You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps

There is a knack to applying for jobs in Higher Education. I’ve been involved in several vacancies this year from short listing and interviewing, so I thought it might be helpful to write down some of the pitfalls applicants fall in to.

This is also a cathartic exercise. There is something incredibly frustrating about a candidate who should be interviewed missing out because of a poor application.

Whilst there will be advice that can be applied to any role in any sector, I am solely talking about professional or support service roles in Learning Technology/ICT.

Seek and ye shall find…

The best place to look is jobs.ac.uk as it provides the broadest and most comprehensive list of vacancies across HE, FE and beyond. It is split in to disciplines/field as well as department/job areas so you can really hone in on your expert areas. If you have a specific institution in mind, sign up to that institutions job alerts (most have them).

Not all Universities are created equal…

Do your research. More to follow…

Money is the root of all evil…

University salaries are based on pay/grade scales. For example, a role could be advertised at Grade 5. It may be advertised like this “Grade 5 starting from £25,000 rising to £32,000. What this generally means is the grade starts at £25k and will go up a scale point each year until you reach the top of the grade at £32k. The grade numbering/lettering and boundaries differ from one University to the other so a grade 5 in one university won’t necessarily be the same as a grade 5 in another.

A mistake applicants often make, is thinking that salaries are negotiable. On the whole, for professional/support services, there is little to no room to maneuver. Most Universities will have a policy of starting you at the starting scale point of the grade. Unless you are an incredibly impressive candidate, you’re unlikely to be able to push them any higher. If you do, it’s likely to be a scale point or two at most.

There are reward and recognition schemes but you’re unlikely to receive any bonuses or performance pay. You don’t get to renegotiate your salary every year. If you think you deserve a pay increase or a regrade to the next grade, you are going to have to have some very strong evidence to demonstrate why. It’s never a guarantee.

If you’re paid £50k a year and the job is advertised at £30k, assume you will be paid ~£30k. Don’t waste people’s time applying for a job at a salary level you aren’t able or willing to accept.

The devil is in the detail…

READ THE WHOLE ADVERT. READ THE PERSON SPECIFICATION. READ THE ROLE DESCRIPTION. PAY ATTENTION TO ESSENTIAL AND DESIRABLE CRITERIA.

I’ve seen a lot of applications, and even interviews, where the applicant clearly has no idea what they applied for or has totally misunderstood the role.

The person specification will detail what kind of person they are seeking. What are the skills, qualifications, attributes and experience they are seeking which could be split in to essential and desirable criteria. In short, if you don’t meet all of the essential criteria you’re unlikely to be shortlisted for interview. Desirable criteria are things they’d like the role holder to have but are not essential to the role, so they might give you an advantage over another candidate but they shouldn’t stop you from applying.

Most adverts have a suggested contact who you can get in touch with to discuss the role so if you’re not 100% sure, get in contact.

Forms, forms everywhere…

If you decide to apply, prepare yourself for a long ass form. Most universities will use an online system but not all. There’s a lot to fill in so make sure you leave yourself time. The most important part of any application is the personal statement.

Up close and personal…

If I could, I would scream this in to the face of every applicant. THE PERSONAL STATEMENT IS REALLY IMPORTANT.

The personal statement is your opportunity to demonstrate how your experience and skills are relevant to the role. The key here is relevance to the role. It doesn’t matter if you can swim 100 meters without arm bands if the job you’re applying for is in software development.

Top tips:

  • Everything you say should demonstrate how you meet the essential and desirable criteria.
  • If it’s not relevant, don’t put it in.
  • Structure your statement based on the essential and desirable criteria.
  • Back up everything you say with an example from your work.

Let’s look at an example. An essential criteria is “Experience of software development”. Which is the stronger of the two statements:

I have extensive experience in software development.

I have extensive experience in software development. I recently developed a piece of software which…

The latter is the strongest statement because you are directly referencing the criteria whilst backing it up with an example.

In a non-competitive recruitment you may get away with the former statement. However, if you are up against a lot of candidates, the second statement will pus you higher up the invitation list.

I can’t stress this enough. Make sure the statement covers all of the essential and desirable criteria. For a higher chance of securing an interview, make sure you back everything up with examples. Your invitation to interview relies on your personal statement.

Pudding is in the proof…

Please, if you take away nothing else, pay attention to this. Proofread your application.

We all copy and paste applications but you must read it afterward. Make sure what you’ve used is still relevant to THIS application. You may need to reword it to make sure it fits. We can tell when someone has just thrown something in from elsewhere especially when the formatting makes that obvious.

Spelling and grammatical errors are to some extent, forgivable. But don’t think they’ll go unnoticed. If you’re communication is that poor, it’s hard to overlook. I’ve read applications where someone has used text message abbreviations. I mean WTF? I mean TBH we’re unlikely to consider you a credible candidate. ROFL.  

Please also get the name of the institution or sector right. you’d be surprised how many applicants are keen for a career in the NHS. If you’ve not bothered to check

Not checking your application, says a lot about you.

Failure to prepare is preparing to fail…

If you’ve been selected for interview, now is the time to research the job, the institution, the local area, the people on the panel. If it’s a technical role try to find out what technology is in use. Preparation like this, really impresses a panel.

There’s no excuse for not knowing information that’s publicly available. I find it very irritating when a candidate has done no research. 

Interview with the vampire…

Interviews are designed to suck as much information from you as possible. The idea, however flawed, is to ask questions to ascertain whether your knowledge, experience and skills demonstrate that you are suitable for the role.

The interview panel will ask you a series of predetermined questions. Part of your interview may include a presentation or test which will be detailed in your invitation. You may be able to prep before the interview or time is often allocated on the day. You may have no prior warning about what you’re going to be asked to do so this is where your research will pay dividends.

Top tips for presentations:

  • Make sure you understand what you’re being asked to do
  • Stick to the time limit
  • Refine it to your key points
  • In slide design, less is more
  • Practice, practice, practice.

Presentations are designed to assess not only what you’re saying but also how you’re saying it. Your body language, tone of voice and language you use will all be taken in to account. Clarity is key. You may only have a short time to get across the information so make sure you prioritise the most important points. You don’t want to be filling the last 30 seconds with as much as you can. If you’re including slides or any other presentation media, make sure they are concise and clear. None wants a 1000 word essay on a slide. I like to use presentations solely as a reminder for me about what I need to say next, highlighting my key point only.

If you can practice, practice. Your communication skills, under pressure, are being scrutinised so practice will help you to calm down. Practice will help you articulate what you want to say.

Tests are more difficult to predict or prepare for. They might be scenario based “what would you do if”, data based “what does this data tell you” or technical “how would you fix X” ” if a user has X issue, what would you do?”. 

Something else you can do, that helps you to feel prepared, is write down the kinds of questions you might be asked and how you would answer it. Some of this work can be done as part of the your evidence in the personal statement. Write down projects you’ve worked on, work your proud of, work you’ve found challenging. Think about teams you’ve been in, what worked well, what were the challenges. Always think about what you’d do differently, especially where there was a challenge. By all means write it down and bring it to the interview, have a read through before you go in, but don’t plonk it on the table and spend the entire interview staring at it.

You will have the opportunity to ask questions at the end so consider carefully what you’d like to know. This is your opportunity to find out more about the role so use it. Although there’s no requirement to ask questions, it’s always a bit of a mystery why people don’t. If nothing else asking questions shows you’re interested and that you’ve taken the time to think about what you’d like to know.

It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it

There is a balance between saying too much and too little. Candidates who ramble on without getting to the point, don’t get very far; nor do candidates who give short curt answers.

Nothing is more expensive than a missed opportunity…

Whether you get a job depends on lots of things. You can’t do anything about the competition your up against all you can control is your application and interview. Those are all down to you.

If your application is poor, that’s on you.

If you don’t mention something that might have got you the job, that’s on you. (The panel isn’t psychic)

If you say too much, or too little, that’s on you.

If you didn’t prepare, that’s on you.

It’s about what you know, not who you know…

This is a note for internal candidates. Just because the panel knows you, just because you work in the same place, doesn’t mean you can get away with any of the above. Although I’m sure there’s a fair amount of dodgy dealings that do go on, you will be treated like any other candidate. So approach the interview as though no one knows you and you don’t work in the same place. don’t fall in to the trap of failing to explain something. Answers without evidence are going to do you no favours! If you’re internal, you have fewer excuses so don’t expect to walk in to jobs.

Missed Opportunities

The Thin Negative Line

If you went to this years ALT conference, you may have noticed the “EdTech will not save you” badges worn by delegates. Unsurprisingly, given the audience of ALT, they were met with some criticism (ironic). This post relates to the thin line we tread between critique and negativity.

‘tech wont save us’ brings unwarranted negative connotation. Be critical, not extreme. 

I won’t say who said this but I bet you can guess what industry they work in.

Where’s the line?

I’ve written about this rather tedious attitude in The Criticism of Criticism blog post. This reductive idea that criticism, if you don’t agree with it, is negativity and should, therefore, be dismissed. Technology it seems, is beyond reproach. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. I think describing the badges as extreme is ridiculous because it’s actually true. EdTech will not save us.

So what’s the point?

This is purely my interpretation, you would have to ask Lawrie Phipps and Donna Lanclos to explain the ideas behind the badges for accuracy, but it relates to the positioning of edtech. Edtech has for many years, been positioned (by us and vendors alike) as a solution to teaching and learning ‘problems’. As a quick and easy means of  improvement. Teaching and learning is not a problem to be solved and THAT IS THE POINT OF THE BADGE.

Vendors are their own worst enemies

Vendors of EdTech products like to posit their wares as solutions to problems you didn’t even know you had. They like to appropriate pedagogical language and, to some extent, have been surreptitiously driving the development of digital pedagogy. For some reason, we’re not worried about that. Similar to handing over our data to a faceless company for the affordances of their technology we continue to feed this industry despite the damage we may do ourselves and our discipline.  They like to speak to senior management, the people with the £, and espouse how their tool will revolutionise the institution. They peddle their snake oil with outlandish promises that their technology will save us. It won’t, and THAT IS THE POINT OF THE BADGE.

Digital placebos

Very much linked to the above, some senior management see technology as a solution to problems (even without the influence of vendors) that are long, hard and messy to improve. Instead of investing the organisational development, instead of fighting those long and hard battles and rather than tackle a culture, technology can be seen as a quick fix. Problems with assessment? Slap a bit of tech on it. Problems with student retention? Slap a bit of tech on it. All this does is mask a problem. All it is is a placebo. It makes people feel better whilst nothing is actually happening to the route cause. Of course this is a generalisation and technology can bring genuine improvements, but that’s not always where or how it’s used. We walk around ALT C patting ourselves on the back and reveling in our ‘achievements’. Only a few ask the really important questions about whether what we are doing is good or right or ethical. A placebo may make us feel better but it’s not solving anything, and THAT IS THE POINT OF THE BADGE.

Calls to action

Sometimes you have to be blunt. Sometimes, a point is better made simply. Sometimes, caveats and context get in the way of the point. If the badge said “EdTech is useful and a positive benefit in many situations but we should make sure we are critical of it and the motivations behind it” it wouldn’t have had the same impact. Also, it would be a massive badge. Provocative statements make you think, and THAT IS THE POINT OF THE BADGE

There are negatives 

There are lots of negatives around technology. if yo can’t acknowledge them, then you’re fooling yourself. Negativity is warranted, and THAT IS THE POINT OF THE BADGE.

I will wear mine with pride.

*Image credit Lawrie Phipps, 2018

“Good central location”

Map

This is my fourth role in a central department and every single one has been an experience. I don’t consider myself an expert and I’m still trying to ‘do it right’. So I thought I’d write down some tips for developing a successful working relationship.

A bit of context

I am the manager of the Extended Classroom Support team which is in the Academic Technology department which is a dept. in IT Services. My team supports the use of teaching and learning (T&L) technologies in our Extended Classroom suite, Moodle, Mahara etc. for all staff and students within the University. We do 1st and 2nd line support, training, guidance and consultancy. We work closely with our colleagues in the technical team who are responsible for the technical support, maintenance and updates for our technologies and others. I am as central as you can get.

Within departments we have Academic Technologists who are employed by the dept. to support their use of T&L technologies and are completely independent to us. We call them Super Users as they have heightened responsibilities and access to the technologies we provide. Although we group them as Super Users they are all very different in the level of responsibility they have, their goals and objectives, knowledge and experience. Some call this organisation ‘hub and spoke’ and to some extent I suppose it is.  We try to strike a tricky balance of not stepping on their toes but being there when they want us. 

For me, this is the largest ‘hub and spoke’ set up that I have been a part of. At my previous institution there was only one other dept. who had their own Academic Technologist equivalents. We also used a different VLE in which developments are limited/non-existent. At Warwick we use Moodle, which gives the impression of flexibility and easy customisation. What it doesn’t say in the marketing materials is there are huge sacrifices to be made if you want flexibility and customisation. This results in a lot of requests that we can’t/shouldn’t/won’t fulfill. At my previous institution, the VLE was what it was and you worked with it. The VLE is still relatively new here too, only 6 years old, so every dept. is at different levels of use/depth. This means we have a broad spectrum of users to support.

Participate in the community

The Warwick campus is spread out and it’s not the kind of place where you just bump in to one another. Since I began this role I’ve wanted to develop our community of Super Users so that they have a space to share knowledge and experience with one another. We organise events and have an online community space in Moodle with forums for discussions and knowledge sharing. A community only works if people participate in it.

Work in partnership

Many see central depts. existing solely to serve. That is a very reductive mindset. Yes, we provide a set of services but we can do much more than that. If you can see us as more than the people you go to when you have a job you can’t or don’t want to do, then we can start to actually work together. If you see our relationship solely as transactions then we’re not working together we’re working for you. Little of value will be achieved through this.

Understanding

We need to understand one another. We do a lot to try to understand depts. so underestimating how we work, our constraints and our challenges will help to build a relationship. 

Transparency

One complaint I hear is “we don’t know what’s going on”. Rest assured, if we had something to tell you, we’d tell you. However, I have been endeavoring to make our thought processes, procedures and plans more transparent. If we share something with you, please read it. If you know something is coming, tell us. 

Everyone has priorities, they may not match yours

This is the most difficult challenge of a central department, balancing the priorities of multiple stakeholders. Each stakeholder I work with thinks theirs is the most important. When you’re looking after 30+ depts. you have at least 30+ priorities to balance, add to that your own priorities and the priorities of the institution, and you end up with more priorities than you can ever take in to account. A clearly considered rationale behind requests will help us prioritise effectively. However, that doesn’t mean yours will always be top of the queue!

Patience

We can’t do everything we’re asked. There are only so many hours in the day. We’re trying to do the work we know we need to do, the work you want us to do and the work we didn’t know was coming. You may be frustrated with our pace but we’re doing the best we can.

Shouting the loudest

Linked to the above and partnership, if you’re not happy with the pace, shouting louder won’t help. There are reasons, whether you think them legitimate or not, behind everything. Shouting louder, rallying and calling us out in public won’t make anything happen any quicker and it doesn’t engender collegiality.

Work WITH us

If we can’t meet your needs then help us advocate for more provision, time or resource. Support is more effective than complaints. We need voices to back up our arguments. Help us do something about it.

Power plays

I’ve seen this a lot. Person A isn’t getting what they want so finds person B who is higher up in the dept. Person A asks person B to email person C, who’s higher up the dept. they’ve been dealing with, to add pressure/hope for a better answer. Often, this escalates until high enough people, who often have no idea what they’re asking for, apply enough pressure. It’s not helpful and actually ends up being incredibly disruptive. It’s a ploy used to shame and pressure people in to doing things. It’s not collegiate, it doesn’t encourage trust and it certainly doesn’t make you popular.

Control

Like you, we work and rely on other teams to do what we do. They suffer the same pressures as we do. I can’t tell them what to do and when. All I can do is present an argument. They have their own priorities and work to do. We work in partnership and have (I hope) developed a balance between give and take. 

Feedback is welcome

Let me caveat that, constructive feedback is welcome. If you don’t tell us, we can’t improve.

Have a little faith

Honestly, we are doing our best. We’re not twiddling our thumbs. We’re working to improve things, we just can’t do it all at once.

Share the love…

Reconciling VLE Minimum Standards

Judges Gavel

I am torn by VLE standards. On the one hand, I see their purpose and utility and on the other, I see a tool of management implemented primarily for the purpose of compliance. It is with this in mind that I titled this post ‘Reconciling VLE Minimum Standards’. Yesterday, I took part in a UCISA Digital Education Group webinar discussion on VLE Minimum Standards. An hour is not enough time to discuss the complexities of this subject, so this post is an attempt to answer the questions we didn’t get time to cover and to reconcile my internal conflict.

A recording of the webinar VLE Minimum Standards – Lessons from the Sector and Padlet containing the questions and resources are available.

For context, the University of Warwick does not have a VLE minimum standard. It is the direction we are moving in but are yet to begin. Our VLE is still young, having been in ‘pilot’ around five years ago. We’re at a stage now where its importance is recognised by the ‘University’ and an appetite is growing for increased consistency. The answers to the questions below are based on my experience of implementing minimum standards at my previous institution.

How do you monitor and measure compliance with the standard? Are there any automated ways of doing this? What, if any are the consequences or sanctions for non-compliance? What flexibility do your standards offer?

Monitoring – We took a sample across the faculties.

Automation – Can data gained through automaton be meaningful? We can automatically trawl the database and say module x contains a forum, x number of files, a quiz etc. But what can’t be measured through automated means is whether those things were meaningful or successful. Is having a forum with nothing in it enough to pass the standard? Often, it is. But that’s a tick box measure, not something that will change practice. There are too many variables, too much context and too much open to interpretation to automatically to measure whether a module page has met the standard.

Consequences – We thought it best to allow each department to decide how they enforced the standards. It was their decision to determine what the consequences would be for non-compliance. We wanted to position ourselves as a source of support, as the carrot, not the stick.

Flexibility – We used lots of phrases such as “as appropriate” and “where necessary” to enable staff to apply only what was relevant to their teaching context. There were standards that were not optional that were applicable to the institution regardless of context.

How have you evaluated the impact of the standards?

This is where standards fall down. What is the measure of success? What is the desired impact? This needs to be clear early. Is impact to be measured by looking at the measures of student satisfaction? Is 80% of the modules meet the standard success? We hadn’t got that far and I’m not sure we really had this clear either. Sadly, standards are often something we have to do so thinking about this stuff can become a lower priority than delivering a standard.

How have your standards evolved over time? What would you change about them now?

I think minimum VLE standards have to be part of a wider holistic approach to improving the student experience. All VLE standards do is improve one small aspect of the experience. The VLE is a small part of a big picture, if you’re clinging on to the hope that improving the VLE will fix the student experience, I fear you’ll be disappointed. I like this description from Reed and Watmough.

If these are truly hygiene factors in Herzberg’s use of the word, they will not necessarily make students’ HE experience completely satisfactory; rather, they will reduce the likelihood students will be dissatisfied in a preventative sense. These factors could be present but other aspects central (or intrinsic) to the teaching and learning experience could be missing, thus preventing students from extreme satisfaction. Reed, P. Watmough, S. 2015

I found a dichotomy between compliance and use which I still find difficult to reconcile. I found the more time I spent developing and auditing the standards the more I felt they needed to be broader to suit different disciplines. BUT whilst auditing them, I thought they were too open to interpretation and needed to be more specific. How do you measure for example “Appropriate learning content available through a structured content organisation”? My interpretation was different to my colleague.

What sort of approaches to reporting on the standards have you done?

We performed an audit from a sample of modules across all faculties. We created an infographic that showed 3 positive areas and 3 areas for improvement which was visible to the whole University. We also sent the raw data to the Head of Department. We felt it was important for departments to decide on the best approach for monitoring and taking action.

What have institutions found successful in raising adoption of the standards, including staff development and communication approaches? Do staff really understand the impact of meeting/not meeting the standards on students?

How can they understand the impact of not meeting them if there are no consequences? If we want compliance then there should be a compliance mechanism and we should be honest that they will be measured and reported on. We can use the student experience as a motivator but without seeing that surface or demonstrated in a tangible way, e.g. module evaluations or NSS (by which time it’s too late) where are they going to see the impact? So we’re back to someone policing them and there being clearly articulated consequences.

Have you updated your standards? Do you have a schedule as to when they will be updated?

I didn’t get that far at my previous institution but I would expect any that we develop would be reviewed and updated annually. Technologies, policy and focus may change from year to year and the standards should reflect where the institution wants to go, not where it is now.

What balance have you taken in producing minimum standards for your VLE between functional standards e.g. put up the handbook and broader pedagogic or principle base standards e.g. accessibility

This is a question that has stuck with me. I want to create a standard, baseline or whatever you want to call it that changes behaviour and practice whilst improving consistency, student experience and use of the VLE. I don’t want to create a tick list of things to do to avoid getting scrutiny from the institution. Would a standard be more successful if it was focussed on the change in practices we want to achieve than just a tick box list of things that should be on the module page?

It can still be linked to specific measurable criteria and further guidance but the emphasis would be on pedagogy and practice first. The platform, features and functions are immaterial. For example “Teach inclusively – Ensure your materials follow accessibility guidelines. Ensure a variety of assessment types and materials etc.”. We can combine VLE compliance with pedagogical practice. I’m thinking along the lines of nudge theory. So watch this space, the University of Warwick VLE minimum standard might be a little different.

Ultimately I want to support good teaching whether that is through the VLE or not. Online practice can be beneficial to the face to face and vice versa. We want to get people thinking about practice not about ticking a compliance box.

 


Reed, P. Watmough, S. 2015 Hygiene factors: Using VLE minimum standards to avoid student dissatisfaction. E-Learning and Digital Media
Vol 12, Issue 1, pp. 68 – 89. First Published January 29, 2015.