Digital doctoral thesis defences are here to stay

The other week, one of my doctoral students defended their thesis. Their opponent was from England but was stuck at their holiday home in France due to travel restrictions. The grading committee sat in Madrid, Paris and Stockholm, plus a reserve member in Luleå. Digital defences reduce travel and raise the quality.

The discussion and question session were excellent and interesting, very largely due to initiating questions from a suitably qualified opponent and grading committee and naturally, an intelligent doctoral student.

Several of the committee members had found it difficult to spare sufficient time other than for the actually public defence due to extensive education activities and numerous meetings right now towards the end of the semester. There was a large audience based in Europe and other parts of the world. There were no technical hitches and few have been reported on earlier such occasions.

This has not only raised the quality, but also reduced our environmental impact as travel to and from such public defences has been substantially reduced.

From initial concerns about possible IT system breakdowns and that the defence would not be perceived as being real, such worries have disappeared and the entire exercise is now seen as being a very positive experience. The respondent’s (alternatively the opponent’s) introductory summary of the thesis is very largely done in digital format as usual. The debate between the opponent and respondent also worked very well and can be spiced up with the active use of digital tools such as animated images, audio files, digital images and various digital background materials depending on the area the opponent wishes to concentrate on.

The question and answer session with the grading committee and audience also works really well. In order to keep the defence on subject and reduce the risk of other voices entering the frame during the summary and debate, and to ensure questions from the audience are asked one at a time, zoom webinars are recommended for the open public defence while a normal zoom meeting is enough for the closed grading committee meetings.

Digital thesis defences offer several advantages:
It is easier to find suitably qualified grading committee members and opponents as they only need to be present at the actual public defence without having to travel to and from Stockholm and spend the night there. A larger audience can attend which in itself improves the quality and offers a larger window to the outside world to showcase our brilliant research and third cycle education.

There is nothing in the Higher Education Act, Higher Education Ordinance  or the KTH guidelines for third cycle education to prevent one or several participants in a thesis defence from attending remotely.

These rules are also easy to satisfy for a digital defence. Since KTH switched to distance education in March, thesis defences at KTH have been digital.

Summer tip: During the spring, teachers, students, support personnel at the schools and KTH’s  administration and services and Research Support have all made monumental efforts to transit to distance learning and digital examinations. A big thank you for all your work. And make sure you have a well-earned and much-needed break during the holidays/summer break.

A digitalisation policy for the future

Doing things in a totally new way or doing totally new things. This is close to the heart of KTH’s digital transformation that should be reflected in our research, education and cooperation. Increasing the quality and efficiency of internal processes is also part of the equation.

KTH’s digitalisation policy, that the board recently resolved on, is based on the government’s digitalisation strategy that has a vision of “a sustainable digital Sweden” that will make Sweden “best in the world at utilising the opportunities of digitalisation”. The policy is also in line with KTH’s development plan that states that, with the aid of digitalisation, KTH has developed its study programmes, increased its leading research within digitalisation in different areas, is investing in digitalisation as an important part of its cooperation with the enterprise sector and society, is utilising the opportunities of digitalisation to increase the quality and efficiency of its internal processes.

The digitalisation policy is a governing document that regulates the approach and principles that should characterise KTH. Digitalisation is defined in the policy as operational development based on the opportunities technology offers. Digitalisation leads to better quality, efficiency and user experiences for students, personnel and the society around us.

The policy contains a number of principles that concern everything from research and research data to the digitalisation of study programmes and digital examinations plus principles for how we should achieve operations support that is usable, accessible, secure and feels professional. It also addresses how we can observe the digital working environment for employees and students. My hope is that KTH’s digital transformation will minimise usability problems connected with our digital systems and create operations that are perceived as efficient and innovative by utilising the opportunities of digitalisation.

To realise the exacting aims of the digitalisation policy, we are going to develop KTH’s digitalisation strategy that sets clear priorities and shows what KTH needs to do to achieve its goals. KTH’s digitalisation strategy will be developed in close cooperation with KTH’s schools, administration and students to create a common direction that will enable KTH to be the best in the world at utilising the opportunities digitalisation offers.

When are we going to see some climate initiatives?

Many politicians and opinion formers are saying that the support packages that have emerged during the pandemic offer an opportunity to take clear steps towards a climate reset. But nothing has happened as yet. There is a clear risk that us middle aged are giving younger generations a big fat double whammy: an urgent climate crisis and national debts that can take decades to repay.

 The current level of greenhouse gas emissions is unsustainable. If we are to be able to limit global warming, investments in new technology and new infrastructure are some of the steps that need to be taken. But this has not been happening on the scale necessary.

In the wake of the pandemic, Sweden, like many other countries, have presented a substantial support package. Impressive investments are being made at short notice. Few if any people seem to be questioning the effectiveness of such initiatives or calling for socio-economic analyses of the consequences. There is a broad consensus that a crisis calls for strong actions.

Many politicians and opinion pieces point to the possibility of steering these support packages in a way that contributes towards a climate reset. Now at a time when larger than normal funds are being made available, there are opportunities to invest in climate measures that also support the economy at the same time. If these support measures are purely broad rather than targeted initiatives, we risk legitimising today’s unsustainable systems and in so doing, make any climate reset that much more difficult.

In a recent article with renowned economists from England and the USA, five areas were identified as contributing to both economy and climate-related goals:

– investments in green infrastructure
– refurbishments of buildings
– training to reduce unemployment
– investments in increased eco system services (link to old blog)
– research and innovation in climate smart solutions

However, the investments that have been done today, do not primarily fit this profile. One example is the government’s spring amending budget. A summary of the investments that have been made in association with the coronavirus  shows that around one thousandth of the SEK 100 billion or so being invested is related to climate change (an extended biogas investment).

The support packages that have been resolved on so far, are unlikely to be the last. There is a possibility that future packages will include clearer initiatives. Or maybe they will then argue that there is now no longer enough scope for them.

The risk is that we will find our ourselves in the same situation as before the coronavirus crisis of not being able to prioritise climate investments, of having to focus on the most immediate problem and that, after the coronavirus crisis, there will no longer by any resources left for this. We can do better than that.


What do the international students think?

Universities all over the world  are discussing how courses should be organised in the next academic year. The possibility of providing courses online is being eagerly considered. One group that has not actually been asked to any great extent is the students themselves, especially not the international students. What do they think?

A total of 941 students from countries outside the EU and EEA who had all planned to study in The Netherlands in the 2020/21 academic year, were invited to answer a questionnaire in The Netherlands in April and May. The Netherlands have international offices (Netherlands Education Support Offices) in ten countries; Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey and Vietnam, which shows how important international students are for The Netherlands.

The results showed that 66 percent of the students still wished to study as planned in September 2020. The students expressed significant uncertainty with regard to questions concerning visas, travel restrictions, financing and even forms of teaching.

Indian students had doubts about travel restrictions, the Chinese, South Korean and Vietnamese students were more worried about the form of teaching given the ongoing pandemic.

On the question of what form the students preferred, 40 percent said they would like to start with campus education in the autumn. Just over 20 percent wanted to postpone starting for a year until 2021, while 10 percent wanted to start with online courses or alternatively postpone starting. A small number of students wanted to start at a university in their home country or a neighbouring country, while just over 10 percent were not sure what they wanted to do. A quarter of the students say that they could very well consider studying in another country and in which case, in the EU above all and ideally in Germany, Belgium or Sweden.

Can we draw any conclusions from this survey when it comes to Swedish conditions in general and KTH in particular? I for one, certainly think so. We have the same large international groups at KTH and we could reasonably expect to get similar responses if we performed an equivalent exercise.

Clearly, international students are very hopeful of being able to start studying in countries such as The Netherlands and Sweden. Their worries mainly relate to visa issues and travel restrictions and as such, it is incredibly important that Sweden is able to provide clear and coherent decisions to all international students with the aim of creating the greatest possible trust in Sweden as an attractive country to study in.

We must hope, that public authorities and government departments together with universities find solutions as soon as possible to give these student that trust and confidence they need.

Equality and gender in education 

For several years now, KTH has been working to integrate an equality perspective into first and second cycle education. Our aim is for teachers to be attentive to how education can be done in a more equal way.

Issues that are raised include how all students can have their voice heard, whose perspective is reflected in teaching examples, who feels visible/invisible in the classroom and how group work is organised such that the conditions for teaching are as fair as possible.

Work to integrate content on gender and equality in education is being pursued at the same time to enable students to have greater knowledge about this. What do concepts such as gender, equality and diversity mean and in what ways are they important in technology development, leadership, working life, research and societal development?

By becoming more knowledgeable, students will be able to contribute to increased equality in society, in both their own study environment and their future professional life. I offer a few examples below from evaluations, where the students themselves describe the lessons they have learnt.

“That it is about questioning and changing structures and cultures at organisation level, not everything is up to the individual. I have acquired tools and knowledge to combat ignorance and resistance to equality issues and can put into words and explain things I have experienced myself. It feels like this is the most important course I have taken (perhaps precisely because I am shortly due to enter the job market.”

“An insight into what differences there are in the conditions for men and women, and how you as a man/woman are expected to act. I have also gained an insight into how important it is not to ignore inequality, above all when it comes to creating good platforms for coming generations and a more equal society.”

“The most important lesson I will take with me from the course is the way of thinking about and viewing things from another perspective. I have learnt a great deal on this course that will not only help me in my working life but also outside work, and it is this knowledge I want to take with me to make changes.”

The importance of networks

KTH is a member of a number of international university networks. But what benefits do they actually bring? In mid-March we saw a clear example when the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, HKUST, sent out invitations to a webinar on suddenly being forced to engage in distance teaching.

They shared their experiences after the demonstrations in Hong Kong last autumn and the spring pandemic. When you are in the greatest need, help is not so far away.The webinar proved to be perfect timing and our thoughts about how to organise exams online were confirmed, and at the same time, plenty of good advice was also provided along the way.

Some of the university networks of which KTH is a member, are large and more akin to lobby organisations, such as CESEAR within the EU. Others, such as the Nordic 5 Tech with the Technical University of Denmark DTU, Chalmers, Aalto and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology NTNU, are smaller and focused on strengthening Nordic cooperation.

Our European Cluster network consists of twelve leading universities of technology from ten countries. Cluster celebrates its 30th anniversary this year and, but for the pandemic, we would have celebrated this in Darmstadt in early April. Cluster is also the foundation of the European university network UNITE that was launched in 2019. The aim of UNITE can simply be described as linking even more closely together its seven universities, such as by being able to mutually utilise the range of courses each university offers and create study programmes at all levels that include sections from and cooperation between the universities.

Yet another grouping is our six Key University Partners. This category includes Shanghai Jiao Tong, the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, IIT Madras, the University of Tokyo, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and as mentioned above, HKUST. These all bode well for future strategic cooperation .