The Madness in the CAO System

When academics look at the CAO numbers at the end of August they are inevitably delighted when the points increase for their own particular course. Why? Because they know from experience that a CAO points score is a relatively good marker for basic intelligence and, crucially, work ethic and commitment. The course I teach on in DCU is now at 470 points but a few years ago it was down at 365. Teaching the 470-pointers is much more fulfilling because the students are far more engaged and committed. Anyone who says the CAO system is meaningless and a measure of nothing in particular is out of touch with the thinking of the vast majority of those who are actually doing the teaching at third level.

Notwithstanding all of that, it is interesting to look at 2014 numbers because if you do you will see some mad stuff. The sheer number of courses is extraordinary, something that has been well flagged for a number of years now and has been pretty much ‘outed’ as a reflection of cynical practices by the various institutions. But there is further madness in the detail:

  • The number of Law+ or Arts+ or Business+ courses is almost farcical.
  • The continued and excessive use of random selection in TCD, even for courses like English and Law, continues to go largely unnoticed.
  • The IoTs have huge problems in attracting students of sufficient calibre. There are about 120 Level 8 courses offered by the IoTs that have entry requirements below the 300 point mark. Indeed, the figures show very strongly that the idea of merging ITB and ITT with DIT in order to create a supposedly stronger Technological University makes absolutely no sense. ITB in particular cannot attract ‘good’ students and it will only weaken DIT’s case for TU status. Furthermore, it would be interesting to see the statistics on completion rates for the sub-300 courses.
  • There is huge disparity in the points required for similar courses in different institutions and this raises obvious questions about the standardisation of standards across the sector.
  • There is a huge amount of duplication in the system and this needs to be examined on a discipline-by-discipline basis. The teaching of engineering, for example, needs to be made much ‘tighter’. Every state-funded institution in Dublin has engineering courses of some kind.
  • There are some bizarre-sounding and ludicrously specific courses out there (Bar Studies, Nutraceuticals, Outdoor Education etc.) and an obsessive tendency to use the ‘bio’ prefix and ‘forensics’ in the title of programmes.
  • The supply and demand nature of the CAO system means that there is often a mismatch between the entry points and the difficulty of the degree programme. There are examples of maths and engineering courses where the entry points are such that I, for one, cannot see how the students can possibly survive if the subject is taught at the appropriate level.

 No doubt some of my comments will come across as a bit rich seeing that I am a DCU academic. It was DCU, along with UL, who pioneered the concept of denominated entry and multidisciplinary degree programs. But the difference in our case was that our programmes were very much focused on emerging sectors of the economy and were a response to a perceived need. Our programmes in Biotechnology, Analytical Science, Accounting and Finance, Applied Languages, Communications etc. were all based on a rational assessment of the needs of the economy in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were deliberately designed to be different from the traditional programmes offered by the NUI and TCD. Nowadays, however, many degree programmes are designed simply to attract students with, I suspect, very little real assessment of whether they make pedagogical or economic sense. Hence we have ludicrously specific and ludicrously vague degree programmes throughout the system.

So what should we do? The current response is to suggest the effective merging of programmes and to go down the non-denominated entry route. This has a certain appeal as we all tend to be seduced by simplicity. We equate simple systems with good systems. But non-denominated entry has the potential to create a pressure cooker effect at the very time when students, perhaps away from home for the first time, are at their most vulnerable. For example, if my own faculty went completely non-dominated, I suspect we would have fierce competition to get into our Genetics and Cell Biology degree programme and many students would end up disappointed at the end of the year. So we need to do more than just going headlong towards generic entry. We have to do this carefully. Yes, get rid of many denominated programmes that have ‘with’ or ‘and’ in the title and eliminate courses for which there is little or no demand. But you do need to tread very carefully in some areas, notably the sciences. ‘Science’ is a very broad term (as is the acronym STEM) and physics, for example, is quite different from most of the biological sciences. It doesn’t make sense, in my view, to admit someone who is strong in mathematics and who has his/her heart set on a career in physics, into a class with students who are far less mathematically inclined and who want to study microbiology. In other words we shouldn’t become obsessed with non-denominated entry.

Of equal importance is the on-going problem of matching students’ interests and aptitudes with the course on which they embark. It is obvious that a supply and demand system is not going to do this. When you factor in all the various influences on school leavers it is not surprising that many end up in courses for which they are not suited. But that’s another day’s discussion.

Posted in education, Leaving Cert, Third Level | 1 Comment

The Teaching Assistant (TA) Concept

There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.”

Education is a part of life in which there are many tides and opposing them is pretty much pointless unless you’re some sort of revolutionary. That’s why I am often frustrated by people who appear in the media offering ‘solutions’ to problems that simply involve little more than seeking more resources. Let’s face it, key parts of the public service, especially Health and Education, will always be short of resources. Without necessarily lying down and taking everything passively, we need to adapt the way we do things. We need to accept Bill Clinton’s favourite word – ‘change’. This is not a question of ‘making do’, it’s a question of trying to do things even better with scarce resources. This is not impossible; it just needs imagination. And it needs a commitment to doing things properly.

Last week I brought up the idea of an American-style TA system where I stressed that this was not intended to be a cheap form of labour but a suggestion that we have to consider seriously. Of course, the idea of introducing Teaching Assistants – postgraduate students in the main – is bound to evoke images of postgrads being exploited, simply thrown to the wolves for no end other than to save the University a bit of money.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s think about how this would work. Before doing that, though, I should say that I’ve been a TA myself when I studied in the US and I found it a very educational experience. I TA’d for Michael Shuler who was one of the founding fathers of the field of biochemical engineering. I learned a lot from Mike who was very supportive to me, and I learned loads about the American student mindset, especially the ambition of it! – very different from the self-effacing Irish one. As a student doing coursework myself, I was lucky to have a number of excellent TAs especially for my molecular thermodynamics module where the lecturer was, shall we say…. shite. Indeed, when I was an undergrad student in UCD, one of our maths lecturers was recognised as being appalling and he always had a TA. The TA in my year, a maths postgrad, was great and got us all through.

Even in DCU, I have used TAs at times (although we have called them ‘demonstrators’) mainly for helping me out during problem solving sessions. One of our current lecturers, a Swiss adjunct, always has a TA and the students always find her to be an excellent source of help.

So, despite the horror stories that might sometimes emanate from the US and elsewhere, and the general sense among Irish postgrads that ‘demonstrating’ is a monumental pain in the backside, I think the TA system can be made to work to the benefit of academics, undergrads and postgrads alike. (It does need to be funded though as I mentioned the last time.)

I see two types of TA. The first kind would be assigned to a lecture module and would do things like give tutorials and feedback on assignments to small groups of students from a large class. I think it is vital that we adopt this approach with first year classes in particular where young students need to be nurtured a bit more and may in fact relate to a postgrad better than they would to an older lecturer. This would be the role that most TAs have in the US. (In Cornell, I remember that first year chemistry was taught by a Nobel Prize winner but he had a small army of TAs.) This type of TA works, or should work, under the guidance of the lecturer – the lecturer should be a mentor in effect. Personally, I think this is the best way to learn how to teach. Sitting in a lecture listening to someone drone on about the constructivism or whatever is completely useless.

The other type of TA would cover laboratory modules. Laboratory demonstrating is, in the sciences at least, postgraduate students’ only exposure to teaching but often it involves little more than hanging around acting as crowd control – postgrads are often deeply cynical about demonstrating and rightly so. This is of no benefit to the undergraduates nor the postgraduates themselves and the only way this problem can be alleviated is if the postgraduate students are given more responsibility. The TA would be a sort of ‘senior demonstrator’ who would essentially be responsible for the actual ‘teaching’ that is done in the lab, for coordinating junior demonstrators perhaps and for assessing the students. An academic would act as a mentor and provide advice as required. It should be stressed that in my own department, we use senior demonstrators already in our final year bioprocessing module where the senior demonstrator takes almost full control of a multi-day laboratory process. Using senior demonstrators is the only way we can run this unique module given our current staff resources and the time commitment that is required to run it.

All of this could be administered under the structured PhD system and maybe it could be optional rather than compulsory. At the moment, structured PhDs are being designed rather haphazardly and without any clear sense of what they are trying to achieve – an apparently random mix of specialist and generic modules with some vague notions of making the PhD graduate more ‘industry ready’ – and while few PhD graduates will end up in academia, I think it is really worthwhile to give them some exposure to teaching. This is not only because some of them will be academics but the experience of (meaningful) teaching translates to many other areas where good communication is essential. It is never a waste of time to have had the experience of standing up in front of 30 students with 30 pairs of eyes pointed right at you and sizing you up.

Of course, everyone is going to say “where’s the time for all this”. Academics will protest that they don’t have time to be mentoring anyone (other than their own postgrads of course); PhD students will complain that the pressure to complete projects on time is already great enough. Perhaps that is the case for some postgrads but is it true for all? And shouldn’t the postgrad experience be a little more holistic?

Anyway, these are some initial thoughts and obviously the devil is in the detail (and there may be serious logistical problems in trying to teach large classes in small groups) but a lot of things are coming together that make it essential that we make some changes to how we do things. Lecturing staff cutbacks, the development of structured PhDs, the inadequate nature of the current demonstrating experience and large undergraduate class sizes all suggest that this is the time to think new thoughts – and act on them. Although they have a role to play, technological solutions like digital learning are not the answer. Young students need to be part of an institution where somebody actually knows their name.

I would welcome a guest post from a PhD student on this issue regardless of how critical it might be. First offer gets the prize but please don’t just make it a diatribe about demonstrating – I know you hate it. We have to assume that whatever we do in the future will be better than what has been done in the past. Otherwise why do anything?

Posted in education, structured PhD, teaching assistants | 1 Comment

Teaching the Scientific Method

I was going to write about Teaching Assistants this time but I’ve postponed that for next week. In the meantime, this article in Scientific American about parents’ reluctance to expose their children to injections of any kind, vitamin K in this case but also vaccines, grabbed my attention and got me thinking about other things. That’s the thing about education; it’s endlessly fascinating. It’s the interdisciplinarity of it that makes it so appealing. It’s a wonderful mix of everything from cognitive science to psychology to economics to sociology to neuroscience and philosophy. Throw in a good dollop of ideology and the potential for discussion and argument is boundless.

Anyway, I have to say that this reluctance by increasing numbers to embrace scientific medicine drives me nuts. And, when I hear people advocating alternative medical treatments for which there is absolutely no evidence other than the odd rather dubious anecdote, I go into rant mode. (Mind you, pathologically ‘optimistic’ biomedical researchers engaging in ‘spin’ or wishful thinking affect me in a similar way. Going from basic research in genomics to ‘personalised’ medicine is an enormous leap that may not even be possible. Nature is inevitably much more complicated that we predict.)

The mere mention of homeopathy turns me into a ranting maniac. But it’s not just homeopathy, which is clearly ridiculous; there are many ‘cures’ and potions and ‘treatments’ and diets around and there is absolutely no evidence for their efficacy. But sensible, often ‘scientifically trained’ people still succumb to the charms (an appropriate word) of copper bracelets (for joints), amber necklaces (to aid sleep!), and rings (to prevent snoring!!).

But frustrating as it might be, the continued belief in pseudoscience or a lack of confidence in science itself is interesting and I think it might have something to do with the idea that humans seem to have evolved to be religious; thinking scientifically does not seem to come naturally to us as a species. If one thinks of religion in the broad sense, believing in pseudoscience or seeing science as just another worldview is not much different from religion – it’s a belief in the mysterious, the magical. It is why otherwise sensible people can believe in something as ludicrous as homeopathy or an anti-snoring ring. Indeed, on the well-known ‘intellectual’ website, University of Michigan psychiatrist, Randolph Neese, has said “I am pretty sure that people gain a selective advantage from believing in things they can’t prove. People who are sometimes consumed by false beliefs do better than those who insist on evidence before they believe and act. People who are sometimes swept away by emotions do better in life than those who calculate every move. These advantages have, I believe, shaped mental capacities for intense emotion and passionate beliefs because they give a selective advantage in certain situations.” I’m not sure I buy that particular argument but it strikes me that the persistence of what might be termed ‘irrationality’ is interesting and does require explanation, perhaps using arguments based on the role that shared religious belief plays in determining the survival of groups rather than individuals alone.

Regardless, it does seem a bit disappointing that in this scientific and technological age, the idea of seeking evidence, of being sceptical, of understanding the importance of data, has not become more of an instinctive response by people when being encouraged to use new products or to adopt new lifestyles or even to embrace new ways of learning. The “it worked for me!” argument is used a little too often.

Indeed, the absence of a true evidence-based approach to policy-making is a serious deficit in our political system. We see this all the time in the education and research spheres where policies are typically introduced on the basis of plausibility rather than real evidence. Mind you, gathering evidence in these areas is not easy.

Sadly, despite all the rhetoric about critical thinking and, now, ‘21st century skills’, the education system has failed to instill a culture of sceptical inquiry in the population. A population that is non-questioning, or that does not appreciate the importance of evidence, is a vulnerable population, as Carl Sagan has said more eloquently than I ever could.

I think those of us involved in education, not just STEM education, need to pay more attention to educating our students in the philosophy (with small ‘p’) of science; what it is, what it aspires to do and what it cannot do. I think we also need to teach students about the culture of science, how it works, who pays, who benefits and who loses. I think they might find these things interesting, perhaps more interesting than the science itself!

We cannot expect our students to become sceptical inquirers by just teaching them facts and training them in scientific skills, and then expecting them to become real scientific thinkers by osmosis. We need to actively encourage them to think about what they are doing.

Posted in 21st century, education, Research | 7 Comments

The Second-to-Third Level Transition

This is the text (more or less) of a letter I lashed off the the Irish Times last week. Not surprisingly given its length, it didn’t get published but why waste it?

The recent ESRI report highlighting the difficulties that school-leavers face in making the transition to third level education has already sparked much comment. This problem has been known to the third level institutions for some time and while efforts have been made to make the transition smoother for incoming students, only so much can be done with the resources available. Many of the suggestions for solving this problem will inevitably focus on the second level system. Novel, but largely invalidated methods of teaching and learning will be advocated. However, the worst way to approach the transition problem is to use it to inspire more tinkering with the second level system. (The ‘second-worst’ is to make third level more like second level and this has been happening.) The second level sector will always be confronted with the challenge of serving the needs of tens of thousands of school-leavers with very different needs and expectations. Furthermore, the Leaving Certificate will always be an examination that must be administered in a fair and transparent way and, given the stakes, it is only right that students know precisely what is expected of them. This very much limits the ways in which the Leaving Certificate can be constructed and changes to this examination must be introduced slowly and carefully.

The simplest way to address the transition problem is to adequately fund the third level institutions so that they can fully resource the teaching of First Year. This is a crucial year in which the ways of third level education can be fostered. However, with the drastically reduced level of state funding and the increased expectations for third level institutions to be centres of enterprise and innovation, teaching of First Year comes somewhere down the pecking order of priorities. The problem is exacerbated by the impending return to a more common entry-type system in which it may become even easier for the incoming student to become ‘lost’. Essentially, more staff are needed to contribute to the teaching of First Year. (Technology is not the answer for these young students.) But this can be done in a cost effective way, while killing two birds with the one stone, by increasing the level of research funding, especially in non-strategic and neglected areas like the humanities. It is not often appreciated that research students play a crucial role in delivering undergraduate teaching at third level. By recruiting more research students, by training them properly (this is not intended to be a form of cheap labour) and by making real teaching (as opposed to demonstrating) a compulsory part of structured PhD programmes, we will not only improve the research output of the third level institutions, but operate a much more formal and respected system of Teaching Assistants. This is the norm in the United States where the ‘TA’ is a key member of the teaching team.

I hate to use a cliché but some joined-up thinking is required here. In education, everything is connected and we need a much more cohesive approach to our teaching and research strategies.

Update: Will flesh out TA ideas next week!

Posted in education, Leaving Cert, Research, structured PhD | Tagged | 3 Comments

The Leaving Cert and the 21st Century

The Leaving Cert and the 21st Century

Motor cars, aeroplanes, space travel, antibiotics, anti-virals, DNA technology, MRI scanners, TVs, Relativity, GPS systems, telephones, mobile phones, stem cells, Quantum Mechanics, organ transplants, IVF, lasers, digital computers, nanotechnology, chemotherapy, brain surgery, Fermat’s Last Theorem, plastics, nuclear power, the Hubble Telescope, the Internet itself! I could go on. What’s the common thread running through this list? – the 20th century.

Before we get over-excited about the 21st century and how different it is, let’s give credit where credit is due and just think for one minute about the 20th century. There is a perception these days that some sort of ‘big bang’ occurred at the Millennium and we are now expanding into the void that is the 21st century. In fact, the big bang occurred in 1900 and what we are seeing now is a continuation of that. Perhaps we are seeing inflationary growth in some areas but nearly everything we see today is ultimately based on 20th century science. Even the XBOX is just an evolution of the Space Invaders of the 1980s.

Let’s just think about how utterly different the world was in say, 1939, as compared to 1914, or how different it was in Italia 90 compared to Mexico 1970. Each decade brought profound change, change that made the world unrecognisable in very short timespans. In 1984, I went to Cornell University and every few weeks I might catch a glimpse of a copy of the Irish Times in the library. In the 1990s I was connected to the world and using words like ‘Yahoo’ and ‘AltaVista’ and’ HTML’ and ‘Java’ and ‘Applet’ and ‘jpeg’ and ‘download’. In medicine, people who had no hope one decade were, the next, planning for their futures thanks to medications with the word ‘recombinant’ on the box. Kids who one decade were playing ‘Risk’ and ‘Monopoly’ were playing ‘Mario Brothers’ and ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ the next.

The 20th century was the century of change par excellence. No century before was comparable. Change was constant. Old jobs became obsolete with mechanisation and new jobs emerged alongside new technologies. If ever there was a century in which the “jobs of the future don’t even exist yet”, it was the 20th century.

Almost tragically it would seem, the 20th century ended and this fed the 21st century fixation. This completely arbitrary boundary between eras spawned an entirely illusory notion that the world was now a radically new place, one that was characterised by an unimaginable rate of change. In this new era, we would have to totally re-think our approach to business and, crucially, education. Gone was the staid old 20th century when it seems that rote learning would get you by. Now, 21st century skills were needed; creativity, innovation, flexibility, adaptability, the ability to work in teams, the ability to think outside the box. Somehow we have to be able to prepare our young people for jobs that don’t even exist! Haven’t we been here before actually?

21st century mania rears its ugly head every year at Leaving Cert results time when everyone who has ever been to school becomes an expert on education and proceeds to tell us how we’re getting it all wrong. We are bombarded with claims for the need to ‘teach’ problem solving, creative thinking, teamwork, adaptability, to ‘learn to learn’. Rote learning is frequently derided (understandably) but it is as if rote learning was a policy of the education system and not an unavoidable consequence of the need for a robust and transparent examination system. And of course, the ‘knowledge economy’ is frequently mentioned.

It is easy to dismiss the term ‘knowledge economy’ as just another meaningless bit of jargon. But I think the term is a revealing one. I think it stems from fear and desperation and the realisation that this country has some serious problems ahead of it. The term ‘knowledge economy’ is an expression of denial.

Throughout its history, Ireland, has consistently failed to create a sustainable economy. Social cohesion has been maintained largely through the safety valve of emigration. Now in a western world in which many traditional forms of work have been outsourced to emerging economies, even greater challenges lie ahead in sustaining a viable economy, especially here in Ireland. So, we have created a sort of mythical future – the ‘knowledge economy’ in which everyone is educated to the hilt especially in STEM subjects (whether they like it or not), where they work in creative and innovative ways, providing the world with knowledge and expertise and high tech ‘stuff’. But this is the stuff of fantasy and the 21st century fetish is just part of it.

But why do people constantly obsess about the apparent deficiencies of the education system and why it is not fit for purpose in the 21st century? There is one simple reason: the education system is being asked to do the impossible. Mainstream education (primary to secondary to tertiary) is a one-size-fits-all approach to education that, in reality, only fits a relatively small percentage of the population. And this homogeneous approach is being consolidated by the 21st century fetish which sees the ‘knowledge economy’ and its ‘highly trained graduates’ as the only way forward. The old methods of education don’t work these days not because of the requirements of the 21st century but because no single approach to homogenously structured mass education can work. The solution is not to be found in theories of ‘teaching and learning’ because there is no solution. The system needs a much more diverse education ‘network’ to meet the needs of the many but in the absence of a realistic and coherent vision for our economic future it is hard to know how to construct such a network. So, I fear we will continue the same old mid-August discussions and IBEC, CEOs of multinationals, politicians and even third level institutions themselves will continue to peddle 21st century nonsense.

Rant over.

Posted in 21st century, education, Leaving Cert, Third Level | 4 Comments

Obsessing about lectures

One of the recurring themes in the many recent contributions from those giving their tuppence worth on the ‘woes’ of education is the idea that the traditional lecture is obsolete. Whether it is or not is debatable: I happen to think that lectures are still worthwhile but I always try to incorporate a bit of ‘active learning’ into mine. But I find the constant equating of third level education with ‘lectures’ extremely frustrating. When a student goes to third level, he or she will typically learn by attending lectures, by attending tutorials in smaller groups, by taking part in all sorts of wet and dry labs, by doing individual research projects, by doing group projects, by giving presentations and, crucially, by doing a hell of a lot of study, or what is now called ‘independent learning’.

So let’s have a bit of balance here and think about whether the teaching and learning experience of students is adequate in its totality. For me, the ‘solution’ to many of the issues that people angst about in education is simple: ensure that every student is taught in a variety of ways, learns in a variety of ways, is assessed in a variety of ways and is encouraged to enjoy the experience. I happen to think that many third level institutions are doing quite well in this regard especially given that they are hugely under-resourced. We need to present a much more accurate, and fairer, image of what it is that we do.

Posted in education | 2 Comments

Doing a Man City on Irish Science?

There is no doubt that the standing of Irish science and engineering has improved enormously in recent years. The international subject rankings prove this unequivocally. The reason for the improvement is simple: funding. Good science needs money and lots of it. So, if our goal is to improve our international standing in scientific research, Government policy has been a big success. But is this a bit like soccer where clubs like Manchester City simply buy success without any real regard for the long-term financial viability of the club?

The only guaranteed way of maintaining research excellence is through economic recovery. Success in science, especially fundamental science, is, in my view, not so much a cause of economic prosperity but an effect. When a state has a strong economy with few budgetary constraints, governments can afford to think long-term and, with funds available, they are favorably disposed towards investing in scientific research, however ‘basic’ it might seem. In recent years, though, we have viewed scientific research as a key component of economic recovery. Ours will be a knowledge economy etc. etc. It’s all become a bit of a mantra really.

Now, I’m no expert in any of this but something from this article in the Irish Times today struck me. SFI have invested €300m in seven centres of excellence, apparently creating 800 high-end jobs in the process. This is largely a cost to the exchequer although the indigenous economy will obviously benefit  through knock-on effects. Crucially, these centres are predicted to create a further 1000 jobs by leveraging further non-exchequer funding during their lifetime. But that amounts to €300K per additional job created even if those 1000 jobs do benefit the wider economy. That seems a lot – or is it? Who knows? And how many of these are sustainable beyond the period of SFI funding?

As I said, I’m no expert on these matters but something seems a bit odd about these numbers. Are we simply doing a Man City here and chasing silverware? It’s just that the education sector could do with €300m.


Update: Some interesting IDA figures on job creation costs are available here.

Posted in Research | 1 Comment