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 3rd January 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.

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Called in

Posted by Jock Coats on 3rd March 2010

Rumour reaches me that our big planning application for the new library and teaching building has been, as it is termed, “called in” so that the decision will be made once again by all 48 city councillors. So the decision of the Strategic Development Control Committee, whom council elect to make large planning decision on their behalf, is for the second time being challenged and could yet be overturned and the application refused permission.

I have to admit that my own record on this sort of thing is hardly blemish-free – it was I who arranged for the decision in 2000 to allow the Oxford International Centre for Islamic Studies the go ahead to build on Marston Road reopened in full council after even full council had approved it narrowly on the very tenuous grounds that because we had had council elections in between and the composition of the council had changed it was potentially a material difference since the decision had been made! My argument was rejected, thankfully, and although I would probably still have preferred for the Islamic Centre not to have marked the start of development encroaching down the green spaces on the Marston Rd that divide the city from the suburb, given the often rather bleak look of what we have built opposite, I do rather find the Islamic Centre architecture a welcome break from 21st century halls of residence!

However, having been involved in the other side of planning now, i.e. from the applicant’s point of view, both with Oxfordshire Community Land Trusts and more recently obviously with this Brookes application, I am a reformed character in that respect. As a memorandum put out by the city council’s head of planning Michael Crofton-Briggs a couple of years later stated (at the time trying to remind councillors that appeals could be expensive and losing an appeal even more so) the principle of British planning law is that by default property owners should be allowed to do what they want on their property, unless there are well grounded public policy reasons why not.

Planning officers – the professionals whom the council appoints to be the “expert witness” if you like applying the local plan and local development framework to test each application and to recommend decisions to councillors – have twice now recommended approval for the building. The Strategic Development Control Committee has twice now followed the officers’ recommendations and approved the application – the last time by the narrowest possible majority in a 12 person committee – 7 votes to 5 – and this time somewhat more convincingly at 9 votes to 3. And both applications it seems will now end up being decided by the whole council.

It seems to me that the way this process works actually turns on its head that fundamental planning principle of allowing property owners to do what they want with their property by default, and implies what is the reality, that councillors feel that they have a right to hold something up until the applicant satisfies them. But I know only too well now what this sort of politicking costs. We are strong enough to be able to bear such costs, but when the applicant is someone, say a small developer, engaged on his main business activity, putting everything on hold, sometimes for years if a protracted appeals process ensues, can be enough to break such a business, which is an appalling price to pay for lay-councillors deciding to play a little politics with that developer’s property.

Development control is supposed to be a “quasi-judicial” process. Whilst justice demands rightly that objectors have their opportunity to comment and campaign against something, I do wonder whether ultimately the correct people to make the end decision, to balance, for example, the essentially non-voting applicant – “Oxford Brookes University” per se, does not have a vote in local elections and a very large proportion of our students do not vote (as students tend not to anywhere) – whereas the objectors are people who do have a vote and whose votes councillors must gain or retain when they are up for election.

So the incentives, I’ll say no more than that, are for councillors to side with the voters, and the most vocal of them at that, and not with applicants. It should be borne in mind too that their obligation is to all their constituents and not just the most vocal and erudite and some of these councillors have a lot of students in their ward who may not have voted for anyone but are still entitled to their councillors’ consideration.

Maybe it’s time that all planning decisions were handled by some kind of dispassionate professional service rigourously applying law and policy in a properly judicial setting.

Let us just hope that this time, sense will win out, and those who understand the contribution that Brookes makes to the local economy (which our city council has endorsed previously as part of the South East Plan which is where they should have raised objections if they wanted to I’d suggest) and that jeopardising the redevelopment of our physical facilities to better reflect our academic reputation, will have a majority in full council and that we do not need to go through the tortuous process of an appeal.

Constructions costs are now back on the rise. The longer gaining permission takes the more expensive, potentially, the development becomes, and the more of a diversion of resources that will mean from front line teaching, learning, research and student experience activities.

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Locked out!

Posted by Jock Coats on 21st December 2009

Further to my moan about the new staff facilities, or lack of them, at Gipsy Lane the other day, I noticed that even the new staff dining area was today all locked up, and, or so it seems, there’s no prospect of it being opened again before the Christmas break, not even for us to get our food in the main food court and go an eat it in the staff area.

Funny thing – after the last exams today it is really just the staff who are about, and we have to stay here until 24th December. Still, the Waitrose desktop picnic will suffice for today and tomorrow, but such a shame I had to go on a foraging expedition to Headington to get it, and still missed wherever this fabulous new chocolatier is.

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Paying for Space…

Posted by Jock Coats on 15th December 2009

One of the most frequently asked questions from colleagues to me as a governor goes along the lines of “how can we justify the expenditure on Space To Think?” or sometimes “how are we able to afford the money for Space to Think?” usually accompanied by “with these cuts are we just robbing Peter to pay Paul?”

Artist's impression of the latest design for the New Library and Teaching Building

Artist's Impression of the latest designs for the New Library and Teaching Building.

Well, one thing of which you can be certain is that the Board of Governors, whose primary responsibility is to ensure the financial stability of the university, would not take any decisions that we felt would in any way put that at risk. The current round of savings being proposed that each school and directorate must meet over the next few years are actually nothing to do with the Space to Think costs. The university has shown that it can make healthy enough surpluses at present to be able to afford the portion of the cost we are likely to want to borrow. They are primarily related to two issues – that we want to have the financial capacity to invest in areas that will help us achieve the goals of the emerging 20:20 University Strategy, and a recognition that there are leaner times ahead for all universities as a result of likely funding changes in what we are being hinted at is going to be a difficult few years of public spending.

But the main point is that we consider that we cannot not spend money on the estate. We are increasingly aware that our current buildings simply do not match up to peoples’ expectations, especially when they have visited the many other institutions that have spent considerable sums creating bright new campus facilities which match better the contemporary needs of students and and the teaching environment. In any case much of the funding will actually come from our ability to save substantial sums on expensive planned maintenance on other existing buildings that will be put out of action by the new spaces. Over the lifetime of the Masterplan it is expected that we will be able to lose around a third of the existing floor space as the new building will be able to be used more efficiently than some of our current grossly underused space (our average space usage is as low as 16% in the current estate – think what that means in terms of energy costs and maintenance to keep spaces open all the time when they are used so little for example);

But yes, there will be borrowing to pay for it: borrowing that will likely cost us less per year than maintaining those wasted spaces. There will be another round of scrutiny by governors and the Audit and Finance and Resources committee in particular owing to the unexpected delay caused by having to redesign the building to get it through planning, probably in the autumn, before any final commitment is made.

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A Staff Common Room Association for Brookes?

Posted by Jock Coats on 14th December 2009

Image "fair use claimed" original at conferences-uk.org.uk

The soon to be demolished Lloyd Building at the Gipsy Lane campus - image "fair use claimed": original at conferences-uk.org.uk

So, to get going with something that has proven somewhat controversial recently: with the development of the new library and teaching building at Gipsy Lane campus (about which I will blog more in later posts) we are going to lose the Lloyd Building, and with it the Staff Common Room facility. Indeed, we have already more or less been evicted and this seems likely to become more firmly entrenched/enforced as the university wants to moth-ball most of the building until such time as it can be demolished.

Whilst they have carved out a new staff dining area adjacent to the JB’s Coffee Shop, it is, certainly in my opinion and looking at the faces of other regulars who use it I am not alone, a pretty desultory space. You certainly wouldn’t want to use it for any events I don’t think. The university has made it clear that there will be no provision for an SCR facility in the new building, which will also house the main catering areas on campus. And in the longer term, once the kitchens are moved to the new building, this will be just as inconvenient for food service as Lloyd ever was, never mind that the university has indicated as part of the Masterplan that much of that space towards the Gipsy Lane front of the campus will likely go the same way as Lloyd in a later phase of development.

Now, there can be little doubt that the Lloyd Common Room had problems of its own. Being the other side of the campus from the kitchens meant that lunch had to be brought a long way to be served in Lloyd for example. And it is true to say that lunch-time was its main focus, and that very little use of it was made outside the hours of about midday to 3 p.m. And it would be quite in order to say, I think, that if we are to get such a facility anywhere on site again, we need to look at how we would justify the allocation of precious space by making better use of it.

But I have searched the interwebs for evidence of what other universities provide by way of staff dedicated facilities and can find only a few places, such as controversially recently at Bath University, where they have removed all such staff facilities (or in their case opened it up to students in the name of “inclusion”). Personally, I believe that such facilities have an essential role in university life. Not all staff, particularly those in the “front line” student facing roles and departments are going to feel that they are getting a real break if they have to mix in with students. The SCR has provided in the past a space in which staff and researchers in all disciplines and directorates can mingle together, an information sharing point, and, in theory at least, pretty important to the development of inter-disciplinary working. We need a space in which we can meet and discuss things, informally and socially, that it would not be appropriate for students to overhear (not so much “hold meetings” since there are any number of spaces that can be booked for that more confidential use).

And so, one idea I’ve been mulling over these past few months is the possibility of getting a “Staff Common Room Association” going at Brookes. This seems to be a key feature of other universities where the SCR is more valued and better used. While we don’t have a dedicated space it could lobby for one, primarily by demonstrating through the events that it might organise how much better use we would make of it than Lloyd ever was. But also while we don’t have a dedicated space it could be a “virtual” facility, organising things that bring us together informally and socially. For example, if we have visiting academics from elsewhere staying over night in Oxford having done some work with an academic school it might be interesting for others to hear more about his or her work and so we could perhaps organise a staff talk and discussion with them. We might use it to promote sporting and cultural events.

The irony is, of course, that the university wants to foster a spirit of collegiality and of interdisciplinarity, yet at the same time reduce or remove the very spaces in which such things are likely to happen. Many schools on the Headington sites have already got staff bolt-holes, but these help to isolate them one from the other rather than foster co-operation and wider knowledge of the things that are going on in the university. There is also some evidence that a lack of quality staff spaces makes for greater feelings of isolation on the part of individual staff and an increased stress level as a result (with counter-productive implications for the quality of work).

So, what do colleagues think? Could we try and get an SCR Association off the ground? Do we need one? What would you envisage such a body actually doing? Would you get involved if we did have one? Would you pay, say a small annual subscription, to support it?

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