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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 http://9thlevel.ie, a post is forthcoming.

Here are some Ninth Level contributions of late:

  • http://www.collegetribune.ie/index.php/2011/10/stopfees/  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.
  • http://trinitynews.ie/wordpress/archives/3222   So that’s the guy’s whose visage is gracing the entrance to TCD over the last while!
  • http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=417915&c=1  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.
  • http://ciarnthelibrarian.blogspot.com/2011/10/college-students-social-networking.html   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.
  • http://www.good.is/post/if-professors-stop-lecturing-will-students-stop-checking-facebook/    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.
  • http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/universityeducation/8843640/Tradition-of-Oxbridge-free-Masters-degrees-under-fire.html   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?
  • http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/21/bad-science-publishing-claims   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?
  • http://limerick.studenty.me/2011/10/22/is-ul-really-the-hardest-irish-university-to-obtain-the-magic-21-degree-from/   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.
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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.

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?