The role as a university teacher has been subject to a big efficiency drive and a great deal of rationalisation. We are expected to graduate many more students in a shorter time. This has affected the quality time you have with each student and reduced time for critical thinking and scientific discussion. Can digitalisation perhaps be the way to improve this?
Having said that, we university lecturers are often set in our ways and keen to maintain the traditional form of lectures. A high proportion of teacher time is also spent on exams, that rarely embrace teaching and rather than being stimulating, tend to be monotonous and contribute little to development. It would be better if we were to change the way we teach to enable us to safeguard precious discussion time with students.
In an opinion piece in the fifth edition of the publication Universitetsläraren, Peter Svensson of Lund University questions the digitalisation of universities and in particular the focus on efficiency and less student contact that he feels this risks leading to. But that’s not the purpose of digitalisation.
Digitalisation aims to promote a new view of teaching and how you can allocate time for students in the most efficient way and with the highest possible quality. Bloom’s taxonomy, a set of hierarchical models for different levels of learning, has classified learning into six different levels;
- Memorising facts and concepts.
- Understanding and explaining ideas and concepts.
- Applying knowledge in new situations.
- Analysing associations and seeing patterns.
- Making evaluations and assessments in order to be able to take decisions and base opinions on.
Traditional lectures focus on the first two levels and in the best instance, provide inspiration and motivation to complement traditional course literature. The students are then left to acquire knowledge at higher levels. Facts and comprehension can be managed with one-way communication via lectures, while higher levels require a social context, cooperation with students, hopefully with greater senior mentor support.
Would it not therefore be of benefit to reduce teaching time for facts and comprehension in favour of more time for campus learning related to analysis, evaluation and innovation that requires seminars, project teamwork and complex problem formulation and solving? Even so, this tends to get sacrificed at a time when demands are rising at a faster rate than the resources available to implement this.
This is exactly where digitalisation can come to the rescue. Digital lectures, with a different structure to traditional lectures, can be rethought as time, place and recording speed are all flexible. Digital lectures can reach a far bigger audience, of all ages and situations in life. Digital forms of examination enable machine marking and immediate feedback on student teaching. Large data volumes can be used to steer education initiatives towards that which students find difficult and time consuming, rather than spending time on less complex areas.
If today’s students are to feel that a study programme is relevant and something for them, digitalisation of education is necessary. The digitalisation of universities is a key to meeting the demands and expectations of the future.
Just before Christmas, KTH resolved on new climate targets. KTH aims to be a leading technical university when it comes to climate reset.
The climate challenge demands changes in all sectors of society. Universities and colleges have a key role in this work. We have an important duty to contribute to the climate reset via our teaching, research and partnerships, but we also need to reduce the climate impact of our own organisation. In 2019, Chalmers and KTH launched a joint initiative to develop a Climate Framework together with most other universities and colleges in Sweden. In signing up to the Climate Framework, all these universities undertake to:
- via education, research and cooperation, contribute to enabling society to reach targets set.
- reduce their own climate impact in line with societal undertakings that are delineated in national and international agreements.
- set far-reaching goals for climate work and also allocate resources to enable us to reach these goals and monitor progress.
- clearly communicate about our climate work to inspire and spread knowledge to other organisations and citizens in the community.
The resolution we have now agree concerning general targets and measures can be seen as our first step in fulfilling these commitments. The targets we have set concern education, research, cooperation, business travel, energy usage, new build construction and extension work on existing buildings, food, waste management, procurement and investments. There are both short-term and long-term targets. By working within these areas, we wish to contribute to helping Sweden and the world achieve the climate targets that have been set.
If we are to achieve our climate targets, most parts of the KTH organisation must be involved. This applies to teachers, researchers and other personnel. The journey we face is not self-evidently going to be easy. The sustainability work we have implemented over the past ten years has been successful in many respects.
We received a good assessment from UKÄ with regard to the work we are doing on sustainable development in education from the Swedish Environment Protection Agency for our environment management system, and we are a top ten university in the THE world rankings of Impact based on the global sustainability goals. However, when it comes to achieving our own climate targets, one problem is business travel related emissions. We are aware that we need to develop new ways of working and processes within these areas. One step in this direction is our new Climate Kitty that can be used for measures to reduce emissions.
Tip of the week: Watch the TV series Rapport from 2050, that features a number of KTH researchers.
Perhaps the most common question I am asked, as Vice President for Global Relations, is: Why should we recruit international students? The answer expected is that it generates substantial revenues, last year over SEK 110 million. That is not to be sneezed at, but it is absolutely not the only nor the deciding reason.
Two weeks ago, I was at a lunch seminar arranged by the IVA (Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences) enterprise sector council. The theme was attracting talents to Swedish enterprise and the question was asked whether Sweden was a departure hall or an arrivals hall.
Initially, this brought to life many of the familiar old expectations about Sweden as a safe and functioning welfare system, with non-hierarchical organisations, good schools, a clean environment and that Swedes are good at English. Issues that are naturally of the utmost relevance if you are thinking of moving to Sweden, but are these issues that relevant for talents?
An interesting input from the Swedish Association of Graduate Engineers was how skilful ABB in Ludvika is in recruiting highly qualified engineers, and being a world-leading high technology company, despite a less advantageous geographical location.
It just so happened that I had been invited to ABB Power Grids in Ludvika the previous week to present what KTH is doing in its Division of Electric Power and Energy Systems. The lecture hall was full of PhDs, MScs and civil engineers from KTH (and Chalmers), many of whom had come to Sweden as international students. Clearly a study programme at KTH is an incredibly effective way of recruiting talented engineers, something that was also confirmed at the IVA meeting by the CEO of a medium sized clinical engineering company.
However, to attract the best students, KTH has to have a high ranking, which is also important for attracting the best researchers that are also attracted by close cooperation with Swedish industry that will go on to employ our students. A highly efficient cycle that attracts talents to Sweden and creates the right conditions for both established and start-up companies. It’s no harder than that. But where do we see this kind of thinking within Swedish education policy?
We have been working on gender equality, diversity and equal conditions and opportunities issues for some time. What does this mean?
This is something many people outside KTH ask. Within KTH, we have given these issues the abbreviation JML from the Swedish words for them. I will come back to this abbreviation but would first like to start by looking at several other important concepts to increase understanding of the area. I am pretty often presented in public contexts and media as an equality researcher. Which makes me want to immediately stand up and correct this. The words have meanings and sometimes it is important to clarify differences.
The concepts that can be found in steering documents of various kinds at KTH are primarily gender and equality. For instance, papers have been written that knowledge and awareness about both these concepts should be integrated into education to enable students to contribute to a more equal society. Research in the area on the significance of gender can best go under the heading of gender research. As in research in general, gender research embraces a research field with theories, discussions of methods and scientific perspectives. It includes critical looks, peer reviews and dialogues. As a concept, equality is not an academic preserve, it comes from politics with strong roots in practice. Equality is a political goal and a vision.
Back to JML. It stands for gender equality, diversity and equal conditions in Swedish. At some point in the past, this abbreviation was created and spread internally, probably because it seemed practical and relevant as a heading for wide-ranging change work.
A funny thing happened to me recently on an internal leadership course, where I was invited to talk about the work we are doing on equality, diversity and equal conditions. A woman came up to me after the presentation and explained with a laugh that she knew how the abbreviation JML originally came about. She was namely the person who had proposed the name for a group at one of the KTH schools a few years earlier. Instead of calling themselves an equality group, they used JML group for short. The name stuck, spread and lived on. If anyone else would like to lay claim to it, please get in touch.
Every four years it is time to have our say on government research policy
. This can pay off. One example of change that came after the last time KTH provided input in 2015 was that the law was changed such that the time for acquisition of qualifications posts was extended from four to six years.
This time, we chose not to address many specific research initiatives, as in our experience, we have found that a long wish list does not get you very far. The government receives input from over 150 organisations to take into consideration.
So we focused on a number of strategic issues instead. Such as converting Strategic Research Areas (SRA) into permanent basic funding. The SRA structure, that was launched in 2010, has naturally created incentives for us universities to develop strong research fields within these areas where interdisciplinary partnerships are required to achieve excellence. Establishing such partnerships has enabled several multidisciplinary and internationally successful research fields to emerge.
This is shown by our rankings and we have been able to recruit top international researchers, connect them to a context and able to perform research within areas that the researchers themselves define. Making these SRA initiatives permanent contracts within the parameters of basic funding, would offer long-term stability where the universities are responsible for remaining at the forefront of knowledge within the areas identified.
One question that we raised in our input was what would happen if a research area falls between different research funding body priorities, such as fusion research. Around half the research into fusion in Sweden today is done at KTH, while Uppsala University and Chalmers are doing about a quarter each.
Via the EU, Sweden invests substantial sums in the development of fusion energy, where the two main commitments are the construction of the experimental ITER reactor in France and coordination of European EUROfusion, a consortium of national fusion research institutes in the EU, Switzerland and Ukraine. This is a joint co-fund project that also includes JET, the central research facility of the European Fusion Programme, based in England. The next EU framework programme Horizon Europe, has an increased focus on innovation and here there is a need to strengthen cooperation between Swedish and European industry.
The Swedish Research Council has signalled that it does not wish to continue to have responsibility for fusion research grants related to ITER and EUROfusion, however no other authority has taken over this responsibility. Nor is it clear where the responsibility for innovation within the fusion area resides. If we are to be able to attract researchers to this area such that we could leverage the opportunities of Swedish national undertakings in fusion research in the long term, I think a clear financing model is required together with some kind of national coordination between academia, industry and different authorities.
Something else that has happened on the KTH research front is that the expansion previously announced by the government with regard to research into technologies for digitalisation was included in this year’s budget bill.
What do we mean by the relationship between education and research? Is there more to this than incorporating current research into courses and offering students the opportunity to participate in research projects? Absolutely – much, much more.
The close relationship between teaching and research is at the very core of a university. One fundamental principle stated in Magna Charta Universitatum, that was signed in 1988 by 388 presidents, is that teaching and research at universities must not be separated if teaching is to be able to correspond to changed needs, social demands and scientific progress. The Higher Education Act (1992:1434) (HL) states in 1 Chap, 3§ that activities are to be pursued such that there is a close relationship between research and education.
To achieve KTH’s Vision 2027, the applicable development plan states that teachers should both teach and research. In a broad sense, everyone at KTH is actually engaged in teaching and/or research. For example, operations support is an integral part of these activities. Similarly, in a broad sense, cooperation, innovation and anything else we choose to focus on are also part of KTH’s education and research activities. As such, one could say, somewhat pointedly, that KTH only has one, tightly interwoven enterprise; research and education, two sides of the same coin.
Education and research are connected in many ways in addition to teachers being active in both contexts. In addition to the obvious way of incorporating new research findings into teaching and that a course is scientifically grounded and based on proven experience (according to HEA), students can participate in research projects. The latter already takes place to a large extent as the majority of KTH research is done within third cycle education and participation also occurs to a certain extent in second and first cycle education.
The research relationship can accordingly arise at both subject and process level; it is not only what but also how research is done that is related. One interesting observation in this context is how we and our students learn, in that we ourselves create and construct knowledge in the interaction with the world outside rather than as passive recipients of the same. This learning process varies from individual to individual and with the nature of the subject, which means that there is no preordained set and self-evident teaching process and this therefore becomes a process that must be continuously developed in courses and can be seen as a research process in its own right. I am firmly convinced that a teacher’s experience within research is an advantage here; of daring to experiment and actually not succeeding. There’s no success without failures.
The relationship also works in the other direction: the education connection to research extends from presentation technique – both written and oral; professional, systematic listening; adapting to the recipient in communication and inspiration from students and also from courses to the generating of new ideas for research and the conscious application of learning processes in research. Our teaching and research activities are truly interwoven.
Tip of the week: Attend the public discussion of a doctoral thesis where respondent Marie Magnell of the Department of Learning at ITM/KTH addresses both research and professional connections within the engineer curriculum and how this can be done in parallel: Engaged in a seamless blend: A study on how academic staff approach connections to professional practice and research in the engineering curriculum