Monday, June 13, 2011

Engaging Minds - Symposium on engagement, participation and collaboration

On Thursday and Friday of last week (June 10th and 11th), up to 200 people gathered in NUI Galway for the joint Galway Symposium-NAIRTL Conference on student engagement. With 6 keynotes, multiple parallel streams including workshops and 23 Pecha-Kucha style presentations, the programme was jam-packed. For thus of us in the think of things, rushing around behind the scenes, dealing with technical issues, chairing sessions and juggling with the complexities of car-parking, it is difficult to get a clear view of how the event is going, but from participant feedback it seemed to be an overall success with plenty of ideas being shared and debate taking place.

As is tradition with our events, the keynote presentations were recorded and we'll be posting up links to these in due course (after the video/editing team recover!). Amongst the issues raised, however, were the different conceptions and meanings behind the phrase 'student engagement' and what exactly it encompasses not just in practical terms but also its implicit pedagogical, philosophical and indeed political assumptions.

Lesley Gourlay (IoE, London) opened the event by raising such questions. She was followed by Derek Bruff (Vanderbilt) who demonstrated clearly how he and colleagues are able to stimulate student participation through the use of technologies including clickers (each person has one for live demonstration) and twitter. Elisabeth Dunne (Exeter) spoke of students as change agents and how student-led projects in her institution were used to reshape and reform curriculum and approaches to teaching. Mike Neary ended the first day with a rousing championing of a radical left approach that aimed to recapture the spirit of Humboldt's view of an active research-engaged form of learning but one that is driven in cooperation with students harnessing the types of creativity that emerged from activism of 1968 and illustrating with emerging examples in the UK in the past year or two.

On day two, Guy Claxton (Winchester) spoke of the formation of 'habits of mind' and the implicit, often unarticulated, aspects of what it means to be part of a scholarly community and engage in intellectual endeavour through the perspective of particular disciplinary traditions. Paul Kleiman (Lancaster) then reiterated the importance of communication and the development of student-staff relationships and partnership.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Higher Education as a global public good?

Yesterday I attended the DRHEA-supported seminar given by Simon Marginson (Melbourne and great renown) which looked at the possibility of higher education being considered as a public good on a global perspective. It was certainly hugely different to the last HE policy seminar I attended in the Helix (DCU) in tenor, disposition and approach. A measured, considered and informed questioning of some of the assumptions about 'the university' and its relationship to society and the economy, there was plenty to digest in Simon's presentation and I look forward both to the recording and a text version to do it full justice. The panel of respondents was also well chosen and with only a few minutes each, they were put on their toes in trying to home in on a key point each, but did so.

The large audience partly reflects Simon's reputation but also the timeliness of such discussion here in post-Hunt Report Ireland. And of course, not atypical for such seminars within the Pale, there was a hefty turnout from the Department of Education and the HEA. A few brave souls had though glid across Ireland's new arterial motorway from the West, DCU now being so accessible to many of us (turn right at Ikea!).

To the substance of his talk. He started with a history of various intellectually driven institutions in times past in both the western and eastern hemispheres and reminded us of how flourishing institutions which have a seeming permanency can be readily dispatched by a political, financial or military blow from those in power: the dissolution of the monasteries in England, the decline of Alexandria and the Buddhist centres of learning across China, being the examples. Just to sober up any complacent university presidents!

He addressed the issue of private versus public goods, giving a brief overview of perspectives on these concepts, and referred throughout to the example being espoused in English HE at the present time, indicating what it implies about the perceived relative value of particular disciplines and the underlying conception of the purposes of higher education. He also wove in comparisons between the contemporary Western perception of individual gain and the more Confucian model as an alternative that would be more likely to accept a broader conception that perhaps lays a foundation of a notion of education as a 'public good' (or at least more collective than individual).

The self-serving nature of large and powerful organisations, such as universities, was also raised in looking at how complicit much of academia has been to the developments in HE policy, despite their avowed objections. For example, the drive for prestige despite distaste for league tables, the constant over-reaching in terms of mission and opportunistic responses to funding availability, the constant assertion of leadership and ownership of a whole range of activities and subjects and the competitive out-stripping the collaborative.

He called for a new vision, centred around a more global approach to the public good argument and championed the idea of flat networks, collaboration on issues of global concern and each playing a part, in a sense almost to decouple from small-scale local battles and seek (almost a moral) high ground in this global age.

Plenty of points were raised in discussion, not just by the panel but also audience members and although there wasn't sufficient time to go into most of these areas, he did make a brave attempt to respond and expand.

Much to think about and well worth the journey.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Offline education

Yesterday's Irish Independent reports of Hibernia College's rising profits. The private, online training company has been providing courses in education and other professional development areas for some time now, expanding to cover teacher training in England as well as Ireland.

I recall the controversy when they first started offering teacher-training courses. I had just arrived in Ireland and there were protests by students in traditional teacher training establishments, disgruntlement amongst the faculty of same, about not just the notion of a private provider (a standpoint with which I would have some sympathy, as would many others, indeed even the US congress has taken note of the risks of such 'outsourcing' of education when dealing with large profit-seeking companies, such as the Apollo group, that can access state and federal funding) but the very idea that such subjects can be covered online.

In one case, I was asked to give a keynote talk at a conference held in Galway as part of Ireland's European Presidency (2004) and in the questions section afterwards a student from an Education department raised the issue of Hibernia, again not focusing on the private but rather the online dimension. What was frustrating for me was that I felt an empathy for the questioner, but couldn't possibly agree with the contention that this subject, unlike many others, could not be dealt with using online tools. In my immediately previous post prior to coming to Ireland, I had been in a Scottish university which had embarked on a significant project to provide online courses for school-teachers as a partnership with the main teaching union in Scotland (the EIS) and I had been successfully running a module on this programme using online lessons, video, reading lists, reflective journals, 'live' online tutorials and the like.

Evaluations recorded, unsurprisingly, that participants appreciated the flexibility as a practical alternative to traditional classes, but also that they felt that the courses were at an appropriate intellectual depth for postgraduate work (as validated by accreditation and support of the Teaching Council, the university quality frameworks, etc), that they had developed a close relationship with their tutor (despite never meeting face-to-face) and that their journal allowed them scope to reflect on implementing new ideas in their teaching practice.

For me, then, the whole angle of attack centering on supposed limitations of technology and distance education was misjudged and the fact that the traditional education providers (in this country) were not in the forefront of using technologies and supporting the unmet demand from those who couldn't possibly attend full-time classes but yet who had the skills and the passion for teaching, seemed a terrible shame.

Adding to the irony, this was also the time in which Irish higher education institutions were committing to Learning Management Systems (Blackboard, WebCT at that time) and many other disciplines were engaging in expanding distance and blended learning course provision. The numbers and range of such courses has expanded dramatically over the years and there are still plenty of opportunities for continuing professional development programmes. Fortunately, also, most institutional managers now realise that high-quality online education requires resources, not least of which are skilled and committed tutors, and cannot be delivered on the cheap. In my own institution, complete blended or fully-online programmes in Nursing, IT, Irish Studies, Medicine, Business, Biomedical science and a whole host of others are now available and popular amongst students and employers.

As for education and teacher training? Well, Hibernia is now continuing to expand, growing its profits. I know nothing about the courses themselves, the quality of the student experience or the details of the technology used, but they've had 10 years of the market for such provision left to themselves.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Teaching Awards.

Yesterday morning, in the shelter of the Coach-house of Dublin Castle, over a hundred people shook off the rain and gathered to celebrate teaching in higher education. The National Teaching Excellence Awards (coordinated by NAIRTL) are an annual event now and although only 5 people are recipients of the prizes and honours they are indicative of the levels of commitment and enthusiasm that are on display every hour of every day in lecture theatres, tutorial classes and laboratories across the country. The convenient (for some politicians and journalists) myth of 'lazy' academics, droning incoherently as they dream of a life of pure research and ignore their students was never more soundly cast aside than by hearing the voices of the students and peers who had nominated these award winners (and indeed the other candidates in both national and local schemes).

Despite the challenges that Bruce Macfarlane draws attention to in a recent paper on the disaggregation or 'unbundling' of academic practice (to which I referred in my short presentation yesterday) -i.e. the increasing difficulty of succeeding in all three original domains of academic practice (viz, teaching, research and contributions to their community)- many of these recipients and their colleagues are examples of those who are bucking such a trend. Although, this is not to deny that the pressures and the developments that Bruce refers to are very real, nor is it meant to imply that such staff have found it easy to juggle these various roles, after all their working hours are excessive and only achievable because of deep wells of energy and the support of family.

For a more sustainable approach we need to look seriously at expectations of institutions and how they distribute their resources. But more than this, we also need to be clear about the ethos or values on which higher education institutions are based. Are we to be driven inexorably towards the rainbow's end of high international league table positions or take a more realistic perspective and recognise the riches that we already possess? Are the needs of our students, our society and our disciplines best met by subsidising multinational publishing empires with our labour, or spinning the latest grant award as a further step towards the curing of all major illness? Or perhaps there's more to be gained in nourishing what we have, in nurturing our local talent and building a solid, sustainable future, taking pride in a reputation gleaned from teaching of the highest quality, integrated with research and scholarship and with a long term vision.

Well done to all of you, winners and contenders. We know you're doing tremendous work, your students know that and hopefully the policy-makers will come to realise such also.

Monday, November 08, 2010

New start

Well, it has been a while! Now we've restarted our commitment to blog on HE issues, despite the fact that there is a deluge of postings, comment site and new blogs chattering away about the crisis, or crises hitting our sector across the globe! Our aim though is to select a few issues/items and reflect on them from our own perspective as well as draw your attention to interesting papers and events.

The intention is to post something each week, so let's see how we go. In the meantime thanks for your patience and welcome back!

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Culture as a Critical Ingredient in Innovation

What's the role of culture in innovation? As I hinted in my previous posting on the TEDxGalway event, I firmly believe that we often underplay the importance on place within higher education. Whilst universities understandably struggle to position themselves according to league tables or to government priorities and funding regimes are they in danger of becoming more and more like each other and consequently less and less distinctively representative of their geographical, national and culture contexts? As a student or staff member wandering from lecture theatre to tutorial class how can you tell in which country you are based? Are we in danger of suffering from airport syndrome where all the world looks the same except for the bits beyond the runway and outside the terminal? In our practices and in our courses what distinguishes one from another? Is a Bologna-fied degree in Ulan Bator identical to one in Vienna?

Finbarr Bradley, one of the keynotes at the Symposium touched on similar issues in his lively closing presentation. For international readers the introductory few sentences are in Irish.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Galway- City of Ideas

I've always believed that one of the areas in which many universities could improve is in greater recognition of the fact that they are essentially cities of ideas. What I mean is that the phrase 'scholarly community' is rarely realised in practice other than within individual academic disciplines. How many staff and students are aware of the interests and work of their colleagues in different disciplines? How many attend seminars and colloquia in different colleges or faculties? That's why I was pleased to attempt a small contribution towards this using the TEDx format recently. Sure, the audience at the event was limited and there were perhaps more people external to the university (also a good thing) than from around the schools and colleges, but the talks have been recorded and are gradually appearing on the TEDx youtube site. As each is viewed and links are passed on the idea is spreading and more and more people are talking to me about events of this nature, the focus on sharing and accessibility of ideas (rather than the traditional long lecture format) and (and this is what I think is important) the sense of celebration of passion and of enjoyment.

See what I mean, perhaps, in these first three to go online:

Louis de Paor, Director of the Centre for Irish Studies, in partnership with Ronan Browne and Naisrin Elsafty.

Lionel Pilkington, Head of the School of Humanities, on 'Performance, Performing and Ireland'

Abhay Pandit, biomedical engineer/scientist on 'Biomimicry' and biomaterials.