This blog is a quick summary of an Associate Lecturer development conference that was held at the London School of Economics on 19 March 2016.
There are three parts to this post: a summary of a keynote by vice-chancellor Peter Horrocks, a summary of research into the use of Facebook by students, and a summary of a session that was for Computing, Engineering and Technology students. This final session has led to the creation of a resource that could be useful for all OU associate lecturers (which has also been included).
Before going any further, one thing that I should say is that these are my own notes and reflections. Other attendees might well have viewed proceedings from a slightly different perspectives (or, understood things slightly differently).
Keynote: Peter Horrocks
Peter began his keynote by introducing himself, saying that he was very familiar with the part of London where the AL development conference was located; it was, of course, just around the corner from the BBC World Service, where he used to be a director.
Peter talked about the OU emerging strategy and the ‘vital role that associate lecturers can play’, whilst acknowledging the contribution that the AL community makes to the success of the university.
Interestingly, Peter said that there had been improvements to the ‘political language’ that was being used in relation to part-time learning. I also made a note of some kind of review in lifelong learning that might take place, and a possible expansion of the student loan book, which was something that Peter would mention later on during his talk.
After his introduction, Peter played a video clip of Geoffrey Crowther, the founding chancellor of the university. I noted down the following quote, which relates to the university objective to ‘to cater for many thousands of people who do not get higher education’.
Peter reported that when the university was formed, higher education participation was under 15%. It is now, however, close to 50%. He went on to say it was important to understand that there had been a substantial decline in OU student numbers in recent years and this has had a significant knock on effect on the overall income to the university. A challenge was that as the university shrunk, it becomes harder for the university to continue to have a positive impact on wider society.
Peter did, however, say that there was the intention to get the university growing again. The number of students studying for diplomas and certificates had fallen, and these qualifications had not been replaced. He also reported that there was a movement towards certificates and diplomas being ‘loanable’ qualifications. A degree was considered to a ‘big’ (or ‘high’?) ‘hurdle’ to get over, and there might be the need to adjust the ‘university offer’.
Another interesting point that that profile of OU students has changed. When the university started in the 1970s, 25% of the original students were women. Women now account for 57% of the student body. (I also remember hearing anecdotal evidence that the student body is getting younger too, but I don’t have the stats to back this up).
Peter then went on to talk about his ‘students first’ strategy, which was presented through a ‘graphical device’. Key points included the importance of ‘student success’ and ‘innovation for impact’. University ‘people’ were presented as a layer at the bottom of the graphic. My own view is that the university ‘people’ should occupy a more central place in the strategy: it is people who offer students tuition, it is people who support those tutors, and it is people who write the modules and people who carry out world leading research.
Another sentence that I noted was that ‘[we have] an enormous challenge to turn around [a] steep decline in students’ and everyone is to be involved with this. There were, however, have some suggestions. A thought was to give more pastoral support for students, perhaps ‘a named personal tutor for the duration of the student’s time with the OU’. (This is an idea that reminds me to the role of the ‘tutor councillor’; a role that had disappeared by the time I joined the university in 2006). Other thoughts included having associate lecturers more involved in module and content creation (which implicitly connects to current AL contract negotiations). All these points took us to a university vision statement, which was: ‘to reach more students with life-changing learning that meets their needs and enriches society’.
After his keynote, Peter ran a short question and answer session. The first question was very direct, and addressed many concerns that were held by many of the full time staff those who were attending the event. The question was: ‘if we are going to be putting students first, why are we closing seven regional centres, where over three hundred dedicated and experienced people will lose their jobs?’ His reply was that student support will be offered in terms of curriculum, and will not be constrained by geography, and there will be benefits by co-locating different functions together. Another benefit that has been cited has been increased opening hours for the student support workers.
I see a lot of the hard work that goes on in the regional centres, and I fundamentally disagree with the way that the restructuring is taking place. I have previously written in an earlier blog post about all the different functions that take place in the regional centres, and I seriously worry that the rate at which the centres to close creates serious operational risks for the university. One of the most important relationships that a student has is with their tutor, and regional centres, of course, play a fundamental role in helping to support our tutors.
Another question centred about why the university was investing in FutureLearn, its division that offers free on-line courses, or MOOCs (which are known as: massive open on-line courses). I’ve noted down two answers: firstly, that FutureLearn plans to be profitable by 2018 (I’m paraphrasing, since I can’t remember the entire reply). This was an interesting response, since I’m baffled by its business model. Secondly, MOOCs are in keeping with the university’s mission to be open to people, places and ideas. The availability of MOOCs is something to be applauded, but a perpetual worry is that MOOCs are very often studied by students who already have degree level qualifications. (One statistic that I’ve heard is that three quarters of MOOC students already have a degree).
If MOOCs play a role in the university’s widening participation agenda, another related worry is that the capacity to run national widening participation initiatives (perhaps supported by MOOCs?) will be diminished by dismantling the university regional network.
Other points related to the recognition of associate lecturers. One point was, ‘we’re not just vital; we’re core’. Another point was: ‘if you want success, you have got to value everyone here, and our commitment to students, society and equality’. These are all points I totally agree with. Associate lecturers are core: they are the people who offer our students one to one support.
From my own perspective, the staff in the regions play a fundamental role in the operation of the university, and it is more than ‘just a shame’ the dedicated staff in the various regions are being faced with the human trials of relocation or redundancy.
The Lure of Facebook
Every AL development conference offers tutors a choice of different events. For this conference, I attended ‘The Lure of Facebook’ by Leigh-Anne Perryman and Tony Coughlan.
The workshop opened with the suggestion that participation in VLE forums is falling, and perhaps there is a movement from formal learning space to informal spaces. There are, it seems, hundreds of student led study groups, and many of them are thriving.
Their study looked at ten groups, four disciplines, and three different degree levels. This accounted for 2600 participants. The research questions were simple: are the groups educational, do they facilitate learning, and what kinds of activities take place?
As with any kind of research that involves human participants, ethics are considered to be important. Only groups that were thoroughly open to the public were studied.
There were an ecosystem of groups. Each discipline area seems to have an umbrella group. People come and go between different groups. It is interesting that students from previous presentations pass on tips to the current generation of students. Students also belong to different life groups, such as textbook exchange groups, alumini groups, and regional groups.
Returning to the research questions, are they educational? Differences were observed between the different levels, in terms of the technical and academic content that was shared. The range of practices were interesting: there was evidence of peer guidance, emotional support, discussion of module context, and tips on how to become a student. The main conclusion was that these groups are complementary to other support that is offered by the university.
One of the thoughts that was running through my mind was the relevance of some JISC research (or a JISC meeting) that seemed to emphasise the differences between online spaces: spaces that are provided by the university, and those that are facilitated by students. I seem to recall the view that the university shouldn’t intrude on these student created spaces
This thought connected to an interesting discussion around the issue of on-line behaviours, such as trolling and bullying. Whilst the university cannot police private or external groups, students still need to adhere to policies about student conduct.
It was really interesting to hear that groups seems to have a lifecycle: groups come and go. I’m sure that this was discussed, but I was left wondering about what exactly characterised the lifecycle of a Facebook group.
These conferences represent useful opportunities for tutors in a particular faculty to get together and share practices and experiences (and this, of course, is one of the greatest advantages of being ‘physically rooted’ in a location). I attended the Computing, Technology and Engineering session. Rather than leading this time, I decided I would participate in my role of an associate lecturer.
The session opened by a brief update my Matthew Nelson, who is a staff tutor who works in the Computing and Communications department. Mathew shared what he knew about the group tuition policy, the associate lecturer contract, and the closure of the regional centres.
The next part of the session was facilitated by my colleague Sue Truby. Our task was to ‘unpick’ and discuss the different aspects of the tutor role, which is a resource that is featured on the TutorHome website. In other words, we were asked to contribute to a resource that describes ‘what we all do’ as tutors.
We were put into three small groups. Each group sat at a table, and we were given between three and four sheets of paper. These sheets had a ‘headline’ activity which was taken from the TutorHome resource. During the session, we moved between different tables, adding comments to each of these pages. At the end of the session, all the sheets were collected, and a summary created. What follows is a lightly edited version of that summary which was sent to me by my colleague Sue (different tutors, of course, may well have presented slightly different answers):
Welcome students. Send a motivational group email telling them about the tutor group forum. Post a message on the tutor group forum and get them talking with an introductory question (eg say something unusual about themselves and the module). Give the students a ring, and certainly ring them if they don’t reply to the introductory email.
Identify students’ needs. Look at all the records that you have available, and look out for special circumstances (module history, age etc). Send a message to those identified, encouraging them to tell you if they need something. Other information that might be useful may include past TMA performance (and other flags).
Provide correspondence tuition. Send out reminders to students to find out if extensions are needed. Use the ETMA summary and comments on the script to offer custom advice with personalised and constructive remarks, whilst always remembering to be positive. Be sure to acknowledge the work students have done and comment on progress. Offer feedback by using a ‘praise’ sandwich.
Provide academic support. Tutors can do this by answering academic questions, referring students to the student support team, helping to develop key skills by offering direction to relevant materials, keeping on-line discussion forums focussed on the subject, and plan tutorials to include support on the most challenging parts of the module.
Provide proactive support. Contact a student if no assignments are submitted. If there is no contact, refer students to the student support team, and offer feedback on assignments for the whole group as well as individual students.
Develop students’ study skills. Tutors can help with this by encouraging students to reflect on learning. Suggest study skills resources to support development (based on individual needs). Ask students to do an activity before a tutorial. Offer exam advice and revision before the exam. During tutorials, offer advice about completing an assignment, and consider providing additional support sessions. Key skills: development of note taking, revision and examination preparation. Regarding exams, consider practice hand writing: it is physically demanding to write for three hours at a time.
Monitor student progress. Check student progress towards next TMA. Chase those students who have been awarded a long extension. Monitor which students attend on-line sessions and on-line tests (where appropriate).
Provide study related advice. Answer student questions by email, forum, or telephone. Refer students to study skills website, and provide practical advice through correspondence tuition (ETMA summary comments, and on-script comments)
Provide feedback within the OU. Offer feedback about module units by communicating with the module team. Contribute to module forums by sharing views and experience with fellow tutors (tutor forums). Contribute to associate lecturer CDSA and staff tutor feedback. Contribute to AL development events, and ask questions that are important to be asked.
Work online. Monitor student activity by reviewing forum discussion threads. Make use of the eTMA system and other tools that are needed to support the module that you tutor on. Give students updates about how TMA marking is progressing by posting updates to marking threads.
Develop your knowledge and practice. Become a student by taking advantage of the OU fee waiver. Attend associate lecturer development events. Use associate lecturer development fund to keep in touch with developments in your field. Develop on-line skills with tools such as OU Live, by seeking out and completing training.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank all associate lecturers who contributed to creating this resource, and for Sue Truby for running this session and collating all the discussion points.