Teaching: on the front line

November 21, 2003

What is your experience of teaching? Pat Leon asks teachers how they manage.

Name : Elisabeth Skinner

Age : 57

Job : Principal lecturer in local policy (the study of policy as it affects local communities) in the School of Environment, University of Gloucestershire.

Salary : c. £35,000

Qualifications : Certificate of education (Whitelands College); BA in history and politics (Open University).

Experience : I did teacher training at a Putney college and worked first as a teacher. After my part-time OU degree, I couldn't find work in schools in Gloucestershire, where I lived. I had six years of patchy employment before finding the perfect job combining teaching, writing and community action.

It started with a contract worth £600 to convert some taught-course notes into distance-learning materials for parish councils. I became a part-time lecturer at Gloucestershire College of Art and Technology and eventually a full-time lecturer teaching on and off-campus students at what eventually became a university. Distance learning changed dramatically in that time. Whereas it had been a combination of residential schools and printed materials and videos sent out by post, now there is a strong element of online learning. The lines between distance and campus-based learning are blurring. For example, a Muslim student asked me if she could switch to distance learning for five weeks during Ramadan because she couldn't cope with the timetable. I said "yes" as everything was in place.

Hours spent on teaching : Officially 624 hours a year, including preparation and assessment, but as a "facilitator" of online discussion between students, it is becoming harder to quantify. My main interest is citizenship and community development. I work in a team that runs programmes for people working with town and parish councils in England.

They gain professional qualifications in local policy that go up to degree level. I am also a member of the steering group designing and implementing the national training strategy for town and parish councils.

Hours on red tape : Some, but I withdrew from a heavy administrative role to focus on the development of online learning and teaching tools.

Hours on research : Not many, although I do find time to reflect on learning and teaching in a scholarly way. I have a university teaching fellowship and am using this to look at how voluntary and community groups can work with the university.

Teaching bugbear : The gulf between published university policy and the resources required for implementation. This is a problem for colleagues developing online learning environments. It is difficult to make administrative systems designed for traditional students work for distance learning and part-time students. Take the cumbersome registration process.

The university wants to see the students face to face, and that's difficult when they are distance learners. Campus students are not logged on the system until they have registered, but distance-learning students need to be on beforehand so that they know how to gain access and practice.

How would you solve it? One solution would be to facilitate online registration. It happened this year for continuing students, but we need it for first-years, too.

Best teaching moment? When a graduate parish clerk told his local community that the local policy degree had been a life-changing experience.

Oddest? Teaching quality assessors were sitting in on the first session of a residential school for which I was responsible in 1997. A colleague shocked them by beginning his introduction to the concept of a continuum with a stunt involving a "rabbit on a string". The experience is now part of course mythology.

Outside interests : Stories in any shape or form - from EastEnders to Middlemarch - hill walking and local history.

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