While I’m in reminiscing mood and remembering bad experiences with universities, let me tell you something from when I was a student.
Ten years ago I enrolled on a Masters degree in Information Systems. It was a conversion degree for those with no IT background and no prior knowledge was required. In the spring term I was taking three modules: web technologies (compulsory), e-commerce and multimedia (both electives).
Five weeks into the e-commerce module we were given an assignment. Forty per-cent of the assessment was for the building and testing of an e-commerce website. I had never created any kind of website before. I’d studied some HTML but that’s not quite the same as designing and building a site with menus, CSS layout, not to mention server-side programming. (I’d never even built a menu!) We were told we had to put it onto university servers and use ASP (no other options were allowed).
In the previous term we had studied programming (VB.Net), databases and Microsoft packages. We hadn’t done any server-side programming in any of the courses up to that point.
40%. Too large to be ignored as I would have to get 84% in the rest to pass if I missed it out (unlikely). The deadline was 5 weeks away. We were a small cohort of 7 so I discussed it with the other students. Most of the group already had some experience of building websites (some professionally) and even they thought it was too much. We all agreed that we hadn’t covered enough (indeed anything!) in the course that would enable us to do this part of the assignment.
We expressed our concerns to the tutor at the beginning of the class but she didn’t seem too bothered.
So I said I’d email the Programme Director (as I was student rep) and see what could be done. In my email I explained our concerns and that we didn’t think it was possible to complete the assignment with what we’d studied in class so far. The courses seemed out of synch; e-commerce relied on skills that were yet to be covered in the mandatory web technologies module. It seemed to us the assignment dates ought to be swapped round. Otherwise we should have been told that the ability to build websites was a requirement for the course.
The Programme Director was also my Personal Tutor. So in addition I sent a second email to him “as my personal tutor” straight after the first. I said I couldn’t do the assignment and I felt I had no other option to withdraw as I was going to fail the module and therefore the degree. (I was in line for a distinction up to that point.) I asked what options I had – whether I could do another course the following year, for example, to make up the requirements to complete.
I received just one email back, quite abrupt, saying the assignment did not rely on prior knowledge or things taught in the web technologies course. Besides, we were Level 4 students and were expected to be able to study things for ourselves. Nothing about my personal issues.
I tried. I tried to split the 5 weeks up. Perhaps if I could learn ASP in 2 weeks, then websites in 2, I could do the assignment in the fifth week. (Bear in mind we were still attending two 3-hour lectures a week on each of the 3 modules and we had another assignment in another module due too.)
I ordered a book on ASP. I tried to work through the exercises. The first weekend I was screaming in frustration as I couldn’t even get access to the uni servers – all I got was error messages. I called IT but no one was available on a weekend. It took several days to find out that the tutor had not yet given instructions to set up our permissions.
I got access to the servers eventually. The following weekend I tried again, and was again screaming in frustration as none of the exercises I tried seemed to work. Wait till Monday, another call to IT, another discovery that we needed additional access.
My 2 weeks was up and I’d hardly got anywhere. I gave up on ASP and gave up on the assignment. It was impossible. I continued with lectures. Not surprisingly many of the other students did not.
In the final week the tutors said they’d have a Q&A session on the assignment. At the end I talked to the lead tutor and explained my problem. I said I’d never built any kind of website, let alone an e-commerce one and I couldn’t do it.
I’ll never forget her reply: “You’re in denial.”
So I waited for the deadline to pass and concentrated on my other assignments. Then I emailed again. Words to the effect of: “I told you I couldn’t do the assignment and therefore I haven’t done it. Will somebody please now help me?”
The reply. “We have decided to give you a 2 week extension.” (Sigh.)
Me: “But I have two other large assignments to complete in the next two weeks. Two weeks makes no difference. The problem is that I can’t do it. Perhaps once I’ve completed the multimedia assignment I’ll be in a better position.”
The web technologies assignment was indeed a basic website. We were given the text, we had to design something for the web. I had by that time bought a ‘build your own website’ book and had worked through it in the Easter holidays in order to do the other assignments. The multimedia course had been good, and had taught us how to plan and develop a software solution for a client, along with studying Flash animation, photography, video etc. The final assignment for that was huge – another website (my choice) with multimedia elements including storyboarding and producing an animation (an assignment in itself I would have said) – and was taking all my time.
After completing the other two assignments I did indeed go back and complete the e-commerce one over the summer holidays as a re-sit. But I had carried on basically because of my own determination to come away with something, not from any help, advice or support from any of the tutors.
I had given up my job and taken a year out to do the course. My year was up. I came away with a PGDip – there was no way I was carrying on with the Masters. In the end they gave me a distinction, but that was no real consolation. I would rather have had a good experience and the Masters qualification. I would never get another chance to do a Masters degree.
So whenever anyone asks me where I got my web building skills from I answer them truthfully – “I taught myself.”