Archive for March, 2007|Monthly archive page

Open University catch-up

Open University work has continued steadily over the last few weeks. I’ve been offering telephone support to a tutor who’s been having trouble with the eTMA system, and handling queries from students about the first assignment, which still isn’t due for another few weeks.

It’s very different teaching a 60 point, level two course compared to a 30 point, level three course. Students need a lot less support, and only three assignments spread through the nine months of the courses duration allow for a steadier progression.

This steadier workload has allowed my own studying with the Open University to be stepped up a notch. I’m currently studying Creative Writing and have recently completed Start Writing Plays with a decent mark. I’ve just signed up for a Music Appreciation course which starts in May, then in September the World Archeology course should see me complete my Bachelor of Arts (BA).

The BA should complement my BSc (Hons) also gained with the OU, and hopefully my MA in Education with UCE Birmingham will also be awarded at the exam board in May. The BA has been fun to get, I’ll have to post a full transcript of the courses which will show the variety of courses.

The last undergraduate qualification I want to get is the ‘Certificate in Contemporary Science’. I’m only one course off this, but there’s plenty of time, and I think three courses this year when I’m supposed to be doing this for interest is enough.


Death by Powerpoint

(first in a short series of discussions on this technology).

I’ve had to reflect recently on my use of PowerPoint – the ubiquitous presentation software. Apple have their equivalent software and OpenOffice has Impress.

The reasons for reflection are threefold – if the LI tag worked better in the style sheet I’m using for this blog then you’d see these nicely formatted below, ho hum.

  • The need to prepare a twenty minute presentation for the upcoming conference, and the constraints of using the corporate standard of the institutions.
  • The email interview I recently completed, which was about my use of PowerPoint as an ‘enabling technology’.
  • A lack of interaction in my teaching sessions, when I pose a question or exercise on screen. Students tend to sit there and stare at the screen. If an activity is provided on paper to them, then there’s much more interaction.

I’m sure that there is a lot of research already completed out there, maybe someone will come across this entry (and the two planned subsequent postings) and point me towards some of these.

Let’s look at the first issue then as an ‘ice breaker’.

Quite sensibly, the university wants us to use corporate slide masters for presentations given outside university. I read this as including for academic conferences etc.

So this is the format used last year –

Powerpoint 1

So far so good. But new standards have come through, and we have a choice – see below.

Powerpoint 2 Powerpoint 3

Now in the great scheme of things I’m guessing it doesn’t matter which is used, but the large logo and title section means that the amount of information that you can get onto each slide is restricted. At the moment the pale blue one is winning.

But, when you start to add clip art, graphics and images, they usually come with a white background, and are not transparent. Hence as soon as I start adding images in, then the ‘professional’ look becomes ‘unprofessional’.

So you then start tailoring your content to the slide master – not using tables, graphs, clip art etc. This appears to be a form of technological determinism, I’m altering my content because of an (imposed) technical limitation.

I don’t have an answer for this, but it does become frustrating when what should be an enabler (and I’m all for a consistent view) becomes a disabler.

ICEL Paper accepted

I’ve received the following email from the ICEL 2007 organisers

I have received your review back today for the above conference and am pleased to be able to tell you that your paper has been accepted for presentation and for publication in the conference proceedings. I am attaching the reviewer comments for your information. We do not require you to make any changes to your paper, which is now ready for typesetting.

To quote someone else…

Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today
I want to be a part of it – New York, New York
These vagabond shoes, are longing to stray
Right through the very heart of it – New York, New York!

Tutorials and a photo shoot

If it’s Wednesday, it must be tutorial day. Not so bad as last week however, just five students.

And one of these isn’t really a tutorial – a student is creating a ‘promotional web-site for a motor vehicle’, and the vehicle is a MINI. So my own car is being used in the photo shoot this afternoon. It’ll be a good chance for me to get some pictures of my new car, and maybe some video.

The moodle focused module which I look after is going strong, and a seminar activity which students like a lot is currently taking place. Titled ‘Computer Ethics in the Movies’, I ask them to find a film with an IT based ethical situation, find it on IMBD, and discuss the movie. As an example, I provide the example below about 2001 – A Space Odyssey. (if you’ve not seen the movie, then look away now!)

In this movie, a computer called HAL 9000 on it way to Jupiter appears to go ‘mad’. It kills three crewman who are in suspended animation, then kills another crewman, Frank Poole, and tries to kill the one remaining astronaut, David Bowman. Fortunately he survives this attack on his life, and is determined to shut HAL 9000 down – the sci fi equivalent of Control-Alt-Delete!

As this happens, a secret message is discovered, held by HAL but unknown to him, confirming that an alien monolith had been found on the moon pointing towards Jupiter, and that this was in fact the mission objective.

David leaves the spaceship Discovery, and the film gets very very strange!

The Ethical dilemmas here are many, but I will focus on one. Should a computer ever be in a position to take the life of a human? HAL’s madness is explained by incorrect programming, he was ordered to lie to the crew and he could not cope with this, as it was against his programming. Whilst I am not aware that computers have directly killed someone in this situation, they have been used by other humans to kill people.

Students like this activity. There are some predictable postings (Terminator, I Robot, The Matrix), but also some fairly obscure films (Tron, War Games). Some students don’t recognise that we’re looking for Computer Ethics, and start talking about more general moral issues.. a brief note (hopefully) brings them back on track. The academic merit of this exercise is, I accept open to question, but if it does make students think outside the confines of the course, using a popular media (the first time I tried this exercise, I restricted it to novels or books, and there was no response at all!), then I think there’s some worth in continuing the exercise.

Oh, and Friday’s visit to Microsoft has been cancelled.  Maybe they found out that I’m a dedicated Apple fan, and vetoed my invite?  Conspiracy theorists are welcome to comment.


I’ve been ‘playing’ with various technologies today, all work related.

It’s an embarrassing fact that my programming skills is sadly lacking.  For 10 years early in my career I turned my hand to a wide number of commercial languages including COBOL, Delta,  DEC BASIC and even a Printer Control Language (PCL) for UBI printers.  Though I was promoted to the dizzy heights of Senior Analyst/Programmer, all of the languages were procedural.

We now teach all our undergraduate students Object Programming, using Java and the BlueJ programming environment.  I’m not involved in teaching programming, but it’s a skill gap I should rectify.  I’ve downloaded the software and the relevant development environment.  I’ve got a couple of Java books from my last half-hearted attempt, and have been looking at the first few chapters.  This will be a long term project, but I do now have the relevant environment.

Next on the list was Google SketchUp.  Only a couple of years ago an application of this power would have cost hundreds of pounds, now it’s free, and (relatively) easy to use.  It’s a modeling tool which is being taught in the School of Property, Construction and Planning at UCE.  My friend Nick Morton pointed me in this direction, thanks.  I’m wondering if it’s user friendly enough for students to use for seminar activities which have a graphical basis.

The rest of the day will be spent working on preparing the final PRINCE2 lecture for this year – the end is in sight.

Blast from the past

Before I went for my first interview with the Open University, teaching T171, I bought a book called “Adult Learning, Adult Teaching” by John Daines, Carolyn Daines and Brian Graham. This was intended to bring me up to speed about what to expect as a tutor. I’m pleased to see it’s still in print, and the fourth edition appears to have doubled in size (and changed publishers).

I referred to it often in my early years of teaching, but I have to admit for the last couple of years it’s sat on the shelf. To some extent I didn’t think it could teach me any more. But I had call to refer to the book last week, and find it still stands up well.

One section however which has caused amusement amongst colleagues in the past is “forty-nine ways of saying good”. Each one ends in an exclamation mark – “That’s better than ever!”, “You did that very well!”, “Wow!” for example. It’s easy to criticise (and why only forty-nine ways, couldn’t they have found the 50th?), and taken out of context it can seem strange, but the intentions are well meaning.

Though maybe aimed at FE courses and traditional ‘evening classes’, much of the information is relevant to HE teaching of students. I was particularly impressed with a section called self-evaluation – what I would call classical reflection.

There are eight groups of three questions, and it’s a rich resource. Given that one of the reasons for staring this blog was for reflective purposes, I think I’ll be using some of these questions as triggers for my own thinking, especially over the upcoming Easter break (students finish on Friday 30th for three weeks, I’m planning to be in work for all but the statutory holidays). At that point I’ll be three-quarters of the way through the teaching for this semester, a good time to reflect.

Email interview

I’m preparing to answer questions posed to me by a researcher and friend within the Open University. She’s worded the dialogue as an ’email interview’.

My first views of this were that it was a lazy way to do research, but the more I think about it, the more valid I feel this is as a data gathering technique, and something that I will pass onto my students as a valid research method.

There’s not a huge amount of information on the www about email interviews, though the excellent ‘Owl at Purdue‘ (a university in Indianna) does have this nugget –

“Email Interviews: Email interviews are less personal than face-to-face or phone interviews, but highly convenient for most individuals. You may not get as much information from someone in an email interview because you are not able to ask follow-up questions or play off the interviewee’s responses. However, email interviews are useful because they are already in a digital format.”

One thing missing from this balanced view is that the interview is not time constrained. I’ve look at these questions two or three times, and to answer them properly will probably take about an hour of my time – a coffee and my iBook at lunchtime I think. I don’t mind, as I’ll use them as a basis for another blog posting later on (wonder if you’ll spot where), and it’s giving me the chance to reflect on something that I’d not considered before. Comparing this to a face to face interview, where one is expected to provide witty and quotable sound bites, I would much prefer this way.

Some old school people may consider the use of email as a barrier, but for anyone who’s been using email since 1990 (as I have), it’s as natural a form of communication as verbal communication. I frequently exchange emails of novella (or at least epistle) proportions with a good friend for whom it’s just as easy for both of us to pick up the phone.

A couple of years ago I wrote this for the Faculty Essentials Guide, and I still refer students to this when I get an email from a student which is written in less than appropriate English. Whilst the title of the piece is “Academic Email”, I think it contains good practice for anyone.

Giving bad news

How do you give a student the bad news that he’s failing on a programme, and unless something really drastic happens, he’s going to fail the module.

That’s what I’ve had to do recently, giving feedback to a student on an assignment where he had gained just 20%, and that to pass the module he’ll need at least 60% in the presentation/assignment which makes up the final part of the module.

The classic technique is the ‘good news, bad news, good news’ sandwich. You start with something positive (“I see you managed to print the assignment off and hand it in on time”), then the criticism, (“But the work you submitted was just a cut and paste from a single web site without being referenced”), then finish with the good news again (“But you did manage to use a very clear font, which helped me in reading it”).

Personally, I don’t think this works very well… it’s like you’re hiding the pickled gherkin (bad news) in the middle of the sandwich. If I’m consciously giving bad news, and have had time to think, I tend to try three stages.

1) Empathise. “How do you feel you did in the assignment?”, “Were you under a lot of time pressure when you wrote this?”, “I know what it’s like when you’ve not done your best work”

2) Criticise the product. “I’m afraid the assignment only got 20%”, “There’s no way the module can be passed now”, “This will have to be taken to the cheating committee”. The important thing here is to criticise the work/dissertation/assignment, not the individual. To say “You failed the assignment”, “You failed the module” does not help the student at all.

3) Build the person up. “You can submit better work next time”, “This isn’t the time to panic”, “I know from your previous work you can pass this module”. The emphasis is on the individual this time, not the work. Even if there’s some exaggeration in your belief of their abilities, it’s important that they leave feeling confident.

This is slightly idealised – in reality things can happen quickly when giving feedback (students in tears is always difficult), and it’s not always possible to think as clearly as I can here typing this down. But if you criticise the work, and support the individual, then this goes a long way.

Let’s put this into practice, as I now tell some students that they’ve failed their second formative PRINCE2 test!

Student contact – update

Well, I’m nearly through what I thought would be a difficult day – the afternoon is a placement interview which will mean heading between the placement student and the manager a couple of times.

I thought I would keep a log of all student contact. It makes interesting reading.

I’ve had verbal ‘dialogue’ (i.e. not email contact) with 11 students today, only five of which were scheduled. Two phone calls, and four students during my availability time were unplanned. Of my expected contact, one didn’t turn up, one was fifteen minutes late, and one had not prepared anything for us to discuss, so the anticipated hour long meeting in fact took twenty minutes.

It hasn’t felt as relentless as it looked on paper (for the first time I printed my Outlook schedule off to add/annotate as necessary during the day, a technique that has worked well). What also worked well was preparing for all of the tutorials in a block before the first appointment of the day. I’ve sometimes self-criticised academics who make their first appointment of the day 10:00 or 11:00, but am really beginning to see the merits of this. It provides a chance to get rid of the first batch of emails of the day, grab a coffee and plan the rest of the day.

A couple of months back I bought the book Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play. Whilst I’ve not read through from start to finish I have dipped into it a few times, and appear to be picking up some of the lessons from it. I do feel that the planning which has helped me feel on top of things today, and (with only three contacts to go) I feel I may need just the one glass of wine tonight (but if the bottle’s open….)

Student contact

I already know that by the end of tomorrow I will be stressed out more than usual, and probably require more than one glass of wine to relax.

I have students (and potential students) coming to see me back to back from 10:00 – 16:30, and like a fool I’ve not left any gaps. The list looks like this, (along with the role I suspect I will have to take.)

Potential new MSc student – salesman

Undergraduate project student (x 4) – ‘client’ and supervisor

Postgraduate project student – supervisor (2nd supervisor unable to attend)

Placement student visit (placed within the university, so no travelling) – tutor and supporter

I suspect this is no better or worse than most academics, and it’s mostly self-inflicted (if I have a spare day in my diary I tend to fill it up, rather than space appointments throughout the week), but I am becoming increasingly concerned about the role of ‘tutor counsellor’, as was highlighted in this report in the Times Higher at the weekend. A while back I looked at completing a short course in counselling, but decided against it worrying that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. Maybe it’s time to review that decision.

Most of what I’ll talk to students about tomorrow isn’t academically based, though there will clearly be an academic focus to the support. It will be reassuring, supportive and confidence building, Yes you can complete an MSc, Yes you will submit your final year project in time, Yes you are writing up an MSc dissertation to an appropriate standard.

But I have just finished writing my penultimate lecture of the semester, just one more fresh lecture to write. Everything else needed this semester (including the weeks 13 – 15) is pretty well prepared – a good position to be in.