Headline Bioethics Commentaries

Headline Bioethics Commentaries are a new series of student-authored articles reflecting on bioethical aspects of news stories

Headline Bioethics Commentaries are a new series of student-authored articles reflecting on bioethical aspects of news stories

Over at our sister site BioethicsBytes I’ve started to release a new series of articles under the title Headline Bioethics Commentaries. The first couple are already up, and I’ll be adding some more over the next few days.

I mention this here because I wanted to expand a bit on the pedagogic thinking behind this new strand, but this “show your workings” post is more applicable on Journal of the Left-handed Biochemist than over at the bioethics site proper.

The Headline Bioethics Commentaries start out as assessed pieces in a second year Research Skills module (a core unit, currently taken by about 150 students). I contribute a sizeable slice of bioethics teaching to the module and we needed an assignment to go with this chunk of the course. Right from the outset (in 2009), I wanted to break the “write an essay on…” mould and to ask the students to carry out a task that would have real-world applicability, to produce material that would potentially be useful to other people rather than languishing in a leverarch folder.

So, the “Behind the Headlines” exercise was born (though we’ve subsequently change the title to avoid confusion with the rather excellent NHS Choices website of that name). Students are asked to write 1000 words commentary on the ethical implications of a recent biological or biomedical news story. The cohort of students have fairly diverse interests so we allow considerable  leeway in their choice of topic. However the rules are that the story must be from the previous calendar year (i.e. a January 2011 to December 2011 news report for the 2012 cohort) and must be available as a streamed video clip on the BBC news website. The video must be a news story (rather than, for example, an excerpt from an episode of Horizon or Panorama) and must be no longer than five minutes.

The briefing sheet for the students has evolved over the period that the exercise has been running. So, for example, we now make it explicit that the point is to get them to engage with the ethical issues related to the story not simply to regurgitate the content of the clip. To support this, the summary of the case needs to be set out as a separate section in their answer, with a maximum allocation of 200 words. The remainder of their answer needs to be a discussion of the ethics.

There is a slight temptation, given that the activity begins with use of popular media, that the students might not get adequately immersed in the academic dialogue regarding their topic. To safeguard against this, the instructions make it clear that they need to make use of at least five sources, of which at least two need to be “academic”, i.e. journal articles or books.

Marks for the original task are awarded in the following proportions: 5% is given for the selection and use of an appropriate clip; 25% for framing the issue (i.e. for the summary section); 60% for discussion of the ethical issues (i.e. the main section) and 10% for selection of appropriate sources and referencing. This assignment counts for 25% of their mark for the module.

I was always pleased that the task got the students engaged with the issues emerging from cutting edge developments in the field. But, as noted above, I wanted it to spread beyond this. The insistence that the news story exists as a BBC news video fits with my general belief that academics of all disciplines ought to be making more use of broadcast multimedia (I will be running a workshop on this topic at the HEA STEM conference at Birmingham in April 2013).The quality of the work that some of the students were producing convinced me that their summaries would be a valuable resource for a wider audience.

The previous specimen answer covered a story from 2007 and was getting a little dated.

The previous specimen answer covered a story from 2007 and was getting a little dated.

So, one of the reasons for developing Headline Bioethics Commentaries is to make this material available to any interested party. In addition to this, I wanted the selected work to serve as exemplars for future cohorts taking the same module. Since this activity is rather different to other writing tasks that the students will have been asked to perform previously, I have always included an example assigment. It was, however, written by me and described a 2007 news story. Not only was this now a little dated (e.g. the way that the BBC embed their videos is now completely different), it was also a rather “biolegal” example. I wanted to be able to offer students taking the course a rather more diverse set of specimen essays to illustrate the kind of work that we are wanting them to produce.

Students as Producers/Students as Partners: it turns out that I had inadvertently tapped into an emerging trend in Higher Education (and, indeed, more broadly). This is the notion of students as co-workers. This is primarily being discussed in the context of the research-teaching nexus (see, for example, the Students as Producers site at the University of Lincoln) and in redesign of curricula (e.g. the HE Academy’s Students as Partners site). It strikes me, however, that this repurposing of student work for a wider audience is one way in which collaboration can be conducted in order to generate valuable resources for the broader community. It is not “research” in the lab-context we most associate with science courses but it is genuine research in the sense that the students are looking at the ways existing academic knowledge impinges on an emerging question.

The Headline Bioethics Commentaries are edited to conform to a standardised layout and, in some cases, are edited for minor issues of clarity or accuracy. They remain, however, the work of the students. Since this is a secondary repurposing of an assessed activity, in an ongoing module, there will always be the slight frustration that the news stories covered in this way will de facto be several months out of date. As noted above, each cohort has a specified twelve-month period they can explore in choosing their own news story; this is in order to avoid overlap between year groups. Nevertheless, I content that the topics covered remain sufficiently relevant to current audiences to be worth of sharing in this way.



  1. […] on from last week’s post about our Headline Bioethics project, here is a poster about the assignment and repurposing which I […]

  2. […] have mentioned the Headline Bioethics project here previously, including links to a poster I presented at the Leicester Teaching and […]

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