Feedback on Proposal for Introduction of Semesters


We were recently  asked for feedback on the proposal to convert IT Carlow to a semesterised system. Currently we are not semesterised giving us more freedom in how we structure courses and allows us more teaching contact time with students. Below is the feedback I submitted to the registrars office.

My concerns regarding semesterisation are laid out below. The decision to change to semesterisation would have many far reaching consequences for IT Carlow and so this consultation needs to be wide ranging and in depth. My overriding concern is that we are not devoting enough time or thought to making the best decision.

The Nature of the Consultation

Is it the case that Semesterisation is going ahead (as it appears)? If so then where is the consultation? Consultation would require that we have some input on the final decision. It is unclear whether this consultation is only on the type of semesterisation that will occur or on the principle of semesterisation itself. Given the enormity of the decision I can only assume that the consultation is on whether semesterisation is a good idea of not.

Evidence Based Learning

The college follows an Evidence Based Learning philosophy. But we have not, as yet, been shown any evidence that Semesterisation is better for students than our current system. In order for us to make a decision we must be presented with proper evidence (peer reviewed papers or equivalent) that backs the case for semesterisation. This evidence must be provided and staff must be given time to review and assess this evidence. Otherwise we cannot in good conscience simply agree to a complete change in our approach.

Are we simply Submitting to the wishes of WIT?

It has been suggested that we are semesterising in order that we be in line with the current system in WIT. There are two issues here: First if that is the case then we have no flexibility in how we implement semesterisation – we must match that of WIT. This would make the “consultation” irrelevant.

Secondly, who made the decision that we must comply with WIT? If we are to merge as equal partners then the correct approach would be for both ITC and WIT to reach a joint agreement – possibly they could change to be in line with us or some compromise system be agreed. To simply make ITC change completely to match WIT makes ITC the junior partner in the upcoming merger with WIT fully in control of the resulting Technical University.

In any case some clarification on this point is required.

Adverse Effects on Course Content

There are two separate but related issues with semesterisation. First it will result in fewer (and possibly lesser) lectures and practicals. Second it will mean less time for students to become familiar with the content of each module as they will sit final exams in each module much sooner.

Reduced Course Content

The time allocated to teaching throughout the year will be reduced by semesterisation. All modules will have to have content reduced by 15% or more (without even taking into acount the earlier Final Exams). This will have a serious effect on the knowledge and skill base that our graduates will have. Over time this will affect the standing of degrees from ITC. It is not the case that we can simply remove 15% from each module and still have a coherent degree afterwards.

Reduced Module Delivery Time

Semesters would reduce the amount of time over which a module could be taught. Currently modules are taught over one thirty-week period which allows the students time to absorb the material and practice their newly acquired skills. Our courses are practical and skills based in nature so students need time to practice and learn the skills that are taught in class. Reducing the overall time span between module start and final exam by over a half (~26 weeks to ~10 weeks) means that they will not be able to properly master the practical elements of their modules in that time period.

Final Exams under Semesterisation

Student Welfare

Students on a semesterised course are always, at most, 12 weeks away from sitting final exams. This will introduce much more stress into student life. As the number of students reporting stress and anxiety is already increasing this will have a detrimental effect on their attitude to studying at ITC and may result in serious consequences for some students. Where is the space students need to socialize and become more rounded individuals?

Doubling of Exam Hurdles

Currently students in computing will have about six modules to pass during each year. To enable semesterisation each module will need to be divided into two (one for each semester). Therefore the number of final exams in each year will jump from around six to around twelve. We will be increasing, by a substantial amount, the number of hurdles each student will have to overcome. To fail a year students will only have to fail one out of twelve modules (as opposed to one out of six currently). This will affect our course completion rates and again have an adverse effect on student welfare.

Even if we keep the number of modules the same then each module will have to be covered in under half the time!

Diminishing the Role of Lecturers

Finally, under a semesterised system final exams are handed in before the start of each module. Currently we do not hand in papers until after Christmas. This gives us flexibility in setting our exams basing them not just on the module content but also on how each class is responding to the material. This is an part of the lecturers skill-set, the ability to change how they teach to match each individual classroom situation.

If the exams are handed in before teaching starts then we have no opportunity to see how the class responds to the material. In a fast changing area such as computing we cannot change what we teach as new breakthroughs are made. For example, the launch of AlphaGo by Google (a breakthrough in AI) could not be incorporated into a semesterised course even though it was one of the most stunning breakthroughs in AI in a decade. By delaying exam submission until February we could easily incorporate this new research into an unsemesterised module. The delay in preparing exams allows us to be more responsive to our classes and the way in which the material evolves over time.

By forcing lecturers to hand in their exams before teaching starts we are seriously diminishing the role of the lecturers. At present we are allowed and expected to use our judgement to decide how to present material to each individual class (subject to the module syllabus of course). By removing freedom this lecturers will only ever teach “to the exam paper” and not to the class. I feel this shows a lack of understanding of the role of lecturers.