25 November 2011

Students at the heart of the system

Let’s hear it for the lean, mean University.   

There’s going to be less money for teaching, fiercer competition for the most promising students and maybe more private universities.  UK Unis are going to have to pay greater attention to student levels of satisfaction with their course structure, delivery, and  infrastructure,  and are going to have to produce more effective and strategically directed research.

These were some of the challenges raised at a conference last Monday run by the Academic and Professional Division of the Publishers Association : Students at the Heart of the System:  how to fulfil their learning needs, to an audience of UK academic publishers and H.E. institutions, librarians and consultants.   

We gathered to discuss the Government H.E white paper and its likely impact on academic publishing.  Graham Taylor of the PA and, in his keynote speech, the Vice-Chancellor at Aberdeen University, Professor Ian Diamond, established the landscape and opened the debate.  Then followed a panel session with 6 students (50/50 undergraduate/post-graduate, UK/international) and presentations of four new publishing and collaborative working initiatives.  We wound up with a preliminary report from ShiftLearning of their survey of University Vice-Chancellors, and a general discussion.

From the student panel discussion it was clear that academic libraries are still at the heart of research and teaching, because their resources come with the reassurance of a level of authority and quality control.  However, the students all said they wanted more and better advice about how to evaluate and use the resources : undergraduates had problems locating textbooks, they were often advised to buy books written by their lecturers and would prefer "all the bits we have to read to be together in one textbook"; postgraduates were confused by the sheer quantity of material available to them and often felt isolated.  Those from overseas in particular were unaware of the shortcuts to study which the British usually employ (!), and tended to plough through everything. One, from Eastern Europe, described how the education system in her home country was very proscribed, communist thinking being still entrenched in education, and while she relished the freedom to “be a detective” in carrying out doctorate research in the UK she hadn't been prepared for the huge difference in what was expected of her.  All the students agreed that higher tuition fees would raise the expectation that their university library would provide all reading and study materials for their courses.

Attitudes to the question of print or electronic book varied.  Several students immediately expressed a preference for print; one, to audible gasps from the publishers in the audience, admitting blithely that she just photocopied whole books from the library.  Another student strongly recommended the Kindle.  She felt it was better value than buying print or using the library and, with a young child to care for, she it was difficult to keep library books in good condition at home and to manage carrying them on a bus along with said child and a pushchair.  The popularity of reading on iPhones and iPads was mentioned, students said they preferred them because they were fun to use and looked cool.  As many undergraduate courses are focussed on digesting study notes or handouts, those who used books as well were seen as the “loser geeks”, i.e. those who needed to read books because they couldn’t manage to pass the course on just the notes. However, when asked about costs, students immediately pointed out that Universities shouldn't expect them all to be able to afford an iPad.  

 Two of the new initiatives attracted my attention.  Despite the fact that valuable research is carried out by undergraduates, until now it hasn't been available to others.  OUP’s new Journal Bioscience Horizons fills the gap by publishing the results of undergraduate research in the life sciences which has been validated by a rigorous supervisory process replacing peer review.  It's met with considerable success, attracting citations even though articles cannot be retrieved yet on PubMed or Web of Science.  Other benefits are that students get an early taste of having their results reviewed and published, and thus the encouragement to move on to work at postgraduate level, while for the University having their students' work cited is useful publicity.

The second initiative is very much grassroots. Meducation began when Dr Alistair Buick was a medical student.  Confused by the amount of information he had to absorb, he started sharing podcasts and lecture notes on to a site and invited medical students around the UK to do the same.  Medication now has a vast mass of teaching resources : lecture notes, exam papers, podcasts, videos, diagrams and so on, plus a social networking area for students to ask questions and share answers.  They can sit online tests and rate their scores against each other; they can read chapters from Elsevier medical textbooks with an advertising link to purchase a print copy. 

Dr Buick explained that Meducation worked along the lines of You Tube – information is uploaded and if anyone complains about copyright or quality they will take it down; when asked by a publisher “How do you guarantee that the information is accurate?” he replied that medical tuition is traditionally evidence based, with practitioners passing on their knowledge to students.  “How” he said “does one know that a lecturer has got it right?”

I felt the conference brushed aside universities' objections to the government white paper, and didn't really engage much with the points Professor Diamond presented at the outset.  Publishers are no different from the rest of us in struggling to come to terms with the changing economic and political landscape so it may not be surprising that they fell back on previous discussions.  However, the panel of students vividly presented them with the realities of university life.  The thought that stayed with me afterwards was that raised by Professor Diamond, and I think is particularly pertinent to librarians.  In future, he said, universities are going to have to focus delivery which responds to this question “How do I ensure my students have the best intellectual experience possible?” 

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