Teaching and Communicating Science in a Digital Age (Conference)

December 15th-17th 2014 saw me at Charles Darwin House (London) for the Society of Experimental Biology’s Education and Public Affairs symposium Teaching and Communicating Science in a Digital Age (click link to see full programme). This looked like a valuable event from the outset, but I can honestly say it turned out to be even better than expected. A pdf file (35 pages) capturing the Twitter feed for #SEBed2014 can be seen via this link. [UPDATE: I have also produced my first Storify from the tweets, which removes the retweets in the PDF, and puts them into a more logical order.]

It was good to catch up with old friends, to have the first face-to-face meeting with various Twitter friends and to make other new friends. Indeed, one of the striking things about the attendees was the lack of overlap with the HEA Bioscience regulars.

It would be invidious to pick out any one talk for special mention, but I would say the two sessions from which I got the most inspiration were “Engaging with the public and schools” and “Students as creators and communicators” (CoI declaration: my talk was in this session). At least two of the presentations were primarily delivered by current undergraduates, which was also refreshing.

I made three formal contributions to the symposium – a talk on our bioethics video-production assessment, and two posters (one on the Careers After Biological Science work, and one on Biology on the Box, my more recent project developing a library of recommended television clips for teaching biology). Links to all three can be found here:

The CABS programme involves Leicester alumni giving talks about their diverse careers which are then made available online.

The CABS programme involves Leicester alumni giving talks about their diverse careers which are then made available online.

Biology on the Box is my latest project, developing a library of recommended TV clips and programmes for teaching Biology

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.]

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.

Feedback on exams: how much of an issue is it?

In keeping with other universities, Leicester is thinking through the best way to offer feedback to students on their exam performance. Several different models are under consideration, each of which involves significant logistical difficulties, and no firm decision has been made about the approach to take.

We do not (yet) offer students in bioscience the opportunity to see their marked scripts themselves. At various times in recent years I have acted as “broker”, looking through the exam answers of personal tutees in order to suggest ways that they might improve their future answers.

In truth, the findings of this distinctly unscientific study are not earth-shattering. There are three or four key explanations as to why students fail to achieve the mark they desire:

1. Not answering the question asked – lowest marks, and those that come as the biggest surprise to the authors, are for answers in which they have significantly missed the thrust of the question. There is not much that can be done to counsel against this, except the old mantra “read the question carefully”.

2. Not offering enough detail – The most common error in exam answers is a failure to include sufficient detail to be worthy of the mark the author anticipated. This issue can be addressed in practical ways, e.g. by making the expectations overt and by exposing students to real essays written by previous students (as we do in this exercise).

3. Unstructured “brain dump” – This can be a manifestation of error #1, possibly leading to #2 (in the sense that a lot of time and effort has been spent on material which is not strictly relevant). Essays of this type are frequently characterised by flitting back and forth between different issues as the author thinks of them. For the examiner it comes across as either a lack of true understanding about the topic in hand, or as a lazy student essentially saying “I recognise this word in the question, here’s a random collection of things I recall from your lectures, you work out whether any of it is relevant”.

Encouraging students to take a few moments to sit down and plan out their answer before dashing off into the main body of their response will help to reduce this mistake.

4. Illegible handwriting – I speak as someone whose hand-writing is not fantastic on a good day and which gets worse under time constraints. Nevertheless, regardless of weaknesses in the marker, the old adage “we can’t award credit for it if we can’t read it” remains true.

Scripts that are completely undecipherable are rare, but they do exist. In the past we were able to offer some glimmer of hope in the form of the opportunity to call in the student and, at their expense, to employ someone to write a readable version as the original author translated their hieroglyph. This back-up position has now been removed, apparently because a student at a different institution significantly embellished their original version whilst it was being transcribed [note: does anyone have chapter and verse to show that this is not an urban myth? I’d like to know the details].

Given that other mechanisms for capturing an exam answer exist (e.g. use of a laptop) it ought not to be the case that someone gets to the point where they discover after the event that their legibility was inadequate. It is therefore important both that we have the chance to see some hand-written work (preferably early in a student’s time at university) and that a culture is engendered in which it is acceptable to comment on poor handwriting, even if the hand offering the rebuke is not itself ideal.

  • Awards

    The Power of Comparative Genomics received a Special Commendation

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