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 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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“Magical and revolutionary” – Does Apple’s iPad live up to its hype?

Posted by Jock Coats on 22nd November 2010

Here’s a little review I wrote for the Learning Resources Newsletter:

It appears that the now six month or so old Apple iPad has quickly become a “Marmite” device: one you will either love or hate.  Having had one of the most basic models to evaluate for a few months now I fall firmly in the “love” camp.

When Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO, introduced this sleek, flat, touchscreen tablet to the world back in January, he described it as “magical and revolutionary”.  I wouldn’t go so heavy on the supernatural, but I certainly think that it is revolutionary: potentially the beginning of a whole new model of computing and information transmission and retrieval.

Some will tell you that it’s “just a big iPhone”; others that it’s “only half a laptop”: and they’d both be right, as far as it goes.  Even as an enthusiastic user of all kinds of applications on my own iPhone it is too small to be usable for anything other than short bursts; and a laptop with as large and clear a screen area as the iPad is still quite a bulky object that will likely come with a bag, power cable, a fold down the middle which makes its centre of gravity such that you really need to use it on a flat stable surface, uses multiple input devices like the mouse/trackpad and the keyboard making it difficult to use one handed even if you could hold it easily with the other.

The iPad, by contrast, is a one handed device, on which you are manipulating objects directly on the screen with your fingers – no looking out for the mouse pointer and so on.  In wide screen mode it gives an onscreen keyboard that is basically the same size as a full sized laptop keyboard that is very comfortable to touch type with while the machine is propped on one knee – where your typing maintains the balance of the machine very naturally – or perched on the edge of a lecture theatre note taking table.  Even though laptop manufacturers have been looking for this “holy grail” for years, the iPad is truly instant-on when you just need to look something up in a hurry standing up, wherever you are.

So far so good, but is it a corporate machine, or a personal toy?  Well, of course, Apple want to sell as many of these as they can.  Marketing is definitely aimed at the personal “gadgeteer” market so far.  But these are the people who will get one, and then want to see what they can do with it at work.  They’re the ones who will want to show off that they don’t need to take a paper notepad to a meeting, nor screen themselves off from other participants by furiously typing away behind their laptop screen.

And we are seeing a trickle of people within Brookes asking us to get them one:  the Vice-Chancellor is already using one; the University Alliance are going to impress in important meetings with several; and others are talking about using them to replace the mountain of university committee paperwork.  When you want to go to a meeting, or a lecture, would you take your entire collection of ring-binders, the back of a fag packet, or a convenient pad of paper and a pen.  The iPad is the latter.

But they are difficult to support, at the moment, as corporate devices.  There are, literally, hundreds of thousands of “Apps” (as in “there’s an App for that”) available for them, so you will find dozens of tools, some better than others, for doing any particular task.  And it is difficult (make that impossible at the moment other than by some kind of promise on the part of the user) to enforce a standard set of Apps for instance to ensure that everyone is reading their committee papers the same way, say.

Apps are not generally expensive – even Apple’s own cut down versions of their iWork MS-Office competitor suite are only a fiver each, and most probably come in at between 59 pence and a fiver, just as with the iPhone (indeed many Apps simply transfer from one to the other without additional cost if you already have some favourites on your iPhone).  But there’s no way, again, of making a corporate purchase and installing something on everyone’s in the same way we support desktop or laptop PCs – each owner would need an Apple AppStore account and possibly some new mechanism of claiming expenditure on your iPad back if it were for corporate use.  But I have certainly not found any task that I have wanted to do so far for which I cannot find a passable App, and if the iPhone App-store is anything to go by, the range available will only increase.

But as more and more corporate data type applications are made available through the web (Web 2.0 and beyond) these devices will come into their own.  If you don’t need to type so much to get an answer – if you literally point at a field and select some value – why carry around the additional, and redundant, keyboard of a laptop to do so?

And in an educational environment, I can see these or their near competitors (which I hope we will also get a chance to evaluate), being used for collaborative group work – rather than everyone crowding around a PC keyboard for example – for instantaneously passing learning resources around a room without people having to stop and boot up their laptops or whatever and for giving quick, easy, one handed access to knowledge from wherever you happen to be when you think of it.

So, there are considerable hurdles to contend with in making the iPad a really useful corporate device.  Questions remain for example, about data encryption, which is pretty well a deal breaker for anyone wanting to use corporate data on a machine not tied down to a desk, and the management of the machines to any kind of corporate standard.  But unlike some others, I do think this is a revolutionary type of product and that the iPad and its competitors will usher in a very different way of viewing ubiquitous, instant information in the years to come.

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