You don’t know like I know (which is why I set the exams for you to fail)

Last week, I ended with a rhetorical question about the 2,000 word essay and its hold on the HE imagination. You may recall that my question concerned the use of an assessment of 144 characters. In effect, what I was arguing for was the bringing in to our World the world of social media. Rather than thinking of social media as an evil presence lurking on the periphery of HE it is time to embrace it.
So, you’d think I’d be delighted this week to attend a meeting on a new module at my own institution that proposed to replace the current Level One first assignment of 750 words with one of just 250 words. However, I found myself feeling that this shift down was a retrograde step.
On reflection I have to ask myself whether I am just being a big old hypocrite. It has been known to happen. Or, am I just miffed that it was not my idea? That’s been known to happen too!
In my defence, then, when I argue for the abandonment of the 2,000 word essay as the sole form of assessment it is because I have a view that students are capable of so much more. Most students arrive at university with stories of their own to tell. Many have highly relevant experiences which underpin their decision to study. More importantly, in my area social science, all the students are members of the society we are studying. It is right, and inevitable, that given that they have spent a few years in that society that they have opinions about it.
In arguing for more imaginative forms of assessment, I am keen that students should have the opportunity to express themselves in different, but also culturally relevant ways. Students use Facebook and Twitter already – often more confidently than their tutors. It would shift the power balance to them if we allowed them to use their existing skills as some part of their studies.
By contrast, those promoting the 250 word essay made great use of the term “weaker students”. The decision to reduce the word count is not motivated by a desire to harness the experiences and imagination of students, but rather a functional imperative linked by a concern that not enough students were passing the course.
I do not like to impute motives to my colleagues as I am sure that they think that what they are doing is ‘helping’ students. But, the emphasis on weaker students does worry me a little bit. Whilst I would not dispute that any cohort of students will have a range of abilities, it concerns me that we begin to devise assessment with the stated aim of ensuring, so-called, weaker students will pass.
I am not convinced that weaker students problems are actually helped by reducing the assessment to 250 words, when the things many students struggle with, grammar, spelling, sentence construction, presenting a coherent argument etc do not disappear because they have to do these things in less words. I rather feel that to present a coherent argument, in good prose, in so few words will be harder, especially for students who are struggling anyway.
More worryingly, is a tendency to continue to negate the experience and opinions of students. Many students tell me that the reason they are studying is that they have an interest in some aspect of society and what they want to do is find out how to understand things more effectively.
What they find when they arrive at university is that they are discouraged from drawing on their own experiences. They are discouraged from using their imagination, in favour of being filled with often abstract theories by academics who like to tell them things. Moreover, we like to tell them things in a language which is often deliberately obtuse. I do wonder whether this is part of the process of professionalisation where a specialist language is invented to create an elitist illusion.
I like to believe that students and lecturing staff are in a partnership. That sometimes I have knowledge that I am able to pass on, but that my students have knowledge of their own which can, and should, shape mine. Assessment, seen through this prism is not a way of simply testing whether students have listened to what I have said but a dialogue between partners.

Isn’t it time (to abandon the 2000 word essay)

I’ve taken to asking a question at seminars and conferences lately, that usually elicits a room full of laughter. Now, like most people, I like the sound of laughter. It’s even better when people are laughing with you, rather than at you. I’m not entirely sure whether my question is an occasion for laughing with or at me.
So here’s my question: can you envisage a time when students will be asked to submit an assignment in 144 characters?
It’s a serious question, but thus far without a serious answer. A qualified ‘yes, possibly’ followed by a nervous laugh is the best that anybody has managed.
But, I think this question goes to the heart of two inter-linked debates in higher education. The first debate is around the use of social media in teaching and learning; and the second is the role of assessment.
I’ll return to assessment in a later post, but for now I just want to think about social media. It is obvious that students, particularly younger students, are very keen on social media. Whilst Facebook is probably the ‘market leader’ here, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest etc are all in the mix.
Higher education is into social media. Every university has its own Facebook page these days, most can be found on Twitter too, but these are not seen as places where learning takes place but rather as marketing opportunities. I suspect that university marketing departments are simply following what they perceive as a trend. A bit like buying a new car just because your neighbours have!
But, if the social media presence is a marketing tool, it is also a place where individual academics are able to say things that are on their mind. This is often also motivated by a desire to be seen in the places everybody else seems to be. Lets not pretend that academics are not capable of narcissism. So that the presence of many academics is, like the institutions of which they are a part, a form of marketing. In this case, it is self-promotion.
Some people, however, are more imaginative, seeing social media not just as an opportunity to engage a, still, relatively passive audience, but as a genuine opportunity to engage in a constructive dialogue with their students. Some have even incorporated social media into their assessment strategies. But, as far as I know, nobody has yet taken the bold step of offering the chance to submit an assignment in 144 characters.
Could they? Should they? Would the world of higher education collapse if we abandoned, even temporarily, the 2000 word essay or report?

You Can Do It (be a student online presenter, that is!)

“Let’s have an online conference,” I said
“Okay,” said my friendly Associate Dean
“Let’s make it really big,” I said
“Good idea,” came the reply
That was in September. We set a date – June 30th, and decided that it would take place over a week. Now it is only six months away and we have started work in earnest. Unusually, this is not aimed primarily at giving academics a chance to talk to each other, or even postgraduate students, but rather is aimed at our 30,000 or so undergraduates. Quite an undertaking?
Let me give you some background. As I have spoken about previously studying at The Open University can be an isolating experience. Our students have to dig in for a six year haul. A few do get to the end more quickly, many do not, and can take up to 10 or more years to complete. The major problem for our students (which I assume is true for all distance learners and many part-time students) is motivation. It’s not that our students lack motivation, but rather that they have to sustain it for a long time and for the most part, in isolation.
I think all of us know how demoralising it can be to feel that everybody is doing better than you are. These feelings of inadequacy are particularly acute amongst students making them very susceptible to stories from other students who are finding the course easier, completing their assignments more efficiently and getting better grades than any lecturer awards. I can well remember sitting in coffee bars of Cardiff Students Union (where I did my degree) and listening to students who claimed to be better read, better informed and better marked than the rest. Perhaps they were but if I’m honest few of those people got Firsts!
The more astute amongst us labelled these people for what they were: bull-shitters. But, I wasn’t aware until much later what an insidious effect these people could have.
Now, imagine that your only source of information is a forum where you are a little scared to post in case your ‘stupidity’ is exposed. Imagine the effect of reading posts by students who claim to be weeks ahead, and getting grades in the 90%’s. In the coffee bar situation, it is easy to find people that are doing worse than you, or to find people to tell you not to worry even if you are a bit behind. It’s also relatively easy to find somebody, often a fellow student or one in the year above, to explain the bits you don’t get.
For distance students the b-s effect is to increase your paranoia, to convince you that you are incapable of studying and eventually to convince you that you are a fraud. Once you internalise the idea that you are not capable of study, then it is a short step to passively withdrawing. In effect, you simply stop studying. Initially nobody will notice, why should they?
This is the background to our online conference. Called Student Connections, its aim is to bring students together in an environment where they can meet and talk about any topic that takes their fancy. However, this is to be a proper academic conference, and my Faculty colleagues have been generous in agreeing to be keynote speakers. So, yes, students can be presenters but they can also hear about some of our most ground-breaking research.
In order to make the most of the online environment we are in the process of putting together a multimedia programme that will be innovative and interactive. We will encourage students and our academic colleagues to think beyond the rather stale and predictable formats of most conferences to embrace audio-visual multimedia techniques which will make the conference both a great conference and a showcase for what, with a little imagination, e-learning might look like.

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.

Who are you?

Nobody mentions this when you start out as an academic but it soon becomes obvious that at the core of what we do is the ever-present notion of rejection. I’m no fonder of being told that I don’t measure up to somebody else’s definition of outstanding, or original than anybody else. But, over the past few years I have discovered that punctuating the successes of my ‘career’ are the frequent failures – some of which I’ve taken more personally than others.
Most academics are under either a moral or quasi-legal obligation to publish. In the UK, the REF (Research Excellence Framework) has just finished its collection stage. Assessing the ‘excellence’ of research is a laudable goal, if only we knew what excellence was. Many academics will find their research marginalised by their institution as they (the institutions) attempt to maximise their chances of including only research which is deemed to be of an ‘international’ standard.
To be excluded from the REF feels like a personal judgement on the quality of your work. It is, of course, no such thing. It would be if the entire exercise was not dominated by the desire of institutions to maximise their income and their prestige. The REF is more akin to a game in which the academics of any particular institution are the equivalent of squad players, whose role may be small, but whose significance to the entire enterprise is vital.
It is probably true to say that whilst the volume of research has risen, the quality has stayed much the same. After all, you probably don’t produce excellence in an environment where fragile ego’s can be sacrificed to the greater good. It is actually one of the few perks of my own job that inclusion in the REF is not a pre-condition of my role. My own research, such as it is, has to fit in on the margins of the rest of the work that I do.
It is, of course, not only published work that matters. Though, in truth, it still matters far more than it ought. Academics are also under increasing pressure to bring in external funding. This means putting in grant applications, often to government bodies or charities.
Like peer reviewing in journals, grant applications are judged mostly by anonymous panels. On the whole, reviewers are fair and likely to offer good advice if turning you down. Unlike journals, chances of a quick re-application are less likely as grants tend to be on a calendar cycle. Nonetheless, very often reviewers comments, hiding behind anonymity, can verge on the personal. And, it is hard not to take them in a similar way.
I have often wondered why reviewers comments need to be anonymous. If papers and grant applications are being judged against pre-determined criteria why can’t the feedback be open and honest? Why the need to hide behind anonymity? Often, it isn’t difficult to work out the reviewers by the ‘seminal’ papers they list that you’ve failed to acknowledge. By a strange coincidence these are all by the same author (in one scathing review I received a paper that I had “failed to acknowledge” was actually published after the paper being reviewed had been submitted!)
As if our egos did not have to take a bruising elsewhere promotions are also decided by panels whose objectivity is not always clear. In many institutions peer review of promotion cases is common-place. After all, who better to judge your merits than those you work closely with? Who better to judge your merits than those you may have had petty arguments with? Who better to judge your merits than those who may be harbouring vindictive feelings toward you based on some past, minor indiscretion to which they took exception?
Peer review of our work can be conducted anonymously to encourage honesty among panels who may otherwise feel constrained in their opinions. This is the oft-repeated rationale for treating such meetings as confidential and therefore ensuring that opinions cannot be challenged.
I tend to believe that, on the whole, academics are honest and moral individuals who are capable of putting personal feelings to one side and judge cases, even from people they dislike, on the evidence. I also believe that academics are capable of being petty, vindictive and egoistic, and more likely to be so if they are assured of anonymity.
My own view is that I do not say anything in a review or at a review or promotions panel that I would not say to a person’s face. I see no reason when I am part of the peer review process to deny people the ‘right’ to know who I am. Though, for obvious reasons, that is not always possible because the rules of peer review do not allow it. I would argue that anonymous review is only necessary if the reviewers do not want to be held accountable for what they say.
As transparency is unlikely to become the norm anytime soon, my advice for younger academics is to publish and be damned. Or, try to publish and don’t take the criticisms personally. If they can’t say it to your face they aren’t worth losing sleep over.

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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I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

In last week’s blog I was talking about how people learn and pointing out that we don’t know as much as we might think about this. My friend Lindsay Wright posted a comment quoting Timothy Galway which suggested that learning involved either changing the way we think or the way we act.
At one level, this seems self-evidently correct. Nobody learns in a social vacuum. We tend to learn for a purpose. For example, if I sign up for dance lessons it is, presumably, because I’d like to improve my dance steps. This is clearly a case of changing the way I act. If, on the other hand, I sign up for a course in philosophy, it is to change the way I think.
Now, of course, whilst all this seems self-evident, I have to ask: is it? For a start there are all sorts of reasons people take educational courses. If people go to dance or gym classes, they may well want to learn something that changes the way they act, or their motivation may be nothing to do with learning to dance, but rather a way of meeting other people. Far from changing the way we act, that learning might simply be reinforcing a pre-existing pattern of behaviour.
And, if we extend this to the example of philosophy, and sorry to disappoint all my philosopher friends, but whilst students of philosophy may be motivated by a desire to change the way they think, many will simply continue to believe and think as they did before. They may know a bit more about Aristotle, Kant, Marx or Rawls, but their fundamental mode of thinking may not alter at all.
I think what this provides an example of is what the sociologist Robert Merton called ‘manifest’ and ‘latent’ functions. The manifest function of learning is the learning itself, what we learn; but, the latent functions of learning can be many things, including social acceptance, higher esteem, relationship formation etc. In defining learning in a formal sense as an activity likely to result in a change in thinking or doing, we exclude many learning activities that do neither of these things. Indeed, the majority of education, including higher education, which purports to be about learning is indeed about teaching – not quite the happy bedfellows we might have imagined.
Which brings us back to an earlier point concerning the relationship between teaching and learning. Teachers might like to think that they change the way people act and/or think, and in some instances they might do so, but should that be their aim? Is it my goal when confronting a group of students to change the way they act or the way they think? Should I consider it a failure if I fail to do so?
So much teaching is concerned mainly with passing exams, that we have slid into a lethargic acceptance of results as the only measure of success. Many HE teachers will claim that their students only really care about their mark, but who can blame them? If learning is no longer about thinking or acting, but merely acquiring, then it is inevitable that students will only take part in activities that seem to increase their chance of success. For the teacher with a passion for their subject this raises a dilemma: how to convey that passion?
Perhaps an answer is to be found by subverting a quote which I think came from sociologist Stanley Cohen. Our job is not to tell our students what to think, but rather to give them an idea what to think about. If we can do that successfully then it is possible that the latent side-effect of our teaching will, indeed, be a change in the way they act or think.