Learning from Libraries, Libraries, Students

Learning from Libraries – Stress-busting Steven

Universities are now much more aware of the need to support students who are feeling stressed by work pressures and exams.  Librarians, of course, tend to see more of the anguish than academics, who only encounter students occasionally during the examination period. One of the more imaginative and empathetic ways that has been developed to help alleviate stress is to introduce a therapy dog to the library, to provide “animal assisted wellness”.  In 2017 MacOdrum Library at Carleton University (Ontario, Canada) appointed Uncle Steven, a dog named after his first foster carer’s uncle, to be the stress-buster-in-chief at the university. 

Uncle Steven was a rescue dog, a Basset hound saved by the Edmonton Basset Rescue Society from a “puppy mill”.  For seven years he had been kept in a crate and used as a breeding hound.  He had never been in a house or car and did not like to be near men. 

His original foster carer was unable to continue to look after him because she already had two babies and two dogs to look after.  He was therefore adopted by John Vendel and his wife Erika Banski, both of whom are librarians. 

Uncle Steven visited the MacOdrum Library for an hour and a half twice a week during the exam season.  His services were appreciated by university staff and students alike, who played with him and talked to him and found him a very effective therapy dog.  Apparently there is a scientific reason for the remarkable success these dogs are able to achieve: humans release a de-stressing hormone when petting an animal.  10 or 15 minutes spent with Uncle Steven were therefore very effective for calming students (and staff!) and motivating them to take a positive attitude towards their work. John Vendel said that the benefits were two-way: Uncle Steven had been so neglected as a young dog that he was now enjoying the attention and lapping it up. The students who petted him unanimously agreed that he had helped to calm them and make them more cheerful.  John said that he “seemed to know” how anxious students were feeling.

Here is a picture of John with Uncle Steven.  Sadly, Uncle Steven passed away in April this year.  To mark all the good work he had done, at a ceremony in the President’s office his owners, Erika  and John received a “posthumous distinction” award.  Erika is on the left of the photo, wearing a red dress; John is standing next to the President, who is holding the certificate.

Libraries, Pedagogical Resources, Students, Universities

NSS results 2019 and Learning Resources

On Wednesday, the Office for Students published the results of this year’s National Student Survey.

Each year, the NSS results spark discussions about their usefulness and whether or not they actually reflect the performance of a university overall. And every year, universities and service providers keenly await their results and national media celebrates their “winners”.
What we do know is that universities take a great deal of notice of their NSS results and often changes in teaching happen with a view on improving NSS results. This – along with increased tuition fees and student expectations – is one of the factors that contribute to the image of the “student as a customer”.

The NSS data is one of the most important metrics for the TEF, and many Student Unions, who are en large opposed to the way the TEF measures Teaching Excellence, have initiated NSS boycotts in order to invalidate results. The University of Cambridge is one of them, and has been successful for three years in a row. Once again, the response rate for Cambridge has been below the threshold of 50% required for data to be meaningful enough to be published, which means that it will again be unable to participate in the TEF.

But how did those universities do who did get a high enough response rate?

Overall, it can be said that Scottish and Welsh universities have received better feedback from their students than English ones. To the question “Overall, I’m satisfied with the quality of the course”, the University of St. Andrews received the highest number of students agreeing (95.49%). In the top 10 there are 3 Scottish (St. Andrews, Dundee and the Robert Gordon University) and 2 Welsh universities (Aberystwyth, who came second, and Swansea). The Universities of Loughborough, Keele and York top the list of English institutions.

However, these are views on the overall course, and we were particularly interested in section 6 of the NSS, which deals with Learning Resources specifically, including library resources, but also IT infrastructure and access to subject-specific equipment. Of particular interest to us was question 19 – “The library resources (e.g. books, online services and learning spaces) have supported my learning well.”

Looking at this question, students at St. Mary’s University College Belfast were the most appreciative (93.22% agreed with this statement), followed by the University of Leeds (92.85%) and the University of Dundee (92.7%). It is also interesting to see here that 19.12% of students at the University of Reading disagreed with the statement – by far the highest number of students unsatisfied with library resources; while students at Heriot-Watt and Wrexham Glyndwr University were not particularly happy either (around 10% disagreed at each).

It is difficult to come to conclusions when looking at the broad figures, which of course include all subject areas. David Kernohan of WonkHE has helpfully tried to break down the figures by subjects; looking again at question 19 through his lens, it may come as no surprise that students of specialist subjects like Minerals Technology, Computer Games and Animation, Complementary and Alternative Medicine or Drama are particularly dissatisfied with their library resources. However, subjects like Archaeology, Classics and History are also listed high on the dissatisfaction scale, and publishers and librarians should certainly take such mixed results on board. More surprising, maybe, is that students of Nursing, Microbiology and Dentistry are especially happy with their library resources.

Readers of this blog may be amused to discover that overall course dissatisfaction is particularly prevalent with students in Polymer Studies and… Publishing!

Academic Publishing, Trends in Publishing

Finding the truth: Fake News and Academic Publishing

“Fake News” was the “word of the year” in 2017 (according to Collins Dictionaries).  It was a buzz-phrase that sprang up the information sector in 2016, when the US presidential election acted as a catalyst.  Its importance is increasing in a world where the extent of democracy and true freedom of speech varies hugely across the globe. The Collins definition says that it is “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting”. While this phenomenon has existed since the earliest broadsheets were published, it has had a much bigger impact on the psychology of today’s society than those of the past. Now Social Media is a major source of information for many, Fake News can be disseminated and spread much more quickly and widely; moreover, today’s Social Media consumer tends to be less and less worried about the sources and accuracy of the “information” s/he reads. Paradoxically, those who read news no longer trust the media – a recent Reuters Institute Digital News Report said that 49% of readers don’t trust the news sources they use, even though they have chosen these sources themselves! – but this seems to make no difference to their popularity.

You may feel that popular journalism has always been a shade scurrilous, but ask how may affect Academic Publishing. In 2016, The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) published an infographic on How to spot fake news; a closer look reveals that all eight fact-checking points are very relevant to Academic Publishing.

Fake News presents some fundamental challenges to Academic Publishing, an industry that relies on accuracy and integrity of information as the central justification for its existence. Academic Publishing needs to be robust, transparent and meticulously well-researched, because it drives innovation, public policy, and the entire academic discourse. However, Fake News has a big impact on the sector and the opinions held within academia, since misinterpretations of research results can quickly be spread as “facts”. One very prominent example of this was the measles outbreak in Brooklyn, New York in April this year which caused a local public health emergency, because it had been preceded by widespread misinformation about a (non-existing) link of childhood vaccination to autism, with the result that fewer children had been vaccinated. This “information” was based on a study which was already been proved a fake, withdrawn and the author sanctioned, but was still being spread widely on Social Media.

Again, this is  not new – tabloid newspapers have long based their business models on selling biased research data or exaggerated interpretations to the public – but the power of rapid dissemination and concomitant general lack of interest in sources exhibited by the public at large has allowed Fake News to spread more rapidly, even within academic circles. Publishing is the central route to academic preferment.  Unfortunately, therefore, Academic Publishing sometimes lends itself to fraud practised for unscrupulous personal gain.

The world of Academic Publishing relies heavily on Peer Review as its main mechanism of preventing Fake News; there have been frequent examples of publishers having to retract journal articles because of fraudulent peer reviews, as an examination of the blog Retraction Watch, which tracks scientific integrity, can demonstrate.

In response to such malpractice, fact-checking sites like snopes.com and factcheck.org have been established, to help readers to verify the integrity of academic content. Hypothes.is is a fact-checking site dedicated to Academic Publishing which uses annotations in a very effective way and also allows plugs into blogs and news sites.

The switch to Open Science provides another opportunity to prevent Fake News from contaminating Academic Publishing, because the whole OS publication process is open and transparent, meaning that fraud can be detected at an earlier stage.

There is a demonstrable need not only to educate students, but also the wider public, in information literacy and critical thinking. Websites like NimblyWise are attempting this, but take-up is not wide-spread and their reach to the wider public is limited.

Academic Publishing is therefore not immune from Fake News.  Society’s trust in published work without questioning its authenticity holds far-reaching implications. Clearly there is an urgent need for an improved system that can de-incentivise (and possibly prevent) the production of Fake News, provide education in information literacy; and offer a trusted forum to enable Scientists and Academic Publishers to stay in an active dialogue with the public.

Conferences, Pedagogical Resources, Students, Universities

The ABT Conference 2019 – Student Workshop

(Picture of the ABT Conference Student Panel, (c) Alan Staton, Booksellers Association)

Six international students took part in the student workshops at the ABT Conference 2019.  They were respectively from Mexico, The Netherlands, Italy, Iran, South Korea and Indonesia.  The workshop was run twice, so that all delegates could attend once (it ran back-to-back with a publisher / bookseller workshop).  It was moderated by Louis Coiffait.

Much of the discussion focused on textbooks.  The students agreed that the purpose of a textbook is to impart knowledge, rather than introduce controversial or exploratory ideas.  Simplicity of approach is therefore key to success. “You have a student who wants to know something; don’t put it in a complicated way.”  The layout and structure of a textbook is also extremely important.  Textbooks should be constructed in an accessible way; and although the definitions included in them probably don’t change much over time, students would appreciate it if the practical examples are updated regularly, to maintain currency and interest.  Worked-through examples, either in the book or on a complementary website are extremely important in some subjects – e.g., Business or Engineering.

Asked what kinds of learning resource they used other than textbooks, the students said they started by looking at core articles for which references were supplied in the resource lists, then selected follow-up references in order to grasp “the big picture”.  “The Library guarantees access to a lot of publications not normally available.”  (This meant material not available via Google or Google Scholar.) One of the students, an Italian, said the choice and range of materials available for students to access from the Library in this country is much better than in Italy.  Here it’s “brilliant, wonderful”.

Most of the students agreed that they should not have to pay extra for resources over and above their tuition fees.  For international students, the point is of particular importance, because many of them pay higher fees than home-grown students.  Some had borrowed family money to study in the UK, which would have to be paid back eventually.

Asked about discovery, all agreed that they would like discovery systems and publishers’ search engines to replicate Google; and they would also like publishers to produce more ‘how to’ video clips of the type found on YouTube. 

The students were also asked how they knew they could trust material they just found on the Internet, as opposed to via the Library or conventional publishers’ sites.  “You get to know which ones are most tried and tested; and students talk to each other about them.  I struggled with Maths two years ago.  I found a website that gave good explanations and clear examples and operated at my level in the subject.”

Louis asked them when they felt lecturers were or were not helpful.  Opinions on this varied, from “Textbooks are a guide only; the role of the teacher is most important”, to “Some lecturers tend to over-explain” and “Sometimes you need to go through the whole book to search for the keywords they’ve mentioned”.  Some lecturers fail to put an author on the reading list and then mention them extensively in the lecture – so the author and his or her work is “lost in the wind”. 

Asked how much they would be prepared to pay for a textbook, they suggested that £30 was a “manageable” price for a book they really needed.  “£50 is too much, even with discount.”  However, two of the students said that if a book was more expensive but contained more worked examples, they would then buy it.  Accompanying answers to the questions or worked examples are also vital: “If there aren’t answers provided, I don’t look at the questions.”

Tables of Contents came in for some criticism.  “The explanations in them aren’t detailed enough.  It makes me frustrated when they don’t describe what’s actually in the chapter.”  Short textbooks were almost universally preferred.  The students felt that book length could be cut down considerably by omitting details of the provenance of a concept and how it evolved – though one said that maybe such information might be more interesting in later years of study.  “An engineer doesn’t need to see the history of what he does, but I guess that, for the Humanities, there is a need to draw a lot more connections.”

None of the students regretted choosing to study in the UK, despite the expense.  “It’s a great country – in education, it sets a very high standard.  I’m from a developing country.  There are people needing these types of materials in my country, that are accessible to them.  They want a real textbook that is relevant for them.  Publishers might think this is obvious, but maybe the message hasn’t got across.” However, these students didn’t necessarily think that textbooks would be the key resource of the future, as they still are of the present.  “It is really difficult to be able to say that this is the form / shape / structure of the material I will always want to buy.”

Finances, Policy, Universities

HE and Student Finance: The “Augar Report” – what’s in it?

“Post-18 report” or “Augar report” – there has been talk about this long-awaited report in the HE sector for a while, and it played a pivotal role in the discussions at the ABT Conference (see our last blog post). Yesterday, it finally was published, but what is all that about??

Last year, for the first time in more than 50 years, the government commissioned a review into student finance to inform the sector. The report was conducted by an independent panel following an initiative by businessman Philip Augar, and was originally expected to be released in February 2019. With much delay and long awaited, the “Review of Post-18 Education and Funding” was finally published on May 30th. 216 pages long, it gives a wide variety of recommendations (50 in total) and considers many details that affect student finance and the cost of Higher (and Further) Education. What’s remarkable is that it includes all post-compulsory education funding, so covers both HE and FE.

And one of its most important conclusions is that Further Education is in much greater need of support than the Higher Education sector. A new mission is needed for Further Education, and it needs solid financial backing. The three main recommendations for this sector are the protection of the title “College” (just in line with that of “University”) to enhance the knowledge of its meaning in society and a certain quality-control, a creation of a coherent network of colleges across the UK that deliver skills (focussed on levels three to five), and a substantial increase in funding.

On apprenticeships, the main recommendation is a growth in degree-level and level seven apprenticeships, though acknowledging the expense of that route. One suggestion is to limit the funding for apprenticeships to those apprentices who do not already hold a degree-level qualification. The panel sees a need for Ofsted to assume responsibility for assessing all levels of apprenticeships.

The recommendation that Higher Education should reduce the tuition fee cap to £7,500 (and then freeze it until 2022/23 before increasing it in line with inflation) has made the national news over the past 24 hours. The recommendation also says that the income gap should be closed by the increase of teaching grants by the government, and should be adjusted on a subject-level basis, according to the cost of each subject. According to the report, the funding for widening participation should not be taken out of a proportion of the student fee (the current system), but instead a funding system comparable to the schools’ Student Premium should be introduced. Using this method, a university would receive its grant based on the actual intake numbers of socially and economically disadvantaged students.

On the wider topic of student finance (which affects all above-mentioned kinds of non-compulsory education), the basis of the recommendations is that the tax-payer should be covering a smaller proportion of the student finance system. Based on research conducted by the Department of Education that suggests that people would prefer higher monthly repayments and a longer repayment period in return for lower fees and lower interest rates (surprisingly!), the recommendations say that there should be zero interest applied during the study, that the repayment threshold should be reduced (to median non-graduate salary) and that the repayment period should be extended to forty years. There are also suggested changes to interest rates and the lifetime repayments to avoid those who earn more later in their careers being penalised.
However, the most interesting recommendation for the sector is perhaps the re-introduction of maintenance grants of at least £3,000 per eligible student. The panel also recommends that the expectation of parents’ contributions (of families of higher income) should be made clearer, so both students and parents know what kind of financial support a student could or should expect from their parents.

Overall, the report has been conducted in a mindful way, with awareness of current pressures on student finance, addressing the needs of Further Education and a sense of detail about university finance. Whether the report reflects the realities faced by students and universities and supports their interests more widely is another question. Whether any of these recommendations will be carried out, given the current political climate, is an entirely different issue.

The full report can be downloaded from the Gov.uk website.


Conferences

Highlights from the ABT Conference 2019

The ABT Conference 2019 was held in Kenilworth on 9th and 10th May.  It was chaired by Louis Coiffait, the newly-appointed Head of Policy at London Metropolitan University.

Louis Coiffait

Louis also gave the opening keynote talk, which, like his address at the 2018 conference, was entitled The Shipping News (capturing many changes that have taken place in HE over the intervening 12 months).

Before giving his presentation, Louis introduced Lynne O’Neill, the current (but, sadly, outgoing) chair of ABT.  Lynne said that although publishers and booksellers appear to operate by different rules, they are pursuing the same goals, and do need to work together.  The long-term prospects for both industries are encouraging, although in the short term Brexit brings with it continuing uncertainty.  UK Higher Education institutions retain their high reputation, but UK researchers are being excluded from EU projects; and the question needs to be asked whether we can still demonstrate the benefits of a university education to the young. 

Louis said that students were now truly at the heart of the system: the Office for Students [OfS] puts students first, whereas its predecessor, HEFCE, acted as something of a buffer for universities.  There have been many reviews and reports: Augar is just the latest of a long line.  There is a big risk that universities will get pulled in two directions: teaching vs research.  What does the government want from universities?  Economic growth, to take the UK to the OECD average; HE “market choice” – new providers, more competition; and “fair” value for money, for both taxpayers and students.

Jackie Labbe, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Academic) at de Montfort University, talked about Subject-level TEF and How it Works.  She said that, like TEF itself, subject-level TEF is still metrics-driven, but the reports are more narrative-based.  The key to success for universities is just to present the facts as they are: “Don’t rationalise; don’t justify; don’t argue”.  At de Montfort, most of the subject-level TEF activity took place centrally and was led by senior management.  De Montfort was one of a handful of universities to pilot subject level TEF, beginning in the academic year 2017 – 2018.   In the first year, the pilot experimented with 2 models: Model A, by exception, which looked at 12 – 13 subjects that didn’t achieve Gold status in the general TEF; and Model B, which took all subjects offered at the university aggregated to 7 subject areas.  Along with most of the other pilot institutions, de Montfort felt that neither model was particularly successful.  In the second year, more local expertise was introduced, in the shape of course leaders.  Model C was added – this involves a 5-page narrative statement based on 9 metrics.  It was agreed this worked better.  Many challenges still remain, including mapping ‘hybrid’ subjects to specific courses or programmes; obtaining engagement, especially from students; reconciling competing demands within the university; and measuring student outcomes – i.e., understanding what success looks like.  Jackie concluded “Some form of subject TEF will survive, but probably not Model A, B or C.”

Jackie Labbe

Becky Roberts, Customer Insights Manager at Cambridge University Press, and Stuart Webster and Dr Andrew Ashwin, respectively Digital Solutions Manager and Head of Publishing at Cengage, shared with the audience some of their recent work in Changing Pedagogies: the Challenge of Developing the Right Resource Materials.  All concluded that understanding pedagogical needs in a rapidly changing HE environment was a complex process.  Not least among the challenges is the need to partner with third parties.  The traditional textbook publisher provided core, curated content with little outside input; now change is the name of the game and publishers must work with ‘Ed Tech’ and ‘Learning Science’ companies.

Becky Roberts

Sofie Wennström, Managing Editor, Stockholm University Press and Analyst, Stockholm University Library, gave as the title of her talk The Deal-Maker and the Content-Creator: the Academic Library as Transformative Agent for OA.  She said that in both roles she had developed a user-centric approach, delivering to users what they need when they need it. Sweden, which is one of the leaders of Open Access in Europe with its BIBSAM project, takes many of its publishing goals from the EU.  These include making everything available on EOSC; adopting creative commons licensing to preserve author rights; working towards no embargo periods and 100% OA; and updating electronic platforms and formats to allow TDM.  When implementing these initiatives, there is a definite bias towards STM subjects and the article format.  Open Access for journals articles in the sciences is common and accepted.  It is more difficult to engage with AHSS subjects because they don’t get the research funding to support OA; and then there is the question of monographs.  Sofie said the change to OA monographs would be much slower for the Stockholm University Press; but there are other players who already have a good track record here: for example, UCL Press and the University of Amsterdam Press.

Sofie Wennström

Linda Bennett of Gold Leaf, who has been the conference’s programme director for the past eighteen years, offered key points from the Sage / Gold Leaf Pedagogical Report and said this would be her farewell to the conference in an official capacity.  More details about the report can be found here.

At the Academic Book Trade Awards ceremony which followed the conference dinner, Oxford University Press won Ingram Publisher of the Year and Blackwell brought home all three Macmillan Study Skills awards for booksellers: Chain Bookseller of the Year, Academic Bookshop of the Year (Blackwell, South Bridge, Edinburgh) and Bookseller of the Year (Clare Pepper of Blackwell University of Kent in Canterbury). The Ingram Rep of the Year award went to Lucy Pink of Taylor & Francis, and “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari (published by Vintage) was awarded Academic Book Week Book of the Year. 
The BA’s outgoing CEO Tim Godfray was given the Outstanding Contribution Award for his career of over 30 years working in, with and representing the bookselling community.
The after-dinner speaker was Bec Evans, who talked about the techniques of making ideas happen and how to learn from failure which are the topic of her most recent book, “How to have a happy hustle” (published by Icon Books).

Andy Stephens, FCA, Director of Finance at Loughborough University, took as his subject University Finances … on the Brink?  He explained how the finances of a medium-sized UK university work.  Loughborough – which was awarded Gold in the TEF last year and is the Sunday Times University of the Year this year – has a turnover of £320m, 18,000 students and 3,800 staff.  He said that, contrary to popular belief, the university sector operates on a very small margin, despite which this is getting tighter; among all universities there is an increasing reliance on tuition fees as the government withdraws funding; and it is a false assumption that university income is supplemented by research, as most research money has to be spent on the project it is intended for. Furthermore, any increase in the student population will “massively dilute the student experience”.  There is also a 5% decrease in the home student demographic, but as a country “we haven’t exactly put out the Welcome mat for overseas students”.  The upshot is that some universities will grow at the expense of others; and some will be hobbled by debt, the result of unwise past investment decisions.  However, the current climate offers universities the chance to take stock; to examine and challenge the way they do things; and to diversify and explore new ways of attracting income.

The overall themes of the conference were collaboration – between different stakeholders – and efficacy – the perennial holy grail to prove the link between academic resources and academic achievement.

Please look out for the next post, which will summarise what was said at the conference workshops.

Pedagogical Resources, Pedagogical trends

The Sage / Gold Leaf Pedagogical Report is published!

The Sage / Gold Leaf Pedagogical Report was the brainchild of Kiren Shoman, the Editorial Director and Head of Pedagogy at Sage Publishing.  She conceived of the idea of this study when we asked her to contribute to a more specific survey on the impact of the TEF that we were preparing for the Booksellers Association in advance of the ABT Conference 2017.  Kiren was ahead of the curve among publishers in understanding that pedagogical resource requirements at UK universities were undergoing a sea-change; and that it would be vital to the future success of students, academics and publishers alike to begin to map it as it unfolded. 

Sage commissioned the study in the summer of 2017.  From the outset, Kiren decided very generously to publish the report and to make it available free of charge to all interested stakeholders.  Originally the plan was for the study to cover the academic year 2017 – 2018, but relatively early after work began it became apparent that the first semester of the academic year 2018 – 2019 should be included as well, as not all the universities who participated in the in-depth part of the study were able to accommodate the earlier dates. 

The methodology we used was both comprehensive and ambitious.  The primary research consisted of three national Surveymonkey surveys, for students, academics and librarians, which as far as possible mirrored each other; in-depth semi-structured telephone interviews with academics and librarians at each of the five participating universities; and six student focus groups.  This was complemented by extensive desk-based secondary research which involved consulting journals, books and more ephemeral publications, such as articles on specialist websites, to gain as well-rounded and well-informed picture as possible.

Sage and Gold Leaf are particularly indebted to the participating universities.  We have promised not to identify any individuals (except the project ‘champions’) who contributed to the research, but we are proud to be able to name the universities: the University of Edinburgh, the University of Greenwich, the University of Huddersfield, the University of Nottingham and the University of Surrey.  At each of these universities one or two project champions very kindly agreed to support the research by explaining it to their colleagues and helping us to set up the calls with academics and librarians and co-ordinate the student focus groups.  They generously gave a considerable amount of their time in order to achieve this; and without the champions’ help, the study would certainly have foundered right at the beginning.  We would like to put on record our very sincere thanks, both to them and to all their colleagues and the students who took part.

In common with Sage, we believe that this report makes a very significant contribution to the understanding of this rapid period of change in UK Higher Education.  We have discovered during the course of our work that many of the changes we have identified and explored in the UK also apply more widely to tertiary education in other countries. We therefore believe that the report will be useful to interested parties everywhere; and we hope all the readers of this blog who download it will find it both useful and enjoyable.

The report can be found at https://uk.sagepub.com/en-gb/eur/reports/educational-resources-2019