Teaching: on the front line

September 17, 2004

What is your experience of teaching?

Name: Hugh Jones Age: 37

Job: Academic manager/reader in astronomy at Hertfordshire University (previously at Liverpool John Moores University).

Salary: About £37,000.

Qualifications: BSc (Leeds University), MSc (Alberta University), PhD (Edinburgh University)

Experience: More than 15 years' university teaching experience in Canada, Japan and the UK.

Hours spent teaching: Fifteen a week.

Hours on red tape: Fifteen a week.

Hours on research: Twenty a week.

Teaching bugbear: In preparation for external quality audit, the university went through a time-consuming process of mock audit. The major problem was that large amounts of senior staff time were spent developing the processes of overseeing and audit. However, such exercises help to address problems we have had previously when things were introduced too rapidly. By the time difficulties were reported back the rules of engagement changed, with more committees and more middle management to navigate. This does not seem to allow simple management solutions and leaves the university with an overburdened bureaucracy.

How would you solve it? I feel the treatment of quality issues is moving in a sensible direction. Education increasingly depends on market forces, making it reasonable that quality control moves to a lighter, locally driven touch within a more transparent process.

Worst teaching moment: I used to run a distance-learning course where students took a timed online test. As part of this, they were required to verify their identity and confirm that the test was their own work. A few years ago, one student admitted the day after the test that he and his wife had been taking the course together and his wife had taken the test for him. He bowed out gracefully and his wife took further courses on her own and proved an extremely good student.

Best moment: One of my students was so inspired by astronomy that he decided to set up his own observatory and a local astronomical society.

Telescope domes (to protect telescopes from the elements) are rather expensive and typically cost nearly as much as the telescopes they house.

In the end, he came up with a most ingenious low-cost idea. He converted a septic tank into a dome. I have seen it in action and it works pretty well.

The story wound up in the national press, appearing on page 3 of The Sun .

Teaching tip: With rare exceptions, I deal instantly with all student issues (including marking). It makes for happy students and takes less time in the end.

Outside interests: Windsurfing, gadgets, children's literature.

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