Jock's Backroom Blog

Views from the Backroom, and the Classroom, at Oxford Brookes University

Reflections of a Freshman, Part 4: Consistency and Convenience Please!

Posted by Jock Coats on January 3rd, 2012

Okay, so now onto some more detailed issues with the course and the organisation I’d like to highlight.

Whilst I am quite sure that neither universities nor the government wants us to think in these terms, I cannot seem to shake the idea that for those students who from next year will be paying the best part of £9,000 a year for their course, that equates, roughly, to a hundred quid per module per week (9k ÷ 8 modules ÷ 11 weeks [we didn’t have real lessons in any of my modules in week 12 this past semester]).  Or, since I have had two contact hours per week on each module so far, half a ton per hour.  Of course, fees cover a whole load more than just contact hours, but these are the core slices of your course, so you can reasonably roll all the other costs into these simple deliverable units of contact time.  So some of my modules with a couple of hundred students on them will be “raking in” £200k a semester.

For that price, no doubt, people will want (and be entitled to expect) things “just so”: well organised, consistent such that the same things are done the same way in each module, such as coursework hand-ins and returns, the use of the Virtual Learning Environment and so on.  And at the moment this is one of my biggest frustrations.  Some of these, of course, will fall to my day job in IT to help resolve anyway, but others involve the way colleagues work rather than the technology, and I think they need to try and harmonise all their administrative procedures where possible.

Firstly, as much administravia as possible should be done electronically.  If we can submit work through Turnitin why should we also spend money printing work out and hand delivering it to different pigeon holes, sometimes with cover sheets, sometimes with our names on, sometimes not.  There are plenty of tools now available to enable markers to annotate a PDF format document for example, then to submit their marking for moderation online and then to return the work with its mark and comments back electronically.  In fact, three of four modules used Turnitin, but even here it was inconsistent, with two of them making me log in to submit.ac.uk itself and another able to submit via our own VLE.  As a result it seems I can no longer access this latter piece of work via the Turnitin account portfolio I created for the other two.

Since half my modules are in Wheatley and half at Gipsy Lane a round trip of two hours to drop off course work or queue to get it back, often from offices that have specific opening hours, is just a waste of time, lovely though Wheatley Campus is!  All-electronic submission would obviate this and all-electronic marking would get us our results quicker and open up new ways of getting extra feedback as per the “assessment compact” – such as “click here to email the marker with more questions instead of having to find the time to make it to very restricted “office hours”.  Even when it is at Gipsy Lane it can be difficult.  On one module coursework was returned via a faculty resource room which is only open three hours each day – alternating between mornings and early afternoons – so for me, because their opening times were times I was in Wheatley on other modules or at work, it took a week to be able to fetch my marked coursework.  The first time I was able to make it to the resource centre during opening hours I found faculty management had decided to use the room for a meeting and didn’t want us in there collecting coursework!  It’s only open three hours a day, for us students: use another room or another time for meetings please!

Consistency of particularly electronic resources.  All our module handbooks were on the VLE this past semester, which I gather is good – some modules hardly use the VLE at all apparently.  So first, I’m not sure that I would want paper copies – I’ve not used them – and at the start of this semester there was an issue with printing some so we didn’t get them all until the second week.  We should be able to access these from before the start of each module if possible.  They contain reading lists and a preview of each week’s material to be covered.  There’s effectively a six week break between semester one and two – I’d like to use that for preparing for next semester (let alone telling people who might buy me books for Christmas what to get me!).  Ideally as soon as my module selections are made I’d want to see at least module handbooks, and preferably before I choose: the short description of a module is hardly enough to whet an appetite for it!

Module handbooks should have a consistent layout as well where possible.  If it has a weekly breakdown of lecture topics and background reading for them, it ought to be in the same place in each module’s handbook.  Same with coursework and assessment information – I often had to thumb back and forward in different handbooks to find the same sort of information in very different places.

But also they need to be available in a consistent format, ideally multiple formats.  Some (particularly notable for this was the microeconomics lecture slides) seemed to try and open in my browser (and destroyed any graphs in them at the same time!) when I wanted a download, others downloaded when I really just wanted to view them quickly in a browser.  We need to agree on a set of formats to be made available to support different devices and use them consistently.  I’m not clear why module handbooks are in an MS Word format – it’s the least portable and waiting for Word or Powerpoint to open to read them can be a pain – PDFs, maybe even MOBIs and EPUBs would be better.

I know, as an anarchist, you’d probably expect me to want to allow individual modules and their staff to do it how they pleased, but this is about my experience as a student, and inconsistencies are the main annoyance I’ve had this semester.

I’d like lectures at least to be audio, if not video, recorded, so that if I happen to miss one (I had flu one week for instance) or if I want to revisit them for revision I can do so easily from the VLE for that module.  I understand that there is much hand-wringing about intellectual property and recording lectures.  Judging by the wide range of materials and universities publishing a lot of their lectures “raw” on iTunesU however, including some of the global top flight universities, I’m sorry, but we ought to be able to do that as well, even if just for internal consumption accessible via our secure VLE accounts.

I know I mentioned seminars in my previous post, but I want to make a specific suggestion for those modules that feel they cannot have seminars every week: every third or fourth week is not enough and you can get little done in fifty minutes.  Maybe in these cases it might be better to have, say, two hours of lectures every week for half a semester (I confess I thought I would be getting two hours’ lecture AND one of seminar *every* week though to be honest!), then have one week where there’s a sort of symposium for three hours or half a day, in which, perhaps, seminar groups relate to each specific coursework essay option, where there’s a short plenary then break out groups that can spend a couple of hours exploring your preferred essay topic, then another plenary with feedback from each group so people who had initially chosen another topic might hear about the others enough to enable them to switch topics.  A similar thing could happen in the last teaching week (indeed I only had one module actually teach *anything at all* in week eleven even: all the rest were revision sessions – useful in themselves but definitely not to be counted as “teaching” in the sense of introducing new material).  I think such a thing might be a better way of recapping the subjects that have been covered in the previous four or five weeks and give a better springboard from which to embark on one’s chosen coursework option.

If this isn’t possible, I think for fifty nickers an hour I’d want to have a seminar every week, with a cap on the number of people in a seminar group of, say, ten.  Yes, timetabling might be more difficult, but since these seminars are currently next to useless, something has to be done to give value for money next year.

Finally for this post, since it involves resources, I personally would like as much as I can get in electronic form.  Text books in ten point font (apart from breaching RNIB guidelines anyway) on shiny paper, often with hard to read coloured sidebars, I have found a real pain.  At night in artificial light I have had to get a magnifying glass out to read the damned things.  Most of the core text books are only sold to universities and are updated frequently – if we cannot use our collective buying power to demand Kindle or other eBook formats there’s something wrong.

I know I’m getting a bit long in the tooth compared with most of my fellow students, and that I work full time as well as doing my course, but resolving the issue of having to traipse around various parts of Oxfordshire to hand in or fetch coursework and getting most books in a format I can read in different sized fonts depending on how I am feeling at the time would be, I am sure, useful to anyone who is studying on top of other commitments and has different reading needs in terms of access to resources in a format they can use without it being painful.  If we value diversity in the student body, these two are a must in my opinion.

I’d still stress though that overall I’ve really enjoyed the first semester.  The subject matter is fine, the teaching likewise.  I just want, even for what I am now paying let alone for what people will be paying next year for things to work the same.  I think that would be a “great leap forward” in student experience.  I’ve heard few complaints really about the course itself, but many grumbles about these apparently little issues.

In the next post I want to cover some of the support facilities associated with our faculties, and finally do a post on how halls of residence fit into the post-9k world.

One Response to “Reflections of a Freshman, Part 4: Consistency and Convenience Please!”

  1. Paul Says:

    I agree with all of this and again, like your last post, this was all going on exactly the same ten years ago when I was an undergrad at Brookes. You do wonder how, ten years on, they still can’t get consistency across their admin procedures.

    As for the erratic course materials across the modules, the university seems to be able to make their exam papers homogenised across subjects (let alone modules) so why not module handbooks?