Friday, 29 April 2016

Pick'n' Mix Degrees

The Irish Times reports today on the 'credit accumulation' system now available for undergraduates at many Irish third level institutions. While this flexibility in course choice was already commonplace in the US and Canada, it was only introduced to Ireland in 1995 with the Horizons programme in UCD. Increasingly, students can effectively “pick and mix” their own degree programme, with more options than ever before. In 2017 Maynooth University will for the first time allow students to choose arts and science subjects together. As Professor Philip Nolan explains 'it came about because there was a concern emerging that graduates really need to be flexible and adaptable and to be able to look at issues from different perspectives, but the curriculum was quite rigid. We wanted to address this, giving students flexibility and choice in terms of their options and encouraging them to look outside their core area, gain fresh perspectives and spark new intellectual interest'. Read more of this article by following the link below.

Photograph: Thinkstock
Students choosing to mix their degrees

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

PhDs: 'Toxic' supervisors & 'students from hell'

While it is the case that many supervisor-PhD student relationships can be hugely rewarding for both parties, often leading to groundbreaking research and years of fruitful academic collaboration, there are other cases where these relationships can break down and end in bitter acrimony. The recent annual conference of the Association of University Administrators in the UK addressed some of these issues. Jean Grier said that universities need to assess what mechanisms and training they have in place to guard against the small number of cases where these strained relationships develop, while Gina Wisker, who has researched the area of PhD dropout, argued that it was also necessary to recognise the fact that some academics are just not suited to the demands of supervising PhD students. Read more of this article by following the link below.  

Institutes attracting local disadvantaged students

The Irish Times reports today that students living in relatively disadvantaged areas of Dublin are more likely to go on to third-level if they live close to a college. Data collected from student grant applications shows higher participation rates in the Blanchardstown and Tallaght areas, which have institutes of technology.  Both colleges have forged close links with primary and secondary schools in an attempt to make them more accessible to the wider community and initiatives such as third level students volunteering their time to help local Leaving Cert students with maths and other subjects has helped to raise expectations for school leavers. Follow the links below to read more. 

A breakdown of student grant data shows higher third-level participation rates in the Blanchardstown and Tallaght areas, which have institutes of technology. File photograph: Chris Ison/PA Wire

Institutes play key role attracting local students

Proximity to college raises chance of disadvantaged

Monday, 25 April 2016

The “new” social media…

Just when you thought you had social media for the campus covered by using Facebook and Twitter, it seems that students have moved on.  Jack Gove provides a dizzying list of the new social media “thing”, or “things”, because there really are quite a few.  You may be familiar with some of them, for example Snapchat and Instagram, but there’s also Peach and YikYak, to name but a few.

If you would like to know more, follow the link to the full article.

How would you feel if Big Brother was watching you learn?

Chris Havergal writes that the Open University is considering monitoring student emotions in an effort to detect potential dropouts from its online courses. While lecturers in face to face situations are in a better position to monitor students’ emotional responses to lectures, this isn’t possible in the online environment. The process could involve using webcams to monitor facial expression and emotions.  According to the article, the software that would allow this kind of monitoring is currently in development.
Students would be aware of the monitoring, but how would they feel about the potential breech of their privacy? After all, one of the many benefits to studying online is that you can learn at any time, in a relaxed atmosphere.  Being monitored may not be conducive to a relaxed or informal atmosphere. Other researchers are looking into other, less invasive, methods of monitoring.

For the full article please follow the link below.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Standing up to greedy academic publishers

The issue of how research is communicated in society raises questions that cut to the heart of what academics do, and what academia is about. Jonathan Gray writing in the Guardian today, asks the questions, does our scholarly communication system put the needs of researchers first? Or does it prioritise the uninterrupted profitability of a handful of big publishers? According to Gray the UK’s higher education institutions spend more than £180m on journal subscriptions every year and the largest share of this goes to four publishers. Librarians at some of the world’s wealthiest institutions have announced that they can no longer afford to purchase the materials their researchers need. So, who is serving whom? Read more of this article and the debate around it by following the link below.

Numbers printed on roll of paper

Standing up to greedy publishers!

Undergraduates 'poorly prepared for PhDs'

As universities prepare for a new government loan scheme in the UK that could help more students enter doctoral study, a conference has heard that the heavily structured nature of undergraduate study does not prepare students for a PhD and that many students undertaking PhDs are “less confident” and "less standalone" than those in past cohorts. Professor Alison Hodge from Aston University warned that with the expansion in student numbers more students are embarking on a PhD than before, but not all of those had the independence, self-reliance and “slightly rebellious” streak needed to get through a doctorate. Read more at the link below.

Track runner slow off the starting blocks

Undergraduates "poorly prepared for PhDs"

Friday, 15 April 2016

Stamping out cheating in online assessment

A new European Union funded initiative aims to revolutionise online assessment by combining anti-plagiarism software with facial, voice and keystroke identification technology. It is hoped that this combination of multiple technologies will make Adaptive Trust-based E-assessment System for Learning (Tesla) more powerful and reliable than existing anti-cheating systems. As well as combating cheating, it is hoped that it will help to encourage more universities to launch online courses, and enable students to take elective modules from international higher education institutions.Read more from the Times Higher Education below. 

Person holding model in front of Eiffel Tower, Paris, France

Stamping out cheating

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Universities facing an intellectual crisis

Speaking at the recent European Universities Association conference President Michael D Higgins has said that universities are facing an "intellectual crisis" over their role in society. Arguing that a core function of the university was to foster the capacity to dissent he said that an increasing focus on producing graduates solely for the labour market was bringing universities down a “precarious road” at the expense of fostering life-enhancing skills such as critical thinking and creativity. The Times Higher Education explores similar issues with an article about the need to foster reading skills in sixth-formers before they enter university. Academics are concerned that it represents a significant loss to the educational process when students are failing to engage with extended arguments, read around the core texts or reflect on the history and ethical dilemmas of their disciplines. Read these thought provoking articles by following the links below.

Books arranged on table in shape of heart

Universities facing intellectual crisis

Books for sixth-formers

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Irish third-level courses in crisis

According to a recent report commissioned by Quality and Qualifications Ireland, spending cuts in Irish higher education have pushed some third-level college courses to “crisis point”, with serious implications for their future sustainability. Some of the areas highlighted as being of particular concern include the cumulative effects of reduced funding, lower staff numbers, increased teaching burdens and the casualisation of staffing and promotion limitations. The report is based on a review of the quality of teaching and learning in academic departments, schools and programmes in public higher education institutions. Read more at the Irish Times by following the link below.

Spending cuts have pushed some third-level college courses to ‘crisis point’, with serious implications for their future sustainability, according to a new report. File photograph: Getty Images

Irish third-level courses in crisis!

Are academic social networks too commercial?

An interesting article in the Times Higher Education today asks if academic social networking platforms like or ResearchGate are truly in the interests of the academic. Academic social networks allow researchers to post, share, collate and recommend papers and typically present themselves as proponents of open access. The author argues that while many of their members assume that the papers they post on them will be freely available, some of the barriers imposed by both and ResearchGate on the reuse of user profile data, the downloading of documents and the use of open licences mean that they do not meet the requirements of standard open access policies. Furthermore others have questioned whether academics should put their academic labour in the form of research and data into the hands of companies whose primary goal is not to help academics to communicate but to monetise that communication in the interests of investors. Read more by following the link below. 

Roy Scott illustration (7 April 2016)

Are academic social networks too commercial?

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Does group work mean group learning?

The success of group work or project can vary depending on a number of factors.  According to Dean Burnett of the Guardian, factors such as motivation, division of labour and enthusiasm may influence how and when the work will be done.  While factors such as group polarization and informational influence can determine the accuracy of the results.
Whether or not group work helps with learning remains to be seen as the influences at play can vary from group to group.  However, the social aspects and the potential for people to focus on and excel in the tasks they do well can only be a positive thing.  Burnett goes on to say that being able to work as part of a group is seen as an important skill by potential employers and is therefore worthwhile for that aspect alone.
If you are interested in maximising learning through group projects you might like to read Learning in groups: a handbook for face-to-face and online environments, by David Jaques.
For a multidisciplinary approach, Cooperative learning in higher education: across the disciplines, across the academy, edited by Barbara J. Millis is a good choice.
For a quick refresher please see Peter Harley’s Success in groupwork (pocket skills).

For the full article:  Does working as a group actually help us learn?

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

New research methods for new universities

Using mobile phones to research how university students behave and interact with learning materials could provide us with more accurate information than traditional research methods, says Peter Coaldrake from the Queensland University of Technology.  Coaldrake was speaking at the Young University Summit in Barcelona this week and used research undertaken at his own university to illustrate his point.
The study tracked 50,000 students by using their mobile phones.  The study took place over a 1 day period, and the results included details of when the students attended the campus, where they went, including libraries and social areas and how the accessed their learning materials.

This data provided valuable information that would help to focus investment in specific areas and facilities to improve learning and the student experience.

For more on Professor Coaldrake's research methods please see the article by Jack Grove of THES 

Practical tips for writing your PhD...

Ingrid Curl provides some practical advice for writing a PhD thesis. While drawing on tips from literary greats such as Hemingway, Twain and Orwell, she reminds us that academic writing should be clear, concise and jargon free.  This short, but informative article also covers referencing, house styles and avoiding plagiarism.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Status anxiety 'harms university cooperation'

A recent report has cited 'snobbish attitudes among some universities towards their less prestigious peers' as being responsible for preventing more meaningful cooperation between institutions. The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education report also claims that negative views of universities based on their 'lower prestige' might be harming efforts to bring together universities, business and government to boost local economic growth. While the report acknowledges that university prestige can be a positive force and can do many wonderful things for universities, it can also 'mean the university system as a whole is neglected'. Read more below.

Red carpet

Status anxiety can harm university cooperation

Monday, 4 April 2016

Target-led university culture examined in major study

A new study is hoping to capture the wider impact of a target-led performance management culture on staff, students and the university more generally. Newcastle University’s Raising the Bar (RTB) initiative, in which research-active staff have been set “minimum expectations” for grant income, will explore how it alters academics’ working practices, well-being and approach to research. The study will also record its influence on staff-student relations, teaching, the university’s collegiate atmosphere and workload in an attempt to assess the “human dimension” of the initiative. Potentially the study will offer a new perspective on whether audit-led change really produces positive results in higher education. Read more by following the link below. 

Man dressed as target hit by thrown paper aeroplanes

How to avoid the five biggest reading mistakes

An article in the Times Higher Education today looks at the five biggest reading mistakes and how to avoid them. The author suggests that many doctoral students have difficulty starting and completing their thesis and she attributes some of those difficulties with their reading techniques. The article looks at skim reading, speed reading and our fear of missing that important piece of work. Read more below.

A woman reading a book with her feet up

Five biggest reading mistakes