Reporter 398, 3 March 1997

Sounding out new route to degrees

When the Work-based Learning Project team, directed by Dr Elizabeth Foster, contacted the West Yorkshire Playhouse about the scheme there was no shortage of interested people. But, says Ranil Sonnadara, a sound technician at the Playhouse, "the number of interested parties dropped from the initial thirty or so, down to about six once we were made aware of the extra work involved."

Working both at the National Theatre and the Playhouse, he had become aware of how little was actually understood by many theatre sound experts about the way we hear.

"Not wanting to fall into this category myself, I had started doing some research on my own into this field. Also in the time that I have been working for the Playhouse there have been a number of complaints about how certain sound effects have caused members of the audience some discomfort, and I was curious about this.

"The work-based learning scheme seemed the perfect opportunity to develop the research that I had already started, and to get some help in the process."

Having accepted Ranil for a work-based M.Sc., the project team had problems locating a supervisor with relevant interest and expertise in an area crossing physics, music and physiology. Dr David Cooper solved the problem. "As director of the electronic studio and someone with qualifications in both music and biology I have a foot in several camps," he said.

Ranil had already heard about Dr Deborah Withington's work on sound in Physiology. She agreed to co-supervise him and has enjoyed the experience. "I had no idea before working with Ranil about all the effort involved in theatre sound," she said.

One specific outcome of Ranil's work has been a recognition that problems such as tinnitus may be aggravated by elements of sound design. Dr Withington expects him to benefit by gaining a much broader understanding of the use of sound in the theatre and by feeling confident through his acquired knowledge to challenge established and often outmoded ways of sound production. Ranil's work has also been of great interest to Dr Cooper, who has taken the opportunity to take a closer look at questions of sound design and the audiological process.

He appreciates the professional skills and attitudes that work-based learners bring to the Department, but points out that the students work under tremendous pressure and it can be hard to find time for research, meetings and essay writing - it is very different to normal university teaching.

Ranil also sees time constraints as a problem - as a lot of his job is show-based it is not possible to be given time off for study. Given that he regularly works 50 to 60-hour weeks, this means he is extremely limited in the amount of timehe can devote to study.

But he feels the Playhouse is as supportive as it can be and that personally he is learning a lot "both about my subject, and also about myself, and I do think that it is a thoroughly worthwhile thing for me to be doing."

The pilot work-based learning programme has accepted 29 students since 1994, funded by the Department for Education and Employment and the Leeds Training and Enterprise Council. The first in Textiles is Denise Carr, a Research Assistant at Unilever's Exploratory Physical Sciences Unit in Port Sunlight.

She visited the Department last February and was impressed by their short courses, and the computer-based learning package.

For chemists working in textiles, this latter programme allows them to learn the fundamentals of textile and clothing technology on a computer.

Denise's interest in completing a course - "for myself, as an endorsement of my textile science knowledge and experience, but also to keep up with technology" - was supported by Unilever.

Kevin Turner, Industrial Liaison Officer in Textiles, put her in touch with Dr Liz Foster and it was agreed she would make a suitable candidate for a work-based learning degree.

Denise's degree will be based on a project into the effect of detergents and other chemicals on fabrics. The work she does for four days a week will constitute the bulk of the practical work for the course. Her manager oversees her work on a day-to-day basis as usual and will be on hand to answer or advise on any queries or issues. The research will take five years but it is expected she will gain her degree in less. She feels one of the main benefits of work-based learning is flexibility of pace and content.

To ensure the Department's assessment of Denise's standard is accurate she has applied for a licentiateship from the Textile Institute, the textile industry's professional body.

The project will be invaluable to Denise as, although she has worked with textiles for 23 years, it has proved difficult to progress her career without a degree. Her colleagues at Unilever are already showing a keen interest.

While the project has meant a lot of hard work for the Department, as Denise is the first such student in Textiles, Kevin Turner believes the benefits far outweigh the problems: "It's very exciting and totally different," he said. "It's a completely new kind of award."

Denise agrees: "This is the future way of learning and studying.... student led!"

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