Prefigurative doctorates?

Traditional study?
Traditional study?

The other day I attended a very interesting seminar on “Prefiguring democratic education” which got me thinking about my own practice, and what I might be able to do to make more of a contribution to the sort of socially just, democratic society that I think education is supposed to be working towards. Prefigurative politics is, put very simply,  the idea that you try and create a more just society through social innovation, while always recognising and documenting existing social constraints. So it behoves me to reflect on how I might incorporate it into my own practice

I lead, and do most of my teaching on, a couple of modules on a professional doctorate programme, (which I also co-direct). This programme, by definition, is pitched at a very high academic level, and thus is somewhat exclusive. To succeed a student needs to have considerable previous, experience of academic work, and ideally should have done some primary research before starting the course. Much as we might want to open it up to anyone who was suitably inspired, I can’t help thinking that if I did so, we would find that students who didn’t have the “correct” background would struggle. So from the very start, I have a set of social constraints. What would be involved in “opening up the doctorate”? Yes, I know there are lots of admirable initiatives such as the Lincoln Social Science Centre and any number of MOOCs which try to do precisely that though I am not sure that they are able to address all of the existing social relations around doctoral study. Which are, inter alia

  • The almost exclusively textual nature of study at this level
  • The relative inaccessibility of many of those texts
  • The exclusivity of language used in those texts
  • The demand for “originality” with its concomitant emphasis on individual achievement,
  • individual responsibility for methodological design?
  • The enormous workload expected of doctoral students

My point is that it institutions, with their fees and matriculation protocols are only part of the barriers to wider access to advanced level study. We can do more to prepare students for it. In the spirit of prefigurative politics, I’m thinking there might be scope to introduce a “taster” course using freely available technologies which would allow students to present and share their ideas for doctoral study. I would be the first to admit that this needs an enormous amount of thought, but one way forward might be to facilitate students making a short pitch for their research problem  in at least three different media and then discuss each other’s contribution using a wiki or similar technology. The idea of using different media is to get away from the primacy of texts, since following McLuhan, if the medium is the message, then there are going to be subtleties in the different messages. (Though if I’m honest, I did rather pick the figure of three out of the air!)

For example a student researching the transition to school leadership from teaching might offer a description of their own experience of moving into a new more senior position, upload a photo essay, and make a short audio recording. (These may or may not have anything to do with education) Other students (and any interested researchers) could then relate these stories to their own individual experiences. There would be no notion of passing or failing – you’d have to be inspired to participate and create. In fact if you were inspired you might then consider pursuing the more formal course. You might reasonably ask how this is “prefigurative”. Well I think it is important to get away from the primacy of the academic text and show students that their own, their colleagues and ultimately their research participants’ experiences are as valid as anything described between hard covers and shoved onto a shelf in the University library.  Of course none of this begins to resolve any of the larger issues. The fact that all formal education is essentially about creating social divisions between the “have-qualifications” and the “have not-qualifications” is a major problem. Then again, if we are to occupy unused parts of the educational landscape we have to start somewhere, and this is as good a place to cut through the barbed wire as anywhere. I’m open to ideas, though I suppose I should practice what I preach and try and do something like this myself.

What are VLEs for?

It occurred to me the other day that we I have been working with VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments) in one form or another for getting on for two decades now, and during those twenty years endless articles and books have been churned out on e-learning. I had been going to write something about how technology has transformed educational practice, but actually I don’t think it has, or not, so far, by very much. My role has, historically, been one of “supporting” academic colleagues with this technology, but it was only recently, when I became a programme leader, (with responsibility for my very own module) that I began to think about what kind of support would be useful to me. I’d be the first to admit that I am probably something of a special case. I know our VLE inside out and am very comfortable with the technology. I realise that not everyone shares that knowledge or comfort, so this is inevitably something of a personal take.

Nevertheless, it didn’t take many interactions with actual students to make me realise that the approach to e-learning we had been taking on the doctoral programme I studied, taught on, and am now leading, wasn’t really meeting their needs. (Come to think of it, as a student I hardly ever used the VLE myself). Let me say now, that this is not going to be a normative piece laying down the law about how VLE sites should be structured. I’m sure Lincoln’s doctoral students have their own unique set of needs, and these will be very different from say the needs of undergraduate students in other disciplines and at other universities. That said, to go back to the issue of support I started out with the idea that people needed to get a hold on how the technology works. I suppose they do, and in fairness, that was often the focus of requests for support. (Still is!) And that is what we, as educational developers have, by and large, provided, relying on the creativity of colleagues to do something clever with it. I suppose where we have fallen short is that we haven’t really built on that foundation. Having swapped my educational developer hat for an academic hat, I can see why. It’s really challenging to completely redesign a VLE site to match what the students say their needs are. At a programme board last year I reacted to student criticisms of what was provided for them on the VLE by blithely announcing that I would completely redesign it, thinking it would take a few weeks at most. It took six months, and detracted from quite a lot of things I was supposed to be doing, like, er research. Even now, even though the redesign has been launched, and seems to have been well received I’m acutely conscious that I’ve hardly begun to scratch the surface as far as things like learning activities for the students are concerned. Most of the work I have done so far is simply about providing a structure for the various teaching materials that I and other colleagues have provided, along with a little bit of cosmetic work on the menu and home page.

While I said I haven’t been doing research, I do think this exercise has given me the foundations of a theoretical framework for thinking about the contribution VLEs can make to a course. Clearly, if a VLE is to meet the needs of students, there has to be quite significant engagement with both the students and with the colleagues who are teaching on the programme. That’s not particularly original. Sharpe & Oliver (2007) make much the same point. Secondly, I think there is a need to think about what sort of contribution the VLE can make to students’ learning. Clearly, the best VLE in the world is no substitute for the University library. Yet, in the exercise I have just completed I counted around 400 “learning items” which had been generated over the last five years. These included PowerPoint slides, Prezis, and handouts from teaching sessions and guest lectures, podcasts, videos, and quite a few journal articles that (ahem) didn’t appear to have appropriate copyright clearance. (Those have all been removed now.) On top of those there was a whole range of what might be called regulatory documents such as programme handbooks, ethical approval forms and assignment submission sheets. Clearly that’s a significant and useful resource, but on its own it’s not anything like adequate for doctoral, or even, some would argue undergraduate, study. Even having imposed some sort of structure on all this material, which is really all I have done in the redesign, I’m still not sure where to go next. What learning activities are appropriate? Why? How do I design them? Do I limit myself what the technology offers? (A fairly obvious danger in simply “training” colleagues to use the technology)

So this raises the question, what exactly is a VLE for? Maybe that’s better phrased as “what is it not for?” Students, at least in surveys at Lincoln have often said that they want “consistency” in the way staff use the VLE. Well, yes, but I think there has to be a general agreement about what we can reasonably expect of a VLE. There is clearly a tension between this desire to meet students’ legitimate expectations and the kind of academic freedom that these technologies allow. It doesn’t seem reasonable to me to expect e-learning to take the same form in, for example, modern dance that you would find in chemical engineering. Equally, it could be argued that providing students with material through the VLE detracts from the important skill of literature searching, whether that’s done in a library or through a Google search. Even more importantly, providing them with “all the resources they need”, even if it were possible, is unlikely to encourage them to develop a critical engagement with the literature.

Where does that leave us then? After nearly 20 years of using VLEs have we just ended up with an expensive, badly organised repository of content of dubious value? In some cases undoubtedly, though it would be quite wrong to think that all VLE sites fell into that category. There is some excellent work out there. I’ve been to plenty of conferences where I’ve seen good, innovative and creative practice, and I know from my support role that many colleagues at Lincoln are pushing the boundaries in quite imaginative ways. The challenge is to spread this kind of practice, bearing in mind that such innovation is risky even if the major risk is that academic staff devote more time to their students than to their research. (After all you might not get that grant bid in, or that journal article submitted, and since the teaching grant disappeared in the humanities and social sciences that is by no means a small risk). I do think though that there is a case for more detailed research into what academics actually do in terms of course design with a VLE. But that’s for another post.

Sharpe, R & Oliver, M (2007) Designing courses for e-learning in Sharpe, R & Beetham, H. (eds). Rethinking pedagogy for a digital age: Designing and delivering e-learning. – Routledge, London (pp41-51)

Making a video with PowerPoint

This is by way of a bit of self development. The university library has introduced a new piece of software called Talis Aspire, designed to make reading lists a little easier, and I was wondering how best to introduce it to colleagues who are less than enthusiastic users of technology. I’ve also been thinking for a while that it ought to be possible to make reasonable quality videos using simple tools – in this case PowerPoint 2010.

This is very much a first attempt. I realise the text is very small, and there’s no sound at this stage because I wanted to keep the file size low, and anyway, I didn’t have a lot of time. Depending on how well recieved this is, I may well develop a more accessible version later on. (Any volunteer voice actors out there with a few minutes spare time? I envisage a male/female conversation, but it’s not essential). Anyway, here’s the “proof of concept”

Should Universities monitor the attendance of their students?


(Photo credit Mikecogh - CC-BY-NC-SA)

I’ve noticed an increase in interest in attendance monitoring in Universities recently, probably not unrelated to the UKBA’s withdrawal of London Metropolitan University’s trusted sponsor status. Throughout my career in HE, both as a student and staff, attendance has never really been compulsory, certainly not at lectures.  Yet, there’s some evidence in the literature that students aren’t completely opposed to the idea. (Though they’re not wildly enthusiastic either.)  See for example

NEWMAN-FORD, L., FITZGIBBON, K., LLOYD, S. and THOMAS, S., 2008. A large-scale investigation into the relationship between attendance and attainment: a study using an innovative, electronic attendance monitoring system. Studies in Higher Education, 33(6), pp. 699-717.


MUIR, J., 2009. Student attendance: Is it important, and What Do Students Think? CEBE Transactions, 6(2), pp. 50-69

Those are relatively small scale studies (There don’t seem to be any large scale studies, or if there are, I’ve missed them.)  Outside the literature too, there’s some evidence that the issue is becoming significant. A web trawl found this post on a hyperlocal news blog in Newcastle which, when you look at the results doesn’t quite support the writer’s claim of “overwhelming rejection”.   The rejection is of one particular model of monitoring. It would be very interesting to know how many other student unions have held similar referenda (and how they turned out).  There’s also an interesting case in Texas where a school student has recently lost her case against her school district using an RFID chip to monitor her attendance.

To get back to HE though I did do a crude trawl of every UK university web site, to get a sense of what institutions were doing, and there are a small number of institutions (South Bank, Huddersfield, East London, and ironically enough, London Metropolitan) that do claim to have active electronic monitoring systems in place, although much more detailed research would be needed to assess the extent to which they are deployed in practice. There were a great many more institutions whose web sites linked to policy statements and papers which implied that they should do something about it. Over half the sites were silent on the topic, although web sites are a very limited source of data.

But, if this is a reaction to the Border Agency, it seems something of an over-reaction. I had a look at the Border Agency’s web site and they don’t require institutions to monitor attendance in the sort of detail that the South Bank system seems to be able to facilitate. All they require is that students are monitored at particular points in their academic career.

I’m not implying here that any institution is reacting inappropriately to the UKBA.   There are good reasons to monitor student attendance.  The articles I mention above draw on literature that suggests the existence of a correlation between attendance and academic attainment, although one would expect that stronger students would be more likely to attend classes. More compellingly it would certainly generate a great deal of useful planning data for universities, and I suspect it would “encourage” students to attend. While monitoring attendance of students is not the same as compelling them to attend,  the existence of a monitoring programme would likely give the impression of compulsion. (And there are strong arguments against compulsion, which I will not rehearse here, except to point out that some elements of an educational experience are inherently compulsory. You can’t be assessed if you don’t present yourself, or at least your work, for assessment.)

It should also be acknowledged that a University education consists of rather more than lectures and seminars, which also raises some interesting questions. Should art schools monitor time spent in studios? What about virtual education? Does logging into the computer count as attending? Why not, if physical presence is the only measure of attendance in the “real” world? After all it’s quite possible to be physically present and mentally absent, as I can testify from personal experience. This is clearly a topic around which I’m going to have to put my thoughts in order. If anyone is doing any research in this area, please do comment.




Should universities monitor student attendance?

The recent withdrawal of Highly Trusted Sponsor Status by the United Kingdom Border Agency (UKBA) from London Metropolitan University  in September 2012 has raised some questions in my mind about practices surrounding attendance monitoring in higher education. Let’s be clear about this though. London Met lost its status because it had, according to the UKBA sponsored students who did not have leave to remain in the UK, not primarily,  because it was failing to record attendance. (Although press reports imply that it was in fact failing to do so)

Nevertheless, it is a requirement of the UKBA that universities who wish to sponsor students on a visa must make two “checkpoints” (re-registrations) within any rolling 12 month periods and to report any student who misses 10 consecutive expected contacts without reasonable permission from the institution. Any such report must be made within 10 days of the 10th expected contact. The nature of such contacts is left to the institution although the UKBA suggests as examples, attending lectures, tutorials, seminars, submitting any coursework, attending any examination, meetings with supervisors, registration or meeting with welfare support. In order to ensure compliance sponsors may be asked to complete a spreadsheet showing the details of each student sponsored and their attendance. This spreadsheet must be provided within 21 days of the request being made (UKBA, 2012). (Taken from accessed 17/09/12)

As I said, at the start of the post, this raises some questions in my mind. I’ve had a longish career in higher education, but, apart from those courses which are sponsored by external bodies, notably the NHS it is actually rather rare in my experience for student attendance to be consistently monitored. It may not have been an issue. Students are adults after all, and perfectly free not to take up what they have paid for, and there appear to be few empirical studies of attendance monitoring in the United Kingdom. There is, in contrast, a huge literature on retention, unsurprising given the cost of early withdrawal to both institutions and students, and one would expect that failure to attend teaching events is an obvious early warning sign.  Most scholarly attention seems to have been focussed on establishing the extent of a correlation between attendance and student performance, which does seem to exist (Colby, 2004).  There has never been a consistent sector wide approach to monitoring the attendance at classes of students enrolled on University degree and post degree courses. The border agency farrago seems to me to have raised the importance of this issue for he following reasons:


  • If universities only monitor the attendance of overseas students they could be accused of discriminating against them, or, if Colby is correct about a correlation, in favour of them.
  • If that correlation does exist then it is in universities interests as organisations, to monitor attendance since better performance from students will give them higher positions in university league tables, making them more attractive to potential students.
  • For that reason, it ought to be in the interests of their students to have their attendance monitored, or, more accurately to have their absences noted and investigated. As far as I know, there has never been a large scale sector wide survey of attendance monitoring practices. (Possibly because there aren’t very many such practices.)


I have carried out a very preliminary survey of every UK university web site to see what in fact Universities are doing  about attendance monitoring. This should be regarded with extreme caution. I haven’t included the full findings here because web sites are not definitive proof and it is not possible to draw any firm conclusions. Just because a university does not publish its attendance policy does not mean it does not have one. The reason for doing the web site survey was to get a sense of the extent of the problem and indicate a potential sampling strategy to identify areas for further detailed research.  Bearing that in mind, it appears that  nearly all of them delegate responsibility for attendance monitoring to individual  departments. About half claim to have any sort of university wide attendance policy, and the content of these policies very dramatically (but even so, departments are still responsible for implementing) but only a very small number actively monitor attendance for all or most students. Practices vary from occasional attendance weeks where pretty much everything is monitored during those weeks (Durham), to advanced technological systems which read student cards (London South Bank).  Here at Lincoln practice appears to be sporadic. Many colleagues use paper sign-in sheets, something we do in my own department, but it is fairly unusual for this data to be entered into any sort of database.  It seems to be filed away somewhere, and ultimately, thrown away, which seems a rather strange practice!

So the answer to my question in the title is “I don’t know, but there does appear to be a case to investigate it further”.



Colby, J. 2004. Attendance and Attainment, 5th Annual Conference of the Information and Computer Sciences – Learning and Teaching Support Network (ICS-LTSN), 31 August–2 September, University of Ulster. (accessed 15/10/2012)

Collaborate to compete?

I’ve taken the title of this post from a recently published report to HEFCE from the Online Learning Task Force. You can read it here. The report argues for greater collaboration between universities and the private sector in developing on-line distance learning courses.   The basis for such a belief is that

The HE sector has been talking about the potential of on-line learning for well over ten years. (para 1.12, p4)

the implication being that talking isn’t the same as doing and that very little progress has actually been made. (No argument about that here!) The report then goes on to look at some case studies of successful private/public collaboration, some of which are in fact, very interesting.  There is clearly some good practice in terms of  getting information to students, clarity about what is offered, and who is doing the teaching. BPP’s offering for example, appears to be a reasonably well designed, professional looking web site.

The issue that I think the report largely misses,  is the relatively narrow curriculum that the private sector seems willing to support. There are fairly obvious reasons for that. Here’s a quotation I found the other day from an article by a US writer, Alan Levine

Higher Education an appealing investment for the private sector. Not only is it perceived as troubled, and slow to change, but it also generates an enormous amount of cash, and its market is increasing and growing globally. “Customers”, better known as students make long term purchases lasting 2-4, or even more years, thereby providing a very dependable cash flow and revenue stream. Enrolment in HE is counter cyclical, which is very unusual in a business

You can read the article in full here.  Following Levine’s logic to the end though it seems to me that there is actually a rather limited incentive for the private sector to get involved in Higher Education. It is only likely to do so where the market is actually for training and there are profits to be made.  If you go back to BPP’s web site their slogan is “Professional Education: Developing your career”, and you will look in vain for courses in History, Art, Classics, English, or even modern languages. Not that there is anything wrong with developing your career of course. But I’m not sure that an economy where everyone’s a tax lawyer is likely to be terribly sustainable.

Where I think the report is valuable, is that it is quite clear that the failure of HE to advance distance learning is not really a technological problem. I’ve been around educational technology long enough to be convinced that sitting around waiting for the next upgrade of Blackboard, or Sharepoint won’t make it happen. (Neither for that matter will replacing one system with another.)  If you want e-learning to happen, then it’s got to be about changing the mind set of the people who use it. So the way Moodle  (or whatever) handles assessments isn’t the way you like to do it? Well, frankly, if one wants to bring about change, I think one does have to be prepared to compromise a little bit.

I am aware that the competition referred to in the report’s title is between UK higher education and the HE systems of competitor countries, but I’m not sure that’s quite how it will play out. I suppose, what I’m getting at here, is that if we can’t bring about this kind of change, then the private sector is going to come in and we won’t be collaborating to compete with other countries, but rather  Universities will end up collaborating to be absorbed into a very different, and I think much less universal, higher education system.

The neo-Luddite turn in the academy?

Following on from my last post, I’ve been reading a bit more about technologies, or rather trying to engage with some of the ideas that underpin them. Before we get started it’s important that I clarify that by “technologies” I’m not specifically referring to computers, e-learning, or stuff like that. I’m not excluding them either. I am using the word in the older sense of  the applying of scientific, or pseudo-scientific theories to practical problems.

The problem as I set out in the last post was that we tend to be overfond of using corporate technologies, and modelling ourselves on business techniques. This weekend I’ve been reading a book called the Hacker Ethic by Pekka Himanen. There’s a fascinating discussion of personal development (or self-help) literature in the book, that compares the modern pursuit of status, which can be defined through the acquisition of money, power, or both, with the mediaeval pursuit of God. Both are, Himanen argues, ultimately unattainable in that they miss the point, which is to explore and develop the passions that drive us as human beings. These days, I suppose,  we are invited to share in the values of Capital.  He further draws attention to the similarity of modern self help books to the monastic rules that were used to guide monks along the path to God. I’m not going to repeat the arguments in the book here. If you’re interested in this stuff you can read it yourself. What I am going to do though, is speculate on the implications of this line of argument for the modern university.

If we follow a rule too closely, we are essentially engaging with a performative technology. Put more simply, if we do this, that, the other, that, this and then the other again, and do it all in the right order then we will achieve our “goals”. One could reverse this and see technologies as essentially a modern version of a monastic rule. (The rule of St.  Bill of Gates, or St. Stephen of Covey!)

As an aside, I was recently browsing through the business section of a bookshop and noted a whole shelf devoted to a series of works inviting me to manage the “Richard Branson”, “Philip Green”, or “insert corporate worthy of your choice here” way. There were about a dozen such titles and I remember wondering at the time how much of the success of these people was down to chance. I’m not suggesting that they didn’t work hard for their success, or even that they haven’t applied the “technologies” rigorously. I’ll bet though that other people have applied them even more rigorously and are not the subject of such works. I doubt any of the books discussed that issue. (I haven’t read any of them. When I noticed the title of an adjacent volume “Are you a badger or a doormat?” I decided that this sector of the publishing world had taken leave of its senses and left the shop). Of course the only lesson to be drawn from this story is that such books are written for profit which is achieved by the promotion of adherence to “rules” by customers.  I suspect the author of the last named work cares more about their royalty cheque than about which domestic article or wild animal you personally identify with!

To get back to the point, Himanen’s take on this kind of thing is that these are effectively modern hagiographies, which any properly critical pedagogy should take with a large pinch of salt. As he points out, the Rule of St Benedict abjures the disciple to sit quietly and listen to the words of the master. Which brings me at last to the Luddites. (About time too!) I’ve been involved with educational technology long enough to have heard almost every colleague refer to themselves at some point as a Luddite. In my doctoral thesis I made a slightly flippant remark that people are being unfair to themselves when they do this, as there haven’t (to my knowledge) been many outbreaks of organised machine breaking in universities. (But, if you do know of one, please, please  let me know through the comments!). I stand by that, because I think academics who characterise themselves so, are doing themselves a huge disservice. Most of us in HE have comparatively high levels of IT literacy even if we think we don’t.

On reflection my comment was unfair to the original Luddites, who were actually protesting, not against machines as such, but against the creation of new rules (or technologies) that would totally change their way of life. It wasn’t that a machine could make better stockings. It couldn’t. All it could do was make acceptable stockings. We still think the label “hand-made” is an indicator of quality, (often in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.) And the factories imposed new rules which reduced the stocking maker to the status of a cog in the machine. Now consider this quotation about a particular form of academic development that I also used in my thesis.

We should not be telling our students things, we should be ‘managing their learning’ and enabling them to develop ‘transferable skills’;. This is a matter of technique and procedure; who the teacher is, what s/he knows and what s/he cares about are or should be unimportant (Cameron, 2003, quoted in McLean, 2006, 143-4)

I suspect Cameron would have been at one with the Luddites in a philosophical sense. She shows, quite rightly, the same concern for the replacement of a skilled craft with technological rule based approaches that achieve something, (managed learning, transferable skills) that might be valuable, but are nowhere near as valuable as a critical engagement with an academic discipline. The other point about such approaches is that they profoundly undermine the Humboldtian concepts of Lehrerfreiheit and Lernfreiheit.  Respectively they refer to “freedom to choose what to teach”, and “freedom to choose what to learn”). If you have to manage your transferable skills, by completing a personal development plan, which by the way, will be assessed where is your academic freedom? If you have to spend your time teaching students how to do this, where is your academic freedom?

Rhetorical self indulgence aside, does this kind of neo-Luddism  have anything positive to offer the academy? I think it does. Before I expand, I must reiterate that neo-Luddism is not anti technology, in the sense that it calls for a return to quill pens and parchments. ICT is an essential part of modern life, and a neo-Luddite agenda would exploit it to the full. Anyway, what does neo Luddism offer us? First it asks us to take a properly critical look at the “rules” and the technologies we use to pursue them. Second, it asks us to define what we would replace the rules with. I haven’t addressed that in this post, but like Himanen, I would argue for passion (for a discipline), activities that support the development of that passion, and for freely sharing of the outputs of those activities. Third, I think it asks us to look at how sustainable we can make our work, which I think we can only do through sharing our discoveries. These are perhaps matters for future posts, but I’d like to leave you with a final thought. Have you ever seen an organisation chart where the chief executive’s box is drawn at the bottom of a page? No?  The reason for that is that information like water, tends to flow downhill, and this is true of any organisation. Remember St. Benedict’s advice to the disciple? “Sit quietly and listen” Those who are able to restrict information can choose what they tell you.

Now, I ask you. Is that any way to run a university?

The single document format debate

Last year, we introduced Blackboard at Lincoln, and, whatever your views on the merits, or otherwise of virtual learning environments, the functionality it is providing is definitely leading to an increase in interest in on-line submission of assessment. This is also an issue for exportability in e-portfolio development. (Just so I can keep the blog on theme!) If you want to make sure documents can be easily exported from one e-portfolio system to another, then I think it’s sensible to try and standardise your document formats. (Of course, this all depends on the type of documents you want to store in your portfolio)

But the submission of assignments issue presents a problem. Students don’t all use Microsoft Word 2003, which is still the University’s preferred word processing platform. So they’re submitting in Word 2007 (and a variety of other exotica that lurk out there on the net.). The result is of course that tutors can’t read these strange files when they download the files to mark them.

So, one suggestion, is that the university should move to insisting on submission in PDF format. Broadly, I think that’s a sensible approach, (although it’s not a solution). For all the talk we hear of digital natives, students aren’t all as tech savvy as they’re sometimes portrayed. And unless you’re on campus, or willing to pay for a PDF converter for your personal PC, it’s not so easy to do.

Anyway, my point is, if you want to convert documents to PDF, I’ve just discovered some useful (and free!) tools to do it. Here’s the link.

The Edgeless University

…is the title of a new report from Demos, (A UK “think tank”) which deals with how higher education is (or isn’t) responding to the growth of technological tools. Personally, I found it a little disappointing, in that much of it simply rehearses debates that the educational technology community has been having for some time. (I laughed out loud when I read the hackneyed phrase about “guide on the side, not sage on the stage” presented as a new idea – It must have been around for at least 25 years)

But, and it’s a big but,  it is good that somebody outside that community has noticed that there are examples of extremely good practice within the sector, and is drawing attention to them. I’d also agree with the report’s argument that simply imposing a technology on a current practice is unlikely to make much difference, and I was pleased to see the benefits of Open Access being so well supported in the report.

Where I’m less convinced by is the continuing discussion of research and teaching as though these were separate activities. While it is true that “research” is currently seen as a more productive career path for academic staff, I’m coming round to the view that teaching should be “research engaged”, that students learn as they work with their teachers in the discovery of knowledge. That (admittedly quite old) idea has all sorts of implications for curriculum delivery, assessment, quality assurance and enhancement, and yes, the use of technology. All of these things will need to be radically rethought, if Higher Education Institutions are to become genuinely edgeless.

I’m really at the beginning of my thoughts about this, so the report was a useful prod in the right direction.

Lincoln Teaching and Learning Symposium

I attended (and presented at)  the University of Lincoln’s Sixth Teaching and Learning Symposium today. As always it was quite an intense day, but lots of good ideas got an airing. It’s a bit different from the traditional model of conference in that there are no keynote speakers, and most of the day is taken up with what we call “dialogues”. Basically everyone breaks up into groups and each group discusses a theme, suggested by the organisers. Then there’s a morming plenary, in which the discussions are condensed into action points for further discussion in the afternoon.  Before and after lunch there are elective presentations which people can choose to go to. (of which mine was one – you can see the slides here –  I was slightly disappointed that there were only four people there, but on the plus side that’s four people who know more then they did before. And one or two others told me they had wanted to come, but it clashed with other electives they wished to attend. After the electives, delegates go back into their dialogue groups, and ultimately feed back to a plenary. The ideas are all fed onto an “ideas wall” (Really that’s  just a lot of flipchart sheets stuck together!) , which is used to compile a report for circulation to all delegates, and which also contains ideas for taking the dialogue forwards. Which is really the point of the exercise!

Anyway the dialogue theme I chose was on “student expectations”, and as I suspected there was some dissatisfaction among the group with the notion of students as “customers”.  The problem is of course that our capitalist economy tends to socialise everybody into thinking of themselves as customers in all sorts of contexts, and there are some aspects of university provision where that is not inappropriate. Students clearly do have cause for grievance if lecturers don’t turn up, the library isn’t open at reasonable hours. But if a student doesn’t make the effort to understand a discipline, can’t be bothered to learn how to use a library, then the idea that the “customer is always right” becomes rather less credible.

That raises further issues though. Is it reasonable for a student to expect that they be given a reading list?  The view was expressed at one point that we shouldn’t do that, or post digitised readings on Blackboard, because that limits students’ exploration. (Why explore and criticise if they’ve been told that this is the “good stuff”?)  But not to do so is to take a risk that students will complain, and in a customer oriented culture, the act of complaining itself  acquires a spurious validity, which, in the current economic climate can prove a threat to an academic’s position. At best, it certainly adds to their workloads!  This issue arose in the other elective (the one that I didn’t present) which was about enterprise in learning. Clearly, enterprise involves risk taking, but who is going to take risks when the stakes are high?

There was so much more to report on, but as I’ve said before brevity is the soul of blogging, and it is a pretty tiring format, so I’ll sign off for now