Category Archives: Uncategorized

Getting out alive

No escape: decal of a struck-out person fleeingOne Friday in May of 2011, I locked up my shared office, went to the pub with some colleagues and students, and said goodbye to my job as a senior lecturer in psychology.

On the following Tuesday (it was a bank holiday weekend) I started a three-month stint as an intern at a then-mid-sized software company. They were pretty clear that there wouldn’t be more work at the end of it; all I had going for me was that they were paying me — a lot less than my academic job paid, but hey, it was money. (Let’s not even start on the ridiculous exploitation of young people by companies looking for free labour, or how unpaid internships exclude those who can’t afford to work for free.)

Anyway, so … lunacy, right?

Maybe. But maybe it saved my life.

I cannot possibly supply a complete list of the things that drove me out of higher education. Some of the factors, in no particular order, were:

* the way the system effectively punished people for caring about ( = preferentially putting time into) teaching, denying them a legitimate career route with equivalent promotion opportunities;

* relatedly, teaching and educational research being seen as second-class citizens to subject-specific academic research. I won lots of praise from colleagues and students for my interrogation of and challenges to typical lecture-theatre methods … and nothing else. Alanis Morissette was right: it really is like 10,000 slideshare views when all you need is a peer-reviewed journal paper.

* seeing colleagues struggle with depression and stress-related illnesses, without support or sympathy from senior management; the relentless, meaningless “do more with less” that rubbed everyone rawer, year on year

* not being allowed to reform teaching on a large scale, because timetables/curriculum/this is how we’ve always done it

* widespread bullying by an incompetent manager, to the absolute indifference of senior management

* prioritisation of commerce over crafting quality learning experiences; massified, McDonaldsized education

* ceaseless adding to the already-overloaded workload of academic staff with no thought for how much work they were already doing (see also: aggressive expansion of higher education; franchised degree programmes)

* resistance — in some cases hostility — to change and growth (personal and institutional)

* too much time, distance and obfuscation between what we did all day and how the organisation as a whole performed

* an itch I had that wasn’t being scratched: creating and building useful, beautiful things (there’s only so far even I can go with lecture slides)

* realising that there were plenty of people out there doing jobs who weren’t exhausted (because they weren’t working 55-hour weeks), weren’t demoralised, weren’t on the edge of a mental health precipice, and who could see, almost every day, a connection between what they had done and how their organisation was moving forward)

* the sad thought that maybe higher education was broken and that, despite having nearly boundless energy to do something about that, I couldn’t fix it on my own, or even alongside people who agreed with me

* weariness at being an ‘expert’ all the time. (Maybe being an expert sounds great to you. Maybe I just have imposter syndrome. But trust me: having undergraduates unquestioningly write down everything you say gets old.)

The drain of good people from higher education has become A Thing. Way back, I wrote about Mark Changizi’s decision to leave, and since then there have been several waves of “screw this, I’m out” from academic refuseniks who just didn’t want a piece of that anymore. I’ve written before about disruptivity and taking risks, and recently I talked about it in person too (slides from the talk here). There were some pretty low moments; I remember sitting in an all-day meeting that was absolutely a waste of everyone’s time, never more so when the person chairing the thing visibly gave up bothering with it, but kept us all there anyway. I remember thinking, “I have to get out of here, but I don’t know how.” At that point, had I needed to reapply for my own job, I might not even have been granted an interview. I was perishing, not publishing. Despite passionate advocacy for teaching quality, and throwing myself into researching better teaching methods, none of it was doing me a blind bit of good.

So I left.

It’s taken me three years to write about this, and even now I’m a little hesitant to talk about it, in case I accidentally explode, covering everyone around me in something unpleasantly bitter and acidic. That sounds pretty overdramatic, but teaching was, as the cliché goes, my vocation. I loved — LOVED— my students. I never understood the detachment and burnout you sometimes see in academia (where, fortunately, the consequences are rather less severe than in disciplines like nursing). Every single student had potential, even the ones who didn’t know why they were there — and you didn’t have to dig very deep to find a human being who was just trying to do well and figure out how they fitted into the world. They were all, individually, amazing people. I still want to write something for and about them. But this is not that post.

In the first year after I left, I fielded several calls and emails from other academics (mostly in the behavioural sciences) who wanted to get out too, but didn’t know how. This post is for you guys, and especially for D, who’s waited a long time for an answer, and probably gave up on me way back: let me help you remember all the things you’re capable of. You might never get all the dents out of your self-esteem after the years you’ve spent in academia, but I might be able to help you with it a little, if you’ll let me.

Let’s dispense with the easy stuff first. You (probably) have a PhD. I’ve alluded before to how people Out There are actually impressed by this. Lord knows nobody in academia gives a rat’s ass, and so neither do you, anymore. But think for a minute what that means. Firstly, you are an expert at something, however much you might not feel like one. This is huge. You have in-depth knowledge of something. Don’t gimme no backtalk about how that’s only useful in academia. That’s just the story you tell yourself because you’re unsure of what to do next, or because academia has left you with Stockholm Syndrome. You know stuff about stuff, and somewhere out there is an organisation with someone in it who wants you to do your thing, for them. As an example, I’ve taken what I knew about cognitive psychology and put it to work in software usability and user experience, and information architecture. I took a decade’s experience of running research with human participants and channeled it into learning how to research the ways that people interact with software. Somewhere out there is a practical application for the academic stuff you know how to do. It might even be a non-profit, if you’re uncomfortable at the thought of doing the corporate dance. (It wasn’t all theory, either — I got to have fun too, storyboarding and scripting educational material like this short animation, which I decided would be more entertaining for everyone if we did it entirely in rhyme.)

A second consequence of having done a PhD is that you are persistent as fuck. This is one of the best-kept secrets of academia: even the basic entry criterion requires immense tenacity. Whether or not you have a doctorate, continuing to put one foot in front of the other for year after year, sometimes in the face of harsh criticism and crushing disappointment, is a measure of what Taekwon-do calls indomitable spirit. Treasure that; it was hard won, and it will get you ’most anywhere. You can absolutely call on it to get out of your academic job if you’re unhappy there.

You (probably) aren’t fazed by addressing groups of people. Don’t get me wrong: for the first few years, the really big lectures (nearly 450 students at Peak Psychology — those were the Cracker years) were pretty scary. Some weeks I was literally only one chapter ahead of the class, because when you first start teaching after your PhD, like the hedgehog, you know one one big thing … but departmental teaching structure requires that, like the fox, you know many things. There’s a fine line between that existence and imposter syndrome. But eventually, you learn to be heard for 50 minutes or 100 minutes at a time. You learn to craft stories and handle questions and manage crowd control in a big room. Of course, it doesn’t stop there if you present your work at conferences, where the questions are a lot harder, sometimes even hostile.

And now think of all the times in so-called corporate jobs when people are called on to present information and take questions. You’ve been doing that for so long, it’s not even a thing anymore. You intuitively know how much information will fill an hour. You can plan and deliver a workshop without drama (unless the workshop is actually about drama). You might not love it, but it’s something you can do. If you are lucky, you will love doing it. Either way, someone out there is willing to pay you to do this.

You are adaptable and flexible in your thinking, because you aren’t afraid of complexity, ambiguity, or new information. The other day, my husband, also an academic by training, said “I’m really glad to have had an education and career that has involved always being on the edge of intellectual comfort. I think [that] makes it much easier to learn new things.” I couldn’t agree more. Academia is all about re-evaluating your position when new shit has come to light. Sure, this makes it harder for other people to get a straight answer, because your response is usually something like “Well … that depends. A, but on the other hand B, and in fact if we consider C …” It might be infuriating for others that you can’t give them something that’s pithily black and white, but living with this relativism represents a daily practice in flexible thinking, and in not reaching conclusions so entrenched that you can’t argue your way back out of them later as more information becomes available. You’ve become the kind of person who, if they really want to know something, reads or asks until they understand it. Maybe you’ll even get massively into the topic as you start to find out more. Do you know how many organisations out there are crying out for people who can do that, who are intellectually self-sufficient?

You can effectively argue a point, in writing and (probably) in person. Being able to read or listen to something someone else has written, and unpick and critique it, is immensely valuable. Our education system doesn’t really foster critical thinking skills as much as it might, but you have had plenty of practice defending your own work against this dispassionate taking-apart. If you’ve done much teaching (or marking of student work), then you’ve also had the experience of trying to explain to non-experts why an argument doesn’t stand up, or is subtly wrong. Out there, in Beyond Academialand, are many, many people, some of them quite senior, who need help with this — often because they want to get it right, but also sometimes because they don’t want to look like idiots. At least some of them are willing to pay you to do it.

You have immense resilience and can work as hard as anyone. It’s still sometimes a shock to me that in my post-academic life, I get to arrive at work around 9 and leave again around 5 or 6. I don’t take my work home with me, beyond idle mulling of the occasional knotty problem. I don’t work weekends. I don’t feel remotely guilty for not working evenings and weekends. Contrast that with the typical lives of academics, who pull long hours and spend so many evenings and weekends writing papers. Some of that is for love, but much of it is practicality — because who can get anything done during the week when there is teaching and admin to be done and people keep knocking on the door? There is no traffic-cop for academic workload; it just keeps piling up. If something else needs to be done, because the university or the subject governing body says so, then somehow it will just have to get done, and that means longer hours — or shoddier work. Like the triangle says, you can have it good and fast, or fast and cheap, or good and cheap, but you can’t have all three. As for resilience, it’s only anecdotal, but I have seen a lot of academics — and teachers generally — put off being ill until a time when it was less inconvenient (the holidays). Don’t tell me from resilience.

I’m not saying there aren’t jobs out there where your employer will cheerfully bleed you dry, or that there aren’t places with long-hours cultures that disadvantage anyone not young, single or rudely healthy. But either you’re used to those long hours anyway, or you’re highly motivated to work somewhere where they’re not expected. Your life can be better than this.

There will be some readjustment; this is unavoidable. The first interview I went to when I was trying to get out of academia was with a medium-sized, well-respected software company in Cambridge. I was fairly pleased with how I’d done until about halfway home, when I started to realise all the rookie errors I’d made. That trickle became a flood, until I thought I would die of embarrassment. It took me months to get over it, but they were right not to hire me, because I didn’t have enough experience: they couldn’t afford to spend time bringing me up to speed while they were trying to ship a product. As I gained more experience in software and digital, I had to learn the hard way to think in hours and days, not in semesters and years. To track time, and report back to people who needed to know what I’d been doing. I had to learn to work in a team again — to have conversations about work, with the people I worked with, every day. To own it when I messed up, instead of hoping nobody would notice (out here, they do notice. And that’s a good thing). To keep regular hours and be in the office every day. This might sound regimented compared to the largely unmonitored life of an academic, but it was surprisingly easy to adapt to. The same self-discipline that got me out of bed at 6am to give a 9am lecture (I had a one-hour commute, which, when it went wrong, went really wrong — and you can’t be late for 200 people) helped me adjust to keeping regular office hours.

Adjustment isn’t big or hairy enough to justify putting off leaving. Admittedly, going in somewhere as an intern was a relatively safe thing for me to do: the company’s expectations were fairly low, so it was an easy bar to clear, and they got someone with way more experience and knowledge than they were paying for. Everybody won.* I’m not saying I didn’t screw up a few times, but every single incident taught me something, and the enforced humility was good for me. And that’s the thing: a radical change of environment was good for me. Saying “I don’t know” and not being an expert — or having anybody treat me like one — was good for me. Those first few months, by the time I got to Friday I was totally exhausted, because I was having to learn so many new things. It was like being back in school again, and I mean that in the best ways. But without the feelings of inadequacy; occasionally I would enjoy surprising people with interesting and relevant things from my background in psychology. And one thing I never expected about the transition was how much more seriously people take you when you’re older, even if you don’t really know anything (as opposed to when you’re 18 or 21 and absolutely everyone except you knows that you know nothing). It’s an unfairness, but given how much our world capitulates to the cult of youth, especially if you work in software, it’s one I can live with. And anyway, 37, my age when I went off to be an intern, is hardly old. Point is: my life is better in almost every way.**

This has now come full-circle: my husband just quit academia. Despite a publication record considerably more handsome than mine ever was, he grew tired of the succession of temporary contracts and empty promises of a permanent, senior position. He doesn’t quite know yet what he’s going to do; I’m finally returning the favour he did me when he agreed to be the breadwinner while I figured out how I was going to make a living. We don’t have kids, and I acknowledge that it would have been a lot harder for either of us to do this alone. But I’m not convinced any of it’s insurmountable.

Look: my old colleagues are tired and bruised after a long battle to see if anyone was going to have redundancy forced on them (end result: no, but four voluntary redundancies. I think the oldest is in their mid-40s. These are not people taking a sweet handout before sloping off into retirement — they are getting the hell outta Dodge). Nobody trusts management anymore, and who can blame them? Academic staff have seen their jobs go from does-anyone-want-to-get-a-coffee to locking-myself-in-the-office-and-taking-my-antidepressants in a span of a few years. This is not what we signed up for.

So go, or at least think seriously about going. Think hard about all those hard-won skills that you take for granted every single day. Skills employers want. Skills that someone somewhere else will pay you to use. I use what I learned in psychology (the theoretical stuff and teaching-related skills) every single day. I still use empirical data to justify decisions — the decisions just have different, more practical, and usually more immediate consequences. And I really like that. I like visible progress. I mean, there is literally a weekly chart of how much closer our team is getting to where we want to be. It’s incredibly motivating.

And if you choose to stay (and I have the utmost respect for those who do), make sure it really is a choice. Don’t tell yourself you’re no good for anything else, because that’s just not true. Call me (my personal inbox is in perpetual meltdown, but I have plenty of time to take calls on my lovely walking commute). Call any of the people who have decided academia’s no longer worth the pain. We think you’re amazing, and we’d be happy to remind you of that anytime.

[Edit: I neglected to thank the many people who helped me make this transition. As well as being eternally grateful to my husband for his love and encouragement, I am forever indebted to the friends who let me stay with them while I was interning (and who refused to take any money from me), and to the many friends and former colleagues who wished me luck and success, and offered connections they thought might be helpful (and who, if they had any doubts about my plans, kept those to themselves). Thank you all :) ]

* except the young person somewhere who might have had the internship instead. I like to think that my time as a lecturer (and for a while as an assistant Taekwon-do instructor), investing time in young people, might begin to make up for some of that, but it still bothers me.

** I miss teaching, I miss my old colleagues, and I miss my students. But I knew I would, and I jumped anyway.


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Getting learners to build things out of concrete (examples, that is).

This post is not about assessment.

A few weeks ago, before every other word on the internet became Wikileaks*, there was a lot of buzz about this piece in The Chronicle by someone who writes students’ essays for them, for money.

I’d like to think, gentle reader, that you, sitting alone at your computer with a cookie arrested halfway through its trajectory to your mouth, are reeling at this astonishing news: students buying their way through a degree? Say it ain’t so! But if you’re reading this blog at all, you probably already know about essay mills, so finish your cookie and let’s move on, because essay mills make me sad, and they probably make you sad, too.

Anyway, I got to reading the (numerous) comments on the Chronicle article and ended up at another essay-mill confessional. And this one absolutely stopped me in my tracks:

I doubt many experts spent most of a decade writing between one and five term papers a day on virtually every subject. I know something they don’t know; I know why students don’t understand thesis statements, argumentative writing, or proper citations.

It’s because students have never read term papers.

It’s so obvious, in hindsight: students never see enough essays to be able to abstract the rules of what makes a good one. I mean, think about the essay as a form — often the form — of undergraduate assessment: we’re basically asking students to build a working aircraft without ever having seen one. We give students some classes about Newtonian mechanics, show them a few force diagrams, then say “right, build me something that will fly me to France for lunch.” The students duly experiment, with most making emergency landings in fields, while we rally ’round, saying helpful things like “but you didn’t put the right kind of fuel in” and “why haven’t you finished building this wing?” Typical student responses include “there are different types of fuel?” and “but you didn’t cover that part of the wing in class.”**

No wonder some students find it easier to have a quiet word with their local aircraft retailer. And I’m not saying this to excuse the essay-mill companies, whom I deplore for the simple, selfish reason that they are devaluing university degrees, diminishing my own efforts and those of my students. I mean, I don’t think you will ever convince me that their aww-shucks-we’re-just-providing-exemplars-what-do-you-mean-students-are-handing-this-work-in-as-their-own schtick is anything other than a thin veneer of bullshit designed to stave off the lawyers. But I also think that if hacking the system is as easy as paying a few dollars here and a few dollars there to someone who will effectively learn for you, then, well, maybe the system isn’t very good. Simon Bostock has some nice thoughts here on why this problem won’t go away until universities wise up.

But as I say, this post isn’t really about assessment; it’s about learning. Quite a lot of our knowledge is rules-based, like knowing “I before E except after C”, and “don’t talk to Roger until he’s had his first coffee of the day”; we rely a lot on these rules of thumb to help us make sense of the world. Students’ whole lives are about learning rules: how to write an essay; how to format a references list; how to make sure the electricity in your flat doesn’t get cut off. Very, very broadly (it’s possible that this dirty shorthand explanation is going to upset some people), there are two ways of acquiring these rules: learning the abstract principles, and learning by experiencing concrete examples for oneself.

Guess which category most university education falls into.

None of this really cohered for me until I watched a colleague from a different department teaching a group of new students the Harvard style of academic referencing. While not the most stimulating topic, this is nevertheless pretty relevant, because it underpins much of students’ written work during their degree.

Here’s one way of teaching Harvard referencing:

* surname followed by initials

* year of publication

* Title of article

* Title of journal (italics), its volume (italics), page numbers.

These abstract rules work well as a recipe for writing out your own reference list, but they’re not that great if you’re actually trying to internalise the rules. They’re pre-digested; there’s no work left to do there, so the bits of information slide over us, and each other. There’s no friction. Also, there are a lot of pieces of information there: six(ish) basic components, but many more if you also include the order in which they must be assembled, and details like which bits get italicised and which don’t. That’s probably too many.

Here’s a different way of teaching referencing:

Aardvark, J.R. (1980). Ants, and how to eat them. Journal of Orycteropodidae Studies, 80, 11-17.

Barker, R. (1982). Rum babas, and what to do if you’ve got them. Reading: Goodnight From Him.

Halley, W. (1955) Rock Around The Clock. New York: Decca.

Izzard, E. (1998) Cake or Death? Gateaunomics, 10, 195-196.

Lemur, R.-T. (2010) Strepsirrhinoplasty. Antananarivo: Raft Press.

Leonard, E. (1996). Out of Sight. New York: Harper.

Shorty, G. (in press). Okay, so they got me. Los Angeles: Cadillac.

* What are the rules by which this reference list is organised? Name as many as you can.

Here, to understand the rules, we have to do a little work. But it’s sort of fun; working out the rules is a barely-game. And the thing about abstracting the rules for yourself in this way is that the process is messy, tracking its muddy footprints all over your memory. Which is exactly what you want.

Here’s a half-baked thought: you can’t teach abstract principles nearly as well as people can teach themselves using concrete examples.

Science as a university subject relies on practicals as well as theory, but we still spend a lot of time telling students what the rules are, rather than letting them abstract those rules for themselves. For starters, I think this is a very paternalistic*** way of treating people who are supposed to be adults. But also, I’m pretty sure it constitutes poor practice, since putting in a little mental effort is rewarded in the long-term by better retention and understanding. You thought your teachers were sadists, giving you worked example after worked example? Well, maybe they were — but my point is, they were actually helping you out, too.

But university is not high school. And the thing about being an ‘expert’ (and if you’re lecturing to university students, then you are, by many people’s definition, an expert — even if no-one fully understands what it is exactly that you are an expert in, other than that you “do something with computers”) … the thing about being an expert of any kind is that it’s so, so tempting to provide helpful short-cuts, like well-meaning parents who hand down sensible advice about life to their children. We’ve all been given that advice, and I’m pretty sure that we all learned more profoundly from the consequences of ignoring it than we ever would have if we’d listened in the first place. The trick that education often misses is that abstract rules are easy to ignore until we understand their relevance, by which time we’re usually pretty deep in our own personal concrete example. Or deep in something, anyway.

I recently spent some time with a friend who is trying to learn about organic chemistry but finding some aspects of it hard. I enjoyed chemistry at school (um, 20 years ago), so we sat down together for an hour to try and work through the IUPAC scheme for naming chemicals. Now, you can try to learn all the rules for naming molecules in organic chemistry, but there are lots – they go on for two or three pages of my friend’s textbook. That’s a lot of abstraction, and we know that concreteness helps us learn (stodgy academic explanation; human-readable explanation). So instead, we looked at some specific examples of structural formulae, along with their names, and tried to abstract the rules of naming based on the information we had. And you know what, it worked pretty well. In fact, naming in organic chemistry is basically a language and visualisation problem, not a chemistry one, so I learned the rules quicker than my friend did, because language and visualisation are more my bag than they are his. But I’ve yet to meet someone for whom the exemplar approach flat-out doesn’t work.

Of course, when I talk about abstracting the principles from a set of concrete examples, what I’m really talking about is pattern recognition. Pattern recognition will be one of the essential 21st-century skills. It’s not about finding information anymore — now it’s about finding the right information, rejecting the irrelevant stuff, and knowing how we might go about telling the difference. Hat-tip for that link goes to Lee Skallerup, who suggests

Get students to analyze the writing (and the comments) to see what kinds of patterns emerge, what they can see if they take the time to look.

If we want to prepare students for the 21st-century workplace, we should be teaching pattern recognition, using exemplars and letting students figure out the rules for themselves; those are the skills they are going to need when they go out into the world. It shouldn’t takes much effort to shoehorn this sort of activity into the classroom, or to get students to understand the basic process — we abstract rules from concrete examples all the time (take this discussion of what differentiates men’s and women’s shoulder bags, for instance). As @Dave_Ferguson points out in that post,

The effort to make the tacit knowledge more explicit encourages reflection and revision … Concrete examples help people work their way toward more general principles.

And here, try this on: “assessment should fundamentally be about building learners’ capacity to make informed judgements about their work” (@cathfenn, via @hypergogue). I couldn’t agree more with this: success as a teacher or learning facilitator is watching the learner walk away, not needing you anymore (and ideally, exceeding you). But to be able to get to the point of critiquing their own work, the learner must be able to move from tacit or implicit understanding of the rule to being able to describe it explicitly. And I’m struggling to think of a case in which having concrete examples would not make it easier for learners to explicate the rules in this way.

Once I started thinking about this abstract/concreteness issue, I started seeing it everywhere. For example, on my third-year module, I set students a piece of coursework that is opt-in, and pass/fail: in exchange for demonstrating that they’ve done some of the groundwork, successful students receive some additional information that will help them think about the topic. Quite often, students fail to grasp what is required of them (a failure of pattern recognition that may well originate in my explanation of the task), so I ask them to resubmit. Recently, a student emailed me work that wasn’t up to scratch, so I suggested she try again and resubmit, which she duly did. But when I got her work back a second time, it was still missing the point. So I thought about it for a bit, and then I sent her the additional material anyway. And you know what? I got a very nice, very grateful response, saying that she now realised exactly why her original submissions hadn’t been right. Three simple points of triangulation (two “wrong” answers and one “right” one) constituted enough information to start abstracting some rules.

Really, the more I think about it, the more I think that using concrete examples and letting students abstract the rules for themselves is really just another variation on show, don’t tell. Which is honestly the best advice for learning design — or communication of any kind — that I know. And hey, maybe if we want to assess learning in ways that are less easily hackable, we should engineer a system of assessment that requires students to show us, as well as telling us, what they’ve learned. Let’s have assessments that test (a) implicit knowledge of the rules, (b) explicit knowledge of the rules, (c) awareness of situations in which the rules may not apply, and (d) the learner’s awareness of their own progression in terms of grasping (a) through (c), because there’s nothing like getting students all metacognitively tooled-up.

Okay, so maybe this post was a little bit about assessment.

(PS — If you’d like to read more about abstraction and concreteness in learning design, you may find this short paper interesting.)

* Here I’m inserting a reference to current events, so you know I didn’t just record this sometime last year.

** Just so we’re clear, this is a metaphor; I’m fairly sure this is not how Aeronautical Engineering students are assessed. At least, I hope not.

*** I know it’s not the done thing to laugh at your own jokes, but recently I had occasion to tweet But paternalism is good for you. Here, swallow this. You have to seize these opportunities where you find them.


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It Gets Better: how vocational educators can stay sane and relevant in H.E.

The persistence of the myth that “those who can’t do, teach” is incredibly damaging. Academics who spend more time and effort on their teaching than on their research are often looked down on — not by their peers (most of whom tolerate, even champion their passion and innovation), but by senior colleagues and managers – the people who make hiring decisions, funding decisions, promotion decisions. If you don’t work in the education faculty, geeking out on learning and teaching is very, very unfashionable, and marks you out as that poor relation of HE, the vocational educator.

My friend S recently completed her PhD, and is looking for work in academia. She’d like a teaching-focused job, because teaching is her passion: she gets it, and is by all accounts a stellar and highly-valued teacher — exactly the kind of person you’d want teaching your kids when they go off to university.

Getting a lecturing job these days is hard. A decade ago, I landed a permanent lectureship in one of the newer universities, straight out of my PhD and with no publication record. Man, those were the days — S is now competing for jobs against people who already have lecturing experience and a string of academic papers to their name. With excellent references, she gets interviews; but while a passion for teaching used to be very persuasive, now it’s all about your publication record — and S doesn’t really have one.

S doesn’t care so much for research (though this may just be a phase; coming out of my PhD, I didn’t either). She cares about teaching — her PhD is essentially educational research. She loves to watch students learn and develop their confidence; she likes refining the teaching process to make things work better next time around. She enjoys having meaningful discussions with people at conferences about how to change education for the better. She doesn’t believe that the impact of educational research should be restricted to people who read academic journals.

Talking with S rang a lot of bells with me.

I went back to my desk and started writing S an email to suggest ways in which her work could have an impact beyond the traditional academic route of publish-publish-publish, but very quickly realised it was turning into another link-heavy infofest that’s really a blog post. So here it is, and maybe it will even be of help to other people, too.

Be yourself. Start by reading this piece by Jo Van Every, in which she talks about how to make being an academic work for you:

“If your idea of a great academic career involves being a fabulous teacher and the pressure to publish seems unreasonable, [then] you should not even apply to Research Intensive institutions even in a bad labour market.”

Jo works in Canada, but the prevailing HE climate and infrastructure there is very like that of the UK. Jo’s job is to help academics make sense of our jobs as they are, and to help us shape what we want them to become. I chat with her sometimes on Twitter, where she’s @jovanevery; she’s a sweetie, and her website is full of great advice that will leave you feeling more in control of your career and less like you’re caught up in a system that doesn’t always speak to your values.

Acknowledge that academia doesn’t encourage sharing or nurture team players. Jo’s post points to a brilliant essay by Lee Skallerup:

“While more and more scholars are using sites like or SlideShare, and even self-publishing, this type of sharing isn’t rewarded when it comes time for decisions on hiring, tenure and promotion. We are taught instead to hoard our research and findings to share with a potentially smaller audience in venues with more ‘prestige’. Why not work to improve Wikipedia in whatever field you specialize in? […] But because the medium is ‘crowdsourced’ instead of peer-reviewed, career-wise, my work there would be meaningless.”

Boy, do I hear that. To paraphrase Alanis Morissette, it’s like 10,000 Slideshare views, when all you need is a peer-reviewed publication. The REF definition of ‘impact’ might never be broad enough to encompass this stuff; meanwhile, a lot of people remain disenfranchised because they’re not producing ‘the right kind of work’.

You don’t have to fight the system, though if you’re feeling punchy, Lee Skallerup’s blog is a great place to start. But there are other ways of getting your work out there.

The absolute best thing you can do is connect with other people who share your passions.

1. Connecting with like minds will remind you that you are not alone — on your worst days it will reassure you, and on your best days it will inspire you.

2. Connecting with others will ensure you valuable exposure outside academia, and this will lead to opportunities you would never have been given in HE.

3. Innovation through conversation. While a lot of science is just about trudging alone through the mud, translational research needs people who are willing to sit at the sometimes-uncomfortable-but-never-dull junction between subject areas, and spot how the patterns in one field relate to another. The border between education and science is one such interface, and it’s a rich seam to be mined.

Below, I’ll try and elaborate on these points, based on my own experiences; if anyone would like to share their experiences of edu-networking in the comments, then that would be lovely.

Academia can be a lonely place, so take charge of your personal learning network. Even when you’re collaborating with colleagues, academia mostly consists of getting your head down and getting on with it, alone. This can be a good thing: geeking out is virtually the raison d’être of academia. But in between those inspirational, accidental conversations over coffee or in the corridor, there are often some pretty long spells in which you don’t really talk to anyone about anything of substance. This is partly about the pressure of time: it’s hard to have “OMG, yes! We could do …” conversations when you have a pile of essays to mark, an inbox the size of Mount Fuji, and are starting to forget what the faux-wood of your desk looks like beneath all that paper. But I suspect it’s also because academia self-selects for people who are actually quite happy to lock themselves away in an office or lab for days at a time.

This is where the personal learning network (or PLN) comes in. If you are the kind of person who feeds on thought-provoking, inspirational discussions about learning, then even if you have the best colleagues in the world (and mine come pretty close), you are still not going to be having these conversations as often as you’d like. Some of the best conversations arise through the friction of differing experience, and a lot of the time, the people you work with share the same experiences, the same knowledge, as you. Also, they might not prioritise a discussion about educational change over getting a paper written, or fighting their inboxes. Luckily, we now have the Internet — and the bits that aren’t full of cat pictures and porn are absolutely packed with people who thrive on conversations about how to make education better. This is your PLN; you just haven’t met them yet.

The great news for you is that Twitter loves anyone who can talk passionately and accessibly about education. Most people think of Twitter as a social networking tool, and certainly if you want to exchange meaningless statements about what you ate for breakfast or the reality TV show du jour, then there’s plenty of that going on. But what’s less well known is that there are also really dynamic professional networks emerging, centred around things like learning, education, and technology. This facet of Twitter is probably invisible when you start using it; if you don’t know anyone else who’s into what you’re into, then it’s hard to find the good stuff. But once you start following people who are talking about, and linking to, the things that interest you, then that’s when it all really takes off. If you’d like to get the general flavour of how Twitter works, watch this 2.5-minute video, made by the very fab Commoncraft.

I’ve been on Twitter for about 18 months, and in that time I’ve met some stellar people, had many great conversations, and been invited to speak at meetings and conferences. Twitter is an always-on edu-conference that I can dip in and out of as my time and my job allow. Note that most of my tweets, and those of the people I follow, actually provide links to content that isn’t limited to 140 characters; things like blog-posts, newspaper articles, and so on. Not that there isn’t value in one-off, pithy comments; but there’s a real culture among educators on Twitter of sharing information, and that’s one of the things that makes it so special. As with most professional networks, you get out what you put in; if you regularly tweet the good stuff, people will start to ‘follow’ you (not as stalkerish as it sounds) — if you tweet it, they will come.

Blogging is another great way of connecting with people. The obvious advantage of blogging, relative to short-form media like Twitter, is that it allows you to rehearse more complex arguments, which other people can then comment on in ways that exceed 140 characters. Blogging is also great for self-reflection; a lot of the time, I don’t fully know what I think about something until I’ve tried writing about it for an hour. Writing about your thoughts and experiences allows you space to be yourself and to tell stories; those moments of insight into what-this-person-is-really-like are the cement that binds your PLN together. In this way, blogging is a great tool for rounding out your online identity, since it’s easy to hitch your Twitter account to your blog presence, such that tweets appear on your blog, and when you blog, it appears in your tweets. People who find one source and like what you’re saying can easily track you to the other place and see what’s going on there.

Your PLN isn’t technology-specific. Obviously, blogging and Twitter aren’t the only ways of connecting with other educators. There are discussion groups on LinkedIn, actual face-to-face (f2f) conferences (and unconferences), Skype, text-chat widgets embedded in people’s blogs, and the good old-fashioned telephone: I’ve used all of these at various points to talk with people about the things I’m passionate about. I’ve also rolled up at conferences already knowing several of the attendees because we’d already chatted online; it’s nice not feeling like a complete stranger.

Some of this does take time; growing a network isn’t something you can do overnight. But it’s hugely valuable. Lee Skallerup again:

Through social media, I have reached a broad audience of academics, teachers, parents, professionals, non-profits and other people who are interested and care about education. I have been invited to contribute blog posts for a number of different sites. My writing has been featured on other sites, UVenus included. Suddenly, not only am I working on a topic I am passionate about, it seems to matter.

Sometimes it’s scary, being asked to contribute to something in your role as an ‘expert’, but that beats feeling irrelevant and disenfranchised every time.

And they will ask you to contribute. A background in learning-related science is perceived as genuinely valuable by learning professionals from other fields. There seems to be increasing emphasis, in the wider education community, on evidence-based practice. Obviously, as a scientist, I think this is brilliant. Oh sure, it sometimes gets misused, like when educators talk the science talk but don’t walk the walk. But there appears to be a real appetite for understanding the mind and brain, and for working out how education can make best use of all this new knowledge: brain-imaging, contemporary behavioural science, and all the rest of it. And they need people like you to act as guides and interpreters; there has probably never been such a good time to get your edu-sci nerd on.

Something I didn’t really expect was that speaking at a conference outside academia is not like attending an academic conference. Perhaps the most obvious difference is that, as a speaker, you probably won’t have to pay the conference registration fee. Depending on the conference and your role in it, the organisers may even cover your travel and accommodation. If you are a non-academic reading this and thinking “so what?”, pause a minute to consider that, for most academics, finding money to cover conference registration, travel costs, and accommodation is non-trivial. Very few departments will fund attendance if you are not presenting work, many departments cannot afford to send you even if you are presenting work, and some academics end up paying their own way, in part or entirely, just so they can go to the conference and gain valuable exposure. Everyone pays the registration fee, which typically runs $200—$700.

Your knowledge and skills have financial value, too. One of the reasons I think vocational educators are treated poorly within higher education is that nobody perceives them as being able to make a financial contribution. You want money and prestige? Bring in a research grant.

Except, it’s not that simple. The expansion of higher education, along with cuts in research and education funding, means that there are ever more people competing for their slice of a rapidly-shrinking pie. And grant applications aren’t just something you can dash off in a morning — depending on what you are proposing and the number of moving parts involved, it can take months.

Which brings us to the slightly euphemistic-sounding Income Generating Activity: increasingly, universities are looking to bring in money in ways other than grant funding and bums on seats. This is where you come in, because your background in education research applies to, well, just about anything. Want to work with teachers to improve classroom education? Develop a course for Lighthouse. Want to partner with industry or professional bodies to improve some facet of their business while also earning your department some much-needed money? Speak to your institution’s Knowledge Transfer people about consultancy work and knowledge transfer partnerships. Educational science has a lot to offer the professional world: public and private sectors can both benefit. (They’ll respect your Ph.D., too.)

Lastly, you are not alone. At the risk of hijacking a good cause, I’ve been blown away by Dan Savage’s recent It Gets Better project, aimed at reassuring LBGT teens that life really does get better, and to hang on in there and not give up hope. The trials of higher education are orders of magnitude less serious, but I kind of feel the same way about those: I want to say to vocational educators in HE everywhere that it really does get better. Reach out; social networking will change your life if you let it.


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How to become a big e-learning nerd by mistake

Inherit a class. Inherit a class containing a really, really, really dully, repetitive, and entirely necessary component. One that the students must repeat ad nauseam, because rote-learning is the only thing that’s going to make a difference. Anything involving students learning how to drive a piece of software will be perfect.

Teach that class for a decade. Teach it until you can’t stand the rote and repetition any more, and until you find yourself atop a soapbox — metaphorical or actual — proclaiming to anyone who will listen that it is madness to spend valuable face-time with students demonstrating tasks that a poorly-trained monkey could teach.

Serve out another year of repetition, swearing to yourself that This Will Be The Last Time, Damn It. (NB: this works particularly well if the class is one you must teach several times per year, to accommodate the small computer room and the very large number of students.)

Choose a suitable moment during the summer months to crack. Demand — nicely — face-time with the people who run the course*. Explain to them that developments in e-learning are now such that this repetitive task that is driving you crazy and that you cannot stand to teach for one more year without serious risk of going postal can now be experienced by students not for one brief, rushed, 60-minute session, but in their own time and as many times as they like. This will, of course, free up your class times to do something considerably more interactive, like having enough time to answer students’ questions, or discussing ideas as well as specifics.

Watch your colleagues savour the idea. You can tell the moment when they buy into it: it’s about three seconds before they want to know how you are going to achieve this thing.

Gird your loins to achieve this thing. You’re going to need software. And you’re going to need to know how to use it. And then you’re going to need time in which to make things. Software is just about money, and learning how to use it is largely about tenacity. Time, though, you’ll need to create for yourself; nobody is going to pay you to take an extended e-learning sabbatical. And you can forget about manpower: if you want this thing doing, you’re going to have to do it yourself.

Get recommendations. Rope in your network of contacts. Find out from eavesdropping on Twitter that there is something called Adobe Captivate and something else called Camtasia. Pay particular attention when people start enthusing about Camtasia, because in a moment it will turn out that your institution only has a licence for Captivate.

Cultivate your Learning Development people. Our LDU contains some of the nicest and most helpful people you could ever hope to meet. They are super-smart, and they are way nerdy — and nerdy is what you are going to need. In spades. Ideally, your learning development guys will have time to get to know the software a bit, so they can talk you through your early, clumsy steps, and feed you jaffa cakes and cups of tea when you are having a meltdown (thank you, Liz). For full bonus points, they should have managers who are wildly enthusiastic about e-learning and believe that it’s worth the significant investment of time taken to learn a new thing so they can support you effectively while you learn it (thank you, Jim).

I mean, failing that, there are a gazillion text and video tutorials out there, not to mention some enormously helpful people on Twitter. But the learning development guys rule, man; I can’t see person-to-person learning interaction going out of style anytime soon.

Recognise that you are on a learning curve. First of all, it is vital that your software does not always remind you to save individual files before closing the program. It is especially helpful if you can demonstrate this three times inside a week, so that you end up losing the equivalent of about two days’ work: this will provide you with a learning experience that is pretty much optimised.

Swear. Vigorously.

Become a virtuoso of the panic-save, performing Ctrl+S reflexively in your sleep, every three minutes.

Attend a workshop on Adobe Captivate. Devour as many hints and tips as you can, like the fact that it’s possible to record your demo and training simulations simultaneously. Have the blinding realisation that creating good Captivate demonstrations requires exactly the same skills as creating meaningful, transformative PowerPoint animations.

Hate yourself a little bit for thinking PowerPoint when you should have thought slideware.

Embrace everything you know about the psychology of watching things happen on a screen. (Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if there was a word for that? Like televisionomics.) Go to town on the Gestalt laws:

* objects that appear simultaneously will appear to be related
* objects that are the same colour or shape will appear to be related
* objects that are close together will appear to be related
… etc.

Remember to consider the brain’s many idiosyncrasies when processing the flow of visual information:

* inattentional blindness [YouTube] — we may not spot things that are peripheral or that we think are irrelevant;
* change blindness [flash video] – we may not notice changes that occur concurrently with a visual discontinuity such as a slide-change or other interruption;
* gradual change blindness [PDF] slow changes over several seconds may prevent us noticing them altogether. (By the way, the intro to this paper provides a nice overview of the change blindness literature.)

Keep in mind at all times that the brain is really only capable of holding onto about four new things at once.

Wildly, wildly underestimate how much time it will take to create your new project. Plan to create five software demonstrations and five matching software training simulations. Since recording the demonstration takes just a few minutes, annotating it and creating the training simulation will surely only take two or three times as long … right?


Correcting the callouts and highlight boxes and animation timings so they don’t look like they were put together by committee is complicated. Also, writing really clear, unambiguous copy takes time. Start putting in the kind of hours that you can’t blog about for fear of reprimand.

Gameify it. Gameification is a big buzzword at the moment, as people try to budge learning from functional to fun. And god knows you are shovelling some pretty dry material down students’ throats with this software simulation. So lighten the mood a bit: use terminology like “your mission”, and reward correctly-answered questions with slides that say things like “You win a cake!” Include hand-drawn pictures.

Wonder how many students are going to email you to ask when they can collect their cake.

Then start worrying whether students will find the fun and the pictures patronising.

Attempt usability testing. Because of time constraints, this will be pretty crude, basically involving a colleague clicking through your simulation while you lurk behind them making notes about everything that causes them to tut. Helpful feedback will include things like giving people a button to click to move them onto the next screen so they don’t have to wait, and making users aware of the ‘view in fast-forward’ mode.

Recognise that, like any process of product development, this is a cycle. Try to be okay with the fact that each time you look at your work, you will find things wrong with it. Try to remember that it is okay to produce a first draft that is good enough; there will be time for refinements later.

Start fantasising about mass usability testing involving all the students in the class. Wonder about rigging up cameras in the computer labs; get cold feet when you start to consider the privacy, consent, and data protection issues.

Resolve to ask around for help with some kind of smaller-scale usability testing anyway.

Angst about making it accessible as well as usable. Enable the accessibility options. (Hat-tip to Karen Mardahl for making a potentially daunting issue seem straightforward and achievable.) Start wrestling with technical issues like whether uploading the interactive PDF is really okay if students can only access it from on-campus because remote access doesn’t support Adobe Reader 9. Have qualms about flash in general. Briefly consider enabling the iPhone option; get distracted by the question of how many students actually have iPhones.

Breathe out.

Start brewing this blog-post while you brush your teeth before bed, then accidentally stay up until 3am writing about it.

Realise that this project has eaten your life, worn out your body, and driven you into the hairy, caffeinated arms of Diet Coke. Realise, too, that you have acquired a whole new set of skills, and that this opens the door for colleagues who may have been considering similar learning solutions, but who may not have known where to start. Resolve to run a demonstration session soon, and to buy the guys in the LDU some nice cookies.

Then cross your fingers, Ctrl+S again for good measure, and unleash your work on the students.

*Note for North American faculty: it is not unusual in UK universities to teach piecemeal sessions on someone else’s course or module, rather than designing, teaching, and managing a course or module entirely on your own (in fact, many UK faculty will do some of each).


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Show me the evidence! Why education needs more science interpreters.

In his otherwise laudable Really Bad Powerpoint, Seth Godin writes:

Our brains have two sides. The right side is emotional and moody. The left side is focused on dexterity, facts and hard data. When you show up to give a presentation, people want to use both parts of their brain.

This assessment of the hemispheres’ respective functions is about right, albeit oversimplified. But my problem with the above quote is that the relative locations of the factual and emotional centres of the brain have no real bearing on the argument, and come across as window-dressing to make the whole argument seem more scientific. (I am not suggesting that Seth did this deliberately, merely pointing out how it reads.) Seth asserts that people want to be entertained (that is, be stimulated emotionally) as well as being given the facts, and I doubt any psychologist, educator or presenter would disagree. But what he needed to say was:

1. People respond to emotional as well as factual arguments.

2. The emotional and factual centres of the brain are in opposite hemispheres.

3. There is evidence that arguments which increase activity in both hemispheres are more persuasive.

(I don’t know if there is any evidence for (3), but I think you would need some to make this point convincingly.)

This might sound picky, but it’s important: people see the shiny science bit and their critical faculties just switch off. We don’t ask how, or why, and we don’t demand evidence, because we are persuaded and reassured by the presence of an ‘expert’. (This is perhaps best typified by Milgram’s infamous obedience study of the 1960s. The 50s, 60s and 70s — a period I like to think of as B.E., Before Ethics — were a golden era in terms of understanding human behaviour but then people realised that it was perhaps a bit mean to do this or this to people without some serious questions being asked. How the wheel turned again and we got from the post-60s ethics backlash to Big Brother, I’m not really sure; I guess wheels just do that.)

Anyway, this abdication of our critical faculties in the face of ‘science’ is regularly exploited by advertising — look at the proliferation of ‘experts’ in commercials for things that clean, or that claim to protect you and your family from harm. But as the man in the white coat has deservedly become an advertising cliché, so people with something to sell have begun to look for a newer, shinier, more cutting-edge science with which to hawk their wares.

Enter neuroscience.

Neuroscience-as-sales-tool is huge. At face value, it doesn’t represent much of an advance over old-school advertising: “Look: science!” But in fact, its value is extraordinary: “Here’s a picture of the brain of someone using our product!” Think about that for a moment and realise the awesome power of being able to say This is what’s happening inside someone’s head while they experience our product. That’s pretty amazing.

Advertisers have quickly realised the potential of neuromarketing. Some movie distributor or other wanted us to use it while I was doing my PhD, but we couldn’t turn the images around quickly enough for their deadline (fMRI takes time — or used to, anyway). Coca-Cola did it, though I’m not sure they controlled for the fact that caffeine can act as a vasoconstrictor. Anyway, get used to those images of brains, because they’re here to stay — at least until we find the Next Shiny Thing.

Here’s my sad realisation of the week: education, which has been a bit slow to adopt technology but is finally waking up to neuroscience — education is taking advantage of our human weakness for experts and shiny-looking science.

The other morning, I worked myself up into a fine old froth over a website* written by someone with impeccable educational credentials, that seems to exist for the sole purpose of encouraging people to consider neuroscience (and related fields) when constructing the educational experience. I mean, this site is clearly out to make the world — and education in particular — a better place. A place informed by science.

Criticising this site would be like kicking a well-meaning little old lady, right?

Well, I’m gonna.

(Disclaimer: I would never kick old ladies, and what you do in your own time is your business — but if I find out you are spending it kicking little old ladies, I am going to come over there and Have Words.)

The big, insidious problem at the interface between neuroscience and education is that there are many people talking the talk, but not so many walking the walk. Like the old Far Side cartoon, when I see websites like this, all I hear is:

blah blah blah blah neuro blah blah blah blah education blah blah blah neuro neuro neuro!!!!!111!!11! education education neuro blah blah blah blah neuro!!

This specific website was a prime example: lip-service to informing education through neuroscience: pages and pages. Evidence and specific examples of how this can be done: zip. Nada. Nothing.

This little old lady’s been feeding the urban pigeons, a kindly but perhaps misguided act. She’s been siphoning off her pension to fund an underground fascist group on whom she dotes, because they seem like such nice, polite boys. She looks so sweet, but she’s actually perpetuating harm, because educators everywhere are losing their grip on the need to use science and evidence responsibly. If their role models don’t do it, why should they?

It would be okay — and so would my blood pressure — if this were an isolated example (goodness knows the ‘Net has its share of crazies), but it isn’t. Online educators are obsessed with neuroscience, but often don’t clarify the relationship between the educational practices they espouse and the neuroscience fairy-dust they are currently sprinkling over everything. Evidence, people. Evidence and concrete examples.

In a crankier moment earlier this week, I wrote:

You don’t get to co-opt my science without following its rules.

And the #1 rule of my science is this: show me the evidence.

Maybe this is too harsh. There are issues here about elitism and the availability of expertise: if neuroscience isn’t your background, isn’t it a bit unreasonable to expect you to understand it and write about it coherently?

Well, maybe. Certainly it seems unfair for the taxpayer to fund education and get nothing back — we need to make academic findings easier to access and easier for the layperson to understand, rather than hiding everything behind a journal paywall. But also, I think it’s incumbent on those of us who do speak neuroscience to educate those who don’t — not just about our findings, but also about responsible interpretation of those findings.

Last thing. A couple of weeks ago, I spoke at TCUK09 about how bullet-point-loaded slides might be less memorable than sparser slides . (Olivia Mitchell has a great summary of the research here).

Reponses to our work have been either:

1. “Fantastic — finally evidence for something we’ve known or suspected all along!”


2. “Hi. I work for X, selling Y, and I wonder if you can tell me/are interested in … ”

But overwhelmingly, it has been (1).

I think this is really positive — that people do actually get excited about evidence. And I think we can, and should, build on that willingness to be excited by scientific data, until it becomes unremarkable that non-experts are capable of critically evaluating scientific arguments.


* I won’t link to it here, because I don’t wish to offend anyone or start some kind of internet tiff** — and besides, there are many such sites out there, so why single one out?

** tiff, for those of you younger than 30, has other meanings besides ‘a graphics file format you almost never use’.


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Pecha Kucha and Ignite: the sonnets of presentation

Sometimes we get our students to give talks – with slides – instead of writing yet another essay. I like this – it challenges them in new ways.  Some students clearly find the experience very uncomfortable (maybe I would have, too, at that age) but it’s always interesting, and sometimes they surprise and delight us.

Mostly, we are fairly strict about the timing: talks are usually in the range of 10 – 15 minutes, plus a little time for questions.  This partly reflects class size: any longer and we would have to find several afternoons in the timetable, instead of two or three; this would be hard, since time (particularly for staff) is at a premium. But even within that small space, students are able to demonstrate the extent of their knowledge and excitement about a particular topic.  In fact, I’d say we’re probably giving them more than enough rope with which to hang themselves.

One of the problems I think students have with giving presentations is that they readily conflate slides, and slide content, with the presentation itself; this is often expressed as reams of text on slide after slide, which students then read aloud.  They’re not thinking about added value – the value they themselves add.  Perhaps this is partly the fault of lecturers and presenters everywhere who do this too, and perhaps institutions – mine included – are to blame for placing the emphasis on making slides available after lectures/presentations/workshops, as though the slides were a ready substitute for the talk.  (They’re not; if they are, we’re in slideument territory.)

So if we’re going to assess students on the basis of their presentations, perhaps we should focus more on actual presentation skills.  I get very excited about Pecha Kucha (20 slides at 20 seconds each: a 6-minute presentation) and Ignite (same format but 15 and 15, giving a 5-minute presentation).  These represent the presentation equivalent of a sonnet: a strict form, but total freedom therein.  Constraints are often a spur to creativity, which is why trying to write haiku is so much fun (graphic designers, pregnant women and those of a nervous disposition may want to steel themselves before clicking; I have never seen such frightening wallpaper).

Of course, there are potential downsides to using this approach: how do we grade a student who just loses it in the moment? Will the presentation content be too simplistic because of the time constraints? Is it even possible to stuff serious academic material inside one of these talks?

But I think there’s a counter-argument to be made there too: five or six minutes is enough to get a message across, but in a really focused way. Both formats force the presenter to think hard about what goes on the slide, and what they’re going to say in the allotted time; they encourage development of real, actual presentation skills.  Ignite and Pecha Kucha also kill Death By Bullet-Point, kill it dead, since you can’t reasonably expect people to read more than a few words in 15 or 20 seconds.

If we shift the focus of making a presentation towards actual presentation skills, that’s surely good for students’ employability.  Presentation skills are increasingly important in our blah blah knowledge economy, and employers want graduates with a bit of polish (yeah yeah, add your Modern Languages jokes to the pile by the door).  And we need polish: I would do almost anything to avoid a repeat of the mortifying shared experience I once had, watching a presenter stumble over one of the fundamental technical terms in her presentation: after the first bungled attempt to pronounce it, she just skipped blithely over it – “yeah, I can’t say that word”. Ouch.

We can do better.

(Sometimes I think about starting an Ignite/Pecha Kucha club here, and then I remember how much free time I don’t have.)

Edit: My husband just pointed out that it’s not unusual at academic conferences to be asked to give a talk lasting less than ten minutes, so maybe it’s possible to squeeze enough science into five or six.


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