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.



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

Resilience. Do you want to talk about it? Yes they did!

My blog last week on emotional resilience sparked a healthy debate via Twitter, email and through the comments on the blog. Clearly many people are thinking about this problem that is endemic within higher education, and what we need to do to approach it. Of course, we’re not even touching on the experiences of those facing stress in other sectors – teaching and healthcare. I’m very much interested in the organisation as a being at the moment.

Subsequent articles

  • 29th March The HEA published a report on ‘fellowships and student engagement’, unpicking the impact on fellowships and teaching which is a nice read. However, a line is included that students are more able to contact and interact with staff “outside of formal class hours/work on activities other than coursework”. This casual comment worried me as it massages the expectation that staff are always available.
  • 30th March Dave Cormier wrote about the resilience that students need to demonstrate to become successful learners. This seems a combination of emotional and academic resilience, and what we might thinking of in the UK more in terms of transitions? This reminds me of Helen Beetham’s work on digital wellbeing.
  • 31st March Times Higher Education article suggesting stress is not always a bad thing. There is no mention of institutional responsibility or support.
  • 2nd April Frances Bell discussed the idea of institutional fragility and links to some further excellent writing on resilience and well being.
  • Article on White Fragility

Keep sharing folks.

Emotional resilience. Do you want to talk about it?

Follow up article posted 4th April 2016.

Something about the recent and rapid offerings of personal resilience training in universities is concerning me. I suspect we are all familiar with posters around our campuses of stressed brains being soothed by caring hands. I feel compelled to capture some thoughts.


(And here is some tranquil spa music).

Resilience, in the medical sense, is defined by Luthar et al (2000) as:

“the maintenance of positive adaptation by individuals despite experiences of significant adversity”.

The Management Advisory Service also defines resilience as strategies needed to “cope effectively in times of crisis and challenge”. (Management Advisory Service n.d.).

In a number of occupations, such as health workers, where people face not unsurprisingly high levels of stress, researchers are looking at the relationship between resilience and mental health outcomes (Rees et al 2015). What surprises me now the rapid implementation of personal resilience techniques as a strategy within UK universities, and that this has been introduced silently and undisputed. When did my workplace become one in which I may experience significant adversity, crisis and challenge?

We need to look at this carefully. Luthar and colleagues’ paper on the construct of resilience informs us of how it is often viewed as a personal trait, and that creates a confusing picture:

“can inadvertently pave the way for perceptions that some individuals simply do not “have what it takes” to overcome adversity”.

A better way of thinking should be to consider resilience as a process and not a personality trait, in which the preexisting conditions need to be considered, and these include the understanding of the threat or stressor in the first place. I am writing, not because I’m a psychologist, but as someone worried that these strategies have slipped in, the fact that we need them in universities at all, and that the narrative formed around them may lead to further damage to the individual.

UK university resilience – what’s the score?

A quick Google search of “university staff resilience” brings up over four pages of hits linking to courses and services to “build mental resilience” and “build inner resilience”. Of course it goes without saying the importance of recognising stress in the workplace – within ourselves and our colleagues in all departments and services – is of paramount importance. I do worry that the upsurge in this approach as a strategy puts a ‘sticking plaster’ over some deeper seated organisational issues. (Loughborough, Staffordshire, St Andrews, Bristol, Reading, Portsmouth, QUB, Leeds, West of Scotland, Oxford Brookes, Cardiff, Canterbury, Ulster, Liverpool Hope, and many more).

What these courses claim?

The language within some of the course web pages and brochures for me have echoes of what Richard Hall writes about with the restructuring of the labour of the academic community as a commodity.

The motivations behind the resilience courses include:

to advance knowledge of the factors contributing to worker resilience”.


Now we are workers. And the onus very much on us to be resilient and productive.

“This course gives staff an oversight of stress, its causes and effects and at how we can build personal resilience”.

“The objective is to enable individuals to become more resilient, less stressed and more capable of coping with events and pressures they experience”.

“Helping you to maintain wellbeing and bounce back from setbacks”.


These courses promise to enhance our psychological well being:

“The second half of the course, Resilience, will provide strategies for individuals to prevent and manage stressful feelings by increasing resilience”.

“Managing strong emotions and impulses (such as anger and anxiety)”.


More optimistically, only one referred to creating a preferential working environment:

“Fostering a working environment that enhances the physical and mental well-being of its staff”.


The organisational psychology worries me here more than the fact that our academic communities have been denigrated to the position of workers in a system. The subversive messaging that the onus is on us as individuals to “bounce back” and the role of the organisation as a whole and as a source of the acute or chronic stressors is largely being overlooked, or certainly I can find little reference to it.

Who is delivering these courses, and are they qualified psychologists to work with people’s mental well-being? What if the training doesn’t help and someone has the added burden of thinking themselves a failure because they haven’t “bounced back” this time? Our anger and fatigue are a natural response to stress. I worry that the resilience is masking what our brains might naturally need to repair?

What do staff perceive resilience to really mean? Are staff also being encouraged to speak out and are they listened to in their organisations? What if staff perceive resilience to mean not speaking out and to generally shut up?


What is the scale of the problem?

The scale of the problem of overwork in higher education, and the tensions therein are well documented in a number of recent surveys and articles. The fact that we have a problem and this is recognised nationally must be a start. The University and College Union (UCU) shares resources and an invitation to participate in a survey regarding workload.

Despite what is known of the magnitude of stress in the sector, staff turnover seems relatively static, with of full time academic staff (128,425) and part time staff (66935) in December 2013, around 15% and 4.5% of staff move year on year roles within the same HEI provider, and about 5% and 9% of full time and part-time staff leave the sector (retirement, change in profession etc. HESA Staff Statistics). What has changed year on year are university staff reporting their jobs as stressful. In the 2014 UCU survey, The proportion of respondents from HE who agreed or strongly agreed that they find their job stressful has increased from 72% in the 2012 survey to 79% in 2014 (n = 6,439 , albeit around 3% of academic staff population, and possibly those most affected responding) (UCU 2014).

Take a breath. In 2014, 79% of academic staff surveyed strongly agreed their job was stressful.

When we corroborate with other surveys, even if we interpret the results semi-quantitatively, the impact on long working hours affects academic teams and professional service colleagues alike. Times Higher survey of 2,852 academic, professional and support colleagues, reported similar views, with all staff reporting the need to work long hours.

For academic staff on ‘teaching and research’ contracts, the burden is double, and also more often subject to workload management within the commodification of our university system. It is this monitoring and perceived lack of freedom and control that comes out regularly in surveys as a stressor.

Are we understanding the roots of the problem?

I believe one of the major problems we encounter is lack of communication and sometimes collegiality between academic teams and professional and support staff. The combined ‘student experience’ is a figment of all of these people working harmoniously together, and I know from previous work, the power of team building, breaking barriers, and sharing conversations. One of the big problems with university operations today is the segregation of academic teams from our professional and service colleagues – technologists, librarians, our administration and curriculum and timetabling teams. Everyone is equally important, but clearly something is going wrong within our higher education system, with one of the saddest statistics from the above survey being only 57% of those staff responding would (agree or strongly agree) in NOT recommending their university as a place to work (THE 2016a).

What causes work-related stress in universities? Stress obviously is linked to long hours, work relationships and felling of lack of control, but that is not the full picture. From my own experience, stress derives from not being valued, not fulfilling one’s potential and undertaking mundane tasks. Counting bus tickets to oversee student expenses is one of the most stressful jobs I have ever had.

So much is being written on work hours at the moment. In this THE article about academic work hours there is a huge mis-match between what universities view as ‘productive’ and the work that academic staff feel they need to do to contribute to their student and research communities. Articles like this are unhelpful and do not account for the varying levels of administrative support an academic team might have, different types of programmes offered within universities that may require extra regulation and work. They do not reflect upon the fact that colleagues may seek to work long hours to better their careers to make up for opportunities not provided by their current employer. Comparing us to bankers where there are big cash incentives to do well, is totally unhelpful (Matthews 2016).

The normalisation of resilience?

I worry that resilience has become normalised as a term and is now routinely embedded in our day-to-day language that we’ve ceased to think of the meaning and significance of it. We become desensitised to the underlying stressors. We are familiar with posters around our campuses. We often have a ‘tick-box’ attitude to training and people might think themselves resilient because they have attended a workshop whereas in fact they may be far from it.

Overwork in academia is normalised and each one of us is equally to blame for that. Some people choose to answer emails on Christmas day…..I think it is easy to feel a victim of the system, especially when you are exhausted, and therefore it is easier leave things unchanged. The following comments appeared in the THE article “Workload Survival Guide” with contributions from a number of academics:

“The bottom line in academia is really just a question: how much stress can you tolerate in life?”

Workload Survival Guide Wordle

Creation based on the ‘Workload Survival Guide’ article, THE 2016b.



What about organisational responsibility?

As our work environments are clearly the underlying cause of acute and chronic work stressors, surely they must therefore feature in the solution? The organisation structure and climate are acknowledged sources of stress as delineated by Cooper and Marshall with many factors alongside the over-emphased ‘workload’:

(1)  Intrinsic to the job, including factors such as poor physical working conditions, work overload or time pressures
(2)  role in the organisation, including role ambiguity and role conflict
(3)  career development, including lack of job security and under/over promotion
(4)  relationships at work, including poor relationships with your boss or colleagues, an extreme component of which is bullying in the workplace
(5)  organisational structure and climate, including little involvement in decision-making and office politics.

(Cooper and Marshall 1976).

Rather than focusing on building resilience in individuals, we should be creating more effective organisations in the first place as a remedy against these situations? Ultimately, any organisation will need its own innate resilience to succeed, and amenable working environments and shared values are acknowledged to keep companies going in times of adversity (Coutu 2002).

I am not arguing for one moment that universities have had to undergo huge transformations in recent years and the pressures on and within them are significant. I sometimes think it is the little processes that need attention.

  • How can returning a coursework mark within a virtual learning environment be effective as a 15-click process?
  • Why does the enrolment of a staff colleague onto a virtual learning environment require emails to be sent where the system can be set up for staff to perform the function directly?
  • Why does a module leader have to interact with seven different administration systems (virtual learning environment, timetabling, module administration, curriculum architecture, module feedback and reporting, business information systems, student records). With the training requirements that comes with that.

Bring back the “time and motion” man! When I grew up in a village shop we had an expert visit on an annual basis who observed my parents working and moving around the premises and made recommendations for the most efficient placing of equipment and design of work routines.

Don’t remember him?  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtn8oAMsvSE)

Summing up

This has been a lengthy ramble and I’m sure not well argued or articulated in places. This has been the output of a rather exhausted brain lurching through the 2016 Easter holiday through phases of sleep and writing. As we head toward another round of research excellence and imminent teaching excellence measures in the UK, the pressure is going to build up in the system.

We need to do far more groundwork to understand the full complexity of the picture before meaningful interventions can be devised.

What is the responsibility of the organisation as a whole, and who is looking at our structures and cultures?

What do staff think resilience is? Might it be used as a metaphor for not speaking out and challenging poor processes/practices when we see them?



Cooper, CL and Marshall, J (1976). Occupational sources of stress: a review of the literature relating to coronary heart disease and mental ill health. Journal of Occupational Psychology, Vol. 49, pp. 11-28.

Coutu, DL (2002). How resilience works. Harvard Business Reviews. 80(5). Available at: https://hbr.org/2002/05/how-resilience-works

Luthar, SS, Cicchetti, D and Becker, B (2000). The construct of resilience: A critical evaluation and guidelines for future work. Child development, 71(3), pp.543-562. Available via: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1885202/

Management Advisory Service (n.d.). Available at: http://www.mas.org.uk/management-advisory-service/managing-resilience/building-resilience.html

Matthews, D (2016). THE Times Higher Education. How many hours a week should academics work? Available at: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/how-many-hours-week-should-academics-work

Rees, CS, Breen, LJ, Cusack, L and Hegney, D (2015). Understanding individual resilience in the workplace: the international collaboration of workforce resilience model. Frontiers in psychology, 6. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4316693/

THE Times Higher Education (2016a). University workplace survey 2016. Available at: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/university-workplace-survey-2016-results-and-analysis

THE Times Higher Education (2016b). Workload survival guide for academics. Available at:https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/workload-survival-guide-for-academics

UCU University and College Union (2014). Survey of work related stress 2014. Available at: https://www.ucu.org.uk/media/6908/UCU-survey-of-work-related-stress-2014—summary-of-findings-Nov-14/pdf/ucu_stresssurvey14_summary.pdf