Keep on running

A few weeks ago I wrote about how I thought there were parallels between long distance running and education. Education can be seen in the same category as a marathon in that both require planning, dedication and commitment.
I had cause to think about this metaphor last week when following a training run on Sunday morning I found myself rushed into A&E. I’m sure you want the detail of that sentence, which I’ll provide, but you might be wondering how this links to the themes of this blog – teaching and learning.
It occurs to me that students very often run into unexpected difficulties. Those difficulties might be life events, or losing motivation, or just struggling with some part of a course. It’s always struck me as self-obvious that how we react to set-backs can determine whether we eventually reach our goals or not.
So, what happened to me? On Saturday after a long time of trying I had broken through the 26 minute barrier on the Cardiff Parkrun. To be honest I had managed this previously but after straining my ankle ligaments my times had hovered between 26 and 27 minutes, and I was starting to think would never improve. So, on Saturday I was delighted. If you want an analogy I can well remember the desire to achieve those elusive A grades as a student. Most students seem to regard a 2:1 as a kind of Holy Grail these days and strive to achieve that and are, naturally, delighted to do so. And, conversely not quite so pleased with a 2:2 grade.
Feeling great after Saturday I set out on Sunday morning with my partner (running and life partner) to have a leisurely 8 mile run. This was half-marathon training and was focussed on distance rather than speed. Once again, the run had gone well. We returned home and as I sat down to put some ice on a sore knee, I was suddenly struck blind. Literally, my World went pitch black. This was frightening and a bit disorientating. The blindness passed quickly, but now my heart rate increased and I was sweating profusely. I decided at this point that I should get some air and stepped outside the front door.
I quickly realised that I was not improving and my partner called an ambulance. They were on the scene very quickly and once in the back of the ambulance they told me I was suffering from supraventricular tachycardia (SVT).
By the time I arrived in hospital my heart rate was 160 bpm, and to say I was feeling poorly is to use an under-statement. Now, I am and have always been a supporter of the NHS. Having said that my relationship with the medical profession has always been to keep them as far away from me as possible. But, whatever else we can be proud of in Britain, the NHS is still the ‘jewel in our crown’.
The doctors and nurses who took care of me were brilliant. And, after hyperventilating, my heart rate returned to normal. Thank you NHS!
Naively, I expected them to send me on my way with a warning to ‘take it easy’, but this was a heart problem and that was simply not going to happen. I soon found myself on a cardiac ward, surrounded by people who seemed to be genuinely ill, and hooked up to a monitor. Gradually it dawned on me I was going nowhere fast. A succession of nurses and doctors visited me taking blood, checking my blood pressure, scanning my heart and generally working hard to establish what was wrong with me.
Thankfully, the condition known as antrioventricular nodal reentry tachycardia was established. Whilst not life threatening ( and you can imagine my joy at hearing that), it is likely to re-occur (and, you can imagine my dismay at hearing that!) if untreated. So, it will be treated with what I am told is minor surgery, probably in the next couple of months or so.
This episode occurred when I was, ironically, feeling fitter than I had for a while, and gave me pause to think how it is often when things appear to be going well that some crisis, minor or otherwise, pops up to remind us of the dangers of tempting fate. I think this is particularly insightful when I think about the complicated lives that many students have.
You don’t have to end up hooked to a heart monitor for the rug to be pulled from beneath your feet. A poor grade, an illness, a major life event can all feel like that metaphorical kick in the teeth. Whilst I was being prodded and tested I was not sure how serious things were and I spent some time considering my options. Would I be able to run again? Would I be able to complete all my current projects? How would ‘urgent’ stuff at work get sorted in my absence? Mentally, I went through the options: if A then B, but if C then D. But one thing I was clear on was that I would make no decisions until I had as much information at my fingertips as it was possible to get. I was also clear that whatever was coming my way I was going to remain positive.
I appreciate that being positive in the face of adversity is not always possible, but if something does happen that interrupts studies sorting out your options before making a decision is. Many of the things that seem devastating to students at the time turn out to be hiccups in the long scheme of things. As I was surrounded by professionals who wanted to restore me to full working order, so students are surrounded by professionals (lecturers, advisors etc.) who want to see them succeed.
I’ve taken a couple of weeks off ‘serious’ running to get over this incident, and students likewise have the option to extend a deadline or defer their studies. Athletes are used to having minor injuries, and occasionally serious ones, we keep on running regardless. Students too must expect to have minor setbacks and, my advice, keep on studying regardless.


What an experience?

So, MOOCs. You’d have to be digitally illiterate not to have heard about these. Just when I thought there was no more to be said The Open University, my employer, have launched FutureLearn, and the media hype has started all over again.
I confess to a slight case of agnosticism on MOOCs. I’m not opposed to them, though I do wonder about the real motivation of those promoting them. That could just be the cynic in me, but perhaps it is also about what I think education should be about.
The FutureLearn website, much like Corsera and the other MOOC providers make much of their commitment to opening up the world of education to those currently denied access. It is hard to disagree with that aim, and if that is genuinely what MOOCs are all about then they are a force for good, and I not only share the excitement of the FutureLearn team (see picture below), but their aspirations.

I am certainly an advocate of opening up education, and I believe that online learning is an important way of doing so. But, and there is always a but isn’t there, they worry me. It may be the sheer scale of them. I signed up to one with Dukes University and the initial numbers were awe inspiring, even for somebody from the Open University.
I’ve always enjoyed the look on people’s faces when I tell them the size of our largest module. Our Level One social sciences course has upwards of 6,000 students a year. But that number pales into insignificance compared to the 1,600,000 who were on the Dukes University MOOC with me. However, the trick is not how many students you sign up, but how many are still there at the end. MOOCs are rather more vague than the Open University on this score. One reason being that many students on MOOCs are similar to me. I had effectively stopped doing the course after week 3, not because the course was no good, but because I had managed to get behind and didn’t have the time to catch up.
How good is a MOOC? That’s a difficult question to answer. They are, of course, varied, and the completion rates will be affected by numerous factors including all the obvious one’s well known to us at the Open University. But one thing that MOOCs have in common, to date, is that they do not include any formal assessment. Though that is starting to change as the business model of MOOCs is also changing in an attempt to monetise them.
The lack of assessment is, on the one hand, clearly an incentive to take a MOOC. On the other hand, assessments motivate students to complete courses. Indeed, most students are overly obsessed with assessment. Just ask their lecturers.
My objection to the MOOC model, and perhaps objection is too strong a word, is the lack of tutors supporting student learning. Of course, well motivated students don’t need tutors to support their learning, they just get on with it. But, sadly, those students are few and far between. Most students have difficulties with understanding, with motivation, with support and with administration. In other words, most students need a tutor if they are not only to pass the course but also get the best they are able from it.
That tutor support can be delivered either face-to-face or online, but I do think it is a weakness of the MOOC model that it is dependent upon peer support to help students who may be struggling. It is the reason why I think students will continue to pay to attend university, and why MOOCs will prove to be a passing fad.

Born To Run

Can education be reduced to a metaphor? I ponder this question because I’m rather fond of metaphor’s, especially bad one’s. I have often used the metaphor of a journey to describe the research process. This is not just because it is a good metaphor, but mainly because it allows me to use pictures of the Starship Enterprise in my presentations.
But recently a friend of mine lent me a book by the novelist Haruki Murakami. In this non-fictional book he talks about ‘What I talk about when I talk about running‘, which is a great title for a book. I haven’t completed the book yet, but in reading it I was struck by how much the author compares the art of writing to the discipline of running. This struck a chord.
I enjoy a run, though probably using the word ‘enjoy’ in this context isn’t entirely accurate. However, like Makurami I run regularly. I’m not a great runner, but neither am I a disaster. I can complete 10 kilometres in about 54 minutes. And, regularly average a pace of below 5 minutes 30 seconds on longer runs.
Has any of this got anything to do with ‘Thinking Socially’? I’m glad you asked. Reading Makurami’s account of his experiences running I started to wonder if running was a good metaphor for education. When students start courses isn’t it a bit like a distance run. At the start of a long distance race everybody is very positive and excited. They expect to do well. Like education, they are not necessarily in competition with the others in the race, but mainly with themselves – those all elusive ‘Personal bests’ are what rattle a runners chain.
But nobody can compete a marathon, or even a half-marathon (my current goal) without doing a fair bit of training. Is a degree a marathon, or perhaps we should keep the marathon metaphor for the PhD? Researching and writing a PhD certainly feels a marathon undertaking. It fits nicely inside ‘The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner’ the classic 1959 book by Alan Sillitoe. That book, a fiction, is about the struggle of a young criminal, Smith, to assert his individuality through his running. The run and the training become a metaphor for life. Anybody writing a PhD will recognise the feelings both of isolation and invigoration that are key themes of Sillitoe’s work.
So, yes, a Marathon can probably be a metaphor for a PhD. But long distance, even short distance, running provides a metaphoric language for education.
Starting a degree is not dissimilar to the first few training sessions for a new runner. I regularly attend the Cardiff Parkrun, a weekly 5 kilometre run with around 400 other runners. Times range from 13 minutes to 45 minutes. Everybody there has an individual goal. Everybody wants to complete the course, often a goal of new runners is simply to run the entire 5k. I have never had to walk/run, even if my 26 + minutes is not going to break any records. But new students often make the same mistake of over-doing it. The idea that you can hold down a full-time job, keep your family satisfied and complete two modules simultaneously only appears over-ambitious when you get fired, divorced and fail at least one of the courses. Like runners who have never run the distance before thinking they might win the race, students very often have over ambitious goals.
If training for a run requires dedication it often requires you to face up to truths you have been trying to ignore. Having completed my second 10k of the year last weekend I realised I was nowhere close to being able to complete a half-marathon in 3 weeks time (for which I entered before picking up a niggly knee injury). I had been kidding myself I would be fine. I have now realised that the gap between my actual fitness and my optimism is so large that I am delaying my half-marathon attempt until March 2014.
My inner conversation reminded me of discussions with students who clearly are struggling to find time to put in the effort, but still expect good marks. With Universities under pressure to improve retention and completion rates we are confronted with a moral dilemma. What is in the interests of students is not necessarily in the interests of the organisation. Like demented personal trainers who drive on people to levels of effort their bodies reject (at a recent 5K a runner came past me at the finishing line being driven on by a personal trainer, on completion they threw up), we keep students studying who should defer, or even drop out, the equivalent of walking part of a run, or dropping out of a race we are in no fit state to complete.

Simply the best

I’ve been thinking about this notion of excellence. If teaching has to be measured against some notion of excellence, then we need to think carefully about what we mean by excellence. To recall: a couple of weeks ago I reported an email exchange with a colleague who claimed that “excellent face to face teaching” was the gold standard against which online teaching should be measured. Fair enough, you might think. After all, we need a standard to aspire to.
But whilst the idea of a gold standard is a good rhetorical device I’m not convinced that it helps us to understand the strengths and weaknesses of various ways of teaching. Let us suppose that there is something about face to face teaching that makes it intrinsically better than online teaching. The question is: what exactly is it? Perhaps it is a necessary condition of learning that it must take place in a classroom environment. But, this seems unlikely as we all learn in a variety of ways. As Kolb (1984) argues knowledge is obtained by transforming our experiences. What he doesn’t say is that this process has to take place in a classroom. It is possible, presumably, that reflecting on experience could take place in a classroom, but for knowledge to be obtained doesn’t seem to require a classroom (or a teacher come to that), but simply experiences.
I regard the gold standard argument as fallacious on so many levels. At best it is a distraction, but particularly so when it is used as a means to polarise a debate. The real problem with excellence as a gold standard, however, is more practical than moral. If “excellence” is the standard, almost by definition it is one few teachers will be able to reach. To be excellent is ‘to excel’, or to perform above the average. But if excellence is to have any common sense meaning it has to be measured against the average. If that is the case then the majority of teaching – whether face-to-face or online – must be average. After all, isn’t that the nature of averages? In which case it cannot be excellent.
So where does this lead us? I have said elsewhere that in my opinion it is time to move away from a debate that centres on the relative merits or otherwise of one mode of delivery versus another. All this leads to is a game of tit-for-tat where one side gives an example of so-called excellent teaching in their favoured mode; only for the other side to counter with examples that are far from excellent from the same mode of delivery. This is both infantile and futile.
We should accept that only a narrow range of teaching, however delivered, can be excellent. The majority of teaching will be average, and a minority will be below average (and if an image of a well known colleague down the hall doesn’t jump into your mind at the notion of below average, you are fortunate to work in a very privileged environment). There is no debate any longer about technology in the classroom or as a means to deliver education. Online education, with all that entails, is here and is not going away any time soon. For those colleagues who think they can resist by finding examples of what doesn’t work I would respectfully point out to them that they are no more likely to turn back the tide than was Canute (who incidentally, did not believe he could but was demonstrating his inability to do so).
There is a bigger issue: how do we raise the average level of teaching? How do we ensure that every student has opportunities to develop to their individual potential, and what is the role of teaching in that learning? Here, the notion of excellence might be useful. If, and it is a big if, we could identify what it is that makes some teaching excellent, then we could try to encourage an approach that not so much raised the average as reduced its range.
So what is excellent teaching? There is a short review of literature at the Schreyer Institute website which lists the following: subject expert, excellent communicator, and student-centred. Having both given and observed teaching in a face-to-face setting and online, these apply in both settings equally. The most important qualities a good teacher needs are enthusiasm, being approachable and a willingness to creatively experiment. These qualities allow experienced classroom practitioners to move into online environments and rather than regarding them as something alien and different, see them as a challenging addition to their existing skills. Whether they can be taught or not is a debate for another post.