Today I’m at the University of Edinburgh Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme Forum 2016: Rethinking Learning and Teaching Together, an event that brings together teaching staff, learning technologists and education researchersÂ to share experience and be inspired to try new things and to embed best practice in their teaching activities.
I’m here partly as my colleague Louise Connelly (Vet School, formerly of IAD) will be presenting our PTAS-funded Managing Your Digital Footprint project this afternoon. We’ll be reporting back on the research, on the campaign, and on upcoming Digital Foorprints work including our forthcoming Digital Footprint MOOC (more information to follow) and our recentlyÂ funded (again by PTAS)Â project: “A Live Pulse: YikYak for Understanding Teaching, Learning and Assessment at Edinburgh.
As usual, this is a liveblog so corrections, comments, etc. welcome.Â
Velda McCune, Deputy Director of the IAD who heads up the learning and teaching team, is introducing today:
Welcome, it’s great to see you all here today. Many of you will already know about the Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme. We have funding of around Â£100k from the Development fund every year, since 2007, in order to look at teaching and learning – changing behaviours, understanding how students learn, investigating new education tools and technologies. We are very lucky to have this funding available. We have had over 300 members of staff involved and, increasingly, we have students as partners in PTAS projects. If you haven’t already put a bid in we have rounds coming up in September and March. And we try to encourage people, and will give you feedback and support and you can resubmit after that too. We also have small PTAS grants as well for those who haven’t applied before and want to try it out.
I am very excited to welcome our opening keynote, Paul Ashwin of Lancaster University, to kick off what I think will be a really interesting day!
Why would going to university change anyone? The challenges of capturing the transformative power of undergraduate degrees in comparisons of quality Â – Professor Paul Ashwin
What I’m going to talk about is this idea of undergraduate degrees being transformative, and how as we move towards greater analytics, how we might measure that. And whilst metrics are flawed, we can’t just ignore these. This presentation is heavily informed by Lee Schumers work on Pedagogical Content Knowledge, which always sees teaching in context, and in the context of particular students and settings.
People often talk about the transformative nature of what their students experience. David Watson was, for a long time, the President for the Society of Higher Education (?) and in his presidential lectures he would talk about the need to be as hard on ourselves as we would be on others, on policy makers, on decision makers… He said that if we are talking about education as educational, we have to ask ourselves how and why this transformation takes place; whether it is a planned transformation; whether higher education is a nesseccary and/or sufficient condition for such transformations; whether all forms of higher education result in this transformation. We all think of transformation as important… But I haven’t really evidenced that view…
The Yerevan Communique: May 2015 talks about wanting to achieve, by 2020, a European Higher Education area where there are common goals, where there is automatic recognition of qualifictions and students and graduates can move easily through – what I would characterise is where Bologna begins. The Communique talks about higher education contributing effectively to build inclusive societies, found on democratic values and human rights where educational opportunities are part of European Citizenship. And ending in a statement that should be a “wow!” moment, valuing teaching and learning. But for me there is a tension: the comparability of undergraduate degrees is in conflict with the idea of transformational potential of undergraduate degrees…
Now, critique is too easy, we have to suggest alternative ways to approach these things. We need to suggest alternatives, to explain the importance of transformation – if that’s what we value – and I’ll be talking a bit about what I think is important.
Working with colleagues at Bath and Nottingham I have been working on a project, the Pedagogic Quality and Inequality Project, looking at Sociology students and the idea of transformation at 2 top ranked (for sociology) and 2 bottom ranked (for sociology) universities and gathered data and information on the students experience and change. We found that league tables told you nothing about the actual quality of experience. We found that the transformational nature of undergraduate degrees lies in changes in students sense of self through their engagement with discplinary knowledge. Students relating their personal projects to their disciplines and the world and seeing themselves implicated in knowledge. But it doesn’t always happen – it requires students to be intellectually engaged with their courses to be transformed by it.
To quote a student: “There is no destination with this discipline… There is always something further and there is no point where you can stop and say “I understaood, I am a sociologist”… The thing is sociology makes you aware of every decision you make: how that would impact on my life and everything else…” And we found the students all reflecting that this idea of transformation was complex – there were gains but also losses. Now you could say that this is just the nature of sociology…
We looked at a range of disciplines, studies of them, and also how we would define that in several ways: the least inclusive account; the “watershed” account – the institutional type of view; and the most inclusive account. Mathematics has the most rich studies in this area (Wood et al 2012) where the least inclusive account is “Numbers”, watershed is “Models”, most inclusive is “approach to life”. Similarly Accountancy moves from routine work to moral work; Law from content to extension of self; Music from instrument to communicating; Geograpy is from general world to interactions; Geoscience is from composition of earth – the earth, to relations earth and society. Clearly these are not all the same direction, but they are accents and flavours of the same time. We are going to do a comparison next year on chemistry and chemical engineering, in the UK and South Africa, and actually this work points at what is particular to Higher Education being about engaging with a system of knowledge. Now, my colleague Monica McLean would ask why that’s limited to Higher Education, couldn’t it apply to all education? And that’s valid but I’m going to ignore it just for now!
Another students comments on transformation of all types, for example from wearing a tracksuit to lectures, to not beginning to present themselves this way. Now that has nothing to do with the curriculum, this is about other areas of life. This student almost dropped out but the Afro Carribean society supported and enabled her to continue and progress through her degree. I have worked in HE and FE and the way students talk about that transformation is pretty similar.
So, why would going to university change anyone? It’s about exposure to a system of knowledge changing your view of self, and of the world. Many years ago an academic asked what the point of going to university was, given that much information they learn will be out of date. And the counter argument there is that engagement with seeing different perspectives, to see the world as a sociologist, to see the world as a geographer, etc.
So, to come back to this tension around the comparability of undergraduate degrees, and the transformational potential of undergraduate degrees. If we are about transformation, how do we measure it? What are the metrics for this? I’m not suggesting those will particularly be helpful… But we can’t leave metrics to what is easy to gather, we have to also look at what is important.
So if we think of the first area of compatibility we tend to use rankings. National and international higher education rankings are a dominant way of comparing institutions’ contributions to student success. All universities have a set of figures that do them well. They have huge power as they travel across a number of contexts and audiences – vice chancellors, students, departmental staff. It moves context, it’s portable and durable. It’s nonsense but the strength of these metrics is hard to combat. They tend to involved unrelated and incomparable measures. Their stability reinforces privilege – higher status institutions tend to enrol a much greated proportion of privileged students. You can have some unexpected outcomes but you have to have Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, UCL, Imperial all near the top then your league table is rubbish… Because we already know they are the good universities… Or at least those rankings reinforce the privilege that already exists, the expectations that are set. They tell us nothing about transformation of students. But are skillful performances shaped by generic skills or students understanding of a particular task and their interactions with other people and things?
Now the OECD has put together a ranking concept on graduate outcomes, the AHELO, which uses tests for e.g. physics and engineering – not surprising choices as they have quite international consistency, they are measurable. And they then look at generic tests – e.g a deformed fish is found in a lake, using various press releases and science reports write a memo for policy makers. Is that generic? In what way? Students doing these tests are volunteers, which may not be at all representative. Are the skills generic? Education is about applying a way of thinking in an unstructured space, in a space without context. Now, the students are given context in these texts so it’s not a generic test. But we must be careful about what we measure as what we measure can become an index of quality or success, whether or not that is actually what we’d want to mark up as success. We have strategic students who want to know what counts… And that’s ok as long as the assessment is appropriately designed and set up… The same is true of measures of success and metrics of quality and teaching and learning. That is why I am concerned by AHELO but it keeps coming back again…
Now, I have no issue with the legitimate need for comparison, but I also have a need to understand what comparisons represent, how they distort. Are there ways to take account of students’ transformation in higher education?
I’ve been working, with Rachel Sweetman at University of Oslo, on some key characteristics of valid metricsÂ of teaching quality. For us reliability is much much more important than availability. So, we need ways to assess teaching quality that:
- are measures of the quality of teaching offered by institutions rather than measures of institutional prestige (e.g. entry grades)
- require improvements in teaching practices in order to improve performance on the measures
- as a whole form a coherent set of metrics rather than a set of disparate measures
- are based on established research evidence about high quality teaching and learning in higher education
- reflect the purposes of higher education.
We have to be very aware of Goodhearts’ rule that we must be wary of any measure that becomes a performance indicator.
I am not someone with a big issue with the National Student Survey – it is grounded in the right things but the issue is that it is run each year, and the data is used in unhelpful distorted ways – rather than acknowledging and working on feedback it is distorting. Universities feel the need to label engagement as “feedback moments” as they assume a less good score means students just don’t understand when they have that feedback moment.
Now, in England we have the prospect of the Teaching Excellence Framework English White Paper and Technical Consultation. I don’t think it’s that bad as a prospect. It will include students views of teaching, assessment and academic support from the National Student Survey, non completion rates, measures over three years etc. It’s not bad. Some of these measures are about quality, and there is some coherence. But this work is not based on established research evidence… There was great work here at Edinburgh on students learning experiences in UK HE, none of that work is reflected in TEF. If you were being cynical you could think they have looked at available evidence and just selected the more robust metrics.
My big issue with Year 2 TEF metrics are how and why these metrics have been selected. You need a proper consultation on measures, rather than using the White Paper and Technical Consultation to do that. The Office for National Statistics looked at measures and found them robust but noted that the differences between institutions scores on the selected metrics tend to be small and not significant. Not robust enough to inform future work according to the ONS. It seems likely that peer review will end up being how we differentiate between institution.
And there are real issues with TEF Future Metrics… This comes from a place of technical optimism that if you just had the right measures you’d know… This measure ties learner information to tax records for “Longitudinal Education Outcomes data set” and “teaching intensity”. Teaching intensity is essentially contact hours… that’s game-able… And how on earth is that about transformation, it’s not a useful measure of that. Unused office hours aren’t useful, optional seminars aren’t useful… Â Keith Chigwell told me about a lecturer he knew who lectured a subject, each week fewer and fewer students came along. The last three lectures had no students there… He still gave them… That’s contact hours that count on paper but isn’t useful. That sort of measure seems to come more from ministerial dinner parties than from evidence.
But there are things that do matter… There is no mechanism outlines for a sector-wide discussion of the development of future metrics. What about expert teaching? What about students relations to knowledge? What about the first year experience – we know that that is crucial for student outcomes? Now the measures may not be easy, but they matter. And what we also see is the Learning Gains project, but they decided to work generically, but that also means you don’t understand students particular engagement with knowledge and engagement. In generic tests the description of what you can do ends up more important than what you actually do. You are asking for claims for what they can do, rather than performing those things. You can see why it is attractive, but it’s meaningless, it’s not a good measure of what Higher Education can do.
So, to finish, I’ve tried to put teaching at the centre of what we do. Teaching is a local achievement – it always shifts according to who the students are , what the setting is, and what the knowledge is. But that also always makes it hard to capture and measure. So what you probably need is a lot of different imperfect measures that can be compared and understood as a whole. However, if we don’t try we allow distorting measures, which reinforce inequalities, to dominate. Sometimes the only thing worse than not being listened to by policy makers, is being listened to them. That’s when we see a Frankenstein’s Monster emerge, and that’s why we need to recognise the issues, to ensure we are part of the debate. If we don’t try to develop alternative measures we leave it open to others to define.
Q1) I thought that was really interesting. In your discussion of transformation of undergraduate students I was wondering how that relates to less traditional students, particularly mature students, even those who’ve taken a year out, where those transitions into adulthood are going to be in a different place and perhaps where critical thinking etc. skills may be more developed/different.
A1) One of the studies I talked about was London Metropolitan University has a large percentage of mature students… And actually there the interactions with knowledge really did prove transformative… Often students lived at home with family whether young or mature students. That transformation was very high. And it was unrelated to achievements. So some came in who had quite profound challengesÂ and they had transformation there. But you have to be really careful about not suggesting different measures for different students… That’s dangerous… But that transformation was there. There is lots of research that’s out there… But how do we transform that into something that has purchase… recognising there will be flaws and compromises, but ensuring that voice in the debate. That it isn’t politicians owning that debate, that transformations of students and the real meaning of education is part of that.
Q2) I found the idea of transformation that you started with really interesting. I work in African studies and we work a lot on colonial issues, and of the need to transform academia to be more representative. And I was concerned about the idea of transformation as a colonial type issue, of being like us, of dressing like that… As much as we want to challenge students we also need to take on and be aware of the biases inherent in our own ways of doing things as British or Global academics.
A2) I think that’s a really important question. My position is that students come into Higher Education for something. Students in South Africa – and I have several projects there – who have nowhere to live, have very little, who come into Higher Education to gain powerful knowledge. If we don’t have access to a body of knowledge, that we can help students gain access to and to gain further knowledge, then why are we there? Why would students waste time talking to me if I don’t have knowledge. The world exceeds our ability to know it, we have to simplify the world. What we offer undergraduates is powerful simplifications, to enable them to do things. That’s why they come to us and why they see value. They bring their own biographies, contexts, settings. The project I talked about is based in the work of Basil Bernstein who argues that the knowledge we produce in primary research… But when we design curriculum it isn’t that – we engage with colleagues, with peers, with industry… It is transformed, changed… And students also transform that knowledge, they relate it to their situation, to their own work. But we are only a valid part of that process if we have something to offer. And for us I would argue it’s the access to body of knowledge. I think if we only offer process, we are empty.
Q3) You talked about learning analytics, and the issues of AHELO, and the idea of if you see the analytics, you understand it all… And that concept not being true. But I would argue that when we look at teaching quality, and a focus on content and content giving, that positions us as gatekeepers and that is problematic.
A3) I don’t see knowledge as content. It is about ways of thinking… But it always has an object. One of the issues with the debate on teaching and learning in higher education is the loss of the idea of content and context. You don’t foreground the content, but you have to remember it is there, it is the vehicle through which students gain access to powerful ways of thinking.
Q4) I really enjoyed that and I think you may have answered my question.. But coming back to metrics you’ve very much stayed in the discipline-based silos and I just wondered how we can support students to move beyond those silos, how we measure that, and how to make that work.
A4) I’m more course than discipline focused. With the first year of TEF the idea of assessing quality across a whole institution is very problematic, it’s programme level we need to look at. inter-professional, interdisciplinary work is key… But one of the issues here is that it can be implied that that gives you more… I would argue that that gives you differently… It’s another new way of seeing things. But I am nervous of institutions, funders etc. who want to see interdisciplinary work as key. Sometimes it is the right approach, but it depends on the problem at hand. All approaches are limited and flawed, we need to find the one that works for a given context. So, I sort of agree but worry about the evangelical position that can be taken on interdisciplinary work which is often actually multidisciplinary in nature – working with others not genuinely working in an interdisciplinary way.
Q5) I think to date we focus on objective academic ideas of what is needed, without asking students what they need. You have also focused on the undergraduate sector, but how applicable to the post graduate sector?
A5) I would entirely agree with your comment. That’s why pedagogic content matters so much. You have to understand your students first, as well as then also understanding this body of knowledge. It isn’t about being student-centered but understanding students and context and that body of knowledge. In terms of your question I think there is a lot of applicability for PGT. For PhD students things are very different – you don’t have a body of knowledge to share in the same way, that is much more about process. Our department is all PhD only and there process is central. That process is quite different at that level… It’s about contributing in an original way to that body of knowledge as its core purpose. That doesn’t mean students at other levels can’t contribute, it just isn’t the core purpose in the same way.
And with that we are moving to coffee… The rest of the programme for the day is shown below, updates to follow all day.Â
11.50-12.35 Parallel Sessions from PTAS projects
12.35 – 13.35 Lunch and informal discussion
13:35 -14.20 Parallel Sessions from PTAS projects
14.20-15.00 Refreshments and networking
15.00-16.00 Closing Keynote : Helen Walker, GreyBox Consulting and Bright Tribe Trust
16:00-16.30 Feedback and depart