Thursday, 28 April 2011

Tuition fees, a revolution in higher education, and another four day weekend!

A few days off work for me at the moment, which has coincided with a break in the H807 course. I suppose I should be forcing myself to stay away from all things digital and have a proper break, but I think I've reached a stage where I start to get a bit twitchy if I haven't been online for a few hours! That might sound a bit sad, but believe it or not I still find the whole internet and social network world quite exciting and, given the ease of access via laptop, iPad or smartphone, I guess I'm genuinely hooked.

A couple of things have got me thinking this week which at first didn't seem particularly related to each other, but the more I thought about them I realised they were actually very closely related indeed.

Firstly, my daughter's sixth form college held an evening for parents to explain the ins and outs of applying for higher education. I managed to wheedle my way out of attending, but my wife went and, aside from all the usual information about choosing the right subject, and the right university, and filling out the UCAS application, she was quite shocked about the potential impact of the new tuition fee arrangements. Our daughter is currently in the first year of sixth form college, so if she wants to go to university then she would be entering in 2012. She will therefore be part of the first intake affected by the new fees. Given that I work in higher education I am reasonably well informed about the new fee arrangements, but I have to confess that it really starts to hit home when I consider the issue in the context of my own family. I've been following the issue quite closely on Twitter (@timeshighered) and it is clear that the majority of universities expect to charge the maximum £9000 per annum for their courses. If a student also borrows £4000 per annum for living costs, then by the time they graduate they will have accumulated a debt of £39,000. What shocked my wife was a point made by my daughter's college that it is quite possible that the total cost of repaying that loan could be over £80,000. In other words, graduates may end up paying back more than double what they borrowed. In effect, graduates will have the equivalent of a small mortgage at the age of 21, assuming they enter a graduate level job.

Now of course we don't yet know what the final arrangements will be, as the government doesn't even expect to publish its white paper on the matter until June, so inevitably there is a lot of speculation and misinformation out there. Nevertheless, it does seem clear that this is will have an impact on applications to universities. My daughter is not even sure that she wants to go to university, irrespective of the fees, but in the past young people in her position would probably have gone anyway. Surely they will now think twice if it means saddling themselves with a massive debt for the next 30 years. Some people will say that this is a good thing if it means that that people entering university are genuinely committed to it. However, this has to be considered against the fact that the whole thrust of government policy on higher education over the past twenty years has been to increase participation rates. Universities have therefore adapted to cope with larger numbers of students. It is highly likely, in my view, that there will now be a significant decline in applications to universities. I've made the point before that I think many people in higher education are simply ignoring the potential threats brought about by the new fees. They seem to believe that "we'll be alright as long as we keep doing what we're doing".

This brings me to the second interesting point that has arisen this week: an article in the Times Higher which I picked up on via Twitter. The article, by Cathy Davidson of Duke University in North Carolina, maintains that our higher education system was developed over 100 years ago to meet the needs of the industrial age. In the early twentieth century the response of universities to the industrial world's emphasis on efficiency, standardisation, specialisation and hierarchical management structures was to reorganise into faculties and schools, and to have specialist degrees and disciplines:

"The history of 20th-century higher education has been the history of assessing individual achievement, measuring, certifying and quantifying outcomes and outputs."

Davidson suggests that the structure of higher education is no longer suited to the modern world of high speed communication and knowledge transfer, and she claims that the time is now right for a new revolution in higher education. In particular, she suggests that graduates nowadays need to be equipped with new skills:

" sorting and attentional skills, collaborative skills, judgement and logical skills, synthesising and analytical abilities, critical and creative skills, qualitative and quantitative skills, all together, with few lines between them. These are sometimes called "21st-century literacies", a range of new interpersonal, synthesising, organising and communication skills that companies insist today's graduates lack."

I think there has been a lot of emphasis in recent years on the role of universities in producing graduates who are ready for the workplace. In my own work I lead a programme of degree courses which are highly vocational and are designed to prepare graduates for entry to specific professional disciplines. We attract students partly because they know that when they graduate they have a direct route into a career. I had assumed that this would continue to be the case for the foreseeable future, notwithstanding the current recession in the construction industry. However, it seems to me that the universities which will be successful in the future will be those which produce graduates with the attributes to enable them to adapt to a fast-changing environment. In the era of high tuition fees universities will have little choice but to respond. Prospective applicants will quickly become proficient in identifying the universities which are capable of providing the types of courses suited to the modern world. At the moment I don't even know what those courses might look like, but I do realise that if we simply carry on doing things as we have done for the past twenty years we will very soon find ourselves obsolete.

Anyway, it's probably best not to let that spoil another four day weekend. Personally, as an avid republican, I can't stand the whole royal wedding thing, but I'm very glad of the day off because the wedding happens to coincide with my best friend's 50th birthday. I'll be doing plenty of celebrating on Friday, and if QPR can beat Watford on Saturday then the celebrations will continue!!

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Killing two birds with one stone

I'm being a bit cheeky here, or looking at it another way, I'm just being sensible. In any event, I'm basically trying to kill two birds with one stone. In H807 this week we have been asked to evaluate the usability of a technology or web-based resource. At the same time, I am currently involved in a JISC sponsored programme to produce Open Resources for Built Environment Education (ORBEE). My involvement is to produce three learning packages in the field of Building Adaptation and Conservation, which is one of my specialist areas.

For the ORBEE project I would like to incorporate some screencasts in the online resources so I have been experimenting with free online screencast services. In an earlier blog I had a go with screenr which was quite successful, but the screencast length is limited to 5 minutes. One of my fellow students on H807 (thanks, Karl) drew my attention to Screencast-o-matic. Despite the awful name it's actually a very useful, free service which allows users to produce instant screencasts of up to 15 minutes' duration.

It took me three attempts to get this right and it's still fairly crude, but I have to admit that it's a really easy tool to use. All I've done is to use PowerPoint with a voiceover to describe an animated graph. To anyone not interested in the subject I have no doubt that it will be incredibly boring, but it does relate directly to the work I've been preparing for the ORBEE project so, from a purely personal point of view, it's been helpful.

Screencasts can be uploaded directly to YouTube, and then embedded in a website or blog as I've done here. There is no need to download any software, and you can start recording your screencast within seconds of opening the webpage. You don't even need to log in or sign up for anything.

Anyway, here's the screencast, though I won't expect many people to be actually interested in it:

I won't include my notes about the usability of the technology here, as we've asked to post them directly on the H807 tutor group forum.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Education or qualification?

The other day a colleague was bemoaning the fact that students weren't turning up for lectures. To anyone teaching in higher education this is a familiar scenario: the end of term is approaching, there are lots of coursework submission deadlines, the content which relates to the coursework has all been covered already, etc. etc. All of these factors often lead to one thing: half empty lecture rooms. My response to my colleague was that a lot of our students are what I call 'strategic' learners. This is particularly the case with part time students who only attend university on one day per week and may have demanding employment alongside their studies. These students tend to focus on activities which contribute to assessment. If this means that certain aspects of the course are treated rather superficially, or even ignored, then so be it. Passing the course and gaining the qualification is, for many students, more important than the deep learning which we as academics like to promote. In other words, many of our students are more interested in getting a qualification than an education.

A common response to this problem is to use the module assessment regime as a 'stick' to beat students with. The argument runs something like this: if students have to sit an exam at the end of the module then they will be much more likely to attend all the lectures to ensure that they don't miss any of the content and, more importantly, don't miss any hints about what might be in the exam. Or, even better, why not have short, sharp in-class tests at regular intervals throughout the module. Provided the tests contribute to the overall module marks, the students effectively have to turn up to classes.

I was reflecting on this in the light of the work we have been doing in H807 this week. One of the activities this week has involved looking at assessment practices in the context of Web 2.0. Personally, I have serious reservations about the value of exams and tests as a means of assessing learning. I can empathise very strongly with the view put forward by Elliot (2008) in his paper about assessment in the age of Web 2.0:

"Some educationalists claim that the current assessment system encourages surface learning and "teaching to the test". Instead of instilling genuine problem solving skills, it fosters memorisation. Examination papers that appear to pose 'deep' questions are answered by rote memory – memories that are acquired by students under pressure from parents who want to see their children gain qualifications, and drilled by teachers who are seeking to meet targets." (Elliot, 2008)
I have no doubt that greater use of exams and tests would ensure that lectures were better attended. But isn't this missing the point somewhat? If students are not turning up to our lectures, doesn't this mean that they either don't want to, perhaps because the lectures are boring, or they don't need to, because the lectures don't give them anything that they can't get somewhere else? If it's the former, then we as academic staff have to take some responsibility for this. Are our lectures engaging enough? If it's the latter, then maybe it raises the question of whether traditional lectures are simply obsolete as a means of conveying information, especially when students can access information in so many different ways.

So – what is the point of using exams and tests as a way of forcing students to attend lectures, if the lectures themselves are actually not providing much of an educational experience? I think that well designed assessment should actually be integral to the learning which takes place in a module. The assessment can actually provide the vehicle for students to put in to practice the application of the concepts and principles which form the content of a module. Rather than seeing assessment as something which is tacked on to a module simply as a means of determining whether the learning outcomes have been achieved, the assessment activities can be the means by which the learning outcomes are achieved.

Undoubtedly, Web 2.0 technologies can make a significant contribution to effective assessment. Referring again to Elliot (2008), he suggests that the type of assessment activity best suited to the contemporary learner would exhibit some or all of the following characteristics.

  • Authentic: involving real-world knowledge and skills.
  • Personalised: tailored to the knowledge, skills and interests of each student.
  • Negotiated: agreed between the learner and the teacher.
  • Engaging: involving the personal interests of the student.
  • Recognise existing skills: willing to accredit the student's existing work.
  • Deep: assessing deep knowledge – not memorisation.
  • Problem oriented: original tasks requiring genuine problem solving skills.
  • Collaboratively produced: produced in partnership with fellow students.
  • Peer and self assessed: involving self reflection and peer review.
  • Tool supported: encouraging the use of ICT
With the fantastic potential offered by Web 2.0 technologies should we really be looking to Victorian assessment methods simply to ensure that students turn up for lectures that probably aren't particularly useful in the first place. Let's focus on the positive aspects which can be derived from Web 2.0 rather than worry about minor disadvantages. Let's use Web 2.0 to ensure that assessment actually encourages our students to get an education rather than just a qualification.



Elliott, B. (2008) Assessment 2.0: Modernising Assessment in the Age of Web 2.0 [online], Scottish Qualifications Authority; available from (Accessed 8th April 2011).