[University] teaching awards seemed to have been added like sticking plasters to organisations whose values lay elsewhere.
Graham Gibbs, Item Number 41, 2016, SEDA
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James Williams worked at Google in a senior role for ten years, but has moved into philosophy at Oxford (for the money obviously….). He has written a wonderful short book, with the title “Stand out of our Light”. The name comes from a humorous account of a meeting between Diogenes and Alexander the Great (no spoilers, here).
His book is a critique of much digital technology that — to use his analogy — does not act as an honest GPS, but instead entices you along paths that make your journay longer. All in the name of capturing your attention, such that you are deflected from your intentions.
He starts chapter 3, with something comical and at the same time profound.
When I told my mother I was moving to the other side of the planet to study technology ethics at a school that’s almost three times as old as my country, she asked, “Why would you go somewhere so old to study something so new? In a way the question contained its own answer.
For me that is the power of the academic ideal.
A couple of articles from the two different domains of my professional life made me riff on some old memes. The first, was an article in (I think) the Times Higher about the fraud detection software Turnitin. I do not have any firsthand experience with Turnitin (‘turn-it-in’), as most of our exams use either clinical assessments or MCQs. My understanding is that submitted summative work is uploaded to Turnitin and the text compared with the corpus of text already collected. If strong similarities are present, the the work might be fraudulent. A numerical score is provided, but some interpretation is necessary, because in many domains there will be a lot of ‘stock phrases’ that are part of domain expertise, rather than evidence of cheating. How was the ‘corpus’ of text collected? Well, of course, from earlier student texts that had been uploaded.
Universities need to pay for this service, because in the age of massification, lecturers do not recognise the writing style of the students they teach. (BTW, as Graham Gibbs has pointed out, the move from formal supervised exams to course work has been a key driver of grade inflation in UK universities).
I do not know who owns the rights to the texts students submit, nor whether they are able to assert any property rights. There may be other companies out there apart from Turnitin, but you can see easily see that the more data they collect, the more powerful their software becomes. If the substrate is free, then the costs relate to how powerful their algorithms are. It is easy to imagine how this becomes a monopoly. However, if copies of all the submitted texts are kept by universities then collectively it would make it easier for a challenger to enter the field. But network effects will still operate.
The other example comes from medicine rather than education. The FT ran a story about the use of ‘machine learning’ to diagnose retinal scans. Many groups are working on this, but this report was about Moorfields in London. I think I read that as the work was being commercialised, then the hospital would have access to the commercial software free of charge. There are several issues, here.
Although, I have no expert knowledge in this particular domain, I know a little about skin cancer diagnosis using automated methods. First, the clinical material and annotation of clinical material is absolutely rate limiting. Second, once the system is commercialised, the more any subsequent images can be uploaded the better you would imagine the system will become. This of course requires further image annotation, but if we are interesting in improving diagnosis, we should keep enlarging the database if the costs of annotation are acceptable. As in the Turnitin example, the danger is that the monopoly provider becomes ever more powerful. Again, if the image use remains non-exclusive, then it means there are lower barriers to entry.
The story is about the ‘approval’ by the Norwegian higher education regulator of courses in astrology. The justification is interesting, relying on the fact that “astrologers had good employment prospects”. So that is alright then. To be fare the regulators argue that the can only enforce the ‘law’, as is. You can find similar such goings on close to the homes of many of us in the UK. (Time Higher Education, 28th March, 2019).
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In July 1972, my wife Maureen and I jumped in a Mini Traveller and left England heading east. I’d just graduated from London Business School with an MBA, and the plan was we’d travel as far as that £65 car would carry us. Times change; these days MBA graduates emerge with a backpack full of debts and need to start earning fast to pay them off. Our backpacks contained some clothes, but they were mainly stuffed with dreams. That dirt-cheap car carried us all the way to Afghanistan.
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Quoted in Carel Stolker, ‘Rethinking the Law School’
According to a British survey among ﬁrst‐year law students, the word that best reﬂects the students’ general attitude is ‘disengaged’. This disengagement is caused particularly by the lack of human connection in almost every educational practice, from teaching methods to our formal assessments. There is extraordinarily little formal human interaction in our ﬁrst year.
This is a business model. Just not one you would want to emulate. At least Stolker’s home institution, Leiden, has an excuse.
This is from an article in the THE. Catherine Heymans is a physicist at the University of Edinburgh, who works on “dark energy”. She is planning to leave the UK to work in Germany (yes, Brexit). But what caught my eye was this quote describing one of those lightbulb moments (pun intended)
Question: As a physics undergraduate, how did you feel when the theory of dark energy first emerged?
Heymans: ‘It was 9am, and I was sat in a lecture theatre waiting for our lecturer to turn up – he was late. Eventually he ran into the room and said: “We’re not going to be studying high-energy astrophysics today, because the most amazing paper has just been published – you have to see this stuff.” It was new data that showed that the expansion of the universe was getting faster and faster, which could only be explained by extra, unseen “dark energy” in the universe.’
It is an interesting test for whether you believe in the ‘research led teaching’ trope. Or is it: will this be in the exam?
Bluntly, the main motive for replacing the teaching grant by loans is an accounting trick. There is an apparent decline in public spending, but at the cost of distorting higher education policy … Thus the changes look like a dodgy [Private] Finance Initiative” – Barr, 2012
Well written piece on the loan scandal in Wonkhe by Nicholas Barr. In the language of the laymen, the government is fiddling the books, and dumping the costs on future taxpayers. It fiddles because it wants to mislead, for gain.
He goes on:
higher education finance has elements of a bubble. If I were a Vice-Chancellor, this aspect would give me sleepless nights.
Guarded language — fair enough — but it is not just a financial bubble. Let us just see how this year pans out.
Mary Midgley a Newcastle based philosopher died a fews ago. An obituary in the FT is here. I remember once attending a debate between her and Sam Shuster on the use of animals in medical research. I thought her both strange, and awe inspiring. I am probably now more sympathetic to her views expressed then, than I was at the time,
I then found a “Lunch with the FT” with her, which referred to her husband academic philosopher, Geoffrey Midgley.
While at Oxford, she met her husband Geoffrey, who also lectured in philosophy, and she followed him to Newcastle in 1950. She has lived there since. (Geoffrey Midgley died in 1997.) “I know academics are supposed to be buzzing off to America and all that sort of thing but Geoffrey wasn’t at all interested in that. He just wanted to sit in the common room and talk to his students. It’s so important to do that, colossally educational.”
As one Oxford university scholar and administrator courted by the Gulf, who is against satellite campuses, puts it: “We have open doors, but they are our doors.”
The OFS report on degree class awards at UK English unviersities has attracted lots of press attention today. Rightly so. But the report looks back only a decade. One commentator (bd d’Avranche) in the FT urges us to delve a little deeper:
Please take the research back to 1980 and then prepare to be astounded.
Alison Wolff has written somewhere that the quality of what constituted a particular award was, not so long ago, fairly consistent across UK universities. No longer. Academics should hold their heads in shame, as they have shorted what many of us hold most dear about higher education.
If you can reliably assess knowledge and capabilities within a standardised and regulated framework it is not education.
Any real education is incapable of robust widely accepted psychometric assessment that will satisfy a professional regulator.
Great interview with Paul Romer over at Conversations with Tyler. Romer won the Nobel prize for economics this year, and has had a wonderfully varied career (academic; founder of a software company that produces computer assisted learning material (Aplia); and time at the World bank. There are some earlier statements by him about education on my web page.
What caught my eye in this interview was:
“We should always remember that the education business is one of the ones that has the biggest problems with asymmetric information. A young person who pays somebody to educate them is very dependent on the decisions that the educator makes about “Study this, go in this direction.”
“I think that the problem in higher ed is that the institutional incentives don’t provide the kind of training that would maximize the opportunities for the students or, for that matter, maximize outcomes for the nation.”
Indeed: in many ways, the situation is even worse than in medicine.
Well, no surprises here.
The UK Department for Education has commissioned accountants KPMG to conduct a study of how much it costs universities to teach their students, in a move seen by some as a potential mechanism to lower the tuition fee cap in England.
The world is full of ‘compatible scholarship’ (Noam Chomsky’s phrase I think). But if you want to be 100% certain that the results are built to order, then you need professional service firms — just look at their track record! Academics come cheap, so only use them when you are not too worried about the results.
Interesting to sees the levers of scale. This is a piece about expansion at Harvard (the Allston expansion), drives by the shift to science and engineering (the proportion of students choosing applied math, computer science or engineering has gone from 6 to 20% (of the total annual intake of 2000 students)
The shift in student preferences towards science and engineering is creating a far greater net need for space than would be created by growth in other fields. More science and engineering students means more academics and classes, which in turn means more graduate students to help teach those undergraduates, which in turn means more lab space to house the graduate students [emphasis mine].
From an article in the THE, talking about Katherine Randell.
Rundell, whose books have already won several prizes, is a fellow of All Souls College in Oxford and describes herself as a “para-academic”. She is not required to submit work to the research excellence framework but is researching a book about the poet John Donne as well as preparing an edition of his works.
I return to something Larry Lessig said:
I would push hard to resist the tyranny of counting. There is no necessary connection between ease of counting and the production of education. [as in ‘likes’ etc after leaving lecture hall etc]. And so it will be easy for the institution to say this is what we should be doing but we need to resist that to the extent that that kind of counting isn’t actually contributing to education. The best example of this, I am sure many of you know are familiar with this, is the tyranny of counting in the British educational system for academics, where everything is a function of how many pages you produce that get published by journals. So your whole scholarship is around this metric which is about counting something which is relatively easy to count. All of us have the sense that this cant be right. That can’t be the way to think about what is contributing to good scholarship.
Well, much — but not all — of UK Higher Ed is little concerned with scholarship.
At my old university, we were encouraged to explore our subjects and to love what we were studying. Now, at medical school, the emphasis seems to be don’t burnout, focus on not making mistakes, and understand that life is going to be hard, so develop the resilience to cope.
The above is from a letter to this month’s Academic Medicine [83(12) 1745-1884, 2018] written by a graduate student at Warwick medical school (TC Shortland). The title is what caught my eye: “Enjoying, and Not Just Surviving, Medical School”
He goes on:
At Warwick Medical School, staff and students are trying to build a more positive environment. Staff and students have organized art classes, interstaff/ student sports events, and several baking competitions; the last winner featured cupcakes that could be injected with either a salted caramel or raspberry filling. As positive health care workplaces and positive cultures are associated with better patient outcomes,why shouldn’t medical schools try and create such environments for future medical professionals?
I am not against the various suggestions (…well, I am actually), but what I and others are in despair about is how much (?most) medical education has become so dull, tedious, and brutal, rather than humane. When I have spoken to others, some hold similar views: the students put up with it, because they want to be doctors, but they no not enjoy most of it. If they are obliged to attend, they do; but out of choice, many would skip much of what we offer.
Now this is not a new thought or phenomenon. I didn’t enjoy — in fact I actively hated — the preclinical years (aka: the prescientific years) — but I did get a big kick out of the clinical years, and loved my intercalated degree. What made the clinical years work, was that the opportunity for some kind of personal bond with some teaching staff made up for all the despots and dull souls who should have been destined to be gravediggers. And unless somebody has recently discovered something I have missed, scale and intimacy rarely go together.
Of course, what makes matters worse, is that the ennui and anomie will get worse: for many junior doctors, after the initial high of being qualified, their working jobs are miserable. If they get to higher training, things may improve, but not for all.
George Steiner’s comments in a slightly different context are apposite:
“Bad teaching is, almost literally, murderous and, metaphorically, a sin. It diminishes the student, it reduces to gray inanity the subject being presented. It drips into the child’s or the adult’s sensibility that most corrosive of acids, boredom, the marsh gas of ennui.”
The NHS (for this is the fault of the NHS rather thant the universities) is accumulating a massive moral debt, borrowing on the very market it has rigged (because it can!), forgetting that this is like PFI on steroids. It assumes it is too big to fail: I think otherwise.
How did you go bankrupt: slowly and then suddenly.
A tidy phrase from Stephen Downes in a comment on corporate cash and universities:
There’s nothing especially new here, though it is helpful to remember that when for-profit corporations donate money, it is with a for-profit objective.
Leading universities should pledge to actually read the work of applicants for research positions rather than use controversial metrics during the selection process, a Nobel prizewinner has argued.
No, not a spoof, but words from Harold Varmus. Sydney Brenner, a good while back, observed that people tended not to read papers anymore, they just xeroxed them.
This is from an article in Nature.
Under pressure to turn out productive lab members quickly, many PhD programmes in the biomedical sciences have shortened their courses, squeezing out opportunities for putting research into its wider context. Consequently, most PhD curricula are unlikely to nurture the big thinkers and creative problem-solvers that society needs.
That means students are taught every detail of a microbe’s life cycle but little about the life scientific. They need to be taught to recognize how errors can occur. Trainees should evaluate case studies derived from flawed real research, or use interdisciplinary detective games to find logical fallacies in the literature. Above all, students must be shown the scientific process as it is — with its limitations and potential pitfalls as well as its fun side, such as serendipitous discoveries and hilarious blunders.
And from a letter in response
My father designed stellar-inertial guidance systems for reconnaissance aircraft and, after he retired, would often present his work to physics and engineering students. When they asked him what they should study to prepare for such a career, he would reply: “Read the classics,” by which he meant Aristotle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Blaise Pascal.
The best scientific and technical progress does not come out of a box. It is more likely to emerge from trying to fit wild, woolly and tangential ideas into useful societal and economic contexts.
As the historian Norman Davies once said:
“Since no one is judged competent to offer an opinion beyond their own particular mineshaft, beasts of prey have been left to prowl across the prairie unchecked.”
Or as the Economist once put it”
“…professors fixated on crawling alone the frontiers of knowledge with a magnifying glass.”
This is the tragedy of our age: 90% right and 100% wrong. And that is even before we get to medicine.
This article and data on funding streams in higher ed is well worth exploring. It adds a necessary counterpoint to any consideration of what has happened to HE in the UK over recent decades. And, I see the time span maps closely to my own career as a Professor. I still struggle with the ‘why’ question. Some of the graphs are scary.
This is a THE quote referring to the late Sir David Watson. [Link]
In England, he said, undergraduates had been reduced to “state-sponsored Wonga-style customers”; you can see what I mean about that turn of phrase.
I can indeed. And I claim to have come up with similar terminology independently.
I do not have a coherent overview of many of the traditional professions, but I wonder if people will soon say similar things about doctors.[Link]
“The big issue that concerns me at the moment in the English education system is the supply of high-quality teachers. We’ve seen quality issues in recruitment to teaching and our schools are getting increasingly desperate to find decent teachers. The whole workload issue has come to a big head again in England with teachers having very big workloads and their conditions of service is deteriorating a lot recently. We’re seeing a big exodus in teaching and so of course, we need a bigger inflow to maintain the balance.”
Wiliam is talking about schooling, but it is also true of medical education.[Link].
“For me, I think the issue in the United States in particular is how we improve education at scale. I argue there are two things that have particularly powerful impact. One is a knowledge-based curriculum, recognizing that the purpose of curriculum is to build long-term memory into our students and what distinguishes novices from experts is knowledge not skills. And the second one is creating a culture where every teacher accepts the need to improve, not because they’re not good enough, but because they can be even better.”
I am pleased with the comment about long-term memory: intellect’s ballast. Knowing things matters.
Maybe more of a theory than a law, but still:
Any eLearning tool, no matter how openly designed, will eventually become indistinguishable from a Learning Management System once a threshold of supported use-cases has been reached.
They start out small and open. Then, as more people adopt them and the tool is extended to meet the additional requirements of the growing community of users, eventually things like access management and digital rights start getting integrated. Boil the frog. Boom. LMS.
In each case, university customers are increasingly paying for management of feelings, rather than access to knowledge. It is as if universities have discovered what Pepsi figured out in the 1950’s, Your Customers Want Your Therapy, Not Your Product.
Yes, it is the US of A.
What we’re seeing with the highest [student] debtors is unbelievable,” says Darryl Dahlheimer, program director for financial counseling at the nonprofit Lutheran Social Service. “It’s a lifelong maiming of their finances.” One in three holders of student debt today is 90 days late or more on their payments. “Once you default, it’s a matter of cascading penalties,” he says. “It’s a forever escalator down to pain.”
“Results from end‐of‐course student evaluations of teaching (SETs) are taken seriously by faculties and form part of a decision base for the recruitment of academic staff, the distribution of funds and changes to curricula. However, there is some doubt as to whether these evaluation instruments accurately measure the quality of course content, teaching and knowledge transfer. We investigated whether the provision of chocolate cookies as a content‐unrelated intervention influences SET results.
CONCLUSION: The provision of chocolate cookies had a significant effect on course evaluation. These findings question the validity of SETs and their use in making widespread decisions within a faculty.