17 Kudos


Student Computer Literacy (updated)

Too often students struggle to use the expensive library information systems that most universities in the UK have deployed.

Educators, seem to make two mistakes about students’ IT literacy.

The first mistake is to assume that, because students spend so much time on Facebook, Youtube and other social media sites, and have grown up with computers, they are familiar with IT generally and take literacy with academic systems for granted. But, the success of these systems is testament to how little IT literacy is needed to use them, the IT is almost invisible. Moreover, users can come to these popular systems with relatively unstructured knowledge.

The second mistake is to assume that, because students received an induction to university systems in their first week, they see the relevance of developing skills using the IT systems and that they can make connections between the subjects they study and the practices needed to use and exploit the IT systems.

As a result of the lack of IT literacy, educators who want their students to read tend to package the material, providing photocopies of articles and chapters, placing electronic versions of the same in document dumps on Blackboard, WebCT, Workspace, Moodle or similar. This solves a problem of access and reduces friction to students reading, but it does not help students develop the ability to interrogate, classify and evaluate knowledge in their subject and more generally. It also reduces considerably the serendipitous discovery of sources and feeds a culture that knowledge is to be acquired, not explored.

To address the second problem, we need to help students make better links between the categories of knowledge they acquire in their studies. To address this we need to consciously set tasks that require students to gain familiarity with the systems as their progress through their studies (i.e., from finding an article from the reading list through to identifying appropriate articles that extend their knowledge of a subject that have not been included on the reading list, perhaps deliberately).

I struggle with this issue as well and have for a while tried to ease my own students into using the systems. Rather than provide document dumps (which in any case is probably against UK copyright law), I provide links to the journal articles on the university systems. This should ease access and facilitate core reading, while helping students gain expertise in the systems, so that they might use it for assignments and dissertations. However, even second- and third-year, and masters students email to ask how to access these systems off campus (evidence, perhaps, that they have not needed them in earlier studies).

To help demonstrate how quick and easy these systems are no use, I created a short video.

Command-click (on Macintosh or Ctrl-click on Windows) the expand button (diagonal double arrow line) and the video should play full screen.

Of course, it is not a great piece of film-making, but hopefully it will convince a few students that the online journal repositories are an aid to knowledge discovery rather than something their professors should be accessing on their behalf.

That the video took only a couple of hours to make (using software I had only used once before) is also testament to how easy some of these technologies are to use.


9 Kudos


The LSE and Letter to the Editor

The recent discussion prompted by the resignation of the director of the LSE has spurred some useful general, public discussion about funding and standards, but we are still a long way from being clear about the role of British universities on both the domestic and international stage and about the way that they should be funded and their activities should be managed.

For an update, see the coverage in The Guardian. The short summary is that the LSE accepted money from the Libyan regime for training of ‘future leaders,’ the director acted as an advisor to the government and the son of the Colonel (who organised the first of these) is alleged to have cheated in his PhD (from the LSE). Given how events have turned in Libya, and the end of Colonel Gadaffi’s rehabilitation, the director resigned to protect the reputation of the institution.

My own small contribution to the debate was a letter to the editor of The Guardian. My key concern is that a succession of government policy initiatives have turned England’s universities from being instruments of public service (providing education and research to the public) to instruments of the market, increasingly funded by the market, moderated somewhat by policy and rules (on access for example) and the good conscience of senior managers within the sector.

The LSE issue seems to conflate three distinct and independent issues.

  • The question of conscience about accepting money from dictators.
  • The question of the director’s advisory role to the Libyan government.
  • The question of academic standards, including plagiarism.

Dealing with each of these in turn.

Dirty money

I am not averse to taking money from unpleasant people and regimes if that money is used for good works. Better that it be used to fund quality education than buy our arms. This of course requires that systems are in place to ensure that standards are not compromised and that this is clearly the case (i.e., decisions about the use of the money are transparent). If the money is used to try to inculcate future leaders of unpleasant regimes with more critical approaches, then all the better. The downside is that taking any money from these sources might give them legitimacy, especially if professorships, buildings and departments are named after them. It strikes me that if the money was accepted and used without appropriate systems and the requisite transparency to ensure that standards are compromised, then this is a resignation issue. Professors Crane and Matten in their blog develop this theme.

If there is no evidence of compromise of standards, then the impetus should be on improving the transparency of the systems (which would not be a resignation issue). If an institution does not want to accept tainted money, then the management board, in broader consultation, should develop a set of criteria that determine the conditions under which money is accepted. If the sins of the Libyan regime are to be a guide, then we should not be accepting funding from many other countries (including government selected scholarships for masters and PhD students).

External Consultancy

Generally, academics (and senior academic managers are not exempt from this) are entitled, with permission, to undertake some consulting work. If the director of the LSE did not seek permission from the board for his consulting work, then some sanction (though probably not sacking) would be appropriate for a first offence. The issue here, again, is one of systems and transparency.

Academic standards

The question of academic standards, including plagiarism, is one that will become more prominent as fees rise. On the issue of plagiarism, my sympathies are with the examiners (and as a note, about the same time as an examiner I uncovered evidence of plagiarism in a PhD and the student was subsequently excluded from their university). We must always assume that our students are acting in good faith, otherwise the relationship between institution and students is poisoned. At the time of the examination, systems like Turnitin were only just coming to market and, in any case, they are not helpful at catching commissioned work.

Having said that, I do believe that plagiarism, including writing for hire, is a problem that will only increase. One the one hand, it is clear that assignment style assessment provides more incentive to intellectual development than examination only systems. One the other hand, in-hall examinations remove most, but not all, of the opportunity for cheating. When we attempt to strike a balance, the issue of good faith should be important, so I would rather risk some cheats get through the net and have assessment that helps the best students flourish than have a system that stops cheating and also limits the best students. The rationale for this is that, in the long run, those that have developed their knowledge and skills earnestly will make more of their lives, and obviously so.

Moving on

Where does this little LSE episode get us? It is not clear that we have learned any lessons. If universities are to avoid such difficulties in the future then we must embrace greater transparency, perhaps to the extent of opening key decisions to public input (or at least more general input from within the institution). This runs counter to the march of managerialism within the British university sector. The alternative is to forgo all public funding and operate on the same basis as private (for profit or not) institutions.


8 Kudos


New blog

Previously this site was used to document some of the thoughts about China, especially when taking students there. Unfortunately, I’ve been taken off the module and so am planning to use this to document some of my thoughts about higher education more generally (teaching, research and administration). I’m prompted to do this because the UK is going through considerable change in the sector with introduction of high fees for home UG students and restructuring of research funding.