Stop stuffing the syllabus

Note: I’m specifically talking about the UK context, I’m not qualified to talk about other contexts such as the US where the differing nature of how Universities operate might make stuffing a good idea. 

A Woman carrying a lot of folders stuffed with paper and screaming!
I’ll just read these ten conflicting syllabus.

So it’s at this time of year, I see people posting about what they are including in their syllabus for the courses/modules in the New Year. A recurring theme is all of the additional support material that they are going to include that is not directly related to the module. –information about mental health, student finance etc. 

On the face of it, this seems an excellent idea to help students and who could be against it? 

Well… me.

I’ve come to the conclusion (from working with multiple Business Schools and students across the UK) that this type of practice causes more confusion than clarity and it is likely to cause information overload that prevents students getting the help they need and other negative outcomes. Individual academics feel they have done something and this method surely helps some students in some circumstances but is suboptimal to help the maximum number of students.

Let’s talk a little bit about information overload (my PhD was in Information Seeking Behaviour). In simple terms, when presented with a document (say a syllabus) there is a point at which people shift from not overloaded to overloaded and there are certain factors that will increase the likelihood of hitting this tipping point and others that will decrease it – some are to do with the information itself and it’s presentation and others to do with personal factors. 

For our purposes, let’s just say that ‘not-overloaded’ is when the reader can handle the quantity of information they are required to process. 

Problems with stuffing – Duplication

The first problem is that at the start of the semester, students are absolutely bombarded with information. They will receive multiple syllabus and each of these syllabus might include or not include this information in multiple different (and often conflicting!) ways.  

They will therefore be trying to read multiple overstuffed syllabus in a short period of time while often juggling a part-time job, caring responsibilities, health issues etc. The more we bombard them with potentially duplicate information, the more we reduce the novelty of the information and the more likely they are to skim it or simply not read it.  We already know that a significant portion of students never read the syllabus – how can making it longer help? 

Therefore a syllabus should always be unique and it’s unique because it contains only information about that module/course itself and does not duplicate information provided elsewhere.  As a result, it should also be really short (There are far more effective ways to provide things like reading lists at the point of need). 

Problems with stuffing – Domain expertise

Most academics are not mental health professionals or indeed experts in anything outside their own field.  I’ve read many course syllabus that contain a range of helpful non-academic material and it often:

  • Simply wrong
  • Slightly right but out of date
  • Differs from current best practice in the University
  • Differs from current best practice as provided by actual specialists
  • Provides URLs that are bust and go nowhere

This is all done with good intentions but it is a outcome of the ‘academics should be specialists in everything’ mess that academia is currently in. We might be the right people to point students in the direction of the information, we generally aren’t the right people to write it. There are always better placed people with specific domain expertise who can provide this. 

This can add to the student of information overload because the presentation or complexity of the language we use might be inappropriate for the message we are trying to convey. 

Even if you individually provide information you are happy with, how do you know that your fellow academics are doing the same? How does the student determine if the information you provide is correct or the information they provide is correct? 

Alternatives to stuffing

So if we aren’t stuffing – what are we doing? Well the answer is – academics should facilitate access to useful information but they not create it and they should not own it. Individual academics acting as information silos is a terrible idea.  This requires a bit of joined up thinking from Universities.

  • Each important bit of information (say Mental health) should have an owner – they provided the canonical source of information. 
  • This information should never be provided as a word document and never provided in an email – as soon as you create a word document, you create drift and some student somewhere will be provided with out of date information an academic has saved on their desktop.
  • You need the help of good web-designers, buy-in from support teams to provide a very simple top level portal which provides this information.

The role of the  *individual* academic is then to facilitate access to this information. The role of the *department/University* is to work out the best way for this to happen.  Stuffing the syllabus is to me the wrong level of abstraction.  It also creates uncertainty (another aspect of information overload) because students become unsure about the ‘purpose’ of documents – are they academic documents, support documents, administrative documents?  

At the moment (and this shift overtime) – my preferred method is to have a tab at the top level of the VLE on each individual course. Students might not read everything but they will see this each time they log-on. All the tab does is redirect to the portal.  

In this method, I’m happy that students always have the correct most upto date information and also new staff also have the most update correct information rather than receiving what might be out of date information second-hand from other staff. 

There is also an issue of staff workload that I’m only going to touch on briefly – this system to me is more equal because it stops a syllabus creating the impression (because staff have stuffed their syllabus with ‘helpful’ stuff) that THIS staff member is about serious academic stuff because they don’t include this information and THAT staff member is the likely candidate for emotional labour because they do.  Changing how and where this information is provided enforces that this is a collective not individual responsibility. 

 

Surface a go go for teaching and learning – Surface Go thoughts

So a little while ago, I ordered some Surface Pro devices for the Business School.  Although they could be taken to staff to meeting, the intention they would mainly be used for teaching – especially around Accountancy and Economics where the pen support would be useful.  In particularly for teaching, the advantage of the Surface is that you can project what you are doing to the front of the room while moving around from group to group (see this rather rough youtube I recorded):

Shift forward a year and I’ve just taken possession of a number of Surface Go devices (you can read the full spec here – we have the 128gb, 8gb version).

There are a couple of noticeable difference from the Pro – the size is smaller (10″ screen) and it uses a slow Intel Gold Mobile processor. I must confess at the time of purchase, I was concerned that the processor was going to be an issue and wondered about the smaller screen size.

However after a week or so of usage, I’m a convert and prefer it to the Surface Pro as a secondary machine. This is for a couple of reasons:

  • The screen size means that it has a portability as a corridor warrior (moving from classroom to classroom, meeting to meeting) that is superior to the pro.
  • The processor has caused me no concerns at all in practice – it does everything I need to do and does it welll;
  • Keyboard is small and nice (it’s no thinkpad keyboard but what is?);
  • Battery life is solid and although it does have it’s own propriety charger, it also uses USB-C so when travelling, I just taken the same (powerful third party) charger for my Laptop and phone;
  • When using in class, the weight is much much better for spending an hour moving around and interacting with people.

A surface go tablet charging
My Surface Go – notice how it is charging from USB-C which adds convenience when travelling.

Obviously if you want to do photo-shop or something with heavy processing this is not the machine for you but as a *department device* for people to book in and out for specific purposes, I think it’s a winner.

 

 

Taking action.

Actionable provides tips to academics on how to use technology for teaching and research

So from a teaching perspective, last year was an interesting year – I won another Student Led Teaching award and I am currently short-listed for ‘Most Innovative Teacher in Higher Education’ by the THE …which is nice. 

However it has been pointed out to me that I’m not great at sharing practice so I’ve set up actionable simply to share tips on using technology to save time and enhance teaching (and I’ve been asked to do some tips for research so will do). A new tip will appear every week and every single tip can be put into action immediately. The first four weeks are already up and available. Actionable isn’t intended for navel-gazing or long diatribes about practice – its presented on a take or all leave it basis. It’s also partly to do with my frustrating with a lot of #Edtech conversations at the moment which are so high-level as to worthless to someone wanting to try out something new. There is a place for that, it’s just not at Actionable. 

Enjoy.

Charles

Academic Toolkit: ThinkPad x260

Why I recommend the Thinkpad x260 for academic work.

If, in an alternative dimension, I did product reviews, I’d think they’d look like this. 

There are a lot of general consumer review sites so I will not replicate what they do.  Instead I am going to review my new Lenovo Thinkpad X260 in terms of how it fits an academic life-style and working habits. The ThinkPad range is Lenovo’s business aimed line and not to be confused with their cheaper laptops.

Black is the new black - if you want sleek good looks then you are looking in the wrong place.
Black is the new black – if you want sleek good looks then you are looking in the wrong place.

As a management academic, I tend to live in MS office, Nvivo and also light use of Android Studio and Lightroom. I have a desktop machine at home and this is my portable solution. If you do want to consider this as a sole device, you can get a dock for it so that at home it instantly connects to a monitor, external keyboard etc. 

For academic purposes, I think the key reason you should consider this laptop (and why I picked it over a macbook) are:

* Excellent battery life – I get about 15 hours on medium brightness with the six cell battery. Yes you read that right, 15 hours. This is because the ThinkPad has a swappable external battery and an internal battery. I don’t charge it for two or three days at a time. If I am going away for a weekend break, I don’t bother with the charger at all. For conferences, this means that when out and about, I’m not searching for power or having to carry the extra weight. During term, I can go from class to class with no worries about power. In two years or so if needed, I can simply replace the external battery. 

The battery life is fantastic.
The battery life is fantastic.

* Good keyboard – the keyboard on this device is excellent with a good range of travel. Yes the Macbook is thinner but the trade-off is in the feel of the keyboard. I can type for hours on this beast. I should also point out that due to the design of the x260 if you spill anything on the keyboard, it drains straight through. The keyboard also lights up if you like that sort of thing. 

The keyboard has a lovely feel to it - I can write for hours on it with no problems. 
The keyboard has a lovely feel to it – I can write for hours on it with no problems. 

* Ports – yes,yes I know you can get an adaptor for the Macbook but this thing has three USBs (one you can use to charge other devices – handy at the airport), Ethernet, SD, HDMI, Display port and has a VGA adaptor in the box. VGA is an old standard but you just know that when you rock up to give a talk, the one connection will be a VGA one. My university is slowing moving more and more rooms to HDMI but I think it will be a while until VGA completely dies out in the sector. 

* Fingerprint reader – I initially didn’t think this would be much of a benefit but academics are ‘corridor warriors’ going from meeting to meeting. This is really useful because I open the lid, slide my finger over the reader and away we go. It’s a little thing but on a daily basis is a neat little touch.

* Connectivity – You might not want or need this but I can put a data simcard in this device and use it with no other devices or without wifi. If you are using this on wifi, you can turn it into a hotspot for other devices to connect to.

* Upgradability – I don’t actually plan to do this for the moment but it’s fairly easy for the user to upgrade the RAM, hard-drive etc – something that a lot of thinner laptops have made harder if not impossible…

* Toughness – I throw my laptops around, the Lenovo is designed to meet Milspec – for academic purposes this thing will take a beating (and a glass of wine on the keyboard – see below). People who buy Thinkpads tend to stick to them for that reason.

 

So when considering a new laptop, I’d certainly recommend looking at the Thinkpad – with academic discounts and a few voucher codes I got it for £770 with a three year onsite (they come to me) warranty. I went for a midrange spec but many people could get away with the base spec. Now you might be reacting to the price but find that the reason that people have such terrible experiences with Windows Laptops is that they spend £250 on a consumer grade laptop and wonder why the experience isn’t as good as a £1000 macbook…  

The specification of my device for people who care is:

– Intel Core i5-6200U Processor (3MB Cache, up to 2.80GHz)
– Windows 10 Home 64
– 12.5 FHD IPS (1920 x 1080) Non-Touch
– 8GB DDR4-2133 SODIMM
– Intel HD Graphics 520
– Software TPM & Hardware dTPM
– Keyboard Backlit – English UK
– UltraNav (TrackPoint and ClickPad) with Fingerprint Reader
– Software TPM Enabled
– 720p HD Camera
– 192 GB Solid State Drive, SATA3
– 3 Cell Li-Ion Battery 23.2WH Front
– 6 Cell Li-Ion Battery 72WH Cylindrical Rear
– 45W AC Adapter – UK(3pin)
– Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC(2×2) 8260, Bluetooth Version 4.1
– Integrated Mobile Broadband
– Mini DP/VGA Adapter
– Think 3 Year On-site

 

 

We all got bored of lecturing.

Due to various facts I forgot to post some conclusions to my attempts to teach digital skills by killing off lectures and seminars for my project management module. Part 1 and 2 discussed in detail how it worked. 

This post is a following up to:

Part 1): I got bored of lecturing so I quit.

Part 2): I got bored of lecturing so the students quit me

Go and read the previous posts or this makes little sense. 

So how did it all end? 

Student activity and interest remained high all the way through the module and the feedback was excellent (which is always good to hear). Not a single student asked in their feedback for lectures to return. 

  • The group tasked to produce an Enterprise App turned into a solid report and a demo that we are now taking forward as a University to produce a full-blown app which we hope to have ready for September 2017. 
  • The group who were asked to produce a OER textbook also did an excellent job and I plan to use their text with my finalist strategy class in the 2016/2017 academic year. 

If I was going to make a tweak to the module, I might actually break the two larger groups down into two smaller groups so students have more choice in projects. I might also see if I can get some of this year’s class to come back and spend a few hours as advisers for the next class to take the module. 

In fact the whole thing has been so successful that I don’t plan to have any significant changes for the next year and indeed am currently looking at ways to spin out the student think-tank into a ongoing social enterprise. The module would act as the ‘training’ for the social enterprise and students would then work for external clients on larger scale projects. 

All the way through the biggest challenge has been for me to simply stand back and let the students get on with it and make their own decisions. I ended up making a lot of tea, eating a lot of biscuits but never had to step in to ‘save’ a failing project.  My key aim therefore of skills and academic development via getting out of the way has been achieved. 

Besides the specific module goals there has been a good mixture of digital skills development in here. 

Jisc talk about developing digital literacy to support digital practices and we can see it below in this diagram:

Digital capabilities needed to work and live in a digital society - taken from: https://www.jisc.ac.uk/guides/developing-students-digital-literacy This work is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND
Digital capabilities needed to work and live in a digital society – taken from: https://www.jisc.ac.uk/guides/developing-students-digital-literacy This work is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

 

So how did the students develop in any of these areas? 

Communication and collaboration

I had actually paid for some professional project management software. Both groups of students quickly established that it wasn’t fit for purpose for the management of their projects. Independently, they assessed different options and settled on a mixture of google docs (production), slack and some Facebook (co-ordination/collaboration). Most communication moved from email to the use of real-time editing using google documents. 

Digital creation innovation and scholarship

One of the hot topics in digital creation is the small matter of IPR. I did have to give both student groups a little prompt about the various levels of copyright protection a work might or might not have. As a result of this, the student groups for both the enterprise app and the textbook had to start thinking carefully – what are the resource and time implications of gathering and remixing content under a creative commons or other license or simply creating bespoke content. 

Digital learning and Self-development

This in many respects was the most interesting aspect of their digital skills development. In both groups, students self-organised into vital roles – roles that the students themselves had never occupied before but identified as vital. For example – who was going to manage and allocate project hours? Who’s job was in a group to check the copyright status of material that could used? 

Overall – I think the fundamental message I took from this is the same idea I started with – provide a solid framework but get out of the way.