It is time we tamed the tyranny of technology

September 21, 2007

A few simple fixes, says Ian Marshall, and e-mail and the internet can be transformed from curse into blessing

As a recent meeting with a colleague progressed, I noticed that he was becoming increasingly distracted. I asked him what was wrong. He replied that it was the relentless pinging of incoming e-mails. Every ping was another message to process, even if it was only to hit delete. He felt compelled to answer e-mails every free moment during the day, evenings and weekends. Why? I asked. Most people wouldn't think of calling you at home on a Saturday evening, so why reply to their e-mails at all hours? Nowadays, he explained, some people expect a reply within 30 minutes.

Time is limited, pressures are many and the tendency is to compromise research and other professional activities. Missing a deadline for a conference paper or saying no to a small piece of consultancy will probably not be picked up in the same way that failing to return an e-mail would, but in the long term the effect is cumulative - and more damaging to a career. As academics, we need to free time for research, not only for the research assessment exercise but also because it is professionally fulfilling and provides opportunities for real life applications of thinking. If it is not true already, then soon the UK will be living off the application of its ideas.

As in the example of the colleague who was taken hostage by e-mail, technology is part of the problem. Academics have become mesmerised by the potential of information technology but are seemingly unable to make it work for them. The use of e-mail, discussion forums, online materials and assessments have generally been an addition to what we do rather than a replacement for something less effective. I frequently come across colleagues who have created an unrealistic expectation among students for rapid responses and hence spend hours monitoring and answering their discussion forums. The solution is simple and releases enormous amounts of time to spend on other activities - introduce an "online office hours" policy that defines when you will check e-mails and forums and how quickly you will normally respond.

Another thief of research time is the effort that goes into creating and maintaining teaching materials. Rather than using existing materials, downloading them from an open courseware website or borrowing them from a colleague, academics create their own. The "not invented here" syndrome probably wastes more potential research time than any other activity. In some disciplines there are excellent online courses, in others there are resources and advice being developed by centres of excellence in teaching and learning and other discipline-specific groups. By all means customise these materials - or, better still, instruct the educational technologists who are hired to undertake material developments.

When anyone says they don't have time to do research, I always ask them to look at the marking workload and how they can find ways to minimise it without reducing the quality of feedback to students. For example, they could use online assessment based on freely available question banks or ask students to present their best sample rather than a whole portfolio. Ultimately, if you cannot reduce the number of assessments, is there a way to reduce the assessment workload and get the feedback to the students quickly and efficiently? How many of us who have been teaching for years actually know even a fraction of the different ways that have been developed to assess students in our discipline? A few hours spent finding out how other academics assess students might save you weeks of marking each year.

Difficulties can also arise because of a lack of effective training, which results in the need for reworking, re-entering and patching up of problems. Sometimes it is because we do not have the right tools for the job, systems are incompatible or not enough staff can use the software or system effectively because they have not been trained or have picked up bad habits by teaching themselves. Most training provided tends to be at the "point at this and click at that" level, which some people need, rather than the managing and using it effectively level.

Taking more control of technology and learning how to use it correctly will help.

But perhaps it is time to review fundamentally the impact of the innovations of the past ten years, to investigate what academics need to do, how they actually do it and then design systems, procedures and technology to help them achieve what they need to do more effectively and efficiently.

Ian Marshall is pro vice-chancellor (research) at Coventry University.

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