Hidden gems

GemsWhat makes a good learning experience? I’d say it all starts with people – the right student on the right course, working with the right tutor, where both parties have enough prior learning for the intellectual/skills transaction to be mutually useful. One of my favourite quotations (frustratingly unavailable on the Internet because it appeared only once in a National Teaching Fellowship print pamphlet editorial in 2005/6) was by Paul Ramsden, chief executive of the Higher Education Academy (and a blogger!).

Higher education is essentially a conversation – between more and less qualified learners.
Paul Ramsden, 2006

It follows, then, that (assuming a talented and knowledgeable/qualified staff team), getting the right students is key. If we have an over-subscribed course, with a surplus of applicants, our admissions process can be selective based on each applicant’s ability to benefit and thrive on that particular course. If we don’t have that surplus (i.e. if we’re merely ‘recruiting’ rather than ‘selecting’) then we may be forced into selecting the ‘wrong’ students, leading to a potential mismatch of curriculum, staff and students, and ultimately a weaker course. So that initial pool of applicants has to be substantially larger than the course places available, or we’re compromising the eventual student learning experience.

If you agree with my logic so far, you’ll also agree that it’s in everyone’s interest for that applicant pool to be as large as possible. And the tool we use to achieve this is, of course, marketing. Not just ‘promotion’, because marketing can include tangibles like RAE or NSS results, and these are part of building a reputation, which also counts for a lot among applicants, schools/colleges and parents. But promotion – providing interesting and exciting information about our courses, campus, staff and students – is certainly a large part of the chain of events that leads to a happy and successful on-programme student. My implication here is that marketing and promotion are, at one remove, a part of the student experience.

Studies (including our own) have shown that potential students looking for a course have three tiers of influence on their decision to apply for HE. They are, in order of effectiveness, open days, web searches, and printed prospectuses. Let’s discount open days (because these applicants are already interested in us; once a student has arrived at the campus they are likely to know a lot about the course/institution anyway). So the single most effective method for getting new students interested in our courses is the Internet.

The secret of excellence


Now to the anecdote. I met some visitors last week from a Further Education College, for some preliminary discussions around whether we might be able to run some courses together at some point in the future. We talked at length around their current FE provision (in Performing Arts), and the story was exceptional – partnerships with theatres, excellent student placements, European tours, high retention, and some advanced curriculum content that you might expect to find at HE (FHEQ) level 5, let alone at NQF level 3. The course was run by talented and charismatic staff with extensive experience as educators and practitioners.

The week before, in advance of our meeting, I Googled the course name, the college itself, and the names of the college staff who were to attend the meeting. The only thing I could find was a course page with three or four paragraphs of text, no images, no hyperlinks, and no reference to the estimable staff, industry partners or student performances associated with the course. In my case, this was not a problem – I met the staff and they filled me in on all this excellent activity (but they had it all to prove, considering my first impression of the course was actually fairly negative due to its poor web content). Now imagine I was an applicant, choosing between courses at different institutions. I might not even have applied. Drab, terse and pictureless prose is always going to lose out to dynamic, attractive and vibrant pages with links to projects, staff and student work. Truly, content is king.

The gatekeepers

Ask any HE or FE course leader why their web pages are unrepresentative of the quality of their curriculum or student/staff work, and you hear something like “that’s dealt with by the marketing/web people”, or perhaps “we’re trying to fix this, but the text has to be approved by marketing/committee/webmaster”. So we have a situation where people with an exciting story to tell (a story that would eventually directly benefit the student experience through solid recruitment) are not being heard.

KeysI think there are two reasons for this – a ‘gatekeeping’ mentality on the part of institutions, and a lack of tech knowledge on the part of some academics. The latter solves itself – (some of) those academics simply vote with their feet/mice and set up Facebook accounts, blogs and so on, but these are inevitably and rightly designed for on-programme students, rather than with recruitment in mind. And anyway, academics who are not engaging with these communication tools will eventually die out – in the literal sense – as a new generation of web-literate ‘natives’ become HE teachers.

The ‘gatekeeping’ issue reflects a one-to-many communication method that predates the web by more than a hundred years – that the institution ‘publishes’ online in much the same way it would print a prospectus – a single, annual ‘print run’ which is then set in stone until the following year’s recruitment cycle. This 365-day cycle is in sharp contrast to the way the web works – where pages and content is fluid and in a permanent cycle of change/development. JISC themselves have identified (in their Web 2.0 report) the average life of a web page to be between 44 and 75 days. I’ll post more on the JISC report soon, but for now you’ll find it in ‘links’ on the right hand side of this page.

If you limit the online communication (e.g. on the institutional website) centrally to a small handful of individuals (I call this the ‘print publishing’ website model), you achieve the following advantages for your pages;

  • maximum level of editorial control
  • accurate course pages (in terms of module content, admissions criteria etc)
  • technically correct and standards-compliant pages

But there are attendant disadvantages;

  • less content (a small number of gatekeepers have to do everything)
  • less relevant content (those gatekeepers don’t have the on-the-ground knowledge)
  • less up-to-date content (gatekeepers haven’t got time to update every page)

If you allow a free multi-user environment (let’s say where every member of a course team could update their own pages at any time), you achieve new advantages;

  • maximum relevance of content (the content comes from those with the most knowledge)
  • more content (the workload is shared)
  • more frequently updated content (the information is more up to date)

To achieve these advantages without descending into free-for-all chaos, some user management would be necessary, and this in itself is time-consuming. But a lot of this workload can be thrown back to the user – self-regulated password systems and levels of privs negotiated by line managers, not by ‘the IT department’.

ActorsOur own School website puts this philosophy into practice. 45 staff each have their own login, and all can upload student work, change course pages, add links to projects and so on, all driven by a simple browser-based content management system. Does this seem like a recipe for online chaos and contradictory ‘message’ to the world? It seems not. Since 2007, no-one has ever sabotaged a page or posted anything which is out of line with institutional or school strategy. Why? For the same reasons we don’t trash each other’s offices or turn up late for lectures and open days – because we’re professionals with respect for our institution and for each other.

Using this ‘wiki’ method of user administration, we have gradually built an archive of student work, which says more about our courses than any amount of prospectus blurb ever could. Our graduate stories (many of which we discover through Facebook) can be turned into news items quickly and efficiently, and our course pages benefit in similar ways. It’s not the best-looking website in the world (although it is fully standards-compliant) because it’s content-driven, not design driven, but it does have the advantage of being much richer than any centralised solution.

And that’s where Web 2.0 comes in. An academic School doesn’t operate as one monolithic ‘course’ – it’s a community of lots of talented staff and students putting their passions into practice via a plethora of courses, modules, taught sessions, research projects and performances. So its web presence fragments into semi-formal and informal Facebook pages, student blogs, applicant BBS posts, VLE pages, research project pages, FlickR/Picasa photo archives, and personal student websites. (You’ll note that I didn’t post a link to the VLE pages. That’s because you can’t see them, because they’re only available to people registered on that module). It’s never going to be possible to collect all these links completely – the web just moves too fast (Bath Spa’s web team manfully tried, but take a look at the attempt and see how many broken links you find – not surprising given the lifespan of a typical web page).

It’s all beautiful and mercurial chaos – you can’t control it, only observe it and join in. Like the world. And just as in the world, humans achieve greatness through working collectively.

Gatekeepers – you’ve lost your keys. But you can still join the team.

Keeping research locked away

Bank safeA colleague (let’s call him/her ‘P’) gave a research presentation the other day at the University. The subject was interesting, the research was a result of more than a year of work, and it was P’s first research seminar at this University. For all these reasons I was keen to attend and support P. Unfortunately a meeting over-ran and I couldn’t make it. Of course I sent P my apologies over email, and I learned that actually the presentation wasn’t very well attended because other interested colleagues had teaching commitments at that time.

Undaunted, I asked P if I could see some of the research outputs – a paper or other documentation of this work. Nothing was available – the work had been presented ‘live’ on that day, and had taken the form of a verbal lecture. I suggested that P could put some documentation of the work online and send out a link to interested colleagues – at our University and elsewhere in the subject, perhaps to network with those working in a similar research area, and build future projects. P asked me a question I’ve been asked many times about Web 2.0 skills – “Can I get some staff training to do that?”.

Let’s investigate this perfectly reasonable question. What would this staff training involve and what skills does someone need to put their work online? P already has standard/typical web browser skills, can type text onto screen, can cut and paste between MS Word and a browser, and can save/upload images and documents, i.e. all the necessary skills to get started with a blog. So I suppose we could run a simple demo of, say, Blogger – this would probably take less than an hour, then P would be ready to go. So we’d hire a ‘trainer’, book a room and ask the trainer to put some teaching materials together. They’d probably create something like this – i.e. a YouTube ‘How To’ video for Blogger. But these materials are already out there – and anyone who Googled the term ‘how do I start blogging?‘ would find it pretty easily. So P already has the skills, not only to create a blog, but to self-learn by using a search engine. No training necessary – only the will on the part of the trainee to investigate a new method of communication. Shouldn’t every academic exhibit this hunger to communicate as effectively as possible?

Now look at P’s work itself – it’s the result of more than a year of endeavour, excellent in its field, and ground-breaking in many ways. And no-one knows about it – the chosen method of research dissemination (a face-to-face seminar) has vanished into history, and anyone who wasn’t there has missed out. This research is effectively locked away in the memories of those who attended P’s seminar. The information has ‘died’ – all that work, down the drain.

Locked gateIn the ‘old’ (i.e. pre-Internet) research landscape, P could perhaps have published a paper or spoken at a conference. As we know, much of this culture still pervades in HE, perhaps because many academics remain Digital Immigrants (or even take obtuse pride in being ‘Digital Foreigners’ – personally I find this noble-savage approach irresponsible and even arrogant, given our pedagogical duty to our students). Papers are submitted to peer-reviewed/edited journals, printed, dutifully mailed by academic publishers and equally dutifully filed by libraries, and any suitably tenacious academic or student can discover them (though we know anecdotally that many students don’t do this in practice, preferring simply to use Wikipedia as the fount of all knowledge – it’s not hard to find a grumpy academic who will bemoan this trait). A lot of research content – actually, MOST research content – is still fairly difficult to discover through a simple web search, for a variety of reasons relating to copyright/IPR, but also, I suggest, through a lack of understanding by individual researchers of how to put their work online. Of course, many academic journals are available online, but just try posting an interesting Athens or JSTOR link on your Facebook page, Twitter feed or blog – and see how far the recipient gets without a login. Another locked gate.

LectureColleagues who present at conferences effectively ‘broadcast’ their work using the ancient Greek model of one-to-many speaking. Almost every academic has the skills to communicate using this method; the job title is ‘lecturer’ after all. But with the academic conferences, you’re left with the same problem as P’s seminar – if you weren’t there on the day, you’ve missed the boat. And realistically how many people can we reach in this way? A few hundred at most.

So, for the last ten years or so we have had a new and revolutionary method of communication available to us as professional sharers of knowledge. During this period it has been easier to publish content online without ‘tech skills’ i.e. HTML coding etc; this is what the world (and this blog) refers to as ‘Web 2.0’. Tim Berners-Lee, by the way, argues that the phrase is meaningless, and that there is really no difference between the two generations of the web.

“Web 1.0 was all about connecting people. It was an interactive space, and I think Web 2.0 is of course a piece of jargon, nobody even knows what it means. If Web 2.0 for you is blogs and wikis, then that is people to people. But that was what the Web was supposed to be all along. And in fact, you know, this ‘Web 2.0,’ it means using the standards which have been produced by all these people working on Web 1.0.” (arstechnica.com interview, 2006)

In practice, though, Web 2.0 (i.e. the world of blogs, free urls and wikis) is substantially different for us as teachers, because it’s possible for academics who are self-defined as ‘not very techy’ to publish material online using skills they already have. 20 years ago anyone who wanted to publish research on the Internet would, at the least, have had to learn about FTP and HTML. Now that’s just not necessary – anyone who can use a web browser can show their work to the world.

The gates are unlocked. All we need to do is push.