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Face time with students in the digital age

Kevin Fong suggests ways of satisfying the contact time cravings of today’s Young Ones

In the car, stuck in traffic on the way home from work, I stumbled upon a phone-in on the radio about student fees and value for money. It turned out to be much more compelling than The Archers Omnibus. Disgruntled student after disgruntled student lined up to bemoan the lack of contact hours in their course of study.

Liberal arts students (and their parents) appeared to be over-represented among the callers. Dozens of them got on the line, apparently jealous of their mates in the faculties of engineering, medicine and assorted sciences who had lecture hours regularly running north of 20 hours a week.

Is this what university looks like these days? Do medics find themselves retiring from the student bar early with their philosophy mates shouting after them: “9am start again tomorrow eh? Lucky bastards!”

Whatever happened to the world of The Young Ones? What happened to the immediately recognisable student lifestyles of Vyvyan, Mike, Neil and dear departed Rick? For those of you unfamiliar with the show, The Young Ones was a comedy, set in a student house circa 1982, following the misadventures of four impoverished scholars as they made their way through higher education.

Do medics find themselves retiring from the student bar early with the philosophers shouting: ‘9am start again tomorrow? Lucky bastards!’

Vyvyan was a psychopathic punk-rocker medical student (who in later life – quite believably – became a gifted surgeon at Holby General), Neil was a student of peace studies, Rick a sociologist. It is, after some research, unclear whether Mike was actually at university at all. But that’s kind of the point. The attendance records of all four were identical. None of them ever appeared to go to lectures.

How things change. Today students line up to complain about the lack of contact with their tutors, wondering why, when they are forking out megabucks, they are left to their own devices for so much of the time. A report in 2013 carried out by Which? and the Higher Education Policy Institute showed that tuition has increased by only 20 minutes since 2006, since when tuition fees have nonupled in cost. And yes “nonupled” is a word. And what’s more, if tuition fee rises continue at the current rate, it won’t be too long before I get to use the word “novemquinquagenupled” in this column.

Now we all know that contact hours aren’t everything. Even the Quality Assurance Agency folk point out that they are but one element in the assessment of the quality of a course. And they are very clear that “contact” can take many forms. Lectures obviously qualify, but field trips, seminars and tutorials – even dance classes are offered up as acceptable alternative forms of contact time. Contact can also be virtual and still count. You get credit for emailing, and I guess texting or possibly even tweeting students.

There is – at present – no universally agreed currency exchange rate for this metric. How many tweets are equivalent to an email? How many emails make a lecture? But increasingly it appears that contact time is the commodity that students most prize in their evaluation of a course.

It is worth knowing that satisfaction peaks in those getting between 20 and 29 hours of contact with their lecturers each week, according to the 2014 Hepi Student Academic Experience Survey. And this is one of the benefits of a world in which we know the cost of everything: the opportunity to game the variable. In that spirit let me offer this guide to maxing out contact hours, cleverly assisted by the revolutions of the digital age.

First understand that many different activities count towards contact and, as far as I’m aware, there is no rule that says you can’t perform those in parallel. Let me explain: if you take your class on a field trip to the zoo and then give them an impromptu lecture in the monkey enclosure perhaps you can get two contact hours out of a single 60 minute slot.

I reckon you can up that contact time score by texting students who haven’t bothered to turn up, preferably while you’re still delivering that lecture. Add a screen with a Twitterfall behind you and you’re nearly into your weekly allocation of contact time and it’s not even 10am on Monday morning. This might sound utterly brilliant, but it gets so much better.

Last week I was excited to read that a computer and its algorithms passed the famous Turing test, managing to imitate human behaviour so convincingly that it was, to a large fraction of its users, indistinguishable from a human.

In this case the machine imitated a 13-year-old boy from Ukraine sending a series of text messages over a period of five minutes. And yes, there are doubts now that this machine actually passed the Turing test. Artificial intelligence cognoscenti have been complaining because it only fooled some of the people some of the time and only achieved that under restricted conditions. A text message conversation with a young teenager using English as a second language is hardly what Alan Turing had in mind when he philosophised about AI, they say.

But I’m an optimist. First, I’m willing to bet that five minutes of text messaging is way above the average (desired) daily contact quota for most staff-student interaction. Second, Moore’s Law being what it is, surely it can’t be long before we can get a smartphone to do a plausible impression of a university professor?

Just think about that for a moment. This has implications that go way, way beyond artificial intelligence and machine sentience. It offers the tantalising possibility of achieving that nirvana, sought universally by all of academia, since the dawn of academic time itself: contact with undergraduate students without the need for actual contact.

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