Don's diary

May 1, 1998

Sunday

Wake up early with chest thumping. In the paper yesterday was a report suggesting that stress levels imposed by meeting deadlines are similar to those induced by having to fire someone. The Open University may not be asking me to fire anyone but it must be number one in the universities "deadlines per working week" league table. Eyes register that it is light outside so it is not too bad, waking in the dark points to high stress levels. Brain registers that thumping is from an external and not an internal source; better still. Why does my bright-eyed six-year-old feel it necessary to rouse me to ask if it is OK to get up when for the rest of the day he ignores anything I say?

Monday

The final, final deadline for the eighth CD-Rom for Discovering Science is today. Last year the OU sent out 2,000 CDs. This year it will be 100,000. Copies of this CD, containing multimedia titles in chemistry and physics, will be dropping through 4,000 letter boxes next month. Check progress; all looks well, although one title, Electrons in Atoms is not promised until 3pm.The schedules were shot to pieces six weeks ago when an antipodean colleague went on holiday. We flagged that he was going for months beforehand in the hope that this would concentrate minds. It did not. Nucleons in Nuclei had its first release four days before he flew out. A first release is like lecturing to a panel of judges (course team and students), with marks awarded for content, interaction, presentation, consistency with a previous presenter and so on. I judged Nucleons in Nuclei at 5.8 for artistic merit, 5.4 for technical presentation, but in two days 1,000 suggestions for change came in. It was "G'day, I'm off'' and he went. Now he has returned and all is well but the delay means there is no slack from here to the mailing date.

3pm: All done. Tell quality assurance that the CD is now ready for them. Two software designers take their leave of Discovering Science and head for a quieter life elsewhere. Two of us remain and take a five-minute winddown to celebrate the culmination of a year's work - then panic when we realise that it is just ten days to the deadline for the ninth CD-Rom.

Tuesday

Final run-through with co-author of Chemical Periodicity and Electron Structure, a title that is to go on next week's CD-Rom. Make a few late changes to audio scripts. Put the application on the network, and invite comments.

As one course production cycle draws to a close another comes roaring along and I am pursued by two course managers wanting to know when we'll be allocating software staff to their course. Sub-deans follow close behind in decision-making mode.

Wednesday

Anyone who thinks that computer-based learning is new will be surprised to learn that the pioneers are past retiring age. In 1974, I walked into the computer-based learning unit at Leeds University to see a teletype, operating at 110 baud, connected to a DEC-10 in New York. Press a key, wait while the signal travels to New York and back and then the solidly built typewriter head lifts and bangs a letter on the page. The DEC-10 was running SOPHIE, an early example of what an intelligent tutoring system might be able to do. A quarter of a century on and everything in the IT world is cheaper, faster and more accessible but the underlying education paradigms behind much modern software have not caught up. In 1974, getting the computer to type out text for the student to read was a waste of everyone's time. With the worldwide web we advocate just that. But reading a screen full of text is not computer-based learning is it?

Thursday

Last week we showed some extracts from the CD-Roms to an American publisher with a view to seeking co-publication deals. Today word comes back that the representative from New York has not seen anything as good as what we are doing anywhere. I think I can pass that on. Bump into our London staff tutor and ask him how things are going. He says students are having trouble with time management. We have indicated how long students should spend on each CD-Rom activity but most of the activities are good to look at, nice to interact with and altogether quite engrossing and I can see students easily wiling away the hours at the computer.

Friday

Top-quality sound files, recorded yesterday, come winging in over the computer network. Nowadays everything arrives as a series of bits and bytes: text from my co-author, still pictures from the OU photographer, videos from the BBC, sound from our A/V studios, graphics from the design studio.

Discuss next Wednesday's deadline with software colleague. He looks puzzled and ventures to suggest that I have the wrong day. Understandably cautious in his approach - after all I am the project manager and therefore have a full grasp of deadlines. Unfortunately for us both, he is right; the final, cannot be moved, completion date is Tuesday. Ah well, there's a weekend in between.

Philip Butcher

Deputy head of the Centre for Educational Software at The Open University.

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