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Considering the new tutor contract

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 18 Apr 2021, 15:04

Over the last few years, there has been a lot of talk about something called the new tutor contract. On 22 March 21, I received an email that contained the following words: “we have concluded that we will not be ready to implement the contract changes this October. Migration of ALs to the new Terms & Conditions will therefore be rescheduled”. 

The aim of this long blog is to present a staff tutor’s perspective. It is a perspective that is very nuanced, since we’re in the middle of everything. It has been written with the intention of sharing some important background to a number of different groups of staff: senior leaders, tutors, members of the project, central academics, union members, and anyone else who would like to learn more about what has happened. 

I’ve written a number of blogs about it, I’ve participated in some of the negotiation groups from the inside, and I’ve been to a whole host of briefings and updates. I’ve taken a keen interest in it because I think it is important and right that the university employs its associate lecturer staff on permanent contracts. I’m also interested in how it is going to be implemented, so I can do my best to support tutors and staff tutors.

At the timing of writing, the “word on the street” is that the new date for the introduction of the contract might be August 2022. To get there, there is a lot that needs to be done, but there isn’t (yet) a clear vision of how we will get everything achieved by that date.

This blog isn’t a reflection of any negotiated position, and isn’t a reflection of any university policy or plan. Instead, it is intended to share some thoughts and personal opinions about what the next steps might be and highlights some of the clear and obvious challenges that remain. It is also a small chapter of a much longer story.

To make any progress, there needs to be a substantial reset of the project. It needs to be recognised that we’re not just talking about change; we’re talking about institutional reform. It is going to be really important to thoroughly understand the work and role of staff tutors and AL services. Also, the solution is not as “simple” as implementing an IT system since we’re talking creating new human activity systems. A sobering point is that the suggested date of August 22 is already optimistic; we need to get a move on if we stand any chance of making anything work.

For the time pressured, here are a list of ten things that need to be done. Each of these points are expanded in the article below:

  1. Let’s go bottom up, not top down
  2. Separate negotiation from implementation 
  3. Uncover those requirements
  4. Embed change agents within schools
  5. Be practical, be incremental
  6. Make things meaningful
  7. Look at planning, piloting and risk
  8. Structural simplicity and transparency
  9. Don’t be afraid to build
  10. Honest communication

Previous articles

In my first blog on this subject, New AL contract: Requirements workshop and C&C discussion, I summarised a very early attempt to “try to figure everything out”. A group of Computing and Communications staff tutors got in a room together in Manchester in January 2019 and asked ourselves: “so, how on earth can we make this thing work?” The truth of the matter is that we didn’t get out of the starting blocks, but we identified some of the key questions that needed answers.

After this first workshop, C&C staff tutors set up some working groups to try to answer some of the questions we had identified. No one told us to do this. We set up the groups because we wanted to be as prepared as we could be when the new tutor contract was introduced, and almost all the staff tutors in the school participated. The groups considered different aspects of the contract and what we thought we needed. It is summarised in the blog Understanding the new tutor contract: C&C working groups, and we presented what we had done to our associate dean.

We’ve always been told that although the terms and conditions for associate lecturers are going to change, the terms and conditions of staff tutors (the line managers of associate lecturers) are not going to change. I’ve always appreciated that some aspects of our job are likely to change. Being a firm believer in the benefit of scenarios, I wrote another blog to try to figure out how the staff tutor might look under the terms of the new tutor contract: A day in the life of a future STEM staff tutor

Amidst all this activity, I’ve also found the time to study a couple of modules. One of the modules I studied was a dissertation module, which was about educational leadership and management. In this module, there were some really interesting sections about institutional change. I didn’t have to think too deeply before I could see the link between an academic discussion of change and the ongoing institutional updates from the new tutor contract team. I felt compelled to write a short blog about the theories of institutional change, emphasising the importance of middle leaders in facilitating change: Studying educational leadership and management. I found the papers about institutional change and middle leaders fascinating; almost as fascinating as Computing.

Understanding complexity

It’s important to take a moment to recognise the amount of complexity that exists within the university.

The university employs around 4k part time tutors. Each tutor will have a different work portfolio. Some tutors will teach on a single module. Other tutors, on the other hand, will have a rich portfolio of modules, and will also do a whole range of other activities, such as marking exams through to helping to write assessment materials. There are also practice tutors who work on the degree apprenticeship schemes. This complexity means that there will be as many variations of the new contract as there are tutors.

Since tutors can do many different things, they may also report to different line managers (who are called staff tutors). To make sense of all this, there are two different key roles that staff tutors carry out as part of the management element of their duties. There is the role of a tuition task managers (or TTMs). TTMs look after a tutor who may be teaching on a module (a tuition task). Secondly, there are lead line managers (or LLMs). LLMs oversee everything that a tutor does, carry out their appraisal, and provide references. There is another role, which is called a cluster manager, but I’m not going to go into that here, since that really would be confusing.

On top of all this, there’s another dimension of complexity, which is: staff tutors can do different things. In my school, they work on module teams, do research and outreach, write module materials, they get involved with employability schemes and educational technology infrastructure development, are postgraduate programme managers, and work closely with the student support teams. Also, the number of tutors that a staff tutor looks after can and does vary. In my school, we are expected to look after 54 tutors as a TTM, and we should line manage around 20 as a LLM. At the time of writing, I’m currently supporting around 60 tutor contracts across all levels of the undergraduate curriculum. 

I have the impression that things are different in different schools. In STEM, some of the Science schools are a lot smaller than the Computing school. In the Faculty of Business and Law, staff tutors are not called staff tutors at all. Instead, they have the title of student experience manager.

There’s also complexity within the curriculum. Just because I don’t have enough to do, I’m currently a student in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. The introductory level 1 module A111 is very different (in terms of points, and structure) than TM111 in Computing. When you look up the levels, things are also very different too. Some schools have only undergraduate programmes, whereas others have postgraduate programmes and may also run degree apprenticeship schemes. 

It’s is also very clear that different modules apply different assessment strategies. Some use end of module assessments, some require written exams, and others use something called single component assessments and have an end of module tutor marked assessment. For some modules, the assessment marking fee is all bundled in with the salary, but this isn’t the same for other modules.

If you look a little bit further, there’s even more complexities that we need to be mindful of. Some modules may make extensive use of online discussion forums which require proactive and sensitive moderating, whereas other modules might not use very many discussion forums at all. There are also differences in teaching strategies. In non-pandemic times some engineering programmes need tutors to participate in face-to-face summer schools. Similarly, Computing networking modules had a series of compulsory face-to-face day schools that ran at university centres.

An important concept of the new tutor contract is to have a single line manager who has an oversight of all tutor’s work. To begin to move towards this ideal, it is essential to recognise that the reality is complex, messy and very interconnected. It is also important to recognise that everything is currently facilitated by people and personal relationships. To make the change to the new tutor contract, all the stakeholders that are linked to all aspects of a tutor’s workload need to be involved.

In a very early project meeting, I tried to make the point that the introduction of the new tutor contract isn’t just change; it is bigger than that. It is institutional reform. 

Reform takes time since there is a cultural dimension to it.

Recognising the inversion

Given all this complexity, it is useful to ask the simple question of: “how do things work at the moment?”

The answer to this is pretty straightforward: a tutor manages their own time and workload. 

If a tutor has capacity, and they see an interesting module, they might apply. They then might be shortlisted, interviewed, and then potentially be considered to be appointable, and then later offered a contract. Also, if they want to get involved in forum moderation, for example, they may respond to an expression of interest.

With the new tutor contract, everything is inverted. Rather than the tutor managing their own time and workload, the staff tutor becomes responsible for ensuring that the tutor’s time is used as effectively as possible by allocating them bits of work. This means that all the complexity that was previously described needs to be somehow understood and taken account of. That complexity also needs to be shared between fellow staff tutors within a school since they need to work together to solve common problems, such as tutor illness, marking appeals and student support issues. To make thing work, we need to create some form of “system” to collaborate and work with each other to make sense of all that complexity.

When I use the term “system”, I don’t mean a computer system. Instead, I mean a human activity system, of which there would be an information technology component. The humans we would interact with would include curriculum managers, colleagues from AL services, people services, and anyone else within the complex picture that was described above. What we have is a difficult problem to solve because it involves a lot of people, and a lot of information.

When considering the new tutor contract, it’s important to recognise an important inversion. Time management will shift from the tutor to the staff tutor, and this represents a fundamental cultural shift.

Imagining the next steps

At the time of writing, the work on the implementation of the new contract had paused since there was a recognition that the university would not be ready to make things work in October.

Another question I have been asking myself is: “if someone in the VCE asked me for my view about what they should do, how might I respond?”

As a starting point, and to facilitate further discussions, here are my suggestions:

1. Let’s go bottom up, not top down

One thing that I’ve realised is that top down change doesn’t really work when there are two factors at play: loads of complexity, and working with a rich community of colleagues who are free thinkers who really want to be involved. 

Staff tutors are smart people. They have a wealth of experience and knowledge. That experience and knowledge exists “on the ground” within the schools. They will be doing the work at the end of the day, so it is important to reach down to those grass roots.

2. Separate negotiation from implementation

The project team tried to negotiate their way to an implementation. It is right and proper that unions are involved in the negotiation of contract terms and condition, but the implementation of operational processes and system is substantially different. There isn’t any reason why the union need to be substantially involved (and I choose my words carefully here) in the gathering of detailed requirements. 

I’ve heard the argument “we couldn’t start the implementation because we were still negotiating” a number of times. This view doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The broad aims and principles of the contract are understood and published. All the time on the project has been used up for negotiation, and not implementation.  There is no reason why everything needs to be completely defined before the work that is needed to implement the contract could begin.

3. Uncover those requirements

In the January 2019 workshop which I referenced earlier, I spoke about using tools such as personas, scenarios and use cases as potential ways to start to uncover user requirements. Before even considering system requirements, it’s important to ask a simpler question: “what, exactly, is the work that staff tutors do?” It’s important to capture scenarios, to evaluate them, to write new ones, and to test them thoroughly because different staff tutor communities might understand similar things in slightly different ways.

A whole host of issues were uncovered during the February 2020 staff tutor new tutor contract, but these issues were not clearly shared, understood and resolved in a way that was clear or understandable. All this gives the sense “the project team” don’t really understand what staff tutors need to be doing to make the new tutor contract a reality. 

4. Embed change agents within schools

I hate the term “change agents” but at the moment I can’t come up with anything better. 

The existing project had a role that was called a “faculty rep”. The faculty rep had the unenviable job of being an interface between the faculty and the project team.  Our STEM faculty rep has done a very good job in helping a lot of staff tutors understand some of the fundamental challenges that need to be resolved. Structurally, however, four faculty reps isn’t enough people to facilitate complex strategic change when there are at least four hundred centrally employed university staff who are directly affected by those changes (I include AL services colleagues as well as staff tutors within this rough estimate of staffing numbers).

A proposal is to have someone within every school (or a part of a person within smaller schools) who help with activities such as gathering requirements, testing requirements, and sharing updates about how systems and tools will work. 

In response to queries about the lack of engagement by the project team, I’ve heard members of the project and colleagues from the union say: “we have had staff tutors in all the negotiating groups”. That certainly is the case, but there is a fundamental difference between participating in a collective bargaining and negotiating structure, and having the need to actively uncover requirements, enact culture changes and help colleagues to understand new ways of working. 

The only way to effectively make bottom up change work, is to find a way to empower those communities that will be affected by those changes. A school rep (rather than a faculty rep), along with other stakeholder reps, may be the only way to do this.

5. Be practical, be incremental

Tutors and staff tutors will be making decisions, in partnership with each other, about what bits of work need to be done. These ‘bits’ might be module tutoring, exam marking, or a broad range of additional Tuition Related Activities (TRAs), as they are called. Effective decision making can only be facilitated by the provision of effective and accurate information. 

The idea is that every tutor will have a full time equivalent percentage, which relates to their salary. A bit of this score relates to TRA activities. The thing is, we currently have no way of knowing or understanding what is in that bit of TRA time describes or relates to. Subsequently, we have no idea about how to manage it all.

The TRA bit of the FTE has been calculated by doing an average of salary data over three years. An average presents a summary of something; it doesn’t present the detail. What we need to make everything work is the detail of who has been doing what and when.

A practical suggestion is to separate out module FTE from the TRA FTE, and find a mechanism to increase a tutor’s FTE over a period of time when substantial pieces of work are needed to be carried out. Rather than guessing what work people do (which is never a good thing to do), we should rely on real data of work that is carried out. In the transition period, which could take a few years, tutors should be paid roughly the same for the same work.

This approach gives us something else that is important: equity (in terms of making sure that work is fairly allocated between tutors), and transparency. 

6. Make things meaningful

One of my grumbles was about the first skills audit pilot. Tutors were essentially asked whether they would like to carry on doing the work that they were doing. The skills audit pilot that we were presented with wasn’t the systematic discussion about the skills, capabilities, and aspirations that I had expected. In January 2019, a question was posed that still seems to be unanswered: “will tutors be able to see their skills audit summary through TutorHome?” I still don’t know whether this is the intention of the project team. 

During the course of last 18 months, a project group was set up to develop training procedures to help staff tutors to understand how to make the new tutor contract work. This is an important piece of work, and this is something that certainly needs to be looked at. The problem was that the project group were trying to define training for procedures which hadn’t yet been defined, since staff tutor work practices had not yet been defined, since requirements had not been uncovered and analysed. We couldn’t be trained in systems that had not been defined.

Some parts of the project have been baffling. The workload planning group wasn’t really about workload. Instead, it was about FTE. There was a “support solutions group” that was, actually, a group about tools and systems. 

Substantial bits of work should always have meaning, and should make sense. It is important that any overseeing board takes the time to question the activities that have been set up and are taking place. 

7. Look at planning, piloting and risk

Towards the end of the first staff tutor conference about the new tutor contract that took place in Leeds, I asked a really simple question: “what are the next steps?”

There needs to be a clear project plan that has a set of interim deliverables, and that plan needs to be published widely. That plan isn’t expected to be perfect, since change is difficult, but it needs to offer more detail than has been offered by the previous plans that have been published by the project team. 

Piloting is important, and I think this is partly recognised. I have heard rumours of a second “skills audit pilot” that had been taking place in the Faculty of Business and Law, but I have no idea what it is all about. One thing I am certain about is that the curriculum in FBL is likely to be very different from the curriculum in other schools and faculties. Piloting ideas and concepts is obviously important, since they smoke out issues, and develop understanding within the community of staff that are involved within a pilot. Pilots should be embedded within a complex change programme to ensure that stakeholders are involved.

One of the obvious criticisms that can be levelled at the current project team is the lack of clear risk planning. With every risk, there should be a mitigation. Although it seems like it, August 22 isn’t a long way away when we’re dealing with complex change. I would like to propose one from the outset, which is: “how are we going to run everything if we don’t have access to working information systems?” This “plan B”, whatever it might be, should be piloted early. 

8. Structural simplicity and transparency

When I was on the union side of a negotiating group, I wasn’t quite sure about what I could say to whom about what. There was a high level group called AL NT, another group called ST NT, another group about FTE calculation, and another couple of groups which I don’t really know anything about. There were also two sides, a union side, and a management side. Meetings took place every two weeks, and there were always no less than ten people per group. 

Within those groups, I found myself repeating the words “engagement” and “requirements” many times. There is a fundamental issue at play here: the more complicated a structure, the more difficult it can be to actually get things done, and to get your voice heard. 

Communications between parts of the project need to be better for anything to work, and the whole project structure need to be simpler. When requirements are gathered, these should be made available for scrutiny. Transparency should be a principle that is adopted for the whole of the project. 

9. Don’t be afraid to build

The OU is a unique institution amongst higher education institutions. The new tutor contract is also likely to be unique amongst contracts that are used in the higher education sector. In one of the groups I was involved with, there was a general trend towards looking at “off the shelf” solutions to keep track of who does what and when.

Given the uniqueness and the complexity of everything, it is entirely plausible that an ideal off the shelf solution might not exist. Subsequently, it’s really important that the decision makers don’t rule out the need to develop a bespoke set of tools to help AL services and staff tutors if that is needed. The university has a bespoke version of a VLE and a bespoke student management system.

As suggested earlier, when considering systems, the project leaders should always remember that when the term “system” is used, it isn’t only used to refer to “information system” or “computer system”. The system needed to make the new tutor contract work is what is called a human activity system, of which IT will play an important part.

It’s also not only true that an IT system needs to be built, the project team need to take time to build understandings amongst all the different stakeholders, and build ways of working too. Drawing on my experience of tutoring on a third level Interaction Design module, it may also be a good idea to build prototypes too. 

10. Honest communication

Finally, a call for honest communication. 

A lot of the updates coming from the project team can be described as unrelentingly positive. Some of the messages that were being conveyed were substantially at odds with my own understanding of how everything was going. Some of the communications summarised work done rather than achievements gained and conveyed a false impression of success. Also, some of the email updates appeared to suggest (in my eyes) a lack of understanding of many of the complexities that were sketched out at the start of this blog. 

If there is going to be progress, communications from everyone who has a vested interest in the new tutor contract needs to be considered and measured. There also needs to be a degree of honest directness. It is also important to listen to those who may have something to contribute, and to thoroughly consider the perspectives of others.

Final thoughts

Given how important tutors are to the success of the university, there is something very wrong if the institution isn’t able to give tutor colleagues permanent ongoing contracts which recognises their commitment and dedication. 

I have been concerned about the state of the project for some time. I think I have been concerned by some of the very important misunderstandings, or differences of opinion, that appear to exist. The first of these is the concept of: “we can’t implement whilst we’re still negotiating”, which doesn’t make sense given the extent of the change that is necessary. The second is a misunderstanding of the conception of “engagement”. Engagement within a negotiation structure isn’t the same as engaging with those who are at the sharp end of any change. Engagement and involvement must be substantial and continuous. Staff tutors sit within a confluence of complex relationships: with tutors, AL services, module teams, people services, and other stakeholders. All these groups need to be involved.

It’ll put it another way: there needs to be a substantial “reset” in the way that the project is run for it to have any chance of success in August 2022. As suggested earlier, in the complex world of IT system procurement or development, this isn’t much time at all. Also, we need more than an IT system to make everything work. Meanwhile, systemic institutional reform that needs to take place. We have, after all, a profound inversion of working practices to figure out.

A significant concern is that staff tutors don’t yet have an understanding of how they will be able to practically manage module teaching under the terms of the new contract. Given that we don’t have a thorough or detailed understanding of how to make things work for modules, the idea of managing tuition related activities with incomplete information, having no real understanding about how to deal with that incomplete information, fills me with fear. There needs to be systematic uncovering of requirements, and the topic of the TRAs need to be thought through very carefully.

I want to support tutors (and students) by allocating work in a way that is traceable, transparent and fair. By working with AL services, I also want to ensure institutional and organisation efficiency by ensuring that that public money and student fees are used and spent in a way that is appropriate and justifiable. 

I don’t want to be in a situation in 2022, where I again receive the words “we have concluded that we will not be ready to implement the contract changes”. There’s a lot of work to be done, and a lot of hard decisions to be made before we get anywhere close to a workable solution. 

As an institution, we need to get a move on.

Acknowledgements

Many of the concepts that have been expressed in this blog are not my own, but have emerged through a process of extensive collective discussion of these issues of a period of many months. I would like to personally thank staff tutor colleagues within two groups, the cross faculty M-21 group, and the C&C staff tutor community. A personal thank you to colleagues who took time out of their busy day to proofread this very long article.

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Finding research time

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 1 Feb 2021, 17:43

After about two years of working at the former OU London regional centre in Camden, I remember a presentation for someone; a fellow staff tutor who worked in the Arts Faculty.

“He’s been given a chair!” my colleague whispered. I must have looked confused, since this assertion was immediately followed by a further explanation: “he’s become a professor!”

I had discovered that much of my role of a staff tutor was constantly spent facilitating, co-ordinating and administrating (if that is a word). I didn’t have any time to carry out any substantial or significant research. I was way too busy with “getting things done” to do any in depth thinking and reading about and into my discipline, which was originally computer science – or, more specifically, computer programming and software engineering.

“They do things differently in Arts; they have a role called a senior faculty manager” my colleague explained. “The faculty manager does a lot of the administrative work that a staff tutor does, such as organising the timetables and carrying out CDSA appraisals”.

If we had help with carrying out some of the admin work, I could see how someone who was doing my role might be potentially able to carry out research, and potentially step onto the trajectory that may lead to a chair. 

I could see it working within the Arts faculty, but I couldn’t see how that would be possible in the Faculty of Maths Computing and Technology, as it was called then.

I remember some celebrations. I remember some speeches. I’m pretty sure there would have been some prosecco.

After the celebration and the speeches, I would have returned to my email inbox to continue with whatever admin I needed to complete.

Finding the time

The School of Computing and Computing has a number of research groups. 

There’s the next generation multimedia and networking research group, the critical information studies group, an interaction design group, an AI and natural language processing group, a software engineering and design group, and a Technology and Education group (group website). 

My research ‘home’ within the school lies within the Technology and Education group, for the simple reason that I thought it easier to carve out a research niche if I allied aspects of my work (which is within education planning and organisation) to computing technology (which is a field that I used to work in). This said, my research interests also cross the interaction design group (which I used to tutor), and software engineering (where I’ve done a bit of research into, particularly theories of software comprehension and software metrics).

Earlier this month, there was a meeting which was about how staff tutors in TERG might increase their opportunities to carry out research (if this is something that they are interested in doing). Essentially, it all boils down to how to “craft out time” from our day job. This may mean thinking about accompanying issues, such as how to gain help with important elements such as writing, or research design, or statistical analysis. It also means finding ways to set boundaries.

I remember a talk by a former colleague who used to work in the School of Maths. He allocated a day per week to carry out research. I tried that for a while, trying to allocate every Friday as a research day, but it broke down; meetings kept sneaking into my diary – the need to administrate intruded in my plans.

One way to increase research capacity is to combine it with other related activities. One activity is co-supervising PhD students. This means identifying projects, and recruiting potentially interested students. Doctoral students might mean full time students based in the school, or part time students who are studying away from the university, or even EdD students (if their research area has a significant or substantial educational focus). A point to bear in mind in that a staff tutor must network to find potential co-supervisors.

An important suggestion was that it might be possible to plan what could be termed an ‘internally supported sabbatical’, perhaps in collaboration with other staff tutors or assistant staff tutors. Perhaps time could be ‘chunked’ together. Perhaps my day a week didn’t work out, since I didn’t have enough concentrated time to work dedicate to a problem. It took time and energy to get into research, and there’s an overhead in trying to repeat that same activity every week. Momentum is important.

A related theme is the importance of buddying; perhaps sharing some responsibilities maybe one approach to gain some of the important ‘headspace’ needed to facilitate the development of research capacity.

Other points that have been discussed have included the need to be completely honest about how our time is allocated and reported to the university (using something called the Academic Workload Modelling tool). Maybe there are clever ways to gain administrative support, but effective admin support needs consistency, since that too is all about understanding and solving problems.

Since I haven’t been able to carry out any disciplinary research for quite a while, I feel I would benefit from knowing how others do research. Perhaps there’s opportunity for mentoring, or the development of practical support and guidance about how to bid for projects. Again, it comes down to knowing who is good and doing what, and who might be able to help.

During our meeting, something called PACE was mentioned, which is an abbreviation for Professional academic communication in English. PACE happens in another faculty, called WELS, the Faculty of Wellbeing Education and Language Studies. The programme looks interesting, and doing a bit more digging, I’m taken to a further set of pages about face to face doctoral training.

Director of research

Following on from our TERG specific meeting, our current director of research, Robin Laney attended one of our staff tutor meeting. I noted down four important points:

  1. Make sure you find the time to network widely across the school (but also outside of the school too). Find others who share your research interests.
  2. Do you have a research agenda? If not, try to write one. If you don’t, go to different research group meetings. See point 1; networking.
  3. When it comes to finding research students, make sure that you advertise projects not only through the school website, but also through various mailing lists and other communities. See point 1; networking.
  4. Go speak with the director of research. Our director may be able to put you in contact with other colleagues in the school with similar research interests, and support activities that could lead to research, such as conference attendance or funding of pilot project. See point 1; networking.

Reflections

I’m faced with a dilemma. 

I really enjoy research, but I also enjoy seeing the end result of what some might see as ‘admin’, such as making sure that a module timetable is set up and ready to go, or the development or co-facilitation of a tutor development conference. In some respects, I’ve tried to find a middle way, which has meant carrying out some scholarship through the STEM faculty scholarship centre, called eSTEeM.

The one thing that is common to both research and scholarship is, of course, time. It may be possible to carve and craft time from an existing work plan, but there are two other common elements that are important: collaboration and planning.

This blog can be linked to two other blogs, one which is about C&C research groups and another post which offers some pointers about research funding.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Janet Hughes who set up a meeting to discuss research amongst the staff tutors from the TERG research group. Janet kindly reviewed an earlier version of this blog. Thanks are also extended to Robin Laney, C&C Director of Research. Acknowledgements are also extended to Karen Kear, who leads the technology and education research group.

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Taming the IT beast

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 1 Oct 2018, 09:42

Cerberus, a three headed dog, fighting Hercules

On Tuesday 25 September I ran a short half an hour session during something called a STEM staff tutor’s meeting. The STEM staff tutor’s meeting happens around four times a year and takes place at the university headquarters, and it’s an opportunity for all staff tutors to get together, receive important updates about what is happening in the university and to share professional practice with each other. The session that I went to was all about the subject of managing some aspects of our IT.

I receive too many email messages. In September, I must be receiving anything between 50 and 100 messages a day. These can be about all kinds of different things: student issues, tutor group issues, and even messages about maintenance work happening in the campus in Milton Keynes (I tend to delete those straight away, since I’m a London based home worker!)

I also have a lot of files (which relates to different bits of module materials and various research projects I’ve been involved with) and links to a range of different websites that I need to navigate.

I chose a picture that represented the challenge of working with these three different aspects of IT; an image of Cerberus, a frightening looking three headed dog.

The session I ran had three parts: (1) How do I tame the beast, or what do I do? (2) How others tame the beast? (I asked staff tutors to share thoughts about what they did to best manage IT and information overload), and (3) What tips would you like to share to all staff tutors?

Sharing practice

During the first part, I shared something about how I managed my email by using folders. I use a lot of folders. I have folders for modules, module presentation, and also for announcements about policies and procedures that might be useful. I put emails in folders so I can remember what has been discussed and agreed. I have a whole set of folders that relate to what I’ve agreed to present at various staff development events.

I’m also a tutor on a project module. To keep track of my own tutor work, I’ve set up a rule that sends project related emails to a separate folder. To remember what I’ve said to students, and what they’ve said to me, I use folders. These folders, of course, get deleted at the end of a module presentation (due to GDPR legislation).

I obviously use lots of folders for my files and documents, and these take on a similar parallel structure as to what I’ve adopted in email. I have a folder entitled ‘modules’, and under that, I have a whole set of other folders that relate to specific modules. In these directories there might be things like tutor notes and drafts of assessment materials, and anything else that relates to a module (such as briefing presentations, for instance).

When it comes to web and application links, I adopt a really simple approach. I don’t use bookmarks, since I know that I might sometimes use different computers. Instead, I keep them a university website called TutorHome. Alternatively, I could use something called the Dashboard, but I’ve never got on with it, for some reason. I always found that I had to spend time moving things about. I’m aware that if I spend more time looking at it, that time investment might lead to a productivity pay-off. For the moment, I’m continuing to stick all the important web links that I use on TutorHome.

Sharing tips

After some group discussions, I asked everyone to share what they thought were their most useful tips. I tried to roughly note down what everyone said:

  • When it comes to email, have the confidence to delete things (I personally try to do a control-delete to permanently delete something straight away!)
  • Take the time to go on an advanced Outlook course, which is sometimes run by IT
  • To handle all your web links, an idea is to put these into a Word document, and write an accompanying narrative about what they are and how they can be used.
  • Set up rules for your Outlook email to shift emails into separate folder. This way you can choose to look at things when you want, rather than having to be forced to look at them when they appear in your inbox.
  • Use advanced Outlook features, such as tasks and organise meetings using the scheduling assistant tool. You can drag emails onto your task list, and into your calendar.
  • Put flags on emails that are likely to be tasks. You can also specify a time when tasks need to be completed by, and this appears as a task summary.
  • Ask yourself the question: does this email need to be sent. Or, put another way: would it be easier to actually speak with someone over the phone.

The staff tutors who were attending the meeting remotely provided the following suggestions:

  • Use more than one screen if possible; you can use your laptop with two other monitors.
  • Use rules to categorise on keyword, which can give you a colour coded inbox.
  • Start your day by deleting as many messages as possible from the previous day, and only keep messages that are really necessary. 
  • Have folders that relate to a module and year, rather than by presentation, this way you can delete them easily. 

A final personal tip that I once heard was: ‘if you open an email, ask the question of whether you are able to action it there and then; if you find that you can, do it, since there’s little point in closing an email and opening it again at a later point – that just wastes time!’ That tiny tip, along with asking the question of ‘can I delete this right now?’ has really helped me to manage my inbox. 

Outlook resources

After the session, I was sent a link to a training resources that related to Microsoft Outlook which might be useful. In the spirit of sharing, here are some of what I think are the highlights (which should be publically accessible):

Reflections

A thing that I took away from this session is: I really ought to take a bit of time out to see if I can figure out how to use Outlook in a more sophisticated way. I feel that knowing more would do me good. I’ve tried to use the task feature before, but for some reason, it always annoyed me since everything I flagged as being a task had to be completed pretty much immediately. I’ve since learnt that you can specify date and times for when tasks need to be completed. I’m not sure whether this will replace my own paper ‘todo’ list, though. This said, I need to learn a bit more, and I might give Outlook tasks another go. A final point is: everyone is different, and everyone has their own preferences about how to get things done.

Acknowledgements

A big thank you to Nicola McIntyre for running the meeting.

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