Going ultra-wide for productivity purposes

A 34" Ultrawide monitor connected to a laptop

Someone on Twitter DM’d me about my home set-up and use of an Ultra-wide monitor. Read on if you are the sort of academic/knowledge worker who concerns themselves with workflow.

What is an Ultra-wide?

So an Ultra-wide is a class of monitor that is 21×9 or other ratios that stretches the horizontal bias rather than the standard 16×9 ratio. The monitor I have is a 34″ Philip 346B. You can see below how this compares to a standard 25″ monitor (1).

This is a simple of two rectangles to show how an ultra wide is much longer than a traditional monitor.
1: The difference between in size between the 34″ Ultra-wide I’m using (Purple) and a normal 25″ (green) monitor.

Ultra-wide monitors are more expensive than other types of monitor but are coming down in price and worth considering if you are upgrading. My advice is go 29″ or if the budget allows it 34″ as at 25″ you end up with as much vertical space as a 19″ monitor.

If you are a Laptop user with USB-C, get a monitor that has a USB-C hub to both charge and allow you to plug everything else (keyboard, mouse, headphones) into the monitor and attach the laptop via one cable. Something else to be aware of is that most allow you to plug in multiple devices and switch between them with a couple of taps or PiP (Picture in picture) where you can have two devices on one screen (2).

An ultra-wide monitor on a desk connected to a laptop.
2: A laptop plugged into an Ultra-wide – this is connected via a single USB-C cable and the monitor has 4 USB ports on the back.

Using an ultra-wide for productivity

The major benefit for knowledge workers is that when reviewing and editing documents you can see more of the document at any given point. In word at normal size, you can see multiple pages at once – a minimum of 4 pages at normal zoom and more if you decrease the zoom (3).

An image of Microsoft word on an ultrawide monitor. It demonstrates you can see four pages on one screen.
3: Four pages at once in Word.

Similar benefits are found in Microsoft Excel and at normal zoom, I can see from A to BA (52 columns) in one go (4). This makes dealing with financial planning documents easier (but no less painless).

An image of Microsoft excel to demonstrate you can see 52 columns in one go.
4: Excel – Rows A to BA

The other advantage of using an Ultra-wide is that you get the real estate of dual monitors but without a gap. I’m a windows user and just using the built-in Windows snap, you end up with two very large usable windows (5).

This images shows how you can have two applications at one open in large format on an ultrawide screen.
5: Standard two application version

Microsoft does provide something called Fancyzones that allows you to reconfigurable more complex ‘zones’ to divide up the screen. Here I’m using 3 columns to allow me to using multiple programmes at once (say a reference manager, word and a library search – 6).

This image shows that you can be more complex and have three programmes open at once side by side on an ultrawide monitor
6: Here I have WordPress, PowerPoint and Excel all open at usable sizes.

Issues with Ultra-wide monitors

Ultra-wide monitors have a number of quirks that it is worth understanding. The first is that the web is not designed for them. If you have one browser tab open, websites have massive amounts of white space (even more if you are a pihole user like myself).

In the image below, you can see that the Guardian for example does not take advantage of what an ultra-wide can offer. I tend to mitigate this by having multiple windows open and always using it as if it is two screens (7).

This shows if you go to the Guardian - because it's not formatted for an ultrawide, it's main white and grey space.
7: I like a wide open space…

Another thing to watch out for – if you are a google docs user, it absolutely sucks on an ultra-wide because in 2020 it still lacks a multi-page view (8).

This shows that google documents is not set up for multi-pages and shows google docs open with a single page showing and lots and lots of white space.
8: Google docs and its “one page is plenty” world-view.


Having used two monitors for a number of years and now switched to an ultra-wide, I would not go back – I find the ultra-wide experience superior in every way.

Managing the Digital Divide as a manager

A couple of weeks ago I put up a short post that poked fun at well.. people like me.

UK Higher Education is spending a lot of time thinking about the ‘digital divide’ and the impact on progressing and new students. Most UK universities are settling around blended delivery and are carefully planning for that mode of delivery.

In my home set-up, I have two large desks (see below) both with desktop PCs so myself and my wife Andrea can both work. The *slowest* machine in the house is a laptop with a brand new 10th Generation i7 processor and 16GB of ram. Each machine is equipped with a HD webcam and professional headset. The smallest screen in the office is 25″ and I use a 34″ ultra-wide. Oh and my broadband connection is gigabit (well 910mps)…

Me at desk 1 – there is another identical desk to the right of this set-up.

I do not mention this to brag but to acknowledge that I exist in a bubble. As a manager, rather than an educator, I need to think very carefully about how this influences both my own practice but also any policy discussions I am party to. Higher Education managers tend to be older, wealthier, more settled and therefore be able to mitigate issues at home.

The physical campus environment, regardless of my own home set-up, was shared by other staff. Therefore the limitations and opportunities were shared, regardless of our individual ability we felt the same frustrations. If I taught in a lecture space with a dodgy projector, it was a problem for all of us. This provided a level of collective understanding when the photocopy was yet again jammed.

We are in a period where gaps have opened up between staff because of the individualised nature of producing content from home (I am discussing the technical and avoiding problems such as the gendered research gap that is opening up or the nature of caring responsibilities). The challenge for managers is to think about the tension between creating a high quality experience for students and the technical limitations faced by staff.

It would be easy to think this could be solved by providing kit. However kit is no good without training and also a systematic pedagogical framework to operate within. Therefore as a minimum (remember I’m only looking at the technical) you need:

  1. Kit (a machine capable of what you need to do)
  2. Infrastructure (a connection fast enough to benefit from 1)
  3. Training (an idea of what to do with 1 and 2)
  4. Time (Space to work out what to do in the context of 1, 2 and 3).

Universities have control over 1, 3 and 4 but for many academics, 2 is likely to be a bottleneck and a difficult one to solve. Some Universities are looking to solve this by providing 4G hotspots to staff or other means. However it will be a problem come September for staff who never settled in geographical locations based on an assumption that they could deliver online….

The other part of the digital divide we need to consider is in recruitment. All employment interviews are being conducted online and we have to take care not to confuse the production quality with the professional quality. In *theory*, we should treat all candidates the same but how do we mitigate for the fact that one candidate is streaming in HD with high quality audio while another keeps cutting out and sounds like a dalek due to the low quality of their equipment and their broadband connection.

It should not influence our decisions but I think it will and we need to think systematically how we avoid this as a sector. Answers on how we deal with this gratefully received…

The Academic Digital Divide – A conversation

This is for my friend Elke who reminded me with a tweet that we have to be mindful that many academics are working in difficult situations – I’m not saying that’s actually me in the conversation below but it could be…

Recording content at home for online delivery? That’s easy – let me talk you through the process mate.

So what I tend to do is that I use my DSLR on a tripod to record the visual with a blue yeti to separately capture the audio.

What’s that you only have a low-res webcam? Oh well make the best of that I guess but it’s going to be pretty grainy and the sound quality might be a bit hit and miss.

Anyway once I’ve captured the material in the corner of my home office that is now a recording space with a dedicated laptop, I switch over to the desktop on because it’s got plenty of RAM (32gb) and the graphics card means that it renders pretty quickly.

You’ve only got a old laptop and a kitchen table? Kids get getting in shot you say? Tricky but I don’t have any, so no idea about that – can they not watch Disney plus or something?

So I take the material and I use Abode Audition to clean up the audio and then in my workflow, I use Adobe Premier to construct and edit – I’ve got my own title sequence and idents.

You don’t have any technical skill because you were never required to have any? Oh.

Anyway – once it’s all rendered – 1080p is the format to output it with because you want the highest resolution possible and then use your online streaming platform to adaptively change the resolution according to what the viewer is seeing? The files sizes are pretty big – some get as big as 4gb, I’m so glad I have unlimited Ultrafast broadband of about 500mbps down and 200mpbs up.

You are still on ADSL? It’s limited to 5mbps? That’s painful.

Anyway – need to crack-on as I’m working on my new title sequence and want to make sure the jingle is right.

End of Days mode (Transition to new job)

person pulling travel luggage
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

So as I write this, I’ve got just under 4 weeks before I leave my current role at Edge Hill University Business School and take up a new role as an Associate Dean at Salford Business School.

It occurs to me that there is very little advice about the *practical* aspects of this – this is my non-definitive list of things that I need to do and might be helpful to other people and I’m going to update it as I go along – Red are suggestions from social media:

  • Export and back-up work emails (we use 0365 so relatively straight forward) – because the account will die on my final day and there are projects and contacts that are on-going
  • Export and back-up any files that I have in my work onedrive that are specific to me (eg teaching material etc).
  • Identify which contacts I have who I need to email my new email address when I get it
  • Work out what is a) being transported home, b) being skipped, c) being sent to new office
  • Raid the stationary cupboard

What’s in my bag: Academic edition

this post is inspired by this. It’s the end of the year and I’m tired so just a bit of fun…

So in terms of getting back and forth to campus (I’ve just a cheap bag I keep in the office I keep teaching stuff in) I’ve got three options for an everyday bag.

Back and forth to work – This brown Saddleback slim briefcase – this bag will last out my career.

A picture of a brown leather briefcase.
Just wandering about…

If I need to carry more to work – this brown saddleback briefcase – you can get pretty much anything in it.

A large brown leather brief case.
Few more things to carry.. you can carry over shoulder or as backpack.

Overnight trip somewhere – This saddleback backpack – it’s like a tardis and great for two days and has a handy divider in it.

A large brown leather back-pack.
Two day trip? This is the bag – also has a divider in it you can store paper in…

In terms of pens, I’ve got two options I always carry – Parker pen and a 1970s Montblanc pen.

I’m a leftie so no ink pen for me.

I tend not to use paper but if I do write stuff down, then it has to be a red and black.

The classic

My wallet is this super-slim – The Ridge.

No fat wallet for me…

Tech is a bit more complex – around campus, it’s the Surface Go, away from campus and need to marking, an ipad (because turnitin works off-line and thus anyway).

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

If it’s longer off campus and I’ve got a lot of content to write – it has to be the thinkpad x260 (soon to be upgraded to an x1 carbon) – all day (hot-swappable!) battery, every port known to (wo)man and best in class keyboard.

A picture of a black laptop - a thinkpad x260
I’d buy a macbook but I work for a living and need something where the keyboard will not fail… 😉

Now if we got into shoes and watches that could be an entirely different post but for shoes I favour brands such as Trickers like this

Trickers Woodstocks – great everyday shoe – will last for decades.

And trickers like this:

Hi! Nice to meet you, don’t worry you will not remember my name but just look out for these purple shoes at the lunch!
Today’s watch was an Oris..

On being a working class academic (or not).

Me at 23 in South America

I recently got approached about contributing to a publication about being a working class academic, I demurred. The reason is that I feel there is (or should be) a time limit on claiming to be a working class academic. After receiving a free degree, a free masters and a free PhD, I’d be embarrassed to tell a 21 year old today that I understood the situation they were in if they were considering being an academic.

However it’s not just the free education that makes me wary of providing advice to young WC people considering if they want to be an academic, it’s also my lived experience when I was your actual working class hero. Time for some family history…

So I grew up in rural Shropshire in a place called Ellesmere (come visit it’s lovely) – my Dad was a miner, then a lorry driver and then a sales rep and my mum worked in a care home. I’m the youngest of five and I grew up on a council estate called Berwyn View (where my parents still live). I attended the local comp and then went off to the local college to do a BTEC.

Good stuff for a working class academic narrative – however the problem is that I lived in warm clean house and we were never short. I have no idea how the benefits system work because I never used it and I have no idea of what it was to go hungry as a child because we had full cupboards. I have absolutely no idea what it’s like to go to school in shoes with holes in them or any of the other stuff that people often stereo-typically expect from a working class upbringing. The council estate I lived on backed onto fields, and in regards to crime, I do remember someone stealing some lollies from a shed when I was a teenager.

hair was cool, I miss having hair.

Fundamentally there is a gap in my lived experience and what people want from a WC academic or expect it to be like. So at times, when I follow the chat on twitter about being a working class academic, I often feel that my own personal history, and people like me, are seen as not authentic enough because it’s simply not miserable enough (I’ve never suffered from impostor syndrome as a result of being WC – sorry). When I’ve explained this to people they appear disappointed (Surely some drugs, poverty and crime in there? You know that’s all is to being working class) because middle class people get a complexity of experience but working class people have to conform to a series of rigid stereotypes seen via a prism of poverty.

This now reads as if I’m bragging but I guess it’s just me sticking a flag in the sand and saying I’m allowed to have my own personal history even if it doesn’t chime with others and it doesn’t make my origins any less working class or as I might have said when I was 18, if you don’t like it, you can ram it up your hoop.

Transition to independence – Framing the UG Thesis

One of the big challenges for teaching Undergraduates is getting the balance right between providing support and opportunities for students to develop their independence.

This is particularly important for finalists who are making the transition from students to graduand to graduate and moving from a highly structured environment to one where their level of autonomy and responsibility might increase rapidly.

The final year thesis/dissertation represents a challenging space where students are ideally moving towards this independence. However in practice, this transition does not occur for many and there is still an over-reliance on the supervisor providing the ‘correct answers’ with the problematical outcome that the project becomes the vision of the supervisor not the student.

This academic year I experimented with trying to frame more clearly in the mind of the student that the research project is one they should drive not be driven by. I quickly realised that the easiest way to do this was to get the students to actively initiate their thesis rather than passively wait for the process to roll over them.

The route to this was very straight-forward. We held an induction session for all of the Mgmt, Marketing and Advertising students undertaking the thesis where they were presented with a physical and electronic pack of key information (Assessment criteria, module handbook).

Although supervisors were pre-allocated based on research proposals, we made it clear that they needed to signal to us that they were ready to start via completing and signing a key information sheet. The sheet included key dates and other vital information.

This is a description of what students were agreeing they had read - the handbook and assessment briefs
Students has to agree to the above statements.

Once the sheet was completed, the student uploaded it and was told the name of their supervisor. In the first instance, this was useful because not completing the form promptly indicated at the start of the process that there was an issue that might need further investigation and assistance.

However the real reason for this process was to help them with the transition into being an independent learner – as really it helped to establish the parameters of what they were responsible for and what the supervisor is responsible for. The process of starting the thesis was therefore one where they controlled.

Now a question that I get asked about this process is – what stops a student just uploading it without reading any of these things? Absolutely nothing.

The students can use their agency to simply upload it without reading a thing! However just like anything else in life, it has the same consequences of signing a financial or employment contract that you have never read. This is not to provide a ‘got ya!’ to the student but rather it further drives a conversation about responsibility and delineates the rule of the supervisor and the student on their road to independent researcher.

So If I am approached by a student who said “I was unaware of that deadline” – I present them with the two options:a) you signed it without reading it – your responsibility or b) You signed it and did read it but forgot – your responsibility. Again this is not intended to catch out students but our responsibility to prepare them for a world with less structure where signing things you haven’t read can be far more problematical… Especially given many of our students often end up free-lancing and signing contractual relationships where they promise to do X by Y.

Overall I think as a system it hasn’t been entirely without problems but it has been a success in trying to build more independence into the thesis that has existed previously.

Funny Business – what I learnt from doing stand-up comedy as a lecture

So last week because it was my final ever session with my finalists I decided to do something I have thought about previously but never done before – a stand-up comedy routine as a lecture…

The topic was a summary lecture to my digital economy module so covered material such as useless apps, theories on the development of technology and the problems of researching the digital economy from your office when every bit of research can lead you down a dark hole…

What I learnt

Stand-up is really really hard – it’s feels superficially similar to a lecture but it is very very different with its own pace. To complicate matters I needed the material to be funny but academically rigourous (thus a lengthy digression on how the technological deterministic perspective of history was wrong because men’s obsessions with their genitals actually drives society).

Now on the day I was very very nervous,because I had no idea how this would turn out, which the students picked up on (because I don’t get nervous).

I did the session and there were aspects that worked and some that did not work. If I every did this again, I’d lengthen some of the material and cut some other stuff.

What I really learnt

Here’s for me is what was really interesting about the experience. Over the following week, I received a number of emails off students who were concerned that I would be put off trying something like this again or simply wanted me to know that they appreciated me taking the effort to do something different. Some had suggestions for changes and others had ideas for theoretical concepts I could weave into my material !

This reminded me that it sometimes feels as if HE is something done to students bit really it’s a process of becoming – where something new – a lecture, a lecturer, a student are formed from the interaction between individuals, the experience of Higher Education and the organisation that mediates that experience and interaction.

So the lesson for me is that my becoming a lecturer is never over, it will keep shifting and changing over my career. That has to involve a level of risk and challenge, the sort of risks taken by trying to do something in a new format and the sorts of risk that we ask students to take all of the time when we assessment. The challenge that we ask graduates to rise up to when they take their next step.

Stop stuffing the syllabus

A woman screaming because of the amount of paper she has to write

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.