Playing the tune and bringing the students with us.

On February 28th at the University of Chichester, I played a concert with my long-time accompanist and Head of Music and Media, Ben Hall. What was so special about this concert as we are both musicians? Well, in our daily roles, the students see us as lecturers, researchers, and really as overall musical academics, but seldom do they see us in the capacity of being professional performers.

We took this opportunity to draw the students in, with the Multi-camera Live Event module filming the event as part of their assessment there was a team of 8 students with 4 cameras, complete with a rolling track for moving shots, and the Music students advertising and hosting the event. It was a chance to use students to document and showcase the use of the University’s prized piano. The Centennial D is probably the oldest Steinway concert grand piano in Europe. It was made in 1876 and really defined what was to become the modern piano. The instrument has a different iron frame to modern grand pianos, with less tension, richer harmonics, and there is tri-stringing further down the tenor register. The sound is pure velvet and second to none, but I might be biased.

Laura Ritchie and Ben Hall

Laura and Ben photographed by Andrew Worsfold, keen music enthusiast and employee at the University of Chichester.


The event was also a personal challenge. Balancing academic duties with presenting a memorised concert was my way of showing the students that I am up for the same processes that we expect them to undertake. None of us ever stops learning, and conveying that to the students, staff, and public is important to me. Actually, it is essential, because if you believe, have drive and commitment, then so many limits to how much you can learn and accomplish are lifted. I am certainly going to keep stretching and growing. I hope you do as well.


By Laura Ritchie
2012 National Teaching Fellow

What being a National Teaching Fellow did for me!

Article by Professor Alan Clements
University of Teesside
NTF 2002

Becoming a National Teaching Fellow was probably the most important event in my academic life; it’s certainly the event that had most impact on me both personally and professionally. This article is a brief account of how I came to be a NTF and how it affected me.

Alan with Beijing students 2005

Alan with students from Beijing at the 2005 Computer Society conference.
Photograph © Alan Clements.

I’m was in one of the first few batches of National Teaching Fellows, although I never set out to be an NTF and assumed that it was for those who knew about education, or, at least, the theory of it. A memo came round about NTFs and one of my colleagues, one of the very first NTFs, suggested that I should apply – largely because of my work in computer science education (e.g., writing textbooks and working with curricula committees). Anyway, I did apply and became a National Teaching Fellow.

Becoming an NTF had a profound effect on the course of my life. In my case, you could say that the NTF was an enabling mechanism that helped me do many of the things I wanted to do. I was very lucky because the management at the University of Teesside appreciated NTFs and was always very supportive of my work.

Promoting education can take place at many levels; for example, education theory and best practice, enhancing the local environment, and advancing the global environment. Long before I became an NTF, I had been an author of textbooks and was also involved with the body that represents the computing profession at all levels, the IEEE Computer Society. Fortunately, I was able to apply some of my NTF goals to both writing and computer science education.

US trip in 2004

Photo from a US trip in 2004. © Alan Clements.

In the IEEE CS I was a member of their educational activities board and took over leadership of their CSIDC, Computer Society International Design Competition. I managed to find the right person at the right time in Microsoft and they gave me $1M to implement the competition for several years. Bringing $1M to the society allowed me to select the theme of the competition and its parameters. I was aware that computing was associated in many people’s minds with geekiness, gaming, and surfing the web. I wanted to dispel this misconception and demonstrate its importance and its social usefulness. The themes of the competitions I organized stressed this approach to computer science. Moreover, addressing the popular perception of computer science might also reduce the gender imbalance amongst students. Essentially, teams of five students (undergraduates) from all over the world were asked to design a computer-based application that would be innovative and beneficial to society. Teams were told that they had to use commonly available components and had a strict spending limit in order to ensure a level playing field. The top ten teams were invited to the finals in Washington, DC with all expenses paid. The competition was a success and teams from developing countries and East Europe dominated CSIDC.

A typical finalist entry in the competition was a group of students who used a cheap webcam to monitor a person’s movements at home. If the person made coordinated movements, all was well. If he or she made uncoordinated movements (e.g., falling or collapsing), an alarm was sounded. The students used the camera to convert an image into stick-man movements and then distinguish between natural and unnatural body movements. This was demonstrated by a student who set up a bedroom. When he sat on the bed, nothing happened. When he keeled over the alarm sounded.

As well as promoting CS education, the competition allowed students in countries such as Romania, that had previously been isolated, to take part in a world-class event. Indeed, one year we had finalists from Nepal. I received mail in later years from some of the students saying how much the competition had influenced the direction of their lives and inspired them.

The competition had a surprising personal effect on me. I also ran a history competition to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Computer Society. Again, I was able to influence the direction and asked students to write about computer history – not the traditional history of the established famous inventors but unsung heroes from their own countries; for example, the team from Japan discussed the history of computing in Japanese railways.

I occasionally received requests to take part from countries that were not on the US State Department’s Christmas card list; specifically Iran and Cuba.  I told those writing to me that they could take part in the competition as the IEEE CS was an international organization. I said that they could win but they could not receive a prize because of US export restrictions.

Students in Cuba 2009

Alan visiting Cuba in 2009 and giving a lecture to students. © Alan Clements.

The professor in Cuba who contacted me, knew of me because of my books and because of a shared interest in computer history. He invited me to visit him at his university. I did so and was quite amazed to discover that the university was built on the site of the former Soviet base that housed the nuclear missiles at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In fact, I was made a visiting professor and visited the university three times. These visits provided some of the most fascinating and enjoyable moments of my life.

As well as my visit to Cuba, my academic work earned me a visit to the West Point Military Academy in the USA, where I gave a talk on a topic that included two of my greatest interests, computer science (professional) and aviation (personal): “Can you trust computers to fly aircraft”. This was an interesting visit, walking round a campus where students saluted their lecturers (I should be so lucky) and where trash cans were labelled ‘secret’ and ‘non-secret’.

As a National Teaching Fellow and a classroom teacher in a northern university where most students are first-generation students, I have always had to deal with a very wide range of students in terms of both ability and motivation. In my writings and teaching I have always tried to reach all students; sometimes with success and sometimes not. One of the problems with textbooks is that they are reviewed by successful academics who are interested in the cutting edge of the field. If you go into detail and step though an argument too slowly, the reviewer is likely to complain which panics your editor. I once gave a short talk at a publishers’ conference and said that the product closest to the textbook was dog food. I got some funny looks until I pointed out that dog food is designed by people, manufactured by people, sold by people, but consumed by dogs. Similarly, textbooks are written by academics, reviewed by academics and recommended by academics – but read by students. How many average and below average students take any part in the design of a textbook?

I’ve now retired from full time teaching and am an Emeritus Professor. I haven’t stopped my work. At the moment I’m developing a website on computer architecture (i.e., the design and operation of computers) that covers my discipline more widely than others (at least, that’s my goal). For example, I include history and ethical considerations; both topics included in the formal curriculum but often omitted because of the pressure to cover more ‘practical’ topics in the curriculum. I have recently started writing to academics and asking them to suggest topics that their students find difficult in traditional texts (including my own). I then write an article to help deal with some of the misconceptions students have. I’ve added material at the request of US academics and even one in Iran who could not afford expensive western textbooks.

When I look back on my life as a NTF, I ask myself what I gained from it. Ironically, the answer is, ‘more of that which won me the NTF in the first place’. And that’s the ability to seize opportunities when they arise. I began my academic career by thinking I could write a better book than someone else; and I did, and that put me on the path to a NTF. Once, I had the NTF I took the opportunities that arose because of it. If I have one regret about my professional life, it’s that I didn’t take all the opportunities that arose.

Lake Powell Arizona

Aerial photo of Lake Powell, Arizona. © Alan Clements.


Alan is a retired Professor of Computing at the University of Teesside, and also a keen photographer.



PhD students – have they been left behind?

The life and prospects for PhD students is becoming increasingly tough, with numbers of opportunities for funding dipping in recent years, and the prospect of completing a PhD becoming a long haul with quite a proportion of people that will never complete. The dramatic change for me is the first-step-on-the-ladder job opportunities in lecturing now seem to be flooded with high quality career researchers.

In a recent article about PhD students and their role as graduate teaching assistants – GTAs – “Graduate teaching assistants have been left behind by all”  Fern Riddell discusses some of the concerns surrounding the lives and prospects of our postgraduates.  I agree that something is wrong, but I think the problem is broader than GTAs and extends beyond the walls of the university.

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The role of the GTA. Really?

When I was an undergraduate, seminar tutors, or GTAs, were responsible for the majority of student contact and teaching time. They marked essays, delivered feedback and prepared you for exams, supporting the courses outlined and delivered by their department’s academics.

There seems to be quite a mixed perception of the role of GTAs within universities. I am working in my 4th UK university now, and this statement has not been my experience. I have never known PhD students to do these duties to the extent described? I have certainly never seen a GTA design exam questions. I have seen PhDs supervise undergraduate practicals and run the odd tutorial – fond memories of urine physiology and yellow stains on lab coats! We marked lab reports, but we were not responsible for the majority of the student contact time, and in all my academic experience, that has never been the case. I’m not sure that is a fair reflection of the whole sector.

I think the article does tickle the edge of what is a problem though, and that is the use of post-docs and assistant lecturers who do get paid to take a bulk of marking. Now there is a serious quality issue.

The article did irk me that once again university academics took a battering, and if you worked out the hourly rate for which most actually work, they probably aren’t earning much more than a GTA! (In fact, when I tot up as a frequently do a 60+ hour week this equates to £17 per hour). 86% of respondents in the “THE Best University Workplace Survey 2014” survey regularly work more than their contracted hours, so the argument about poor pay is relevant to anyone teaching in a university today (the-best-university-workplace-survey-2014-results).

The hard life of the GTA. But wasn’t it always?

They had been forced to take on multiple contracts and part‑time work in bars or shops just to earn enough money to live on.

That might be true, but wasn’t it always? In my PhD, we all had part time jobs? My PhD stipend in 1990 was £1500 and went up to £3500 as I recall, and I was one of the lucky ones with industrial case-sponsorship. In case you think this was reasonable for the time, it wasn’t, and within a few years, stipends leapt to about £8000. So part-time working was common and I worked 3 nights a week and weekends in an Off-License.

So I’m not worried about people having part time jobs to support themselves, but what does seem a trend with undergraduates is increasingly it is to the detriment of their studies. They are having to work such excessive long hours during the week, that they are missing lectures. I think that is the real problem we have.

Universities are unable to invest in postgraduates?

Why is it that universities seem unable to really invest in their postgraduates?

On the surface this is a sensible statement, but I think it is a more complex picture, although I am NO financial expert. There might be little investment because they are an expensive business taking huge investments in time to support them through to completion. In a HEFCE report on postgraduate degree qualification rates where “research degrees” included only PhD study and not MPhil or Master’s, around 70% of PhDs were projected to qualify within 7 years. Around 12% never complete, and the rest take longer than 7 years!

So for many students, not only must this represent a long and stressful haul, for the supervisor and the university, many students extend way beyond the duration of the funding. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been startled by a conversation the other day where I heard that universities lose money by having PhD students! University overheads, bench fees and ongoing costs are so high, that maybe the university does invest money into having these students, but the value is hidden.

I’m not an expert here, but there must be something within the Full Economic Costing model that relates to this. Applying for small funds – less than £20,000 looks financially ridiculous on paper, with in my applications, around £6-7K going in indirect costs and estates. In one “desk top” research study, I was even costed in with technical time!

In the US, rises in indirect costs outstripping direct costs, with the worry of ultimately a reduction in investment in innovation and research. I’m not sure about the UK, but with indirect costs eating up the money, this inevitably means less money for the researchers.

The hard life of a GTA. 

I do agree with the overall sentiment that life is tough for GTAs, but not only for some of the reasons Fern proposes. I have spent seven months interviewing for 8 new lecturers within my department. These types of jobs used to be the domain of the post-doctorate just out of PhD, the maternity covers, or the year-long fixed-contracts to cover sabbaticals and such like. I am not talking about permanent positions here.

The quality of applicants for a single post is astonishing. We have a post-doctoral researcher with 8 years independence and funding doing a maternity cover. Our academic positions regularly get between 60-80 applications now.

Why? The bottom is starting to fall out of the research funding, and people are jumping ship?


CC BY Viv Rolfe – Boston Bridge Jumping.

I have seen this build over the previous year, and what would formerly have been outstanding applicants – out of PhD, looking for their first teaching experience and welcome the chance of getting stuck in, are being usurped by outstanding research profiles and people with more life and work experience.

So there are two questions come to mind. What are our excellent PhDs going to do? And where is the research funding? These experienced researchers are also the future of our industry and innovation, and good quality researchers should be doing just that, and not being sucked into the crazy world of lecturing.

 This article reflects the individual thoughts of Viv Rolfe.

What do you think? Leave a comment below if you wish.