Unconditional offers: a self-defeating policy?

In the UCAS admissions round for 2013 University entry, The University of Birmingham triggered a seismic change in recruitment policy when they introduce unconditional offers to strong candidates on the basis that the applicant made Birmingham their firm, rather than insurance, choice. Many competitor institutions thought Birmingham ought to be reprimanded for breach of admissions etiquette. Far from this being the case, Birmingham was actually named University of the Year 2013-14 in The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide. Judges praised their “bold – and successful – approach to recruitment”.

What were other universities to do? In the 2013-14 recruitment round a number of further institutions decided to also make unconditional offers, with or without strings attached. It is predicted that in the coming year even more institutions will adopt the practice. This development worries me, a lot, and here’s why.

What has the Red Queen got to say to admissions tutors?

What has the Red Queen got to say to admissions tutors?

Firstly, there is a evolutionary theory known as the Red Queen hypothesis. In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, the Red Queen informs Alice that “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place”. This could easily be applied to the recruitment trend. If it reaches a point where the majority of universities are making unconditional offers then there will no longer be any selective advantage over competitor institutions – the benefits of making unconditional offers will have been lost, but the detrimental aspects (e.g. accepting students who have failed to fulfil their academic potential) will remain.

Secondly, I am concerned about the impact this development will have on the integrity of grade predictions offered by schools. Back in the 1990s, in a previous incarnation, I taught A Level Chemistry. One year, after I had made the grade predictions for my group, I was contacted by the parents of one student. “You’ve predicted a C for [let's call him Johnny]. He won’t get offers for his chosen course at university if that’s his prediction, so please can you change this to an A”. I declined their appeal on the grounds that it was just delaying the inevitable; Johnny wasn’t going to get an A so better to face up to the disappointment now and select a more appropriate course.

Now, fast forward to a world with unconditional offers. Provided that Johnny has a sufficient crop of A* grades for his GCSE, those predicted grades start to have real currency. If Mr Willmott the Chemistry teacher can be cajoled into upping Johnny’s prediction from a C to an A then there is a real chance he can blag an unconditional offer and treat the C he ultimately gets as though it was just a bad day at the office.

If we continue down the “unconditional” route, teachers are going to be put under immense pressure to inflate their predictions because the natural safeguard we’ve had against this previously (i.e. when results day reveals Johnny does not have adequate grades to fulfill the conditions of his offer) will no longer be there. Unscrupulous schools have everything to gain by over-inflating their predictions; the league tables will show that they got more students into top Unis. The Universities themselves, however, will have an increasing number of first year undergraduates who do not necessarily have the academic foundations necessary for the courses to which they have been admitted. It is even possible that the students themselves may suffer if the course turns out to be too much for them.

[As is always the case, this blog post reflects the personal opinion of the author and should not be considered as the views of the institution where he works or any of the varied bodies on which he serves.]

Television as a teaching tool

My Opinion piece on use of TV for teaching was published in the 28th August edition of Times Higher Education

My Opinion piece on use of TV for teaching was published in the 28th August edition of Times Higher Education

Regular readers of The Journal of the Left-Handed Biochemist will know of my enthusiasm for exploiting multimedia in teaching. Back in January 2014 I hosted a conference on the theme, and it is also the raison d’être for two other blogs that I run Bioethicsbytes and the new Biology on the Box.

In August, Times Higher Education magazine published an opinion piece in which I discussed some of the ways that TV footage can be used in teaching and to try to dispel reservations that might be stopping colleagues from making more of this rich resource. The article can be freely accessed, so rather than repeating myself here can I encourage you to read the original piece via this link.

My unexpected debut on BBC TV

bbc3

My day was not scheduled to include a spot on News24

As I headed into work on Wednesday 2nd July, I had no idea that by the time I came home that evening I would have done two live interviews at New Broadcasting House, headquarters of the BBC.

I’ve done several radio interviews previously and have been in discussion with makers of The Big Questions on at least three occasions about appearing on that show (one of which, tellingly, ended when the researcher declared I was “a bit too in the middle on the issue”). However this was to be my first experience of being on television.

I was due to have an admin splurge in my office, before a scheduled trip to London in the afternoon for a trustees’ meeting. The news that morning had included an announcement by David Cameron that there a new review was to be set up, looking into ways to tackle antibiotic resistance (see Antibiotic resistance: Cameron warns of medical ‘dark ages’).

I give final year undergraduate lectures on antibiotic resistance, so it is a topic about which I maintain an active interest. I was piqued by this announcement since it smacked of the Prime Minister climbing aboard the growing movement to tackle the problem (which IS serious, in case you were in any doubt), and because a call for a review inevitably means it will be even longer before actual steps are taken. The need for new antibiotics was known 20-odd years ago when I was doing a PhD on resistance to a major class of antibacterials and since then the situation has got worse, not better. Continue reading

The perils on anonymity in educational research

The promise of anonymity can undermine the value of data

The promise of anonymity can undermine the value of education data

From time to time I am asked to comment on other people’s unpublished research. As part of the evidence offered in the manuscript, it is quite common to see analysis based on anonymous questionnaires conducted before and after a pedagogic intervention. In this post I want to raise some concerns about the significant limitations that arise from the unnecessary anonymisation of survey data.

Why offer anonymity?
Firstly, however, it is worth examining the allure of anonymity. From conversations I’ve held with colleagues, the main attraction of anonymisation is the perception that removal of identifiers will free participants to provide full and frank contributions, secure in the knowledge that there can be no personal come-back.

I want to argue here that there are important research benefits from *avoiding* complete anonymity, except in the vanishingly rare occasions where it is vital that contributors cannot be recognised.

1. Keeping identifiers allows for richer analysis. If you can match pre- and post-intervention data it is possible to report on changes relating to individuals which may have been masked by analysis of the cohort as a whole.

2. Keeping identifiers guards against inappropriate comparison of whole cohort data. There is a temptation to take all of the available pre-intervention data and compare it with the complete set of post-intervention data, thereby ensuring that a minimum of data is “wasted”. I believe that this is wrong-headed and to illustrate this point, consider the following scenario in education research. Continue reading

Video production at Leicester: Winners and “LoS”ers at the BFI

 

A Special Jury Award was received in recognition of the consistently high quality of in-house entries over a number of years

A Special Jury Award was received in recognition of the consistently high quality of in-house entries over a number of years

On my way home from the St George’s Day extravaganza in Barcelona (about which I hope to write a fuller post in the near future) I managed to squeeze in attendance at this year’s Learning on Screen awards, held for a fourth time at the British Film Institute on London’s South Bank.

Always an excellent evening in its own right, particular interest for the University of Leicester contingent was focused on the General In-House Production category where Richard III: Identifying the remains had been shortlisted. 

Before the awards themselves, historian Lucy Worsley gave a fascinating talk which included insights into the making of her upcoming BBC4 series on the Georgians. With the exception of “facts” gleaned from The Madness on King George and from the third series of Blackadder, I must admit to being pretty ignorant about the House of Hanover. I now know that George I came to the throne in 1714 (the same year, incidentally, that Barcelona fell to a Spanish and French alliance) and that the kings can be caricatured as Bad, Sad, Mad and Fat.

The In-House production category was up second (after 50 Years of the National Theatre had picked up the gong for Educational Multimedia). In the running were University of Portsmouth for a video introducing their Art and Design courses, Southampton Solent University for a video The Last Taboo about sanitation in developing countries and, of course, University of Leicester for Richard III. It was a strong category, and in the end the award went to The Last Taboo, a worthy winner.  Continue reading

Making the Most of Broadcast Media (Conference summary)

On 14th January 2014, the University of Leicester played host to a day conference on Making the Most of Broadcast Media in your Teaching. The event was organised on behalf of the Higher Education Academy STEM network, and we are grateful for the financial support that enable the meeting to take place.

The purpose of the day was to promote the use of television programmes and clips in bioscience education. There has always been huge, but often untapped, potential for use broadcast media in teaching. However, several recent developments have made it very much easier to identify appropriate materials and/or obtain copies in an easily usable format.

Slides from all of the presentations on the day are available below. The intention was to combine these with audio recordings from the day. Unfortunately Slideshare have recently announced that they are withdrawing their Slidecast facility and so, at present, only the images are available.

“But we’re not a media course!”: the relevance of broadcast materials to bioscientists (and others)

To start the day, I gave a presentation outlining some of the ways in which we have used TV and film in bioscience teaching. These include clips to set the scene, to convey factual information and/or as discussion starters. Delegates took part in an activity in which a clip from the populist science show Brainiac can be used to kickstart discussion about experimental design (see here for a fuller write-up of this task).

Copyright, the Education Recording Agency and all that: you can legally do more than you think!

Murray Weston (former CEO of the British Universities Film and Video Council) talked us through some of the evolution of the UK rules governing legal use of broadcast media for education. He explained what the current rules are, but also highlighted that important changes are expected from April 2014.

Short presentations offered by delegates

The next phase of the day allowed delegates to describe existing ways in which they use broadcast media in teaching. Three case studies were offered.

1. Critical reviews of TV science documentaries

First up, Prof Jon Scott (University of Leicester) outlined an exercise in which final year students are required to conduct a critical review of TV documentaries on neuroscience topics.

2. Using cold case files TV shows to develop forensic students’ scientific approach

Dr Ian Turner (University of Derby) then described a tutorial in which video clips from cold case series, and associated resources, are used with forensic students to help them improve their crime scene methodologies.

3. Headline grabbing: Using BBC news clips as an essay springboard

Dr Steve Maw (University of Leeds) described an activity he conducts with his foundation-level students in which they write an essay on ethical aspects of a biological or biomedical mews story. More details regarding a similar task can be found here.

Looking for resources? BoB’s your uncle!: An introduction to the Box of Broadcasts

Dr Sandy Willmott (University of Lincoln) gave a demonstration of Box of Broadcasts (BoB), an exciting new resource developed by the British Universities Film and Video Council and their technical partners. BoB allows academics and students in subscribing institutions to access an enormous catalogue of previous and current television for educational purposes. Sandy showed programmes can easily be selected and how the package allows users to select clips within episodes and, if appropriate, develop playlists.

Television and Radio Index for Learning and Teaching: making the most of TRILT to know what’s on and when

To complete the day, we had a computer-based session allowing delegates to set up or develop their own accounts using the Television and Radio Index for Learning and Teaching (TRILT). TRILT allows users to check what has been on UK television (including a longer time period and broader range of channels than BoB) and to set up a weekly email alerts based on keywords of their choice.

*NOW* is the time to include more TV material in your teaching

A new version of Box of Broadcasts (launching in Jan 2014) will be a powerful tool for teaching and research

A new version of Box of Broadcasts (launching in Jan 2014) will be a powerful tool for teaching and research

The pedagogic merit of TV has a noble tradition. For people of a certain generation (my generation) this may conjure up images of Open University lecturers in tweed jackets talking about non-euclidean geometry at 5am. Although this model very definitely had its place (My mother is one of many thousands who studied for an OU degree in this way), this stereotype massively underplays the educational potential of broadcast media.

TV footage (and, to a lesser extent, radio recording) can be utilised in a variety of engaging ways across all academic disciplines. Significant changes taking place at the start of 2014 are going to make access to thousands of hours of material very straightforward. I’m going to be as bold as to say if you are not buying into these resources for your students, then you are selling them short.

In particular, the first week of January will see the roll out of version 3 of Box of Broadcasts. BoB (as it is known to its friends) is like a giant “on demand” service offered across the UK Higher Education sector. But this is only to scratch at the surface of its potential. I’ve seen a demo and I am very excited about this resource. In particular I can see BoB playing a significant role in moves towards a “flipped classroom”, not least through the potential to develop “viewing lists” to offer to your students alongside the more traditional reading lists.

I’m probably not at liberty to say too much more ahead of the official launch (you can see some details in this BUFVC press release) but I mention this now because BoB is one of a range of multimedia tools that we will be demonstrating at a day conference in Leicester on 14th January 2014.

The programme for the day (draft) looks like this:
10.00    Registration and refreshments
10.20    Welcome and introduction
10.30    “But we’re not a media course” – the relevance of broadcast materials to bioscientists (and others!)
11:00    Copyright, the Educational Recording Act and all that – you can legally do more than you think! (Murray Weston, former Director of BUFVC)
11:30    Refreshments
11.50    Television and Radio Index for Learning and Teaching: making the most of TRILT to know what’s on and when
12.20    Looking for resources? “BoB’s your uncle!” – an introduction to the Box of Broadcasts (Dr Sandy Willmott, University of Lincoln and member of the national BoB user group).
12.50    Lunch
13.30    Swap shop: Delegates will have the opportunity to demonstrate their use of multimedia in their teaching. Already offered:
Critical reviews of TV science documentaries (Prof Jon Scott, University of Leicester)
14.45    Refreshments
15.00    Setting up TRILT alerts (a hands-on computer session)
16.00    Reflections and close

This event is particularly geared at colleagues from STEM disciplines (and the examples used will primarily be drawn from the biosciences). However, the central principles will be applicable to academics from any subject area. If you are interested in attending, please book via this link. If you would like to offer a 7 minute description of your current use of moving image content, please email me.

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