I got a chance to use Google glass today in brief interlude between filming a super secret (a new YouTube series, not a secret at all) project. It was amazing!
The digital education office had put some clinical skills videos on the Glass and I could immediately see the applicability of augmented reality in teaching. While practicing a technique, students would be able to immediately see the reference material.
I was also amazed at how unobtrusive Glass was, when a colleague appeared at the door I was able to focus on her immediately and completely forgot about watching my personal screen. The audio is delivered via bone conduction speakers making for clear sound that’s not disruptive to those around you.
Yes it’s definitely still early days. The headpiece got quite hot when I was wearing it and I imagine you would get a headache using it for extended periods of time, but no doubt in my mind this is how we’ll be teaching in five-ten years.
This is viewed very critically in the press – just take a look at these Google returns. But this is not the education I recognise in myself. From day 1 in my education, I was taught how to answer questions, how to tease a question apart into its component pieces (back in my day it was Knowledge & Understanding and Skills & Problem Solving, and every question featured both components).
I was taught how to game marking schemes, how to exploit a question’s structure to give me the most to talk about, how to use my skills when my knowledge failed me.
In news reports, we often hear that ‘teaching to pass exams’ means that university lecturers are having to re-teach the basics.
I never learned grammar at school – that might be obvious. I did poorly in the classes that drilled me on facts (I still only remember the first line of the German definitive articles, der, die, das, der, despite staring at the poster for two years straight). Even now, I ‘know’ the answer to very little. I don’t remember how many dairy cows are in the UK, or what her average milk yield is. That knowledge I outsource to Google. If you wanted a critical evaluation of dairy trends, I have the skills to deliver that, very quickly.
You might say my education was ‘curriculum led’ versus ‘item-teaching’, where I learned a subject thoroughly instead of being taught what was coming up in the test. I don’t think this is entirely true to be honest. My Highers (the big Scottish high school exam) were done way back in 2003. To prepare for my History exam, I tried my hand at answering the questions on the time frames I hadn’t been taught. I passed them. Not well, but I did pass. There was enough Skill and Problem Solving demonstrated to pass the answers.
I rely on those old exam techniques a lot as an academic. I don’t want to beat my breast and say that students aren’t being taught right any more – but I will say there the skills animal behaviour and welfare science uses to interrogate a question are not so different from the skills an English student will use to critique a piece of work, or a History student to draw up some conclusions. Animal behaviour and welfare is a science that demands a lot of evaluative thought alongside its experimental design.
We’re halfway through Week Three of the new academic year.
Students, I love you. I really adore you guys. I love helping you, I love seeing you puzzle out new ideas, I love when you challenge my thinking, I love when I can make you feel better about yourself.
But Jesus I wish you’d learn to read the course documents.
This year marks the sixth that I have been doing some form of university level teaching. In the past six years I’ve gone from the occasional lecture and lab to helping to coordinate an MSc program (admittedly that last bit has only been happening for two weeks, but it’s still pretty damned cool). I’ve come to the realisation that I really like the role of lecturer, particularly when I get to straddle the different scales from undergrad programs to masters and even helping out the odd PhD student. Which is a good thing because my wall planner looks like this now. Orange dots represent teaching days and I ran out of them so they start accounting for two towards the end of the year. Yellow stripes mean MOOC. Red stripes mean teaching at workshops:
But what really amazes me is that students, be they MOOC students, MSc students or just people who happen to catch me in the pub and receive a free lecture, never seem to read the course documents.
I’ve been writing some learning objectives for one of this year’s undergrad programs, and I was breaking the lecture up to indicate where the learning objective should have been achieved. I did this for a couple of reasons – I have a three hour lecture slot and that’s boring as hell. The learning objectives gave me a natural break. But I also did it because one of the questions I’m frequently asked is: “What should I know here?”
In some ways it makes me feel old. When I was at uni, we were only just developing this whole ‘communicating via email’ thing, and we received paper course books, which you had to look up to find a lecturer’s office. There was no way I was dragging myself into uni to ask them something I would more likely find myself in a book.
These days, however, I’m an email away from my students, and it’s easier for them to ask me where to find certain things. But it’s also easier for me to give them a reading list – I have lectures with lists of links to further reading if they want to, it really is information overload.
This is part of the learning process now, knowing what is valuable information and what is not. Part of that should be learning how to scan the course handbook, in my opinion, rather than outsourcing it to your lecturer’s knowledge, but that’s also part of the training. Students pick it up and within a few weeks it’ll all be sorted.
The thing is, I would never tell a student not to email me. I would really much rather say “As you’ll see in your handbook . . .” than have to say after an assessment “If you’d asked me I could have told you . . .” when a student’s done poorly.
Still, it’s student season right now. It’s the time when they’ll be grinding against one another in the cafeteria while you’re having a meeting with a guest. It’s the time when there will be emails at the weekend that expect to be answered. It’s the time where we gently remind them that Facebook is very nearly forever. It’s the time for tech problems, sudden financial difficulties, introductions and students second guessing themselves.
Working in the world of international animal welfare as I have been doing in the last couple of months, you are confronted by your own innate biases. These are little (or big!) ideas you have about animal welfare that influence the way you think about it and the choices you make for animal welfare.
These biases are often problematic as one of our main messages is “It is the animal’s point of view which matters”, and the animals don’t know about our biases.
Now biases are hard to recognise because they are part of the way we think about the world. I’ll give you an example from my own background. I did a zoology degree which, in all honesty, was not big on the animal welfare side of things. ‘Naturalness’ was prized above all, because we were conservationists and behavioural ecologists. I then went to work in wildlife rehabilitation with the RSPCA where we did our utmost to avoid interacting with the animals because if we were to accidentally tame one, it would not be appropriate to release that animal back into the wild. This meant that for orphaned wildlife such as foxes we went to great lengths to get them to behave naturally, with so-called ‘soft releases’ where they’re given a cage outside and then allowed out of the cage, getting maintenance feed for a period. This enables the orphans to learn how to fend for themselves in a manner that attempts to mimic their wild counterparts.
I then went to work in the world of agriculture, where animals are production units. While I worked in the field of welfare in both of these roles, it is frowned upon, culturally, to show affection to the animals. Most animals would be distressed by what we think of as human affection.
So I have developed an idea about most animals that aren’t dogs, cats and horses, that they really don’t particularly want or need human attention.
But this isn’t necessarily 100% true. Many exotic animals in the pet or zoo trade, have been raised by humans. While not domesticated (genetically selected for traits that make them more suited for human-association), they have learned to cope with humans, and even desire human contact. It is a bias I have had to confront myself, seeing instances, particularly in primates, where human contact appears to be enriching.
The most difficult part about a bias is that seeing your bias contradicted feels wrong. On my holiday I visited a parrot sanctuary, which rescued former pet parrots. I noticed my bias creeping in as dozens of birds chirruped “Hello” and “I’m a pretty boy then” at me, beckoning to climb up on my shoulder and engage with me. One little cockatoo wanted very much to play with my hair, a parakeet was reciting its full repertoire of phrases to my aunt while it sat on her shoulder in a behaviour I could only describe as ‘desperate for attention’.
These birds are very intelligent and, at most, only one or two generations away from their wild ancestors. My training tells me they need all the complexity and diversity of a wild environment.
But behaviourally, I can see that many of those individual birds desperately wanted and craved human affection. They found it enriching and pleasurable, possibly only because their environment was not sufficiently complex without it, but could it be that some animals can simply enjoy the company of humans, much as we enjoy theirs?
This is a difficult question for me to parse, going against the grain so to speak. And yet if we ask the question “what does this animal perceive”, the right kind of human attention must be very positive for them.
You can’t shed a bias overnight, and my (many) cultural biases will remain with me, affecting the way I think about animal welfare. I’ll try and talk more about them in the blog, and hopefully by recognising our own biases, we can move past them to help the animals that need it.
I’m honoured this week to have been invited to the annual key drivers in Animal Welfare for Asia conference, organised by World Animal Protection. (Formerly known as wspa). We’re half way through now and we have discussed the mooc, informal science education, animal welfare in Asia and much more. We’re also being very well fed by our generous and lovely host Ms lui.
I will post more about it later in the week, or possibly at the weekend but just thought I’d let you know that it’s all going very well. Really exciting stuff
Fluffy Fridays have fallen by the wayside a bit as I keep up with the MOOC. This week has been a really interesting experience and in some ways, a lot of the discussions I was expecting, haven’t happened in the forums. The questions that spring to my mind when I think about measuring animal welfare clearly aren’t the questions that spring to my students’ mind.
For me this is one of the really valuable personal experiences I’m taking from the MOOC, being exposed to so many different students. I was never one of the panicking students, but I’ve had plenty of experience with them in my lectures – they’re usually doing absolutely fine anyway, but because it’s important to them they doubt themselves very quickly. Take the undergraduates who email at midnight to tell you they just realised they used the wrong word in an essay.
It’s not a problem for lecturers (until the student starts to expect that lecturers will answer emails at midnight!) but I wonder about how the panickers feel about their education – if the stress of it detracts from the experience at all? I expect this is something I should be looking up and investigating, particularly as I’ve put in to supervise some Masters students this year.
But I always assumed that it was to do with the university experience, and yet I have panicky MOOC students too – it’s a free (or, at most, $40 course), and yet people still get very worked up if they’re worried about something. I think it just goes to show that the pastoral care of students is something that all lecturers need to be involved in.
Anyway I would like to introduce you to two fellow bloggers:
Sam Hardman of Ecologica Blog blogs about animal behaviour and has been commenting over here for the last week with some really interesting resources and insights. I’m hoping he expands on one of his comments in a future blog post.
And second is ComparativelyPsyched who I met a few months ago at a science communication event. He works on some really interesting psychology research and also an excellent science communicator.
I’ll be adding both these blogs to the sideroll so I thought I should introduce them.
Please do forgive the bragging in this post’s title. But I have. I have lectured to 27000 students this week.
Our MOOC went live on Monday and people are still signing up, which is all kinds of mindblowing. From the moment that button was pressed on Monday morning, people have been meeting in the forums, watching our videos, working through our interactive sessions and this has been one of the most gratifying experiences of my career.
The diversity of people on the course has amazed me, from the school kids who help out in animal shelters at the weekend, to people who have real power and influence on a global scale, and what’s more – these people are talking to each other in the same thread.
I have a confession to make. Before this week began, this post was going to be full of summary numbers, bragging, essentially, about our reach. Because I’m really proud of that. But I had always seen the MOOC as a bit of a ‘flash in the pan’. I was pleased it was on my CV, and pleased that it was running, and I was sure our students would enjoy it and would learn something, but I thought MOOCs as a concept were going to fizzle out.
I’ve changed my mind. While advertising the MOOC a little while ago I said it would ‘democratise education’. I was using buzzwords, but I don’t think I was far off. The discussions we’ve been seeing on the forums has shown me that people are genuinely interested in learning science, and will be passionate as they engage with that science. There are people logging on from areas that are threatened with terrible violence. Little girls in countries that don’t have equal rights for women. Yes, it’s ‘just’ an introductory course, but its real strength lies in its community, in the learners who are taking it and using it to build their support networks. MOOCs have a huge amount of power, not because they allow universities to share their research, but because they invite universities into peoples homes.
As somebody who has lived with universities for all of my adult life, I had underestimated this. We might complain about student fees and the business like nature of the modern university, but they are still places of tremendous innovation and power. And I am so, so proud of what our students are doing.
You’ll have to forgive the lack of original content in this week’s Fluffy Friday (and lack of content entirely in last week’s). The MOOC launches on Monday at 11 AM and this week has been spent polishing the course and obsessing over comma placements and going a little bit hysterical after watching ourselves present over and over. One of our hysterical moments was remembering filming this introductory video – you’re never more aware of your face than when you’re being filmed in the background!
But in other science news there has been yet another peer review scandal, this one reported by the Washington Post. The Journal of Vibration and Control (I will not make a joke, I will not make a joke) was apparently victim to a peer review ring, where a scientist made up false aliases to give himself and colleagues favourable reviews. Publishers SAGE have released a statement where they say:
While investigating the JVC papers submitted and reviewed by Peter Chen, it was discovered that the author had created various aliases on SAGE Track, providing different email addresses to set up more than one account. Consequently, SAGE scrutinised further the co-authors of and reviewers selected for Peter Chen’s papers, these names appeared to form part of a peer review ring. The investigation also revealed that on at least one occasion, the author Peter Chen reviewed his own paper under one of the aliases he had created.
What I would give to have been a fly on the wall when they came up with that idea. I imagine it happened in the pub as it was closing, a group of scientists huddled around their pints, and as they get hustled from their barstools one of them comes up with the inevitable words “Why don’t we just review our own papers?”
I think Kevin Spacey should play that scientist in the movie.
In preparation for our MOOC, we’ve become a little obsessive. Every time I check the student count the numbers go up – we’re currently sitting at a staggering 19,129 students and roughly 6.7% of you have taken part in our little data gathering exercise we’ve sent out on the emails – so a big thank you for that.
At the moment you come from 153 different countries, and you span the age ranges of 13-70+.
We are so excited to meet all of you, and I have a little clip from the Jeanne Marchig YouTube channel of our third VLog.