Flying in to be a critical friend to the far-flung

March 12, 2004

As an external examiner for the Highlands you can make a difference to the community once you get past the weather, says James Derounian

As the 40-seat aeroplane bumps and gusts towards Edinburgh airport, I question the wisdom of external examining in the Scottish Highlands. Only two years ago, I was on my way to an exam board when the plane was tossed about like a piece of paper. On landing, we discovered that we had passed through gales that had overturned lorries and killed people across northeast England. There were no onward flights, trains or buses to Inverness, so I asked for a car. What I got was a car plus Brian, who drove me four hours through wind and rain. Meanwhile, my colleagues from the University of the Highlands and Islands were struggling across on a ferry from the Isle of Lewis to the mainland. They arrived after me, looking green round the gills.

This is the reality of being an external examiner at the western edge of the British Isles. The course I advise on is rural development studies and, hopefully, information technology will help stem the tide of people from the highlands and islands. As a former rural-development officer, I have a personal and academic interest.

Given the nature of the territory and the fact that students are dotted around the islands of Barra, Benbecula and the Uists as well as the mainland, the course is mainly delivered online. Staff and students also link up for audio and video conferences. At one such "meeting" I was in a Cheltenham conferencing suite that was just about big enough to swing a cat. We discussed distance learning, the trials of technology and fitting study around crofting, part-time work and childcare. The combination of accents, satellite delay and multiple sites was a learning experience in itself. Students were pleased to put a face to their external examiner. But the meeting highlighted the challenges of remote conferencing. The system can transmit only one voice at a time, so you have to develop gestures and signals so participants realise you want to say something. It is important to ensure that everyone gets an opportunity to contribute. There is the danger, as with face-to-face meetings, that the more confident take over.

Once, my flight northward took me via Benbecula, where I met the local tutor and a student whose circumstances illustrate the plight of many islanders: to get educated and stay, or to go. She loved the course, but her engineer husband had the chance of opal mining in Australia. She emigrated.

Many students gain academic credit by tapping into live projects from their home, community or work. In a module such as capital project planning, implementation and management, for example, they can discuss a village hall. For a level I environment and heritage interpretation model, students have produced an array of models, CD-Roms and audio tapes as a critical commentary on local-site interpretation. This can direct improvements for a nearby attraction.

I always sift through sample student work before the exam board meets.

Receiving the work ahead of time means that I can give a considered view about assignments, requests for accreditation of prior-learning portfolios and, in the worst case, if the weather turns foul, I could contribute to an exam board via videoconference. My favourite recollection, while wading through exam scripts, was to note an invigilator's comment that "there were no serious issues with the conduct of the exam... but some students had complained about the noise of seagulls".

One of the main benefits of external examining lies in the two-way traffic of good practice and dialogue. For example, I have encouraged rural-development colleagues to explore the use of UHI graduates, employed in the field, to support course and module delivery - through provision of work placements, live project briefs, guest contributions and so on. This is the sort of active learning we implement at my own university.

Similarly, I have gained a better appreciation of the practicalities of web-based teaching, plus up-to-date knowledge of rural development north of the border. I am also lecturing via videoconference with students studying community empowerment on the Isle of Lewis - an opportunity to compare notes on rural development in very different settings.

I see myself as a "critical friend" or, as the Quality Assurance Agency puts it, an independent and impartial adviser. When I complete my stint in June, I shall be sorry to lose friends and colleagues and the shiver that comes from hearing the Butt of Lewis on the shipping forecast.

James Derounian is a senior lecturer in community development and senior research fellow at the University of Gloucestershire.

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