Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Never mind the quality, feel the width!


I haven't had a lot of time in the past couple of weeks to think about blogging, and indeed I haven't devoted as much time as I should have to my H807 studies. The main reason has been that I am currently leading a complete review of our undergraduate programme. This process has to take place every five or six years as part of the University's quality assurance procedures. On the one hand it is a great opportunity to reflect on what we are doing and review everything to make sure it is up to date and meets the needs of today's students and that we have courses which are capable of producing graduates with the right skills and knowledge. However, on the other hand, it's such a laborious process. It started in earnest last June, and the reviewed courses won't be implemented until the coming September. That's fifteen months, during which time I have produced a mountain of documents and had more sleepless nights than can possibly be healthy!

The process has involved (and still involves) a programme team of twenty staff, a panel of four academics from other schools in the university, a panel secretary from the Quality and Standards Office, and two external advisors to the panel – one from industry and one from another university. It began with a workshop for the whole team and progressed through numerous team meetings, some of which involved fairly frank and forthright exchanges of views!! I have personally written tens of thousands of words in the form of a critical review, a new programme handbook, programme specifications and various appendices and supporting documents. The process has not exactly enhanced my personal wellbeing and I have to confess to periods of extremely poor humour in the past couple of months.

The documents are now all with the panel and the final review meeting takes place next week. There's not much we can do now other than try to prepare for the panel meeting. Once the review meeting is over (and assuming it is all approved) then the work begins on implementing the new programme.

Why am I writing about this? Well, there are several issues which emerge from the process which I think are relevant:

  1. Is this really the most effective way of ensuring that courses are reviewed and that quality is maintained? It just seems such a bureaucratic process. I can't help thinking that in the coming years this sort of approach simply isn't sustainable. Universities are going to have to be much more responsive in the future as we face up to the twin challenges of financial restrictions and ever more demanding customers.
  2. The timescales involved in the current QA process will not be appropriate in the new world. If universities are going to be genuinely responsive then the procedures for reviewing courses and developing new courses will have to be much more streamlined.
  3. Does a system such as this really promote innovation? When students are paying £6000 to £9000 per year they will be expecting courses which are bang up-to-date and delivered in ways to suit them. In my view that means courses which are innovative. The innovation could relate to the learning and teaching methods, or to the structure of the courses, or to the use of the latest technology. Innovation will distinguish the courses which thrive from those which fall by the wayside. Universities will be ruthless in axing courses which don't attract and retain students, and out the door with the courses will go the staff who deliver them. Despite this the whole bureaucratic infrastructure of many universities is geared towards maintaining the status quo.
  4. Do academic staff really appreciate the scale of the challenges which higher education will face in the next few years? I would say that a significant proportion certainly do not. We are blessed with some fantastic staff who are great teachers and genuinely want to provide a top class higher education experience for our students. However, I can't help thinking that some staff seem to believe that we can carry on doing things as we always have done and everything will be alright. What will make them realise that irreversible changes are about to happen and the old ways of working are simply not going to be appropriate. We might not like it (and there's lots I don't like) but I don't think we can resist it. What we can do is gear ourselves up to cope with a new environment, and that means thinking differently.
So – we have a rather bloated and time-consuming quality assurance process which is not conducive to innovation. Alongside that we have some staff who, for whatever reason, may be reluctant to face up to the reality of the new higher education system. We've got to think more widely than just delivering our courses in the same old ways.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

H807: Week 5 Reflections

Responses to questions posed about communication technology for Week 5:

Are such technologies finding new ways of conducting behaviours that were already in operation, or are they promoting new types of behaviour?

My view is that initially, technologies provided more convenient ways of conducting behaviours that were already in operation. This is particularly the case with communication technologies, as mobile phones made it easier to contact others and be contacted, emails provided an instantaneous replacement for letters, and so on. However, over time this has evolved, particularly with the advent of Web 2.0 technologies, which have facilitated networked communications. Consequently, individuals and organisations are adjusting the ways in which they connect with others as a direct result of the technologies available.

Are the technologies used uniformly, or do different communities use the same technology in different ways?

I don't think the technologies are used uniformly across different communities. The term 'different communities' here could refer to different generations, different localities, different cultures, different organisations and so on. The technologies are used for different purposes and in different ways. Facebook and Twitter might be used by one 'community' for fun and entertainment, by another for educational purposes and by another as a business tool.

Are internet technologies different in any respects from other technologies?

As mentioned above, the big difference with the internet (particularly since Web 2.0) is the almost unlimited potential for networks. This means that communication is not dependent on time or location, and the exchange of information is subject to virtually no boundaries.

Can you think of an example when a technology has changed your behaviour?

For many years I persevered with a paper diary, even long after I had access to a digital diary in packages such as Microsoft Outlook. I always wanted the security of having my appointments written down in a single place. This all changed when the University introduced a Microsoft Exchange server and I bought a smartphone capable of synchronising with the server. Overnight my paper diary was ditched and all my appointments were transferred to Outlook, but the great thing is that I have access to my diary wherever I am, via my phone. I can also add appointments on my phone and I think it is a genuinely beneficial technology.

Affordances, Wikipedia and heavy metal!

What on earth have these three things got in common? Well, this week in H807 we have been grappling with a diverse range of issues. A key theme has been the concept of affordances, which I must confess I have found rather difficult to grasp. Wikipedia defines an affordance as: "a quality of an object, or an environment, that allows an individual to perform an action". New technologies, and in particular Web 2.0, provide many affordances in the field of education, but in examining the concept I was tending to simply think in terms of advantages and disadvantages. Hammond (2010) provides a better explanation:

"The essence of an affordance is that it 'points both ways' to the object and to the organism. An affordance is an emergent property of an object. The affordance is there, it has always been there, but it needs to be perceived to be realised. A subsidiary idea is that affordances provide both opportunity and constraint. These are not opposites rather they are complementary, so, for example, a sledgehammer affords the breaking of rocks but the user is constrained by its weight - the very thing that provides the opportunity for rock breaking."

I find it useful to think of affordances as providing both opportunity and constraint. I was also grateful to one of my fellow students, Chris Moreton, who provided some useful supplementary information on the tutor group forum. Chris said that he thought of an affordance "as a cue, or an encouragement, to behave in a particular way". He referred to McCloughlin & Lee (2007) who explain the difference between "enablers" and "affordances" by making specific reference to blogging:

"blogging entails typing and editing, which are not affordances in themselves, but rather enablers of affordances which include idea sharing and interaction".

If I'm being really honest the concept is still a little vague for me. I keep thinking I've got it, but then if I was asked to explain it in detail I would really struggle.

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On to other matters which I can understand much more easily but I never thought I'd be writing about on Masters degree! Another aspect of this week's work involved analysing wikis. We were asked to view a screencast by John Udell which describes the evolution of a Wikipedia article about the use of the umlaut in the names of heavy metal bands. This is the last thing I thought would be interesting, not least because I really don't like most heavy metal music, but also because I didn't think that the evolution of a Wikipedia article would be particularly enlightening. How wrong I was. Despite the subject matter (which the author freely admits is not a typical subject for an academic treatise), the animation is fascinating. By examining the log of edits to the Wikipedia article the author shows how the piece evolves from a single line in 2003 to a comprehensive article in 2005. It involved contributions from dozens of different people around the world, and was edited and re-edited many times, with the addition of images, hyperlinks and a table of contents. The log shows that on some days edits took place every few minutes. This in itself is interesting – to think that there is a global community of people who care enough about a subject to ensure that the information on the wiki was correct.

There are also two specific incidents which provide evidence of the way in which wikis can be self-regulating and culturally sensitive. Firstly, the screencast refers to an incident of vandalism in which a contributor simply filled the article with offensive language. Within minutes of the language appearing someone else had edited it to remove it. The offensive language appeared three or four times subsequently but each time it was removed very quickly. The second incident concerned a contribution which referred to the umlaut's German origins and seemed to imply that style of lettering used in heavy metal had associations with Hitler and Nazism. Again, the tone of the article was edited over time so that the German origins were still referred to, but the references to Nazism were removed.

These incidents suggest that the majority of people who contribute to Wikipedia do so responsibly and indeed are committed to ensuring that the information uploaded is both accurate and sensitive to cultural values. The open technology of Wikipedia can result in the validity of some articles being questionable, but at the same time a self-regulating and self-correcting culture seems to have grown up around Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is widely dismissed, particularly by academics, as being an unreliable source which students should not use for their research. Whilst I accept that the dynamic nature of a resource such as Wikipedia demands a degree of caution, I think it is wrong to dismiss it out of hand. Some people view Wikipedia as simply providing a forum for cranks and mischief-makers, and undoubtedly there are many examples of this but, as the screencast shows, over time the socially responsible members of the community will promote the veracity of the content.

References

Hammond, M (2010) "What is an affordance and can it help us understand the use of ICT in education?" in Education & Information Technologies; Sep2010, Vol. 15 Issue 3, p205-217

McCloughlin, C. and Lee, M. (2007) 'Social software and participatory learning: Pedagogical choices with technology affordances in the Web 2.0 era', in Proceedings ASCILITE Singapore 2007, p.664–675.


 

Thursday, 3 March 2011

My first screencast

This week in H807 we have been examining podcasts and associated technologies such as RSS feeds. We have been encouraged to create our own podcast, and I was racking my brain trying think of something remotely interesting to talk about. I then remembered an online resource which was brought to my attention by one of my fellow students on H800 last year. It's called screenr and it's a free online facility for creating screencasts. A screencast is essentially a digital recording of your computer screen output. It will record whatever is visible on your screen, and you can add a voiceover or commentary to accompany it simply by speaking into the computer's microphone as you move around the screen.

I thought I would be much more likely to use this than a straightforward audio podcast. Having never actually produced either a podcast or a screencast before I thought this exercise would provide me with the impetus to give it a go. Once I got to the screenr website I was creating my first screencast within minutes. I must confess that I messed up my first attempt because I hadn't prepared anything, but ten minutes later I had a second attempt and produced this four minute screencast. It demonstrates to students how to access a particularly useful resource, and I thought it would be the type of thing that would be helpful for new first year students:


NB: If you happen to be viewing this blog on an iPad then the embedded screencast probably won't appear. If you want to see the screencast, try this direct link
 

The screencasts are limited to five minutes, but that's plenty of time for a simple task like this. Once you have completed your screencast you can review it and decide whether to publish it or delete it. Screenr links directly to Twitter, and if you decide to publish your screencast you do so initially through a tweet. It takes a few minutes to process the screencast but that's no big deal. Subsequently you have the option to share it with others or embed it in a blog or a webpage.

I was quite surprised at how simple it was and I think I'll definitely be making use of use of it again.