Idiot Wind

There’s a fresh breeze blowing through higher education. Wafting through departments the length and breadth of the land is a new concern – student engagement.
Every time a student walks into a lecture hall, seminar room or opens the pages of a textbook, they are engaging with their studies. If a student joins a University committee or gets involved in the Student Union or fills in one of the many feedback questionnaires they receive as a matter of course these days they are engaging. So, ipso facto, students are engaged. In which case, why the worry about student engagement? Why the long faces and the soul searching?
It’s a truth, universally acknowledged, that a senior manager without a policy must be in search of one. I read that in a Jane Austin novel. In other words, if your job is to manage higher education, it is not only in your interests to find new ways of stating the obvious, but, it seems, in your DNA.
So, student engagement – what is it and why should we care?
The question about student engagement is particularly acute in the context of part-time and distant learning. Let’s face it, any time a student wanders on campus they are engaging with the institution at some level, but if there is no campus for them to walk onto, then what?
This is a question that looms large in the psyche of my own institution, The Open University. Essentially, and giving away no state secrets, our problem is this. Roughly speaking we have retention levels of about 70% at Level One, 80% at Level Two and 90% at Level Three. A level typically takes two years to complete, and we know that we leak students at a rate of approximately 10% between modules and levels. What this means is that for every hundred students who start with the OU about 17 end up with degrees. Fortunately, we recruit in the high thousands every year, so our degree ceremonies are under no immediate threat.
Some of the reasons for this completion rate are difficult for us to do anything about. Students drop out for the reasons they drop out anywhere, mostly life changing events – new jobs, homes, medical conditions, babies, bereavement etc. In addition, given our open access policy a fair few students find that higher education is not the breeze they had hoped it would be and give up. But, and here’s the rub, we also lose students for none of these reasons. Students whose lives have not changed and who are more than capable of achieving their goals. They just leave.
In the literature, oh yes there is a literature on this stuff, student engagement is defined in two ways. The first is the ‘market model of student engagement’ in which students are seen primarily as consumers. The second is the ‘developmental model’ in which students are partners in their own education. I know how I prefer to think of the students I come into contact with.
It seems to me that a lot of the problem with this agenda, as with so many others in HE, is that it arrives pre-packaged by senior managers and administrators somewhat removed from the learning experience. This means that policies are assessed on the measurable outcomes, hence the currently in vogue notion of analytics. Whilst any academic worth the price of their salary knows only too well that keeping students engaged is only partially related to their studies, managers with quotas to fill want to know what the year-on-year increase in percentage terms of any particular policy is. Worse, give them a percentage and they give you a quota to reach.
If engagement is simply a case of finding enough students to fill the numerous committees that consume the waking hours of every university, then it is easily achieved. But, without any reference to the ways in which students themselves think of their own engagement with their institutions.
As social scientists we know that a person’s identity is both complex and in a constant state of flux. Students may think of themselves as part of a learning community, but that does not mean that they only think of themselves in that way. They remain husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, workers, etc. in engaging students we need to think beyond the student-as-learner paradigm. In particular, we have to start moving away from the dependency model of education where academics are drip-feeding students knowledge on a bit-by-bit basis.
At The Open University, we in the Faculty of Social Sciences are exploring the possibilities of students as partners in an exciting new initiative. In July this year we are hosting an online student conference in which we aim to attract around 1,000 students for a week of talks, videos, debates and poster presentations. This is the first time we have attempted anything on this scale, and the first time as far as we are aware that such a conference has been aimed at undergraduate students. What is exciting and different, is not just the scale, but the fact that we are going to have students presenting alongside and on an equal footing with established academics.
Supporting the conference are a range of activities aimed at encouraging students to think that their experiences, views and opinions are not just valid, but worth sharing. One of the supporting initiatives – This Student Life – was discussed in Thinking Socially during its recording. It is now out there and, on the whole, getting a very favourable reaction. Though one Facebook reviewer wanted to know ‘What idiot’s stupid idea was this?’, hence the title of this post.
As the idiot with the stupid idea, I would point out that the idea of an audio drama focussing on the lives of three Open University students is an attempt to provide, what are often isolated students, with some role models encountering situations which are similar to those of other, ordinary, students.
Whilst we lose students through all the reasons that we can do little about we also lose students who lose their motivation. Students who, falsely, believe that they are not capable of completing a degree. Students who miss a deadline, have a drop in grades or simply just find a module challenging who believe that they are the only ones experiencing these things. This Student Life and another new initiative The PodMag are designed to fill the void that the Student Union and coffee bars in campus-based universities fill. If you would like to listen to The PodMag, its only 12 minutes each week, you can subscribe here. This Student Life will also be available to the rest of the World shortly.
These three initiatives are radical in that they are not attached to any particular module/qualification/department but are aimed at, and accessible to, all social science students at the OU. We are aiming to do two things. First, we want to encourage students to develop as social scientists by taking part in an event that mirrors what social scientists do. Second, we want to break the isolation that many students face by providing them with 20 minutes of audios each week that connect them to the Faculty and to other students.
And, guess what? This initiative was not pre-packaged by senior management and won’t be judged on a percentage increase of any type. It will be a success if, and only if, it is supported and liked by students. Early feedback suggests it will. Perhaps, not an idiot wind, more a breeze floating through the academic world.

On my radio

Words like ‘action’, ‘fade’, and ‘sound fx’ aren’t one’s you would usually associate with teaching and learning. But, last Monday, I and a group of colleagues converged on a recording studio in Milton Keynes to record a dramatised version of the lives of three Open University students. To be called This Student Life, this fictional rendition of the challenges facing distance learning students is part of a wider project of student engagement which I am currently leading.
I have written previously about why this type of drama is an appropriate form of teaching, and will not rehearse the same arguments here. Suffice to say that a drama allows for the exploration of issues in an entirely controlled environment, involving students in an element of role play, as they are asked to empathise with characters whose lives should resonate with their own.

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There are a number of reasons why a drama might offer a good learning tool. First, it is a relatively safe place to explore issues which are, by their nature, sensitive. This Student Life will tackle dyslexia, plagiarism, student debt as well as all the usual student worries about assignments, marks, attending tutorials, self-esteem etc. Of course, we could have talked to individual students about these issues, but this relies on individuals being prepared to expose themselves. Despite what our media obsessed culture may lead us to believe most people do not want to have their lives laid bare before an audience.
Second, the drama allows us to explore these issues in a single representative student or, in this case, small group of students. Whilst we all know students who seem to be incredibly unlucky, few real people have the incidence in their lives which listeners demand. That is why they are called dramas.
This latter point, however, does raise an issue which was never far from my mind as I developed the script. Whilst the script has to resonate with real students, it also has to be dramatic enough that people will want to continue listening. This creates a tension between the made up World of the drama and the real lives we are trying to portray. A drama is not an ethnographic representation of the lives of real individuals, and I freely admit to using dramatic licence in one or two places.

Like many writers I live every day with the vague nightmare that at some point, someone more knowledgable than myself is going to sit up and pen a massive screed indicating exactly where my work is shallow and fraudulent and rooted in lame half-assed assumptions.

This quote is from David Simon, the award winning writer of The Wire.
I am heavily invested in This Student Life as writer, director and a supporting actor. As a writer using fiction to explore real issues I can see a connection with David Simon. Admittedly, the connection may not be obvious to everybody. There are not many drug dealers, corrupt cops, journalists, pimps or prostitutes to be found in This Student Life. On the other hand, The Wire does not have much to say about dyslexia, assignment anxiety, or plagiarism!
Artistic considerations are not the only ones as the story develops. It is no use writing a story about three teenagers if the actors who are to play the roles are obviously in their fifties. But, this brings me full circle to the issue outlined by David Simon, how accurate should my portrayal be? Let’s face it if I were to make a TV drama about Oxford University and all the actors were clearly 50+, it would lack credibility.

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The average age of an OU student is 31, and whilst the OU points out that 25% of its new undergraduates are under 25, this means that three-quarters are over 25. Given this context, it is not entirely unrealistic to have 3 students aged 32, 40 and 54. Though, I rather suspect that the OU would prefer to have a less representative sample.

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In a single evening and a whole day we recorded all 24 episodes with each episode lasting 6-7 minutes. We had little time for multi-takes,or for the actors to inhabit their characters. Within those 6-7 minutes each of the main characters has a developing storyline. In technical parlance this is known as a multi point of view. Writing a 7 minute episode in which the three main strands are around 2 minutes each may sound easy, but it is, at one and the same time, nowhere near long enough and far too much time!
For all sorts of reasons we had to avoid long Shakespearian monologues, especially given that the actors will only see the full script a couple of days before recording and there was no money in the budget for rehearsal time. It is also important to be realistic about how much emotion we can convey. A couple of the actors, including myself, have received no training in how to act. Believe me it is much harder than it looks!
This week we go into what the professionals call post-production. That is where we make the words which we have recorded as spoken by actors come to life, by a process of editing. Bad takes will be abandoned, lines that did not work will be expunged, context will be added by the inclusion of sound effects. The magic will be done and from this the final product, as good as we can make it, will emerge. It is both an exciting and terrifying process. At the end what we will have is a way of engaging our students in a dialogue around the issues raised in this piece of drama. Real issues, but wrapped in a veneer of fiction.

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