Don’t leave me this way

It’s always interesting listening to my academic colleagues discuss what they think goes on inside the heads of students. Not that we sit in the Senior Common Room discussing such things. I would but where I work we don’t have a common room – senior or otherwise. But in team meetings (yes, we have such things) we speculate on our inability to retain students.
In most conventional universities retention rates of 98% or more are common amongst full-time undergraduates. Very few full-time students quit their courses. For part-time students (and I do appreciate that many so-called full-time students are working to support themselves these days) the pressures of fitting in study around often complex lives make academic success that much harder to achieve. As a result failure to complete rises.
Now add to that the problems faced by my own institution, The Open University, in having students studying at a distance and you can see why we might be exercised by retention. In my own Faculty, Social Sciences, our retention rates remain stubbornly resolute at around 67%. To put that in simple terms 1 in 3 students who start a course of study with us, don’t complete it.
It’s not as if we are unaware of the problem. Every year around this time we get a spreadsheet which compares modules. We have various University and local committees whose sole function is to dream up new and innovative ways of retaining students. Much of this work falls upon our legions of part-time Associate Lecturers ( or, as they are sometimes called, tutors).
And, it is these tutors who form part of my team. And, they are not shy about expressing what they think are the problems. Some students are not really interested in study, they certainly don’t give a jot for feedback only worrying about their mark, they don’t want to attend tutorials preferring to sit at home and read their course books. Students, it is often said, are more instrumental these days only concentrating on things with a mark attached. And, the answer to these problems seems often to be more compulsion. If tutorials were compulsory students would turn up, wouldn’t they? If they had to read all the materials, if there were marks attached to every single paragraph, they’d read them, wouldn’t they?
To be fair, tutors are as diverse as their students and whilst I have heard these sentiments expressed I have also heard them contested by other tutors. The point is that we desperately want to understand what the problem is so that we can apply the situation. We are, it must be said, led into this way of thinking by “managers” who seem to be in a constant search for the magical intervention that will improve retention.
I sometimes wonder if our failure to find “the answer” is more a symptom of asking the wrong questions than of any failing on the part of students. Students, it seems, are to be on the receiving end of education, rather than an integral part of a process that includes staff and students. What, for example, would our courses look like if students were involved in their production? How would our (teaching staff) thinking have to change if at every stage of the planning of a course we had to justify it to students who will take it? How would our teaching methods change if students were seen as partners in an educational process rather than passive recipients?
There are arguments against this. Students do not have the knowledge of their tutors being a key one. It is undoubtedly true that students lack the subject specialism that is the stock in trade of lecturing staff, but that does not mean they aretabula rasa, empty vessels waiting to be filled. Their knowledge, especially in social science, could be part of the curriculum. It could bring them into the knowledge community and place their experiences at the heart of our teaching.
Or, is this just another fanciful idea?

Lucky (or sometimes unlucky) numbers

We all love stats, don’t we? Okay, fair enough, most people, and especially students, hate stats. But, despite this apparent hatred, we all like to pepper our arguments with stats that seem to offer the definitive proof that we are right. Let’s face it, objectively, we are unlikely to make great use of stats that prove us wrong. So, it strikes me that social scientists, of which I count myself, should try to demystify stats and what we can do with them.
There is a website which I am particularly fond of called Getstats which aims to foster a better understanding of statistics. So I was disappointed with a recent article on measles which seemed to lambast parents who failed to present their children for the MMR jab. According to the piece:
“Some people put more credence in anti-science commentators more interested in sensation than public enlightenment than they did in their own GPs or in trusted websites such as NHS Choices.”
Whilst the author is careful not to blame Andrew Wakefield personally for the decline in uptake of MMR, it does makes the extraordinary claim that measles: “had been on its way out – thanks to the success of the MMR vaccine…”
According to the NHS Choices website, MMR is the reason for the decline in cases of measles, but nowhere, as far as I can tell, does it say that MMR is completely safe. Indeed, the advice suggests that there can be side effects. It does claim, as do Getstats that the link between MMR and autism has been disproved, and that may well prove to be the case.
It is certainly disputable whether the fall in the death rate from measles can be attributed to MMR. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the death rate from measles had been falling since 1901. The trend was uniform throughout the 20th Century and shows no sudden dip in the years following 1988, when the MMR jab was first introduced. Deaths from measles since the 1950’s have been rare and have been steadily declining.
When my son was 2 years old, and due his MMR jab, we read as much literature on MMR as we could find including the Lancet article by Andrew Wakefield which has been at the centre of the controversy, and which has since been removed from public circulation. (Though you can read it here.) Relying on my own “scientific” knowledge and understanding of statistics the more I read, the more confused I became. Assurances by a GP, who was being paid a bonus to increase the numbers vaccinated, did not strike me as sincere, especially since that GP was unable to answer most of my questions about the validity of claims that the vaccine was entirely safe. My understanding of the Wakefield article was that it never said that there was a direct link between MMR and autism. What they suggested needed further research was the relationship between a specific bowel complaint, autism and MMR. To cite the article: “We did not prove an association between measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and the syndrome described.” What happened was that some parents of autistic children claimed that the onset coincided with the MMR jab. And, then the media became excited and so did the Government. What should have been a decision based on weighing up the relative risk of one course of action over another became a politically loaded black and white issue. Battle lines were drawn and the media, Government and the medical profession were on one side; sceptical parents on the other.
I am prepared to concede that there may be a study which categorically states that MMR is safe, but if it exists nobody is shouting about it. What the Europen Union study did conclude was that whilst there were negative side effects from MMR, autism was not one of them.
From what I can gather from the World Health Organisation, measles kills around 158,000 children a year worldwide. That is a tragic number of deaths, and is certainly not to be taken lightly. But, none in the UK. That could be the result of MMR, but as the decline in measles deaths predates the MMR vaccine, it seems likely that the main reason why children die of measles is, as the W.H.O. point out, malnutrition and poor hygiene. Thankfully, rare in the UK.
I would not advise anybody either to have their child vaccinated or not. I am not a medical doctor. However, we should always remember that nothing is without risk. If you do not vaccinate your child there is a risk, still relatively small, that your child will contract measles. If your child contracts measles in the UK, the chances of them dying would appear to be relatively low, but a low risk is still a risk.
Unhelpfully, however, if you choose to vaccinate your child there is a risk that they will develop complications. It is hard to know what consequences these might have because the political controversy surrounding MMR has made it almost unthinkable that any medical researcher would risk their career by looking for evidence that it is unsafe. Such evidence that does exists suggests that in the majority of cases, particularly in ‘rich’ countries such as the UK, the complications will be relatively minor, and not life threatening.
My objection to the Getstats article is partly that it is pretty much devoid of statistics but mainly its moralistic tone which points the finger at parents who really are caught between a rock and a hard place. We should remember that statistics are tools of probability, but when it is your precious child that reduces to two possibilities: either they will be well or they will not. Given the evidence it is as rational to avoid the vaccine as it is to endorse it. Neither decision is unscientific, but the science (and the stats supporting it) are far from certain on either side.

Every picture tells a story

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then how many words in a succession of moving pictures? Or, to put that another way, can video ever hope to replace the written word in the affections of educationalists?

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I’ve been obsessed with this question since the thought first occurred to me that most academic literature was, almost by definition, as dry as the bar at a tea-totallers birthday party. I’ve asked the question a few times in various fora, why should education, particularly higher education, be boring? What is the relationship between being lulled into a catatonic state by the poorly elucidated thoughts of an, often self-appointed, expert and learning something useful?
I’ve heard great lectures, and read some very well written academic writing over the years, but in all honesty these tend to be memorable precisely because they are so rare. So, to quote Lenin, what is to be done? (Lenin’s famous pamphlet written for the Bolsheviks in 1902, stole the title from the novel of the same name by Nikolai Chernechevsky published in 1896. I like to imagine that Lenin too had realised that there was something in the novelists approach that was appropriate for more serious matter. More likely, he just liked the title!)
Last week I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days in Mid Wales where we had brought together a group of Open University tutors with some ‘experts’ in multimedia. The idea behind the event was to think about how we communicate with our students. The Open University is renowned for it’s innovative approach to learning, but this should not be read as everybody in the organisation straining at the leash to experiment in their teaching. Most of our teaching, even at its best, remains fairly conservative in its approach, even if looking very radical from the outside looking in.
The tutors who descended on Llandrindod Wells, Metropole Hotel last week had all had some experience of online tutoring and had used screencasting in their teaching. What we challenged them to do was take their experiences to a new level.
First, we wanted them to think about education as an opportunity to tell a story. That is, that all interactions between tutors and students are, essentially, an opportunity to tell a story. The story may be based in fact but it still needs a beginning, middle and end. It has characters, a storyline and a conclusion. Second, we wanted them to think about what technology might help with this. In particular, we wanted to improve the quality of our videos by thinking about some of the technical aspects of film-making. It is not difficult to make a video, anybody can point a camera, but getting good well-lit shots where you can hear what people are saying, is a skill.
The participants jumped in with both feet. At the end all six delegates had produced a short film which they had edited. We hope that the experiences they took away from the two days will remain. That these tutors when next thinking about a tutorial will not ask the question ‘what do my students need to know?’; but, rather pose a different type of question ‘what type of story do I want my students to be involved in?’ For, as much as storytelling is an art that teachers can use, involving students in the creation of those stories takes the whole thing to a new level of creative collaboration. Now, that is a story worth telling!

I’m bored (with your lectures)

If you’ve ever sat in a lecture or tried to read an academic article that gave you that “What the… is this about?” moment, then, like me, you might think that education is more than just passing on facts. Even really good lecturing staff sometimes struggle with the material they are presenting. They don’t want to be boring but, let’s face it, some topics just aren’t that exciting.
Now, there are a couple of ways we might think about the problem of boring material. One, quite common approach, is to treat being bored as one of those rituals we have to go through. A sort of initiation rite into the World of Academia. Another approach is to rethink the way we present material.
I recently discovered the term digital storytelling and was excited enough to think that this might be something that not only could I use in my teaching, but that I could encourage others to do the same. Without pausing to over-think this I set about organising a Digital Storytelling event, due to take place next week, which is a 2-day residential event for a small group of Open University tutors.
This event will encourage the tutors to think about using digital images, and especially video in their teaching. In addition, I have a goal to encourage them to increase their digital presence. I am confident that the event will be successful, but I am still struggling with the notion of a digital story as it relates to education.
Digital storytelling began in California in the 1990’s at the Center for Digital Storytelling. Their website is a fantastic starting place if you want to see some American examples of the method. In essence, digital storytelling is a way of capturing a person’s life using images, sound and text in the form of short personal narrative videos. It has proved particularly popular with schoolchildren who have little or no fear of the technology.
The point is that up to now it has tended to concentrate on personal storytelling – ethnography with pictures, if you will. At the same time there are some great examples of the use of screencasting in an educational context. A blog post on the Educause website gives some useful tips and links to videos. But, I’m still not entirely convinced that digital storytelling, screencasting and higher education have become happy bedfellows (and I know that is three in a bed!)
Lectures and chapters in textbooks usually have an internal coherence (I know we can all think of counter examples, but put that to one side). They usually start with an introduction, have a very stodgy middle and then end with a conclusion. Nothing at all wrong with that structure you might say, and in principle I’d agree with you. The problem is that stodgy middle. As anybody over a certain age knows stodgy middles are to be avoided. And, as anybody over a certain age can confirm, that is more easily said than done.
Reducing stodge, he says speaking from experience, is incredibly difficult. But, it can be done. If we start to think of our material as a form of storytelling we both simplify the material and make it more accessible. I tried this approach when I was tasked with making research ethics exciting (you can read about the results in a paper published in the journal Enhanced Learning in the Social Sciences). The point is that using dialogue to explore concepts is nothing new – it can be traced back at least as far as Plato.
What is new is the range of options available to us, mostly web-based, that allow us to bring our stories to fruition. So, if you are an academic who finds it difficult to bring your lectures and seminars to life, then my advice is to treat the material as a story. The best stories, as we all know, have twists and turns and unexpected outcomes. Much like the best social theories. If you are a student ask yourself, or better still ask your lecturers, which you would prefer: a 15 minute video or podcast or an hour’s lecture?

Putting on the (learning) style

How do people learn? It sounds like the easiest question in the World. So obvious is the answer that even people with years of experience in higher education spend little or no time at all thinking about it. So, whether you are academic or student or just interested bystander, what is your answer?
How you answer that question reveals a lot about how you learn personally. And, the problem for educators is that often we think that how we learn is the way everybody learns. To be honest to say “we think” suggests that lecturers spend time worrying about this, but it is probably more correct to say we assume that what worked for us as learners, will be effective for us as teachers.
I had been teaching in HE for 6 years before I came across the notion of learning styles. Like most ‘young’ academics I had wanted people to learn, and tried to make my lectures, seminars and workshops interesting and fun. But, and I guess I’m not alone in this, I’d never really thought too much about how students were learning. If they looked relatively happy and did okay in their assignments I assumed my teaching was in sync with their learning.
You might think I must have been self obsessed not to at least consider things from the students perspective. Perhaps I was, but I thought I was seeing it from their perspective because I was drawing heavily on my own experiences as a learner. I knew, or so I thought, what worked.
Sitting in a stuffy lecture hall for an hour didn’t work, except with a couple of exceptional lecturers.
Reading dry academic texts definitely did not work, my mind simply wandered.
Preparing seminar papers worked for me, but was not a group activity. When ever anybody had to give a paper the rest of us would sit there and then let the lecturer question them.
I knew that I liked to verbalise my thoughts, that I learned through solving problems, that sometimes things fell into place when I could see a practical use for an idea and that I learned best when I was interested in the topic. That last one may not seem like any sort of revelation, but how many lectures have we all sat in where we have no intrinsic interest in the topic ( and, I am not just thinking research methods here).
The concept of a learning style was a revelation, however. I was introduced to Honey and Mumford’s learning styles questionnaire when I began working for The Open University. To find your ‘preferred’ learning style you tick statements that you agree with from a list of 80 statements. You then count how many you have in each style and work out whether you are: activist, theorist, reflector or pragmatist. Each of these indicates a different way of learning. I was an activist, which I was quite pleased with. But, it was not so much discovering my dominant style but the realisation that 75% of people had a different style that struck me.
I started to adjust my teaching on the basis of the different learning styles that might be in the session (the equivalent of getting my retaliation in early). I figured that if I balanced all my teaching this way, every student would have, at least, 25% of the time where they were particularly confident with what I wanted them to do. In reality the figure would be higher because few people fall neatly into a single style. Their scores, rather, tend to spread between the different styles.
To take the questionnaire follow this link
And, for an explanation of what the results mean try this.