What’s all this about digital skills?

Over 75% of Irish school leavers will progress to further or higher education. And you might imagine that we would adopt an integrated approach to curriculum design in our education system. And you might think that we’d think about each level of the education system in terms of how well it prepares pupils and students for the subsequent level.

But we don’t seem to think that way. Project Maths, for example, was introduced with the aim of training school-leavers to be better mathematical thinkers and problem solvers. Yet, as a preparation for studying mathematics at university level, it has been a failure bordering on a disaster. Ask any engineering, physics or mathematics lecturer.

The Junior Cycle has been introduced for similar reasons – to reduce the emphasis on teaching to the test, to focus more on the ‘wellbeing’ of students, to promote better student ‘engagement’ and to promote the development of skills like problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity. Yet, the general approach being promoted in the Junior cycle is at odds with the knowledge-rich, exam-oriented approach employed in the Leaving Cert. It is reasonable to predict that as a preparation for the rigours of the Leaving Cert, the Junior Cycle, just like Project Maths before it, will prove to be a failure. (I actually think that the Leaving Cert is not a bad preparation for third level education. Success in the Leaving demands focus, work ethic and no little intelligence. It is not perfect but we have plenty of time to turn our raw first year students into confident and knowledgeable graduates – that’s our job.)

But this lack of a clear vision as to what each level of the education system is actually for is most obvious when both academics and business leaders give their tuppence worth on the need to teach, at second level, what they see as workplace-relevant skills. A very curious example of this is the increasingly popular idea that our secondary school students should be taught ‘digital skills’. I get the idea that students should be taught about online safety and the like, but what other digital skills are we actually talking about? Remember, the majority of our school leavers will progress to higher/further education and will enter the workplace any time between one and eight years after leaving school.

Let’s take someone who does a four year undergraduate degree. What digital skills should they be taught at secondary school to prepare them for the world of work four years hence? I’d really like to hear the answer to this question because we live in a time when it is not uncommon to hear academics and business people suggesting that knowledge itself has become so ephemeral that it is hardly worth teaching anything other than ‘skills’. “We’ll always have Google” seems to be the argument.

Are people really suggesting that ‘digital skills’ have a timeless quality that, say, Newton’s Laws, or quantum theory, or the works of Shakespeare don’t have? Are we saying that the jobs of the future (which don’t exist yet remember!) will require the same digital skills as are being used today? Surely, of all things, digital skills are the most prone to obsolescence. So why teach them, whatever they are? Why don’t we teach digital skills learning skills, if you know what I mean?

In other words, what the hell are people going on about?

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It’s really all about knowledge

Some thoughts after this morning’s lecture….

For the last three years I’ve been teaching a first year module called Introduction to Bioprocessing. To be honest, the purpose of the module is to get our biotechnology students together as a relatively small group (25 students) which I hope will help make the transition to university that little bit easier for them. The module is, to a large extent, an ice-breaker.

In the module, I adopt an approach that really goes against my basic philosophy of education: it is knowledge-light.

One of the first things I do is to get the students (who have never studied engineering) to solve a couple of engineering problems – how to supply oxygen to a 1000 litre bioreactor, for example. The purpose is definitely not to teach problem-solving as a ‘thing’ but merely to give the students some sense of what bioprocess engineering actually is. These exercises are done in groups which I hope will help to create a positive class dynamic.

For the last few weeks of the module, I teach some basic computational skills, especially doing calculations with Excel. Over the years I have found that even third year students can lack basic Excel skills. For too long, I think, we have relied on students to acquire a whole range of digital skills by osmosis/enquiry, maybe on the assumption that our students are those elusive creatures, ‘digital natives’. They’re not and this generation needs to be taught as much as any previous one.

In between, I get each student to give an oral presentation on a bioprocessing-related topic that I have selected for them. The purpose of the presentation is to open students’ eyes to the fact that communication, especially oral communication, is an important part of being a scientist or engineer, and I want to get my students on the ‘communication ladder’ as quickly as possible. Furthermore, the range of topics covered should (in theory) give the whole class an idea of the breadth of the material that comes under the umbrella of ‘bioprocessing’.

The idea of standing up in front of classmates is pretty challenging under any circumstances, but for my first year students it is doubly so because they have to talk about a topic that they know very little about. And this shows, because their talks are often muddled and riddled with misunderstandings. Their inner confusion translates to their delivery and the result is that the talks are often delivered in soft, hesitant and self-conscious voices.

What this shows more than anything is that the idea that you can make sense of the vast amount of information revealed by a Google search, without prior knowledge that you have been actually taught, is a fallacy. Furthermore, the idea that you can separate a skill, e.g. giving an oral presentation, without taking into account the knowledge, or lack of knowledge, of the presenter, is utterly misconceived. How can you be passionate and engaging when you don’t really know what you’re talking about? Knowledge really is at the core of everything.

So next year, I need to figure out a way of getting my students on the communication ladder without having it spoiled by their lack of knowledge.

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It’s educational experiments for the lot of you!

If you attend a ‘Curriculum Evening’ in a primary school these days, you will more than likely hear references to ideas such as

  • Growth mindset
  • Mindfulness
  • Number sense
  • Rote learning (in a negative way)
  • Standard algorithms (as an example of rote learning)
  • Inquiry/discovery (especially when solving maths problems)

and even the old reliable “we need to train pupils to be able to solve problems that we cannot even imagine”.

In fairness, the teachers in my son’s school tend not to be too dogmatic  (almost sceptical in fact) about these ideas and seem to be conscious of the fact that they challenge many parents’ (and their own) preconceptions about how kids should be taught.

But there is no doubt that many new ideas like mindfulness, Carol Dweck’s growth mindset,  Jo Boaler’s convoluted methods for teaching mathematics in the name of ‘understanding’, and  inquiry/discovery methods generally are increasingly being accepted as education ‘truths’ when in fact they are highly contested by practitioners and academics alike.

Following on from Project Maths, the new Junior Cycle and now the introduction of unproven ideas into our primary school curricula, it seems to me that we are determined to carry out large scale experiments within our education system. Imagine if medicine  worked like that?


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Apprenticeships, NEETS and over-qualified graduates

In 2016 it could reasonably be said that Ireland had a very well educated population (see below). Over 50% of our 25-34 year-olds have a third level qualification which is high by  international standards but not extraordinarily so. Indeed it is interesting to note that the country that Ireland is often compared with – Germany – has unusually low third level participation rates, at least in a western European context, suggesting that it may not be the best country to compare ourselves with.



While it is good that we have high third level participation rates, it is even better that less than 10% of our young people fail to complete secondary school.

But there are some clouds on the horizon (see below). The percentage of Irish 25-34 olds who are NEETs (not in employment, education or training) has risen from 12% to 20% between 2005 and 2016.


And, if you look at who these NEETs are, you find that 65% of them did not complete secondary school while 13% have a third level qualification.

Given Ireland’s recent economic past, it seems highly likely that a large proportion of current NEETs are former construction workers who left school early during the boom years and it is likely that many  completed construction-related apprenticeships.

And that’s the danger with apprenticeships. If you go down the apprenticeship route too early, without completing formal academic education, you leave yourself vulnerable to  economic shocks.  As an apprentice, you will probably lack the basic academic skills and knowledge to be capable of retraining. You may lack the very thing that educationalists the world over are constantly banging on about: adaptability.

The so-called over-qualified graduate, however, will have the basic tools required to pursue further training when and if necessary.

So it’s not so-called over-qualified graduates we should be worrying about; it’s those who leave school too early, pigeonholed as ‘non-academic’ and with very little chance of changing direction when the economy goes bad.

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Do students have any feel for maths?

Many times in my lectures I derive an equation and I ask my students how they would linearise the equation in such a way as to inform their data analysis.

For example, last week I derived an expression of the form

y = a*x^2+b*x

I then asked the class how they would plot (x,y) data to test that this expression was valid and also to evaluate a and b from the data. These are students who will have studied biochemistry and will have encountered things like the Lineweaver-Burke plot. They will also have used linearisation to analyse data in their second year engineering labs, so linearisation should not be a new idea for them.

But only a handful of students (third years) out of about 50 could answer the question (plot y/x against x; slope = a, intercept = b) and it seemed to me that many students had absolutely no idea what I was asking them.

I’ve encountered this particular problem on a quite a few occasions over the years and it’s always intrigued me. It would seem that many students, while they can manipulate symbols reasonable well, don’t really have any real feel for what these symbols represent. They also seem to compartmentalize knowledge to a very significant degree and they do not seem to see the connections between the various modules that they are studying.

You’d have to wonder if the modular system and the increasing emphasis on continuous assessment (which often involves in-class tests on small ‘chunks’ of material) is contributing to this compartmentalization. And you’d have to wonder if there is something fundamentally wrong with how students are learning algebra in secondary school.


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STEM: from harmless acronym to dangerous idea?

This is the (rough) script of a short talk I gave at last week’s T&L Day in DCU 




Before I start I want to mention something about the School of Biotechnology because it has had an impact on a lot of my thinking around STEM. The signature programme of our school is the BSc in Biotechnology. This programme was conceived in the late 1970s with the aim of creating a new ‘breed’ of graduate, one who could integrate the separate disciplines of biology and chemical engineering, thus creating the perfect recruit for the new biology-based industries.

Thirty years later, it’s worth asking if we have succeeded in our aims. Only partly, I think,because rather than achieving full integration we have created a programme that could be described as a biology major with a chemical engineering minor. Truly integrating disciplines is hard for students and, more importantly, it’s hard for us.

So what is STEM (formerly called METS or SMET, neither of which acronym rolls off the tongue)?

Well, STEM used to be just an acronym, coined by Rita Colwell who was the Director of NSF in the mid-1990s. It was just a handy way of talking about that group of disciplines that policy makers felt would be crucial to the future success of the American economy.


But at some time in the past – and I’m not sure when – STEM began to take on a life of its own. It became a ‘thing’, a sort of ‘super-discipline’. Now people are writing books about teaching STEM – although in this case, it’s a marketing ploy I suspect because this book is really about teaching chemical engineering. It doesn’t span the disciplines, from biology to theoretical physics via mechanical engineering.


Even our education policy-makers see STEM as a ‘thing’ and last year the Irish government commissioned a report  on the promotion and teaching of STEM in Ireland. This report is not divided up into sections devoted to individual disciplines (biology, chemistry etc.) and it makes mainly generic recommendations about how to promote and teach ‘STEM’, including a strong recommendation for more inquiry based learning to be employed in schools


Twitter is always a good place to go if you want to get a feel for which way the wind is blowing. Now when you look at Twitter, you see that STEM is not just a thing, it’s a particular type of thing. There are some recurring themes…


You’ll find an emphasis on construction and maybe references to ‘design thinking’


You’ll see lots of references to robots, especially Lego ones. Lots and lots of robots.


There seems to be a lot of T&E and very little S&M. And it’s hard not to get the sense that STEM is seen as business opportunity for corporations. It’s good for companies if what was previously seen as play can now be seen as education. New markets are opened up by education.


There seems to be a lot of instances of students doing ‘sciencey’ stuff, puzzles for example, with a very strong emphasis on group work and collaboration.


Generic ‘Problem solving’ seems to be at the core of the STEM concept.


So if you summarise the ‘keywords’ of STEM 2017, you find that STEM is now seen as a particular type of collaborative, hands-on process rather than a collection of disciplines with distinct pedagogies and epistemologies.


This sense of STEM as a sort of super-discipline, taught in a certain way, is reflected in academic thinking about STEM as this quote shows. Note the very explicit mention of the economic purpose of STEM.


So what is my problem? Surely all of this is good. Aren’t we in a new world, the 21st century where we’re all connected, the pace of change is increasing and we’re preparing students for jobs that don’t exist – allegedly. Isn’t a revolution in education required? Surely the old models are obsolete?


Well I have two problems, one philosophical and one pedagogical (albeit with six parts!)


Even though I’m an engineer, I have a problem with the fact that education is increasingly seen as a way of serving economies rather than enhancing lives. The constant use of the term ‘problem solving’ is an example of this. I don’t have time to elaborate on this today but it is something we could, and should discuss, at length. What is education for; even education in the STEM disciplines?

The first of 6 pedagogical problems with STEM was inspired by a late night watching a U2 concert (in which Bono was having a protracted conversation with his younger self) and centres on the idea of integrating disciplines. Integrating disciplines is hard bordering on the impossible for novice learners, as is seeing problems from “multiple perspectives” (multidisciplinarity). I’ve seen this first hand when trying to teach biotechnology. I think we’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a youngster grappling with even one discipline. We suffer from the so-called “curse of knowledge”.


The second of my six pedagogical problems with STEM 2017 concerns the issue of ‘relevance’ and ‘real world problems’. I don’t believe that ‘relevance and ‘authenticity’ are necessary for ‘engagement’, and in my defense I give you dinosaurs! Who isn’t fascinated by dinosaurs or the planets or strange and fierce creatures that we will never see? Dinosaurs are utterly irrelevant – you won’t meet on out on Collins Avenue – bu they are fascinating. Whatever happened to education being about broadening our minds and expanding our horizons? Why bring science down to the level of the mundane as the new Junior Cycle does – in my view!


The third of my six pedagogy-related problems centres on the idea that while engagement is a necessary condition for learning, it is not a sufficient one. (This has become a something of an education cliche at this stage but it is worth repeating.) So when we focus on engagement are we really asking hard questions as to whether this engagement is accompanied by real learning? I’m not sure we are. Do kids really learn anything of substance when building that tower out of marshmallows and spaghetti, even though lots of fun is had?


The fourth of my problems centres on the idea that skills can be acquired in a generic sort of way and that generically-acquired skills will transfer to other domains. If I spend my day making a Lego robot, one thing I can be sure of is that I will get better at building Lego robots. But what else? Will what I have learned transfer to other areas?


The fifth of my problems centres on inquiry-based learning and the side-lining of the teacher. We need to tread very carefully when advocating inquiry-led approaches. Yes, there are problems with PISA but can it be ignored? We need to ask when inquiry based methods are likely to work. We know they work with PhD students; PISA suggests they’re not great for 15 year-olds, so when does the reversal effect occur? Caution is required.


The last of my concerns with STEM focuses on our increasing emphasis on collaboration and imposing the collaboration/group/extrovert culture on our students. Yes, some work places involve collaboration and teamwork but should the learning environment mimic the world of work even if we see preparation for work as the primary purpose of education? It’s a question worth asking and the world of sport (where training and match play are often very different) would suggest that we need to think hard about this. Maybe we should be thinking more about creating an environment where all personality types, including the quiet thinker, can flourish.




We need to ask why we educate. Is it just for the workplace? Is it really just about creating ‘problem-solvers’? Or is it about helping people to have more fulfilling lives because they are better ‘educated’, to use an old-fashioned term?


Education, at all levels, is highly dependent on skills of the teacher/lecturer. There is an x-factor to education and we need to figure out ways for us all to learn from the very best practitioners. We’re too hung up on pedagogical innovation and not the qualities that the best teachers/lecturers have.


We need to stop obsessing about the 21st century and claiming that it’s different. It’s not. Look at what we achieved in the 20th century. Don’t discard what has worked in the past unless you have very good reason to do so, not just the predictions of a futurologist or ‘education consultant’.


Disciplines exist for a reason: learning is hard and dividing it into disciplines makes it easier. There is no such thing as STEM, there is no such things as a STEM skills shortage and there is no such things as a lack of women in STEM. You will never achieve gender parity in physics, for example, unless you identify what it is about physics that makes it less attractive to girls than biology or chemistry. It’s not a STEM thing.


Don’t side-line the quiet thinker and don’t enforce an overly participative/extrovert culture on all students. Flipped classrooms and the like will not suit many students, especially introverts. Give students time and space to think if they need it.


We leave in the ‘innovation’ age. Innovation is seen as an end it itself. But as Carlo Rovelli points out in this wonderful book, even Darwin and Einstein hesitated – they were humble. As Rovelli says, “genius hesitates”. In education, we should tread softly or we’ll tread on our students’ dreams.


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Are the universities being “hollowed out”?

This letter to the Irish Times from a Trinity academic paints a pretty bleak picture of the culture in Irish Universities. There’s a lot in the letter, some of which I agree with (e.g. the sad fact that university education is increasingly seen solely as a form of training for the workplace), but I think the letter fails to acknowledge that the changes that have occurred in the university sector, changes that some academics find frustrating, are an inevitable consequence of initiatives that have been well-intentioned and made in the interests of students.

Let’s look at the increasing teaching-associated administrative burden. There is no doubt that the admin load on academics has increased over the years and it is interesting to see why that has happened.

First up, we have modularisation and semesterisation. The move to the M&S system was made, if I recall correctly, largely to facilitate student mobility. But whatever the original intention, the fact is that students like the M&S system and would strongly resist returning to the old system where all-or-nothing exams covered an entire year’s learning. So although the M&S system means a lot more assessments to design, send to extern, and mark, there is no going back.

Speaking of assessment, there is  increasing pressure (often coming from external examiners, not ‘managers’, in my experience) to incorporate more and more continuous assessment into our modules. CA is seen as good practice, correctly so in many instances. But if you have to teach six modules a year, as I usually do, and incorporate CA into all of them, that amounts to a substantial increase in workload especially if you give timely feedback on students’ work. But it’s workload that academics are mainly imposing on themselves in the interests of students.

Another source of workload is the move to an outcomes-based approach to education. I’m not so keen on the outcomes approach myself but I suspect I am in a minority in taking that view. Learning outcomes make perfect sense to most academics. In any event, the outcomes approach increases workload for all because it means that each and every module must have a detailed module descriptor with a list of outcomes that must align with the overall programme outcomes. Furthermore, every piece of assessment must test specific learning outcomes. Again, if you have six or seven modules and you update your modules regularly and if that involves using yet another piece of software that may or may not be particularly user-friendly, the outcomes approach adds workload. And, it removes an element of spontaneity from teaching.

But probably the biggest cause of increased workloads for academics is the undeniable fact that the student body is far more diverse than it used to be. I’m talking here not about racial or cultural diversity but diversity in academic ability and willingness to engage. Despite the fact that our degree completion rates are very high by international standards, there is a large amount of disengagement and failure in the system that is not captured by completion rates. Unengaged and failing students use up a disproportionate amount of our time especially when that failure is accompanied by requests for extensions and deferrals due to extenuating circumstances of all kinds. Dealing with all of these cases in a fair and transparent manner is time consuming and demands that we have rigorous procedures in place to ensure that each and every case is dealt with in a way that is in the best interests of the student, is fair to other students, and maintains the academic integrity of the programme.

But it’s not just the failing and unengaged students that add to our workload, it’s the student body in general. In my experience, students have become a lot more demanding. They want notes made available on online, preferably in advance of the lecture (in some cases this makes good sense but it is an example of technology adding to our workload), they want rapid and highly personalised feedback, and they can be quite brazen with requests for support especially when the exams are approaching. And the more you do for students, the more they expect and the more you leave yourself open to criticism – in my experience anyway.

I suspect, though, that it is in the area of ‘quality’ that academics feel most resentful. We do an awful lot of time-consuming reviewing in universities and while I think we may be overdoing it, it would be hard to argue that no programme or school/departmental reviews should ever be undertaken.

Finally, an increase in workload has come about due to the fact that institutions want to be seen to value teaching as much as research. In DCU, for example, teaching is given the same weighting (on paper anyway) as research for promotion from lecturer to senior lecturer. But while it is relatively easy to come up with metrics for research quality, it is not so easy when it comes to teaching. So to measure teaching quality we usually have to resort to surrogates and the one we normally use is innovation. So the ambitious academic who wishes to get promoted to senior lecturer has to be seen to be innovative and he/she needs to accumulate a list of initiatives in the area of teaching and learning. The need to be seen to be active and innovative spawns endless pilot studies often in areas like inquiry based learning, problem based learning and blended learning. Being a plain old excellent lecturer just won’t cut it anymore; it doesn’t fill the boxes on your application from.

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