Jock's Backroom Blog

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

Reflections of a Freshman, Part 5: Support, in and out of hours

Posted by Jock Coats on 12th January 2012

I’ll try and wrap up with this post, and roll the issues of support both on and off campus, in and out of core hours, into one post.  I will probably still do a separate one about the future of halls of residence as well, but cover the basics in this one.

I have to say that whenever I’ve been to see the Student Support Co-ordinators they’ve been very helpful.  I’ve not really seen them about anything terribly complex yet, and I haven’t yet felt the need to visit Upgrade or my Academic Adviser so I can’t comment on them at all.  However I do find that as with other areas those of us whose course modules are delivered by different Faculties sometimes fall between the gaps I think.  The SSCs and Academic Adviser are of course, rightly, the ones in the faculty delivering the whole subject – in my case, Business.  But they are not in a position to answer questions on what amounts to fully half our course, those bits delivered by Humanities and Social Sciences.

A similar situation arises with the course representatives meetings – they are arranged by Department, so the meetings I go to only review their own modules, so we don’t get in on the discussion of modules in Politics and International Relations.  My understanding is that when everyone was simply on one or more fields, they had reps for each field, so if we had built a course simply by adding an economics field and a politics field together we would have been able to be reps on both (or perhaps either) field.  Something needs to change here I think.  One proposal was to have the program leads from Politics and International Relations attend some of our subject rep meetings in Wheatley, but I think that would be wasteful.  We might as well attend the equivalent meetings in both faculties – it needn’t be the same reps at each, so perhaps we could divide up the jobs between the IX course reps.

Halls of Residence

But my main beef on support is less directly concerned with the faculties themselves and more about “student life” – if you will the time outside contact hours and office hours and so on when, let’s face it, most of us end up doing our coursework, revision and so on.  And for me the focus for this is halls of residence.  I’ve been a warden for many years now and I’m a bit fed up of the various changes to the warden service that have diminished the service in my view.  And I’m even more fed up of not having my experience taken much into account when people who run the service make decisions.  It’s not as if I am backward in coming forward!

I am still learning – none more so than this semester when, though not exactly the same as fellow students in halls (in that I am a warden and they are paying residents), I have also found myself doing coursework at home in halls.  My feeling is that when Year 9k comes next year, those forking out another £5k plus for what in reality amounts to 24 or 25 weeks of useful occupancy, they are going to expect much more from halls in terms of support for both academic and social activities.

Our headline rents are around £100-£135 per week, usually for 38 weeks.  But for years now we have steadily increased the amount students are expected to pay for.  When I first started, I think they were on 33 week contracts, where they would pay for each term (week 1 to week 10), were expected to move out over each holiday (Christmas, Easter and the long vacation) so we could use halls for conferences and the like.  They paid, effectively, for the time they needed to be here.  Now thy have to pay throughout the Christmas vacation and for around three weeks after examinations finish in summer.  All in all, if you are in a £135 a week room, you can be paying the best part of £200 per week for the weeks you actually use (and if your lectures etc fit the right pattern, you can easily stay in Oxford two nights a week, with breakfast, for less).

Now of course the business of universities has changed.  We stopped expecting people to move out long before semesters started – when the Christmas and Easter conference trade became negligible.  Greater numbers of international students need accommodation throughout the academic year – though even these are, judging by the number of people actually in halls over the Christmas break, relatively few in number.  Right now, hall rent (indeed any accommodation) is the biggest expense compared with fees of £3k.  But when the choice is between £9k to study from home or £14k to stay away at university, I feel more people are going to want more of a connect between the academic day time activities and support in halls as part of a scholastic community.

As I proposed at the time hall wardens were last under discussion, I think we should be more like what other universities call “Moral Tutors”.  In our case it could be a mixture of the roles of Student Support Coordinators, Academic Advisers, Moral Tutors and Upgrade advisers.  And we should be split off from the Estates department again.  Still it seems from most universities job adverts for positions equivalent to wardens they mostly report into the Student Services and Support type function rather than the Estate management function.  Indeed even where universities, such as Reading, have outsourced the management of all their halls to UPP, they expect their wardens to come from the professoriat and other senior academics.

Since we have been run out of the Estates department, the recruitment has focussed on students, probably more easily managed than us obstreperous old timers with opinions on how to run things based on living there for a long time and experiencing what the students actually experience.

I understand we do not have a project in the Program for the Enhancement of the Student Experience that directly relates to halls.  This is a grave omission and before any further changes are made to the warden service this wide ranging discussion of how halls fit into the student experience and then what sort of support we need to provide in that environment needs to take place.  To kick such a discussion off I offer my scheme for the out of hours service that was submitted and roundly rejected the last time we looked at the out of hours support service, attached, as a Google Document available to people inside of Brookes.

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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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How do you view Halls of Residence? Hotels or communities?

Posted by Jock Coats on 16th December 2009

Some of you will know that there’s a proposal doing the rounds radically to alter the way we provide security and support in Halls of Residence. This will mean, at present at least (we are still in the “consultation” phase), that we will no longer have Hall Wardens. That role will be replaced partly by what the university calls “Senior Residents” who will be students paid by the hour for being on call in each hall in the early evening, and for meeting up and maintaining contact with a defined group of student residents each, and then through the night by a new full time, permanent, and up all night post of “Concierge”, whilst we will be hoping to bring the security service in-house to back them up, though there will only be one security guard roving around the city based halls on demand.

New blocks currently being built on Marston Rd

New blocks currently being built on Marston Rd

Clearly, as someone who snapped up the opportunity to commit myself to the twenty-four hours a day Brookes community by being a Warden not long after I started working here I am not unbiased: I believe that the continuity and experience of senior-ish figures from other parts of the university living within our halls is essential; if, that is we are able to be visible enough to exert such an influence, which at the moment we are largely not. Sadly, we know all to well that the Warden service has been undermined over a period of years owing mainly to management decisions which have led to what the proposals document calls a service “increasingly stretched and challenged in a number of areas”. And whilst we were often the first to warn about such a gradual diminution when the various changes were made, as well as to suggest ways it could be improved in the intervening time, it is now Wardens who face the chop in the name of rectifying the deficiencies created by tinkering with a system that the document also says “in the past worked well”.

As part of the consultation I have done lots of research into what goes on in other HEIs’ halls. 50 out of 58 I have looked at use a system similar to Hall Wardens – often with very senior university staff and academics being the visible “face” of the hall providing continuity and helping to develop a culture in each that helps make the hall more marketable – in a much more comprehensive way than we have ever done. And I have put forward an alternative scheme to that proposed which beefs up the role of Warden to that of “community leader” wiyj many other opportunities to increase the “collegial culture” of each hall through creating things like Junior Common Room committees that will let student residents get more involved from day one and help provide continuity from one year to the next.

But, as was said in the Joint Staff Committee today (Tuesday), my proposal depends on a fairly fundamentally different view of what we want halls of residence to be than the proposal, or, apparently, current thinking in that area (despite the preponderance of other institutions who clearly think differently). They tell us that students have made it clear that they want more independence, more of a hotel atmosphere and to be left to get on with things by themselves without us attempting to cajole them into being part of a “community”.

Now, I’m not sure where this student opinion cited comes from: I don’t believe there has been a comprehensive survey done. I seriously hope they are not relying on the annual halls satisfaction survey, done in November each year, which has a woefully low return rate and is often completed, as is often the case, by those who already have a gripe (dare one suggest that if they do crave independence, they are really looking for freedom from what they sometimes feel to be intrusion and hassle from the domestic management imposing penalties on, how shall we call them, the less fastidious at housekeeping?). And even if one has been done, which is not cited in the report, I have to say that we are not here to do what the majority thinks as much as be here for when they do need support and for those who need more support throughout their time in halls.

I also suggest that halls, especially as restricted as ours currently are to first year students, need to be a stepping stone. Yes it is often their first opportunity to experience independent living, but at the same time coming to university, especially if its far from home, is a big change in peoples’ lives, straight out of school as most will be. Halls should be seen not as a completely “independent” lifestyle into which all are ready to leap, but as a preparation for it, an easing into independence. Our more vocal local neighbours also feel that the year most students have in halls is our one chance to instil in them a sense of community and responsibility before we “inflict” them, as they see it, on their streets as neighbours.

Applicants too, at least those who go to the length of asking on forums such as the Student Room website, appear to be most concerned to apply for halls that have a good “community” feel. And it is notable that people are told to steer clear of some of our halls, especially the outlying ones, precisely because previous members feel there was not such a community spirit in them. An identifiable culture would, perhaps, make these halls, challenged by their location or facilities, more marketable, which will be increasingly important as we move towards a situation where we are able to offer returning students more years in halls – we will want them to be places that they want to remain a part of when otherwise they could be living out.

At the Senior Management Conference in October 2008 at which the main business was early discussion of the University Strategy 20:20’s “Green Paper” when we were discussing the “Student Experience” theme, several people suggested, and I certainly heard no objection, that our halls should be much more collegiate, with a sense of identity each and fostering perhaps different cultures, creating a “tradition” that would help new arrivals feel they had actually arrived somewhere they could immediately feel a part of.

We have gone on to make that “Student Experience” theme the main strand of the Strategy, and to talk about how to develop in our students the “soft skills” and what we are calling “graduate attributes” that we feel will help them stand out from the crowd when they move on from university. With some 70% of their time spent off the main teaching campuses and often in halls, where better to begin this process than by creating the sort of communities in which they can get involved, in halls? And nor does any of this have to impinge on their “independence” if that is really what they want. Those who don’t want to get involved don’t have to, but we ought to want to provide them with the opportunity to do so, and to have support, from peers and from perhaps wiser adult heads when they find they need it.

To quote from the web pages of Wantage Hall at Reading:

A good university hall of residence should not simply be somewhere convenient where the students happen to live, it should be a community, and an integral and important part of the total university experience…Different people need different things out of their time at university. Never mind, there are lots of other nice halls at the University of Reading, and, because we don’t try to make them all the same, you’ll almost certainly be able to find one that suits you…No matter how diligent a university student you are, you will spend more time away from your academic department than in it. And quite right, too: university is about more than lectures, essays, and exams — vital as these are. And if you live in hall, most of your time will be spent here. It is important therefore that your hall community offers a social context that suits you.

Is that ethos something we should be aiming for? Or somehow “too traditional” for our students? Certainly I believe this issue needs wider debate and agreement before making peremptory changes in the support that halls receive. For myself, however, if these proposals are accepted more or less as currently proposed, I suspect I shall probably be looking elsewhere not just for accommodation. In many ways I have put advancement in my career in IT on the back-burner preferring to make the most of that commitment to the twenty-four hour community that is Brookes, and it will be very difficult to think of the university quite the same if they dismiss that commitment in this way.

You can read the university’s proposals and my alternative proposal as .pdf files.


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