An unprovoked rant about education

Taking care of some medical ‘business’ today so can’t really work as such. So I thought I’d have a rant about higher education.

The decline in state funding for higher education over the last 10 to 15 years has had one major effect: institutions must now operate as quasi-corporations. I’ve never seen this as some sort of neoliberal takeover, more like a case of needs must. That’s not to say that many academics don’t take to this brave new world with gusto – some do – but I think we should see changes as an almost unconscious adaptation, rather than a sinister plan of some sort.

These days, we need lots of students and plenty of research income to survive and that has a distorting effect on everything we do.

Since our fellow institutions are in the same boat, the development of a student recruitment marketplace, especially an international student one, is inevitable. This affects our programme design – with an almost complete emphasis on education as training – and an increased emphasis on “engagement” and the student experience. Innovation becomes an obsession, and we all try desperately to distinguish ourselves from our competitors. UCD is the “Global University”, DCU is the “University of Enterprise” while Trinity just tells people how wonderful they are and that, apparently, settles that.

Of course, the private sector loves this because if the universities start to focus on workplace skills, it saves that sector a lot of money. Why recruit a Leaving Cert student with a H1 in maths for your actuarial training programmes when you can recruit a maths graduate with a bunch of exemptions? It doesn’t matter if by doing so, the smart kid from a disadvantaged background ends up being excluded.

The need for research income also goes to heart of what our values are. If income is the goal, where does quality, originality, and scholarship stand? In an earlier blog I talked about the “chicken shit” meeting where we were attempting to set up a collaboration with a company who had a problem with, well, chicken shit. I’m not too sure if anything ever came of this proposed project but I do know one thing: there was nothing in the project that was remotely close to being PhD work but yet, had been funded it would have been viewed as a great success. Why? Because it would have brought in income and it was the sort of project that could be praised for having an impact on the “real world”. The longer I work in a university the more it seems to be implied that I’m not actually in the “real world”.

While this cultural change has been happening, the private sector has been rubbing its hands together to get in on the action. Apple pushes “challenged based learning” with a strong focus on using Apple devices. Microsoft pushes Minecraft to teach…what exactly I’m not sure. Lego have suddenly become concerned about Learning through Play after many years trying to convince us that building Lego robots helps develop “problem solving skills”, a totally discredited concept. That’s not to say that Lego doesn’t make a nice break from the routine and maybe helps to create bonds between students, but it makes no sense to attempt to teach context-independent skills. It simply doesn’t work.

Further down the corporate chain, smaller companies are tapping into the STEM concept. Anything remotely “sciencey” can be labelled as STEM such that STEM is more a marketing device than a valid educational concept.

Then there are the high-tech folk attempting to emphasise AI and personalized learning. Most are genuine in their beliefs, but I find it interesting that many of those proposing AI-based “solutions” seem awfully angry with traditional teaching methods. I think the cost of education is a factor, but some of the criticisms of, for example, the lecture, and the anger directed towards this form of teaching, seem a bit disproportionate. If Covid has taught us anything it’s that students want to be part of a community. It’s not all about Online versus Face-to-Face. Some students like the flexibility that asynchronous teaching provides them. Some prefer structure. But they all want some human contact and, dare I say, they want to be taught by a human being, not an algorithm.

Back to waiting.

Covid and why we need to teach the scientific method

I’ve been teaching budding scientist for over thirty years now and while I love the idea of choice (I was always fond of UCD’s Horizon project) I’ve always been wary of students becoming Jacks of all Trades and masters of none. So, I reject the idea of STEM as a “thing”. Furthermore since my entire career has involved teaching on a course that seeks to integrate biology and bioprocess engineering, I know something about how hard it is to integrate subjects, especially subjects that have very different signature pedagogies. So I tend to be a bit wary of education fads.

But while observing the conversation around Covid on social media, it occurs to me that many scientists – and wannabe scientists with a background in engineering – do not seem to actually understand the scientific process. Many scientists, including Nobel prize-winning ones, seem to suffer from a sort of curse of certainty, a belief that they can find truth by staring at graphs, calculating first derivatives and even second derivatives and concluding that policy X should be followed and that to follow policy Y makes you almost psychopathic.

The best scientist I know are humble, unafraid to admit they “don’t know” and willing to listen to alternative viewpoints. Yes, I understand that humans are mainly Jonathan Haidt’s “riders on the elephant”: we feel first and rationalise later – but we’re not like untrainable dogs.

Take this Covid data that I took off this Johns Hopkins website today. What ‘real scientist’ could possibly take a hard-line stance on this and provide a simplistic explanation. The data is baffling and suggests that there is a large probabilistic aspect to the spread of Covid. Maybe a lot of what we’re seeing is down to chance. It’s not a simple case of lockdown versus no lockdown, or hot country versus cold country, or high population population density versus low density. It’s probably down to many factors, chance being one of them.


So, I think we need to make room in our programmes for the explicit teaching of the scientific method. We need to let our students know that science is just a small part of making sense of the world, a world where all sorts of factors: sociological, environmental, political and behavioural, make understanding far more difficult to achieve than we might think. In other words, scientific problems are rarely just ‘scientific’ especially in a field like public health.

So beware of the person who claims he or she is just being “scientific” when they say that Sweden’s poor record on Covid is simply down to too many old people having survived the previous year’s winter. They’re called “dry tinder” apparently.

Comunication in the time of Covid

I’m always astonished by the poor communication skills of people who should know better. When I was Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning in my faculty, I quickly realised that there were senior people with whom it was simply not worth communicating. No matter what the issue, there was a select few, often well-known celebrity academics, who simply lacked any sense of responsibility or respect and simply ignored me. Others claimed they were too busy which was just another way of saying my concerns were of little importance in their all-important world. My frustration culminated in me having a ”breakdown” of sorts: an explosion of frustration that in the private sector probably would have gotten me fired. Something similar happened recently but I’m in a better place these days and so I got over it reasonably well albeit with a lingering sense of bafflement as to how “leaders” can be so clueless. I know it’s a cliché but any organisation is only is a good as its people but that message doesn’t seem to have gotten through.

I was reminded of this when I read this article about student unrest in UCD. It always seems to be UCD or Trinity who have these issues and I wonder if it’s a consequence of priorities. Maybe our highest ranking universities are so concerned for their international reputations that the needs of undergrads come well down their list of priorities. Who knows?

But what is clear from the UCD situation is that poor communication is at the heart of a lot of these problems just as it is with airlines who say things like “your flight is delayed because of the late arrival of the incoming aircraft”. Right, that explains everything.

The Covid epidemic has challenged us in many ways but for me, one of the aspects of university life that it has highlighted more than anything is the fact that our student body is highly diverse. The UCD row seems to stem from the fact that many of their students want structure more than anything. In DCU, however, the feedback that we’re getting from our students, most of whom work part-time, is that they love the flexibility that asynchronous lectures provide. Yet, we haven’t gotten things completely right because there still remain issues as to how we communicate with students about our latest uploads to our VLE system, Loop. But we’re working on things and hope to come to an agreement. The important point is that our students are aware that we’re aware of their concerns and although some would like a lot more structure, they understand that we are doing our best for them.

I have to say though that given the pressure on us, following a definite timetable for uploading recordings, or whatever, is extremely difficult unless you work in a little teaching bubble with no other responsibilities. The work can appear endless at times. A lot of my workload is down to having to provide additional resources like problems sets. And problem sets require solutions. And the students like solutions in the form of screencasts – which I enjoy doing by the way – but it’s a case of the more you do, the more you have to do.

And then there is the issue of the increased use of continuous assessment and the fact that grading online assessments seems to take twice as long as grading paper-based ones: all those Excel files to be checked. Modernising our assessments is hard work.

Should lecturers fear for their future?

Now that we’re all well ensconced in the online learning ‘business’, the question naturally arises as to whether we’re digging our own graves. We now know that, in purely educational terms, online learning ‘works’. The student experience may not be what it was but there is no reason to believe that eliminating F2F lectures has had any detrimental effect on student learning.

So, shouldn’t we just embrace online learning and, crucially, make use of the huge amount of online resources available for free on the web. Instead of Mary Bloggs with a PhD in Maths from UCC putting together online materials for her second year engineering students, why not simply link to maths courses available for free from, say, MIT OpenCourseWare. Then we can sack Mary and save a chunk of money. It makes total sense, surely.

Well, actually, no. Having done a bit of surfing the online education web, I’m generally underwhelmed by the quality of what is being provided regardless of the prestige of the institution. See this, for example. I would not be inspired to study linear algebra by watching this video: it’s desperately static and unengaging. I’m remembering now one of my linear algebra lecturers who worked his way through what he referred to as the “subscript-superscript bog” with great humour, lots of different-coloured pens and a healthy line in sarcasm. This was in the days of the acetate roll, a device that allowed maths lecturers to pace their lectures perfectly. This dynamism can be reproduced using modern screen capture software and is key, in my view, to creating engaging learning experiences. The Khan Academy uses this technology very well. Standing in front of slides is a really poor way of using technology.

More fundamentally, though, when scouring the web for online materials, you never seem to find exactly what you want. Although there are those who would argue that we angst too much about content and we should adopt a sort of supermarket approach to programme design – a bit from here, another bit from there – the reality is that the world of higher education is increasingly recognising the need for all programmes to be coherent and to have particular objectives in mind. This is becoming increasingly important as programmes become more innovative in their conception. In the course into which I teach, the BSc in Biotechnology in DCU, it is really important to teach the right material at the right level. I can’t just pop over to the MIT website and download a module on Fluid Flow. The likelihood of it being pitched at the level, and covering he topics I want, is slim to zero.

Although there are many advocates of online learning who scoff at the idea that modules need to be designed in-house with the overall programme in mind, I’m not one of them. Having knowledge of the programme is crucial.

So I suspect that if quality is to be maintained, we’re going to need our own academics, designing, maintaining and delivering (albeit less that we used to) our own materials.

Reimagining higher education post Covid

Suppose an effective Covid vaccine is developed and we return to normality. What will university teaching look like in 2021/2022 or maybe in 2022/2023?

No doubt there will be a lot more F2F teaching, students will have returned to campus and many lecturers will be happy to return to the past. But what about all the online resources we will have created by then? Will we just ditch them or will we select the bits we like and keep them for future years as a sort of back-up to our F2F teaching?

I teach, in whole or in part, into 5 separate modules, ignoring projects, literature reviews, term papers and the like. If I were to give these lectures using the F2F methods of the past, I’d be giving the guts of a hundred lectures a year plus labs etc. This is not a bad load, especially compared to some of the loads I had back around 2008 when the financial crisis struck. But it’s enough to make one pretty stale by the end of a semester. F2F teaching takes a toll. And this happens year after year. Personally, I don’t know how secondary school teaches do it.

It’s hard not to think that this is not a very productive way of teaching, especially if you take a multi-year perspective. And it’s only going to get worse as the numbers attending university increase. I’ve even heard of situations, not in DCU, where the same F2F lectures are given multiple times simply because of the class size. That’s madness.

We are going to have to make some very important choices over the coming years: return to F2F methods as the dominant teaching method or embrace the advantages that online learning can bring while radically changing the nature of what we do as teaching academics.

I can’t tell other people what to do but I see my future “lecturing” role as more of a curator of my courses rather than a deliverer. Yes, the course materials will be imprinted with my personality and my choices regarding content and methods employed, and that is a good thing, but by using technology I’ll be far more able to innovate, take risks and generally make the learning process far more engaging that I could ever do by walking into a crowded room and hoping that I’ll be on my game on a wet Monday morning in February.

One of the aspects of online learning that frequently comes up is workload. Creating online materials takes time but once done, and if a multi-year perspective is taken, it has huge potential to free up our time to do whatever it is we want to do in our non-teaching time. By frontloading the workload, huge long-term gains are possible.

A year or two ago I honestly felt a bit bored by lecturing: I’ve been doing it for a long time. Now I feel invigorated and genuinely excited about the future of higher education. I really believe we have an opportunity to make a major leap forward and begin to offer students a far more varied, engaging, and flexible learning experience.

As a parting shot, I should mention, as I’ve done before, that this is not about us. This about the students. Just because we might like the F2F stuff, that doesn’t mean that we should impose it on students if they would prefer the flexibility of recorded materials. In 2020, the claim that packing 200+ students into a lecture hall is the best way to teach is an extraordinary one. And as Carl Sagan said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. If we’re going to resist long-term change, we need to arm ourselves with real evidence, not hunches.

Screencasting: the safety net that encourages creativity and spontaneity

The jury is in. I love online teaching. I love making screencasts where I can relax in the knowledge that if students haven’t followed me the first time around, they can replay my ‘lecture’ or dig a bit deeper into the notes I’ve provided in Word.

I love the fact that online assessment means I can introduce them to tools like Excel Solver and WolframAlpha and not have to say, “obviously I can’t assess you on these techniques in the final exam.”

I love the fact that screencasting, somewhat surprisingly, allows me to be a bit more spontaneous. I’m not sure what it is, but being in the privacy of my own home, and not standing up in front of the class, encourages me to take risks and link, without preparation, to that Google Images page on hollow fibre membranes, or to that video on medical dialysis, or to the trailer to that movie about the enigmatic Indian mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan.

Screencasting provides me with a safety net. And when people have a safety net, they can be far more courageous and creative.

So I’m thinking ahead to when normality returns. I hope I can continue teaching this way – with the odd F2F tutorial – and I truly hope that we in the third level sector don’t just consign the approaches developed during the Covid crisis to the past and just go back to ‘normal’.

There is absolutely no reason to do so. It would be in nobody’s interests.

Why do we dump everything on the universities?

The latest “announcement” by the Minster regarding short courses and standalone modules to be delivered by the universities as part of the post-covid recovery process is interesting. I’m presuming that this is simply another announcement of the HCI (Human Capital Initiative) which has many good aspects to it.

My connection with the HCI is like to involve designing new “exit streams” for our BSc in Biotechnology and I am looking forward to being involved in that process. I’m a great believer in offering students choice and I would love to see us give students the opportunity to individualise their education. We’re not in the business of churning out biotechnologists with a narrow range of those awful things, “graduate attributes”. All students should not have to follow the same path and employers will simply have to adapt to that reality.

But when it comes to post-Covid training – because training is what we’re talking about – why is it that the Government’s response is always to turn to the (partially) state-funded institutions. Our job is to provide Level 8 education and beyond, not training. And, crucially, we’re supposed to be places of research and scholarship. Often these are slow processes.

Meanwhile, out in the private sector, there are many organisations: the Khan Academy, EDx, FutureLearn and numerous professional bodies who are in the business of providing standalone modules. I admit that I often show Khan Academy videos to my students because by-and-large they are excellent, and I generally find that students really focus during them.

To me, it is ironic that when so many people, well-paid academics included, talk about the need to radically overhaul our education system, our instinctive response is always to resort to the old reliables in times of crisis. In this case the old reliables are academics who will be expected to develop new modules because the universities are so starved of funds that any extra funding we can get is pounced upon. Despite promises of new staff, on temporary contracts, recruited to deal with the increase in workload, it will be experienced staff who will do the heavy lifting.

Government always just presume that academics have the capability to work harder and fit the development of standalone modules into their schedules.

Of all the times to presume such a thing, this is the worst.

Covid, data and teachable moments

At this time of year, I have lots of meetings with second-year students who must complete a term paper on a biotechnology-related topic of their choice. The conversation typically centres around issues like structure, scientific writing, and information sources. One of the issues that I often stress is that science is not an impersonal, dispassionate activity: in fact, it is a very human one. Scientists have all sorts of unconscious biases, not to mention conscious ones, and are often very prone to what cognitive scientists call “motivated reasoning”.  My basic message often boils down to saying, “don’t believe the hype”.

For me, it is extremely important for students to learn about the culture of science, almost as much as learning about the since itself. Unfortunately, many laypeople do not understand the human aspect of science and believe in the old fashion idea, popularised in 1950s sci-fi films, of the scientist as a detached observer, usually male, wearing a suit and smoking a pipe.

Which brings me to how Covid 19 is discussed online, especially on Twitter. One of the champions of the “Covid-is-no-big deal” faction is Ivor Cummins, a chemical engineer previously known as being an advocate of low-carb diets; hence his twitter handle @FatEmperor.  

Ivor uses the words “science” and “data” more than anyone I know and presents himself as the dispassionate observer and interpreter of data, fighting valiantly against the “sociopaths” in government who for some bizarre reason want to “talk up” the virus.

Ivor is no fool, but he is not a scientist. Being a chemical engineer, he has a different mindset to scientists. Engineers are not truth-seekers; they are problem solvers. Indeed, Ivor describes himself as a “complex problem-solving specialist”.

Pragmatism is the engineer’s defining attribute and when we seek solutions to problems, we’re not concerned with whether those solutions are “true”; all we’re really concerned with is whether those solutions work consistently. For example, a chemical engineer might devise a mathematical model of cells growing in a bioreactor and while it may be overly-simplistic and only a vague approximation to the “truth” we don’t really care as long as it agrees with the data and provides some predictive capability. The field of chemical thermodynamics, a field in which chemical engineers have played a very significant role, is replete with models of liquids in which molecules are modelled as marble-like spheres. We know, however, that molecules are nothing like marbles but if the analogy leads to equations that accurately predict, say, vapour-liquid equilibrium data, then we’re happy.

And this brings us to Covid. If you simply look at Covid data: cases, hospitalisations and ICU admissions, there many ways you can model that data. Data does not have a life of its own. I can interpret case data as reflecting false positives, hospitalisations as reflecting clinician’s confusion and the low ICU admission data as reflecting the fact that the virus is not all that serious anymore, perhaps due to the effects of mutations. In the world of chemical engineering, these ‘models’ of Covid behaviour “work” but like the marble models of the liquid state, they depend on a host of assumptions including that the PCR test is not fit for purpose, clinicians are inept and no advances have been made in the treatment of Covid over the last few months. Of course, other assumptions are possible.

So when data is interpreted by anybody, not just scientists, it is done so in the light of the interpreter’s own world view. Many commentators on twitter, for example, are prone to conspiratorial thinking or even good old-fashioned contrarianism. Many of the latter are very intelligent – David Quinn is a good example – but, for whatever reason, have this urge to go against the consensus. In the case of Ivor Cummins, this contrarianism is accompanied by a messiah-like tendency to present himself as our saviour. Indeed, he has referred to his Covid “battles” as a “holy war”.

As a chemical engineer and educator who has worked all my career with biologists, I am fascinated by the interplay between science and personality, not to mention science and ambition, and science and politics. “The science” is rarely simple, rarely settled and anyone who claims that it is a dispassionate activity is clearly not a scientist at all.  It is important for aspiring scientists – and engineers – to understand this.

Reimagining the University Campus

I’m old enough to have studied in the old UCD School of Engineering, now government buildings, in Merrion Street, Dublin 2. It was never as plush as it is now: the toilets had swing doors on them like the doors to a saloon in an old western movie and the canteen was deep in the basement and served oxtail soup every day. Occasionally if you stayed too long in the evening, you’d be thrown out by army soldiers on patrol – we were quite close to the Taoiseach’s office. This was the time of the ‘war’ between Charlie Haughey and Garret Fitzgerald, and a new-fangled burger-thingy called a kebab.

It was here that first year engineering students had to  endure a “workshop” lab in which fitters/demonstrators took  the unmerciful piss out of us for being, in their view, middle class twats who hadn’t a clue how to use a soldering iron or a lathe. It was the time of listening to the meanderings of an extremely introverted pattern maker and lectures from an extremely extroverted lecturing “legend” on the “lost wax process” and other obscurities, followed by tutorials on partial differential equations given by postgrads who knew it was their job to undo the damage done by the hopeless professor who gave the lectures.

I was often a victim of the fitter’s slagging, especially on the occasion when we had to make a metal box and mine was “bockety” to say the least. I was pretty crap in the workshop labs just as I was pretty crap in organic chemistry lab. Where others produced beautifully formed, bone dry crystals, I inevitably produced mush.

But by the time I got to third year and my studies in chemical engineering began in earnest, I was in a happy place. I loved it and what it made it all the more enjoyable was that, as third year students, we had our own space. We had a classroom to hang out in. We had a home. A class culture emerged naturally; collaboration emerged naturally; group work happened and in a natural way. We worked long into the nights (before the army came) on our mechanical designs, sustained by the kebabs bought in the kiosk in Baggot Street.

In fourth year, we had a new classroom, and it was there we worked together on our problem sets and our design projects. We worked on our FORTRAN code from eight in the morning until eight at night (an early start was essential to access a terminal), determined to get our distillation calculations to converge, even if it, at times, it  took some “skulduggery” to do so. It was intense but we felt we were at the cutting edge of a new computer age.

And the campus was not just a place where we went to listen to lectures while transcribing page after page of equations; it was a place of genuine learning. It was wonderful even though it was hard, hard enough for me to think, even now, that getting my degree in chemical engineering in 1984 was one of my proudest achievements. All that chemical thermodynamics: activity coefficients, fugacities, UNIQUAC, UNIFAC, the Wilson equation: hard stuff.

And now I look at the modern campus, I can’t help but compare the modern highly-managed student experience with what we had. We were in a bubble of intellectual challenge, one that required us to be the best that we could be and it was our responsibility to respond to that challenge. I’m not sure students have that now. The modern system, while vastly superior, in so many ways, to what went before, often seems a little too “in the face” of students. Maybe it has to be in an era of learning outcomes, “skills” and “graduate attributes”. Or maybe it’s because the modern university teacher is so committed to teaching quality that we, perhaps, overdo it at times.

These days, campuses are packed, timetables actively discourage staying on campus (unavoidable really) and very often students have nowhere nice to go. So, they go home.

We need to reimagine the campus: reduce the emphasis on lecturing and create genuine learning spaces. Use the freed-up space to provide class groups with a base, a place where they can study, bond and learn from each other – all that 21st century stuff that occupies the minds of educationalists everywhere.

That’s what we had in engineering in the 1980s and I wish the students of today could experience it.

Actors, content creators and online learning

I had a piece in the Irish Times today which I wrote a few weeks ago and which I’m still happy with. I believe the move to online learning will, on balance, benefit students’ education and I also feel that those in the digital learning ‘space’ have not been vocal enough in reassuring students and their parents that the move to online learning will not impact on the quality of the education that we deliver.

One of the aspects of this crisis that I’ve found interesting is that when academics, often very highly regarded ones, at least in a research sense, talk about online learning, they seem to always end their tweets or comments with a statement like “ah, you the need the old human contact”. Some of the time, it seems that it is the academics in question who miss the human contact, not the students themselves, and that’s fine, but only up to a point. It’s not about us; it’s about the students.

Oddly enough, I haven’t come across many comments during this period that are backed up by any evidence. It seems to be taken as an article of faith that having students sitting in a classroom, mostly listening to lectures, is the best way to teach at third level.

There are two separate questions here: first, whether the traditional lecturing model of presenting content is the best we can come up with in the digital age; second, whether the physical presence of students enhances interactivity and student engagement. I’m very sceptical of the first and unsure about the second* but whatever anyone’s position is, they should hold it based on evidence and not emotion or gut feeling. We don’t accept seat-of-the-pants reasoning in research so why should we in teaching and learning.

Another aspect of this whole debate is that we need to be careful of generalising about teaching and learning as if it were a single thing. What works in chemical engineering may not work in English Literature, not only because the disciplines themselves require different approaches (“signature pedagogies”), but because different disciplines attract different personalities.

Finally, I’ve come across quite a few academics talking about how many “takes” and how much editing they’ve done on their recorded lectures. Seeking perfection is not only a waste of your time, it’s also a way of distancing yourself from your students. If you take the view that online learning de-humanises the learning experience, they why create lectures that make you sound like a newsreader. Face to face lectures are never perfect and it is often when we make a mess of things that our humanity surfaces and we connect with students. My screencasts are never perfect, and I only start again if I really stumble over my words and if it happens early in the recording. It really is important to be as spontaneous as possible, to have a sense of humour, to laugh at yourself and to admit that you’ve made a mistake. Otherwise the powers that be might as well replace us with content creators and actors.

*I’m sure lots of introverts dread the interactivity of some of some of their modules, especially ones where marks are rewarded for engagement, a trend that is heavily biased towards extroverts.