Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Departmental Away Day

Hello. My names is Kostas Economides and I am a lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of the South of England (USE for short). Well, actually that is not true really as most of the names of individuals and institutions in this blog have been changed to protect the innocent - and the guilty! Earlier this week we had a Departmental Away Day at the Ageas Bowl, the home of Hampshire County Cricket and I thought I might pass on to you how we got on.

The morning session just involved staff in the department and was called "Refocusing the Curriculum". The University, in its wisdom, has told us that we must redesign all our modules so that they provide no more than 2 hours contact time per student per week. Ostensibly this is so that we can also fit into student timetables sessions for study skills, careers planning and enterprise development. In reality it also means that we have to cut back on what we can put into our courses as you can't just lose a third of your contact time and still cover the same syllabus. It is also about accommodating more and more students without increasing staff numbers. Actually we are probably better placed to cope than many other departments in the university as we have a long history of embracing technology to support our teaching and learning. Our Deputy Head of Department, Gus Johns, reminded us during the morning session that the Virtual Learning Environment (VLA) that we use has lots of useful features that we can make use of for quizzes, searchable FAQs, a wiki and online discussion sections etc. He said he would be happy to put on some special departmental staff development seminars to illustrate how he had used these features, as well as blogs, and social media such as Twitter and Facebook to support his teaching. Johns said he would also ask the Faculty Learning and Teaching Champion (LATCH), Dave Starr, to show us how to make use of the screen capture software that we have available to record short instructional videos. Johns said that students do value face to face contact time with staff and we perhaps have to be more willing to meet them at times and in places that suit them rather than us. For example, he said that instead of sitting in his office for his so-called Office Hours at times he knew no students would be about, he had introduced Economics Cafe sessions where he would sit in the student cafeteria to meet up with students who were leaving classrooms right next door. This achieved a much better take up rate and students told him they liked it that way.

At the end of the session I didn't feel quite so downhearted and I began to think that we do have both the willingness and the expertise in the department to address the future. However, I can't help feeling that it all requires a lot of extra preparation time compared with the old way of doing things.

After an excellent lunch we began the afternoon session which was led by Dr Weasel from the university's Centre for Independent Learning, Teaching and Assessment (CILTA). He got us into small groups of four and then tore off sheets of paper for each group from his big flip chart. He asked us to draw a big pin man on the paper and then, after discussions in our groups, to attach next to each arm and leg the four key things that we would want an economics graduate to know about upon graduation. After about ten minutes he collected in all the bits of paper and began to consolidate what we had written into what he said was the best representation of our ideas.

When he had done this Gus Johns put up his hand and asked why the summary didn't include either "the importance of marginal analysis" or "a recognition of the need for tradeoffs" which had been suggested by his group. Weasel replied that he thought this was covered by "understanding policy analysis" which was one of his four summary points. Johns responded that policy analysis, although important, was rather vague and that his group's suggestions were sharper and more specific to economics. Perhaps Weasel would put up all the suggestions made by all the groups and then we could vote on which four points we thought best captured what economists need to know. Weasel said something to the effect that we didn't really have time for that as he had some other things he wanted to run past us. Johns persisted and said that if he really wanted our engagement in the session he should let us get involved properly. Weasel again said no, at which point Johns lost his cool and muttered "Bollocks!". Weasel looked across at Johns and said "How long have you been teaching here?" "Just over 35 years" said Johns. "Well, I suppose you can't teach an old dog new tricks" said Weasel.

The session was in danger of falling apart and at this point Professor Rowe jumped in. "Dr Weasel, I think there is some merit in what Dr Johns has suggested. It might be better to conclude this part of your presentation satisfactorily than to try and press on to cover other points but not achieving any real outcomes because we haven't devoted enough time to them". Reluctantly Weasel concurred and the staff voted for both John's groups suggestions amongst the four main points. We then had a tea break after which Professor Rowe thanked Dr Weasel for his contribution and apologised for the rather robust responses from the floor. He added that the economics department had a bit of a reputation across the university for blunt speaking, but he felt that this was a healthier approach to collegiate behaviour than the infighting and back-stabbing amongst cliques that seem to exist in some other parts of the university.

When Weasel had left Professor Rowe reminded the younger members of staff that as a condition of their employment they were required to obtain the Certificate of Higher Education (CERTHE) and that this was organised in CILTA by Dr Weasel. So perhaps it would be wise when participating for them to grit their teeth, comply, and do things the way that Dr Weasel wanted them done. Just get the certificate and then you can move on. Johns said that he didn't disagree, but he hoped that Rowe would support the staff in attending the excellent workshops sessions put on by the Economics Network of the Higher Education Academy at Bristol University. These had the merit of being run by economists who, as well as being up to date with modern educational thinking, recognised the specific requirements needed for teaching economics. He said that staff might also want to look at the blog posts of Steve Wheeler from the School of Education at the University of Plymouth. He had given an excellent keynote lecture at the university's annual Learning and Teaching Conference last year and his blogs were full of great ideas and suggestions. You could also follow him on Twitter where he goes by the name of timbuckteeth.

Johns wondered if Weasel used the same old tired flip board trick for all the departments he visited, just substituting the name accounting, or engineering for economics. He had shown us no respect with little evidence of thought or preparation for the session. He could have looked at the department's web page to find out more about us and what our interests were - it's all up there. And actually in his session he had failed to do two things that his own Centre preached: there was no attempt either at the beginning or the end to outline what the learning outcomes of the session were supposed to be. And there was no evaluation sheet provided at the end for us to give feedback. He wondered what Weasel's boss Dr Baker would think about that. He was not so much a man from CILTA as a man out of kilter!

So, quite a memorable afternoon. A nice lunch though, and at the end Mike Rowe invited me to go back to the Ageas Bowl later in the summer to watch some cricket with him and have the intricacies of the game explained to me. After all, even though I am Greek I would be expected to participate in the annual staff v students departmental cricket match!


  1. That Gus Johns - what a troublemaker. Time he retired I reckon, just not capable of taking on board any New Thinking

  2. Steve Wheeler says he is surprised Gus Johns seems to favour VLEs -- and suggests you read what he has said here-->

    Johns responds by agreeing that open learning is better, but the university requires all modules to have a VLE presence. Also, some less computer literate staff are at least able to make some use of technology using the VLE

  3. Teaching students entrepreneurial skills should be an addition to course content, not a replacement, says Lord Young of Graffham