Tuesday, September 29, 2020

How universities can ensure students still have a good experience, despite coronavirus

by Helen Higson, The Conversation:  https://theconversation.com/how-universities-can-ensure-students-still-have-a-good-experience-despite-coronavirus-146790

As UK university students begin an academic year, they are experiencing a totally different way of life. Some have already found themselves in lockdown in their residences and are afraid they will not be getting some of the usual benefits of university education.

Universities have a duty of care for students’ health and well-being, and a responsibility to ensure that the students of 2020/21 experience a high quality, engaging and innovative learning experience.

It is important to universities that they provide excellent student satisfaction, and they are judged on this by students and the government. So far, it looks very possible that students will rate their experience as less satisfying than usual.

As a researcher with extensive experience in policy and practice in higher education, I suggest there are a number of vital ways in which universities can ensure student satisfaction and continued value for money.

New challenges

New students often find their first term disorientating and now there are additional challenges to deal with, such as managing the use of new technologies and attending face-to-face sessions with social distancing in place.

To maintain student satisfaction and manage expectations, universities have to find ways of listening attentively to students. Institutions may have been doing all they can to support students, but it has not always felt like that to students themselves. Universities need to survey student views regularly and make changes based on these views, so that students find universities to be responsive to their needs.

Woman with headphones on holding pen looking at laptop screen
Students will have differing requirements and preferences for their learning experience. fizkes/Shutterstock

Universities must not treat learners as one homogeneous group. There are not going to be “one size fits all” solutions. Some students will be keen for on-campus sessions, and others will only feel comfortable if everything is online.

Universities have to design learning which can be flexed either way, according to student demand, but also as the pandemic restrictions change. This needs to be done with a new speed and agility – something that universities are sometimes not known for.

Keep in touch

Institutions need to communicate to students more than they have ever done before, and via multiple channels. Students say that email is not the best form of communication.

More interactive ways of connecting, such as virtual question-and-answer sessions, individual phone calls replying to specific questions and social media are far more effective. Universities have a responsibility to explain what they are doing from a student’s point of view, and to tailor their responses to different students.

Young black woman looking at phone
Students may prefer to receive information via social media or messaging.  skyNext/Shutterstock

Finally, universities need to make good use of technology. Paradoxically, a medium which was a response to having to educate at a distance has become the means by which universities can offer a far more individualised, flexible and engaging experience. For example, online learning and communication should allow for new one-to-one conversations on study and progress, informed by data on students’ engagement with their learning.

Invest in staff and students

All this may not be easy for some staff. In the new environment, every teacher needs to be comfortable and creative with the blended technologies they are using. More than this, they need to rethink their approaches to designing, delivering and assessing everything that they taught before, so the 2020/21 curriculum will be fresh, innovative and value for money.

As ever, if you want a high quality product you need to invest, and universities pride themselves on the excellence of their learning experiences. So as well as resourcing extensive extra investment in hardware, software and networking capacity, it is necessary to invest in the training of staff. Staff will need to have the tools to ensure consistency, innovation and excellence of design.

Students also need support in order to take full advantage of the imaginative technological approaches on offer. All this is not cheap, but it is a very positive and necessary investment.

Six months ago the world changed, and with it many accepted approaches to learning and providing a holistic student experience. The relationship universities have with students has to change as a result – more interaction, more innovation and certainly more flexibility for individual learners, learning situations and approaches are all needed.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Introductions and conclusions: How much the same and how different?

by Susan Carter, Doctoral Writing SIG:  https://doctoralwriting.wordpress.com/2020/09/18/introductions-and-conclusion-how-same-how-different/

Image: University of Melbourne (Youtube)

 and conclusions bookend or mirror each other. But they also differ from each other in significant ways. Doctoral writers need to be aware of the generic expectations of introductions and conclusions.

Recently, I was in a workshop with academic writers revising their introductions and conclusion. We were working on identifying strong rhetorical moves in these two significant sections, talking about what sort of moves, syntax, and word choice equated with persuasive beginnings and endings. The idea was that once we itemised what was strong, we could all improve the style and power of our own drafts.

I was drawing on the advice that I give doctoral thesis writers along the lines of ‘The introduction and conclusion sections of the thesis serve a bookend function and ensure that the reader understands the scope of the thesis and what it contributes. The first and last places are the most important and writers need to consider what they should achieve, what they should signal, and what work they can be made to do.’

Readers expect the covert convention that the introduction will be broad, general and contextual so that fine detail here will seem disjunctive. It is common to note an hourglass shape to the thesis, where a wide scope introductory framework narrows to the specific topic and focus, and then widens again in the conclusion.

I recommend consulting Paltridge and Starfield’s (2007)  ‘typical moves’ that introductions make. These are broadly establishing the context, showing the gap and describing how the research will fill the gap (Paltridge and Starfield 2007 break these sections down further, suggesting that some moves are obligatory. It is well worth reading this book).

Then, the conclusion should leave the reader with a clear sense of what has been achieved: namely, that the aims identified in the introduction have been achieved and that a unique and important contribution to scholarship has been made. A conclusion often recalls specific points to emphasise what has been achieved. Generic conventions for emphasising the value of the original contribution become important to writers: the conclusion is where the examiner leaves the thesis.

In this workshop, though, we noticed the tense of these two sections. I’d never thought about tense before as it relates to introductions and conclusion. I’m pondering on the fact that tense signals the direction of gaze and focus: very simplistically I think of a speaker as looking backwards (with past tense use), sideways (with the present) and ahead (with the future).

Frequently the tense in the introduction was past or present perfect to describe the context, often describing what the problem was that prompted a need for research, and what was already known or tried as a solution. Introductions then shifted to the present tense for what the current project does, how it does it, and in which specific niche. The present tense describes how the gap in knowledge or understanding is filled by this project.

The conclusion may use the present simple tense in stating the original contribution, saying again what the thesis does and what it argues. The conclusion may reiterate how the different parts of the thesis work together in the elaboration of a convincing argument, or how the various elements in the research process have contributed to the achievement of certain results.

Often, though, the conclusion looks to the future as well, projecting how the findings may direct changes in practice, or how they raise further questions that offer promise. Limitations of the project are often framed as possible future research.

For many authors, the conclusion satisfyingly establishes a better understanding of something they are passionate about, as when social scientists show the wastage caused by inequity; scientists, the changes to natural patterns that suggest humans need to change their habits; or educationalists, shortfalls in practice that can be improved.

The idea that came from the recent class is this: The generic conventions of verb tenses in introductions and conclusions comply with the narrative logic that each research project is one part of a bigger, ongoing story. Every research project is based on past understanding. And it is appropriate that in the conclusion, the author looks to the future, and to what will follow.

Perhaps the situation is not so cut and dried as to be about simply about tense, although one writing exercise is to watch for tense in thesis section examples. It is more about gaze-direction, poise and tone. These relate to the social nature of every thesis or journal article, in entering a discussion that other people have already begun.

Do you also workshop how to review introductions and conclusions together as a set? Any other thoughts?


Paltridge, B. & Starfield, S. (2007). Thesis and dissertation writing in a second language: A handbook for supervisors. London: Routledge.

Monday, September 14, 2020

New learning economy challenges unis to be part of reshaping lifelong education

by Martin Betts and Michael Rosemann, The Conversation:  https://theconversation.com/new-learning-economy-challenges-unis-to-be-part-of-reshaping-lifelong-education-144800

Image: The Conversation

The new learning economy is creating opportunities for universities to move on from the current focus on cutting costs, downsizing and job losses. Many universities appear stuck in a downward spiral, but now may be the time to offset this with new initiatives. Growth in the need for ongoing learning creates these opportunities.

Current education providers, as well as new entrants, have the chance to replicate the business models and innovative practices of Spotify, YouTube, Uber, Airbnb and other disruptors of other sectors. For example, we can envisage a platform provider brokering crowd-sourced production of education content. The resourcing of expertise from the higher education sector would provide access to new, scaleable and more widely available forms of academic content.

Significant disruption is imminent. We believe those with ambition will thrive in the emerging new learning economy. They will not only disrupt, but also generate new forms of demand and supply for education.

Old assumptions overturned

The education market has been stable for generations. This stability has relied on three assumptions.

First, knowledge gained through upfront education equips people to master the immediate and ongoing needs of work. As a basis of lifelong competence, the knowledge gained by novice professionals is expected to be sufficient for career entry and beyond.

Second, as we gain experience in our career, we only occasionally require new learning. Experience builds incrementally and continuously on upfront knowledge over time, leading to ever-increasing competence.

Third, there is no need for learning consciousness. In other words, the individual does not need to know how much they know, what else to learn, or how to unlearn.

These assumptions have driven government policy, student demand, employer practices and university business models. With changes to the future of work and digital disruption, these assumptions can now be seen as creating three systemic learning disorders:

  1. the rate of innovation and knowledge development has accelerated, so our knowledge is out of date sooner

  2. experience gained through repetitive work and professional practice is of less value in a world of changing practices and new requirements

  3. our competence is something about which we have less consciousness or literacy – we increasingly don’t know what we don’t know, and not knowing how to learn and unlearn matters even more.

The 3 learning disorders explained

We illustrate these disorders in the three charts below. These plot the way knowledge, experience and competence develop over lifetimes, and the impacts of the emerging learning disorders.

The first chart uses a simplistic model of learning development consistent with the seminal work on self-efficacy in education of Caprara et al. The underlying idea is that competence is a combination of knowledge gained from learning and experience gained from working.

The traditional model of learning: knowledge and experience combine to form competence. Author provided

However, competence is not sufficient. Similar to our understanding of physical well-being (for example, is my blood pressure OK?) or financial well-being (will I have enough super?), we need consciousness about our competence. We suggest this is the basis of educational well-being. The pursuit of this goal gives rise to the new learning economy.

The first disorder, the knowledge disorder, shown in the chart below, captures the fact that the knowledge gained from formalised learning now decays more quickly. This happens due to faster rates of innovation and knowledge development within the periods that learning had been designed to serve.

The knowledge disorder: knowledge is decaying more quickly. Author provided

The rate at which knowledge grows and develops has overtaken our intention to create novice professionals with knowledge lasting a lifetime. One-off degrees that testify to a certain qualification at a certain point in time are no longer sufficient. The world requires educational well-being as much as it requires a healthy and prosperous population.

The third chart shows how the value of experiences we gain in the workplace has changed. No longer does cumulative experience lead to increasing competence. Experiences of old ways of doing things are becoming hindrances to ongoing competence in disrupted environments.

The experience disorder: experience can become unhelpful. Author provided

As a result, experience might matter less. Even worse, it could become counter-productive when unlearning established practices becomes increasingly difficult. In some situations, current knowledge has become more important than past knowledge with added experience.

We can see the impacts of this experience disorder in recent years. Large organisations have let “experienced” staff go, then hired new graduates with contemporary knowledge. NAB was criticised for doing this.

How should education respond to these changes?

We predict we will see on-demand, tailored and customised learning on new platforms. These may be ubiquitous and scaleable programs of what are being called micro-credentials. Google’s “career certificates” are one recent example.

We foresee a need to support continuously improving workplace experience through partnerships between educational well-being providers, maybe universities, and providers and receivers of workplace experiences, employers and employees. We see opportunities for new, platform-based, lifelong experience-management services.

The consciousness disorder arises from us being unaware of how change undermines competence. As US secretary of state, Donald Rumsfeld famously coined the term “unknown unknowns” in highlighting the danger in dealing with complex, fast-changing situations. In such a world, competence becomes more fragile, but we are not aware of it, which makes us vulnerable to disruption.

When Donald Rumsfeld spoke about ‘unknown unknowns’ he wasn’t talking about education, but the concept has emerged as a key issue for the sector.

We can foresee new services to help identify unconscious incompetence. Maybe automated online “health checks” of educational well-being will be made available to alumni. This service could be aligned with personalised access to new knowledge to address gaps.

We believe that responding to these three disorders, in these sorts of ways, provides a blueprint for a new learning economy. This learning economy is global and will scale up to satisfy the demands of citizens who are no longer served by our current model of education.

This evolution of education will not only present new directions for established education providers, but also attract new competitors. They might range from ed-tech start-ups with niche services, to others that see the global learning economy as a high-growth opportunity. Google is unlikely to be the last new challenger to the traditional university model.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

The PhD: Article publication, grant applications, promotion requests, and dealing with rejection

by Pat Thomson, Patter: https://patthomson.net/2020/08/31/dealing-with-rejection/

This is a guest post from Dan Cleather. Dan is a strength coach, educator, scientist and anarchist. His latest book,  “Subvert! A philosophical guide for the 21st century scientist”, was published in May.

Being an academic requires a thick skin. Very thick. Part of the job is dealing with a constant stream of rejections – on journal articles, grant applications, speaker applications, promotion requests … Rejection is always disappointing. However, over time we grow to understand that rejections often have little to do with the quality of the work. This helps us to protect our self-esteem – at least most of the time.

Experience is an important teacher in developing your thick skin. Once you have shepherded a few papers through a series of rejections and then ultimately into print, you can have confidence that your work is good, and put rejections down to editorial considerations or the vagaries of the peer review process.

But what if you are a student or an early career researcher? In this case you don’t have this experience, and each rejection can badly rock your self-confidence. I believe that rejections are a key factor in the growth of imposter syndrome in academia.

When one of my students first submits their work to an academic journal I always walk a weird tightrope in giving encouragement and managing expectations. On the one hand, I want to tell the student how good their work is. On the other, I need to prepare them for the fact that rejection is a very possible, and often likely, outcome. This post is the blog form of that conversation.

1. Appreciate The Statistics (Listen To The Horror Stories)

It is normal for excellent articles to get rejected. Some of the reasons for this are described later in this post. Everyone will have their own horror stories. Mine is that the first article from my PhD was rejected from 5 journals before I managed to get it accepted. It now has 41 citations.

It is also normal (but not right) for the peer review process to be a long, frustrating and unpredictable affair. One of the best students I ever worked with had to wait for 2 years to get her  first article into print – it broke my heart, as the work was fantastic. One of my favourite articles took 16 months to get through peer review (at the same journal), and despite the fact that I think it is some of my best work it never gets cited.

Applying for grants is even worse. The process is highly competitive, and so a lot of good proposals don’t get funded. The image here is a summary of my own grant applications over the last 10 years. Weeks of work went into each of these failed applications. It is a story with a happy ending, but this is only because of a recent success.

The take home message here is that, in academia, everyone gets rejected, all the time. When you are starting out you need to fight hard to believe this. Rejections are always disappointing, but at least if you appreciate the statistics you can reassure yourself that they are normal. 

2. Understand Editorial Considerations

A key part of an editor’s role is to ensure that the content in their journal is of interest to their readers. Often, if you experience a desk rejection – that is your work is rejected without being sent out for review – it is because the editor has decided that your article is not appropriate for their journal, or they have other articles that they think their readers will find more interesting. Again, it needs to be emphasised that this has nothing to do with the quality of the work – you are unlikely to get an article about lung disease into a cardiac journal, no matter how good it is. Of course, you might disagree with the editor – you probably sent the article to the journal because you wanted to reach that specific audience. However, it is up to the editor to steer the direction of a journal – ultimately the articles published in a journal will largely reflect the editor’s tastes. If they don’t favour your work it is important to bear in mind that this is just one person’s opinion.

Another part of an editor’s role is to act as custodian of the journal’s status. Many editors will be interested in the impact factor of their journal – i.e. how many times the articles in the journal are cited by external sources. This is a pretty awful way of judging a journal’s quality, but unfortunately is part of the current academic environment. For this reason, some editors will also reject articles that they don’t think will garner lots of citations. Again, just because an article doesn’t get cited does not mean it is not a good piece of work. Similarly, it is pretty difficult to predict this (even if you wanted to), and editors get it wrong all the time. Of the articles I have been involved with,  the most highly cited one with 59 citations, was rejected from at least two journals (as I remember) before it was accepted.

The point here is that the quality of the work is only one of a number of competing factors that are used in decision making – and sometimes not even the most important one. Many excellent articles are rejected (rightly or wrongly) based upon the editor’s prerogative. Often, success is predicated on getting your work in front of the right person, someone who knows enough about it to appreciate its importance.

3. Be Critical Of The Peer Review Process

Peer review is a notoriously fickle process, and it is helpful to a have a healthy scepticism as to its efficacy. However, many academics don’t, viewing peer review as a sacred cow that protects the integrity of the academic literature. This is demonstrably false – there are plenty of high profile examples that show that peer review often doesn’t even detect cases of academic misconduct.

There is evidence that supports the contention that peer review is a fickle process. For instance, one study showed that the rate of agreement between reviewers at the Journal of General Internal Medicine was little better than would be produced by chance. Similar findings have been found in the peer review of grant applications (e.g. in Australia and the  US). Every reasonably experienced academic will be able to relate examples of conflicting peer reviews that they have received.

What is the point of peer review if it is such a random process? Well, in many cases, peer review will improve the quality of an article, and it does provide some (imperfect) form of quality control. However, from the point of view of this blog post, you should recognise that a positive or negative recommendation is to some degree a matter of chance, and that you shouldn’t invest too much of your self-esteem in an academic flip of the coin.

4. Recognise Reviewer 2

Reviewer 2 is the person who sticks their hand up at the end of a presentation and asks the presenter why they didn’t do the study in an entirely different way.

Peer review is supposed to be a critical evaluation of your work. Ironically, sometimes peer reviewers are horribly uncritical. In particular, when performing a peer review, you should judge the article on its own merits – not list a plethora of alternative things that could have been done.

Peer reviewers are human too. You are often dealing with competitors, who have their own egos, and may have conflicting ideas as to how research should be done. If it seems to you that a reviewer is being unreasonable, then they probably are – and that sucks. It may even result in a rejection. To protect your self-esteem you need to recognise when your work is being rejected by Reviewer 2, and again, not take it is a reflection of your ability.

5. Back Yourself

Peer review is a process that will tend to reward work that conforms with the status quo, but that will tend to penalise potentially transformative research that breaks the mould. Peer review processes that improve the overall standard of research also result in more exceptional work being rejected, and papers that challenge the status quo undergo more changes during peer review. This is possibly best illustrated by the number of Nobel prize winning studies that were initially  rejected for publication.

Of course, if you receive a rejection you should consider the feedback carefully and try to learn from it. However, rejections should not make you feel that your ideas don’t have merit. The history of science is one of new ideas replacing old ones. Yes, we should expose our ideas to outside tests, and we should have the intellectual honesty to properly weigh up counter-arguments and consider that we might be wrong. However, if we believe that our ideas stand up to these tests, we need to have the confidence to back ourselves.

Where does this all leave us?

There is no doubt that rejection sucks. However, it is part and parcel of academic life. It is important that you are critical of the evaluative processes that are a part of academia, and that you don’t buy into them too fully. Celebrate the successes, but don’t pay too much attention to the rejections.