söndag 18 september 2016

Blockhead Hans/Dummerjöns (paper)

Me and my colleagues Björn Hedin and Olle Bälter submitted an abstract to the 9th [Swedish] Pedagogical Inspiration Conference a week ago. I recently attended the 8th International Conference on Engineering Education for Sustainable Development (EESD 2016) and I think of these two conference in similar terms; not the place to submit a paper in order to get a bona fide heavy-hitting academic reference, but, a great place to go to meet and talk to people who have the same concerns that you do and to get inspiration for your everyday life as a university teacher (or director of studies etc.). I do however have to admit that I have never attended any of these smaller Swedish conferences but my colleague Björn has attended several. He and I did in fact submit a paper, "I'm gonna study now! I just have to color-code my books first" (about students' procrastination/studying habits) to the 4th developmental conference for Swedish engineering educations three years ago. I suspect Björn will go also to this conference (in Lund in southern Sweden on December 15) and that I might (again) pass. Or perhaps I should go this time around?

Perhaps I should have written "I suspect Björn will go also to this conference (should our abstract be accepted)..." but I honestly believe the chances this abstract will not be accepted is slim-bordering-on-zero. I'm just stating the facts as I see them when I say that anyone who has taught at a university will want to have a look at this paper. No hubris and no hype here, no-siree! The turnaround is quick, we will find out if our abstract is accepted on October 3 at the latest and the deadline for submitting the full text (≈ 1300 words) is on November 6. Submissions will be evaluated according to the following three criteria:

- Potential for being of interest for teachers in technical educations.
- Potential for creating serious discussions about teaching and learning.
- Anchored in a pedagogical reasoning. 

I do have one additional comment that is important. We use a fairy tale, H.C. Andersen's "Blockhead Hans" (Wikipedia, Blockhead Hans in English) as an allegory for (the actions of a specific) student of ours quite a few years ago. The fit between the fairy tale and the actual case is "fair", but it might not be fair to use that particular epthet for the student in question. Both the abstract and the text itself will be written in Swedish and the Swedish name for the fairy tale of Blockhead Hans is "Dummerjöns" which has considerably more negative connotations ("simpleton", "juggins"). Having just handed in the abstract, we have already decided to rewrite it and use another fairy tale to frame our paper should it be accepted.

The tale of Blockhead Hans - an academic tragedy

Björn Hedin, Olle Bälter & Daniel Pargman, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, School of Computer Science and Communication, Dept. of Media Technology and Interaction Design.

In the Swedish educational system there are - usually for good reasons - many rules and guidelines. Matters should treated in fair and legally certain ways and everybody should be treated equally. The system should be flexible and it should be possible got students to get credits for having taken similar/equivalent courses elsewhere so as to not make it unnecessarily difficult for students to graduate. Operations should be run efficiently and taxes should be used to the best effect. Not least, all degree objectives should be met and a high quality of education should be guaranteed. Situations do however occurs when these rules and guidelines come into conflict with each other and if the organisational benevolence is consciously being taken advantage of, it could lead to consequences that will seem unreasonable.

In this article we want to illustrate these conflicts by using a concrete example from real life, a student that we have here chosen to call Blockhead Hans after H. C. Andersen's classic tale of Klods-Hans ("Dummerjöns" in Swedish). Blockhead Hans did, after having studied for a number of years, receive a degree from our university with the smallest possible margin. All rules about crediting and the like had been followed to the letter, but the department heads, education directors, program directors, examiners and teachers doubted that this particular student had assimilated the contents of the educational programme and could to an even lower degree guarantee that the student had achieved the learning objectives that had established for the educational programme.

In this text we present a number of strategies that unscrupulous students have used, but that had been raised to an art form by Blockhead Hans; accrediting chains, plagiarism, referring to fictitious emergency circumstances so as to request exceptional treatment, to produce a catalog of lies from minor meaning creep (c.f. "mission creep") to freely fabricated judgements [supposedly by other teachers], deliberately ignoring rules, systematically and strategically asking several different authority persons the same question in parallell in the hope of getting the desired response from one of them, and, to generate tsunami waves of e-mails (in this case over 1500 pieces) to exhaust decision makers.

We use this example to illustrate how our framework of rules can be exploited, and we question whether it is at all possible to fail or prevent a student who is unscrupulous enough from graduating in the Swedish higher education system. By extension we want to stimulate discussions about how we should balance regulatory frameworks on a spectrum of smoothly and flexibly meeting the needs of conscientious students while preventing unscrupulous students to cheat their way through an education.

This paper (or rather the actual case we report on) is directly related to a blog post I wrote five and a half years ago, "Can a student fail at a Swedish university?"

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