Don's Diary

July 20, 2001

I ensconce myself in a room roughly ten-foot square, switch on the kit and wait. The comp-uter screen bursts in to life: "Incoming call." Welcome to the age of the video conference; which enables an external examiner based in Cheltenham, such as myself, to talk with students dotted across northern Scotland.

The technology strives to communicate against a backdrop of satellite bounce, so it is difficult to know who wants to speak and when.

Early June
For days now the postie has struggled up the garden path weighed down by parcels stamped "Stornoway" or "Elgin". The first bundle elicited great expectations from our two children, Sam and Flora. The box was torn to pieces to expose... exam scripts and student projects. Such disappointment!

In fact it is the advance party of assignments for discussion at an exam board in Stornoway - Isle of Lewis.

June 20
As an external examiner for a rural development studies degree, it is perhaps appropriate that I should go in search of rural development to the end of the British Isles. In this case to the University of the Highlands and Islands (Millennium Institute).

The course, run by Lews Castle College and Moray College, is crucially important training given that the population of the Outer Hebrides is under 30,000 and falling. Modules are rooted in the needs of the locality, and students access the course via email or the internet from outreach centres.

June 21st
The logistics of an exam board are difficult: will the flights get all staff, student work and baggage to the same place at the required time?

How many externals come across an invigilator commenting that "there were no problems with the exam; but candidates did complain about the noise... of seagulls"? Or that a final-year student who had hoped to interview local fishermen as part of a project found that, on account of fine weather, the entire fleet had put out to sea?

This exam board passes without incident. There are of course universal challenges, for example how do you drum home the Harvard convention for citing references?

This year, a problem more particular to my subject has arisen: foot-and-mouth stymied the second-year rural study tour. Instead, plan B was invoked - a student-led visit to Edinburgh to meet staff from the Scottish Executive and other agencies impacting on the Highlands.

Back on the VC to Frank Rennie, convenor of research at Lews Castle College, Stornoway. Two of us quiz him about flexible delivery of modules.

The Quality Assurance Agency subject reviewers are in for a treat when they visit and explore the teaching and learning innovations that are nurturing rural development in the area.

James Derounian is a lecturer in countryside planning at Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education and is an external examiner to the University of the Highlands and Islands.

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