tools for researchers

johnson51-mfz-0001-0In a couple of weeks I will be speaking at an SHRE event on researching the student digital experience. As my regular readers know, we have done a bit of that at Oxford. In preparation for my talk I am following up on some of the DIGE recommendations   As well as doing a survey at Freshers Fair (1000 people completed the survey this year) we also interview research students after they have been here a while to find out what they wish they had known on day 1.

There are video interviews to watch as part of our Research Skills Toolkit.

What I find interesting from these quotes below is the way that, in the absence of any authorative list from their department of IT skills they should usefully gather, the students are using the IT Services courses catalogue  as guide. Spotting their own knowledge gaps and taking courses whenever new offerings appear. For them, the catalogue is not just a list of courses, it is a trusted needs analysis tool too.

The most useful tool …

“The IT tools that I use the most in my studies are related to Microsoft Word and Latek. Those packages help me prepare reports and various things as part of my DPhil work in the Computing Laboratory. Latek is a much more specialised tool for when you need to typeset equations and that sort of thing.”

“Well obviously Word is the most useful tool, but I would say that EndNote is vital as a bibliographic tool to anyone who is working on a thesis. And I suggest that researchers become familiar as quickly as possible with a tool like EndNote at the beginning of their doctorate.”

“I think those are threefold.Firstly the ability to use Microsoft Office as a whole rather than something separate: when you can use Excel and Word simultaneously and apply lists from Excel to Word.What was really crucial for me was data processing, because in my field – chemistry – I require enormous amounts of data and I have to process them somehow using statistical tools like SPSS. The next thing is to represent the data. In terms of representing the data, digital image processing was really useful (for me).”

“Learning how to use specific software as required in my DPhil, that has been the most useful. Also knowing that there is a Help Centre where you can go if you run into trouble, it’s open a long time [each working day]. It’s nice knowing you can call in and talk to someone about your problems and see if you can get some help.”

“As a DPhil researcher, my work would have been impossible without EndNote. I could never have kept track of all the resources I have accumulated in the last 3 years, and organised them and done my bibliographies. It would have been weeks of extra work not to have that IT tool. Also – because of doing Archaeology – the ability to create maps using GIS systems has been a vital asset to my work.”

Knowledge Gaps …

“One thing that’s nice about the courses is that they cover such a breadth of topics. Every week as I look at the list of courses that [IT Services] offers, I notice that there is some gap in my knowledge. So I look forward to attending some more courses, especially the new ones related to designing web pages and videos.”

“I realised soon after arriving at Oxford to embark on my DPhil that I only had very basic word-processing skills. I realised tha t[IT Services] run a range of courses on Word and all sorts of other courses on word-processing. I didn’t prioritise them, it would have been really helpful if I had – you need much more than basic word-processing in order to write a thesis.”

“The two major gaps are: First choosing the data, storing the data, cataloguing it and making it accessible and really useful rather than a bulk of un-organised information; Secondly – which I had no idea how to deal with – was digital images and representing information as images, plots, graphs, pictures and so on.”

“Knowing how to draw pretty graphs and lots of statistical programs, such as STATA, SPSS, MatLab (that’s a good course). Those I had no idea how to use – I had heard of them before but I didn’t know how to go about using them or where to start, and the courses here were a good guide to start with.”

“I don’t think I would have made it through the first few months of my work here at Oxford without the intensive and individual support I got, because in fact some of the software I had, like EndNote, wasn’t even truly compatible with this stuff. When I ran into problems, the support continued until they were fixed, even if we had to go back to the software manufacturer, so it was brilliant.”

I wish I’d known at the beginning …

“I think a crucial skill in my studies that I wish I had learnt from Day 1 or even before that, is how to give an effective presentation. There is a great series of courses in [IT Services] on PowerPoint. One of the nice things is that they don’t just teach you about the technology – about how the program works – they also teach you how to give an effective presentation and how to use the technology to best communicate your message.”

“Definitely cataloguing the information. I wasted too much time and some of my information just went down the drain, because of the fact that I couldn’t store it properly, I couldn’t give it proper names, keep backups and so on.”

“How to make posters, big conference posters, through Photoshop or PowerPoint or any of those media.I wish we had a list of IT skills that would have been useful for us to know about at the beginning of the course. Then we would have known that those would be useful, and gone and signed up for them … except that most departments like you to learn about things as you go on.”

“I wish I had had EndNote knowledge from day 1.”

Final comments …

“The only thing that I can tell you is that I’m a great believer in this resource. As a mentor of new students this year, I firmly encouraged everybody to come in here and round out their skills set. It occurred to me, very shortly after starting my DPhil, that 100 years ago my advisor would be asking me to be fluent in Latin because that was the mark of an educated person. Now, having a wide range of computer skills is what it takes to be an educated person, and I couldn’t have achieved that without [IT Services].”

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