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…

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.