This year's GPP topic - universities and society: meeting expectations - cannot be discussed without clarifying some terms in advance. Thereby, a particular focus should be given to the word 'society'. For the purpose of this blog post, the term 'society' is equivalent to a country's population. Every society in the aforementioned sense consists of several subcategories. One of these subcategories contains all people who pay taxes.

Both in Switzerland and in the U.S., only few taxpayers have a university degree. Hence, merely a small group is familiar with the 'operating mode' of the higher education sector. The majority of taxpayers knows that a university employs people who teach and do research. Yet, the exact meaning of these activities is beyond their knowledge.

All universities have the responsibility to inform the interested public about the use of taxpayers money.  On the one hand, this can be done through public events. On the other hand, social media (facebook, twitter, blogs etc.) play an increasingly important role. At present, the public can be reached most easily via a conventional web page. However, web pages only have an effect if their design is appealing.

After a quick research I realized that the web presence of many U.S. universities is very convincing. In particular, one learns about outstanding performances of professors and students quickly. In this area, Swiss universities have some backlog demand.

Professor for one year (week 6): Maybe the "e" in e-learning in fact stands for "evil"?

These days, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are discussed widely.  They are a success story and they are criticized.  The aspect of "massive" leads to audiences of several thousand students, the aspect of "open" suggests that no tuition has to be paid for attending these courses.  The rest, i.e., "online courses", is a rather old concept.

The development of online courses was one of the key factors of "E-Learning".  Roughly ten years ago, a lot of tax payers' money went into such projects.  Online courses were developed to suit the needs of growing student numbers and to make use of the Internet for teaching ("learn anything, anywhere, anytime").  Students could attend these courses as a replacement for traditional face-to-face lectures.  For example MiLCA was supposed to facilitate learning computational linguistics.  It was developed at the University of Tübingen and some students from the University of Zurich successfully completed the course as part of their studies in Zurich.  However, this was pre-Bologna, i.e., for most of the courses during your studies, there were no formal exams.

Some of these courses are still in use and some universities extend these courses into MOOCs, like the University of Marburg.  They aim to make these courses count towards a BA or MA degree, which means you can earn credit points.

And here the problems start:  To earn credits towards your degree, the attended course has to fit the concept of your study program.  As I wrote last week, the concept of what a module is, differs from university to university.  There might be certain requirements for successfully completing a module like compulsory attendance or an oral exam.  How does that fit into the concept of an online course?  Can a certificate stating completing the online course on phonetics from University of Marburg be used as a replacement for the phonetics course at the University of Konstanz?  Which of the two universities is responsible for quality management?  Who can define how many credit a student can earn?

A colleague even told me that some universities already face a rather odd situation: Students collect online course certificates fitting the overall curriculum of a specific study program and thus avoid attending these courses at their home institution -- i.e., they avoid rather challenging exams, but they want to be awarded the more prestigious degree of that institution.

So if a university starts to accept certificates from online courses offered by other institutions, they open Pandora's box.

Society – expectations of the society and the autonomy of higher education insitutions

The expectations of the society towards universities are mainly based on society’s self-perception as the source of funding for universities through paying taxes. All the money that is paid by the society via taxes should be invested in a way that in return the society profits, and this is related to different areas of daily living like transportational infrastructure, national security, health care system and, besides, also the university. The expectations towards university can be summarized in two points: creation of knowledge and economic revenue. This is why the university must not only rely on their principle of autonomy, but also give something back. University is a part of our society and doesn’t exist apart or beyond.

Prof Purcell of the University of Plymouth, UK, summarizes the balance between “the needs and expectations of society with the autonomy of higher education institutions” at a OECD meeting, Sept. 2008, as follows:
• Higher Education Institutions need to be transparent and accountable, particularly in the areas of academic quality and income, building sustainable partnerships both in the UK and overseas.
• Organisations need to regularly assess risk and diversify their funding streams to ensure financial security, running the institution in a professional and business-like approach.
• Universities need to work with stakeholders to gain market intelligence and have robust governance structures and procedures.
• We can neither afford to be ‘an ivory tower’ nor do we want to be one!


University rankings are very popular and highly controversial at the same time. Issued by various institutions worldwide, rankings are not only of prime importance for prospective students, governments and the private sector but also for universities themeselves. This is shown by the fact that educational institutions increasingly aim for a high standing in rankings, which is also stated in a multitude of institutional mission statements.

Yet, all that glitters is not gold. Critics of university rankings particularly call attention to the subsequent two points: (1) By means of which criteria should the performance of universities be evaluated? (2) How should universities, whose main research is in totally different areas, be compared? In 2010, the League of European Research Universities published a paper with the title "University Rankings: Diversity, Excellence and the European Initiative", which can be accessed at The author of the paper, Professor Geoffrey Boulton (Edinburgh University), writes on two programs funded by the European Commission to tackle the problems mentioned above.

While the "U-Map project" tries to describe universities on the basis of six dimensions (teaching and learning profile; student profile; research activity; knowledge exchange; international orientation; regional engagement), the "U-Multirank project" aims at creating global rankings for the range of these dimensions.

I am of the opinion that the European Commission's efforts are justified. Sometimes, the hype about university rankings reminds me at the evaluation of corporation's and state's credit worthiness by rating agencies. The past has shown that such evaluations are not always the real deal. 

In Switzerland, rankings still do not play a major role in public debate. Precisely for this reason, the discussion in the United States on this issue is of great interest to me. What role do rankings play when chosing a university? What proposals are discussed to improve the significance of rankings? Or do these problems even not raise any discussions in the U.S.? 

Professor for one year (week 5): A module is a module is a module

At the end of the last century, the Bologna process was started.  Studying today is very different from studying some decades ago.  New terms and rules were introduced, names of academic degrees were changed, students should be encouraged to spend some time at other universities, etc.  When you finish your studies, you will receive a Bachelor's degree after three years.  You can then extend your studies by graduating in order to get a Master's degree.  And after this you can do a PhD.  “Bachelor” and “Master” have replaced the German or Swiss “Vordiplom” or “Zwischenprüfung” and the “Lizentiat,” “Diplom,” and “Magister.”

The Bachelor's degree was also intended to allow students to leave university after only a few years, but with a degree instead of as drop-out students.  However, nobody knew whether these new degrees would be accepted by employers.  Switzerland therefore decided to have the Master's degree as the regular graduation degree – the Bachelor's degree is only meant as an intermediary degree, but can be useful if students decide to leave university for some years to get practical experience.

One consequence is that there are only loose requirements concerning the Bachelor's degree if you apply for a Master's program in Switzerland – you merely need a “relevant” Master's degree.  In some universities you can even start attending Master's courses and earn credit points towards your Master's degree before finishing your Bachelor's studies.  I always have students fill out a short survey in the very first lecture; among other things, I ask what they study and in which semester they are.  In Basel, some students stated that they are in a Master's program in the 12th semester – which translates to “I have been studying for 12 semesters and I am now doing a Master's program.”  It's not the 12th semester of this Master's program.  Students see the Bachelor as an intermediary degree.  Often you even don't have to write a Bachelor's thesis.  Which is really strange for studies in the humanities and arts:  You leave university with a degree but you never worked on a longer project or wrote a thesis (i.e., a paper exceeding 20 pages).

In contrast, in Germany the Bachelor's degree is a recognized graduation degree.  For entering a Master's program, you need a "good" Bachelor's degree (grade 2.5 or better on a scale from 5 to 1 with 1 being the highest grade), even if this is not a program with restricted admission (numerus clausus).  So, only the best students are allowed to pursue their studies.  As one consequence, the drop-out rate in German Master's programs is very low.

So, from the administrative perspective, a Bachelor's degree in Germany and in Switzerland means something different.

Another new concept is the “module.”  You have to earn a certain amount of credit points in each of the modules that make up your program.  The modules appear on your transcript of records.  Modularization is intended to make it easier to study some time at another university and to get credit for those courses at your home university.  Of course this would mean that modules in Computer Science or Spanish Literature or Theoretical Physics at different universities are comparable or even equivalent in terms of content, achievable competencies, and time and effort.

So far I have taught at the University of Zurich, the University of Basel (both are Swiss Universities), the University of Konstanz (Germany), and I was E-Learning consultant at the School of Social Work at the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland.

At the University of Zurich, a lecture or seminar is equivalent to a module.  Modules are defined in study regulations that have to be approved by the Faculty.  Which means: it is not that easy to change the title, the credit points, or the scope of a module.  If there was a certain course before Bologna, e.g., “Introduction to Programming for Computational Linguists,” this course still exists and is now a module.  Module names and lecture names are identical.  Some introductury lectures used to span several semesters like “Introduction to Computational Linguistics I” and “Introduction to Computational Linguistics II.”  This resulted in the creation of two modules with these names, each containing exact one lecture (and a lab course) of exactly the same name –  wouldn't it made have sense to create one module “Introduction to Computational Linguistics” containing two lectures to be attend in two consecutive semesters?  Well, apparently they didn't think so in Zurich.

As a consequence, a module is worth 3 to 6 credit points, and you have to do a lot of modules to obtain a degree.  From the institutional point of view, this makes it difficult to have courses offered by adjunct lecturers or courses on special topics.  How to create a module with a rather vague name or with a title allowing for change?  It's also difficult if you would like to allow students to earn credits from small projects as part of research projects, from contributing to publications, or from presenting their projects at workshops or conferences.  This shouldn't be mandatory for all students.

At the School of Social Work at the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland, they created a study program from scratch:  Modules are intended to enable students to acquire a set of competences.  A module may cover several semesters, some modules even run through your entire Bachelor's program.  During a semester, students attend certain courses.  However, the concept of a course has been redefined:  There is no longer one lecturer teaching a whole course over 15 weeks.  The lecturer responsible for a module defines learning objectives and an overall theme for a certain course.  Then he invites colleagues to contribute to this course by teaching one or two sessions within this course.  As a student, you are faced with another lecturer each week; as a lecturer, you teach on your area of expertise in various courses.  This concept involves a lot of organisational effort, but I consider it to be a good implementation of the general idea of modules.

At the University of Konstanz, the concept of modules in the Linguistic Department seems to follow the categorization of introductory, intermediate, and advanced courses which would have been named “Proseminar,” “Seminar,” and “Hauptseminar” in the old system.  For some modules all courses are mandatory, for most of the modules you have to earn a certain number of credits but you can choose from a range of courses.  You only have to pass a small number of modules during your studies.  In my surveys, some students thus stated that they are attending my class “to get the last credits needed to pass module 3.”  In the advanced modules there is always a course named “Current Topics in X” allowing to allocate invited, one-of courses by experts – for example, I teach “Methods and Applications in Automatic Authoring Support” this semester as an instance of “Current Topics in Speech and Language Processing.”  This implementation of Bologna is a little more conservative, but also makes sense.  It counters the criticism that university studies are overly regulated, as it allows students to decide on their own which courses they want to take in order to gain the required credits.

Of course, universities should be free to interpret “Bologna.”  However, some interpretations make more sense than others.  Clearly, having different interpretations of “Bologna” also reduces the interoperability of courses and the mobility of students.

MOOC: A first-hand experience

In recent years, massive open online courses (MOOC) have gained a lot of attention. I can understand why. Because they are “open,” anyone can sign up and take a free class. Classes in my discipline (Computer Science) are also commonly available for people interested in an introduction to programming (and a few other courses).

To be frank, a little part of me was worried or threatened by MOOCs. As PhD candidate aspiring to be a tenure-track professor, I look forward to finding a college or university that values teaching to call my home. I love interacting with students in and out of class. But then MOOCs appeared. I was excited, but scared. Were online courses going to replace traditional classrooms? Was my in-person and highly-interactive teaching style and experience becoming obsolete?

I decided to find out for myself. I signed up for a MOOC: Introduction to Music Production on Coursera. I’m a hobbyist musician and recording engineer with some formal training, but no real professional experience. This MOOC was offered by a talented professor at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, Loudon Stearns. Like many who sign up for MOOCs, I was excited to learn something new from an expert! Through the 6-week course, I also made note of how the MOOC was organized, implemented, and how it impacted my learning. This course would be an opportunity to learn more about a topic that interested me, but also gave me an opportunity to conduct sort of an ethnographic study of students in a MOOC.

Each week’s topic was split into (usually 5-10) smaller lessons and each lesson was delivered via pre-recorded video. Each lesson’s video lasted about 2-10 minutes — quite a change of pace from traditional 60+ minute college lectures. I loved it! Honestly, it might have been the most effective aspect of learning in a MOOC. Short videos were succinct, to the point, and easily kept my attention. Although the videos included a fair amount of just watching the teacher speak, they also took advantage of computer screen streaming to illustrate software and concepts we were learning. It is also worth noting that — unlike some distance-learning online courses I had taken in the past — the audio quality was great so there were not problems understanding the professor.

As a teacher, I was also interested in how a MOOC with hundreds (or thousands) of online students would be managed and assessed. Each week had at least a couple short, multiple-choice quizzes. Quizzes were automatically graded and you could re-take them as many times as you liked until you were satisfied with your score. I don’t think the quizzes added much value to the course because even if you don’t know the answers, you can just repeat a quiz and guarantee yourself a good score.

The other major form of evaluation were weekly assignments. For each assignment, we had a week to:

  1. Choose a specific area related to the lessons that week
  2. Prepare a 5 minute lesson of our own
  3. Create a youtube video (5 minutes or less) or PDF (equivalent to about 2 pages written)
  4. Peer-review 5 other students’ lessons, and then self-review our own.

While I recognize value in peer-evaluation and self-reflection, it because obvious within a few weeks that students did not spend much effort or critical thought to peer-evaluation. It became more or less expected to get a perfect or near-perfect score as long as you demonstrate at least a little effort. These weekly assignments are only evaluated by peers, not by course staff.Therefore, there really was no accountability for doing quality evaluation. Consequently, I saw the quality of lessons and quality of evaluations drop from week to week. Admittedly, I followed the trend as well. It was the path of least resistance  do the minimal amount of work necessary to get a good grade.

There was also a final exam that was just an accumulation of several multiple-choice quiz questions. We’d seen the questions before. It was easy to ace even without deliberate studying.

That in many ways was the biggest weakness of the MOOC: the evaluation was set up for students to pass as long as they put in some minimal effort. I imagine some very motivated students made a lot out of the class. I know there was some collaboration and discussions in message boards, but not any more so than any usual class message board (by my observations).

I passed the class and gained a new perspective on MOOCs. They certainly aren’t the future of learning and are no where near replacing in-class experiences. However, with that said, they are useful resources for students who are motivated and self-driven enough to absorb the material and make the most out of what is available. In that perspective, a MOOC is a big step up from having to read books or online resources to try to teach yourself a new skill.

By really enjoying the format of short lessons, I am going to keep in mind how I pace my classroom lectures. There is a useful pedagogical tool in delivering concise material, followed by exercises or hands-on activities. Although I already had that model in mind when I’ve taught classes in the past, I’m sure my delivery wasn’t as succinct.

Lastly, online resources offer a lot of potential for innovating learning. I don’t consider MOOCs “the answer,” but they do provide insights into how to increase accessibility and enrollment. However, it remains to be seen if we can also tackle the problem of managing and giving real substantial evaluation and feedback to all students in such massive, open, online courses.



US academic researchers in Switzerland – for the money?

A friend shared this thought provoking PhD comic with me.

While I thought the comic did a great job of addressing a very depressing issue for academic scientists in the US (that of rapidly dwindling funding), what caught my eye was the brief interview with Shann Yu at EPFL (in Lausanne, CH).  I listened to the podcast of the interview (here).  He finished his PhD at Vanderbilt last October and was convinced by reports of further funding cuts to pursue a post-doc outside of the US.

I’m curious what Swiss academics think about the real possibility they will be inundated with US-trained scientists looking for post-docs and/or faculty positions as the funding environment continues to get worse in the US?  Is this already happening?


Probably all students try to solve assignments with as little effort as possible -- they collaborate, they look for avialable solutions in the Web, they ask others for help.  If it comes to larger tasks like writing a semester paper, a thesis, or a dissertation, some students sometimes even copy text from other publications without giving credits to these authors.  This is called plagiarism. 

In Germany, there had been some major issues discussed in public over the last couple of years:  The former minister of defense had to resign, because his doctoral dissertation was found to be full of texts not written by him.  The former minister responsible for education at schools and universities had to resign, because she forgot to correctly mention the sources she used.  And there had been other cases as well, all following the same pattern: someone reads a dissertation or thesis of a politician, raises some questions, the politician denies, the public starts looking for evidence, and in the end the politician has to resign and loses the academic degree or title associated with this thesis.

Now, one of the candidates for the election to the city government of Zurich is accused to have plagiarized in a Master's thesis.

Two things are really anoying with these issues. 

First: When submitting a seminar paper, a thesis, or a dissertation, you have to sign a statement saying that you followed good academic practice (OK, you might not be fully aware of what that means in every detail) and that you did all of the work on your own.  The first part refers to "I did not copy-paste text from other authors without stating the sources, i.e., I did cite everything following the citation rules of my research area."  And the second part refers to "I did not involve ghost writers and if someone helped me with some minor parts of the work (e.g., transcription or annotation of large amounts of empirical data or plotting fancy diagrams), I gave credit to those persons."  So, someone proven guilty for not giving credit where credit is due committed perjury.  This might be a legal issue and could be fined.

Second: No person accused for plagiarism and later proven guilty did show some backbone and stick to what he/she did and say something like "The accusation is probably right, I didn't know then, but I know now that I did something wrong.  I appologize."  They all try to make excuses and argue that it's not of interest to the public, and so on.  It might be true that the paper in question is not of interest to the public, but the fact that someone made a false statement and when proven guilty tries to deny, supports the general perception of "All politicians lie." and "You can trust nobody."

The person accused to have plagiarized her Master's thesis at the ETH, argues that "I did not plagiarize, but maybe not every word in this paper has been written by me."  Does that mean someone else wrote part of her thesis?  In my opinion, this would violate the statement of academic integrity she most probably signed.

But the most annoying argument is: "Anyway, it's not a big deal, it was only a postgraduate (German: 'Nachdiplom') master."  There is no factor of importance when it comes to plagiarism!  You simply are not allowed to use other people's work without permission and without giving credit.  Statements like this one support the misconception that sometimes plagiarism is acceptable.

Should Switzerland be more like the US?

In a Swiss newspaper article (NZZ), one of the prorectors of the University of Zurich (Ottfried Jarren) argues that Swiss universities should have more assistant professors.  These assistant professors should be with tenure track to be more attractive.  In particular, these jobs should attract Swiss researchers.  Ottfried Jarren is asked about Swiss and German professors and he answers that at universities, most of the research positions below professors are part-time jobs (50%), making such a job not very attractive to Swiss junior researchers, but very attractive for foreigeners and for German junior researchers in particular.

He is also asked how to fund these new assistant professors.  And then he answers that universities should be perhaps more like in the US, where five or six professors would "share" one secretary.  So his proposal is -- taken to an extreme -- let's fire secretaries and hire junior professors instead.

It's a bit odd reading statements from a German professor on how to help "our Swiss junior researchers".  But he got Swiss citizenship some years ago (it's stated at the very bottom of the article), so he can make such claims.  However, I know he comes from Germany and also his name is not very Swiss, so for me he still is "a German".

Of course, I would like to pursue my academic career, and yes, I would like to be a professor at a Swiss university.  So if available, I would like to apply for such a job as assistant professor.  However, I'm not quite sure if I'm the intended audience: I'm German, I studied in Germany, but I got academic training in Switzerland, startet my academic career in Switzerland, and got a PhD from the University of Zurich.  On the one hand I am the bad foreigner, on the other hand I am an alumna of the biggest Swiss university and I would expect some support from my Alma Mater.