Time for #Sweetification?

I was recently preparing for a review session, to offer clarification on points arising from earlier teaching videos. One of the students asked if I could explain what I mean when I had said that Glycine was the only achiral amino acid found in proteins.

My first thought was to reach for the trusty MolyMod kits and make some models. Unfortunately, I hadn’t thought to include one of these in my earlier smash-and-grab raid on my office when I’d popped in to grab things I might need for teaching from home. What was to do?

Inspired by a talk I’d attended a few years back, in which Nessa Carey had used Dolly Mixture as epigenetic markers, I decided sweets might be the solution.

A trip to the local cornershop netted some cocktail sticks, a bag of Liquorice Allsorts, and some Starburst Haribos. It turned out that the latter was a crucial addition, when I discovered that the Allsorts contained precisely three of every variant, and I’d need four of one for my purposes.


Initially I assembled two mirror-imaged models using the most visually-distinct Allsorts I could find, but using a Starburst fried egg in one position as I knew I’d need to have two of those per molecule to answer the specific question and demonstrate why glycine is not chiral. Continue reading

On the vagaries of workload models

Recent discussion of the “mutant” algorithm blamed for the 2020 A level prompted me to undertake a sideways rumination on the vagaries of workload models. I am not reflecting here on the TRAC (Transparent Approach to Costing) data collected annually by universities, and which has a whole hornets’ nest of its own issues (some of which are discussed by David Kernohan in this 2019 WONKHE article). I am thinking instead of the ways in which institutions increasingly attempt to align the work undertaken by an individual to the criteria stated in their contract.

A case for the importance of documenting workloads can be made on the grounds of parity and fairness. Sadly, the reality is that forensic bean-counting rarely captures the nuances of real-life working. Continue reading

Are we entering a golden era of sharing and collaboration in HE?

There is no doubt that the Covid pandemic has added unwanted complexity to a Higher Education sector that was already facing a number of significant difficulties. It does seem, however, that adversity can be the mother of invention and I am encouraged by the emergence of a couple of mechanisms for grassroots sharing of teaching ideas and resources.


Lecturemotely (https://www.lecturemotely.com) includes sections on teaching, assessment and student support for the Covid-era

Firstly, and I’ve mentioned this tangentially previously, there is the #DryLabsRealScience network. This is now part of the broader Lecturemotely collection of resources. The latter has been developed by bioscience academics at De Montfort University as a response to the sudden need to switch teaching and assessment online. Continue reading

The why and how of teaching ethics to bioscience students

In July 2019 I was involved in a session on The Why and How of Teaching Ethics to Bioscience Students. I was a panellist, along with Professors Lynne Sneddon (from the University of Liverpool, UK) and Prof Ros Gleadow (from Monash University, Australia). I recently became aware that the session is available on YouTube.

My short talk on our approach to ethics teaching in Biosciences at Leicester starts about 16 minutes in (here), but listening to the session afresh I would encourage you to listen all the way through.

Introducing the BoB Collection

Regular visitors to this site will be aware that I quite often blog about the BoB, the amazing collection of TV and radio programmes for use in education. I was struck recently that these posts are listed in chronological order, which is not always appropriate. I have therefore started a separate page where BoB-related materials are listed in a more systematic way. To access these resources, just click on the new “BoB Collection” tab at the top of this page.



Embracing the potential of digital exams

Horizons in STEM Higher Education has become a summer fixture for many science academics. In keeping with many 2020 events, this year’s conference switched to an online format. The first plenary lecture was Digital Exams: Transforming Assessment by Professor Mariann Rand-Weaver from Brunel University.


This was a really inspiring session, demonstrating the opportunities that are presented by actively moving examinations from a traditional paper-based format to using digital platforms.

Brunel has been moving to digital exams over the past few years (i.e. not just in response to recent pandemic), partly motivated by asking themselves why exams were almost the only time we ever ask students to hand write anything these days. Additionally, a switch to provision of computers is already a typical “reasonable adjustment” on accessibility grounds, so why not level the playing field by allowing this for all?

There are a range of benefits. For the markers it is easier to read typed scripts. The answers are often better structured, as the students can move around the text to the relevant point. There are also administration benefits – e.g. less paper , less manual handling, more streamlined processes. Continue reading

Introducing: “Getting Started With BoB”

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented focus on the value of online teaching resources. Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I am a long-standing enthusiast for a variety of digital tools for University education. In particular, I have been a champion for “BoB”, sometimes known as Box of Broadcasts. This tremendous collection of more than 2 million copyright-cleared TV and radio recordings for educational use has never quite achieved the levels of awareness and acclaim that i deserves.

Following a recent presentation about use of BoB for final year dissertations, I was invited to write a one-page “How to” guide. This is something I will certainly do in the near future. However, that invitation galvanised me into doing something I had thought about for a while, namely producing some introductory videos on using BoB. I have therefore made an initial set of four videos under the title Getting Started with BoB. The videos, available on my YouTube channel are:

  1. Unlocking the potential of TV and radio broadcasts in education looks at logging in, and offers a quick tour around the main features of BoB, including the interactive programme guide.
  2. Using the search tool does pretty much what it says on the tin. Use of a search tool may seem pretty self-explanatory, but there are one or two specifics of searching in BoB that I felt would benefit from clearer explanation.
  3. Making clips one of the great features of BoB is the ability to pick out the extract that is most important for your teaching, learning or research. This video shows how to do that.
  4. Adding clips to your playlists finally (in this first set of videos) an introduction to the “playlist” facility within BoB – helping you, and others, find those nuggets of gold again next time you need them.


UPDATE: It turns out there are also a set of official BoB “how to” videos available via this link. The two sets have slightly different emphases and are complementary.

Thirteen take-home messages from the Nuffield webinar on fair and equitable access to Covid-19 treatments and vaccines

nuffieldOn 5th June 2020 I was privileged to be able to listen into the latest in a series of webinars on Covid-19 and ethics organised by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. Sharing the benefits of research: facilitating fair and equitable access to Covid-19 treatments and vaccines. The meeting, held on Zoom and chaired by Nuffield Director Hugh Whittall featured contributions from four experts, followed by a Q&A session. The panelists were: Stefan Swartling Peterson (Chief of Health at UNICEF); Ellen ‘t Hoen (Director of Medicines Law & Policy, and founder of the Medicines Patent Pool); Achal Prabhala (Coordinator of the AccessIBSA project, which campaigns for access to medicines in India, Brazil and South Africa); and Sheuli Porkess (Executive Director for Research, Medical and Innovation at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI)).

What follows are my initial reflections on a terrific and informative session. I offer the caveat that I have not listened back to a recording of the meeting (though I gather one will be made available shortly). I am therefore working just from my ‘live’ notes and these points are likely a blend of what was actual said, things where I might inadvertently have got the wrong end of the stick, plus tangents towards which my brain spiralled at the time and in preparing these notes. Continue reading

7 things I learnt from running my first Collaborate session

collaborate logoYesterday I ran my first session using the Blackboard Collaborate Ultra tool (hereafter Collaborate). Here I share some initial reflections on the the experience. I should point out that I hadn’t read any “How to” guides in advance, so I can offer no promises that what follows has any originality.

  1. Collaborate is a good tool. Running any teaching that relies on technology always runs the risk of being fraught. However, I came away from the session with a sense that we’d all shared a really worthwhile hour or so together.
  2. Students will drift in and out of the session (and not by design). A slight caveat to the first point, not so much Collaborate itself, but the fact that online sessions in general are partially dependent on the Wifi capability of the students. At various points students “left” the meeting only to return a few moments later. Helpfully Collaborate logs the number of times someone has been in the meeting, so congratulations to the student who fought with her limited signal and came back to the session nine times.
  3. Upload any material you are going to share as a PDF not a PowerPoint file. I was glad that a colleague and I had logged in to check the system before the session as my the formatting on my PowerPoint slides was bastardised by the tool. The PDF worked fine (but bear in mind you will lose any animations that you had – so if you want a sequential “reveal” (eg posing a question before revealing the answers) then this will need to be on different slides.
  4. Using the chat window for interactivity works really well. I was keen that the session was not a lecture from me, it was to be – as far as possible – a tutorial with input from the other participants. There is a “raise hands” feature for someone to indicate that they want to offer an oral answer, but we found that the chat feature worked rather more smoothly. We actually had contributions from several of the students, but I can envisage that you need to be careful, as with any face-to-face tutorial that you don’t allow any one person to dominate (may need a sensitively phrased “Fred, please give someone else a chance to answer the next one”) or making sure that everyone is actively involved (eg by targeting questions to named students).
  5. Having a moderator/co-tutor is really valuable. We had one member of staff monitoring the chat stream (and coordinating the “breakout rooms”, see points 6) whilst I led the discussion. I managed to keep a reasonable track of the comments, but she was able to add encouraging responses there, and occasionally interrupt if there was something I’d clearly missed.
  6. Breaking out into smaller groups for Q&A allowed more people to speak up. Having praised the chatbox feed as a feature, it is also good to give participants the opportunity to verbalise and questions. We subdivided the meeting into groups of about 10 participants. Clearly if you are going to do this, you need to have multiple tutors present so they can be shared across the groups.
  7. Arrive early, but give some advance thought to your “small talk”. I know there are two schools of thought about how you start an online meeting – for example some people advocate intentional use of the “waiting room” in Zoom to bring everyone into the meeting at the same time. I elected to arrive early and had some fairly natural greetings conversations with other early arrivals. However, these tended to be repeated by co-tutors and other staff arriving later. So [and I’m still ruminating on the rights and wrongs of this], if there are going to be several staff present, it may be worth deciding in advance who might pick up different areas of conversation . Clearly this won’t be quite so spontaneous, but it does avoid four people asking Miriam where she’s from.
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