CSF101 Defining sustainability and sustainable development (session 4)

CSF101 (session 1) – the inspiring challenge.
CSF101 (session 2) – understanding systems.
CSF101 (session 3) – how the earth works.

OK. I’m on the home run with session 4. We are thinking about defining sustainability again, and Steven Henry in his opening video says part of the problem is we’ve put man at the centre of the problem. In reality, nature is at the centre of the problem and we are a component of that. Steve’s most important message to me is that this is where we’ve gone wrong by putting ourselves and our needs first, rather than thinking of ourselves as part of the system.

For me sustainability means?

We think about it in terms of achieving one big shiney goal. What we need to do is think about the sustainability of all the component parts, that then as a whole, can offer something of a viable future. I guess that is how the body works. Some body systems might be healthier than others – I wouldn’t want to vouch for my liver these days. But the sum of the parts, is still something that is overall healthy. I’ve a hernia and diverticulitis, but the systems are acting all around to create health. I’ve suggested this with sustaining open educational resources – bung them out on at least two platforms at a time, and when one dies, you can repopulate from the other.

Steve Henry Sustainability Models

Steve suggests the most realistically accepted model is that on the right. Financial decisions drive all of our considerations. I think this absolutely must be part of the challenge – now that sustainability has become a business, approaches will be guided by those with a vested interest, and wrong choices might be being made by those clearly in for making a profit. Perhaps this is the sacrifice if we want to be making big changes, but are we really making big enough changes?

A bit like open educational resources (OER) again. Nobody wants to pay for them, but if we all share the cost, then that is almost negligible. If we share our knowledge and outputs of our teaching as ‘part of what we do’, then that five minutes a week is negligible. The same with sustainability. As a society we all need to know what to do to ‘do our bit’. I hate sorting out the rubbish each week into elaborate piles for recycling. It couldn’t be more confusing. But if this is making a difference then it is essential.

Henry Sustainability Model








Do we just accept this model?

Dr Robert (Founder of the Natural Step) talks about the ‘triple bottom line’ – that is, social, ecological and financial basis. The economics drives the approach, and is the means for everything else. The solutions are about the design of products and services.

What do I think?

I have worked in a global blue-chip company. If we think businesses and business people will ALL share the same ethical values for the good of society and ecology, then I we will be very much disappointed. There are a number of genuinely ethical companies out there, but how can the economic goals place nature and society as a priority above profit? It won’t happen. Are pharmaceutical companies really concerned about curing disease? Are food manufacturers really concerned about our health? I’m not talking about individuals in those companies who will be highly motivated toward the common good, but the overall business objectives will be to make money.

What is missing from the models above is an ethical or moral component. I also think tackling sustainability through business will never be big enough. We need each and every person on the planet to champion the cause.

Meeting basic human needs and building communities

Manfred Max-Neef, Antonio Elizalde and Martin Hopenhayn have listed 9 basic human needs to survive and to integrate as a society: things like food/water, freedom, culture and education is in there. I do think though that some people are driven by the very need to make money, or to achieve positions of power. For the model to work, we’d have to integrate this also. More can be found on Wikipedia – fundamental human needs. The glue that sticks individuals together is the need for trust, that is how we form friendships, groups, communities and society.

Definitions and frameworks

The Brundtland Commission, dissolved in 1987 and defined sustainable development in their report of that same year:

Sustainable development is the kind of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

(Our Common Future, Report 1987).

Karl-Henrik Robèrt, an oncologist, took up the reigns around that time and thought about the components / stuff that were unsustainable in society:

  1. substances extracted from the Earth’s crust
  2. substances produced by society
  3. degradation by physical means
  4. in that society, people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs

These can be applied to any situation to formulate a sustainability plan, so for education, well, let’s have a go.

  1. eliminate the use of precious resources – e.g. teaching materials that are not share, or work discarded from people who retire (paper / electronic = trees / chemicals); time wasted by not sharing (staff productivity = energy and natural resources).
  2. eliminate the build up of toxic substances – e.g. imagine the scale of schools / education institutions around the world and the waste therein; laboratory waste material; physical materials from arts classes; discarded old computers and technology; discarded old furniture and materials.
  3. degradation of local environments by campus building.
  4. meet the basic needs – including a right and access to education.

There is much work to be done there. That is the topic for future research, workshops and brainstorms. I can’t possibly paint such an intricate picture on my own. I do like Robèrt’s model though, that works for me.

Working toward a summary of my learning on this course.

This course has been fantastic. I can’t recall being so gripped by something – and yes, the time commitment is quite significant. I’ve only given things a superficial and quick think over, but there is so much work to be done here. One of the final questions asks us to think about trends:

  1. Analyse trends, issues and opportunities that will influence future activity and generations in a chosen sector.

I suppose for education, there might be winners and losers here:

  1. Globally, education is expanding – so this will bring the need to address all of the points above, reducing the use of precious resources and minimising waste and the environmental impact.
  2. Growth of online learning – that must be a winner, reducing the need to physically travel to campuses and institutions, but there is again an energy cost, and impact on natural resources required to build our digital capability.
  3. In the UK, certainly growth in numbers of education providers and move to bring new private providers into the market. Business and profits might not mean thinking about sustainability here.
  4. As time goes on, the repeat production of learning materials / resources / lecture slides becomes incalculable.



CSF101 How the earth works (session 3)

CSF101 (session 1) – the inspiring challenge.
CSF101 (session 2) – understanding systems.

In this session (session 3) we consider the relationship between man and the planet. This is an awesome video that provokes us to think about the impact mankind has had on Earth.


I have no doubt that we hold a major responsibility for the health of our planet, and that we have been abusing, deforesting and polluting it for centuries. I’m just not entirely convinced that within the last decade man has been responsible for the directional and causal relationship between the changes in weather etc that we now see. That seems a tad arrogant to me, that man can be so mighty as to change mother nature itself. I also think that thinking in this diverts funding and activity from the really important issues – like deforestation. Remove the lungs of the world, and it is hardly surprising that CO2 levels will rise.

When I was growing up there were two very harsh winters in the UK. That was good for my family because my dad was a coal merchant! The talk at the time was about entering the next ice age. I don’t quite understand how within 40 years the scientific community could entirely change its opinion regarding the climate.

So overall I think, some of the arguments don’t stack up for me, but that shouldn’t dissuade us from our responsibility.

The video is amazing and thought provoking:

  • Microbes were the first organisms to utilise the resources on the planets, harnessing the energy from the sun, growing, and aggregating the carbon sources.
  • There is always the same quantity of water on earth. It is staggering to think of the millennia of recycling that has gone on. We are drinking water that dinosaurs must have drunk.
  • In nature, sharing is everything.
  • 70% of the oxygen comes from the algae within the oceans. Isn’t that a solution? We can’t quickly replace rain forests, but we can grow algae?
  • The earth counts time in billions of years – it took 4 billion years to make trees. That confuses me even more when we think of the last decade and I am concerned that we are not thinking in a broad enough context or time frame.
  • The trees are the vital lifeline – water, vegetable, mineral and matter. The formation of soil. So is that not part of a solution also? And further proof of how awesome trees are.

What do we know about the bonds that link the species on earth? I agree that the earth is a miracle and a mystery. I’m worried that placing the future of it in the hands of politicians, corrupted by money and their own interests, is not going to create a healthy abundant planet for future generations.

So how is current human activity changing the organisation and location of chemicals (and life) on the planet?

As noted above, I’m a little concerned that we are looking within the wrong timeframe. We can learn from physiology again. We are now all familiar with the signs and symptoms of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. So here are some questions.

  1. Where do you think in the body that these diseases originate?
  2. If someone develops the disorder, do you think the disease process started within the previous month, year, or twenty years?
  3. What would be a single biological marker you might measure to diagnose these diseases?

What we know increasingly from scientific research – populations studies, animal studies that provide clues to mechanisms, and human clinical studies, is that these are problems that build up over a long time frame. As with heart disease or blocked arteries, these processes can begin in early life but manifest much later.

Science also tells us quite clearly now that these are end-stage manifestations of processes that start in other areas of the body. The links between gut dysfunction and brain dysfunction almost appear in the scientific journals on a daily basis, and even more fascinating is the role that our body bacteria may play in these processes. We are more bacteria than human after all! But see how easy it has been for science to look in the wrong place and at the wrong time.

And what about science focused on looking for a single biological marker? We now hear how people are studying the eye, looking at our sense of smell as early indicators of neurological disorders? It is a lot more complicated than we thought.

So what about the planet?

Again, I know I am a little sceptical of the politicians and decision makers with regards to solving our planet’s problems. I know how research funding, politically decided, can direct researchers off in set directions. Medical research works in the same way. We have to work out the impact that our research will have before we have conducted any studies these days. That should in theory be impossible. We need funding that is allocated in an unbiased manner, and that shouldn’t be linked to vested interests and career progressions for those conducting it.

I do hope that to understand our natural ecosystems and its relationships with mankind, we are looking holistically, and at wider time scales. What can we learn from more controlled events such as the industrial revolution, or World War I and II? Levels of pollution you might assume to peak during these times, so what was the impact? What about volcanic eruptions? That must have a devastating effect on the atmosphere and cause clouds that disrupts access to the sun’s energy.

The earth is an open and closed system

The session today really makes you think how there is a finite amount of water, amount of chemicals and amount of energy. Everything needs to be in balance – homeostasis – otherwise things go wrong, get destroyed or die. It is like a balloon dog – if you wanted a poodle but squeeze in the wrong place you’ll end up with a dachshund. (OK wiener dog if you are in the US). With a  wrong squeeze, we could redistribute valuable earth resources to the wrong place.

Balloon Dog Magenta

Image by F Delventhal, Flickr, CC By 2.0.

So ultimately for the planet we want the eternal conversion of stuff into more useful stuff. We don’t want it stuck as un-useful stuff. Resources that end up on the scrap heap. Too much CO2 in the atmosphere that isn’t recycled back to our trees, plants and algae. So it is important that we understand our natural biological processes – photosynthesis, and also our geological processes.

Might we be moving to a new epoch?

The course asks us to read this article in the Independent news paper – Anthropocene-we-might-be-about-to-move-from-the-holocene-to-a-new-epoch?

I guess that makes me nervous, because all other epochs have come to an end, and so might this one? Also I’m not sure about the definition of anthropocene , first coined in the 1960s, which focuses on human activities but not our inactivities. The definition doesn’t mobilise us into action. Again it seems a tad arrogant to me that in the billenia of our wonderful planets existence, mankind should take its place on the timeline of geological epochs. It also troubles me slightly that of the working group of 13 mentioned in the article, there were two women and a distinct lack of diversity. But if having a new epoch focuses humans and lifts them from their level of inactivity, that must be a really good thing.

Session tasks – considering how humans have effected natural ecosystems?

  • Lack of recycling of energy
  • Lack of recycling of water and chemicals back into the system
  • Disruption of the valuable ecosystems (woodlands in particular) that maintain our planetary homeostasis
  • Building and urbanisation that disrupts the natural flow of water
  • Lots of other physical disruptions
  • The never-heard of impact of nuclear testing that must surely cause massive disruption of the earth?
  • Lack of social cohesion and shared goals for the planet
  • Political corruption and vested interests
  • Inequality in the distribution of global wealth
  • Research narrow-mindedness and bias

WOW! I’ve got to link this all back to my quest of understanding EDUCATION in a more sustainable context? I guess this session has made me think about the OUTPUTS or STUFF that is ultimately valuable and is needed to be sustained. It has also made me see the difficulties in good quality / fair / unbiased / open EVALUATION and assimilation of knowledge surrounding these issues. It has made me think about the impossible POLITICAL challenge at any level, whether governmental or within an institution or group of people, that it is necessary to influence to provoke change.

Meanwhile, let’s have another balloon dog.

Balloon Dog

Image by Andy Wright, Balloon Dog, Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

CSF101 Understanding systems (session 2)

CSF101 (session 1) – the inspiring challenge.

OK to recap on why I’m doing this. I am interested in developing ideas about the sustainability OF education. In  session 1 we were introduced to the definitions and concepts around sustainability – from an ecological and societal perspective. We were asked to think of some challenges relating to our interests:

  • My case for transformation is that: educational institutions create knowledge and resources that are largely unshared.
  • I could think of a second case for transformation: knowledge generated is not built-upon and is therefore re-invented.

One comment on my post pointed me to the work of Joss Wynn at Lincoln, and I’m familiar with their student as co-producer work there, and am a big fan of that. Joss’s work helps me see a bigger picture beyond my inward thinking about the processes and practices within education. There is a wealth of work at the LNCD at Lincoln including the project Joss writes about – Chemistry.FM where resources are openly licensed and distributed to support chemistry learning for forensic sciences. Joss’s blog is thought provoking and I need to read more:

The main message about sustainability that I tried to push across in the presentation is that for OER and Open Education in general to be sustainable, we need sustainable societies and a sustainable planet. These are, arguably, not sustainable in their current form, so how can Open Education both contribute to sustainability in general and therefore become sustainable in itself as a paradigm of education? (Joss Wynn 2010)

Quite right. But we have to start somewhere. I think the small things can also matter. So on with Session 2 of CSF101 which is about systems, and I might find connections between the small things and the wider context that Joss is exploring.

  • What are the connections between tools, practices, processes and wider education?
  • What can influence what?

Learning from body systems!

I’ve just realised that as a physiologist, I should have a pretty good idea of how systems work, and I can’t believe I haven’t made that connection before. The course says there are 8 body systems – there aren’t. There are 11 (so a bit more complicated).

MIND CURLERS. Can you guess them?

Digestive (the greatest)

Homeostatic principles and feedback allow each of these systems to interplay, and if an imbalance is created (poor nutrition, lack of exercise, ill health), that is when things go out of kilter. The most remarkable display of the interrelation of the human body was being with my dad at the end of his life. The body systems were failing like dominos in a  line. The urinary system was in close connection with the circulatory, and as the kidneys failed, the blood pressure declined, and so it continued until the blood pressure was no more. The miracle of life was unwinding before my eyes over a period of hours.

Extrapolating the body to the world

To achieve sustainability, and to design sustainable systems, I would think we need efficient component parts communicating by efficient feedback systems. We need to avoid ‘unintended’ consequences. Of course, the world is more complicated, and we are talking about very different systems interacting – economic, social, ecological, biological.

In the video Peter Senge talks about business systems and the need to avoid problems. What does it take? Learning. Being prepared to learn and admit you are wrong. The main difference between this and our body’s homeostasis, is that our sequence of receptors and control systems, are compliant, take the evidence on board and act accordingly. “A deep and persistent approach to learning”. Also you need to triangulate “different people with different points of view to collectively see”, and these processes may take time. Different from the body here, where the physiological reaction will generally be very fast and efficient. The solutions to the problems, seem pretty well mapped out and rehearsed in the body, unlike elsewhere.

I like the comments that our societies and schools are very much focused on the individual – the smart kid in the class. “The smartness we need is collective”. I do disagree that businesses are there to solve problems – we do very little to learn from what went well, and when our existing economic, ecological or whatever system works fantastically, I don’t think we do take enough opportunities to consider that.

If I think about the beauty of the open education community as it exists and grows – the collective values and collective intelligence within it, is absolutely part of the success. Yes, there are individuals and maverick and rebells within the system, but ultimately they communicate back to the world through blogs and social media, and form part of the unit.

The importance of a shared goal.

The human body works together to keep us alive. The goal is clear. To be sustainable, we all need to define what our goals are.

We are asked in the course now to consider the UN conference on sustainable development 2012 Rio +. Six targets for 2030 were considered:

  • Thriving lives and livelihood (including education)
  • Sustainable food security
  • Sustainable water security
  • Universal clean energy
  • Healthy, productive, biodiverse ecosystems
  • Governance for sustainable society

(From Nature article by David Griggs, Montash University Victoria Au).

The framework has 5 parts:

  • Systems
  • Success
  • Strategies
  • Actions
  • Tools

Such a framework has to be a useful starting point, but some of the problems that might arise come back to terminology – security seems an odd word. There will be clashes of priority – it is OK being virtuous in the West about pollution and farming methods, but this might be life and livelihood for others. Key to this is the redistribution of wealth I would think.

Also this seems a very ‘corporate’ and traditional framework, which we have proven over the years that is not a very effective approach otherwise we wouldn’t be considering the problems we have surely? I’m surprised there isn’t some more innovative and creative thinking around what business and performance management approaches we should be considering?

A am therefore not going to use this framework and do the challenge – but focus on the targets. These need fully understanding before any strategy can be put into place. I know from managing enough people and running appraisals, the moment you throw SMART objectives at some people and define their objectives for the coming year, they are turned right off. About 50% of people I’d say. So framework away if you must, but we need space for big hairy innovative thinking.




The Inspiring Challenge of Sustainable Development – getting started.

Session 1)
I’ve just enrolled on the open course CSF101 “The Inspiring Challenge of Sustainable Development” and typically my initial excitement and ambition was squashed with the advent of a ridiculously busy week. The course started on Monday and it is Thursday, and I’m very excited to say “I’m off”, obviously, starting with a blog post. What else.


I’ve often wondered why in this times where sustainability of resource, societies and the planet are so fundamentally important, I’ve never seen anyone talk about the sustainability of education. Do correct me with articles in the comments box below if I am so clearly wrong. I thought about sustainability in terms of my open education projects for a while, and presented such at the OpenEd15 conference in Vancouver, discussing the sustainability and vulnerability of my OER projects.

Sustainability is often considered  in terms of OER, in relation to small-scale individual projects to larger-scale initiatives and business models, as follows:

But there is education FOR sustainable development.

Work at the UK Higher Education Academy (HEA) is drawing together insight from a number of institutions to develop a schema for sustainable development. The aim is to embed sustainable development within education programmes, as important as it is equally to fully consider global perspectives. The HEA says students are demanding HE providers to do so, and evidence from annual surveys dating back to 2011 are presented. Of course, getting students on the case is always a recipe for creativity and innovation, but at the moment I’m not seeing the connection back to the sustainability OF education itself. However, embedding sustainability within the curriculum and developing skills relating to systems and critical thinking have been pretty well described, such as by Professor Stephen Sterling.

What am I hoping to learn on CSF101?

The objectives of the course are geared around sustainable development, and the theory and practice seems to point toward buildings and the environment of course. The course looks structured to help us think critically about our ecological and social systems, and to develop strategic approaches to manage these. I’m hoping to come away with a bit of a model in my mind that fits to open education, and education more broadly. I hope to understand more the connections between sustainability FOR education and sustainability OF education.

Notes to self.

Isn’t it amazing that I can study for free right now with Otago University in New Zealand. That is the power of open.

I must also try and remember that CSF does not stand for cerebro-spinal fluid.

Session 1 out of 4: Sustainability is entirely possible!

Steve Henry is talking about the ecological cost of development, and that sustainability is entirely possible. What about living buildings? What about the waste of one system being a resource in another? How do we minimise the impact on the natural environment yet increase the quality of life that we have?

So in the context of education, what are the social and environmental problems that I think are ill considered? My case for transformation is that: educational institutions create knowledge and resources that are largely unshared. Public money invests in education at all levels, and even the humble creation of lecture materials comes at a cost. I’ve noted previously how within institutions there is a huge amount of duplication of effort going on, and a cost can be calculated. There is a cost to not going open as David and myself presented at the OER15 conference, and excellently captured by Kevin Mears. I costed, that in a 7 year position at a university, the cost of my preparation and delivery of lectures alone – a mid-level teaching commitment I’d say – was around £35K. I left the institution, and this was metaphorically skipped.

I could think of a second case for transformation: knowledge generated is not built-upon and is therefore re-invented. If I think singularly here about undergraduate research projects alone, the outputs of which can often be useful pilot data or literature reviews, I know folk who set the same projects year on year, and students generate the same ideas. Why re-create the same knowledge over and over? This is not only a waste of resource, but ceases to be a wider benefit to society.

Solutions? The CSF101 course now proposes that a sustainable future is merely one of design. How can we maintain a social and ecological balance to thrive within nature’s limits. We are asked to consider how effective are we in communicating the idea of sustainable development?

We always fail to call things by proper names, or fully define them. (Thinking about the ‘e’ words of education – engagement, employability, experience). If it is forever – it is sustainable. If you can’t make something forever – it isn’t. The speaker in the video is prompting us to think about definitions. This reminds me of the debate around openness and how ill-defined it is. We can solve things technically but we need a fundamental mind shift – philosophical shift – to fully achieve sustainability – shifting from restoration (stopping the damage or negative process) to regeneration (starting to move in a positive direction). I’m trying to think about sustainability in relation to education but beyond the obvious consideration around buildings:

  • Sustainability of education buildings
  • Sustainability of educational resources
  • Sustainability of processes
  • Sustainability in the light of digital expansion
  • Waste management and better use of materials (paperless?)
  • Consideration of education as a system
  • True relationship between social justice and educational policy and process

Systems thinking is about connecting the pieces…the bits are ELEMENTS, CONNECTIONS/RELATIONSHIPS and PURPOSE. I hope as I progress through the course, and in the midst of a less frantic week, I will clarify my thinking around some of this, and also, what on earth was my question in the first place.

Kalundborg project in Norway is a group of industrial partners who have come together to reuse each other’s waste materials. That seems like me a parallel model to knowledge – stuff generated through teaching, assessment and research at universities might be of use to somewhere else. Education symbiosis through open approaches.

Next time – Living Building Challenge.



It’s been a funny old day…

…because it is Monday?
…it is the first day back after my holiday?
…I’ve just had to take the dog out for his evening wee in the rain?
…(in my dressing gown)?
…I’ve been in my job 3 years today?
…my wonderful boss has announced she is moving on to new things?
…I got rejected on some internal funding about student engagement because it wasn’t “learning and teaching”?
…I need a doctor’s appointment and the next one is over three weeks time?
…I’m still wondering why I went to a Zumba class on Sunday to display my lack of coordination to the world.











Maybe all of the above. I don’t know why I’m thinking of Arkwright from “Open All Hours”. Perhaps because I grew up in a shop and we had plastic curtains like that, a till like that and my Dad wore identical brown overalls. And yes we did have those long-handled snappy things which were supposed to be for removing items from the top shelves, but really served to pinch people’s bottoms from a distance. I’m probably wishing my Dad was here so I could particularly discuss my list and listen to his words which were always spot on.

I’m partly thinking it is a shame when organisations cannot retain talent such as my boss, and partly remembering the Saturday night bingo in the village hall where one of the local families used to fiddle the raffle. They would mysteriously pull each other’s tickets out of the hat and win illustrious prizes such as a tin of Heinz baked beans. They were rumbled when naughty kid Beverley asked to see the winning ticket on one occasion.

I think I feel funny because I told myself that I’d give it two years in the role, and now am entering my third. I think sometimes we get paranoid about time, and maybe as teachers we are more sensitive to the passing of each academic year. Also based on the hours you put in, you work somewhere between a calendar year and a dog year in reality, so my three years is perhaps nearer five.

Also our education system programmes us to think in two or three year blocks. My mind is thinking that I’ve done three years and I should be moving on. I need to say to myself, “it is OK, you don’t need to do that now. Be like your brother who has been with the same firm for 34 years”.

So a funny old day for sure. A bit like the time when the Colonel’s wife was lighting the candles in the Nativity crib and set light to the whole thing, and the time we put a whoopee cushion on the vicar’s seat during church.





Changes to university entry calculations

From 2017, UCAS is changing how it calculates the examination points system for applying to college and university. I’m really not quite sure why as the old tariff system has been in existence for over 20 years and many people are familiar with it. Personally I preferred the old system. 🙂

UCAS Tariff Change


Do check out the 2017 tariff calculator and look carefully at the range of examinations and awards that are recognised. Of course, always check with the college or university admissions requirements, as they might have preferences as to what A levels or examinations they wish to consider.



Achieving teaching excellence in biosciences – with OER

My week includes meetings at the University of Kingston, Open University and Bath University, largely talking about open education.

On Wednesday in Kingston, Dr Nick Freestone organised an event to explore Teaching Excellence Workshop advert (PDF). I liked his approach in having a mixed audience of staff and students, including those studying biosciences, pharmacy and other medical-related subjects. I think I’m so used to having to do a ‘hard sell’ about open education at times, I was not expecting at all the huge level of interest and enthusiasm that my presentation received.

I started off with a reflection back on my PhD dissertation which examined the secretory mechanisms of E. coli toxins. Some 15 years on, our knowledge has become more detailed but hasn’t really significantly advanced our understanding of gut secretion. It is sad to observe the global statistics on deaths caused by diarrhoeal disease remain little unchanged. One has to reflect on the global ‘business’ of scientific research, and some of my own students commented in a lecture recently on the inequalities relating to health and distribution of funding around the world. In my talk I wondered if science could be done in a different way, illustrated by the ‘BOBCAT‘ project in which a global task force of over 180 individuals worked together to advance the medical knowledge and clinical approaches to the management of Barrett’s Oesophagus.

Discussions around open education

I explored the idea of open and collaborative approaches to science, the sharing of data openly, and sharing open educational resources. It is clear this is an area of interest for this scientific community:

  1. We need to raise awareness of open education – it was new to many people at the event.
  2. Folk need some basic practical skills or to develop open literacies for searching, evaluating and understanding open educational resources.
  3. Folk need to understand Creative Commons licenses as a priority – many didn’t know the ‘CC’ logo.
  4. People seemed very keen to be sharing resources especially around laboratory or surgical techniques and skills.
  5. We need to define approaches to support all of the above – possibly through the professional bodies who sponsored the event.

Open education and teaching excellence

I talked about how involvement in open education links easily to teaching excellence through enhancing your professional development. The very nature of working in the open takes you ‘beyond’ your institution and encourages you to develop your professional networks. These are useful activities for you to create impact around what you do, and to disseminate your ideas, and examples of you doing this can provide evidence to support claims for awards and fellowship, for example part of the HEA UK Professional Standards Framework for higher education (UKPSF). Even better if the framework and some of the performance indicators we are increasingly embroiled in could be reworked to facilitate open pedagogies.

The process of participating in open education – whether it is sharing an open educational resource or sharing data openly, is a valuable learning experience. Lecturers who share OER always comment about how much more they understand about designing good quality materials, they gain knowledge about copyright and licensing, and also gain perspectives on the use of technology in teaching. OER reuse and creation should be part of every PGCertHE or similar courses that train all new university lecturers, and openness should be part of teaching excellence standards and ultimately the TEF framework as it evolves.

How better to demonstrate excellence – that your teaching materials and practices inspire and are reworked by others.


From NHS glasses to sharing research

Revelations at the most unlikely time.

I had a research revelation at the weekend. I’m trying to liken it to something, and I can only think back to about the age of five or six and getting glasses for the first time. I’d avoided it before then by quickly memorising the letters on the sight test on the way in, enough to get me  mid-way down to about P-F-C-D-E which must have really frustrated the optician. But when I finally got me “goggles” life was a revelation.

Dover Docks


A Sunday afternoon treat was to sit on top of the Dover Cliffs and watch the boats. The purpose of which, with glasses, then became abundantly clear – you could see the cars and boats moving. Before then it was all a blur. The other revelation was wondering why everyone in school assembly was peering at the flip chart at the front of the hall. With glasses I finally noted it was because the words to all the hymns were displayed there. I felt slightly cheated at that one as I practically new all the hymns off by heart by the age of seven. Although I did think “Jesus spits and shines” was perhaps not right (“Jesus bids us shine with a clear pure light”).

I don’t care. Call me “four eyes”.

In the end, I didn’t mind wearing glasses because being called “goggles” or “four eyes” was a small price to pay for being able to see. (And I did get to hold David Muggeridge’s hand in the playground as the only other NHS spectacle wearer. Although his were tortoiseshell).

So my revelation on Saturday morning was as if someone had once again given me clear vision. Something that was confused before, suddenly became clear. I don’t know about you, but if I chose to write a paper, it is because I’m bursting with an idea, or have just had a great thought about how to analyse that data. I want to then write the thing as soon as possible. Of course what normally happens is that you can’t retrieve half the articles. You ignore therefore some of the good work that has gone on before. You might pay $29 for the odd article, and you might contemplate trying to find out once again how inter-library loan works in your institution. (Oh by the way I do like the new $6 article hire for 24 hours. Does anyone else go on a “print screen” frenzy or is it just me?).






So what happened next?

I’m not gonna tell. Ner ner ner ner ner. I stimbled acrost a most enteroisting webseet uphon wheech yam can downloadickles anychops for froibles. Oh my lordy. I’d suddenly entered a dream sequence from a 1940’s Hollywood music. This is what being a researcher could be like. It was like a dream. My room filled with unicorns and rainbows as I rattled through my search strategy downloading about forty articles relevant to my paper. No frustration. No omissions. No, “oh bugger it, I’ll look at this again in six months time”.

If only our collective knowledge was open and accessible!

As part of the academic community, I can only think we should be thoroughly ashamed of ourselves. Why do we perpetuate this ridiculousness of not being able to openly and freely access, share and build on our work? I’ve been a researcher since 1993 in medical research, the food industry and now universities. I have never got the feeling of euphoria that I did on Saturday when I could just openly access, quickly download, read to my satisfaction, an entire body of literature to help me write up an important area of work. OK, I know I’m not saving lives or making pet food any more. But everything is a piece in the jigsaw.

Imagine if we could solve cancer?

So, as recapitulated here by our lovely friends at Sparc, as VP Biden of the US declared, what if all the data relating to cancer research, and all the publications would be made openly available? What advances might we make in the next year, assuming we could readily access the bulk of papers that would be of benefit to our work? And that others could benefit from ours?

As I gain this information and knowledge, I will eliminate the barriers that get in your way, get in the way of science, the research and development. (VP Biden, April 20 2016).


So just think about what could be possible.

Or what should be possible.

I think we should start regaining some of our self-dignity and think about why we went into research in the first place. If we can’t learn from the most incredible scientists of our time like Marie Curie then maybe we should question our values and motivations:

In science, we must be interested in things, not in persons. (Marie Curie).

And I wonder what David Muggeridge is doing now.

Other articles forwarded from Twitter

Post by Peter Murray-Rust: https://blogs.ch.cam.ac.uk/pmr/


Plagiarism – let’s not put the cart before the horse

How to think about assessment.

A starting point – or refresher – for anyone wishing to think about assessment and feedback is Phil Race’s textbook (available as a free eBook via our UWE library):

“The lecturer’s toolkit: A practical guide to assessment, learning and teaching”. (Latest UWE edition, 2015).

Chapter 2 gets us thinking about how to make assessments (and feedback) fair, valid, authentic and reliable. I think in recent years we have become confused regarding the purposes of formative and summative assessment. Our summative assessments come with the expectation of providing feedback, and programme assessment strategies tend to lose the scope for incremental development. Here are the four main purposes of assessment:

  • Formative assessment – assessment ‘for’ learning uses assessment to raise student achievement.
  • Summative assessment – assessment ‘of’ learning judges work against standards or criteria.
  • Diagnostic – identification of needs/knowledge at the start of a session/course.
  • Ipsative – self-assessment based on student previous levels of achievement.

Based on Phil’s toolkit, and some of my ideas, here are some important principles, with Phil’s highlighted in bold:

  • Validity – how does the assessment link to the learning outcomes?(i.e. follow the principles of constructive alignment)?
  • Reliability – how to ensure consistency between markers / quality control?
  • Authenticity – is the assessment relevant to the discipline, or more broadly provide skills for employability?
  • Fairness – do your students have a practice run or feedback on a draft piece of work? Are the assessment and marking criteria clear, and is the availability of support clear to learners?
  • Engagement – is there evidence of the work in progress (e.g. blog or progress log, or submission of drafts to Turnitin)?
  • Innovation – are you inviting originality from the students, or even better foster co-creation?
  • Inclusivity – does your approach support all students on an equal basis, or are you testing their ability to take the assessment? Are you offering assessments in other formats? Is your overall curriculum design for assessments diverse to offer equity in opportunity overall?

When you are designing assessments – ideally as a team – you need to consider the individual student as well as a programmatic approach. I believe that if you get many of these elements right – engagement, innovation and inclusivity, then you will achieve the goal of ‘designing out’ academic offences in the holistic approach described by Macdonald and Carroll (2006).

Academic offences – and how we should be thinking about them.

The paper “Plagiarism detection and prevention” by Ursula McGowan (2005) always struck a chord with me. Ursula describes how the introduction of so-called ‘plagiarism detection software’ and academic offence policies have taken precedent over ensuring students have the right skills and understanding in the first place. She rightly argues we have put ‘the cart before the horse’, and a number of studies have verified how students new to university more often do not know what academic offences are, and international students may be particularly disadvantaged as they are not used to the regulations and cultural norms of our education system. Are we helping our students learn, or are we just trying to stop them cheat? Review the language in your module handbook? Are you policing students or building support and a culture of honesty and academic integrity?

What causes academic offences?

Academic offences can occur for many reasons. They may be inadvertent due to lack of student skill or understanding, they may of course be purposeful, or they quite often can be encouraged by poor assessment design. The main offences we are dealing with here include plagiarism, collusion and contract cheating (the purchasing of assignments from essay mill sites, or exchanges through social media or forums). In most of these sites where work can be purchased – the work is run through text-matching software and occasional words altered to break the text string. Therefore the work purchased won’t be detected by the digital tools often used in institutions (see sections below). BUT BUT BUT the well trained eye of a teacher or tutor will spot such work a mile off. And of course, the quickest and simplest thing to do is to copy and paste any suspected text into Google to see what comes up.

Are we really sure what these offences are?

What is plagiarism? “The action or practice of taking someone else’s work, idea, etc., and passing it off as one’s own” (Oxford English Dictionary 2007). This can be done in number of ways or combinations of these:

  • Copying words verbatim without acknowledging the source
  • Poor paraphrasing – a poor attempt at writing in student’s own words – without acknowledging the source
  • Using other media without acknowledgement (e.g. photographs/diagrams – and of course the acquisition of additional permissions may also be required here)

It is always worth checking your own university definitions and regulations around academic offences as they may differ slightly. You can access the UWE student study skills guide on plagiarism here –> plagiarism.

For the correct acknowledgement we would look for a citation and reference in the correct format. Work can also be ‘self-plagiarised’ if previously submitted work is reused but not cited (i.e. acknowledging this is their own previous work). If a full assignment is resubmitted without citation, then this would be self-plagiarism alongside a fuller consideration of poor academic practice. Plagiarism is all about lack of acknowledgement of the ownership of the original work. Broader aspects of cheating could include altering or inventing data for example.

What is collusion? Another form of academic misconduct that can be common in group working where the assignment brief is not made clear to students. In this, students submit assignments that have been completed with other people.

Contract cheating? The purchasing of coursework online could not be simpler, either through essay mill websites, or through easy enough contact with other students. The only way of avoiding this is using the steps below to ensure the originality and individuality of work submitted.

How do we design out plagiarism?

Going back to our assessment principles, and in particular the ones that can help ‘design out’ academic offences:

  • Fairness
  • Engagement
  • Innovation
  • Inclusivity

I do believe there should be no such thing as an academic offence, or that it should very rarely occur. Students are often accused of collusion because for example the requirements and allowances of group working, say, for writing up laboratory practicals, is not clearly explained. (Is this a fair assessment?) We set them high stakes assignment (e.g. a dissertation write up) often with no evidence of work in progress. (Can we encourage engagement and therefore verify their work?) Research suggests students are more tempted to cheat when they are under stress – look at your programme assessment strategy. Is coursework bunched up at the end of term encouraging them to cut corners? Is the assessment blend diverse and flexible to accommodate learner abilities? (Inclusive?) Are students getting adequate formative feedback to develop their writing, and is this incremental helping them to develop across years of study? (Fairness)? Are you setting the same essay titles year on year? (Innovation)?

We must look at our individual practice and the assessments that we set, and we must also look at our overall programme curriculum design. Macdonald and Carol (2006) talk about a holistic approach from policy to curriculum design and student skills needs, and to balance “low-stakes formative assessment for learning and using high-stakes assessment sparingly to genuinely measure student learning“.

So ask yourselves some questions about your own assessments?

  • Do you set the same essay title year on year?
  • If students are retaking a module or the year, do you set the same assignment (tempting them to resubmit old work and self-plagiarise)?
  • Do you provide an obvious title “describe the electrical conductance system of the heart” that can simply be Googled and easily ‘patchwork written’ or purchased?
  • Is the student answering your question or establishing one for themselves? Or can you include a reflective question to ask “how did you approach this assignment”?(Innovation and originality?)
  • Are you monitoring progress by introducing iterative steps? e.g if completing a 2000 word essay, why not include a search strategy and/or annotated bibliography that can be submitted separately for quick feedback (or peer-feedback)?
  • Do you encourage independent critical thinking or do you slog through providing all the feedback yourself? Why not use Turnitin or similar for the submissions and self-review of drafts? (Evidence of engagement).
  • Why not go the whole hog and establish the practice of students as ‘co-creators’ of their curricula and assessments? (Innovative and original; fairness; engagement).

‘Plagiarism detection software’ klaxon!

The article already mentions the use of digital tools for the detection of plagiarism. First of all this is a misnomer. Software such as Turnitin(R) or SafeAssign(R) do not detect plagiarism – you do! Or if the student is using services to check their work, then they are forming a judgement upon it. These software use text-matching algorithms to identify strings of words similar to other sources. They make the matches visible by often highlighting them in colour, and coming up with a percentage value of matched-text. Do not fall into the trap of using this % as a cut off for plagiarism or not, as I have seen in some university regulations. These commercially available plug-ins such as Turnitin can be used with virtual learning environments (e.g. commonly Moodle or Blackboard).

Turnitin as an example works by scanning submitted work against the company’s database of submitted work, articles and documents available from publishers, and internet pages. Not all publishers (especially some journals) have their text available for comparison, and the matches provided do not necessarily equate to the original source of the material. Whilst I do think they are useful tools, there is some work to be done to use them effectively.

What to think about before implementing the use of such software?

In some of my previous work, we were about to roll out the use of Turnitin for all student assignments in our university. One thing was clear, it was very important to proceed carefully with students and staff when doing this. Think about the message your are presenting when you make it compulsory for students Ito submit work to something that is essentially for the detection of cheating? Ask yourself also, are you also providing a robust programme of skills development for new students? Also, what impact is this extra assessment step going to have on staff marking time? In this paper I used Turnitin to provide instant formative feedback for students – but the process for getting there involved student and staff interviews. (Rolfe 2010).

Using Turnitin formatively = assessment for learning.

So in rolling out Turnitin, I worked with students and staff through interviews and questionnaires to come up with the best solution. The end result was brilliant – students helped us evolve a ‘self-service’ approach to enable them to check their own work. They could submit draft assignments to Turnitin and review their own reports. Any passages of their writing that was matched (highlighted in the software’s report) would have to be rewritten. Of course, references and text in quotations WOULD be highlighted, so it was also a way of crudely checking that references were correct!

The added bonus of this idea was that students would be regularly submitting DRAFTS of work in progress. This is an important step for verifying the ownership of work and engagement in the assessment process. For Turnitin and SafeAssign you can alter the submission and report settings to facilitate their use in a variety of ways, i.e. ensuring student draft work was not submitted to the database and would not therefore be a match for their final work.


I hope this post is useful and can help inject some creativity and fun back into assessments. As Macdonald and Carol (2006) conclude – we need to look at the causes and not just the symptoms. And that means also looking at our own teaching and assessment practice.


Further reading.

Presentation from 2009

Macdonald, R. and Carroll, J. (2006). Plagiarism – a complex issue requiring a holistic institutional approach. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 31 (2), 233-245.

McGowan, Ursula. (2005). Plagiarism detection and prevention: Are we putting the cart before the horse.” Proceedings of the HERDSA conference.

Rolfe V. 2008. Powerpoint guide for staff and students to understand Turnitin reports. (The software version will have changed, but the principles may be helpful to you). PPT slides –> Understanding Turnitin Reports

Rolfe V. 2011. Can Turnitin be used to provide instant formative feedback?. British Journal of Educational Technology42(4), pp.701-710. –> 10-108002602930500262536

Rolfe V. 2016. Powerpoint slides from a staff plagiarism workshop.
(Happy to run with your team!) PPT slides –> Plagiarism Workshop_Feb2016