Let’s lose the deficit language about online education

Reading the national press, you might think that universities had just performed the last rites over centuries of in-person and on-campus teaching.

The argument being peddled by journalists whose experience of lectures was clearly more inspirational than mine, is somewhat simplistic and misleading. It suggests that a curriculum without live lectures equates to the end of all in-person teaching, as if practicals, laboratories, seminars, and tutorials do not count. Headline catching it may be; true it is not.

There are good arguments why universities are putting lectures online. Any university which has a vague interest in keeping the R rate down and being public health spirited would not wish to cram 400 students into a large airless lecture mimicking a static version of the Diamond Princess, but with younger passengers.

Kill the sacred lecture cow

But the naivety of the journalists’ critique is not about public health, it’s about what counts as higher education, and the totemic status of lectures. Anyone who has worked within an inch of higher education in the last 10 to 15 years will know that attendance at live lectures has dwindled dramatically since the installation of lecture capture which records the dulcet or droning tones of a lecture.

Students vote with their feet, and when there is no value added of engagement, interaction or inspiration, they prefer to flick open their laptops and watch the lecture at a speed and time that suits them, fast-forwarding when they are bored, and replaying when they need to rehearse the material to grasp a tricky concept.

Long before the dawn of lecture capture, Graham Gibbs wrote a swingeing critique of this most venerated of teaching genres, entitled “Twenty terrible reasons for lecturing”. His argument, in a nutshell, was that students learn very little from most of their lectures. This argument has been borne out by Astin’s research in the USA, which demonstrated that student involvement and “close contact” with lecturers and other students was the stuff of learning in higher education.

Until the virus struck, online education was largely the preserve of the Open University. No other university would have chosen to offer online education as the way to sustain some or all of its provision.

Here and there, various universities had made forays into the digital, without allowing it to affect the primacy of traditional teaching approaches. Most older universities persisted with the convention of sepia-toned lectures in the rarefied atmosphere of wood-panelled rooms; some, both old and new, stretched the convention into funky new buildings which hinted at digital futures.

In yesterday’s world, groups of students trudged up hills and crowded in corridors holding laptops in one hand, lattes in the other. They listened, took notes (or not), made halting attempts to participate, even venturing one or two questions in the lecture halls, while others, more confident, dominated conversations in seminars.

Many endured a long silence: listening, waiting, and watching. In applied subjects, students often made a more vibrant entry into disciplinary conversations, whether through building model bridges in civil engineering, or rehearsing a performance of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. For most, conversations occurred in halls or houses of multiple occupancy, or through clubs and societies and at social gatherings.

Normal was the problem

This was higher education in the UK as we knew it before the new normal. We will all have some nostalgia for the way things were. But as many commentators have argued – “we cannot return to normal, because normal was the problem.”

Don’t get me wrong here – in person teaching is clearly a brilliant way of teaching, with all its nuance, spontaneity, sense-checking, embodiment and thrill of performance. Students in face to face contexts may enjoy an expansive experience of chatting on the way to class, in the library and laboratory, and in various hang outs, where so many deep conversations take place. This shapes who students are and who they become.

But I’m not sure universities had grasped the full potential of face to face education before the shutters came down on 23 March. Certainly, many lectures were patchily attended and caught in a strange time-warp.

Online education is showing me and my colleagues some fantastic things that we can do so much better and will, I hope, shape our practice as teachers in higher education forever. At the University of Bristol, we are running a series of digital design courses, and we have about 50 digital champions in schools working with the central Bristol Institute for Learning and Teaching.

Today I was in a session with nearly 200 academics, and they were reflecting on their “Aha!” moments about online education from the emergency online pivot. Among this sample, some green shoots are poking through the rough ground which point to the potential of the digital to do some distinctive things. The list is not exhaustive but online education seems to:

  • personalise learning, with students working at their own pace and thoughtfully going back to material in their own time
  • trigger a shift from content-driven curricula (the idea of ‘covering content’) to carefully structured and selective bite-sized lectures with engaging tasks which
  • help students get to grips with concepts
  • draw out different voices and invite questions from students who do not routinely contribute to discussion in face to face sessions – when done well, it seems to
  • be more inclusive
  • prompt student engagement, agency and autonomy
  • take the focus off assessment and enable more learning through carefully designed tasks
  • promote participation, writing, and an enduring kind of community.

This all may sound a bit utopian in our decidedly dystopian world, but I want to make a case for shifting the narrative about online education from a deficit one.

It’s different from in-person education, and it struggles to replicate practice-based activities, and the human interactions you need to develop the skills to become a dentist, for example. But we need to find ways to ensure that we see some advantages to this different (albeit unchosen) mode of education and garner the benefits of its particular world of possibilities. From my interactions with colleagues, the most striking possibility is that the conversation has crept from the corridors and into the classroom, and that may be a very rich thing indeed.

As we set our faces to an uncertain and hybrid educational future in September, the community of academics at the University of Bristol is proud of its efforts at online education, and excited at the fresh educational winds blowing in our direction.

It won’t be easy; it won’t be cheap; but our online education won’t be a paltry imitation of old and tired genres like the lecture. And we are saving the best kinds of interaction which enable students to learn the most, for on campus teaching in small groups and in laboratories, on a scale that Covid-19 will allow, and in ways that our scientific invention might enable.

Black Lives Matter

The reality of racism was brought into sharp and disturbing focus last week as we saw how for some people Black lives simply do not matter. Sadly, the death of George Floyd in the United States is not a one-off occurrence and Black communities across the globe face racism, violence, and discrimination on an everyday basis.

We stand in solidarity with our Black staff and students against all forms of racism and social injustice.  At times like these, it is all too easy to look to people of colour to educate those around them, adding to the pressure and trauma that many are already experiencing during this time.

We recognise that it is not the responsibility of our Black colleagues and students to convince us why we need to tackle societal, structural, and institutional racism. It is the responsibility of us all to eradicate racism. We will continue to challenge this through our research, our education, and our civic engagements.  Our University with its critical role in education and shaping social policy, must be at the forefront of the continuing struggle against prejudice and inequity based on race.

We recognise that, as a University, we still have our own issues, and we are working hard to address these. Many of our Black students and staff feel isolation and discomfort as they experience daily microaggressions across campus.  We encourage students and staff to report any incident of racial harassment and seek support from us.  There is no place for racism at our University.

As the global coronavirus pandemic continues, we are also aware of evidence that Black people, as well as Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people, are at disproportionately higher risk of illness, death, and bereavement.  We are conscious that this places additional stress and burden on our community. We offer wellbeing and mental health support to all our staff and students including those affected by racism:

To find out more about our activities to support our institutional commitment to race equality please see our Institutional Statement on Race Equality

International Women’s Day Celebration of BAME Women

This year’s International Women’s Day (IWD) celebrations at the University have been bigger and better than ever. I’m incredibly grateful to staff and students who’ve shared their personal experiences at IWD events across campus this week – your stories have been an inspiration to us all.

Attendees at the International Women’s Day celebration of BAME women in Royal Fort House

As a University, we’ve been working hard to improve gender equality. The University Strategy sets out an ambitious commitment to eradicate the gender pay gap in the professoriate, and we also set a target of increasing the percentage of female professors to 33 per cent by 2023. Since announcing these commitments in 2016 we’ve made real progress, with new initiatives to support women’s career development and a new academic promotions framework. We are on track to meet our 2023 targets. Our latest organisational Gender Pay Gap has reduced by 2.5% since 2017 and I’m particularly proud that we are the first UK University to issue a landmark Collective Agreement outlining the next key actions which will be taken to address the academic gender pay gap. All of our work in this area has earned us a shortlisting for the Guardian University Awards in the Staff Experience category.

The senior team is determined to address all areas of inequality across our University and create a level playing field for everybody, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender identity or cultural background. Acknowledging there is a problem is an important first step. We must also listen to and learn from fellow colleagues.

It was my pleasure this week to host Professor Olivette Otele and Dr Jane Khawaja for an International Women’s Day celebration of BAME women in Royal Fort House.

Both Olivette and Jane shared candid accounts of their lives and career progression to date. At times deeply poignant, with grace and good humour both women talked of the highs and lows (including racism and other forms of prejudice) they’ve experienced as BAME women pursuing a career in academia.

The need for perseverance was a common theme for overcoming the challenges they faced, as was the importance of celebrating and reflecting on success. However, both women were clear they would not have achieved their success without the support of a close network of family, friends, colleagues and (crucially) mentors.

With this in mind, I would encourage eligible colleagues to sign-up to our Bristol Women’s Mentoring Network. Here, female staff at grades K, L and M can receive mentoring support, advice and guidance from female colleagues in senior roles. It’s been wonderful to see the network already making a real difference to the progression of our female staff and I was particularly pleased that Professor Esther Crawley won South West Public Sector Mentor of the Year for her participation in the scheme. I look forward to seeing it continue to develop.

While we are making progress to tackle gender and racial inequality at Bristol, as a leadership team we recognise there’s still a long way to go. That’s why we’re examining our recruitment practices, our institutional cultures and our reward and recognition systems. We’ll also shortly be publishing our first-ever ethnicity pay gap report alongside our statutory gender pay gap report. While this isn’t yet required by law, we believe it’s the right thing to do to and it will help us understand and address the challenge head-on.

I’m confident that together we can bring an end to both gender and racial inequality at Bristol and I hope this year’s IWD provided an opportunity to both reflect on and celebrate all the incredible women in our university community – it certainly has for me.

Celebrating continued ALSPAC success – Provost Celebration of Academic Achievement

By Professor Judith Squires, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost

The Vice-Chancellor and Provost celebrating with the ALSPAC team
The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Hugh Brady and Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Judith Squires, celebrating with the ALSPAC team and study participants at the November Provost Celebration of Academic Achievement.

Since I started my monthly series of events to mark the highest levels of academic achievement across the University, we have had no shortage of people and awards to celebrate – and November was no exception. For our latest Provost Celebration of Academic Achievement held on the 21 November, we celebrated the fantastic news of the £8.2 million renewal award received for the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) over the next five years from Wellcome and the Medical Research Council (MRC). This funding, along with University support, will enable ALSPAC to continue its vitally important international research into health, wellbeing and social science using data and samples collected from thousands of families at a key time in the lives, marking a whole series of life events which have often been understudied.

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Provost Celebration of Academic Achievement – Advance HE Awards and NSS success

By Professor Judith Squires, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost

For the next in the series of Provost Celebration of Academic Achievements on the 24 October 2019, we moved from celebrating research grant successes to celebrating significant successes in teaching and learning and student satisfaction.

Special congratulations went to Lucy Berthoud, Professor of Space Engineering, and Professor Ki Cater, Academic Director of the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CfIE), who both received Advance HE awards at a ceremony in Manchester on the 16 October 2019.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost Professor Judith Squires celebrating with Professor Kirsten Cater and Professor Lucy Berthoud at the October Provost Celebration for Academic Achievement.

Lucy, described by her students as ‘a fantastic lecturer’, ‘really enthusiastic and engaging’ and ‘motivated and motivating’, received a National Teaching Fellowship(?) in recognition of her outstanding impact on student outcomes and the teaching profession. Ki and the CfIE team received a Collaborative Award for Teaching Excellence (CATE). The Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship is educating the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs, helping them to develop the adaptability, transdisciplinary and innovative thinking to make positive differences in an ever-changing world. This is achieved through an innovative, collaborative, interdisciplinary team of academics and industry professionals, who passionately engage with students as co-creators.

Colleagues also gathered together to celebrate the University’s success in the 2019 National Student Survey (NSS) where the University of Bristol achieved a score of 85% overall satisfaction, which meant our overall student satisfaction score had risen by 3% compared to 2018 and was 1% above the national average.

The results show that the University has recovered ground compared to last year. 26 programmes at Bristol scored above 90% for satisfaction, with Veterinary Sciences scoring 99% and Biochemistry, Chemistry and Engineering Design achieving 100%. Subjects at the University featured in the top quartile of universities in every question set: for example, 10 subjects were in the top quartile for Organisation and management and six for Overall satisfaction. Areas that remained consistently strong were teaching on a student’s course (at 86%); students being able to contact staff when needed (at 89%); and the value placed on the University’s learning resources (87%).

More specifically, across the Teaching section, 23 programmes scored 100% with students commenting, ‘Staff are good at explaining things’ (Anthropology, Cellular & Molecular Medicine, Chemistry with Industrial Experience/Study Abroad, Childhood Studies, Engineering Design, Film and Television, French and Italian, French, Music, Pharmacology, Philosophy, Religion and Theology, Social Policy with Criminology, Theatre and Performance Studies, Zoology), or ‘Staff have made the subject interesting’ (Biology, Classical Studies, Engineering Design, French and German, French and Italian, French, Music, Politics and Sociology). Other remarks from students were; ‘The course is intellectually stimulating’ (Anthropology, Archaeology and Anthropology, Biochemistry, Chemistry, Engineering Design, Pharmacology, Politics and Sociology) and ‘My course has challenged me to achieve my best work’ (Chemistry with study abroad, Engineering Design). A further 33 programmes received a score 90% or above in at least one of the four Teaching questions.

In terms of Academic Support, an area where we had asked schools to focus, 15 programmes scored 100% in response to a question, ‘I have been able to contact staff when I needed to’ and a further 21 programmes scored 90-99% for the same question. Assessment and feedback scores continue to be a challenge; the University performed less well in comparison to the sector but we are continuing to focus on this key area in order to bring about positive changes.

So thank you to everyone involved, from our National Teaching Fellows, CATE team winners, 2019 Best of Bristol lecturers and Bristol Teaching Award winners, to School and Faculty Education Directors and Education Services staff, for investing in our students’ learning and satisfaction to achieve these excellent results.

Celebrating Black History Month – and examining our own past

I was really proud that the University marked this year’s Black History Month with such an exciting and varied programme of activities. Together, we celebrated the University’s connection to Bristol as a city and brought our students and staff into contact with the history and contribution of Black people to Britain.

The month’s events included:

    • a weekly heritage trail which took students and staff through the St Pauls community to see and learn about the painted murals of the Seven Saints;
    • the launch of the CARGO project, an immersive arts installation looking at Bristol and the African Diaspora’s histories and shared legacies;
    • a high-profile lecture from historian Professor David Olusoga on Windrush and its place within the context of Black British history.

These events were led by the Bristol SU BME Network in collaboration with the BME Success Programme; thanks and congratulations to both teams, and to all who took part. 

Our commitment to exploring our Black history mustn’t – and doesn’t – stop with the end of Black History Month. We need to continue to work with staff, students and communities in our city to help the University better understand its past and use that knowledge to shape our future. That’s why I am particularly pleased to announce that the University of Bristol has appointed its first Professor of the History of Slavery.  

Professor Olivette Otele, the UK’s first female black history professor, will take up her new role from January 2020 and will be based at the University’s School of Humanities and Centre for Black HumanitiesThis new role provides us with a unique and important opportunity to critically interrogate the University’s historical links to the transatlantic slave trade and to consider with communities in the University and the city how best to address its legacy. 

Professor Otele’s research examines the various legacies of colonial pasts, understanding trauma, recovery and social cohesion, but also amnesia and reluctance to address various aspects of colonial legacies. She has been working on these complex and sensitive questions for nearly two decades. She aims to produce a rigorous and extensive piece of research that will be relevant to the University and to the city, and something that will be a landmark in the way Britain examines, acknowledges and teaches the history of enslavement. One of her first tasks in her role as Professor of the History of Slavery will be to undertake a two-year research project on the University of Bristol’s and the wider city’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.  

The role complements the work of our BME Success Programme, which seeks to ensure that our teaching and learning are more inclusive, and our Race Equality Charter work, which seeks to foster a more inclusive workplace for our staff. Together, these initiatives promise to bring about real and lasting change and to create a truly inclusive university community. 

 

Provost Celebration of Academic Achievement – Horizon 2020 success

By Professor Judith Squires, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost

On the 26 September 2019 we had our first Provost Celebration of Academic Achievement of the new academic year, where we celebrated the hugely successful Horizon 2020 Awards.

Academics at the awards celebration
The Vice-Chancellor, Deputy Vice-Chancellor & Provost and Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research & Enterprise) celebrating with the Horizon 2020 Awardees at the September Provost Celebration for Academic Achievement

If you aren’t already aware, Horizon 2020 is the European Framework Programme for Research and Innovation. It’s worth €80 billion and has been running since 2014 (ends 2020). The programme is unique in its size and scope and gives us the opportunity to not only engage in blue sky research across all research disciplines, but also to bring the brightest early career researchers to Bristol and to collaborate with the best researchers around Europe and the world.

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Speed networking in Brussels – taking the University’s Specialist Research Institutes to a European audience

By Professor Guy Orpen, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, New Campus Development

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of leading a University delegation to Brussels were we hosted two very differing but complementary events.

Not to negotiate a withdrawal agreement, I hasten to add – quite the opposite – but of course the ‘B’ word was mentioned on a regular basis!

In the morning we welcomed guests from a variety of EU, European Commission, UK and other member state bodies with interests in research and innovation policy to an interactive event to highlight the University’s strengths in research and underline our commitment to ongoing collaborations in Europe.

Headlined ‘Combining R&I capabilities in Europe to meet the world’s challenges’ it was a chance for our seven Specialist Research Institutes (SRIs) to showcase their world-leading specialised research programmes. I was delighted that we had representatives from each to lead a speed-networking session with guests to explain more about their cross-disciplinary work – aligning research fields with regional, national, and international priorities and ambitions to meet the demands of government, business and society.

The morning also included a fascinating panel debate on the EU Research and Innovation landscape with guests from the European University Association, Swedish R&D sponsors Vinnova, the European Commission and Brussels-based Science|Business all joining me on stage.

The event ended with an update by Inga Benner, Deputy Director of the UK Research Office (UKRI’s agency in Brussels), on the current arrangements to facilitate continued UK engagement in EU Research and Innovation in the context of Brexit.

Despite the continuing twists and turns of Brexit, the workshop felt timely, and it reassured all present that, irrespective of the current political turmoil, we at Bristol are totally committed to building on our research relationships in Europe and continuing to work with the very best researchers from across the continent and beyond.

I made the point to a number of Brussels audiences that we have a key role in Bristol at this time to enable and grow partnerships and cohesion, both locally and internationally. We must seize the opportunity to be bold and embrace new ways of working together. And of course, as well as continuing to develop our collaborative research endeavours such as our SRIs, we are building a new University campus in the very heart of Bristol in partnership with our city, its communities and businesses.

This was the theme for our evening event for Brussels-based alumni which was kindly hosted by Molly Scott Cato, Green MEP for the South West, at the European Parliament.

It was great to meet a wide range of alumni of all ages to talk about our exciting future plans as well as reminiscing about the past.

It reinforced to me how lucky we are to be located in a city as progressive, outward-facing and independent as Bristol.

It also reinforced that whatever the outcome of Brexit, we must, and will, continue to be internationalist, civic and collaborative in our approach to research and teaching.

Rewarding excellence and tackling gender equality

By Professor Judith Squires, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost

I was delighted to co-host an event last month alongside the Vice-Chancellor to celebrate the recent promotion of new Professors within the University.  A full list of those promoted to Professor and Associate Professor, formerly known as Reader, appear at the end of this post: congratulations to all who have achieved these much-deserved promotions. 

Celebratory event for newly promoted professors hosted by Vice-Chancellor Hugh Brady and Provost Judith Squires on 24 September 2019 at Royal Fort House.

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Bristol Mentors: celebrating a successful first year

By Professor Judith Squires, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost

On Friday 7 June I attended the Bristol Mentors end-of-year thank-you event at Colston Hall to celebrate the achievements and work of our mentors and mentees on the scheme. It seems like no time at all since the programme launched in the Richmond Building back in October 2018, but between now and then a significant amount of time and energy has been invested in the scheme.

Some headline stats for the work that has been undertaken are:

  • Over 100 applications were submitted for the pilot scheme, and 56 student mentees accepted onto the cohort.
  • Over 300 hours of time have been given up by mentors this year.
  • The majority of the cohort has been able to arrange invaluable shadowing, work experience and networking opportunities, helping to equip them with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the future.

For those of you who are not aware, the Bristol Mentors programme emerged partly from the desire of alumni to give back, and partly because students wanted to learn from graduates who had been there before them. The programme is funded via the University’s Access Agreement and works alongside the Widening Participation and Student Inclusion Team to ensure that students who need support hear about Bristol Mentors. All of our student mentees are from under-represented groups and many have already overcome a level of disadvantage to earn a place to study here.

Law student Tien Tonnu with her mentor Sam Rose

Bristol Mentors has quickly become a crucial new addition to the range of activities that we at the University of Bristol offer to help all students become more employable, with mentors also enabling students to broaden their professional networks. A testament to this is Tien Tonnu, pictured here with her mentor, Sam Rose (Mentor of the Year winner), who gained a spot on a very competitive vacation scheme at a Magic Circle law firm. Tien credits her success in winning a place to the support she received from Sam over the year.

The scheme is a great example of us working as a community – bringing our students and alumni together for mutual benefit. It is also a good example of cross-department collaboration between the Careers team and Development and Alumni Relations. The support of alumni and their voice is hugely important to the University, and this project demonstrates the value of alumni to current students, who describe the scheme in very positive terms:

  • “A fantastic practical insight”;
  • “The provision has been second to none”;
  • “I’m feeling excited and a lot less scared about my future”;
  • “Taking part [in Bristol Mentors] has been key to my success”;
  • “I’ve been truly inspired”.

We sincerely hope that some of these students, too, will become Bristol Mentors in the future. After this year’s successful pilot with 56 mentees, we are currently recruiting mentors for the 100 students enrolled in the programme for next year. If you know of any alumni who would like to become mentors, please contact alumni-mentoring@bristol.ac.uk or click on the Bristol Mentors link for further information.

Finally, none of this would have been possible without the hard work of the students taking part in this programme or the involvement of the alumni, so thank you to everyone involved, with a special thanks to the evening’s organisers: Doug Middling, Alumni Engagement Officer (Widening Participation) and Robbie Fox, Alumni Mentoring Coordinator (Careers).