtube and Facebook and a whole lot more social media, and many educators don’t use those either.

The lesson: new media, its applications and levels of usage are relative to the time. Technology has never really had a fundamental effect on or caused a radical overhaul of how school/college based learning and teaching takes place.  It’s still predominantly desks and chairs and a teacher delivering.  New technology comes along and supplements or complements what’s already there. As tools (Sony walkman, anyone?) go out fashion they are replaced by others (Apple ipod, anyone?).

The words educational reform have been heard for years and years.  Technology has been changing and evolving for decades.  Yet there hasn’t been any fundamental change in how teaching and learning takes place. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

The student experience

What’s it like to be a 3rd level student?  Every now and again, large scale surveys are released promising to tell us what life is like from the other side of the desk. The latest such study comes from the Times  Higher Education.

By and large, these studies tend to tell us more or less the same thing every time they are carried out.  In essence, students need to feel they belong.  They need to fit with campus life, or at least the aspects of it that are important to them. This might be provision of a well-stocked library, a vibrant students union/ society, an accessible program director, a top-class sports arena, or a chess club. Whatever it is, it contributes to students feeling that they are part of a community. All the criteria THE mention concern sense of community and sense of belonging to that community, or some aspect of it.

I find it interesting that the report mentions a distinction between full time students, part-time students and international students. From my experience, these are three very different collectives, with very different priorities, and looking for very different things from their chosen academic community.  Part-timers come in the evening time when the facilities tend to be limited. They tend to have less time to explore them anyhow. They are more likely that the other groups to turn to each other and their lecturers for assistance needed. Full timers have more time to immerse themselves in the wider aspects of campuslife.

International students, unfortunately, have GNIB (that’s the Garda National Immigration Bureau), language and cultural barriers to deal with before they can even begin to think about the more relaxing and social side of academic life. This group have the biggest challenge. The academic and social/cultural life they find themselves in can differ radically from what they are used to in their home countries and can take some getting used to. As an example, I know the Indian students have settled when they stop calling me ma’am and call me by my first name.  This dilemma of how to address a lecturer is something that’s not even on the table as an issue for domestic students.  The international students are the group most in need of the safe-environs of a supportive community where they can relax and let their guard down.

I would like to see a large scale study that looks at the breakdown of factors contributing to “the student experience” from the perspectives of these 3 groups. I imagine they are very different, even with students in the same class or studying the same course. One student’s positive experience is another student’s nightmare.  Take, for example, the “class discussion”.  Unless they are feeling very secure in the class environment Asian students are slow to get involved in class discussion. American students tend to get bored unless there is something to talk about, regardless of whether they barely know their classmates or not.  Having a combination of both groups in a classroom poses some interesting challenges for the lecturer.

The quality of lecturers / lecturers featured as a criterion in the THE study.  There was a time when being a good lecturer meant showing up to class in time, “standing & delivering”, and marking your essays and exams. This is no longer the case. There are so many competing strands to the “good lecturer” these days that keeping up is a fun challenge. This is a topic more deserving of a whole set of postings on its own …. one I will come back to later.

I reckon that knowing and having passionate views on your subject matter, and then getting that across to those for whom this content is new is no longer the key challenge.  The more critical make-or-break component is engagement, engagement and more engagement.  Given the wealth of domain content information available today, reaching out to students is more important than providing them with that information.  It makes my day when a student complements me.  The reasoning behind the complement almost always arises from engaging with the student(s) in a positive way. This can be anything from an encouraging smile to taking 10 minutes out to explain a concept, or even a firm “why were you not in class yesterday”.

Recently I had a student come into my office, start talking about a problem he was having.  He talked about the problem, then he begin to sort out his dilemma, followed this by identifying holes in his solution, then plugging those holes, and then he left.  He gave me little opportunity to do anything more than say “hmmmm”.  He called back later in the day to thank me for listening.

Talking, listening, engaging, it’s all part of the lecturer’s experience as much as it is the student experience.

And a little humour doesn’t hurt…

Mr Bean asks why - from Zaidlearn's blogspot

How many strings can my academic bow have?

One of the more interesting aspects of my job is teaching research methods to e-business and international business masters students.  A large component of this is having students actually do some research, a trial-run on their dissertation as it were.  The techniques of research methods are not rocket science but finding the right and interesting topic to apply them and then fine tuning that topic is a challenge for students. In many cases, it is as difficult as actually implementing the research.

Given that students come from a variety of backgrounds (business, law, literature, history, ocean science, electrical engineering, entertainment, social science to name a few) the variety of topics is always wide ranging but more importantly for me it is far more interesting than reading 50 (or 250, depending on class size) copies of specific assignment material I’ve prescribed. There are always several every year that “wow” me, change my thinking and have me questioning how and what exactly students should be studying.

Here are some from this year

  • One student’s project is a business plan considering a particular tourism venture in Turkey. Unfortunately, the format of a business plan doesn’t suit the academic requirement of the exercise. But, I ask myself, why not?  Would not a business plan be far more practical and useful for this particular student?  This then has me wondering why she didn’t pursue a master’s in entrepreneurship. The reason is simple – there isn’t one. What does a master’s in entrepreneurship look like?  What would the capstone project of an MSc in Entrepreneurship look like – an academic dissertation of an in-depth well considered business plan?  When would a student be considered to have “mastered” entrepreneurship – on submission of this plan, on successfully acquiring the necessary funding, on turning their first profit?  Would the awarding college incubate the idea and then claim a percentage of the profits?
  • There are plenty with the recession as a theme, requiring me to get to grips with various strands of economics, finance and policies therein. How exactly did we allow our banking system to become so corrupt in this country?
  • Every year I am astounded by the Chinese students. They continue to be fascinated by Western perceptions of them and their country, and are excited about China finding its place in the global world.  They genuinely make me question my pride in my nationality. When I travel abroad do I question the perception of Irishness that might be out there?  Is being Irish a significant part of my identity?
  • A Croatian student’s topic revolved around the effects on importing and exporting to and from her country once it acquires EU membership.  The effect of being so close to the EU for so long but not quite being part of it is palpable. Balancing this with the very strong feelings both for and against accession for her country makes this a fascinating topic for this student. But again, I have an agghhh reaction. To fit academic research requirements, the project has to lose its speculative and futuristic approach.
  • Sometimes I don’t know the strength of my own words until they come back to me in another format. The class has a large variety of nationalities. There are students in there from 14 different countries. An ice-breaker at the start of the year involved me generating discussion on social construction of ideas, knowledge and practices arising and evolving from where people find themselves both personally and geographically and who they find themselves surrounded by.   One student used my attempt at integrating nationalities to build his topic – the innovative manager amidst the melting pot of a large multicultural team.

Having students research and chose their own topic adds an extra challenge that they don’t have to the same extent in many of their other subjects. Some struggle with it but none can deny that it adds a dimension of self-discovery that is vital.  It’s vital for me too.

End of year review – was it a waste of time?

In the ideal college environment, all the students pass with flying colours, learning and achieving copious amounts of knowledge and skills as well as the ability to apply and use these skills.  Lecturers proceed with ease through the year and end it with a sense of much satisfaction concerning the achievements of their charge.

But the world is not ideal.

There is plenty of research to indicate that teaching and learning needs to change. The annual Horizon report reminds us that learners want to be active in their own learning and offer a range of tools to assist in this. Put more bluntly, is college a waste of time?  The arguments put forward by Mixerergy are as follows, with my commentary in italics:

  • It creates corporate drones

Students lose their independence and become pawns of whatever company pays them enough to help make payments on their debt.  In the light of increased debate about university fees in Ireland, this is a controversial one. Nonetheless, sweeping statement like don’t help anyone, least of all the graduates who want to and are able to contribute in a constructive and effective way to their new employers.

  • What it teaches is out of date by the time students graduate

This is very much dependent on the subject domain. Some domains (e.g. accountancy, perhaps?) change very little year on year. Others (internet marketing, perhaps?) change a lot. Taking another perspective, isn’t it important that students obtain an appropriate grounding so that they can then go with the flow and thereby are capable of adapting to change as change happens in their domain. In my opinion, this is arguably more important than knowing every little (or even large) fact in that domain.

  • It doesn’t teach the way people learn

People learn by doing, not by sitting in a class and being lectured to.  This implies that college is all passive learning and students have no opportunity to practice what they learn. I’m not a fan of the large group lecture (I’ve blogged about this previously) but fortunately I also have opportunities to facilitate and scaffold student construction and development of their own ideas through project work and small-group tutorial classes.

  • Four years of information is too much to retain

Students end up cramming as much information about a class as they need for to do well on a test and they forget almost all of it after they finish a semester. Unfortunately, the grades-based education system as it is now encourages such learn-it-all off-and-write-it-all-down-in-the-exam modes of study. Nonetheless, such study techniques won’t get a student high grades. Yet, it continues to happen. We need to ask why students persist in such study modes when they know they are satisfying only one goal (getting that passing grade) but not another (true learning). Perhaps, the students’ preferred goal is not the lectuers’ preferred goal?

  • The truth is that college is one big party

The under-graduate college years are pivotal for a student. It’s their transition from parent dependency to personal independency. Personal development, growth of self awareness, experimentation with social structures and events that might have been out of bounds previously are critical here. We need to encourage students to strike a balance between the study part and the social part of their college life.  An excess of partying means a student is unlikely to get beyond first year. A college year spent in the library results in an unfortunately one-dimensional students.

So, what’s the answer

Mixenergy suggests letting students work on real projects, and give them experienced mentors that they can turn to for answers and advice.

In reality, what organisation might let amateurs with little experience and even fewer skills loose on any project of theirs?  Employers may be willing to take a chance on this on a small scale but that’s likely to be it. Any more and they risk spending far too long and too much training up the students in the skills and know-how required for the job.

How many mentors might there be per student? Ideally this should be small. But such a structure has resource and cost implications. One of the reasons large size classes are still with us is simply because because they are cost-effective.

Mixenergy raises some interesting issues. Students are different now then in a pre-net generation. They grow up in a technological world that provides different mental models, ways of processing information, shorter attention spans (for more traditional media types) and personal interests that are far removed from those of their pre-decessors. As a result, engaging students with traditional ways of teaching and learning is limited.

The problem is that such ways and methods are so embedded in our institutions that they are very difficult to break out of. We have a wealth of technologies with potential to reach and engage students (see the Horizon report again). Unfortunately, lecturers with an interest in deploying these tools are faced with many obstacles such as the over-emphasis on grades and traditional exams, not to mention institutional policies and procedures that dominate most educational institutions today that (sometimes, inadvertently) work against novel and innovative ways of active student engagement.

Yet, we persevere!  Giving up is simply not an option.

Quality control, here and there

The latest UK QAA report on “concerns about academic quality and standards in higher education in England” has asked and attempted to answer the following question types (apologies if my paraphrasing has distorted anything) –

  • Are there enough student-staff contact hours to enable students to reach graduate standards of achievement?
  • Do low rates of contact with staff represents poor ‘value for money’ in a fee-paying environment?
  • Is there an admissions problem of students with insufficient English language skills, the result of which is all students (not just the linguistically challenged) have an impoverished learning experience?
  • Are there sufficient ongoing availability and/or effective support mechanisms in place to deal with deficient language skills?
  • Are international students and their advisers sufficiently knowledgeable about higher education teaching, learning and assessment practices in the UK? Do they know what to expect when they arrive here?
  • Are the intentions, operations and role of external examiners clear?
  • Are the inputs, reports, and recommendations of external examiners appreciated by the institutions they are externing? If not, why not? What does this imply about the concept of external examiners?
  • To what extent is there variation in the way that institutional assessment regulations are applied by individual schools or departments (with potential impacts on parity and fairness)?
  • Is the degree classification system applied consistently across different departments, schools and institutions?
  • What do the terms “academic quality” and “academic standards” actually mean?
  • Do those inside educational institutions and those outside of them (e.g. the media) have the same understanding of subject benchmark statements and other reference tools used by institutions in setting and maintaining academic standards and academic quality

To what extent should the same questions be asked here in Ireland?

What might the answers look like?

Digital Natives

Rather says it all… 

Possibilities –

  • Daily project, each student has to blog “here’s what I learned today”.
  • Allows teachers to see what’s grabbing the little ones’ attention
  • Forces Mum and Dad to become more tech-aware and tech-using
  • Allows for a sneak preview of the dinner table conversation
  • Gets kids writing
  • Provides an archive that can be used to track evolution of thought over time
  • Constructive comments can be used as a form of feedback

What a really good idea.

4 beautiful aww minutes of learning

Thanks to Darragh for this.

Sometimes the younger ‘uns just need a helping hand in problem-solving.


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?

what do students choose to do when…..

……. in class but not engaged in formal learning?

An interesting side effect of the cold weather is that students stay in during their class breaks instead of heading outside for a cig or a coffee. In a double class today with a break in the middle I decided to have a peek at what students got up to. Here’s a summary –

  • Read football reports online – 1 student
  • Watch football movie clips on youtube – 1 student
  • Watch movie trailers on youtube – 1 student
  • Search wikipedia – 3 students, all in different languages, none of them english
  • Catch up on e-mail – 3 students
  • Catch up on Bebo – 3 students
  • Catch up on Facebook – 1 student
  • Play computer games – 2 students (on the same internet game, and sitting right beside each other)
  • Text on their phones – 1 student
  • Talk to each other – 3 students

Having spent an hour doing computer-based work, the vast majority of students volunteer to stay on that computer even though they dont have to. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Whichever, it shows how integrated undergrads are with technology.

What do I learn when I ask about their preferred breaktime habits –

Bebo and Facebook at most popular on Mondays. The same clubs and pubs are attended but everyones experience of a night out is different. So reading about each others reflections on said night out on Bebo or Facebook is a way of catching up with friends that can’t actually happen on the night out itself. How about that? Going out is only as interesting as what is said the next day about same night out. Social situations and environments are extended beyond the boundary of the night out.  Loosely jointed records are there for all to see. Students get to evaluate the social event from multiple perspectives, form opinions and feelings about people and scenarios, and then act on them in a way not possible without social networking sites.

youtube clips are short enough to be watched quickly and so avoid the need to commit to something in-depth that may not be interesting. Web design gurus tell us that it only takes a couple of seconds to decide whether we like a website or not. Is it the same with other aspects of the web – our attentions span is so low, we cant become engaged with anything online for any extended period of time. It’s digital fast food. We want our web content dished up in a bit-sized chunks that we can sample and decide yes / no very quickly

Wikipedia is a source of information that is considered trustworthy and reliable. While we would rather students read scholarly articles in peer-reviewed journals, they prefer wikipedia. IS this such a bad thing? Wikipedia isn’t any more factually incorrect than Encyclopedia Britannica, its got a significant amount of inter-linkages, it alters the reader when pages are incomplete or need more work, it has a “by the people for the people” feel to it, its got enough members who care to keep the riff-raff vandals from sabotaging it.

Computer games are a means of having a laugh while spending quality time with mates. Classmates bonding has a positive effect on a class. And if new skills and abilities are picked up in the process of the bonding (the students were playing a co-operative game that required them to work together to solve a problem) then why arent we as educators embracing computer games more? Perhaps its becasue gaming technology doesnt map onto formally prescribed curricula so easily, or its a large scale effort that we simply do not have the time for?

Here’s the really interesting part – there was as much learning going on during the break as in the classtime. Yet the break time content doesn’t get any credit

Dolls are for girls, lego is for boys – or so todays Guardian would have use believe.

Result – girls develop communication skills and emotional literacy, boys develop technical skills. There are far more educational and skills development opportunities built into male toys than the pink ‘fluffier’ toys for girls. But how do the children opt for their preferred toys  in the first place?

Is it a natural choice?  If placed in a room full of genderised toys what would a typical male or female child opt for? Do parents consciously or unconsciously orient their offspring to gender matched toys? Does marketing influence parents (and well-meaning aunties!) into buying gender matched toys?

The study quoted seems to place the decision for matching gender-based toys with the parents. Parents conservatively believe that boys should be physically involved with a toy, constructing something or being active with the toy. For girls, the orientation is towards care and nurturing.

Apparently, this push isn’t limited to humans, female chimps show a preference to dolls and soft toys while their brothers prefer toy cars. I’m assuming that the chimps can’t be influenced by marketing or conscious social stereotyping, so what’s that about then?

What about gender-neutral toys? Lego’s biggest market is boys aged 5 to 9 years. But they also have a range for girls (isn’t a lego block a lego block, whether it’s pink or blue?). Apparently, girls and boys play with lego differently, and their choice of what to construct with the lego reflects that.

What do the children themselves think? My nephew is getting a Kung Fu Panda themed product for Christmas this year, while my niece is getting a Dora-the-Explorer themed product. If I accidently swapped the labels, I could be certain of having a niece and nephew not impressed at all with their auntie. Why?

Dora is an intrepid young explorer, travelling the world, having wonderful adventures. Yet, she is a girl and doesn’t have the required macho qualities to appease a young nephew who is attracted to the bumbling though dream-filled kick-ass panda.

Dora sounds a more inspiring character to me, but given that I’m a female….

Kung Fu Panda

Kung Fu Panda


Dora the Explorer

Dora the Explorer