Monday, 30 April 2012

Are we heading for the paperless university?

We often hear talk of the paperless office, but after more than 30 years of the PC and other impressive IT innovations, including the internet, most offices still seem to generate masses of paper and old fashioned paper files. But I've recently been wondering whether universities might nevertheless be moving in the paperless direction. Several strands have come together to set me thinking along these lines. Let's see what some of them are:

It occurred to me recently that I can't recall when I last borrowed a book or a journal from our library! And that's not because I've given up reading. Rather, it's because most new material in areas that interest me comes out first in on line working papers from diverse sources, and most of the journals I read are also available on line these days. Also, colleagues from various other institutions and countries send me a good deal of material, and again, it's nearly all in the form of attachments to e-mails. This is a massive change in the 'information landscape' that has come about over the past 20-30 years, and it is continuing.

Personally, I confess to being quite old fashioned in two respects: I still like the look and feel of 'real' books, and therefore buy for myself the key books on anything I decide to work on; and second, I can't resist printing out a limited number of the articles I want to read, not least because then I don't have to sit in front of a computer screen all day.

Refereeing articles for journals
Increasingly, requests to referee come by e-mail, and the referee is invited to use the publisher's on line reporting system to provide feedback to the editors and to the paper authors. These on line systems vary a bit in quality and ease of use, but they're getting better all the time. Hence on line refereeing is becoming the standard method.

Travel and e-book readers
Many academics, including me, travel a good deal and often take books and various academic papers with them to read on the plane. Increasingly, academics travel with some form of e-reader to cut down on a lot of the weight. I haven't yet taken this course myself, but it can't be very long before I do. It's clearly the future for the travelling academic.

This still requires real teachers and real students, but increasing amounts of our teaching materials - lecture notes, literature sources, essay topics, course outlines, problem sets, podcasts, etc., can be found on course websites and can be accessed whenever it suits the students. We used to hand out masses of photocopied notes and papers, and still do in some courses; but increasingly, we simply tell the students where they can find the material on line, and they can access it using their laptops or smartphones. Individual student queries are often dealt with by e-mail, though we do also meet students to discuss things personally. This will remain an important part of the learning experience, I would expect.

Essays and other student work
When I started life as an academic several decades ago, all essays were hand-written by the students, while student dissertations were sometimes typed (on a mechanical typewriter, just as I used for typing up my PhD), sometimes hand written. Nowadays we accept nothing that is not properly word processed, and even when we require hard copy (i.e. paper), we also normally require an e-mail or on line submission too. The latter enables us to do automatic checks for plagiarism, and also provides automatic templates for entering marks, comments, etc. All this has become quite standard in the last 5-10 years, and probably quite soon we shall stop asking for the paper copies.

This is more difficult to make electronic as students, both at undergraduate and MSc levels, usually write their answers in answer books that we provide. Someone then has to read and mark everything. However, we have experimented a little with automated examining in some quantitative/problem solving areas, and it has worked pretty well.  But in most examining, I think paper will remain with us for a while longer.

On the other hand, although PhD theses are always supplied on paper, the last few I have examined have also been supplied electronically, and all the needed report forms have been electronic too. Hence in this area, too, it can't be long before we can dispense with the print out and conduct the whole examining process electronically. Even the viva could be conducted using Sykpe, or some other mode of on line conferencing facility, so that we might even be able to cut down on some travelling (though it would be a shame to miss out on the occasional nice lunch with colleagues).

So where does all this amazing change leave us? Aside from leaving us gasping for breath, it seems to me to leave us with institutions that have automated rather successfully (i.e. made electronic and paperless) many of the important things they do, both in teaching and in research. I would see these developments as largely beneficial.

On the face of it, this should have freed up some academic time for improved student-professor interaction, and at times I think that works very well. But as ever, there is a downside that might need thinking about more carefully. This is the simple point that by making the creation of forms and documents so cheap and easy, the IT revolution we have been going through has also stimulated the demand for ever more forms and documents to be created to monitor just about everything we do in ever greater detail and depth. To put it mildly, I am not convinced this is such a great idea. Just because we can do something easily and cheaply, it doesn't mean we should.

Friday, 20 April 2012

The Examination Season Approaches

This is a time of year when it's wonderful to be retired, as I no longer have to set and mark diverse exam scripts at various levels, for various courses. As it happens I did do a tiny bit of teaching this year at the MSc level, and was hence asked to set one question for the exam, but my colleagues teaching the rest of the course will deal with the marking - unless unexpected points crop up where they might need to consult me.

For the students, naturally, this time of year is probably a bit less wonderful, as their teaching is largely completed and they just have a short revision period before the exams themselves get under way. At undergraduate level we examine the students each semester, so in the spring semester most students should have no more than four exams to cope with - very occasionally, a student might take five exams if they have some catching up to do; and final year students writing an honours dissertation will only have three, though the dissertation itself also has to be assessed. For most courses, students will also have done some essays that contribute towards their final mark, but exams usually provide the bulk of their assessment.

Most of the examinations we set in economics and management give the students lots of choice, for instance to answer three questions out of eight, though sometimes we set a batch of multiple choice questions or short essay questions that all have to be answered. All our exams, as far as I am aware, are closed book; students cannot take into an examination their textbooks or lecture notes, and the only permitted help is formula tables in quantitative exams, and English dictionaries for the many overseas students we have.

So that's what we actually do as regards assessment and exams. The question is, could we do better? Is our rather traditional model of examinations still suited to the modern world, or are there better models 'out there' that we could adopt? Let's think about some alternatives.

(a) Don't examine at all
On this model, we would just take the view that the experience of being at university for three or four years for the standard undergraduate programme, and surviving right through to the end, merits the award of a degree. End of story! This approach would make it hard to distinguish weaker and stronger students, of course, and employers might not be too pleased at the limited information provided about what students had done. But educationally, is this such a terrible idea?

(b) No exams, just a final short viva to judge student performance
This is a step beyond (a) in that it tries, in a rough and ready way, to distinguish between different qualities of student performance. When this sort of idea comes up it is sometimes protested that many students would be too nervous to do well in a viva, and that therefore it is unfair. But the same argument can be raised regarding exams (some people are good at them, others not), and yet they form the basis for our standard assessment model. It can also be argued that a viva is rather subjective, though when I've been asked to hold undergraduate vivas (e.g. occasionally as part of an external examining duty) I've found them interesting, informative and surprisingly helpful. So I think there could be some mileage here.

(c) Examine entirely through assessed coursework, no final exams
We already do this for some optional courses, but not for a whole degree programme. But why not extend the idea to all courses? One advantage, since there are no exams and no revision period, it that we could actually teach a bit more than we do. So we could cover more material or achieve somewhat greater depth, while the students write their essays, do projects, and so on. The whole educational experience could be very diverse and challenging. The possible snag is that it runs into problems of plagiarism, just copying chunks of material from websites. This is far too easy and tempting these days, though we are also learning to police it better. So it should be manageable. Some professional bodies and employers prefer to see our students examined, so they might not welcome this coursework approach. And just as some students are brilliant at exams, other really shine when doing coursework - would that be fair? Overall, I'm sure these snags could be managed if we wanted to follow this direction.

(d) The traditional model
This is either exams only or a mix of exams and coursework as outlined above. It works, we're all familiar with it, and it's been around for a long time. Is it still suited to the modern world? Well, I'm always very skeptical when folk claim that we live in a modern world and that 'therefore everything has to change'. As a general principle this seems to me to be pretty silly. Indeed quite the opposite, if something has been around a long time and still seems to work well, why rush to change it?

This line of argument suggests we just stick with the traditional model of assessment. However, it does also seem to me that we should regularly think about other options such as those above, not least because we gradually learn more about the educational process and how people learn, and in time this might lead us to prefer some other way of testing our students.

But nothing so radical will be happening in the current exam season!

Friday, 13 April 2012

Open Access

No, this has nothing to do with getting more students from poor backgrounds accepted for university degree courses. Instead, it's all about how we publish research.

For years now, debate has raged about whether research should still be published through the traditional model via academic journals - from which you would have to purchase a subscription - and books - which you would have to buy. On the face of it, this 'commercial' model has worked rather well for a long time, so why rush to change it, and why now?

The reason is quite simple, namely the internet and all the tricks and tools that go with it. Because we can now publish research more quickly and more openly, it is argued that we should. The case for moving in this direction has been argued by the Research Councils in the UK, occasionally by the Royal Society, by increasing numbers of researchers who resent the high journal prices and profitability of some of the larger publishers (notably Elsevier), and just this week by the Wellcome Trust. Wellcome wants to see all the research it funds becoming publicly and freely available within six months of publication, something that the traditional commercial journals certainly don't allow - they always charge a fee for access to articles in their journals, as I know myself, having sometimes had to pay it when I need something to which my university library has no subscription.

It seems to me increasingly likely that academic publishing will move in the direction of open access, but probably not immediately or completely. For although the traditional model of academic publishing has its drawbacks, it still has a lot going for it; and most importantly, the emerging new model is neither technically easy nor free, so new charging models will also be needed. Let's briefly review some features of the two models.

Traditional model
  • It relies on largely voluntary refereeing services from academics, one of the many free services academics provide as part of their role in the academic community. I have very occasionally been paid a fee for refereeing, and it was always a purely notional sum (e.g. £15). Academics are generally happy to referee for journals of professional bodies whose journals don't make massive profits, less happy to do free work for profit makers such as Elsevier.
  • Some journals now have submission fees, but most submissions are still free to the researcher. So research grants rarely need to include publication costs.
  • Publishers handle refereeing, editing and publication, recouping their costs from library and individual subscriptions. For good economic reasons to do with market segmentation, institutional subscriptions are always far higher than individual ones.
  • Publishers have incentives to market their journals, since that's the only way they can cover their costs and make any money.
  • Over time, new journals appear and old ones occasionally 'die' or evolve into something else, so there is some dynamism in the market.
  • Depending on the discipline, there are various methods of ranking journal quality.
New model - open access
This has not yet stabilised into a settled model yet; instead, it consists of several overlapping threads.
  • Universities and other institutions are increasingly tending to establish public depositaries of their staff research publications.
  • In addition, there are also subject-based depositaries.
  • In both the above cases, it is important that depositaries are searchable online, and ideally if an item is in both an institutional and a subject-area depositary, the two versions should be the same. It is surprisingly hard in practice (and therefore costly) to achieve such consistency.
  • There is now a proliferation of e-journals, some of which publish almost anything, while others operate a normal refereeing process before certifying an article as reaching a suitable standard. Some of these journals are still experimental and have received funding to set them up. But as to their funding model for the longer term, this is simply not clear (to me). A decent quality open access journal simply cannot be done for free - someone has to pay!
  • Research funders (like Wellcome) are tending to demand early and open publication of research, and are starting to envisage a situation where research grants could include an element for publication costs. Then researchers would pay to get their papers published, the publisher in due course making the research available online for free. This seems to be the (desired) direction of movement, but most researchers are not there yet.
  • In all the versions of open access that I have seen discussed, there seems to be little or no incentive to do any marketing. Material is made available, and users then have to find it. This aspect probably needs more thought than it has so far received.
So, we live in interesting times, and the world of academic publishing will look very different in a few years' time.

Monday, 9 April 2012

EU Aid for a Small Economy

As noted in previous posts, I have been 'plotting' a trip to the Falkland Islands (FI) for some time now, and finally it happened.

Together with a colleague, we have an EU contract to provide technical assistance to the Falkland Islands Government (FIG) to help them secure over 4 million euros of EDF 10 funding. Until this contract came along, I hadn't really understood that Brussels provided aid to the overseas territories of the member states, but apparently it does. In the case of FI, the amount of funding for the current period was decided some time ago, but as one has learned to expect of the EU, in order for the money actually to be disbursed, FIG has to submit a huge pile of quite complicated documentation to confirm that it meets the EU's criteria. Our task, then, is to study the economy of FI in order to help FIG prepare all the reports needed to get the money, intended as budget support for spending on economic diversification and rural development.

This trip south nearly didn't happen, as there were some delays over getting our contract properly signed off by the EU. However, approval came through just in time for us to confirm the flights out to Stanley. The last few days before we departed on March 25th were a bit crazy, though. In my case, I had a day in Brussels for briefing at the Commission, then a day in London for some Foreign Office briefing and a meeting with the FIG London Office. My colleague was working on another EU-funded project based in Barbados (yes, it's tough being a consultant..........), so he flew home just two days before we travelled to the Falklands. Amazingly we managed to get to Brize Norton in time to catch the flight, and the journey south, though long, was totally uneventful.

Arriving at the Mount Pleasant base in the Falklands is not one of life's great experiences, as it sits in the middle of a broad expanse of fairly dull heath land, and the whole area looks extremely monotonous. An hour later, arriving in Stanley, everything is completely different. A small town of only 2000 inhabitants, Stanley is right by the sea and is a very colourful place, with lots of geese and sea birds, as the above picture of Victory Green shows.

Once we settled in, we got down to work and quickly realised that aside from a lot of volatility in income from issuing fishing licences, the economy was in rather good shape, with full employment, no debt, and a general policy by FIG of aiming for budget balance. This very conservative approach to fiscal policy means they can easily cope with a couple of bad years, as the government holds reserves that are more than twice total public spending. Given this, it shouldn't prove too hard to convince the EU that the economy is being well managed. And we do still have the report-writing to do.

Needless to say, you can't go all that way without making a bit of time to visit the penguins. At the weekend in the middle of our visit we flew over to Carcass Island in the west and stayed at a lodge there. We were lucky with the weather and saw a wonderful variety of sea birds, including two types of penguin. The picture above shows yours truly in front of a colony of gentoo penguins.

The timing of our visit overlapped with the 30th anniversary of the invasion of the Falklands by Argentina, and as a result the place was full of journalists. These included several from Argentina itself, some quite liberal and open minded, some very hostile to the UK and interested only in broadcasting propaganda. However, we met some of the Argentine journalists in the Victory Inn, and at the personal level they were interesting to talk to. FIG basically wants good relations with Argentina, involving normal trade, fishing agreements, unrestricted travel, and all the usual things. Hopefully the present hostility from Argentina will not last too long.

Now, back to a bit more report writing........