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.

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.

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?