Category Archives: school

Brisbane 2018, or Being Educated During a Trip About Education

Although I have attended conferences and spent a day out of the office here and there for a workshop, I’ve not really ever taken a proper business trip–which, for the sake of convenience, I will define here as a trip during which you attend one or more meetings for the purposes of exchanging information or collaborating on a project. Those were certainly the main goals of my recent trip to Brisbane, where I visited the University of Queensland in the interests of working with colleagues associated with the QUEX joint PhD programme recently initiated by UQ and the University of Exeter.

I needed to take the trip within a particular timeframe and so I ended up traveling at a very busy time of year for me; I was caught up in a whirlwind of preparation for our annual Education Conference, attending external conferences, tutoring for our Learning and Teaching in Higher Education Programme, and teaching both academics and PhD students. On top of this, I had a variety of distinct goals for my Queensland trip that required me to meet with a large number of people from a range of directorates—and coordinating my itinerary was a bit laborious because I had to wait at least half a day, thanks to the time delay, to get a response to any email. Because of all this, I had basically no time to investigate options for sightseeing and general exploration of Australian culture, and I departed for Brisbane in a fog of exhaustion and mild confusion. Frankly, I was just relieved I had the presence of mind to remember to pack my passport and enough pairs of underwear.

Brisbane from the UQ campus
Brisbane from the UQ campus
Brisbane skyline at night
Brisbane at night, as seen from Mount Coot-tha

Luckily, I was accompanied on the trip by a colleague who had prioritized her time a bit more wisely. Following some advice from Australian contacts at UQ, she had found a day-long ecotourism trip to the nearby North Stradbroke Island and had kindly invited me to tag along when she visited shortly after our arrival (we got in at 5:30pm on a Friday and had the weekend to acclimate and explore before reporting to work). We had both dreaded the 7am pick-up time, knowing that our circadian rhythms would be a mess after the 24-hour-trip, but, frankly, when your system is that confused, all hours feel equally painful for a few days, so it doesn’t really make any difference.

North Stradbroke Island, or ‘Straddie’, as it’s affectionately called, is found in the Moreton Bay about 20 miles away from Brisbane. A huge portion (I forget the exact amount, but I think at least  half) of the island is off-limits because it’s controlled by sand mining companies—though the land leases are shortly drawing to a close, and for the first time in decades the area will be made accessible, and turned back over, to the rightful inhabitants of the land: the Quandamooka people, who refer to the island as Minjerribah.

From the mainland, you reach Straddie via a 20-minute ferry ride, during which you can see a number of little mangrove stands and some avian wildlife. The ferry drops you off in Dunwich, which is a pretty unassuming little town. In fact, much of North Stradbroke Island is unassuming. There are only about 2,000 residents who, though they live in the popular Gold Coast region, do not have flashy homes or live stereotypically ‘coastal elite’ lifestyles. Like residents of the UK’s Isles of Scilly, they just happen to live on an island that also just happens to be phenomenally beautiful and a pleasant place to visit.

North Stradbroke Island coastline
North Stradbroke Island coastline

In fact, much of the northern coastline looks very similar to the beaches of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, which made me chuckle when I realized that I had taken two long plane rides to be in a position to take in basically the same view that is only a couple of hours from my house. As in the UK’s southwest, there are the main areas where tourists tend to aggregate (where the accommodation is a little more flashy), and then there are the quieter, calmer hidden gems where the locals tend to go. We got to see both of these. We started by driving around Dunwich and seeing the cemetery where the first white colonisers had been buried after surviving a dreadful, fiery, disease-ridden journey from Europe only to succumb to different diseases in Australia. This is where we caught sight of our first koala, which was slumbering obliviously in the branches of a eucalyptus tree as we cooed and snapped photographs of its furry bum.

Koala bum
I swear there is a koala in this shot

We then headed out to Brown Lake, which is, indeed, brown – a hue caused by tannins that leach out from the fallen leaves of the tea trees that surround the water. Tea tree oil can be found in a variety of expensive spa products, but visitors to Brown Lake can take advantage of this luxury ingredient for free. During our stop at the lake, our tour guide brewed us up some traditional billy tea and gave us a mid-morning snack of freshly baked bread topped with jam. This is a good time to mention that our guide was an excellent and attentive host—especially on the culinary front—but perhaps not as knowledgeable about wildlife as one might like on an eco-tour. I had been quite excited about the prospect of learning some new Australian birds, but when I observed him mis-identify both a white-bellied sea-eagle and an osprey in quick succession, I lost my faith. This was only slightly less disconcerting than the bigoted views he shared with us over lunch. Ah, well, at least he was a good driver and grilled up some excellent sausages.

We also had an opportunity to visit the coastal portions of Straddie, where we failed to spot any dolphins or whales (whale migration didn’t start until a few weeks after our visit, but we were hoping for stragglers); however, we could, at least, bask in the sun and dig our toes into the sand. As you might expect, I also managed to find some birds to watch, and we located a much more visible koala who was sleeping just as soundly as the first but in a more photogenic position. We then completed our circuit around the northern tip of the island and returned to Dunwich just in time to catch the ferry back to the mainland. Our driver dropped us off at our hotel around 4pm, which sounds pretty early but by which point the sun was already well on its way to setting; although we were visiting during British summer, it was Australian winter, and the days were surprisingly short. The impending dark and our lingering exhaustion compelled us to call it a day. Even though we hadn’t really travelled too far or spent all that much time out of our hotel, the Straddie excursion was a perfect fit for our schedules and energy levels.

Koala in tree
An indisputable koala

Then followed a week of meetings, more meetings, and even more meetings on top of that. Honestly, I have never fit so many meetings into such a short amount of time, nor had to switch gears so often in between meetings; I had originally tried to arrange my schedule thematically, but because people had limited availability I ultimately gave up on this and just fit folks in wherever I could. It was intense, especially since I wasn’t sleeping at normal times and kept feeling alert / sleepy according to the British clock rather than the Australian one. On the bright side, the discussions were all informative and interesting and actually rather energizing. Further, my commute to and from campus, and from one office to another on the campus, gave me plenty of opportunities to enjoy the sights and make general observations about Brisbane.

One of the things that impressed me most about the city was how very eco-aware it is. There are lots of ‘green’ buildings, including business facilities, community and cultural areas, and houses; several had living roofs or facades. There are also many public transport options, including my preferred way of traveling to and from the campus each day: the CityCat, which delivers you to a ferry station at the edge of UQ’s St Lucia Campus, right at the base of their green-commute-only (e.g., buses, bikes, pedestrians but no cars) bridge across the river. There are also lots of commuter paths, plazas and parks, outdoor art installations, and decorative plantings; it’s a nice place to be outdoors and to move around in – though perhaps my feelings on that might have been slightly different if I’d visited in the middle of the Australian summer, when Brisbane is twice as hot and significantly more humid. The weather during our stay was pretty similar to standard British summer weather: cooler in the morning and evenings but quite comfortable (no jacket needed) during the middle of the day. I found it really pleasant, but our hosts kept remarking how ‘cold’ it was, and whereas I was wearing sandals and sleeveless dresses, the Australians were wearing boots, cardigans, scarves, and other obviously autumnal / wintry fashion. On more than one occasion, I even saw people wearing wool coats, knitted caps, and gloves. To be fair, these latter items were generally only deployed by international residents who, I’m guessing, hailed from warmer climates.

Artwork in the botanical garden
One of many sculptures to be found dotted around Brisbane

On the topic of internationals, another nice thing about Brisbane was how diverse it was. Much of the diversity was associated with the university and other educational organisations, but I also saw quite a lot of variety associated with people who were clearly more mature and permanent. I was particularly impressed with how Aboriginal culture was acknowledged and incorporated into daily activities; for example, one event I attended at UQ started off with a traditional invocation that recognized that the land on which the activity was taking place was originally stewarded by Aboriginal tribes, and thanked them for sharing the space and providing an opportunity to come together. I realize that this sort of recognition is just about the least you could do after colonizing someone else’s country, suppressing their culture, and generally treating them like dirt, yet it was done in a respectful and genuine manner, and is far more than you ever encounter in the US, which has a very similar history with natives. It felt like a meaningful and admirable practice and I wish people in my homeland would be willing to face their country’s history with similar honesty and openness.

In addition to contemplating such issues of social justice, I was, of course, keeping my eye out for birds. The St Lucia campus has lakes, woodlands, decorative plantings, and lawns, which, cumulatively, provide lots of space for a wide variety of bird species. Particularly common were brush-turkeys, Australian white ibises, noisy miners, rainbow lorikeets, and moorhens. Wherever you were, you would inevitably see (turkeys, ibises, moorhens) or hear (miners, lorikeets) one of these species. Noisy miners are pretty chatty throughout the day (as you might expect given their names), but the lorikeets were especially loud in the evening when they settled into trees to roost; when I left campus around 5pm each day, I encountered huge flocks of them calling back and forth as they descended into the canopies of the eucalyptus trees. During the CityCat journey each morning, I would watch welcome swallows swoop low over the water, and one day I even caught sight of a tiny blue kingfisher zipping from one patch of reeds to another; on the way back, I would watch the massive fruit bats streaming out across the city after emerging from wherever they’d hidden themselves away during the lighter hours.

Purple swamphen
This purple swamp hen really wanted me to share my lunch

Despite all these lovely and interesting brushes with nature, I did find it difficult to be cooped up in the city for so long; I am just not a city person, and although I can enjoy a picnic in a corner park or the multicoloured glow of a suspension bridge lit up at night, I am always aware that these things are found within a broader context of concrete and skyscrapers. By the end of the first week, I was feeling hemmed in as well as mentally and physical exhausted, so I was pleased to have an opportunity to rent a car and escape into the countryside for a different type of sightseeing.

Fortunately, all of my contacts at the University of Queensland were extremely helpful in suggesting potential tourist destinations. Unfortunately, they provided so many options that I had trouble prioritizing. My main goal was getting closer to nature, but that could take many forms: a scenic drive, a nice hike, birdwatching, visiting an animal sanctuary, going to the beach. I didn’t want to spend too much time commuting, and I wanted at least some of the excursion to be secluded—I had had more than enough social interactions for the week and needed some solitude.

One suggestion that I heard multiple times was that I should go somewhere where I could hold a koala. Lots of places near Brisbane offer opportunities for interacting not only with koalas but also kangaroos and other wildlife – most of which had been rescued from the wild after having been injured or otherwise endangered, or had been bred in captivity from animals that fall into the first category. I have had serious reservations about zoos for many years, because once you know a certain amount about animal behaviour and animal husbandry, it’s painfully, heartbreakingly obvious when captive animals are unhappy. However, I had heard glowing things about several different facilities near Brisbane, so I decided to ignore my reservations and give one a try. Because of its convenient location near other sites of interest, as well as its international reputation and iconic status, I opted to visit Australia Zoo, the facility founded by Steve Irwin, a.k.a. The Crocodile Hunter, and still operated by his family.

Me at the entrance
Kitschy selfie at the entrance of the Australia Zoo
Warning sign
Actual sign at the Australia Zoo

The zoo had been described to me as a place that housed wildlife without imprisoning it, providing big open enclosures rather than cages. I was, therefore, envisioning something like the San Diego Zoo Safari Park or The Wilds. Sadly, though, it was a pretty typical zoo. Some of the enclosures were surprisingly small, and the animals inside looked bored and listless; some were displaying the monotypic behaviours indicative of insufficient activity and stimulation. Several sections of the zoo are outfitted with hidden speakers that broadcast animal noises and cringeworthy zoology-themed children’s songs (yes, really; it’s like being in a children’s TV show); the noise was obnoxiously loud and often was in close proximity to the animals’ cages, which can’t have been good for the stress levels of the inmates. The kangaroo-petting/feeding area wasn’t too bad; it was spacious and the very tame animals obviously didn’t mind interacting with people—though I wondered how staff ensured that the roos weren’t being overfed by all the visitors using food as a bribe to ensure petting and selfie opps.

Emerging from the kangaroo area, though, I stumbled upon the koala petting zone and it just made my heart sink. A little stepladder had been placed under one of several intensively-trimmed eucalyptus trees into which sleeping koalas had been placed; visitors could climb the steps, give the animals a pat or two, then make way for the next person to do the same, over and over. Those poor animals just wanted to sleep but instead they had to endure endless rump-fondling from humans. I certainly wouldn’t want to experience that, and so I wouldn’t want to inflict it on any other organism, either. The best moments at the zoo involved wild birds that I was watching in the foliage in and around the enclosures; seeing free-roaming animals behaving in natural ways was much more interesting and cheerful. Finally, it occurred to me that I could do that in a much more enjoyable way elsewhere, and so I left.

Kangaroo petting
I cannot lie: kangaroos are so, so soft and I was delighted to pet one

My next stop was Maleny, located in the Hinterlands just north of the Glass House Mountains. Maleny had been recommended because of a food shop there that sells what seemingly everyone agrees is the finest ice cream in Queensland. I wanted to visit the Glass House Mountains area, and I love ice cream, so Maleny seemed like a logical destination. The town isn’t very large, but it is full of pleasant shops and eateries that line a bustling main street; it reminded me of my hometown. Unfortunately, I got there a bit late in the day, so many of the stores were beginning to close (surprisingly early for a Saturday, I thought); I had to get my ice cream to go and I ate it while walking along a nature trail on the edge of town. I am pleased to report that the ice cream was, indeed, very nice, though neither it nor the walk was enough to lift my spirits after the zoo and what felt like a bit of a wasted day.

Artwork
‘Thought’, by Vivienne Bennett (2015) — one of several pieces of art along the walking path in Maleny

The weather hadn’t been great, with intermittent sprinkles all afternoon, and as clouds continued to gather as the evening approached, the gloom of dusk fell surprisingly quickly. I had lost my opportunity to take a hike in the mountains, but I thought perhaps all was not entirely lost; on my way home I would be passing several overlooks, so I decided to stop at one of them and try to see the sunset (or whatever passes for a sunset on an overcast evening). Other than the ice cream, this was probably my greatest success of the day. There was next to nobody else at the overlook, which was calm and quiet, smelled of the fresh, clean scent of eucalyptus, and provided stunning views of the picturesque landscape. I wished I had spent my entire day somewhere like that, but I was glad to have even just a few minutes of that environment to close out the day.

Glass House Mountains
This photo doesn’t really do justice to the view, but I love the tiny moon hanging over the mountains

Having learned the hard way that what I really needed was pure, unadulterated nature, I decided to spend Sunday hiking. My Lonely Planet guide recommended D’Aguilar National Park, which was about an hour outside the city. The forecast was not superb, but I hoped that by the time I arrived at my destination, some of the clouds might have dissipated. Unfortunately, this did not happen. In fact, what had merely been sprinkles had turned into full-fledged rain. Because rain hadn’t been predicted during my trip, I hadn’t packed any waterproofs, so my only options were to get wet or to give up. I think you can guess which of these I stubbornly chose.

As I squelched my way through the trees, I heard and saw birds. I breathed in the heady green aroma of nature. I saw some beautiful flora. I was drenched, but I could feel my batteries recharging. Then the rain stopped, and the sun began to emerge. Things were looking up. I heard my phone ping, an email alert sound, and I ignored it, because who wants to look at email in the middle of a hike? However, it did remind me that I hadn’t let anyone know where I was, which everyone (especially a lady) should do on an outing like mine, so I went to use the check-in function on Facebook. As I did, I saw the alert for the email that had just arrived. It had an intriguing subject line; at first I ignored the message but then, following my instincts and with a feeling that somehow managed to be a mixture of curiosity, alarm, suspicion, and resignation, I opened it.

Me
Damp, bedraggled, disappointed

As crummy a place as the internet can sometimes be, it is not without its benefits. I am forever telling people that it can be a very good thing to be prominent enough online that people can easily find you, and I proved that point beautifully on 27thMay. A tremendously kind soul in Maleny—an employee at the David Linton gallery—had come into possession of my wallet, which I had left behind in a public toilet during my visit there the day before, and had tracked me down online in order to alert me. The exact chain of events, just to emphasize how remarkable this all was, began the previous evening, when a fellow tourist used the toilet just after I did and found the wallet where I had hung it on the hook on the back of the door; she tried to turn it in to the police, but the police station was closed because Maleny is a small town and it was a Saturday evening, so why would it be open?; having recently shopped in the gallery, which was one of the few establishments still open in town, the tourist went back and asked for advice about what she should do; the shopkeepers said they would either find me or turn the wallet over to the police on Monday morning; they then proceeded to track me down online, using the name they found on my driver’s license and university ID card, and even going so far as to call the University of Exeter to see if they could provide contact details. Nobody touched my credit cards or a single penny of my cash, and they helped me reunite with my wallet in under 24 hours. The world may be going to hell in a handbasket right now, but all is not completely  lost.

This is the very positive thought I tried to keep in my head as I had to cut my hike short just as it was becoming pleasant, and then drive out of my way to a place I’d already been that didn’t involve seclusion and a calm communion with nature. Obviously, I had no choice but to console myself with another serving of Queensland’s best ice cream, and then buy myself several books at the wonderful used book store around the corner—all of which I was able to do once my wallet was back in my possession. Then, feeling absolutely determined to do some birdwatching in a pastoral environment, I pulled up Google Maps to search for somewhere, anywhere, near Maleny that would allow me to go for a bit of a stroll before the ridiculously early sunset. I discovered a lake, Lake Baroon, just outside town, and decided to give it a try. At this point, what did I have to lose?

Lake Baroon
*sigh of happiness*
A message from the forest
A message from the forest

Amazingly, given how arbitrary my choice had been, Lake Baroon was perfect. There was almost nobody there, which was great but also bizarre, because it was such a gorgeous, relaxing, wonderful place. The clouds were finally dissipating as I arrived, and the golden late afternoon sun was shining through the damp foliage and creating perfect rainbows in the sky above. The birds were finally able to leave their roosts and go searching for food, so the woodland was vibrant with their calls and songs and flitting movements. It was a wonderland of peaceful greenery and delightful wildlife, accompanied again by the pervasive and endlessly enjoyable smell of eucalyptus. I wanted to build a cabin on the shore and stay there forever.

Alas, I could not, and so I dragged myself away after the sunset, and made the return trip to Brisbane. Baroon was the last out-of-town place I could visit, since I had only rented the car for the weekend. I dropped it off first thing the following morning and then headed off on foot to explore parts of Brisbane I hadn’t encountered in my daily to and fro thus far. I swung through the City Botanic Gardens and saw the historical buildings nearby; I peeked at the Cathedral of St Stephen; I headed over the bridge to the South Bank in order to see the parklands and the artificial beach; I wandered along the Pillars Street Art Gallery. My favourite find was the Nepal Peace Pagoda, which is surrounded by a small bamboo garden and is, indeed, very peaceful – especially early in the day when few other people are out and about. I watched a father and daughter do tai chi in the shade of the pagoda while two white ibises sat and preened on a nearby bench; it was like a scene out of a movie.

Nepal Peace Pagoda
Nepal Peace Pagoda from the bamboo garden side
Entryway to the Peace Pagoda
I want a house just like this

The nearby Queensland Museum caught my eye because it was hosting an Egyptian mummy exhibit—which seemed a slightly off-topic thing to visit while on a trip to Australia, but was up my alley nonetheless. It was an impressive display incorporating cutting-edge scanning imagery displayed side-by-side with mummies and artefacts. Since I was already in the museum, I figured I should also have a look at the other exhibits, so I also wandered through rows of stuffed specimens and dinosaur bones.

Selfie at the museum
Do you ever feel like someone is watching you?

Tucked away beside these was a small but powerful collection of pieces by young Aboriginal artists. I had searched for museums and galleries devoted to Aboriginal culture and work but had come up empty-handed—something that both disappointed and surprised me (though, given how Aborigines have been, and continue to be, treated in Australia, I suppose this is not entirely unexpected). The display at the Queensland Museum focused on the central theme of ‘decolonization’—in particular, providing a sort of freedom for Aboriginal artefacts at the museum by interacting with them through art. Interestingly, it didn’t seem that the museum actually gave the artefacts back, which shows that the curators’ beneficence and self-awareness only go so far; still, I suppose this exhibit was a good first step towards having a dialogue that might lead to concrete actions. It was fascinating to see, hear, and read the pieces, which were so thoughtful, introspective, and impactful that you’d never think they were produced by artists so young. It was also heartbreaking to understand how upsetting it is for Aboriginals to have their cultural artefacts—including tools, accessories, paintings, and portraits—held by the museum. Because of the way Aborigines understand time and, for lack of a better word, the soul, the museum’s continued possession and control of these pieces is akin to holding an actual person prisoner and is, therefore, extremely emotional for the clans from which those pieces were taken. The purpose of the art in the exhibit was not only to express and explain this, but also to reclaim the captive artefacts from afar by incorporating them into the new artwork. Of all the things I encountered and learned while in Australia, this was by far the most moving and memorable.

Aboriginal artwork at UQ
No photos were allowed in the Queensland Museum exhibit, so here’s a photo of a lovely Aboriginal piece on display at UQ

I finished exploring the museum around mid-afternoon and was tempted to get a bit more sightseeing under my belt, but…I was tired. It had been a long day after a somewhat frustrating and disappointing weekend after an intense week after a ridiculously long journey after an exhausting couple of months at work. I love to explore and be active and live life to the fullest, but sometimes you just need to rest. At those times, you have to recognize your limits and just give yourself permission to relax. I am really bad at this, but even I could tell I’d hit a wall and just needed to stop.

So I did. I went back to my hotel and went for a dip in the pool that was very pretty but also very cold (because it was, after all, winter), and I just took it easy for the last day and a half of my trip. I felt a little guilty because Australia is so far away and I don’t know when or if I’ll have a chance to go back; there were museums and gardens and neighbourhoods and restaurants that I’m sure I would have enjoyed and where I’m sure I would have been able to increase and refine my understanding of Australian culture, but…I was done. And that’s okay. I went to Brisbane to learn about doctoral supervision and education innovation, which I did, but on top of this I also began to appreciate the true value of self-care. I learned that sometimes you can get too much of even the best things, and so, sometimes, less is more. I will try to remember this important lesson and apply it to future trips.

I will also remember to check I haven’t left my wallet behind in a public restroom.

Academic Development: GW4 Crucible as a CPD case study

In between teaching, researching, and fulfilling administrative duties, it can be difficult for academics to find time for CPD, yet this is a vital means for ensuring an up-to-date understanding of specific techniques, ways of working, concepts, and the Higher Education landscape in general, as well as providing an opportunity for networking and getting out of the office (not to mention giving academics something concrete to write about when discussing personal development in HEA fellowship applications…)

Thanks to the University of Exeter’s inclusion in the GW4, our academics can apply to take part in the GW4 Crucible, a ‘melting pot for 30 future research leaders from different backgrounds to come together and explore interdisciplinary approaches to research through a series of interactive workshops, talks and activities’. The 2018 Crucible is focused on ‘Resilience, Environment, and Sustainability’, and includes among its attendees experts in flooding, fracking, genomics, and mechanical engineering (among other topics). The first of the four Crucible events focused on Communication and was hosted by the University of Exeter at Padbrook Park.

On the first afternoon, attendees learned more about furthering their research success by working with the media. Luke Salkeld from The Conversation UK talked about news articles; Dr Sam Goodman and Dr Katherine Cooper (AHRC New Generation Thinkers) discussed radio broadcasting; and Dr Caitlin Kight (University of Exeter) considered the relevance of social media.

During the social media workshop, Cruciblees considered the pros and cons of social media
Cruciblees also made a list of the various forms of social media they might consider using for professional purposes

During dinner, former UK National Cruciblee and current researcher and science communicator Dr Jon Copley (University of Southampton) delivered a short talk on his experiences with science communication from the perspective of someone who has been both a journalist and a scientist. In addition to regaling attendees with tales of working on Blue Planet II (he features in the final episode) and consulting on various science-themed TV dramas, Copley provided useful tips for working with journalists in a less stressful and more fruitful way. Among other things, Copley emphasised the importance of each academic’s having an understanding of why he/she wants to engage in communication and outreach.

Dr Jon Copley describes his engagement goals: to enable all people to share in the research done by experts, and to help citizens make more informed choices

The second day of the Crucible focused on engagement associated with policy more than education. Catriona Fleming from Parliament Outreach described how policy is created and enacted and how this process can be informed and influenced by researchers; a panel of experienced academics (Dr Matt Dickson, University of Bath; Prof Neil Adger, University of Exeter; Prof Peter Cox, University of Exeter) then answered practical questions and offered advice on contributing to policy.

For the remainder of the afternoon, Crucible attendees had a chance to put their newly gained knowledge into practice as they created a digital output–their choice of podcast or video–to encourage public engagement with a hypothetical research project they had just been assigned. In addition to having to jump hurdles associated with using certain technologies for the first time, the groups also had to figure out how to bring their diverse interdisciplinary interests together in a meaningful way so that their outputs could be maximally persuasive and impactful. What initially looked like an overly generous three-hour time slot for this activity flew past, but not before the six groups had a chance to produce some impressively innovative outputs.

Crucible facilitator Tracey Stead tells participants how outreach is like a communication, and also an onion

The academics were tired by the end of the intensive two-day training experience, but also enthusiastic about the next three Crucible events, intrigued by new collaborative possibilities, and ready to try out some new communication techniques to support their current work–cumulatively, a reaction similar to what you might expect in the aftermath of a conference. Although many of the participants spent their coffee breaks keeping on top of emails, there was probably still some catch-up required after two days away from the desk. However, the positivity and excitement evidenced by the buzz at the event suggested that CPD activities like these can definitely be worth the time and energy.

Assessing faculty performance: are student ratings the best source of data? (nerdy teaching post)

I wrote something for a blog at work but it was hidden behind a single sign-on so I’m re-publishing it here. It has nothing to do with food or travel or anything lighthearted and fun, but I slogged through a lot of statistics descriptions in the course of producing this and I need to share it far and wide so I feel my pain was worthwhile!

Last autumn, a comprehensive meta-analysis of student evaluation of teaching (SET) ratings received widespread attention after laying bare the many flaws present in previous studies that had sought to relate SET to student learning. Those previous examinations (notably Cohen’s 1981 paper ‘Student ratings of instruction and student achievement: A meta-analysis’ of multisection validity studies’, Feldman’s 1989 ‘The association between student ratings of specific instructional dimensions and student achievement: refining and extending the synthesis of data from multisection validity studies’, and Clayson’s 2009 study ‘Student evaluations of teaching: Are they related to what students learn? A meta-analysis and review of the literature’) suffer from a variety of methodological shortcomings. These include inadequate description of literature search techniques and parameters, small sample size effects, an inappropriate admixture of data with and without corrections for certain factors, and ‘voodoo correlations’ (impossibly high correlations that are merely an artefact rather than a reflection of reality).

The authors of the new work, Bob Uttl (Mount Royal University), Carmela White (University of British Columbia), and Daniela Gonzalez (University of Windsor) discount each of these studies after repeating them from scratch, and then present their own painstakingly performed meta-analyses to support their hypothesis that ‘students do not learn more from professors who receive higher SET ratings’. They end the paper with the following:

…universities and colleges may need to give appropriate weight to SET ratings when evaluating their professors. Universities and colleges focused on student learning may need to give minimal or no weight to SET ratings. In contrast, universities and colleges focused on students’ perceptions or satisfaction rather than learning may way to evaluate their faculty’s teaching using primarily or exclusively SET ratings, emphasize to their faculty members the need to obtain as high SET ratings as possible (i.e., preferably the perfect ratings), and systematically terminate those faculty members who do not meet the standards. For example, they may need to terminate all faculty members who do not exceed the average SET ratings of the department or the university, the standard of satisfactory teaching used in some departments and universities today despite common sense objections that not every faculty member can be above the average.

This statement is, presumably, intended to be deliberately provocative, but nevertheless highlights the intense pressure that SETs place on the modern academic. This theme is also explored in a qualitative analysis performed by Henry Hornstein (University of Hong Kong) in his review paper ‘Student evaluations of teaching are an inadequate assessment tool for evaluating faculty performance‘. Hornstein’s work was published a few months before the paper by Uttl et al., but did not receive similar media attention. This is understandable, since it is a review article, but it’s also a shame because Hornstein’s work acts as an excellent companion piece and provides a more in-depth examination of why we should approach SETs with caution.

As Hornstein points out, SETs were originally used (in the 1970s) in a formative way, to help lecturers understand which aspects of their teaching might require improvement Because the data were so easy to collect, however, SETs became increasingly popular as a method of providing administrators with the sort of snapshot of activities that could prove useful when making decisions about employment. Hornstein writes, ‘…the persistent practice of using student evaluations as summative measures to determine decisions for retention, promotion, and pay for faculty members is improper and depending on circumstances could be argued to be illegal.’

In particular, Hornstein highlights three main problems with the use of SETs:

  1. Measurement. This includes not only the statistical issues described by Uttl et al. above, but also difficulties associated with the fact that SETs typically involve qualitative data (usually collected by offering a range of categories along a Likert scale, e.g., ‘unacceptable’, ‘satisfactory, ‘very good’, etc.) that are then converted into quantitative data (e.g., unacceptable = 1, satisfactory = 3, and very good = 5). There is no real-world numerical difference between ‘unacceptable’ and ‘very good’, for example, so it is difficult to interpret what these selections mean in terms of actual teaching performance. Further, Hornstein writes, ‘it is not possible to interpret average scores of categories [because] the categories are not truly ordinal’, and yet this is the very information being used to make important strategic decisions. Like Uttl et al., Hornstein points out that ‘[administrators’] reasoning seems to be based on the improbable assumption that all of their faculty members should be above average in all categories.’
  2. Validity of student assessment. Hornstein cites a range of studies that provide evidence that students may not be ‘dispassionate evaluators of instructor performance’. For one thing, even the pedagogical literature does not yield an agreement on ‘effective teaching’, so it seems inappropriate to ask relatively untrained undergraduate students to be able to assess it. Rather, he writes, ‘students can reliable speak about their experience in a course, including factors that ostensibly affect teaching effectiveness such as audibility of the instructor, legibility of instructor notes, and availability of the instructor for consultation outside of class’. This is not the same thing as being able to ‘evaluate outside their experience’, e.g. determining whether instructors are truly knowledgeable within their field, or are well versed in, and demonstrative of, accepted good practice in learning and teaching.
  3. Response rates and satisfaction. As pointed out by a number of previous authors, SETs may reflect student satisfaction more than anything else; as a result, ratings are often given only by the students who feel most excited by or upset about their learning experience. Further, students may fixate on particular attributes–a perception of career preparation, relevance, and innovation, as well as factors such as classroom facilities, which are usually out of the instructors’ hands–that do not directly describe lecturers’ abilities. If students are mainly focused on getting good grades and not having to work too hard, as studies suggest many are, then lecturers that ensure the most challenging and educational environments may actually get the lowest SETs. Perhaps worst of all, SETs are known to be biased against particular types of instructor, in particular women. Hornstein writes, ‘…gender biases can be large enough to cause more effective instructors to get lower SET than less effective instructors’.

On the basis of these serious issues, Hornstein states that ‘the conservative and more appropriate approach is to question the validity of SET for all summative purposes’, else we risk alienating good lecturers who have been on the receiving end of SET bias, and also inappropriately encouraging academics to put on a performance just to make students happy rather than to choose the best pedagogical practices for ensuring a stimulating and effective educational environment. He also has an answer for how to assess good teaching in the absence of SET:

If one truly wants to understand how well someone teaches, observation is necessary. In order to know what is going on [in] the classroom, observation is necessary. In order to determine the quality of instructors’ materials, observation is necessary. Most of all, if the actual desire is to see improvement in teaching quality, then attention must be paid to the teaching itself, and not to the average of a list of student-reported numbers that bear at best a troubled and murky relationship to actual teaching performance. University faculty benefits most from visiting each other’s classrooms and looking at others’ teaching materials routinely. Learning can occur from one another, exchanging pedagogical ideas and practices.

Again, the strength of the author’s language evidences the passion that many lecturers feel about evaluation of teaching. Hornstein’s recommendation hopefully resonates with my University of Exeter colleagues who participate in the institution’s Annual Review of Teaching — a practice that many may find onerous to organize beforehand but beneficial to discuss afterwards. Demonstrating and discussing best practice with colleagues is an essential part of a well-rounded reflective teaching practice (and is one of the ‘four lenses’ advocated by Brookfield); as indicated by the work of Hornstein and Uttl et al., student feedback alone may not always tell the full story, and so it can be helpful and encouraging to also hear what colleagues have to say.

Hornstein notes that SETs can be a useful way of helping students feel engaged in their own education; rather than discounting the importance of the student voice, he questions the way in which that voice is recorded. Universities are increasingly exploring ways of empowering students to work side-by-side with academics in shaping their own learning process, as demonstrated in the growing importance of more experiential learning activities such as engagement in research projects and flipped classrooms in which students teach their peers. Work like that by Hornstein and Uttl et al. should encourage institutions to build on these positive advances and find more equitable, accurate, and beneficial tools for measuring the student learning experience–something that is also better for students, as it rewards the best educational practices and encourages the development of staff who are not quite up to snuff. Ideally, these data would then be used alongside colleague observations to produce more comprehensive, constructive evaluations, hopefully leading to ever more effective learning environments.