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 | 1 Comment

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

From PhD to Industry

A few weeks ago I ran into a former student who had recently completed a PhD in a biology discipline and now works in technical sales. He’s a bright, outgoing, ‘emotionally intelligent’ sort of bloke. He did his PhD in a large, successful and well-funded group so he did all the things you would expect of a current PhD student in a STEM area. He had interacted with postdocs, supervised undergraduates, spoke at conferences, dealt with suppliers and technicians, worked away on his own project – no doubt doing lots of critical thinking and problem solving – and completed his thesis in good time.

It was interesting that when I asked him how he was getting on he launched into a description of the challenging ‘learning curve’ and made a hand gesture to indicate the vertical nature of it! Because, although he was bright and had worked in a busy laboratory, he wasn’t quite ready for the business culture in his new life. In particular, he was struck by the need to multi-task and the high level of expectation from both managers and customers. He was also shocked to discover that in terms of the science, industry was actually ahead of academia.

It was a fascinating conversation and although I’m sure that he will do well, it does highlight the fact that the transition from academia to the business world is a big and challenging one; and one that we in our permanent positions in academia don’t really know much about.

At the moment we are moving towards the structured PhD model as being the standard way of doing things – and I am largely in favour of the concept. But I don’t get the feeling that we’re doing it in a … structured way. It all seems very ‘patchy’. In some cases the structured program is well thought out and with a clear goal in mind, while in others it simply involves a dictat coming down from above – a funding agency or maybe some academic body – and this is acted upon at department level. Academics, being the generally cooperative people that they are, offer to give modules in whatever area they think they can. These vary from the highly specialised and technical to the generic but there is an over-riding sense that academics are coming up with modules because they have to, not because they feel particularly passionate about the concept.

I cannot believe that we are doing this in an optimal way. There seems to be nobody really leading on this, no national figure offering some sort of passionate case for why we should be going down the structured route. This is going to cost after all – in many ways.

As one commenter pointed out in this blog, one of the problems is that PhD students see the idea of compulsory fourth-level modules as a nuisance that takes away from their valuable research time. Perhaps we need to talk to PhD students more about this. It might be a good idea, for example, to hold a conference in which recent PhD graduates could talk about their experiences of making the transition from academia to industry/business. Personally, I’d love to hear what they had to say because to be honest, I’m in no position to advise anyone about making that particular transition. I think all of us academics would learn a lot.

Posted in education, Research | 2 Comments

3rd level research: He who pays the piper calls the tune?

Guest Post by Joe MacDonagh, School of Business and Humanities ITT

Greg is taking a well-earned break from this blog and his DCU research and lecturing duties. I’m guest writing on the hanging question in his last post: why should the state fund educational research?

As a psychologist who researches and lectures I have a different, social science, perspective to Greg, but one which is not altogether different. The key challenge he set was going into a hard-nosed Dragon’s Den type setting to justify state funding for academic research.

Though funding applications are long, sometimes tedious, and requiring writing which is hard to leave to others it, thankfully, doesn’t involve presenting to a bunch of incredulous businesspeople. Nevertheless, having to think through what good will come from one’s research may mean less scientific dead ends and less chance of being parodied in the ig Nobel awards and the like.

To those imaginary Dragons I would say that there is a measureable and discernible benefit from science, engineering and computing research. Explaining why we should bother with basic, rather than applied, research may take a little longer; the full benefits of the discovery of DNA can now be seen many decades after Franklin, Crick and Watson’s work in the explosion of commercial applications to most parts of everyday life, which even the Dragons would accept, presumably.

Harder to justify is funding in the social sciences and the humanities. Consequently, these areas are less well funded. In my area, psychology, one can point to how more research can inform how Irish society treats those with mental health issues. Those with mental health issues, particularly depression, often have chronic health problems. Aside from the human and moral aspect of helping these people live better lives, helping them to be healthier would be less of a drag on our health system and so save the state money.

Less easy to justify but, I believe, eminently justifiable, is humanities research. For a country with, in the main, poor foreign language skills, research into languages is important. But those entrepreneurial Dragons might look more coldly at history, folklore or even Latin and classical studies. This is, for me, the hardest argument to make in the public sphere and one which gets to the heart of the purpose of universities and third level colleges.

The monks of old in Oxford and Cambridge who instructed the original undergraduates could conduct their research, or scholarship, with little expense and just needing time to do so. Research of all sorts, particularly in the sciences, medicine and engineering, is now expensive. So why not drop humanities research and make room for “real world” research which is patentable and commercialisable?

Simply put, without a knowledge of our history we will forget the lessons of the past or, as George Santayana put it much better- “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. That’s the quote most often used in this context but I prefer Cicero’s comment: “Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child”. The presence of academics from humanities disciplines, including folklore, literature, history of art and classical studies, helps to inform public debate on what we value so that we don’t repeat past failed social experiments.

In Ireland you only have to look at the popularity of historical, artistic and literature texts to see how much they contribute to the Irish psyche and to the need for self-understanding. And that’s their value; infusing society with something ineffable and unquantifiable but beneficial nevertheless. They’re like a vestigial organ; it doesn’t seem important but take it away and the whole isn’t as healthy and doesn’t thrive as well.

At this stage the Dragons may have pulled a lever and I may have gone down a trap door but still such a process is useful as it should make us in the academy better promote the worth of what we do. We need to work together on research more as I see duplication in a lot of Irish colleges, with an increasing “me too” approach to funding. Every college can’t have exactly the same kit and the same super expensive machines. Specialisation would encourage critical masses of researchers and would save money which could be spent elsewhere in an increasingly challenging environment for research.

Where we should specialise is an argument for another day but to any Dragon types out there wondering about the cost efficiency of current research spend just look at: the pharmaceutical companies situated in Ireland, the burgeoning computer gaming sector, our prominent role internationally in medical devices manufacturing, how we need to understand our high rates of depression and suicide and how good research informs teaching. A vibrant research sector means more graduates who think critically and it can contribute to a thoughtful and considered society.

Thanks for reading this far and thanks to Greg for letting me write this guest post.

Posted in education, Research | 1 Comment

Why should the state fund academic research?

Many academics would scoff at the very idea of asking this question. To them, it is so self-evidently obvious that  research should be funded by the taxpayer that they view the question as preposterous.

In these recessionary times, the prevailing paradigm is that academic research should be a driver of growth in the real economy. Thus, much of the language around universities these days involves words like innovation, enterprise, start-ups, knowledge economy etc. But let’s suppose (with good reason I believe) that the direct contribution of academic research to the economy is likely to be small, except in some niche areas where small numbers of highly qualified people are employed.

Now, if we put those immediate and relatively small economic benefits of academic research aside, what exactly are the main benefits? If you had to walk into a sort of Dragon’s Den full of hard-nosed, sceptical policy-makers who control the purse strings, what would you say in your pitch? How would you sell academic research in an evidence-based  way such that the bottom-liners would buy it?

I’ll leave that with you as I head off to the sun for a couple of weeks! Maybe I’ll try to answer it when I come home and if anyone wants to do a guest post on this blog (on this topic) I’ll be happy to oblige.

Posted in education, Research | 1 Comment