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!

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.”

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

Pedagogical Resources, Pedagogical trends, Universities

Flipped Learning and OERs

Of the pedagogical trends identified by the research (commissioned in partnership with SAGE Publishing), by far the most prominent were research-led teaching and flipped learning – the latter often mentioned in conjunction with technologically-enhanced resources. 

Flipped learning, which was practised in schools for some time before it took hold in universities, promotes dynamic learning by encouraging the student to take more responsibility for study.  There is no single accepted definition of what it entails, but as well as technological innovation it often involves pre-class prep by students; more targeted use of lecturer contact hours; and the use of (often online) assessment to enable lecturers to identify students’ strengths and weaknesses (with the intent of enabling them to focus on the latter).  It may be delivered as a form of blended learning; and some of the most successful practitioners combine its use with more traditional pedagogical methods.  Despite the fact that one of the reasons for its development was to enable lecturers to cope with large cohorts of students, there is some evidence that it is more effective with relatively small groups.

Open Education Resources (OERs) have enjoyed quite a lot of media exposure recently and are often favoured by senior university administrators, because they help to fulfil the promise that students won’t have to pay extra for resources; and also serve to highlight the uniqueness of the individual university’s offering.  In addition, they win Brownie points by showing support in principle for the Open Access movement. Some academics are enthusiastic about developing them and there have been several serious experiments with OERs at UK universities; but they come with drawbacks.  From the academic’s point of view, chief among these is the time they take to develop, and even more, to keep updated, when academics’ schedules are already being squeezed to fit in teaching, research and administration. 

From the purist’s point of view, an OER is not really an OER if the university is not prepared to make it available to other institutions and students not enrolled in its own institution – an attitude which many adopt now that HE is promoted by the government as a ‘market’ and universities are in competition with each other.  (Such OERs may be contrasted with MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – which by definition are Open Access.)

However, an OER doesn’t have to be a full-length book or comprehensive study programme: much smaller units of teaching and learning resource can qualify, such as individual ‘repurposable’ units of knowledge; quizzes and notes placed by lecturers on the VLE; academics’ own podcasts and video clips; and Lecture Capture, but again only if made available to a wider audience than the university’s own students.

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Once the report is available online, we will post the link here. So, just subscribe to our blog and you won’t miss the release.

Digital Publishing, Pedagogical Resources, Universities

It’s all in the metrics: Reading List Software and other measures

So, how are libraries measuring the success of a resource?

That’s a tricky question, and all the libraries we talked to used a mixture of “hard” metrics such as usage statistics and “soft” ones like student and user surveys. Even though most online resources provide usage statistics, these often are not particularly user-friendly, and don’t necessarily measure the effectiveness of a resource. Reading List Software can give a much better picture, with metrics providing a better understanding of resource use.  It is being used at all the universities we worked with. However, often academics do not engage with the software; it’s not a seldom occurrence for them to refuse using it because they say it’s not user-friendly or they don’t have time to get their heads round it. In most cases, it’s the Library that administers the software and provides the training – and often actually uploads the titles into the system on behalf of the academics.

There is a wide divergence of opinion about how long a reading list should be, and how much new material it should contain.  In some instances librarians use the software to steer academics and students to resources already held by the Library, rather than investing in new ones.

Overall, the evidence shows librarians have a much bigger impact on resource choice and use than they think. They tend to under-estimate their powers of influence: more academics agree than don’t agree that librarians influence reading list choices.

‘Virtuous circle’ of Librarian Influence, (c) Gold Leaf, 2019

For the last post about key findings of the study “How Are Students and Academics Using Pedagogical Resources Today?” (in partnership with SAGE Publishing), please come back to our blog tomorrow, when we will talk about Flipped Learning and OERs.

Pedagogical Resources, Universities

Teaching, Learning and Resources: How Russell Group Universities differ from others (or not)

Are there any differences between Russell Group and non-Russell Group universities?
In terms of teaching and learning resources, the answer would probably be: not really.

The differences we found were not as marked as we had expected. The most notable differences affected the Reading Lists: whilst both long and short reading lists were in use at both types of universities (it does depend heavily on the lecturer), on average the Russell Group Universities saw the reading lists more as a starting point for students to then do their own research into resources, whilst reading lists at non-Russell Group Universities tended to be more often seen as a comprehensive list of material about one subject. The non-Russell Group reading lists did on average contain a much greater range of kinds of resources (blog posts, web sites, government reports, podcasts, videos etc.) whilst Russell Group reading lists seemed to focus more on the traditional book chapters and journals articles.
Though there were exceptions to this rule, Russell Group students seemed to be more committed to reading, while (or maybe because?) traditional teaching methods more often dominated the teaching at those universities. As expected the tension and pressures for academics to meet both TEF and REF requirements were bigger at Russell Group universities, and Learner Analytics as a metric played a bigger role.

It was notable that there was a difference in reliance on digital textbooks: the non-Russell Group used digital textbooks a lot more. This was linked to the fact that students at non-Russell Group universities are more often not expected to pay themselves for resources (non-Russell Group universities were more likely to promote a “no hidden cost” policy), and therefore the libraries relied on digital textbooks to provide access to all students at an affordable price, while students at Russell Group universities were more openly expected (and willing) to buy key textbooks themselves.

However, in a climate of high tuition fees and universities competing for students, the question of who pays this has become quite a pollical topic. The “institution pays” model, where all students are being provided with copies for their textbooks at the beginning of the year, has not gained the traction that was expected when the model was first started. Even though most academics and librarians agreed that students should not be expected to pay for their resources, a “mixed economy” model was the rule at the vast majority of institutions (Russell Group as well as non-Russell Group).

For more key findings of the study “How Are Students and Academics Using Pedagogical Resources Today?” (in partnership with SAGE Publishing), please come back to our blog tomorrow, when we will talk about metrics and Reading List software, and the influence librarians have.

Pedagogical Resources

Are resources changing as pedagogical practice changes?

Unsurprisingly, the study “How Are Students and Academics Using Pedagogical Resources Today?” (in partnership with SAGE Publishing) discovered that although all UK universities are exploring new pedagogies, they are doing so at different rates.  It is also the case that both traditional and innovative teaching methods are preferred not only within the same university, but also within the same departments at some universities; and there is evidence that academics most committed to teaching excellence themselves employ innovative and traditional teaching practices side by side. 

The two most prevalent trends encountered were the ‘flipped classroom’ and research-led teaching, the former often accompanied by an increased focus on technology-enhanced learning.  Some academics promote a wide range of learning resources, including online quizzes and games, simulations, interactive websites and videos, etc., to their students.  As mentioned in yesterday’s post, academics are often acutely conscious of the cost of learning resources, especially textbooks, to students; and for this reason, and because some universities are actively encouraging the practice, the study revealed some interest in the development of OERs (Open Education Resources) by academics themselves.  However, almost all the academics who discussed OERs said that finding the time to develop them, and, even more, to keep them up-to-date, presented a challenge. It is also the case that, because universities are in competition with each other, most of the academics interviewed were not referring to developing OERs in the true sense – i.e., open resources made available to all interested parties – but only to developing them for the use of students enrolled at their own universities.

Despite all these variables, the research produced overwhelming evidence that books – both textbooks and monographs – and journal articles still form the bedrock of undergraduate learning resources.  Other types of learning resource may help encourage students with different learning styles, but those wishing to obtain ‘good’ degrees cannot do so without engaging with the ‘serious’ literature.

Some discrepancies were found between types of learning resource academics said they recommended and those actually used.  Use of journal articles has actually increased, particularly in non-Russell Group universities; and, despite reservations about the currency and cost of textbooks, use of them has not dropped.  There is evidence of increased use of simulations and video games, but starting from a low base – e.g., usage has typically increased from 1% to 4% of a student’s total resource use. Students themselves like short ‘how to’ video clips; YouTube presentations they have found for themselves are particularly popular. 

For more key findings of the study, please come back to our blog tomorrow, when we will talk about the differences we have found between Russell Group and non-Russell Group Universities.