January 31, 2006

Out of site, out of mind

If you are a distance or online learner, the University of Warwick is not the plush, handsome campus on the edge of Coventry; it is a series of online spaces where one can communicate with one's peers, submit assignments to tutors, receive marked assignments from tutors, download key learning resources and engage in collaborative activity with virtual teams or study groups.

So, when your university password is suspended, you do not have that access to those peers, to those collaboration spaces, to the place where you receive your marked work, to the tutors or even the online self-assessment tests, from which you might receive feedback on your performance.

However, the current system for resetting passwords – involving a pop-up window which many browsers will block by default and a form that provides no information about how it should be filled in and no feedback if it is filled in wrongly – is a very clumsy solution which creates as many problems as it solves and significant volumes of support calls on many University staff. Furthermore, if students are required to call IT services' helpdesk to extricate themselves from the problems caused by this inelegant, unfriendly solution, then the significant number of our distance learners based in radically different time zones – the Far East for example – are hardly well supported, as they do not share too many of their waking hours with helpdesk's opening times.

So, when we suspend all of our distance learners' passwords and provide a very poor service with which to change passwords, we are effectively shutting huge numbers of students out of the University of Warwick with poor guidance about how to get back in. Our distance learning MBA students are the University of Warwick's single largest group of students. Imagine if the single largest group of on-campus students were blocked from every physical entrance to the University campus. We'd solve that situation pretty swiftly, for sure, without asking the students to go and get their own new keys cut from an unreliable key cutter.

When on-campus students have their passwords deleted, they can still get on site, communicate with their classmates and their tutors, and access their learning resources and their lectures. When distance learners have their passwords deleted (or when they have their programme end dates wrongly entered by the Graduate Office such that their ITS accounts expire, as happened to hundreds of distance learners at the end of 2005) then those students effectively do not have access to the University of Warwick.

Out of sight, out of mind?

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