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Finding research time

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 27 Nov 2020, 18:06

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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