U-turning – Weeknote #77 – 21st August 2020


Made my first visit to a cinema at the weekend, which was nice, I went to see The Empire Strikes Back which was amazing to see on the big screen, I never saw this at the cinema in 1980, so it was nice to see it where it was meant to be seen.

Also over the weekend we saw more articles on what the future of university will be when the new term starts this autumn. A couple caught my eye, including this one from the BBC News: What will university be like for freshers this year?

But what will the university experience be like for “freshers” at what should be one of the most exciting times of their lives? Swansea University said plans to keep students safe include “bubbles” among flatmates, which means a ban on parties or having people over to stay.

The student experience this year will not be like it was last year. I still think one of the challenges will be the potential chance of a second wave of infection and another full lockdown, but the more likely challenge will be a local lockdown. Universities will need to plan for that kind of eventuality, these local lockdowns are likely to be weeks rather than months. Will courses have the flexibility to be able to respond and change as the local situation changes? That kind of planning is challenging enough with the added challenge of planning a curriculum that needs to take the requirements of preventing the spread of the coronavirus through bubbles and social distancing. As discussed before the real challenge is the uncertainty out there.

And if that wasn’t enough to think about, on Monday the debacle about the A Level results continued to rumble on.

Pressure is mounting on ministers to let teacher-assessed grades stand in England to avoid a second wave of exams chaos hitting GCSE results this week.

By Monday afternoon there had been a major U-turn by the government and the algorithm was dropped and teachers’ estimates are going to be used.

A-level and GCSE students in England will be given grades estimated by their teachers, rather than by an algorithm, after a government U-turn. It follows uproar after about 40% of A-level results were downgraded by exams regulator Ofqual, which used a formula based on schools’ prior grades.

Ofqual’s Chair Roger Taylor said: “It is clear that while it may have technical merits ins me ways it has not been an acceptable experience for young people and we have therefore decided that we should change course… I would like to say sorry. We have recognised the difficulties that people have faced coping with the receipt of grades of which they were unable to understand the basis on which they have been awarded.”

Thinking aloud, with all the negative press about “the algorithm” used for A Level results, wondering if this has implications for learning analytics?

A good explanation of why the algorithm was so flawed and was systemically biased as well was found in this Engadget blog post.

The backlash to Ofqual’s algorithm was only matched by its complexity. The non-ministerial government department started with a “historical grade distribution” — the percentage of students who achieved each grade — for every institution, broken down by subject. Then, Ofqual looked at how results shift between the qualification in question and students’ previous achievements. (For A-levels, this ‘prior attainment’ would mean GCSE grades.) It used the “relationship” between the two to predict a general range of grades for a “historical” cohort and the current year group at each institution.

The article continues to explain the background to the problems with the algorithm.

The number of downgrades wasn’t the only problem, though. The reliance on historical data meant that students were partly shackled by the grades awarded to previous year groups. They were also at a disadvantage if they went to a larger school, because their teacher’s predicted grade carried less weight. At a time when society is examining how technology is reinforcing its race and class issues, many realized that the system, regardless of Ofqual’s intentions, had a systemic bias that would reward learners who went to private institutions and penalize poorer students who attended larger schools and colleges across the UK.

As might have been guessed the U-turn was now causing major headaches for university admissions.

“The demand from students has gone crazy,” says Emma Reay, director of admissions at Newcastle University.

The University of Oxford said it now had “many more offer-holders meeting their grades than in a normal year” and as a result faced “significant capacity constraints both within our colleges and on our academic courses”.

Though as the week went on caps on student numbers on some programmes were lifted and some universities started asking prospective students to defer for a year and in some cases offering financial incentives to do so.

As might have been expected the algorithm was basically abandoned for the GCSE results.

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

On Monday I also published another post in my Lost in translation series, this time on discussion.

Discussion happens in formal and informal learning situations. It is part of the teaching and learning process within learning spaces, it happens as part of feedback and reflection. Students discuss their learning with their peers as well as with the staff who teach them Before the crisis, though a lot of this discussion took place physically face to face, some also took place online, as well as via technologies such as phone and text. In the current landscape, most discussion will now take place online with some limited social distanced discussion happening in physical spaces. In this post I am going to focus more on group discussion.

Tuesday morning I was interviewed by a journalist about digital transformation in education. The article will be published in a few weeks. I talked about the challenges that students had after losing access to university hardware and connectivity and were forced to rely on their own devices, and home connections or mobile connections. I also discussed the issues that will arise in the design of learning and teaching in a covid-19 restricted landscape.

Since moving to a new directorate on the 1st August, I have been invited to quite a few meetings this week with universities across the UK looking at how Jisc could support them in the future. This week I met with colleagues from Harper-Adams and next week I am meeting with Cumbria. In the past I would have probably travelled to these meetings, these will now all be online and in discussions with other universities, most if not all my future meetings will be online too. What this does mean is that I miss the nuances of visiting a university in person that are lost when you merely meet in a Zoom meeting.

Wednesday I facilitated a discussion about digital innovation in learning and teaching. This is being written up for a Jisc guide. I have written a few blog posts in the past on innovation which I revisited in preparation for the session.

No it’s not easy…

It’s still not easy…

Digital should be a choice…

On Thursday I went to our office in Bristol. This was my first time in a Jisc office since March, actually been anywhere for work apart from my desk in the house.

I did think about catching the train, but in the end drove to Bristol, parked and walked the rest of the way to the office. It was nice and sunny so was rather pleasant. It was an easy drive into Bristol and there was minimal traffic. Very few people around as well, unlike when I have walked to the office before. I stopped for coffee at Chatterton’s Café, however it was takeaway only and they were serving through their kitchen window. Nice coffee though.

Most of the office is closed or out of use, so we are using one floor and only a few meeting rooms.

Lots of social distancing and deep cleaning happening. With so few people in, the office has lost its buzz and atmosphere. It feels bleak and rather dead compared to how it is normally. Had a few meetings and lunch with my new boss, Jon Baldwin. The offices closed at 4pm, so I was out of the building before then, walked back to the car and headed home.

I spent some time this week revisiting our Higher Education strategy and reviewing future funding ideas.

My top tweet this week was this one.

Leave a Reply