Back To The Future (for teaching and learning)

I don’t normally go out of my way to praise Senior Management. This is partly because they seem aloof and often irrelevant to the day to day activities that consume me. And, also because they really don’t need me to blow their trumpet – they manage to do that quite well on their own!
But, two events at the Open University this week inspired me. On the basis, that I am sometimes too quick to criticise, I also think I should be quick to praise.
The first event was the announcement by our Vice Chancellor, Martin Bean about the appointment of Martha Lane-Fox as our new Chancellor. This was handled particularly well with a message sent round encouraging staff to log on to this You Tube video. I just thought this was very well handled, and it reminded me that the Open University can be a very slick organisation.
The bigger event for me however was organised by Belinda Tynan, our Pro-Vice Chancellor (Learning and Teaching). This was a 2-day residential which brought together around 50 people from across the OU to discuss future learning and teaching.
I was impressed by Belinda’s open and inclusive approach but also her passion for teaching and learning. We ought to be able to take these things for granted, but as she pointed out senior management often operate at a level of strategy that is divorced from what actually happens on the ground. It was great to see Belinda simply being one of the participants, listening to what people had to say, making useful and practical suggestions and never pulling rank to get her own agenda accepted. I’m not sure I’d be that self-disciplined!
With this culture of openness established the event allowed the rest of us to articulate our passion for learning (and it was learning rather than teaching that people seemed passionate about). Through a series of increasingly focussed group activities we thought about where we are now, where we fit in the wider socio-economic system and where we might be in the future.
Of course, crystal ball gazing is always fraught with danger, but I have to say I was impressed with how practical most of the future thinking actually was. A commitment to capture what the OU is in terms of its shared values and to use those values to orient us in our journey into the future. Naturally, 50 people in a room many of whom have never met previously and from a variety of backgrounds could never hope to agree on every finer point. What was noticeable was that even where disagreement emerged there seemed to be a desire to find common ground.
The event was interesting as well because it brought together academics, technicians and administrators on an equal footing. It gave me pause to think as I had a debate with another delegate over breakfast about how hopeless our IT systems were, when he introduced himself as a member of the IT department! More importantly, after our discussion I realised that it was not the people in IT who are the problem, nor the systems but the fact that whilst we all believe, at the strategic level, that we are committed to enriching the student experience; at the practical level we are often overly focussed on what we personally require in the here and now. Presenting other departments as the culprits of everything that doesn’t work is a way of ensuring that we never work together to overcome the challenges we sometimes have to solve (note: I was going to write problems, but changed my mind).
It is always easier to be critical of others than to work with them to find solutions to what is, after all, a shared commitment to our students. In future, I certainly will be less quick to criticise and much quicker to open a dialogue.
Another observation was that as we discussed our vision of teaching and learning, there was a strong sense amongst many of the educational technologists present that any improvement would involve building something. For many of the academics improvement was about improving processes (for which the ed techs wanted to build a new app!) In all this, however, something else became apparent and that was something almost everybody agreed on: at some level education is about relationships. There are relationships that students have with their institution, with their tutors and with each other. Of course, technology can assist and processes can help mediate those relationships but education is all about people connecting, and supporting each other. Whilst individual motivation can help, it is important to have a supportive network of friends, tutors, administrators etc. In some way creating an environment where students can feel confident, where they can overcome personal and educational challenges and where they can obtain their personal goals remains integral to the Open University. That is an exciting challenge and it is taking us back to the future.

Put your trust in me (better still, trust your students)

It’s a strange thing the relationship between lecturers and their students. We all know that students are adults. However, apart from the occasional maths prodigy they are usually over 18 by the time they get to University. We also talk about developing them as ‘independent learners’. Yet, at the same time, and usually with the best intentions, we tend to treat them like small children who need to be constantly protected and who are incredibly naive about the ‘real’ world.
I’m constantly reminded of how little trust we have in our students when I listen to colleagues telling me what they can’t do. It’s not that these staff don’t care about the students, but that they are, in my opinion over protective of their charges. This zeal to protect students borders on what we might call mollycoddling.
This attitude often expresses itself in relation to the use of technology. In The Open Universty we use a version of Blackboard Collaborate called OU Live. It is a fairly easy to use system used in universities and businesses around the globe. I hear often from colleagues that “students will be scared” by it. Therefore, we should offer them training on this new system (new, in as much as it has only existed for 10 years). My main concern has always been that students would not be able to find their way into the system, hence my You Tube video, which has had over 1,000 views.
Once, in the system, however, students find it relatively easy to use and if truth be told are actually more comfortable with this type of communication than the staff who teach them.
But it is not just OU Live, I recently had a discussion with a well respected member of my own institution who thought that students would not be able to cope with social media, particularly Twitter. When I argued that Twitter was now ubiquitous at conferences, the question was posed, almost accusingly “are you a Twitter user?” So, in the interests of fairness I should describe myself as a self-confessed Twitter user (@OUSocSciCymru if you want to follow me).
The problem with Twitter, apparently, is that it is dominated by a handful of very persistent Tweeters who can be quite aggressive.
Now I’m not one to argue that some of what passes for comment on social media is sometimes written by people who probably shouldn’t be permitted to have fingers, let alone keyboards to tap with them, but to suggest that the behaviour of that minority is typical is rather like arguing that one loose cannon at a conference typifies the conference. It doesn’t.
But even if it did, my point is about our reaction to these things. Lets face it the general population is full of individuals, some of whom are not very nice. But should we shield students from these things? Whilst we may have a moral duty to our students, I started off by saying that they are adults. Many of my students are mature students with a considerable personal history and are juggling complex life situations with their study. It strikes me as mildly patronising to believe that they are incapable of dealing with fairly simple technologies or able to understand that social media can be a bit of a jungle.
So, this raises the issue of why lecturing staff think their students need to be protected from technologies? I rather suspect that the lack of trust is based partly on a hierarchical view of the student-lecturer relationship, but more importantly is lecturing staff projecting on to students their own insecurities. When colleagues say ” my students don’t like technology-led learning”, what they mean is that they don’t like it. Similarly when they say that students don’t like social media, or should be protected from it, what they mean is, “I don’t like social media”.
One thing I have discovered, and this has been reinforced at a number of student events over the past couple of weeks is that students are amazing. They have a zest for knowledge and innovation that is often not reciprocated by lecturing staff. They are not afraid of new challenges but often lack the confidence to do anything about them. My view is that we have to trust our students, build their confidence, support their potential, and be prepared to pick them up when they fail. In effect, we have to treat our students as partners in a joint learning enterprise, not just as a convenient audience on which to project our own ideas and insecurities.

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.

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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.

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?