Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Office noise levels part 2

As a comparison to the office nose graphs I posted last week, at the weekend I set up my noise meter in my study at home and created the same graphs for that location. Like the previous graph, this shows a time when I was largely sitting working in a private room. As it was another warm day, the window was open, but there was very little noise from outside - no one nearby was cutting hedges or anything like that. The underlying ambient noise level (green lines) is similar at about 42dB, but the average sound levels and noise variation at home are dramatically lower.
Ideally it would be possible to get the noise generated by my own activities isolated, as that would give a clearer indication of the underlying disturbance noise. In the home standard deviation line (red) in the middle there is a two hour period when I was out, which is clearly visible, suggesting that most of the other sound variation came from my activities. In the work standard deviation line, the last two hours are also showing time when my office was empty, but clearly not as disturbance free.

We're due to be moved into a large open-plan office soon, and when that happens I'll try and run the tests again.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Office noise levels

A couple of months ago I sat a decibel meter on my desk for a few days, and recorded the noise levels in my office. Although I feel my office is very noisy, the figures I got didn't seem too bad compared to typical levels I found on-line. But one thing I did spot was that the most disruptive noises - people talking in the corridor - were also not particularly loud.

At the weekend I came across a paper, "Defining the Acoustic Environment of (semi-)open Plan Offices Acoustic Measurements leading to Activity Based Design for retrofit Buildings", which included average noise levels for various types of office. The authors of that paper found that the average noise levels in the modern (open-plan) offices they looked at were fairly consistent at about 51dB, but there was variation in the standard deviation from ~3 for an office filled with programmers to ~5 in an office with mixed tasks.

So, I went back to my records, picking one day look at, and plotted average sound level, standard deviation and lowest 2 second average in 5 minute segments from 7am to 6pm.

The minimum sound level line gives an impression of the background noise - the higher levels for a while in the afternoon are due to a graduation, with the new graduates and their families congregating in the quad outside my window, so this is an unusual event that can be ignored.

I suspect that the standard deviation line at the bottom (and the large variation in noise levels through the day) show why I feel my office is too loud, even though actual average sound levels are OK, the number of disruptive noise events is high, and this is what makes if feel like a noisy and unpleasant environment to work in.

It would be interesting to get similar records from other offices along with information on their occupants impression of how noisy they are to compare with this - maybe a nice wee research project for someone. I've not had much success in finding research on the impact of noise on knowledge work, other than the well known work DeMarco and Lister covered in PeopleWare, but that research should make this a major concern to managers.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Creating an environment for Learning Technology development.

In a recent post "A supportive environment for developing learning technology" I discussed two Universities with specialist departments that allow them to develop cutting edge learning technology that addresses their needs. At the end of that post I said I'd suggest ideas of how other Universities without such specialist departments might get the same benefits, without substantial costs. The key is recognising the factors that are actually important, and then finding a way to provide them without committing to the cost of a full specialist department. However, slotting learning technology into a business systems department does not work.

Learning Technology development requires embracing risk, experimentation, and occasional failure - so needs a different approach from business systems. Learning technology will always be used in ways that are unpredictable, and on a multitude of different devices, and needs to fit the users requirements. Learning Technology development is a complex interdisciplinary process that involves research and scholarship. Business system development is very different: business systems are typically static and inflexible - no one is doing research on improving them, and every user has almost identical needs. More importantly, the end user is trained (and forced) to use them correctly for the designed purpose. Because they have very constrained requirements, and long periods between updates they can be run with very traditional, bureaucratic processes and separation of teams. External cooperation, essential for open source Learning Technology, is also largely alien to the business systems world.

This means that the business system development section of a central IT services department is not the right place: the required culture is quite different.

The core things that are needed for Learning Technology development are:
  1. Expert developers with the right knowledge and skill sets.
  2. A quiet productivity space for the developers.
  3. Close communication between the experts and decision makers.
  4. Sufficient access to suitable servers for development, testing and piloting
  5. Close collaboration between developers and teachers who will be end users.
  6. Access to a wide range of devices for testing.
Looking at each of these in turn:

1. Developers

A Learning Technology Developer is a programmer with specialist knowledge. As a programmer they need to be a generalist, able to work in a variety of languages, but they should also be familiar with the key specialist knowledge for learning technology: pedagogy, interoperability standards,  accessibility, data protection etc. Programmers need to be good at self-directed learning, so much of the specialist knowledge could be learnt on the job given suitable guidance, but if starting with a team of one, someone with the right experience and expertise is essential. The ideal candidate would have a track record of both educational software and academic publications, and experience of working with IMS and other standards. Teaching experience would also be a nice extra, though maybe not essential.

2. Space 

Space is an issue at the University where I work, and I suspect at most others, however space at a University follows a variant of Parkinson's law - "Work expands to fill the time available for it's completion". In my experience in each University department, space requirements expand to fill the available space, so the issue is not so much a shortage of space, as a shortage of space in the right places. The needs of productive programmers are well researched and documented (DeMarco & Lister, 2017)*, though largely ignored. For a university they shouldn't be a huge problem as they're similar to the needs of a lecturer - a quiet private office, large enough to have one-to-one meetings and with a large desk. Importantly, there is no need for close co-location with colleagues unless they're working on the same project, so this office can be anywhere on campus, as long as it's quiet. (The usual argument for co-location, being available to just quickly chat, is a major productivity drain for programmers.)

* Anyone making decisions about where to locate programmers (or other knowledge workers) should read Peaopleware part II, "The office Environment" first. The impact on productivity of inappropriate office space is quite staggering.

3. Communication  with decision makers

One of the factors that is makes the Connected Intelligence Centre at  UTS successful is that the head of that department reports directly to the DVC Education, meaning that the experts and decision makers have close communication. In my hypothetical department-less version the same would have to be achieved by having the developers line managed by someone in direct regular communication with the VP/DVC for Education. A related aspect of CIC is that it is also a community of experts, and the benefits of that may be harder to emulate in my department-less alternative, but maybe my solution to points 5 & 6 also solves that.

4. Suitable servers

This one should be easy - just give the developers a prepaid credit card tied to Amazon EC2 or Microsoft Azure, and provide a quick way of allocating DNS names to pilots. While it should be easy, in the past when I've had the research income to run Amazon servers with a pre-paid card finance have blocked it, but I expect a supportive VP could easily make this happen. 

5 & 6. Collaboration with teachers, and access to test devices

Again, easy in some ways, but in my experience getting the right people together happens more by chance than design. However, I've got an idea about this that also solves another problem.

I recently read a couple of papers (Porter & Graham 2016, Porter et. al. 2016)  that were looking at what staff felt was needed to support them adopting blended learning. For those that are confident with technology it seems that the main perceived requirement is evidence (from peers) that the new techniques work, but the less confident staff would also like tutorials and by one-on-one assistance with the technology. From my own experience I also know that sometimes even the most confident early adopters also sometimes want access to more specialist equipment for content development, a wide range of devices for testing, or just a place away from their office to avoid disturbances.

My idea to solve this, and also create the serendipitous meetings needed to get good collaboration going, is to have a drop in content development and testing suite, with a Learning Technologist available to provide one-to-one assistance. Group training could also take place in the same location. Importantly, the Learning Technologists from around the University would take turns providing support, so all departments would feel ownership, and the Learning Technology Developers would also take turns in this role so that they met and talked to teachers.

Ideally this would be dedicated space, with a range of workstations, separate sound proof booths for recording videos and audio, and more specialist equipment like a lightboard, microphones and cameras, and good quality graphics tablets. However that gets back to the whole finding space at a University issue, as that would require a bit more than an empty office in an obscure quiet corner. A temporary solution might be to allocate a teaching cluster to this purpose outside normal teaching times, and if that was successful the argument could be made for dedicated space. 


DeMarco, Tom, and Timothy R. Lister. Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams. Third edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Addison-Wesley, 2013.
Porter, Wendy W., and Charles R. Graham. ‘Institutional Drivers and Barriers to Faculty Adoption of Blended Learning in Higher Education: Drivers and Barriers to Blended Learning Adoption’. British Journal of Educational Technology 47, no. 4 (July 2016): 748–62.

Porter, Wendy W., Charles R. Graham, Robert G. Bodily, and Daniel S. Sandberg. ‘A Qualitative Analysis of Institutional Drivers and Barriers to Blended Learning Adoption in Higher Education’. The Internet and Higher Education 28 (January 2016): 17–27.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Learning Technology Developer: the importance of job titles.

A couple of weeks ago I came across a blog post by Anne-Marie Scott titled "Why we need learning technology developers", and thought "I'm a 'learning technology developer', why have I never thought of having that as a job title." That led onto thinking a bit about both the importance of job titles, and the importance of having the right structures in place to support learning technology development.

"Learning technology developer" is a fairly accurate description of what I have spent most of my professional career doing, however I've never actually heard of it being used as a job title before. My current job title is something like "Senior Systems Application Developer", which is rather nonsensical - I don't do systems programming. "Senior Learning Technology Developer" would properly reflect my main role and responsibilities, so I'll probably try and get my job title changed to that.

Job titles matter, because they affect how people are perceived by human resources, and to a lesser extent by managers. That means that they affect how people are treated and what facilities they are provided with. If my job title was "Senior Research Fellow" rather than "Senior Systems Application Developer" I'm fairly sure I would not be about to be moved to an large open plan, off campus office with 90 other IT and clerical staff.

Of course, I'd still have the problem that the decision makers don't know what Learning Technology Developers are, and how they should be treated, so even with the right job title I'd still be moving into a totally inappropriate space - after all, if the decision makers had ever read "Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams", they'd never consider putting Systems Application Developers in an mixed use open-plan office.

Monday, July 15, 2019

A supportive environment for developing learning technology

Two recent talks I've attended have got me thinking about how Universities can provide a supportive environment for developing new learning technologies.

At JISC Connect More I saw a presentation about Noteable, a rather impressive repackaging of JupyterNotes as an LTI Tool developed at EDINA, a department in the University of Edinburgh's Information Services that does specialist applied research and development. This link between R&D and central IT seems to me to be one of the components that is needed for effective learning technology development. Both the willingness to experiment and to accept occasional failure of a research department, and the IT department's relatively flexible funding and   ability to provide a robust stable service are needed. A few years ago I visited EDINA for a job interview, and I was really impressed at the quality of their space - another essential factor for efficient software development. (Unfortunately I didn't get the job.)

A few weeks ago I also attended a talk from Simon Buckingham Shum,  Director of the Connected Intelligence Centre at  UTS. Simon's talk covered a range of topics, but one thing that struck me was the organizational set-up of CIC, another place that does very impressive Learning Technology development.
At CIC, academics and developers work closely together, and the department is not part of the central IT services or if the computing science research and teaching department, and reports directly to the DVC Education. This means that the actual experts have direct contact with the final decision-maker, rather than having several layers of managers & committees between them.

These two departments provide a model for supporting good learning technology development, but perhaps not one that is easy to replicate at other universities. In a future blog post I'll try to put together some ideas for a way of getting these benefits without major resource implications.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Have I become too much of a specialist to find a job?

Up until about two years ago I had a really good job. I was an Educational Software Developer, with a sort of skunk-works remit. I did the special projects, sometimes linked to Educational Research, and sometimes just intended to improve the ability of teachers to create good quality content. I also had a quiet office, where I could use voice recognition software, and make training videos. In the neighbouring offices I had colleagues I could bounce ideas off who were interested in the use of technology to support learning & teaching. There were things that weren't perfect - I hadn't really been getting enough time to properly engage with the IMS Global QTI working group, so had dropped off that, and I felt my expertise in e-learning technology and interoperability standards wasn't being used as effectively as it could be. JISC development grants had also ended, so that way of funding interesting work was gone. However, overall I was fairly happy in my job, and felt I was making a useful contribution to supporting teaching.

Then there was a change - a reorganization moved me and my colleagues who do the technical support and local customizations for Moodle from a teaching support department to a IT business systems department. We were promised our jobs wouldn't change, however mine has changed beyond all recognition. In this department we do not do experiments - projects that might fail, and we do not initiate anything. Anything interesting I was working on was cancelled, as it either had too few users, or might lead to support requirements. That included every project that aligned to my PhD. I also have several more layers of management between me and decision makers, so my expertise is far more deeply buried, and my University web page no longer lists research interests, grants and publications, so staff who look me up just see a job title that doesn't really reflect who I am.

Although I still have a private office for now, it's not quiet enough to use voice recognition software, and I need to wear uncomfortable industrial ear defender headphones when I'm programming. In a few months we'll be moving to open plan - over 80 people, many with jobs that involve a lot of phone calls, densely packed with no space for work that needs silence. I'm also already largely isolated from other people with a interest in pedagogy, but the new office is off campus so my isolation will be complete.

The truth is, my job has turned into one I'd have had to be desperate to apply for, so the time has come to start job hunting. Unfortunately, jobs for Senior Educational Software Developers with experience of international collaboration on developing and implementing specialist educational interoperability standards, and an interest in educational research don't come up very often... In a way this is my problem - I got used to being an internationally recognised expert, but no one here knows or cares about my expertise.

So, I'm not really sure how to go about job hunting. My ideal outcome would be for the University to create an appropriate role for me, but I doubt that will happen, so if anyone else wants to offer me a job, I'd like to hear from you.