Still wired about winning

October 22, 2004

With a great 12 months under his belt, 2003 E-Tutor of the Year Mark Russell was hoping his university, Hertfordshire, could make it a double this year. But a duo from Middlesex had other plans, Mandy Garner reveals

The joint winners of this year’s E-Tutor of the Year award, Anthony “Skip” Basiel and Raphael “Ralf” Commins from Middlesex University’s School of Lifelong Learning and Education, just pipped the entrant from Hertfordshire University, which produced last year’s winner, Mark Russell. The pair will have much to look forward to if Russell’s experience is anything to go by.

Since Russell collected his award, four institutions have expressed interest in his e-learning project, which tracks student attendance and provides personalised assessment tasks and feedback for first-year engineering students.

Russell has also been cited in Hertfordshire’s bid to win funding as a Centre of Excellence for Teaching and Learning for a blended learning programme. “It has been fantastic,” he says.

Russell is keen for partners at other universities to trial the project and give feedback. While the university, which this year fielded three of the 34 entries to the e-tutor competition run by The Times Higher and the Higher Education Academy, is keen on its commercial potential, his mind is firmly set on improving the product.

“I’m too much of a good guy to take commercial advantage of this,” Russell says. “I would love to give it away.”

He is also acting as an external consultant on an Essex University project that is developing personalised feedback for sports science students, having helped them to win £130,000 from the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning.

Russell’s work is student-centred and this is the approach the e-tutor judges look for, rather than glamorous, all-singing, all-dancing productions. The aim is to concentrate on teaching and results and, in his case, the student failure rate was cut by 30 per cent.

The judges met over the summer to discuss the entries to this year’s E-Tutor of the Year competition. Favourites emerged early on, although there were several bugbears. Everyone agreed that the three Open University entries looked great fun, but the general consensus was that most were more to do with production than e-tutoring.

The judges were also concerned that some people might be put off because they feared competition from the well-funded, multi-team OU offerings. It was not that the OU was failing to do innovative things in terms of e-tutoring Ñ simply that those did not tend to be the projects that were entered.

The eight criteria used for judging included innovation and evidence of student feedback. The judges agreed that there was much more innovation than last year. They were particularly impressed with people who had been adventurous on a shoestring budget: one entrant had clearly videotaped his lectures from a corner of an office that bore a strong resemblance to a prison cell. But he had pushed the boundaries, for example, by adding bullet points to QuickTime video. “This is an innovator at his own level,” was praise indeed from Lawrie Phipps, senior adviser at TechDis, the Joint Information Systems Committee’s service for disabled staff and students.

The main reason Hertfordshire’s Smirk peer-review project was beaten by the Middlesex entry was Smirk’s “poorly designed assessment”.

This contrasted with the winning entry, aimed at Palestinian students in Gaza which displayed firm evidence of good tutor interaction with students.

It must have been disappointing for Russell, who was very keen to make it a Hertfordshire double, but a silver medal is no mean feat. His university is looking to make a name for itself in the emerging e-learning environment, Russell says. One way is to lure students in early.

Last month, he began piloting his project with local schools. “These students are the MTV generation, and we need to do our bit to build on that,” he says. “These are technology people. They crave it and they don’t want to wait until they get to university to use it.”

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