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The Student Union view of TEL

July 15, 2011

I recently had a very useful meeting with two of the West London Students’ Union elected officials: Daniel Whittal (SU President) and Madhawa Senanayake (SU Vice President Education), along with full-time officer Matt Pledger. We discussed a number of issues relating to IT facilities at the University and the use of technology in teaching and learning.

Single Sign-On and Student Email

The SU is, unsurprisingly, in favour of increased use of digital tools e.g. for submission of student work, and receiving feedback; and of course the SU would like more and better IT facilities for students! One specific complaint related to the barriers students face in logging on. I was able to explain that synchronising Blackboard and MyRegistry passwords with student Active Directory (email) credentials is very much on the agenda – all the departments involved are in favour of this move, although I was not able to make any promises as to how soon this would be achieved. There was also a perception that, when student email passwords expired, these could only be reset on campus. Having checked with IT Services I have since been able to confirm that this should not be the case – students should be able to reset their email password (and thereby their PebblePad and Library e-Direct passwords) from on or off campus.

Another potential barrier to use of the UWL student email account is the fact that students are not particularly enamoured of an anonymous address such as 1234567@ex.uwl.ac.uk But in fact students also get an alias based on their name e.g. joe.bloggs@ex.uwl.ac.uk – clearly this has not been communicated successfully to the student body in the past, but IT Services will be making sure that this is addressed in the coming academic year, e.g. via the Joining Instructions website, and the IT website at http://it.uwl.ac.uk

I was very pleased to find that the SU are as much concerned as the University to ensure that students do use their UWL email account. This is not least because all SU communication goes to students’ institutional email addresses; but they would also prefer students to email the SU using their UWL address. If students set up email forwarding from their UWL account to their personal address, that’s a step in the right direction, as they should at least receive all emails sent out by the University and the SU. But they should also be encouraged, when replying, to do this from their UWL account.

We were agreed that there is scope for a concerted effort from the University and the SU, at the start of next academic year, to promote usage of the student email system. This needs to address students, particularly new students – but also academic staff. If lecturers consistently promote usage of the UWL systems, and insist on emails being sent to them from students’ UWL account, that will go a long way to upping the usage, and improving communication with students.

Facebook

My meeting took place the day after the University Teaching & Learning Conference. This had concluded with a student panel at which one of the participants had argued strongly that the University should make more use of Facebook – not just for the sort of issues covered by UWL Guru, but as a more student-friendly platform than the VLE. Not all of the students on the panel agreed with this view, and I discovered that the SU also has reservations about the appropriateness of Facebook for delivery of content and communication between staff and students. This is not to dismiss Facebook as a useful environment in which to connect with students – the SU has a Facebook page at www.facebook.com/westlondonsu –  but the SU officers said that they have to maintain a  professional distance with the students they deal with, just as University staff need to. In certain areas such as Nursing students have to tread very carefully when using Facebook because of confidentiality issues, and although lecturers could make use of Facebook Groups to complement their VLE presence, in general it was felt that Blackboard Discussion Boards provide a more appropriate setting for course-related discussions.

Turnitin

Although the SU is very much behind the benefits of using online submission and online feedback, there is also a real concern that – because of the inflexibility of Turnitin’s anonymous marking system – most staff setting up Turnitin assignments will not be switching on the anonymity features. This is a concern, and UK HE institutions using Turnitin have been pressuring iParadigms to improve the way the software works in regard to anonymous, double and blind marking.

Academics here and elsewhere will debate how important or workable – or even beneficial to the student – anonymous marking is; but the NUS and SU position is quite clear, and it is to be hoped that enhancements are made to Turnitin in the near future in this area.

Setting this issue aside, the SU are very keen on the use of Turnitin as a developmental tool – which is how it is almost invariably used at the University. It was suggested that at some Universities – London Met was mentioned – students are able to post work to Turnitin for checking at any time, not just when a lecturer has set up an assignment. I have reservations about this – as long as students are able to resubmit work up until the assignment due date, the developmental needs are being met; while being able to post work to an open Turnitin space, which is not being monitored by their lecturers, might help predominantly the minority who are out to cheat the system.

I had no problem however with the SU suggestion that we should produce a training video for students on how to submit work via Turnitin – this is something we can achieve for September, using Captivate or similar software.

Blackboard

The question arose of how the University was monitoring whether or not the minimum Blackboard requirements are being met. My feeling is that this is a matter for the relevant course / Field managers, although the TEL team can support this process e.g. by identifying Blackboard courses which are not active, and also by providing training to ensure that all lecturers can meet (and hopefully exceed) the minimum expectations.

Another suggestion was that discussion forums should be available at the Programme level, not just within specific cohort sites. In this way third years can help new students, and a greater sense of community can be created. This is certainly possible where lecturers have set up Blackboard communities e.g. for all Ealing Law School students, for all Pre-Reg Nursing students. There would also be a benefit in having forums at a higher level – so students from across the University could interact with each other. Certainly some Universities provide an institutional social networking space e.g. community@Brighton which uses ELGG software. This is something which might be addressed by the newly constituted TEL Strategy group.

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