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

Bristol Research: the Digital Fireside Talks

In my role as Pro Vice-Chancellor (Health and Life Sciences), I’ve been paying very close attention to the University’s research response to COVID-19.

To say I’ve been inspired by what I’ve seen in recent weeks would be an understatement. We can all be proud of Bristol research and the University’s contribution to the global effort to understand and combat COVID-19. From collaborating on one of only four global candidate vaccine trials, to research aimed at supporting the most vulnerable during social distancing – the scale, speed and scope of our coronavirus-related research activity has been nothing short of incredible.

I wanted to find a way of shining a light on some of this fantastic work. That’s why we’ve launched ‘Bristol Research: the Digital Fireside Talks’ – a new series of short video conversations where, over the next few weeks, I’ll be speaking to some of our research leaders about their response to COVID-19.

In this first episode, “Test, Test, Test”, I was delighted to be joined by Adam Finn – Professor of Paediatrics, director of the Bristol Children’s Vaccine Centre and chair of the World Health Organisation’s European Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation. Most recently, Adam took on the role of leading Bristol UNCOVER – a group researchers united in their efforts to understand and combat the many health and societal challenges raised by COVID-19.

Adam talks about the origins and work of UNCOVER and his own research into testing for COVID-19.

I hope you find the conversation interesting, and my thanks to Adam for taking time out from his hectic schedule to take part.

Episode 1: “Test, Test, Test

Visit the Digital Fireside Talks blog to view all episodes in the series.

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.

Introducing the Perivoli Africa Research Centre (PARC) and welcoming Professor Isabella Aboderin

By Professor Judith Squires, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost

It has been a great pleasure to welcome Professor Isabella Aboderin, Professor of Gerontology and our Perivoli Chair in Africa Research and Partnerships, who will direct activities in the new Perivoli Africa Research Centre (PARC).

Professor Isabella Adoderin, Professor of Gerontology and Perivoli Chair in Africa Research and Partnerships.

The Centre is aimed at furthering interdisciplinary research and initiatives that are responsive to, and help advance Africa’s population and development and innovation agendas (e.g. in the fields of education, health, sustainable agriculture, social or governance issues) and at deepening collaboration between the University, African research, policy, civil society and private sector bodies, and international agencies.

PARC will seek to add value to, and build on the University’s existing broad portfolio of Africa-oriented research, and to offer a community and platform for exchange for all those engaged or interested in such work – in the University and the city, broadly. PARC aims to become a model hub for forward-looking, respectful UK-Africa cooperation in research and learning by:

  • fostering fresh, critical thinking on necessary frames and approaches for UK-Africa partnerships, and for the production of knowledge on and for the continent,
  • forging new, and consolidating existing focal partnerships with African and international institutions and networks (g. Worldwide Universities Network),
  • developing strategic ‘signature’ programmes of evidence generation, policy and practice engagement and innovation that speak to African priorities at regional, sub-regional, national or local levels and that bring together and extend existing clusters of interdisciplinary expertise within the University,
  • expanding student and faculty exchange, and supporting Africa-led research capacity strengthening initiatives, and
  • curating, and facilitating internal and external engagement with the evolving body of Africa-focused research at the University of Bristol.

Isabella has completed something of a round trip, returning to Bristol where she did both her undergraduate and doctoral studies. Prior to taking up the new Chair, Isabella held a dual appointment as Senior Research Scientist and Head of the Aging and Development Unit at the African Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC), Nairobi, and as Associate Professor of Gerontology at the University of Southampton.

The Centre has been funded through a generous donation from the Perivoli Trust, which has funded key projects in the University over the last decade. The Trust has a philanthropic focus mostly on the Emerging World and especially Africa. Its Schools Trust has transformed nursery education in Namibia, Malawi and Zambia, training 5,500 nursery school teachers and positively impacting the lives of an estimated 150,000 children. The £1m gift to establish PARC is emblematic of our shared ambition to work on innovative approaches to benefit generations for years to come in Africa.

We will be hosting an internal networking event on Monday 23 March, ahead of PARC’s anticipated full launch, expected to take place on Tuesday 20 October. I’m sure that you will join me in welcoming Isabella and wishing her and the PARC team well in establishing this exciting new part of the University research ecosystem.

Celebrating Global Challenges Research Fund successes

By Professor Judith Squires, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost

It was a great pleasure to mark the first in the 2020 series of Provost Celebrations of Academic Achievement by welcoming colleagues to Royal Fort House to celebrate our Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) successes on 16 January.

Provost Professor Judith Squires celebrates our Global Challenges funding success with colleagues
Professor Judith Squires (Deputy Vice-Chancellor & Provost) and Professor Paddy Ireland (Interim PVC Research) celebrating the GCRF successes with award-holders and colleagues from RED.

The GCRF is an initiative driven by the United Nation’s ‘2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’, which has at its heart 17 Sustainable Development Goals. These goals represent a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. In response to the 2030 Agenda, the Government published its aid strategy which aims to:

      • address global challenges through disciplinary and interdisciplinary research;
      • strengthen capability for research and innovation, with developing countries and the UK; and
      • enable an agile response to emergencies and opportunities.

      All GCRF research projects must also focus on delivering benefits and outcomes which promote the welfare and economic development of Lower and Middle Income Countries (LMICs).

      We have been extremely successful in securing funding via this scheme here at the University of Bristol.  This success was facilitated by the early development of Bristol’s Global Challenges strategy, which Research England commended to other higher education institutions (HEIs) to encourage best practice, acknowledging the excellence and effort demonstrated by Bristol’s approach. The strategy was been expertly supported by our Global Challenges Steering Group, composed of experts in Official Development Assistance, with representation from Bristol’s Research Institutes and Faculty Research Directors.  Their guidance has been invaluable – and is much appreciated.

      As a result of our strategy, the University has been incredibly successful in attracting funding from the GCRF, with a success rate above 40%, and around £2 million a year coming in via QR funding (quality-related research funding, determined by the periodic assessment of HEIs) to support the activities outlined in the strategy. Since 2016, we have secured over 130 external awards worth more than £30 million.  Two examples include:

      • Professor Matthew Avison received £1.8m to lead the One Health Drivers of Antibacterial Resistance in Thailand (OH-DART) consortium. Working with colleagues at the Universities of Exeter and Bath, Mahidol University, Chulabhorn Research Institute and the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. The consortium’s aim is to define and prioritise the drivers of antibacterial drug resistance in humans in the community in Thailand, taking a multi-disciplinary approach.
      • Professor Leon Tikly and partners from India, Rwanda, Somalia and South Africa have received £4.65m to Transform Educations Systems for Sustainable Development. The aim of this research is to develop an understanding of how education systems can act as drivers of sustainable development.

      Many congratulations to everyone – academics and professional services – involved in these projects, and all the 130 projects, secured since 2016.  Congratulations too to Professor Helen Lambert, who has been appointed as Global Challenge Leader for Health on a part-time secondment to UKRI to March 2021.

      The event last week was held as a small ‘thank you’ to all those colleagues who have worked so hard to obtain these important GCRF funding awards and to help pursue the sustainable development goals. May our success in addressing the global challenges identified in the 2030 agenda for sustainable development continue.

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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Living Wage Foundation – one year on

Marvin Rees speaking at the Living Wage Foundation event at City Hall during Living Wage Week (11-17 November)

The wellbeing of our employees is particularly important to me, and I understand that this often can be impacted by financial circumstances. So I was proud to represent the University at a city-wide Living Wage event a year ago, at which we become an accredited Living Wage Foundation employer.

Being a Living Wage employer means that we have committed to paying all of our employees the real Living Wage, a rate higher than the minimum wage that is based on the cost of living. We also encourage all in our supply chain to do the same.

Last week marked the first anniversary of the University of Bristol becoming an accredited Living Wage employer. This was marked on 15 November by a Living Wage Week event at City Hall. At the event we heard from other Living Wage Foundation-compliant organisations who reported increased employee wellbeing, reduced absenteeism, greater productivity and longer service attributed to receiving the real Living Wage. We also heard from employees receiving the real Living Wage who said their wellbeing had improved due to increased financial stability, which in turn had led to a reduction in financial pressure, more family time and greater financial freedom. The Mayor, Marvin Rees, also spoke about the city’s aspirations to become a Living Wage city and what we can all do to help towards achieving this goal.

As part of our Living Wage employer commitment, the Procurement Team has carried out an audit of its primary supply chain over the last year to ensure our suppliers pay their employees the real Living Wage. The team is also reviewing our tender documentation so that it reflects University values and encourages suppliers to pay their employees the real Living Wage. In addition, the Human Resources team has launched apprenticeships paying in excess of the Living Wage. I am proud to say that these measures have positioned us as a leading Living Wage employer in the city.

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.

Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus: looking ahead

Visualisation of the view from Totterdown Basin (Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios)

With the academic year already in full swing, I wanted to provide an update on the latest developments for the Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus. We were delighted to secure full planning permission for the student accommodation, following a series of public consultations earlier in the year. This decision represents an important stage in the evolution of our plans to develop a world-leading innovation campus in the heart of the city of Bristol.

The planning application for the detailed designs of the academic buildings is due to be submitted in November and we expect the next phase of site preparation work to start soon. We have released the invitation to tender for the main construction contract, all on track for a target date for campus opening in September 2023.

In the meantime, we are continuing to work closely with our partners to develop a range of activities intended for the Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus. Most recently, we received a £20-million funding boost from the West of England Combined Authority to extend the scope of our Quantum Technology Innovation Centre to be piloted at 1 Cathedral Square.

It is heartening to see the impressive levels of support we have seen from funders and partners for the concept of the Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus such as that evidenced at the launch of our partnership in data science with LV=GI at the end of September. The work with LV=GI includes collaboratively designing and producing a new Level 7 Degree Apprenticeship in Data Science. The apprenticeship will be open to all companies and will bring vital benefits to its students.

The relationship with LV=GI embraces the spirit of Temple Quarter – bringing together world-leading experts in AI, data science, sociology and management to address some of the great challenges currently facing our society.

There will be more opportunities to develop together with business, community and governmental partners in the future. Watch this space!