Thursday, 4 April 2013

University software

Hello. My name 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 the names of individuals and institutions in this blog have been changed to protect the innocent - and the guilty!

Along with everyone else in the Faculty I got an email this morning from Dave Starr, the Faculty Learning and Teaching Champion, reminding us that if we want any new software to be available to be used in the next academic year (starting in September) we would need to fill in the relevant form and submit it to the Learning and Teaching Committee for consideration at its next meeting at the beginning of the summer term. Only software approved by this committee would be ordered and it would take time for the IT people to install it on the university network. Of course the form that we need to fill in, like many other university forms, never quite seems to have been designed to reflect the needs of users. Mike Rowe, our Head of Department, has also insisted that all applications from the department go through him first as the payment will come out of the departmental budget, not that of Learning and Teaching.

There are three categories of software that the university allows on its computers. 1 University wide software such as the VLE, Microsoft Office products, the email client and bibliographical referencing software. These are the only software products that the IT section agrees that it will fully support. 2 Specialist software needed for teaching and learning in specific subject areas. For example, in our department this would be econometric software, some computer algebra software and the instructional and quiz software that we use to accompany the basic micro and macroeconomics teaching. 3 Specialist software used by staff in the research or consultancy activities.

Any problems that staff or students have in using software in the second category will not be addressed by the IT section, but will be referred to the person who placed the order and who is assumed to have the relevant expertise to deal with requests for help. Even with the fully supported software you don't always get help straightaway when there is a problem. I can remember several occasions when I phoned the Help Desk to ask about a problem I was having with the VLE only to be given the reply "This is a known problem"! To be fair the VLE is a very clunky product and full of bugs.

A problem that we tend to get with the second category of software relates to differences of opinion withing the department as to which package is best for use in teaching. For example Gus Johns swears by Oxmetrics software for teaching econometrics whereas some younger members of staff favour EViews or Stata. Similarly a while ago we developed some interactive microeconomics material using Mathcad, but more recent appointments favour other computer algebra tools like Maple and Mathematica. Mike is reluctant to let us all have whichever package we like best so compromises have to be reached which is not always easy. Also, he quite rightly argues, you can't expect students to cope with a different package each time they move on to a new module.

Some people are unwilling to give up using the software that they have become familiar with. I am told that it took several years for Gavin Alexander to stop using WordPerfect after the university had decided to switch to MS Word. He also wanted to carry on using WinEcon rather than adopt Aplia as had been agreed by the department.

Another point of contention is which browser we should use. The Microsoft product Internet Explorer is the default browser, but the more nerdy members of the university want to use Firefox. And then there is the whole issue of Windows/Intel software versus software for the Mac computers.

The university wants us to put all our teaching material inside the walled garden of the VLE, rather than put it up on the web for anyone to access. We are supposed to make use of the wiki and other tools that come with the VLE rather than using free online and web based tools like PBWorks. They also say that we must only communicate electronically with students via the university's email system. The problem with that is that the students prefer to use their Google or Hotmail accounts and don't often look at their official university email. Many of us think that the official university stance is not only wrong, but is unsustainable. Students themselves are communicating with each other via Facebook, messaging and using other social networking and Web 2.0 tools. They are looking for interesting apps for their mobiles and instructional videos on YouTube. As Steve Wheeler has argued students will develop their own Personalised Learning Environments and engage in Collaborative Learning via the cloud rather than getting trapped in an institutionally controlled VLE. You can see his lecture on Future Learning Environments online.

I will finish by passing on a story that Gus Johns told me. About a decade ago the then Head of the IT section, Archie McDonald, reacted strongly to a communication from Microsoft informing him about their new software licensing and payment arrangements which involved a massive price hike. He organised a meeting with the IT Directors at some other universities where they formulated a joint response, saying that unless Microsoft modified its position they would be forced to look for alternative software options. Then, one afternoon, he had a phone call from a woman Microsoft employee from America. The story goes that at one point in the conversation the woman said to him "Tell me, Mr McDonald, are you a communist?". "No dear", he replied, "I'm a Scot!"

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