Jennifer Currie meets the brains behind Arcade, the software that helps keep students and lecturers on track.
Monitoring academic progress is a bureaucratic nightmare in an era of continuous assessment.
As breaking deadlines is often far easier than sticking to them, it is no surprise that the number of assignments that get eaten by family pets increases tenfold as the end of term draws nearer.
"Students will always ignore submission dates in favour of final deadlines," says John Latham, a lecturer and laboratories manager in Manchester University's computer science department. "More than 30 of our modules in the first and second years have laboratory components, so it is important to have a means of ensuring that things run smoothly."
Dr Latham had this problem in mind when he took over as laboratories manager in 1993. With the advent of modularisation, he found himself faced with the mammoth task of coordinating more than 30,000 hours of student contact time each year. He designed the Arcade system (Administration and Running Continuous Assessment with Deadlines and Extensions) to handle the paperwork. Or, as he cheerfully describes it: "I just channelled all the donkey work into the computer."
An administrative system that monitors the academic progress of students within any one department, Arcade was conceived as a way to "remove the chaos" associated with continual assessment. "Arcade would be a disaster in the hands of a tyrant but we have found that it works rather well," Dr Latham says.
To be blunt, Arcade can be used to give students "a kick up the bum", as Dr Latham puts it, if they fall behind with their classwork. "Sending our students automated email messages to warn them they are likely to fail their course is quite brave as there is always the chance that the computer may have got their records wrong. But they are computing students so part of their learning process should be to recognise that computers are just tools," Dr Latham adds. "I have never heard of anyone getting really cross over an email."
Despite its insensitive-sounding nature, Arcade has been programed to deal with "exceptional individual circumstances", such as illness or bereavement, and Dr Latham says that it does this both efficiently and sympathetically. Its timely warnings not only propel students in the right direction work-wise, but also seem to increase the amount of student-tutor contact. "After the system sends out a warning, I find that the most wayward students come to my office to seek advice and help. It forces them to make contact with us as they realise that they cannot ignore the difficulties they are experiencing." At its most basic level, teaching staff can use Arcade to record attendance at tutorials, and in some cases, lectures, as well as keeping track of classwork marks, any extension requests and assignment completion dates.
"We have developed a highly efficient input procedure so that only one member of clerical staff is required to enter the data from the first and second-years' laboratories," Dr Latham says.
The system also uses data gathered at the start of the course to predict each student's final mark at the outset, which is updated as the module progresses. "The students are involved at every part of the process," Dr Latham says. "Keeping them aware of how their marks are progressing lets them solve their problems as they go along, rather than rushing to do it all at the last minute, when staff time, lab space and resources are all in shorter supply."
Yet students will be human and can still fall short of Arcade's deadlines, despite the prior- warning system. "The students are entitled to an extension, which is always taken to be the beginning of their next scheduled session. We make them ask for it and this is an important reminder that they are going to have to work in their own time, without staff help," Dr Latham explains. "Hopefully this makes them realise that it is better to work to deadlines."
Although work is officially classed as late if the extended deadlines are missed, a late mark cannot lead to a student failing the course.
"Late marks are only considered at the end. If the student has one late mark, but four other exercises at 60 per cent, for example, then the late mark is ignored. If all of the work is late however, then the student can only achieve a pass."
Dr Latham is convinced that the system has had a positive impact on both staff and students. Not only have class attendances improved, but he thinks that drop-out rates in the earlier stages of the undergraduate programmes have also decreased. "Regular feedback seems to have a enormous psychological effect on students, while the net benefit for staff is that we can run our laboratories in a highly managed, consistent and fairer way. We can identify and deal with struggling students long before it is too late to do so."