It's the same drive, but just a different operating system 2

December 17, 2004

Teesside's Alan Clements and Imperial's Jeremy Bradley find that despite catering for a dissimilar student body, they have a common dedication

Hi-tech local hero is an industrial asset
As I pull into Middlesbrough station, I must admit that my heart sinks somewhat as the drizzle turns to a definite downpour and it becomes apparent that the most architecturally interesting building in the town centre is the multistorey car park. I am quite used to cultural heritage sitting cheek by jowl with industrial brown site development; unfortunately for Middlesbrough, there seems to be a lot of the latter and not so much of the former as you arrive by train.

I met Alan Clements two weeks earlier when he visited Imperial College London. He is a very outgoing and friendly person who was incredibly keen to meet students and staff and very enthusiastic about just about everything.

Teesside University itself is clearly one of Middlesbrough's major assets.

As Middlesbrough's second biggest employer, it has been given something that no London college would ever get - room to expand. Several well-designed new buildings of the open-plan and flowing-glass variety speak of lots of investment and an impressive regional commitment to the university. The newness of development is borne out as we walk around the attractive and open campus; Alan keeps on commenting: "That wasn't there yesterday" - although as the something in question is usually three or more storeys high, this seems unlikely.

Sadly, Imperial's contribution to its architectural environs is not as laudable. Although recent developments have seen an improvement, the main South Kensington campus was built on a spot that required the demolition of a building of the ilk of the Natural History Museum. Clearly the architects of the day decided that London had more than enough of the Gothic and what it really needed was a bit of bare concrete.

Before Alan came to Imperial, I ran a "check" on him, courtesy of his website, so I already knew he was the recipient of an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Undergraduate Teaching Award, one of Teesside's four National Teaching fellowships, and he is also chairman of the IEEE International Computer Design Competition. Clearly a formidable person.

On arrival at Teesside, it quickly becomes apparent that he is also very keen on books. His office is filled with bookshelves. Books on architecture, books on microprocessors, books on complexity and computability. If I thought his office was impressive, it is nothing compared with the one he has at home, which is positively bulging with books.

He also writes books: ten in all and some in their fourth edition. Not wishy-washy books on eclectic software design patterns but rock-hard books on 68000 processor microcode.

My first experience of Teesside from a teaching perspective is Alan's third-year architecture course: a class of 12 students who are very motivated and inquisitive. Alan has a distinctive and open lecturing style, whereby he displays detailed overhead projector slides while expounding around the general area of interest. Not for him the digitally projected PowerPoint presentation accompanied by the look-I-can-read method of regurgitating bullet points in front of an audience. The students clearly enjoy it and could probably cope with more detailed and harder material in places. Alan has already told me the range of student ability at Teesside can be very wide. He thinks the students in his current class are of sufficiently high quality that, given warning, they could cope well with exam questions that involve personal research and background reading as well as testing lectured material.

I am slightly surprised that a department that has an undergraduate student intake of 550 can sustain a third-year course of only twelve people. I find out later that Teesside is very much at the cutting edge of the Government's 50 per cent participation target. And although the percentage of students who make it through the first year can be as high as 90 per cent, the percentage of students who complete the course can be as low as 60. The result is, I suspect, that Alan tends to see only the more motivated ones on the third year of his architecture course.

Talking to the students afterwards, it becomes clear that they very much appreciate the year in industry pursued by the university on their behalf.

The students tell me they have only eight hours of timetabled lectures and tutorials a week, with the rest taken up with a large individual project component. A quick check of the Imperial timetable tells me that we put our third-years through 12 hours a week plus individual projects and group projects.

Teesside School of Computing runs 17 separate degree streams, which seems a huge number but is only a couple more than we run. The diversity of the programme is phenomenal, though, with some very clearly directed at employment trends - everything from computer programming (BSc) to computer games art (BA), digital music creation (BA) to web development (BSc). All told, they sustain a student body of close to 1,800 undergraduates and postgraduates, who are taught by more than 100 staff (twice the number in my own department). Clearly a massive logistical operation in terms of lecture theatre space and timetabling alone. Apparently the university doesn't have any lecture theatres large enough to take all 550 first-years so a lot of the common first-year courses have to be lectured twice.

The average lecturer in Teesside computing has a nominal student contact load of a whopping 540 hours a year. However, this is deceptive when making a comparison with pre-92 universities. To start with, loads at pre-92 universities tend to quote only lecturing hours, not time spent in tutorials, individual and group project support, marking or postgraduate supervision. At Teesside all this is rolled into the equation, with the added bonus that as much as 50 per cent of the 540 hours can be written off against administrative duties. Alan is further excused by dint of his external teaching and promotional activities with the IEEE and his National Teaching Fellowship. Even so, his 60 hours of lecturing architecture is still double the 30 that I will lecture this year.

Teesside has strong connections with local hi-tech businesses for which it provides many future employees. Indeed, their courses are often very specifically tailored to software packages that local industry is using.

This is fantastic for the students as they get specific training in exactly the package that the local web design company, say, uses. On the other hand, when the web design company changes package or DreamWeb Pro goes from version 15.2beta to 17.0, it could mean a lot of retraining and course redesign.

Teesside has specialisms in, among other things, multimedia, computer graphics, animation and digital music. I am shown several vibrant student projects - one an animation of a poem by Tim Burton with backing music that could grace any one of his movies. Clearly, integrating design with computing and technology is a key selling point for Teesside. They use this to good effect in marketing themselves, as they have a DVD of animated student portfolios as well as projecting prizewinning animations in the department reception.

As for Alan, his National Teaching fellowship allows him to buy out some of his teaching in the same way that an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council or Royal Society research fellowship would. This lets him develop his archive of online teaching resources on interests such as the history of computers and write yet more books.

The Teesside School of Computing is a growing institution with an eye on consolidating its strengths of multimedia, graphics and animation and enhancing its reputation as a producer of well-trained students in specific industry-relevant fields. Just like Imperial, it is full of very committed people who try incredibly hard under the burden of increasing bureaucracy and course regulation. But whereas Teesside clearly has very industrially focused degrees and produces students who are more than competent in using current technologies, Imperial has a much higher maths content in its courses, requiring an A at A-level maths. This produces students who are hopefully skilled in conceptual problem-solving, which can be applied to the technology problems of today and tomorrow. Then there is the research aspect to the department of computing at Imperial. There is a much heavier emphasis on this aspect for new lecturers than I get the impression there would be at Teesside. Career promotion at Imperial is based on the quality of research and the research funds raised as well as the quality of the teaching given. And as a result, the research-driven courses given in the third and fourth year are probably unique among computing departments. I think Imperial would like to think that, driven by its research endeavours, its best students would be internationally competitive with those of Cambridge and Stanford universities and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While we hope and strive to produce students who have industrially relevant skillsets in the same way that Teesside's do, we would also look to a few to be able to pioneer in new technology industries.

Jeremy Bradley is a lecturer in the department of computing at Imperial College.

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