A week in the life of Graham McElearney

A Week in the Life of Graham McElearney

Graham McElearney is a Learning Technologist at The University of Sheffield, and deputy Editor of ALT-N


After a blissful weekend spent in my recently acquired caravan in the middle of the nearby Peak District, I have the first couple of hours of Monday without any meetings booked in, which is a real joy.  I had a stack of meetings on the Thursday and Friday at the end of last week, and now I have about a million emails waiting for me, or so it seems.

After trying to ruthlessly manage a number of these, from sources I probably ought to unsubscribe, I head off to my first meeting of the week.  This is with two colleagues from Biomedical Science to explore potential enhancements to a module they teach, which focuses on developing transferable skills for their second year students.  Much of this addresses communication skills, and our colleagues are very keen for this to include literacy in new media techniques such as web authoring and podcast production.  We are hoping to expand this to include the production of short videos. The University has had a very long track record in the production of educational videos, and over the last few years, we have turned our attentions on developing video production skills amongst students for whom these skills are not normally considered a vocational requirement.  These have included students of English Literature, Law and Hispanic Studies, and these have produced videos as part of their assessed work. Assessing such work proves an interesting challenge, as we are not judging them on the kind of technical skills that we would were they studying video production as such. Instead the focus is on getting them to reflect on how the creative process itself has been a vehicle for developing their understanding of the subject. It’s very exciting to be able foster this creativity amongst another group of students from another discipline.

In the afternoon, I have a meeting with two colleagues to discuss upgrades to our Echo360 lecture recording system. Like many institutions, we have started developing a lecture recording service (myEcho) here over the last year, and I am the service manager. The service is based around Echo360, and the latest version offers a range of new features we are keen to explore. The summer is always a busy time for us, especially this year as we are migrating a number of services over to Google, and so we need to agree a schedule of work that will fit in with all the other tasks.  Like many Institutions we run a development server as well as our main production system so we are devising a schedule that enables us to upgrade the development server first.


Tuesday starts with my weekly one to one with Patrice, my line manager.  We discuss the general progress of the myEcho project and I present her with our proposed timetable for upgrades over the summer. Patrice is responsible for an enormous chunk of our services here, including all the learning and teaching spaces – lectures theatres, IT centres and other more informal spaces, as well as the back end systems to support all aspects of these.  We both head off to our next meeting, which is our Learning and Teaching team management group.  Another part of our busy summer will be refurbishing a number of our open access IT facilities across the campus.  It’s going to be a major task this year as in addition to some necessary building work and re-decorating, we are also going to replace about 700 machines with new ones, so it involves careful project planning and management between ourselves, our Estates department, external contractors and even our PC suppliers, who need to be able to provide us with a steady stream of new computers throughout the refurbishment period.

I have to leave the meeting a little early as at lunchtime I’m running an awareness session on using electronic voting systems (EVS) in learning and teaching. We recently invested in 300 TurningPoint zappers, along with eight receivers, to replace a rather more arcane system we had bought about 10 years ago. Along with myEcho it’s a relatively new development for us and I’m also responsible for developing this as a service, which is quite exciting.  I love the system’s apparent simplicity and ease of use, and we know already from fairly limited experience that the students seem to love it, and our academic colleagues seem very keen as well.  I’ve received a number of enquiries from departments wishing to procure the TurningPoint equipment for themselves to use for attendance monitoring, and so in the afternoon I sit down with the manual and find out how to set up “participant lists”, which can be used to match student IDs to individual zappers which enables the system to gather attendance data. It’s not very often I get the chance to do this kind of development work these days, but it’s a part of my job the propeller-head bit of my brain enjoys so I roll up my sleeves with relish…..


After an hour in the office to start with, I get another chance to do something I rarely do: A colleague and long-term friend of mine in our Department of Archaeology has a PhD student who needs some help with some geographical information systems (GIS) software.  He’s doing exactly the same type of analysis I used GIS for in my PhD – whilst it’s been four years or so since I did any such work I very rapidly find myself immersed in all the issues and discussions I wrestled with myself at the time. Very refreshing, but I hope that my ideas haven’t dated too much since 2007…..

At mid-morning myself and my colleague Lyn Parker, from our Library service, get in the car and set off for Leeds Metropolitan University.  Today sees the second meeting our White Rose Learning Technologists’ Forum, on which we reported in the last edition of ALT-N.  We have had two main topics proposed for discussion today.  The first is about how we disseminate management information type data within our Institutions.  This was a very thought provoking discussion – the original topic was to ask how Institutions disseminated MIS type data internally, and whether the campus VLE was used for this task.  Refreshingly, with 20 something learning technologists in the room, the conversation very rapidly turned on its head, wherein we debated the importance of reporting on VLE usage within MIS data, and whether and how the use of the VLE and other learning technologies could and should be audited within our Institutions.  It’s a topic that could run and run.  In the second half of the meeting we focused on another very timely topic – that of copyright. Copyright is one of those topics that for many years I managed to keep at something of a distance.  That was until I started managing our myEcho recording service and started to realise just how important and fundamental it is to virtually everything we do in HE.  Researching and drawing up copyright guidelines for lecture recording is something I spent a significant amount of time on last year and have had a chance to share this experience on a few occasions – so I volunteered to do it again at the meeting.  This was followed by a very informative presentation by Bob croft, from Leeds Met, who also very kindly hosted the meeting for us.  We aim to have our next meeting in October.


I get a few more hours in the office on Thursday morning. I’ve had a number of enquiries come in about the myEcho service – we recently upgraded to a site license of the Personal Capture software and this is proving quite popular with academic colleagues. I like to respond to each one individually and offer to go and install the software on their machines for them, as it gives me an opportunity to discuss using it with them.  The software version of the system liberates people from having to record full lectures at a specified time and place, and I believe also liberates us from thinking about “lecture recording” as such, and instead opens up possibilities for creating a much broader range of learning resources. Indeed there is a very strong argument to move away from talking about lecture recording altogether, as I believe the term could serve simply to reinforce the concept of the lecture being central to the University experience, which hopefully is a way of thinking we are starting to move away from.  I’m also doing a lunchtime awareness session again today, this time focusing on podcasting and related technologies, so I’m updating the presentation to include recent updates to the myEcho service as well.

After the presentation I have a meeting with the Director of Learning and Teaching from our Faculty of Science, to discuss a new first year module based around “Project Sunshine”. Sunshine is an interdisciplinary research project looking at guaranteeing the sustainability of energy and food production for the future of humanity, and encompasses all aspects of the natural sciences ranging from climatology and geology, through to biotechnology, crop production and sustainable energy sources– in short any aspect of science that enables us to tackle these major challenges for the future.  The new undergraduate module will bring first year students from all our science departments together to work on collaborative project-based assignments, and so we are keen to use all the available technologies to facilitate this.  Standard “delivery” will be very limited so I am very keen for the teaching team to take full advantage of our myEcho system to provide the necessary “content”, and also to use the zappers to add some interactivity and fun to the timetabled classes.


A nice start to the day today as I have received a shiny present through the post – a new iPad.  I’ve been fascinated by mobile learning for many years now, spawned largely from when I was doing my PhD studies, during which it became very apparent that mobile technologies had the potential to transform the experience of learning “in the field”. Fieldwork is an essential component of an archaeological education in the same way as it is in disciplines such as geography, or biology, which I had also studied as an undergraduate.  These technologies have the potential to bring e-learning into the arena of actual fieldwork, rather than just as part of the preparation or debriefing phases, and devices such as the iPad clearly represent the next generation of these. The temptation to stop everything and start setting up my new device with apps is almost overwhelming. However I have more meeting to attend, so for now it just goes on charge and gets its first sync with my laptop.

I have meeting with Sarah Horrigan, leader of the e-learning and digital media team in our allied department Learning and Teaching Services, who has recently joined us from Nottingham Trent.  Sarah’s team is responsible for managing the transition to our new VLE, which will be based around Blackboard 9.1, and there is much work to be done in migrating courses over during the summer and the coming academic year.  Sarah has also recently joined the CMALT development group and we’re very keen to encourage colleagues here to start the process, as well as encourage those who have already started (timely note to self……).

After this I have the last meeting of the week, this time with our University Counseling Service. The service has recently received JISC funding to develop online resources to support students who may need help from the service during the course of their studies. It’s a fascinating project and quite an eye opener – it’s easy to think that the service spends all its time dealing with people undergoing extreme trauma, but in fact much of their time is spent with the “worried well” – people who like the best of us just get a bit stressed about everyday things like money, work deadlines and the occasional domestic or relationship issue.  I should ask them if they can help with VLE upgrades too perhaps….. As part of this I’ve been looking at some recent market research regarding the effective use of social media for service providers – it’s quite revealing to find out just how Facebook dominated we and our students have become over the last two years.

Spurred on by my meeting with Sarah I snatch a bit of time on Friday afternoon to do some more on my CMALT portfolio, before taking Benito, my 13 year old partially disabled Alsation/border collie cross to the vets.  There’s nothing wrong with him as such, he’s just a bit old and tired sometimes but still full of life and today just needs some boosters.  As I sit there in the waiting room reflecting on this busy week I wonder sometimes just how much are dogs like their owners…..?

Graham McElearney

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