On the front line

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

Name: Heather Vincent

Age: 51

Job: Teaching fellow. I am also programme director for the University of Manchester's distance-learning programme in bioinformatics.

Salary: £23,296

Qualifications: BSc (Edinburgh); BA (Open); MSc (Manchester)

Experience: I have practical experience of biological research, distance learning with the Open University, database design and university administration. Bioinformatics arose from collaborations between biologists, physicists, mathematicians and computer scientists interested in developing methods to store and analyse the data from the genome sequence of many organisms.

Hours spent teaching: I do not spend blocks of time in front of a group of students. My teaching involves developing the core materials, including practical exercises, and then answering questions as they arise. I prefer to describe my work as management of learning. We tend to teach through problem solving. My role is to stimulate discussion, respond to queries and provide feedback at the end. I estimate that I spend 30-40 per cent of my time on student support. This will include advice on module choice and organisation of project supervision.

Hours on red tape: I spend time on quality issues and general programme management. Bioinformatics research is developing rapidly, so I have to identify areas where new courses are needed. Running a flexible, part-time, distance programme is complex. I spend lots of time tracking progression and untangling administrative knots.

Hours on research: Teaching fellows are specialists who are not required to undertake research. I spend about a third of my time on course development.

This development involves review of learning and assessment methods, as well as updating the online course materials. I am interested in examining ways to develop training in problem-solving skills across academic disciplines.

Teaching bugbear: Students who do not ask a question when in need of help.

How would you solve it? We require all students to post contributions on the course bulletin board. Communication across disciplines is an essential part of our courses. We try to make it clear to everyone taking the courses that we expect people to learn by solving problems together.

Teaching pleasures: I enjoy designing courses around the development of solutions to real problems and then trying to answer all the questions that arise.

Outside interests: Walking and opera. I also keep Jacob's sheep, but catching them involves more running than walking.

Career high points: The distance-learning programme attracts students from around the world. I am working with other members of the Worldwide Universities Network to include additional modules. The University of Leeds is a partner in the programme, and I am looking forward to working with other Wun universities in China and the US.

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