Friday, 31 October 2008

Are we nearly there yet?

As a dad and veteran of many car journeys from the midlands to the north, I’m used to people trying to get a handle on how much further there is to go. I recently had another experience of this when someone asked me about Sounds Good. They were under the impression that we were ‘nearly there’.

We’ve certainly come a long way. After setting off in January, we followed the map quite closely. By July we’d given about 15 Leeds Met staff and 460 students experience of audio feedback on coursework. Pleasingly, whichever side of the microphone they were on, the great majority liked it. We shouted out of the windows and encouraged passers-by to get started. We showered them with leaflets, to try to help.

Amid the din, there were messages from JISC. They wanted us to extend the journey, to do ‘Sounds Good 2’ and work with two Higher Education Academy subject centres. But before we embarked on that, we had a summer break.

Come September, we were back on the road. ‘Sounds Good 2’ is about introducing more Leeds Met staff and students to audio feedback, as well as helping three other places to begin using it. Hence the flurry of meetings on home territory and gigs at Newman University College, Birmingham, the University of Northampton and York St John University.

The engineering and GEES subject centres have also got going. They’ve been funded under JISC’s ‘Widening stakeholder engagement’ initiative to help engineers and geographers start using audio for assessment feedback. Their plans include input from several folks who work with audio and, for my part, I’ve already visited Cardiff and Loughborough universities.

So are we nearly there yet? No. The road map now stretches to next March and quite a few new colleagues will be following us in their vehicles. There’s plenty of noise, most of which sounds good. However, some are only just getting into first gear and – as ever – I worry they may stall. Dropping the metaphor for a moment, there’s much to do if several new groups of people are to be successfully introduced to audio feedback and if the knowledge base is to be expanded.

In terms my kids would understand, when we set off I said we were going to Blackpool to see Grandma. We’ve been there, done that, and it was great. However, there’s been a change of plan. When we get to the M6 we’ll turn left for the Lake District rather than right to go home directly. And all the while I’ve got to watch the rear-view mirror to be sure our friends are still with us. It’s become a longer, more complicated journey but there’s lots to see and do, and it could be more fun. Let’s enjoy the ride.

Now then, I spy with my little eye…

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Mean time for Greenwich

Last Thursday, 23 October, was a great night out in London for 10 from Leeds Met (and about 1,300 others). We were at the Grosvenor House Hotel in Park Lane for the Times Higher Awards. I’ve previously mentioned that Sounds Good was shortlisted for an award in the category for ‘outstanding contribution to innovation and technology’. I also wrote that my reaction to this news was “Wow, I’m amazed!” It’s not false modesty when I say that, although I’m very pleased with the way Sounds Good is going, I didn’t think for a moment it would win an award.

And so it proved. In the ‘innovation and technology’ category, the worthy winner was the University of Greenwich with a method of combining the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide with toxic waste to produce material which can be used in concrete blocks. That’s much more likely to ‘make a difference’ than Sounds Good. I didn’t meet any of the Greenwich folks, but I bet they had a mean time celebrating!

The Leeds Met contingent – which included several members of the Sounds Good team – enjoyed itself too. My greatest achievement on the night was to stay upright whilst ‘dancing’ to the Stones. Thanks to all who made the evening possible: JISC who fund the project; the team for their great work; my manager, Sally Brown, for nominating us; Leeds Met for paying for the trip.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Sounds Good Piped.

I’ve been playing around recently with Yahoo Pipes, so when I decided to trawl the web for info about Sounds Good, it seemed an ideal opportunity to try it out for real. So, here’s a pipe that pipes in info about Sounds Good and audio feedback from various news and blog sites I like on the web. It’s not particularly sophisticated, so feel free to adapt it if you like. .

Newman joins Sounds Good 2.

I first came across the Sounds Good project when I attended a session that Will Stewart, Bob Rotheram and Martina Doolan ran at the Next Generation Environments Conference at Aston back in April. Newman is a small college which prides itself in the personal attention we are able to give to our students so, if Sounds Good was showing that students valued audio feedback, I was sure our staff would be interested. We are also, like all universities, concerned with providing timely feedback and often there is a tension between constructive and comprehensive feedback and the speed at which it can be delivered. Although the first phase of Sounds Good did not suggest that providing audio feedback would reduce the time involved in providing it, it did suggest that with practice and by observing certain ways of working, it could be provided quite quickly. I returned to Newman and spread the word and soon had several keen tutors who wanted to get involved. Bob Rotheram visited us at the end of September and we are now officially on board and I hope bring to the project a diverse range of subjects and students. Joining in the second phase of the project allows us to benefit from the experience gained in the first phase and we can’t wait to start!

Bob Ridge-Stearn
Head of e-Learning, Newman University College, Birmingham.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Burglars, teachers and windows

Question: What’s the connection between burglars due in court and university teachers launching modules? Answer: Windows. If the link isn’t immediately obvious, it’s probably because your career has been different from mine. I used to be a probation officer and now I’m a university staff developer.

When they hear the word ‘windows’, many people involved with technology think first of the computer operating system. I’m very involved with technology: the core of my job is about its uses in assessment. What’s more, I’m producing this piece with the help of Windows. But my PC is behaving itself today and Microsoft’s money-spinner isn’t what’s on my mind. Instead, I’m reflecting on the last couple of weeks of Sounds Good activity and am keenly aware that I’m using windows as much as I can.

Burglars, teachers and windows? Mmm.

In my previous blog post, ‘Let’s not get carried away’, I noted that I’d spent September racing around leading sessions about Sounds Good. Since then I’ve done several more, including two last Friday. Some of the ‘gigs’ have been by invitation, others because I’ve taken the initiative. More than once, it has been difficult to fit the session in but I’ve made the effort. Why push myself? Windows.

Burglars, teachers and windows? Need clues? Anxiety. Dissatisfaction.

Right now, the beginning of the academic year in UK higher education, can be a pretty anxious time, and not just for new students. It’s when teaching staff make key decisions and establish patterns for the next chunk of time – the term, semester or year. Some will be worried or uneasy about how they are going to run their modules and assess the students. At times like these they may be more than usually receptive to snake-oil salesmen who offer the prospect of both making their lives easier and pleasing students. But soon, for better or worse, the teachers will have made their major decisions on assessment, learning and teaching. Anxiety levels will have fallen, along with the chances of them buying snake oil – until the cycle begins again.

The windows I have in mind are, of course, windows of opportunity. I used to try to exploit them with burglars up for sentence and anxious to show they were turning their lives around. Nowadays my target group is very different but the strategy is the same: get the timing right; use temporarily-raised anxiety and dissatisfaction to produce a public declaration of changed ways; hope for a better course of events. A gentle nudge may be all it takes.

Gotta go. Snake oil – sorry, audio feedback – to sell and I can hear the sound of windows closing.