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.

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.

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.

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.