Using technology to manage a pre-sessional: part 1 – managing information 2


Every year I like to do a round up of how we’re using tech to help us manage our pre-sessional courses here at the University of Sheffield. The size of the programme here in the summer and the number of sites and teachers we have to manage mean that we are always trying to come up with innovative ways to handle communication better, reduce the use of paper, improve resource sharing and engage students more.

To give you a sense of the scale of the operation, we have almost 1500 students here in the summer, nearly 100 teachers, 4 directors of studies, 6 assistant director of studies and 3 learning technologists. These are spread over 10 different locations throughout the university, 4 different staff rooms and running across 4 different teaching programmes (a 10, 6 and 4-week pre-sessional and a general English programme).

So, let me tell you about a few of the things we’ve been trying and particular focus on some of the lessons learned. Since there’s quite a few things to discuss, I thought I’d spread it over several posts, each one focussing on a different aspect of using tech to manage a summer school. First up is…

Managing information and communication through a website hub

We realised a few years back that using email and a few shared folders are inadequate for dealing with the sprawling nature of a busy summer school. Important emails are easily deleted or overlooked or the information can get muddied and confused in the endless replies to them. And a few static Word documents explaining how the summer school works can quickly become outdated as the programme needs to shift to meet the needs of the student. There needed to be a place for teachers to be able to access all the news and resources on their programme from anywhere and which could be easily updated to reflect any ongoing changes.
We started using a website a few years back to handle all this and it proved very useful as a way of getting information out quickly to teachers and sharing documents with them. We started with a simple Google Site that had news on the front page and then various document folders embedded. However, as the number of teachers and programmes changed and the need for things such as digital lesson records, discussion forums, feedback forms arose, we moved across to using a WordPress site as it gave us a lot more flexibility in terms of how information was presented.

full site home page

As much information as possible relevant to the programme is made available on the site


Each programme on the summer school has their own page on the site, and on that page is a central news feed for anything related to their particular course. Only Directors of Studies can post here so it can’t get cluttered up with irrelevant information or discussion. It’s set up so that the DoSes don’t have to interact directly with the site, they can send an email to a special email address and it will automatically appear on the news feed.

The news items drop down with full text so it's easy to quickly check anything new.

The news items drop down with full text so it’s easy to quickly check anything new.

On each programme page there is also a calendar with all the key dates such as student deadlines for assignments, marking periods and staff meetings. We also embed all the lesson records here as well in a drop-down menu. These are basically Google Docs that teachers complete online so all the information they add is immediately updated on the document. This is is particularly useful if anyone needs to cover a class as they can see at a glance what the teacher has done previously.

the lesson records open up into a Google Doc for teachers to write on

the lesson records open up into a Google Doc for teachers to write on

There are also various document folders there are as well, containing week by materials, audio recordings and exercise answers. They look like they are embedded on the page but in fact they are just links to online Google Drive folders. Again, this makes it easy for the management team to quickly add important documents to a folder through their Google Drive account, it will show up immediately and they don’t have to mess around uploading the documents directly to the site.

these resource are just Google Drive folder embedded on the page

these resource are just Google Drive folder embedded on the page

There are a few other things on the site, such as a tech guides page, some teacher development videos and a useful links page.

tech guides page

The tech guides page gives helpful tips on basic set up of tech as well as VLE guides

This site really is a lifesaver. All teachers need to go to the site to update their lesson records so we know they are going to see any new news within a few hours. It also means teachers can access all this information from anywhere, whether they are at home, in the staff room or the classroom.
As the administrator on the site I can see the statistics about how many people are viewing the site and it’s clear that it is being used as intended. On an average day we get around 1500-2000 page views on the site!

 

I can see at a glance how many teachers have been accessing the site

I can see at a glance how many teachers have been accessing the site

There are some things we’d like to improve on it. We did set up a section where teachers could share materials they’d created, but essentially it was just an upload form for documents and there was no clear way for teachers to describe exactly what was in the document except through the title or by explaining on the document itself. This is something we’ll try to sort out for next year.
I’d be interested to hear from other EAP teachers/managers how they control information on their pre-sessional programmes, especially if the teachers are spread around multiple sites.


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About David Read

I work at the English Language Teaching Centre at the University of Sheffield as the Director of TEL (technology-enhanced learning). I've been an EFL/EAP teacher and teacher trainer for over 20 years and have worked in 14 different countries. Settling down is clearly an issue for me.


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2 thoughts on “Using technology to manage a pre-sessional: part 1 – managing information

  • Pete MacKichan

    Hi David,

    How have you found word press as regards reusability / modularity?
    I would have thought an open source CMS such as Moodle would give you more flexibility and greater control. For example you could use the Database tool to organize teacher-created materials. There are so many plugins that integrate seamlessly so it is very simple to set things up the way that you want and it is scaleable.
    Why did you choose Google tools – does this mean your teachers have to sign up for a Google account?

    Pete

    • Profile photo of David Read
      David Read Post author

      hi Pete, some useful comments, thanks. We did consider using a VLE, Moodle’s not an option as it’s difficult to install a new version on our servers and the university uses Blackboard as its institutional VLE. But Blackboard does not have the most attractive or navigable interface, the upload process is clunky and it doesn’t work terribly well with Google products. On that note, we use Google because Sheffield is a GAFE (Google Apps for Education) university and all teachers have Gmail, Drive, Calendar as part of that. So, no need to create extra accounts for them.

      In terms of reusability, WordPress works well, largely because so much of the content is stored elsewhere and it’s easy to create a frontend through WordPress to access that. So, the calendar is pulling in a Google Calendar feed, the news items are emails converted into posts. The materials are Google Drive folders, the lesson records Google Docs. Virtually all of the content is added to the site remotely by managers, directors and admin people, they don’t need to interact with WordPress or the admin panel at all. Since all our staff are very familiar with these Google tools, they don’t need to learn anything new to get content on the site.