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Teaching, Technology, and reality

I’m not a fan of technology used for communication for the most part, I’d rather do things face to face. But, I have to admit that at this time of enforced lockdown technology has been to a large extent our saviour. It is a case of needs must and if we want to engage with students at all, we have to use technology and if we want to communicate with the outside world, well in the main, its technology.

However, this is forced upon us, it is not a choice.  Why raise this, well let me tell you about my experiences of using technology and being shut at home!  Most, if not all my problems, probably relate to broadband.  It keeps dropping out, sometimes I don’t notice, that is until I go to save my work or try to add the final comment to my marking. I know other colleagues have had the same problem.  Try marking on Turnitin only to find that nearly all of your feedback has just disappeared in a flash.  Try talking to colleagues on Webex and watch some of them disappearing and reappearing. Sometimes you can hear them, sometimes you can’t. And isn’t it funny when there is a time lag, a Two Ronnies moment when the question before the last is answered. ‘You go, no you go’, we say as we all talk over each other because the social cues relied on in face to face meetings just aren’t there. I’ve tried discussion boards with students, it’s not like WhatsApp or Messenger or even text. It is far more staid than that. Some students take part, but most don’t and that in a module where attendance in class before the shutdown was running at over seventy per cent. I’m lucky to get 20% involved in the discussion board.  Colleagues using Collaborate tell me a similar tale, a tale of woe where only a few students, if any appear.  Six hours of emptiness, thumb twiddling and reading, that’s the lecturer, not the students.

Now I don’t know whether my problems with the internet are resultant of the increased usage across the country, or just in my area.  I suspect not because I had problems before the lockdown. I live in a village and whilst my broadband package promises me, and delivers brilliant broadband speed at times, it is inconsistent, frequently inexplicably dropping out for a minute or two. It is frustrating at times, even demoralising.  I have a very good laptop (supplied by the university) and it is hardwired in, so not reliant on Wi-Fi, but it makes little difference.  I suspect the problems could be anywhere in the broadband ether.  It could be at the other end, the university, it could be at Turnitin for instance or maybe its somewhere in a black hole in the middle.  Who knows, and I increasingly think, who cares? When my broadband disappeared for a whole day, a colleague suggested that I could tether my phone.  A brilliant idea I thought as our discussion became distorted and it sounded like he was talking to me from a goldfish bowl. I guess the satellite overhead moved and my signal gradually disappeared. I can tell you now that my mobile phone operator is the only one that provides decent coverage in my area. Tethered to a goldfish bowl, probably not a solution, but thanks anyway.

If I suffer from IT issues, then what about students? We are assured that those that live on campus have brilliant Wi-Fi but does this represent the majority of our student body? Not usually and certainly not now. Do they all have good laptops; do they all have a decent Wi-Fi package? I hazard a guess, probably not. But even if what they have is on par with what I have available to me could they not also be encumbered with the same problems? We push technology as the way forward in education but don’t bother to ask the end user about their experience in using it. I can tell you from student feedback that many don’t like Collaborate, find the discussion boards difficult to engage with and some are completely demotivated if they cannot attend physical classes. That’s not to say that all students feel this way, some like recorded lectures as it gives them the opportunity to watch it at their leisure, but many don’t take that final step of actually watching it. They intend to, but don’t for whatever reason. Some like the fact that they can get books electronically, but many don’t, preferring to read from a hard copy. Even browsing the shelves in the library has for some, a mystical pleasure.

I’ll go back to the beginning, technology has undoubtedly been our saviour at this time of lockdown, but wouldn’t it be a real opportunity to think about teaching and technology after this enforced lockdown? Instead of assuming all students are technology savvy or indeed, want to engage with technology regardless of what it is, should we not ask them what works for them.  Instead of telling staff what they can do with technology, e.g. you can even remotely mark students’ work on a Caribbean island, should we not ask staff what works?  Let’s change the negative narrative, “you’re not engaging with technology”, to the positive what works in teaching our students and how might technology help in that.  Note I say our students, not other students at other universities or some pseudo student in a theoretical vacuum.  We should simply be asking what is best for our students and a starting point might be to ask them and those that actually teach them.

Come Together

For much of the year, the campus is busy. Full of people, movement and voice. But now, it is quiet… the term is over, the marking almost complete and students and staff are taking much needed breaks. After next week’s graduations, it will be even quieter. For those still working and/or studying, the campus is a very different place.

This time of year is traditionally a time of reflection. Weighing up what went well, what could have gone better and what was a disaster. This year is no different, although the move to a new campus understandably features heavily. Some of the reflection is personal, some professional, some academic and in many ways, it is difficult to differentiate between the three. After all, each aspect is an intrinsic part of my identity. 

Over the year I have met lots of new people, both inside and outside the university. I have spent many hours in classrooms discussing all sorts of different criminological ideas, social problems and potential solutions, trying always to keep an open mind, to encourage academic discourse and avoid closing down conversation. I have spent hour upon hour reading student submissions, thinking how best to write feedback in a way that makes sense to the reader, that is critical, constructive and encouraging, but couched in such a way that the recipient is not left crushed. I listened to individuals talking about their personal and academic worries, concerns and challenges. In addition, I have spent days dealing with suspected academic misconduct and disciplinary hearings.

In all of these different activities I constantly attempt to allow space for everyone’s view to be heard, always with a focus on the individual, their dignity, human rights and social justice. After more than a decade in academia (and even more decades on earth!) it is clear to me that as humans we don’t make life easy for ourselves or others. The intense individual and societal challenges many of us face on an ongoing basis are too often brushed aside as unimportant or irrelevant. In this way, profound issues such as mental and/or physical ill health, social deprivation, racism, misogyny, disablism, homophobia, ageism and many others, are simply swept aside, as inconsequential, to the matters at hand.

Despite long standing attempts by politicians, the media and other commentators to present these serious and damaging challenges as individual failings, it is evident that structural and institutional forces are at play.  When social problems are continually presented as poor management and failure on the part of individuals, blame soon follows and people turn on each other. Here’s some examples:

Q. “You can’t get a job?”

A “You must be lazy?”

Q. “You’ve got a job but can’t afford to feed your family?

A. “You must be a poor parent who wastes money”

Q. “You’ve been excluded from school?”

A. “You need to learn how to behave?”

Q. “You can’t find a job or housing since you came out of prison?”

A. “You should have thought of that before you did the crime”

Each of these questions and answers sees individuals as the problem. There is no acknowledgement that in twenty-first century Britain, there is clear evidence that even those with jobs may struggle to pay their rent and feed their families. That those who are looking for work may struggle with the forces of racism, sexism, disablism and so on. That the reasons for criminality are complex and multi-faceted, but it is much easier to parrot the line “you’ve done the crime, now do the time” than try and resolve them.

This entry has been rather rambling, but my concluding thought is, if we want to make better society for all, then we have to work together on these immense social problems. Rather than focus on blame, time to focus on collective solutions.  

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