Tuesday, November 25, 2008

And the winner is ...

Course evaluation is an integral part of a university's quality control process but it is also extremely difficult to get quality information from them. The best way to make sure the forms are filled in at all is to hand out papers in class and use classroom time to fill them in. On-line evaluation forms are notoriously difficult and returns are often pitifully low unless incentives are offered (eg fill in the evaluation and you enter a prize draw).

However millions of students are happily contributing to a completely voluntary evaluation tool called RateMyProfessors. This site claims to cover over 6,000 universities and colleges in the US, Canada and the UK and asks students to rate their teachers according to a variety of criteria such as easiness, helpfulness, clarity, textbook use and interest level. Lists are then compiled presenting, for example, a top ten "hottest" teachers, whatever that may mean.

This service is clearly controversial and is outside university jurisdiction (a possible reason for students' interest). Teachers may well feel unfairly treated and this is clear in the discussion forum on the site. There is an interesting feature called Professors strike back where teachers state their case on video.

Is this a case of positive consumer action or a place to get your own back on a teacher who gave you bad grades? Whatever it is it is definitely a factor to be reckoned with and it will be interesting if the phenomenon spreads to the rest of Europe.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Blogging in Belarus

Just spent an interesting few days in Minsk, Belarus as part of an exchange program with the Belarusian State University. I love visiting new countries and always learn a lot. We tend to stress the differences between countries rather than the similarities and it's so easy to fall into the trap of wondering why they don't do things the way we do. Campus life here seemed pretty similar to most other places I've visited and many conversations confirmed that we all have similar concerns about improving teaching quality, finding time for all the administration and so on.

The teachers and students I met showed great interest in net-based education and many already used social networks, wikis, blogs etc. The problem is a lack of bandwidth which seems to be a pretty expensive commodity at present. The technical know-how may be in place, the tools familiar but you can't get anywhere without a good plump connection to the net. Some claimed to have much better net access from home than from campus. It must be frustrating to see what everyone else is doing out there and not be able to take part in it all as much as you'd like to.

It made me more aware of the preconditions for our net-based society that we tend to take for granted. If the telecom operators and governments don't invest in getting broadband to everyone then we simply can't participate in Web 2.0, virtual worlds, e-meetings etc.
I got the impression that companies in Minsk did have good net access so there it's there if you want it, but the price is too high for cash-strapped higher education. We need to remember sometimes that we were there not terribly long ago; remember websites with animated ads that took ages to appear or trying to watch video clips that took an eternity to download?

Otherwise Minsk is well worth a visit; incredibly clean, nicely renovated and with a fascinating mixture of impressive Soviet era architecture with ultra-modern structures like the new National Library. It's particularly interesting to see statues of Lenin and Soviet street names brushing shoulders with shiny new glass "business centres", up-market designer shops and the familiar twin arches of Ronald McDonald.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Coming to a screen near you ...

I've just read about a university here in Sweden that has banned students from filming lectures and publishing them on the net without the teacher's permission.

This is a delicate question and shows that education is facing the problems already well known in the music and film industry. Since everyone in class owns a mobile terminal with built-in film camera it's not surprising that students are recording lectures so that they can listen to later. Copyright questions abound here just as in the case of recording a concert or any other live event. Sometimes there is a legitimate reason for recording a lecture, especially for people with impaired hearing or difficulties in taking notes, and a quick word with the teacher beforehand will normally result in permission to record. However it's not acceptable for a teacher to hear later that her/his latest seminar is already out on YouTube.

Maybe we need to discuss with students on a code of practice for this sort of thing and agree on certain groundrules. Most will abide by these. Those who don't are very hard to tackle and there will always be people who get a kick out of breaking any rules no matter how reasonable.

Another point is why they want to record classes. It's actually positive that they want a record of your classes for future reference. Maybe if all classes were recorded and available on the net afterwards there would be little point in recording them on a cellphone. Once again the example of iTunes U points the way.

On the other hand if all lectures are filmed and put out on the net why bother to turn up at all? If it's one way communication then it may as well be on the net. But learning is about participation and interaction and that's where the live event cannot be replaced by a recording.

This debate will run and run and there's no simple solution. However, we can be certain that mobile devices will only become even more powerful and easier to use and that they are here to stay. We have to adapt, just as many other parts of society are doing.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Real recruitment in virtual world

I've just found another interesting new angle on student recruitment, this time using a virtual college fair. A number of schools and colleges in the USA arranged a virtual education fair on 6 November called EducationXpo where students could tour the exhibition area and talk to the college representatives. They could choose to be "represented" by an avatar. Colleges had their own exhibition area to show films and staff could chat to visiting students. There was also an area for students to meet each other and discuss.
According to an article in Campus Technology (Dian Schaffhauser, "Schools Take Recruitment Virtual with Online Education Expo," Campus Technology, 11/11/2008) the 12 hour event was more successful than expected and further such college fairs are on the way next year.
A film explaining the background to the exhibition is also available at the site.
It may not replace "real life" college fairs but once again it's an example of using new web solutions to provide added flexibility to the way we interact with our students and maybe reach groups who would not attend the more traditional events.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Social university

We talk a lot about using the advantages of social networking on university web sites but few are really doing it. However I've just seen an interesting example from Texas A&M University who have a special site aimed at attracting new students.

Current students have been encouraged to produce their own YouTube videos depicting all aspects of campus life and the web site is like a video notice board covered in these student videos. Not always top quality productions but for a prospective student much more engaging than the standard glossy university intro film. Furthermore, these films are from future student colleagues rather than top management and possibly more credible to the target audience. Why spend big money when your students can produce more credible advertising for free?

One possible snag is who checks these productions to ensure that nothing offensive is broadcast? If it's an official university site then the university is responsible for what is communicated there. I'm sure they have some kind of safety mechanism in place.

In addition to this they also have a link to Facebook, where you can instantly link up with many student communities at Texas A&M, as well as a link to the university's content on iTunes U (podcasted lectures).

Just a gimmick to attract students? Maybe, but if it does attract new students more than traditional methods it's well worth it.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Built-in obsolescence

Those wonderful market forces demand that we have to replace all electronic devices in our lives every few years to keep up with the accelerating gallop of technical development. This sad fact was once again made clear to me when I tried to find a replacement cartridge for our trusty old printer. It has worked flawlessly now for about 8-9 years and is still going strong. However I've now discovered that the print cartridge for it isn't in stock any more and as a result we'll have to dump the printer. What's more, a new printer costs about the same price as the cartridge would have cost had it still been available! So it's time to buy a new printer and reckon on it lasting a handfull of years at most.
Imagine now a world where we buy devices that can be upgraded over the net. The hardware is built to last (give me chrome fenders and leather upholstery!) and you pay to download all the upgrades you may need over the years. I admit it's tricky to download printing ink but I really hate to take perfectly functioning machines to the rubbish dump. What about the IT industry doing its bit for the environment and working towards net-based solutions rather than this hysterical production of billions of devices to replace the ones produced only last year. Just visit any major electronics store to see the overwhelming range of products these days.
Maybe a revamp of the old thin client principle with all the applications available on the net rather than sitting on your bulging hard-disc. Many are working in this direction so we can hope for more sanity in the future.
Farewell then old printer, let's hope we can be a bit smarter in the future.