Archive for the Education Category

Widening Participation Matters

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , on May 3, 2017 by telescoper

Time for a mini-rant about the failure of many universities to make any real attempt to make higher education more accessible to students from diverse backgrounds, especially those from underrepresented social groups.

I found this item on Twitter the other day. It’s from a local newspaper in York, and it was accompanied by an article that applauded the University of York (rightly) for being in the top three Russell Group universities for widening participation.

The list shows all 24 universities in the Russell Group, along with the fraction of their students that come from state schools and the fraction that come from geographical areas where participation in higher education is low; ‘POLAR3’ is the latest iteration of the Participation of Local Areas survey carried out by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

I’m very pleased that my current employer, Cardiff University, leads the Russell Group by this measure, followed by the Universities of Liverpool and York, respectively.

What doesn’t please me is that so many of these institutions have such low participation rates from this group, and also such a small fraction of students who were educated at state schools. Over 90% of the total number of students at UK universities were educated at state schools, but the only Russell Group member to exceed 90% is Queens University, Belfast. However, the school system in Northern Ireland is very different from the rest of the UK, with relatively few private schools, so the situation there is not really comparable.

When tuition fees were increased in 2012, Universities were only allowed the charge the maximum (£9K per annum) if they produced an `Access Agreement‘  outlining measures to be introduced that would `improve access, student success and progression among people from under-represented and disadvantaged groups‘. The evidence of the last five years is that participation rates at many of the Russell Group institutions listed above have not changed at all. The reason for this is simple: the members of senior management at these institutions simply do not careabout widening participation.

I emphasize that it’s the members of senior management who don’t care because I honestly believe that the majority of academic staff in these institutions (and indeed the rest of the higher education sector) do care a very great deal. Nowadays however the gulf between academics and managers is greater than ever

Some time ago I was interviewed for a job in senior management at one of the institutions in the table above. During the course of the interview I was asked, among many other things, what I thought the University needed to do better. Without hesitation I said `widening participation’. The members of the panel stared at me as if I’d taken leave of my senses. The institution concerned was doing in well in league tables and recruiting students and saw no reason to try to make itself more open. When asked why I thought it was so important, I said I thought it was a moral responsibility. What I meant was that I think universities should be run for the public good, not just for the good of people who went to a posh school. That received even more uncomprehending stares than my original statement.

I didn’t get that job. I’m not saying it was because of the way I answered that question. I’m sure there were plenty of other reasons not to employ me, but that is the part of the interview I remember most vividly. I had prepared a list of ideas (including foundation programmes, measures to boost graduate employability, work placements, schools liaison, etc), some of which I’d borrowed from my (then) employer, the University of Sussex (which was – and is – very good at widening participation), but I had wasted my time. They weren’t interested.

The current system of ‘Access Agreements’ clearly isn’t working for these institutions and there is no effective sanction to force them even to try to broaden participation. Until there is, they will continue not to care.

Parliament has recently enacted the Higher Education and Research Act (2017). This presented a great chance to tackle the failures described above but, as far as I can see, none of the new arrangements is likely to do anything to widen participation in the so-called `elite’ universities, so it’s been a wasted opportunity.

 

 

 

Building Momentum Towards Inclusive Teaching and Learning

Posted in Education with tags , , on May 2, 2017 by telescoper

I’ve had a very full day back after the Bank Holiday (Long) Weekend so I only have time for a brief post today.

I was giving a revision lecture this morning so I wasn’t able to attend an event in London organized by the Institute of Physics to launch a new report with the title Building Momentum Towards Inclusive Teaching and Learning. It was a shame I couldn’t go, as I’m a member of the IOP Diversity and Inclusion Committee which oversaw this report, but the exam period is coming up and I couldn’t reschedule the lecture.

Anyway, to quote the IOP web page:

There are particular challenges in providing an inclusive learning environment in all the physical sciences and especially in physics, due to the wide range of activities involved, such as lab sessions, problem classes and fieldwork, and the use of mathematical and scientific notation. General good practice guidance on inclusive curricula do not normally contain specialist information on the particular accessibility challenges of courses with substantial mathematical content given its non-linear nature (ie the relative positioning of letters, symbols and numbers and their relative sizes) and the limitations of assistive technology in manipulating this content.

The Equalities Act (2010) requires HEIs to make `reasonable adjustments’ to make their courses accessible to disabled students, but there’s often no reason why these `adjustments’ should not simply be standard provision for all students. That’s what `inclusive’ means. If, for example, lecture recordings and/or printed notes are made available for students who have difficulty taking notes, then why not make them available for everyone? That’s what `inclusive’ actually means.

To quote again:

By moving towards a more inclusive learning environment many organisational, structural and cultural barriers to disabled students can be removed. The focus on inclusivity means that “individual interventions is the exception, not the rule” as set out in the Department for Education’s report Inclusive Teaching and Learning in Higher Education as a Route to Excellence. This requires all staff in higher education – academics, support staff and senior institutional managers – to consider the needs of disabled students in all that they do – including the design, delivery and assessment of all academic teaching and learning.

I therefore encourage anyone who’s involved in teaching physics to read this report, which you can download as a PDF file here, and think about its recommendations when you start to plan teaching activities, whatever form they take.

Easter Fatigue 

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , on April 4, 2017 by telescoper

This is Week 11, which is the last week of teaching here at Cardiff University before the Easter break. In the early hours of this morning I finished marking my last set of coursework for the term and later on delivered my last (2-hour) lecture on the Physics of the Early Universe.

I’ve booked two weeks of annual leave from Friday and am really looking forward to a bit of rest, though I will have quite a few private matters to deal with while I’m away from work.

Such is the topsy-turvy world we live in that I note that this month’s meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society is  on this Friday, 7th April. This is contrary to the settled order of Nature, as these meetings are always on the second Friday of the month. This year, however, the 2nd Friday of April is Good Friday. This, after all, is Eastertide, when Christians celebrate the invention of the chocolate egg by doing arms deals with despotic middle-eastern governments. 

I’m only joking. Of course. Chocolate eggs have nothing to do with the true message of Easter, which is depicted in the following.

Anyway, it’s the fact that Easter moves about in the calendar that is the reason this term has been so long and I am tired and grumpy. I don’t like chocolate either.

On the bright side I did receive two pieces of good news today in between the other stuff. I hope to be able to pass them on tomorrow, or at any rate before I go off on my hols…

Data-Intensive Physics and Astrophysics

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , on March 27, 2017 by telescoper

One of the jobs I’ve got in my current position (which is divided between the School of Physics & Astronomy and the Data Innovation Research Institute) is to develop new teaching activities, focussing on interdisciplinary courses involving a Data Science component. Despite the fact that I only started work developing them in September last year the first two such courses have been formally approved and are now open for admission of new students to begin their courses in September 2017. That represents a very fast-track for such things as there are many hurdles to get over in preparing new courses. Meeting the deadlines hasn’t been easy, which is largely why I’ve been whingeing on here about workload issues, but we’re finally there!

The two new courses are both at Masters (MSc) level and are called Data-Intensive Physics and Data-Intensive Astrophysics and they are both taught jointly by staff in the School of Physics and Astronomy and the School of Computer Science and Informatics in a kind of major/minor combination.

The aim of these courses is twofold.

One is to provide specialist postgraduate training for students wishing to go into academic research in a ‘data-intensive’ area of physics or astrophysics, by which I mean a field which involves the analysis and manipulation of very large or complex data sets and/or the use of high-performance computing for, e.g., simulation work. There is a shortage of postgraduates with the necessary combination of skills to being PhD programmes in such areas, and we plan to try to fill the gap with these courses.

The other aim is to cater for students who may not have made up their mind whether to go into academic research, but wish to keep their options open while pursuing a postgraduate course. The unique combination of physics/astrophysics and computer science will give those with these qualifications the option of either continuing or going into another sphere of data-intensive research in the wider world of Big Data.

We’ll be putting out some official promotional materials for these courses very soon, but I thought I’d mention them here partly because it might help with recruitment and partly because I’m so relieved that they’ve actually made it into the prospectus.

 

Science for the Citizen

Posted in Education, Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on March 20, 2017 by telescoper

I spent all day on Friday on business connected with my role in the Data Innovation Research Institute, attending an event to launch the new Data Justice Lab at Cardiff University. It was a fascinating day of discussions about all kinds of ethical, legal and political issues surrounding the “datafication” of society:

Our financial transactions, communications, movements, relationships, and interactions with government and corporations all increasingly generate data that are used to profile and sort groups and individuals. These processes can affect both individuals as well as entire communities that may be denied services and access to opportunities, or wrongfully targeted and exploited. In short, they impact on our ability to participate in society. The emergence of this data paradigm therefore introduces a particular set of power dynamics requiring investigation and critique.

As a scientist whose research is in an area (cosmology) which is extremely data-intensive, I have a fairly clear interpretation of the phrase “Big Data” and recognize the need for innovative methods to handle the scale and complexity of the data we use. This clarity comes largely from the fact that we are asking very well-defined questions which can be framed in quantitative terms within the framework of well-specified theoretical models. In this case, sophisticated algorithms can be constructed that extract meaningful information even when individual measurements are dominated by noise.

The use of “Big Data” in civic society is much more problematic because the questions being asked are often ill-posed and there is rarely any compelling underlying theory. A naive belief exists in some quarters that harvesting more and more data necessarily leads to an increase in relevant information. Instead there is a danger that algorithms simply encode false assumptions and produce unintended consequences, often with disastrous results for individuals. We heard plenty of examples of this on Friday.

Although it is clearly the case that personal data can be – and indeed is – deliberately used for nefarious purposes, I think there’s a parallel danger that we increasingly tend to believe that just because something is based on numerical calculations it somehow must be “scientific”. In reality, any attempt to extract information from quantitative data relies on assumptions. if those assumptions are wrong, then you get garbage out no matter what you put in. Some applications of “data science” – those that don’t recognize these limitations – are in fact extremely unscientific.

I mentioned in discussions on Friday that there is a considerable push in astrophysics and cosmology for open science, by which I mean that not only are the published results openly accessible, but all the data and analysis algorithms are published too. Not all branches of science work this way, and we’re very far indeed from a society that applies such standards to the use of personal data.

Anyway, after the day’s discussion we adjourned to the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies for a set of more formal presentations. The Head of School, Professor Stuart Allan introduced this session with some quotes from a book called Science for the Citizen, written by Lancelot Hogben in 1938. I haven’t read the book, but it looks fascinating and prescient. I have just ordered it and look forward to reading it. You can get the full-text free online here.

Here is the first paragraph of Chapter 1:

A MUCH abused writer of the nineteenth century said: up to the present philosophers have only interpreted the world, it is also necessary to change it. No statement more fittingly distinguishes the standpoint of humanistic philosophy from the scientific outlook. Science is organized workmanship. Its history is co-extensive with that of civilized living. It emerges so soon as the secret lore of the craftsman overflows the dam of oral tradition, demanding a permanent record of its own. It expands as the record becomes accessible to a widening personnel, gathering into itself and coordinating the fruits of new crafts. It languishes when the social incentive to new productive accomplishment is lacking, and when its custodians lose the will to share it with others. Its history, which is the history of the constructive achievements of mankind, is also the history of the democratization of positive knowledge. This book is written to tell the story of its growth as a record of human achievement, a story of the satisfaction of the common needs of mankind, disclosing as it unfolds new horizons of human wellbeing which lie before us, if we plan our new resources intelligently.

The phrase that struck me with particular force is “the democratization of positive knowledge”. That is what I believe science should do, but the closed culture of many fields of modern science makes it difficult to argue that’s what it actually does. Instead, there is an increasing tendency for scientific knowledge in many domains to be concentrated in a small number of people with access to the literature and the expertise needed to make sense of it.

In an increasingly technologically-driven society, the gap between the few in and the many out of the know poses a grave threat to our existence as an open and inclusive democracy. The public needs to be better informed about science (as well as a great many other things). Two areas need attention.

In fields such as my own there’s a widespread culture of working very hard at outreach. This overarching term includes trying to get people interested in science and encouraging more kids to take it seriously at school and college, but also engaging directly with members of the public and institutions that represent them. Not all scientists take the same attitude, though, and we must try harder. Moves are being made to give more recognition to public engagement, but a drastic improvement is necessary if our aim is to make our society genuinely democratic.

But the biggest issue we have to confront is education. The quality of science education must improve, especially in state schools where pupils sometimes don’t have appropriately qualified teachers and so are unable to learn, e.g. physics, properly. The less wealthy are becoming systematically disenfranchised through their lack of access to the education they need to understand the complex issues relating to life in an advanced technological society.

If we improve school education, we may well get more graduates in STEM areas too although this government’s cuts to Higher Education make that unlikely. More science graduates would be good for many reasons, but I don’t think the greatest problem facing the UK is the lack of qualified scientists – it’s that too few ordinary citizens have even a vague understanding of what science is and how it works. They are therefore unable to participate in an informed way in discussions of some of the most important issues facing us in the 21st century.

We can’t expect everyone to be a science expert, but we do need higher levels of basic scientific literacy throughout our society. Unless this happens we will be increasingly vulnerable to manipulation by the dark forces of global capitalism via the media they control. You can see it happening already.

On the Importance of School Experiments

Posted in Biographical, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on February 27, 2017 by telescoper

Twitter drew my attention this afternoon to a series of videos produced by the Royal Society designed to give teachers in schools some additional resources to encourage their pupils to do science experiments. They star the ubiquitous Professor Brian Cox, and they cover a wide range of science. You can see the whole playlist on Youtube here (although it is unfortunately back-to-front):

Although I ended up doing primarily theoretical work in my scientific career, there’s no question that ‘hands-on’ experiments played a big part in the development of my understanding of, especially, physics and chemistry. I remember vividly when I was about 12 years old doing a simple series of experiments in which we weighed out samples of chemical material of various types, then burned it somehow (usually over a bunsen burner) and weighed what was left. Commonsense based on experience with burning stuff like wood and paper is that the process reduces the amount of material so I expected the mass remaining at the end to be less than the initial mass. The first stuff that I did was a few grains of calcium. I couldn’t believe it when the residue turned out to weigh more than the stuff I started with. I was sure I was wrong and got quite upset for failing such an elementary practical exercise, but the same thing happened every time whatever the material.

Of course, the explanation is that the process going on was oxidation, and the calcium was actually combining with oxygen from the air to form an oxide. It did look as if some kind of destruction had happened, but the oxygen taken from the atmosphere had bonded to the calcium atoms and this increased the mass of the residue.

The teacher could have talked about this and explained it, but it wouldn’t have had anything like the impact on my understanding of discovering it for myself.

That’s a personal story of course, but I think it’s probably a widespread educational experience. These days few students seem to have the chance to do their own experience, either because of shortage of facilities or the dreaded ‘Health and Safety’ so I think any effort to encourage more teachers to allow their students to do more experiments is thoroughly worthwhile!

Back to the (Early) Universe

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 24, 2017 by telescoper

After what seems like ages away from the lecture theatre, today I resuming teaching duties with the first session of my module on The Physics of the Early Universe; the link there gives Enzo Pascale as being in charge of the module, but he has left BrExit Britain for his native Italy so I’ve taken his place. I actually wrote the syllabus for this module about five years ago when I worked in Cardiff previously, and was scheduled to deliver it in 2013, but I left for Sussex before it started and never actually lectured it. It’s nice to be able to teach this material at long last – at least it’s stuff that I should know something about.

This lectures are attended by students on the 4th year of the integrated Masters programme (MPhys) and also on stand-alone MSc courses in Physics or Astrophysics. I have about 25 students enrolled, which is not bad for a specialist module.

In fact Enzo recommended the book I wrote with Francesco Lucchin when he taught the module, and I’m happy to use it as the main text. I won’t cover all the material in the book – there isn’t time, and some of the book is out of date (written in 2002) – but at least almost everything I do in the lectures has a counterpart in the book.

Chapter 3 of Coles \& Lucchin has a chapter that may prove particularly popular in this era of ‘Alternative Facts’:

cosmology

I did however resist the temptation to hire a group of people to sit at the front of my first lecture cheering and clapping wildly.

I’ve asked to have my lectures timetabled in two-hour chunks. That’s partly because I only work part-time and I wanted to be able to maximize the flexibility with which I can use the rest of the time by concentrating my teaching commitments. The other reason is that I like the extended format. I don’t talk continuously for the whole time, of course. That would be unbearable for me and for the students. We have a ten-minute break in the middle. However, the two-hour block allows a wider range of activities – lecturing, discussion and worked examples – which is harder to do in the usual (50-minute) slot without being excessively rushed. When I taught postgraduates at Queen Mary we used two-hour blocks, which worked out quite well. The only problem is that I’m now a lot older, and having finished my first double-lecture I think it’s fair to say I’m more than a little knackered.

Another innovation is the use of Cardiff’s new lecture-capture system (called Panopto), which allows the lecturer to record everything – powerpoint, data visualizer, whiteboard and live action – for posterity. I recorded this morning’s lecture in toto and at some point when I get a moment I’ll do a quick edit and put it on Learning Central for the students to view at their leisure. I’m not sure how useful my ramblings will prove to be, but it’s fun to try these things. It’s a significantly more sophisticated and flexible system than the one we used when I was at Sussex, and I’m also lucky to be in a nice, clean and recently refurbished lecture theatre…

Anyway, this gives me the excuse to refloat an old opinion poll about lecture capture. Such facilities are of course very beneficial for students with special learning requirements, but in the spirit of inclusive teaching I think it’s good that all students can access recorded lecture material. Some faculty are apparently a little nervous that having recordings of lectures available online would result in falling attendances at lectures, but in fact the available evidence indicates precisely the opposite effect. Students find the recorded version adds quite a lot of value to the “live” event by allowing them to clarify things they might not have not noted down clearly.

I like the idea of lecture capture a lot and am very happy to do it with my own lectures. It does seem to be the case however that some university staff are wary of this innovation, but opinion may be changing. Please let me know what you think via the poll:

If you don’t like the idea I’d welcome a comment explaining why. I’d also be interested in comments from colleagues in other institutions as to the extent to which lecture capture technology is used elsewhere..