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Newsletter acticle: bad timing

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 19 Feb 2017, 16:14

Just before our Christmas holiday, I went to an AL development event that was held in Gateshead. I had asked my colleague, Karen, whether I could be more involved with AL development activities, since it is something that I really enjoy. She replied immediately: come to Gateshead! I gave her a list of titles of events I had facilitated in the London region, and we settled on a title for a session: ‘Managing student demands’.

The Gateshead event was a particularly poignant one: it was the last AL development event that was going to be run by the Gateshead regional centre. The centre was, of course, closing at the same time as the London centre.

Although the talks had a celebratory tone, celebrating what had been achieved in the region, I also began to realise that I was attending a wake. Every region had its own character, just as every part of the UK is slightly different. One thing, of course, was consistent: the collective commitment to students and to open access higher education.

I really enjoyed delivering the ‘Managing student demands’ session to the ALs: they were a delightfully vocal lot; they had opinions, were willing to share experiences, and were very engaged. I have been looking forward to my facilitator feedback with a combination of excitement and trepidation; I hope I did a good job and they got something from it.

And then there was Christmas and New Year: a quiet time that mostly consisted of being laid up in bed with a stinking cold that never seemed to end. During the days when the university was closed, I occasionally logged into my email just to make sure there were no major crises. I also kept one eye on my tutor group forums, to make sure that all my students were OK.

I’m writing this article a day after the London office closed. To mark this occasion there was an event: a chance to meet with hard working colleagues for one last time. Like the Gateshead event, this ‘celebration’ was also a wake. Our associate director in the London region was given a resounding round of applause in recognition of her 30 years of service; all the staff tutors had contributed to a gift.

One of my fondest memories of working in the London region was being a part of a ‘diversity group’. Every year we both celebrated and embraced difference; we ran challenging events about race, culture, aging and gender. I couldn’t help but notice the timing: our closing event was on the same day that Trump was inaugurated president. This coincidence added to feeling of mild bewilderment that was accompanying all these changes.

There was something else that was nagging me. A day before the London region closed, Peter Horrocks had sent an email announcing “… an important piece of work that VCE and I have recently commissioned to redesign the University and put us in the best possible position to launch the next 50 years of the OU in just two years’ time.” Another sentence spoke about a “high-level plan, setting out how we will implement the changes required over the subsequent 12-24 months.”

From my own personal perspective, this email could not have come at a worse time.

I’m suffering from change fatigue and I’m emotionally wrought after attending two institutional wakes. My colleagues in London have all gone, and I’m unpacking boxes of books and equipment that I have taken home from the Camden office.

Over the last day or so, I’ve been thinking about what motivates me. I have several answers to this: being able to help the associate lecturers that I work with, being able to help and to work with the students that we all tutor and, finally, being able to contribute to the different academic and student support communities that I belong to.

What doesn’t motivate me is a message that tells me everything is going to change over the next two years. I’m no management consultant, but when offices are closing and new communities are being formed to respond to this institutional stress, what we really need is stability.

A version of this post was published in the January 2017 edition of the Open University Associate Lecturer newsletter, Snowball.

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Associate Lecturer Conference: London School of Economics, 19 March 2016

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 18 Apr 2016, 12:20

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.

Findings

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.

Discussion

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.

Faculty session

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.

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Locations and equality: everyone has a place

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 23 Feb 2016, 08:56

I have loads of different interests. Computer science, motorcycles and writing are just three of them. There is one interest that cut across different aspects of my life, and that is the academic subject of disability studies. I’m personally touched by the subject and I tutor on a module (H810 accessible on-line learning) that relates to disability and accessibility.

It’s because of this interest, that I joined a London regional equal opportunities and diversity (EO&D) group when I started working at the OU in London.

The EO&D group is a body of staff that promotes Equality and Diversity in the London and South East Open University regions.  The group was formed as a result of a university wide initiative to ensure that university staff are aware of Equal Opportunities and Diversity issues.  Following the official end of the project, the London group remained, primarily because the issue of cultural diversity is especially significant in London.

Even though the group doesn’t have any specific power or authority, it is a group that (in my opinion) is pretty important: its strength lies in the commitment of its volunteers and the networks that they have fostered. The group offers a safe space for staff to raise issues and concerns. It has also been a group that has discussed and debated the implication of university policies. The group has also been responsible for running a series of thought provoking events; we held an event to raise awareness of mental health issues, and recently held event that invited a series of speakers who aimed to challenge our perceptions about a range of different issues.

Closure of regional centres

Some members of the London and South East region equal opportunities and diversity group collectively made a submission to what the university called the locations analysis project. The submission contained a series of points that expressed concerns about what the impact on equality and diversity might be if many regional centres in England closed.

Following a recent EO&D meeting, it was decided to make this submission public. The members of the group are a great bunch: they want to support students, the university, and its mission; but like many of us, they worry about the impact that substantial organisational changes may have on the students that we work to support.

The following points are, pretty much, unedited from the original submission. One additional point has been added, and this relates to student retention, national flexibility and study support. I personally welcome the opportunity to see some of my students for additional support sessions which take place in the Camden office, and I worry that this ability to see real students might be taken away from me.

Submission to the project

This document summarises the position of some of the members of the group and requests the Locations Analysis (LA) team consider a number of very important issues that directly relate to Equality and Diversity.  These points, in turn, relate to the university as a whole. 

Members of the EO&D group rejects the notion that the locations analysis will improve the student experience and help the university to support students.  Instead, the proposals have the potential to undermine the university’s mission. During a meeting, the following points were raised:

  1. Some groups of students will be disproportionately affected. These include: students with disabilities, offender learners, students who are studying within secure institutions (such as psychiatric hospitals), and vulnerable adults.
  2. The London region is the home for an accessibility assessment centre.  In the LA proposals, this centre will be closed, requiring students to visit other centres.
  3. The regional centre is used to run examinations for protected groups of students, such as offender learners who have been released on licence, students who have disabilities, and vulnerable adults.  Since the examinations are run on the university’s premises, the academic integrity and accessibility of venues can be assured.  This facility will no longer be available if the locations analysis plans go ahead.
  4. Detailed in depth knowledge is required to match invigilators to students who have disabilities. This knowledge is based around the location of the invigilators, and the location of the student. This knowledge will be lost if the LA plans, as they stand, go ahead and staff are forced to take voluntary severance, putting the student experience and successful running of examinations at risk.
  5. Detailed in depth knowledge and personal relationships are needed to be built between the university and education officers in prisons and secure units. If these links are lost due to the LA proposals, this will directly and negatively impact on the student experience.  Allocation of tutors to prisoners and vulnerable students very much depend on local knowledge and links to faculty staff, who know about local tutors who are willing and able to support different groups of students.
  6. There will be direct impacts on the university’s ability to check, assess and validate the accessibility of examination and tutorial centres.
  7. The LA proposals will make it more difficult to ensure that tutorial centres and exam centres can more readily respond to individual and unique accessibility adjustments.
  8. Vulnerable students, and students with disabilities will no longer be able to visit the regional centre to gain first hand practical advice from faculty staff and advisors.
  9. Widening participation is both a university and a national policy. Closing regional centres in demographically diverse areas will make it more difficult to plan, instigate and organise focussed widening participation events.  In essence, the LA scheme will make it more difficult to respond to changing and unique differences between diverse parts of England. 
  10. The experience from the closure of East Grinstead clearly suggests that women are disproportionately affected purely because of the number of women who work in regional centres.
  11. The closure of the regions will significantly affect staff who have caring responsibilities.  These members of staff will be unable to readily relocate to another centre, if this option is open to them. 
  12. The following members of the EO&D group holds the view that the LA plans will significantly affect the university’s ability to institutionally take account of the national diversity within England.
  13. The university considers student retention to be a strategically important issue. Not having regional centres will reduce the university’s ability to run, plan and schedule any future nationally focussed retention or recruitment initiatives or programmes. Programmes might include face to face induction sessions and study skills workshops to support level 1 students, or students who may be struggling with different aspects of their studies.

Final points

Most of the points that are here are not about staff; they are about students. I could write a lot more about other impacts, such as our institutional ability to support our diverse group of associate lecturers. I also worry that in dismantling a lot of our organisational structures we will lose a lot of what is good about our organisation: the knowledge and expertise of those who support our students.

When this submission was made, the EO&D group requested that the locations analysis team freely publishes an equality analysis to clearly spell out how they plan to address equality issues and diversity issues. Planning for the closures is going ahead before anyone has seen sight of this analysis.

I look forward to seeing it when it is available. I hope it is available soon.

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I’ve voted

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 19 Oct 2015, 12:25

I remember the 2002 and 2003 fire fighter strikes. I remember it not because I was involved in it, or knew anyone who was a fire fighter; I remember it because of the opinions I held about it. I thought they shouldn’t be striking: I felt that their call for a thirty nine percent increase in pay was ridiculous, and they shouldn’t be holding the country to ransom. I also remember being confused: how did it get that bad? Surely the employer and the unions should have been talking about things before they got to the point of strikes?

I’m writing this blog after having just voted in a union ballot about industrial action in response to university plans to close seven out of nine regional centres. I voted in favour of industrial action, and this blog is about why.

A bit of background

It took me a long time to make a decision about joining UCU, the university lecturers union. I would even say that I agonised over it. I think the reason why it took so long is that I have been historically grumpy about the ‘mischief’ that unions can cause. Being a Londoner, I’m occasionally grumpy about strikes held by the transport unions.

I really enjoy helping students. I love my job, and I love making a positive difference to those who, ultimately, I serve. I even (to a degree) enjoy the admin stuff that comes part and parcel of my role. It’s a real privilege and a pleasure to see students achieving. One of the best parts of my jobs is helping out at the London degree ceremonies. Another ‘best’ part of my job is working with such a great team of tutors who are all awesome people.

My thinking went along the lines of: ‘if I’ve chosen to work in higher education, and love it, then why on earth would I go on strike, when my actions would negatively impact those students who I ultimately want to serve?’

I joined UCU when the university decided, very quickly, to close down a regional centre; the very same regional centre where I was taught how to teach. That was an eye opener: if they could close down one regional centre pretty easily, then how about all the other regional centres?

Management decision

The university management state that the closures of regional centres will improve services to students since it will free up capital to employ more people to work in the remaining two centres. My view, which is informed by working ‘on the ground’ amongst people who make the university operate, is that the recommendations will negatively affect students.

This isn’t just speculation: this is a view that has been informed by witnessing the disruption and impact that the closure of one region has had on the university. The proposals that I’ve seen suggest that they’re going to close seven regions. This idea fills me with terror. The fundamental objection that I have about the plans is that they are incomplete. The plans only recommend closures; they do not contain any information about how the closures are to be achieved. 

A few weeks ago, I spoke up in a meeting and said, ‘I am an engineer, and this affects how I look at things; I like to understand how things work, and there is nothing in these plans that suggests how these changes are going be made’. I feel that I would be personally negligent, as an employee of the university if I didn’t raise concerns and add to the chorus of opposition that I am hearing from faculties.

Put another way, the university is putting public money at stake by forgetting a whole aspect of the picture: you don’t move your home to another country without first understanding whether it is possible to do so.  Plus, even if it is possible, you need to carefully figure out all your removal costs.

Here’s another view that builds on this ‘home moving’ metaphor: the plans that have been proposed puts the whole institution at risk by dismantling those important human connections, knowledge and links that have been built up over a considerable amount of time. Things work because of the connections that exist between people. New ways of working that have been set up will have to be dismantled and moved wholesale to a whole new place: either Milton Keynes, Manchester or Nottingham.

Moving to a new home is difficult, especially if you don’t have a support structure. The proposals imply that everyone is moving everywhere at the same time, and they’re not going to have a support structure, and they’re going to lose the very people who know how to make things work.

The response to this concern has been simple: we will have more money to hire more people. The fact is that things are never that simple: it takes time to acquire institutional expertise and knowledge: it takes time to acquire the skills and knowledge to support students. From a practical perspective: it takes time to learn how to use the university’s IT systems, and it takes even longer to learn about how to deal with all the interesting exceptions that we invariably have to deal with.

Considering the practicalities

I need to interview people, help people, and develop people. People have to have their degree certificates checked. Students will, invariably, forget their ID cards when they go into examination centres.  Examination centres will need to be checked for their accessibility, and that they conform to university regulations. People will need to check the accessibility of tutorial venues. People will also have to respond quickly to last minute changes if one tutorial centre is flooded or closed. It will be significantly more difficult to offer important one to one support with students who have disabilities, or have meetings to help and encourage students.

The locations analysis recommendations do not consider any of these issues.

I’ll put it another way: I do my job by working closely with regional colleagues. The proposals suggest that these important relationships are to be dismembered, and I will be forced to interface with a student support 'call-centre' that will be staffed by new employees who be still learning how to do their job at exactly the same time that students will be starting new courses.

Perhaps I’m not party to the discussions, but no one seems to be discussing how things are going to work.

If the regional centres are to close, the support that I offer tutors and students would be substantially and irrevocably impoverished. My current role would become difficult, if not impossible,

The academic voice

On Wednesday 14 October, the university senate met. Senate is the academic body of the university and has representatives from all faculties. Colleagues tabled a motion that begins: ‘[the senate] advises the Council to reject the current recommendation … of the Locations Review on the grounds that it is operationally and reputationally very high risk and fails adequately to support the academic mission of the university’.

A UCU news item summarises the response: ‘The Senate, which represents the academic oversight of the institution voted by 41 to 31 to advise that the plans be rejected, with nine members abstaining, and called on the university to explore other options.’

Following senate, a message was circulated that implied that even though the ‘academic voice’ was considered, nothing would change: the 'plans' would still go ahead. Here is a key sentence: ‘VCE has decided to take the [locations analysis] recommendation forward to Council for resolution’. This, in my view, is unacceptable: management are just not listening.

The faculties represent departments, which then, of course, teach the subjects that students study. In a university, which is all about teaching, learning and research, the academics should be the first group of people that the university should listen to. Their voice should matter. If it is ignored, then we cease to be a university.

Summary

When I was new to the university in 2006, a student asked me, ‘are you taking industrial action?’ My student was worried about his tuition; he was coming to the end of the module that I was tutoring, and subsequently, the end of his degree.

My response was simple. It was: ‘no, I’m not striking; I don’t believe that the services given to students should be affected’.

I’ve voted for strike action for exactly the same reason, that: ‘I don’t believe that the services given to students should be affected’.

So far, concerns from staff and faculties appear to have fallen on deaf ears. This is not right. One thing is certain: this is not the university that I joined almost ten years ago. I haven’t voted because I want to, but because I feel morally obliged to do so: for the good of the staff, the university, and our students.

A quick note

I should say that all posts on this blog represent my own opinions and are not that of either the Open University, or UCU. In case you're interested, I've written another post called don't close our regional centres about all the great work that Open University regional centres do to support students.

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Don’t close our regional centres

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 24 Sep 2015, 19:45

The Open University has twelve regional centres that are located throughout the United Kingdom.  After the closure of a regional office in East Grinstead, which served the South East of England, the university embarked on a review of its regional centres.  On Tuesday 15 September 2015, the university announced that a locations analysis project, as it is called, was to recommend the closure of seven out of the nine centres in England.

This blog post is, essentially, my own personal response to the recommendation.  One thing that I will say is that I do work in a regional centre: in the London office.  I should also say that I’m not a manager (in the sense of what happens in a regional office), but my perspective is informed by having seen a lot of the great work that happens in London.

The university review states that the closures are primarily motivated by a noble desire to enhance the student experience and the closures are not related to money.  As someone who is on the ground, I find it very difficult to see how students experience will not be affected.

What follows is a set of views about what the regional centres actually do.  These points are, of course, my own opinions.  What I could also do is write loads more about the concept of student support teams (SSTs), activities that relate to associate lecturer alignment with SSTs (and these also directly relate to the closure of regional centres), but I’m keen to keep this all pretty simple: I don’t want to slip into baffling OU jargon.

So, here goes.  Here are my points and observations.

The London office is a busy place

I’ve heard it said that the regional centres are underutilised. From the London perspective, this is just not true.  There is always stuff going on, and the vice chancellor would see it if he took the time to come down and have a chat with some of his staff who work there.

Granted, some of the desks for the faculty people are sometimes lightly used, and this is because they’re either travelling to and from Milton Keynes (the OU’s head office), or have got their head down at home writing module materials at home.  

But, if you look a little bit closer, they are there and they do come in, especially to work with their academic assistants in associate lecturer services to sort out a whole range of different issues, such as associate lecturer recruitment, interviews, appraisals, timetables, tutor-student allocation actions, emergency and illness cover for tutors…  There’s a whole long list of these things.

There are three floors in London.  On the ground floor: there are a bunch of meeting rooms.  These are often occupied by central academics from Milton Keynes who run meetings and projects.  On the day of the locations analysis announcement, there was actually a music conference that was running in the next room.  Plus, the rooms are heavily used as tutorial rooms.  The meeting rooms (on all levels) are so heavily used, you are encouraged to book very early.  Sometimes, there just isn’t the space.

On the first floor, we have the advisors and learner support people for the student support team.  You have people sorting out examination arrangements.  You have people sorting out disability issues.  You have people sorting out examinations for people who are held in secure units or prisons.  You have people offering careers advice.  You also have a number of faculty staff.

On the second floor, there are the associate lecturer support staff: these are the really important people (who should be celebrated and cherished) who actually do the job of putting students in groups.  There are also people who book venues and sort out timetables.  There are people who help to organise interviews (as mentioned earlier) and reassure students and tutors.  

Associate lecturer (AL) services are a really important aspect to the university for the simple reason that associate lecturers are fundamental to the university’s success.  The AL services people also play a valuable role in helping to support associate lecturer development activities, but that is something that I’ll come onto later.

There are two other things worth mentioning: there are two projects that are hosted in the London region: a literary magazine, and a music research project.  These seem to be forgotten about.

In essence, the Camden office is buzzing.  It always has been.  It serves the most populous part of the United Kingdom.  To consider its complete closure (which is what has been announced) is, in my view, madness.

Supporting disabled students

The Open University has a social mission: its slogan is that it is open to people, places, and ideas.  If it loses a substantial link with place, it will lose its link with people too.  One really important dimension is the importance of supporting disabled students.  Supporting disabled students is, of course, a legislative imperative.

Here’s an interesting fact.  The university has nineteen thousand students who have declared a disability, and this number is increasing (SeGA project).  A disability can mean anything from a temporary condition or illness (where a student can become temporarily disabled), a chronic condition (such as diabetes), a physical impairment or mental health issues.

And here’s an example.  On a number of occasions students have visited me at the London regional centre to have a chat (and I’m sure they drop in to chat to advisors and learner support people too!) In these instances, I’m able to offer reassurance and think about which tutor might be best able to support the needs of an individual student.  I would then be able to facilitate the development of a tutor-student relationship.

Would I be able to do that if a student couldn’t visit me?  No.  Does the suggested changes help to enhance the student experience?  No.  Would I be able to head over to the specialist disability advisor who works in the region for some advice about how to approach a particular student?  Again, the answer is no.   Would everything become a whole lot more difficult if I had to do everything by phone: yes.  Plus, some students might not wish to use the phone, or have a disability that prevents them from using the phone effectively.  This isn’t just an argument that I’ve just slotted in here: I used to be one of those people.

There are lots of different issues that link to the issue of students with disabilities, such as the importance of associate lecturer staff development and the accessibility of rooms.  Another really important role that the region performs is planning home exams for students who have disabilities.  The staff in the region work hard to match local invigilators with local students.  Regional staff also need to consider personalities: sometimes a student may be more comfortable with a known invigilator than a stranger.  Knowing this depends on local knowledge: knowing the students, knowing the invigilators, and knowing where everyone lives.

There is something else that the London office does: disability assessments.  If a student applies for the disabled student’s allowance, they will be invited to be a part of a disability assessment.  This is where a professional assessor helps a student to choose a set of assistive technologies and tools that can best suit the study needs.  If the London office closes, this facility will also have to close.  This will, without a doubt, affect students.  I’ll again emphasise a really important point: there is a legislative imperative that the university needs to adhere to.

A final thought on this section is that the project teams has been asked for a document called an equality analysis.  This is a document that is to describe what the university will do to mitigate against the impact that the changes will have to students who have disabilities.  Key points will be: how can associate lecturers run special sessions (more of this point later), and how can the university best guarantee the accessibility of rooms where venues can be hundreds of miles away from centres?   I’ve also heard it said that any closure of a regional centre will affect more women than it will men, due to the number of women who work in these centres. 

Offender learners and students in secure units

I’ll go back university to the mission: people, places and ideas.  A really important aspect of the university’s provision is the ability (in some situations) to offer distance education to people who are located in secure units or prisons.  The distinction between the two are important: secure units might be psychiatric hospitals, for instance.

I hold the liberal (and human) view that education is a right and we should strive to offer it to all.  From what I understand from colleagues within the university, the regions do a huge amount of work to help education in different kinds of institutions happen.  A point is that secure units, whatever they may be, have to be located somewhere.  Also, the relationships between an institution, their education officers and the university have been built up over a considerable period of time.  Plus, when people move on, new relationships need to be built, and the best way to do this, and to understand the challenges is to have opportunities to visit institutions and meet staff.  HMP Swaleside in Kent is a very long way from Milton Keynes or Nottingham.

I’ll make the point again: local knowledge about tutors, institutions, education officers and individual students are important.  This is knowledge that has been built up over considerable time.  Destroying it by dismantling the regional structure is a profound risk to the good work that the university does. 

I’m not directly involved with tutoring students who are held in secure units, but a really important aspect of my job is connecting people together.  One thing I do is keep a rough list of tutors who might be prepared to work with students who are located in different types of institutions.  Although I haven’t had many opportunities of tutoring these students, this is something that I would certainly do.  I would do it because it’s important.  Plus, I feel supported by the regional structure, and by colleagues who know the ins and outs of different institutions.

I’ve hinted at the issue of exams here again, so let’s tackle this issue head on (bearing in mind that I only know a little of what happens in this part of the region).

Exams

Exams has been mentioned earlier.  It is something that is so important, that it deserves its own heading.  In the university, you cannot meddle with exams, and for a very good reason: if you do, you mess around with academic integrity.  As mentioned earlier, the regions play a fundamental role in getting exams sorted out.

Will someone drive all the way from Manchester to check out an exam centre in Cornwall?  Will there be someone who will travel from Milton Keynes to Hastings to make sure that an exam centre is accessible and is appropriate according to academic guidelines?  How will the university go about organising and recruiting invigilators?  Will the university outsource invigilation to some other organisation?  (I admit to not knowing how this exam stuff happens: it just happens, and it seems to happen very well)  My point is the devil is in the detail, and the university has said that the detail was out of scope.

Here’s an interesting example of how the London regional centre (and presumably other regional centres) are used.  At a number of different points of the year the London region hosts exams (again, expect that other regional centres do this too).  Why? I guess there a couple of reasons: but two reasons are to cater for people who have additional requirements (disabilities), or people who have been unable to take an exam in another location, perhaps due to licence restrictions, having been released from a prison.  A regional centre is a really good place to run these exams, since there is support, it’s a controlled environment, and the university can be confident that the examinations are well run.  As every academic (and administrator) worth their salt knows: you don’t mess with exams.

Here’s something else that I’ve learnt.  I’ve heard that following the closure of the South East Region in East Grinstead, the London region has had to take control over a huge amount of exams for a part of the country that I’ve mentioned has a pretty big population.  In terms of administration, this has been a big challenge, but the staff have done the best job they can.

As suggested earlier, the regions also organise and run home exams, where students have to be matched with invigilators.  In fact, when we’re talking about invigilators, we’re not talking about, say, sixty or so.  We’re talking about six hundred invigilation contracts, and to set up each contract requires an experienced administrator to complete a whole bunch of different forms. Also, these really important exam arrangements are managed by a very small group of people in every region.  I’ve heard it say that you need to go through at least two administration cycles (or, two years), to get a handle on what needs to be done.

The point to this section is that the regions play a fundamental role in the management of exams for all students.  These also include students who have disabilities, students who have been in institutions, vulnerable adults, and students who have had to contend with illness.

Associate lecturer recruitment, induction and appraisal

I’ve already mentioned that associate lecturers are really important to the university’s success. There are a couple of elephants in the room, and one of these are: in a world where everything is virtual, how do you go about interviewing associate lecturers?  

I do quite a lot of interviewing, and nothing beats seeing the whites of their eyes: if an AL comes across as being friendly, personable and knowledgeable, then there’s a good chance that they’ll be the same with our students.  Plus, how do we check their degree certificates and passports?  Due to government worries about immigration, we’ve got to scrutinise AL documents really carefully – and I can’t emphasise how important this is.

I’ve heard it said that perhaps the post office or solicitors could authenticate documents on our behalf, but I think that is a nonsense solution.  Our associate lecturer services people see a lot of degree certificates and can spot a fake a mile off.  Do we expect some operative in a post office to see fakes?  I don’t think so.

My point is: we need physical space to interview people, and we need people to check documents.  If someone is considered to be appointable, will they have to send off their documents to one of the two remaining regions?  Will there be a new role where someone has the job of eyeballing passports and degree certificates all day?  I would personally feel very uncomfortable sending my passports and certificates in the post.  Invariably the worst will happen: things will get lost.  In fact, I have personally not accepted a consultancy contract for the simple reason that I didn’t want to be separated from my passport, and I expect many tutors will feel the same.

Another point is the importance of induction of new associate lecturers.  It takes time to get up to speed and nothing beats a face to face chat. The last induction sessions I have personally run have taken place in the London centre, and I’m sure they take place across the country. Inductions are also an opportunity for a staff tutor (their line manager) to get to know their associate lecturer: it’s an opportunity to create the important ‘social glue’ that makes everything work.  It’s our opportunity to learn more about their skills, motivations and experiences, and when we do this, we’re able to help more.  An induction session cannot take place over the phone or on-line.  If you did this, personal line management relationships would be significantly impoverished.

A final point in this section is about appraisals, or CDSAs.  Now, it is true that most of my appraisals take place over the phone, but I understand it that tutors can also request to have a face to face appraisal.  In fact, if an associate lecturer has a disability, there is no reason why this can’t be requested as a reasonable adjustment.  I remember that two of the most useful appraisals I have conducted have been face to face.  It’s easy to say, ‘we can all go virtual’, but if this happens, we will lose those important moments of human connection which makes doing the job so important.  A corollary of this is that many of us choose to teach or tutor precisely because there is such a human aspect to our role.

Associate lecturer development

One of my roles is to help on a committee that run these associate lecturer development events.  These are great opportunities to get tutors together in the same place to share war stories and teaching practice.  It’s also a great opportunity to reconnect with our tutors, for tutors to reconnect with each other, and to share updates about the university.

To date, all the associate lecturer development conferences that I have been to have been connected to individual regions, and this remains to this day.  If the regional structures go (as invariably they will), I fear for the continuing level of staff development that we can offer our tutors.  I learnt to teach through the AL development conferences; I learnt how to run face to face tutorials, and how to provide effective correspondence tuition.  I have also learnt through stories that other tutors have shared with me.  Face to face associate lecturer development is of fundamental importance.

Like so many of these comments, my point here is simple: removing all but two English regional centres runs the risk of significantly impoverishing the training and development opportunities that we offer our essential associate lecturers.  In turn, this will invariably have an effect on the quality of teaching that is offered by our tutors.

I can anticipate a counter argument along the lines of: ‘we have no plans to stop AL development’, but this answer just isn’t good enough.  There has been no comment about any alternatives about how to arrange or plan for an alternative.  A decision that is not based on any consideration of implementation issues is a decision that is foolish.

Implementation of the group tuition policy (GTP)

The group tuition policy is a plan to enable students to have access to a wider range of learning events.  These might be on-line events or off-line events.  I’m one of the fans of the policy.  In fact, in the London region we’ve been running a version of it for some of the high population computing modules. 

Planning for the GTP is especially important, since staff tutors (along with module teams) need to figure out a programme of events that will be delivered throughout the presentation of a module.  Some tutors might have specialisms in aspects of a module; the GTP allows tutors to play to their strengths, which can (in theory) help with student learning and student experience.

There is one thing that we need to do to plan effectively: and that is to have discussions; to learn about each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and our personal timetables and abilities.  In the current world, we can all have meetings in the regional centre, but I would have no idea what would happen in the new world.  Again, a huge amount of detail is lacking, and this isn’t good enough.

Tutorial venue booking and management

I don’t know as much about this subject as some of the others (since it’s not my role), but I’m willing to take a punt on the importance of place when it comes to booking tutorial venues.  Plus, I’ve also heard the VC talking about the face to face tutorial provision is going to remain important, which is something that I’m very relieved about.

I’m going to go on a slight diversion: I’m a great believer in face to face tutorials for a number of different reasons.  I’ve heard people saying that the attendance can be quite low for some sessions, and I’ve witnessed this first hand.  Some tutorials can have very few students, but others (if they are planned properly), can have very good numbers.  Even before the planning of something called the Group Tuition Policy, the London region have been running tuition events that have attracted good amounts of students (of course, each region is different: in terms of geography, London is very different to, say, Wales or Scotland). 

Here’s a point that I would like to make (and I’m making it to pre-empt any potential management decision to say ‘we can do everything on line’).  Face to face tutorials are important for all students, whether they come along or not.  When a tutor delivers a tutorial, they have to know their stuff.  Also, those students who attend tutorials are likely to be highly motivated, which means that they are likely to ask difficult questions.  Face to face is important because it forces tutors to be at the top of their game.

So, on to the point of the venues.  Successful events are created through successful relationships.  In London, we know the chap who runs the London School of Economics Centre. He’s a really nice guy, and will do whatever we can to help, and he is really responsive to all the requests that come his way.  Can we build same relationships between the venue manager and those mysterious ‘venue booking people’ who may end up working in Milton Keynes, Manchester or Nottingham?  I can’t answer this question.  Plus, it will fundamentally hinder our ability to respond to one off requests to cater for people who have additional requirements.  As mentioned above, this isn’t just a nice to have: it’s a legislative imperative.

As suggested earlier, the devil is in the detail, and we haven’t see any detail.

Special tutorial sessions

Sometimes, students need a bit of extra help.  What tutors can do sometimes is have a chat with a student over the phone, offering something that is known as a ‘special session’.  Sometimes, this just isn’t enough, especially if a student is suffering from anxiety or has a disability, for instance.  In London, tutors can contact their staff tutor and asked to book a meeting room to hold a one to one tutorial session.  The London centre is, of course, a safe space for both students and tutors alike: there are always staff milling around, and the area may well be familiar to both students and tutors alike.

Will we be able to have the same kind of flexibility to support students if the regional centres close?  I suggest not.  It could be the case that we might be able to rent temporary office space somewhere to run special sessions, but can we guarantee that they are safe, or guarantee that they are accessible?  This necessitates a whole new set of administrative procedures, protocols and processes: venues would be need to be scrutinised, and venues may well change – and it may not be possible to guarantee both privacy and security in office space that is rented by the hour.

I’ll come back to my earlier point: the devil is in the detail.  All I can see is problems and issues. 

Degree ceremonies

Twice a year I help out at the London graduation ceremony, which takes place at the Barbican centre.  These are always great events, and it’s a pleasure to be there.  London regional staff always play an essential and important role in these events. Before the day, staff accept registrations and answer questions that are asked by students.  On the day, regional staff man the registration desks and work closely with qualifications and ceremonies team to make sure that everything run smoothly.

If the regions were to close, there would be an obvious knock on effect: colleagues at Milton Keynes would have to take up a lot of the slack.  They would have to find people to man the registration desks, find graduate presenters, and hall ushers, and have extra people who help to make the day what it is.  

The point here is simple: a lot of work would have to be moved and transferred, and there is no indication about how this would be done.  There has only been a nebulous statement that everything has to be done within a year. 

Outreach and widening participation

During a faculty committee meeting, I spoke up and said: ‘we are a national university, we’re not just a university that is based in Milton Keynes’ (which, of course, connects back to the ‘places’ bit of the university mission).  My point is that reducing our national coverage would also reduce our reach.

Widening Participation is something that I have to confess that I don’t know too much about, but it is something I personally believe is really important.  I don’t come from a well off background, and I’m thankful of the opportunities that have come my way.

I have a colleague in the London regional centre who runs these events for students who are interested in study.  She recruits experienced tutors to go and have a chat to potential students about what it means to become an Open University student.  She has press ganged me into participating into these events too!  I have even ended up tutoring one of the students that I have spoken to.

The regions are brilliant bases for co-ordinating outreach activities into the local community.  A point that I would like to raise on this issue is that we could be using our regional centres a whole lot better when it comes to this subject.  In the last four years I’ve been subjected to perpetual change in my role.  I also feel that outreach activities (which should be a much more important aspect in the OU’s current work activities) are not valued as much as they could be.  I would personally like to do more of this kind of work, and to do this, my first port of call would, of course, be my colleagues in the regional centre.

With fear of sounding like a broken record: dismantling the regional structure in its entirety would damage our collective ability to do outreach work that is fundamental to the university’s mission.

Walk-in enquiries and regional reputation

I mentioned earlier that the London regional centre is busy.  It’s not just busy with staff, it’s also busy with students too.  There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t see a student in the reception area, using a telephone to speak with someone in Milton Keynes.  Sometimes, regional colleagues come down stairs to chat with students, to offer them impromptu advice.  

This is something that I’ve done too: I’ve spoken about various computing modules, and I’ve taken them to the regional library to show them the module materials.  (I understand that other regions have a library too).   A counter argument is, of course: ‘oh, but there are not very many people who come in to the offices’.  This is a fair point, but a response to that is: ‘should we really aspire to go with the lowest common denominator?’

Regional centres are advertisements in their own right: they mark the presence of the institution, but these are locations that also have functions that can’t be relocated with lots of extensive thought and planning.  They have taken decades to put together, and we won’t know for certain about the impact of their loss until they are gone.

Institutional risk

London is now the home of the remnants of the East Grinstead office.  I’ve heard it said that there have been very few people who have transferred from one office to the other.  One colleague has told me that over half of the academic staff have left, and ninety percent of the administrative support staff have gone.  Decades of experience has, quite literally, walked out of the door, and it’s impossible to put a price on the loss of this expertise.

As yet, we are not yet fully aware of the impacts on the student experience that this closure has had because of the timing of the recommendations.  It is also arguable that it could take a couple of years of the true impacts of the closure to be felt. 

From my own perspective, I know that my regional colleagues are under extreme pressure due to the constant changes they have had to work through.  If people are put under pressure, mistakes will inevitably happen, and everyone will make sure that everything is put right to the best of our abilities to ensure that students are not affected.

Here’s another personal reflection: I’m a pretty young guy.  I can deal with stuff.  I’ve got a pretty high tolerance for stress, but I’m beginning to suffer from change fatigue.  I’m beginning to get tired and have started to think ‘what have I got to do now?’ and ‘when will thing settle down to a steady state?’  The issue of change fatigue was something that was mentioned by another colleague.  I’m feeling the strain, and I’m getting tired.  But what keeps me going is the knowledge that I’m doing a good and important job. 

I’m really worried that people are going to break; that people are going to get sick, and that people will be confused by complex IT systems.  Plus, all the timescales to make all the changes are extraordinarily extreme. 

I’m no management consultant, but from my position ‘in the trenches’, I’m shaking my head partly out of desperation, but also out of fear for the forthcoming administrative apocalypse if the current recommendations are ever implemented.

Here’s my most important reflection, and one that is directly related to the student experience: I can see that this proposed reconfiguration is going to push people to their limits; people will leave; there will be endless mistakes; there will be confusion, and the net effect is that the students will be substantially affected. 

Some fundamental concerns

I’ve read somewhere that the locations analysis project has seen no alternative visions for the regions.  I do know that there has been a period of formal consultation about the project, but I’ll like to give a personal opinion about this.

For me, the locations analysis has been just one of very many initiatives that have been thrown my way.  By and large, I’m doing what I can to keep up.  I’ll put it like this: I have been too busy with day to day admin and issues to have a moment to consider how things are run differently, and perhaps other people have the same views.

Have I been invited to a workshop to consider the different ways in which the university might imagine a regional structure that would serve the university in, say 2020?  No.  Would I go if there was one?  Yes.

There is one main concern that I’ve mentioned before that I do find astonishing.  It is this: how can a recommendation be suggested without any thought about how it could be achieved?

In conclusion

Although all of these thoughts, opinions and comments relate to my own experience of a staff tutor in the London region, there may well be lots in common with many of the other regions: Oxford, Cambridge, Gateshead, Bristol, Birmingham and Leeds.  (Not to mention also Nottingham and Manchester regions, which would be irrevocably changed if these proposals do go ahead).

Here’s an important concluding message: I personally challenge senior management to come up with some more sensible thinking.  I also urge management to dispense with the current plan.  In my opinion, the current proposals are an uncomfortable combination of folly and vandalism.  Plus, they don't seem to take into account many of the essential functions that take place in the regional centres.

We’re not just talking about what is good for the university, we’re talking about bigger issues: we’re talking about reducing the extent to which we collectively fight and work for social justice.  The current recommendation suggests that we’re talking about reducing the mission of the university, which has always been about open to people, places and ideas.  Let’s not have an idea that attacks places in such an outrageous way.  This idea, of course, will directly affect people. And the people I’m talking about are, of course, our students.

Acknowledgements: many thanks to two colleagues who took the time to quickly proof read this blog post during what is the busiest and most intense time of the year – I really appreciate it!  Also, any remaining grammatical mistakes, operational misunderstandings or tryping mistakes are entirely my own.

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Mental health awareness day: London regional centre

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 28 Feb 2019, 12:08

Every year the London region equality and diversity group runs an event.  Over the last two years we’ve run an event about ‘place, location and travel’, and have held an event about creative aging.  This year, the group ran an event on 13 November 2014 about mental health and well-being.  The day was split into two parts.

Part 1 : Participative display

A couple of months before the event we erected two display boards in the university café area.  These boards were to form what we called a ‘participative display’.  Each board had a slightly different purpose.  One board was all about sharing stories, experiences and acknowledging the contributions that people who have mental health issues have made to society.  The second display board was all about ‘resilience’; things that we can all do to ensure that we maintain good mental health.  The rear of this first board was also used to share more factual information about mental health issues.  We put up papers and articles.  I remember there was one article from Science magazine about the prevalence of depression.

When the boards had been put up, the group sent an email around the office telling everyone what the boards were all about, and how everyone might contribute.  To get the whole display, a couple of group members ‘seeded’ the display by adding some broad headings, some thoughts and some initial ideas.

The email messages and the ‘seeding’ did the trick.  As the months passed, different contributions were made.  The contributions included information about writers, academics and performers.  Other contributions had a slightly more personal tone; these were stories of people who had been touched, in some way or another, by mental illness.  The board became a catalyst for sharing.

Part 2 : Mental health and wellbeing

On the day of the event, we had asked a university colleague, Emma Greenstein, to come and speak to us.  Emma works for the university disability advisory service as the university mental health adviser.  Her job is to work with staff to help to offer support for students who have mental health difficulties.  I’ve had to chat to Emma a number of times and she has helped me out on a number of occasions.

Emma intended that her talk was to be interactive.  A part of her talk was to bust some myths, introduce us to some facts and terminology.  Emma introduced us to a model called ‘the mental health continuum’.  This was a simple model that had two axes: one axis that goes from 'diagnosis of mental illness' through to 'no diagnosed mental illness' (I should also mention that the model is about rating the severity of a mental illness).  The other axis goes from 'flourishing mental well being' through to 'poor mental well-being'.  (I have read that this model comes from a paper from Tudor entitled, ‘Mental Health Promotion’).  Here's a diagram that is pretty similar to the one that Emma used on the day:

Mental health model diagram

The model enables us to think beyond diagnostic labels, which can easily over simplify things.  A really interesting point that was raised was that we can all experience mental health difficulties.  The term ‘difficulties’ can mean feeling worries or anxiety, through to the experience of feelings of grief or loss.

Another interesting point that was made (and also emphasised) was the differences between people.  Emma said: ‘If you’ve supported one student with schizophrenia, you’ve supported one student with schizophrenia’.  It was a phrase that I’ve heard before, but in relation with students who experience different conditions.  Its use in this context emphasised the importance and need to treat and consider everyone as individuals.

During the session we were shown a short video:  I had a black dog, his name was depression (YouTube).  The video comes from a book that one of my favourite friends had once shown to me.  It’s a book that one of my colleagues had also brought along to the session.

We returned to the mental health continuum where we were asked two questions: ‘where are you now?’ and ‘where have you used to be?’  It didn’t take me too long to identify two points in two different places.  There was an important point here: that we can move between different points on the continuum.

On the subject of change, we were introduced a series of three short films that were made as a part of the recent Time to change campaign (campaign website).  The first film has the title speaking up (YouTube).  There are two other clips: you can recover (YouTube), and stronger, better, person (YouTube).  These videos are pretty short and pretty watchable too.

If we can place ourselves on a continuum, then a related question is: what can we do to promote our own resilience?  We were directed to a site called Mind Apples (mindapples.org) which I understand was created by a web developer.  The idea is really simple: there’s a lot of talk about the importance of eating five fruit and vegetables per day.  (I do struggle to do this, mostly due to the overabundance of cake that there seems to be at the OU office in London, but I’m not complaining!)  If we consider doing five good things for the body, why shouldn’t we consider doing five good things for our mind?  The idea is: what five things make you happy? Or what five things should you be doing that could make a positive difference to your mental well-being?  The website phrases it in a better way by asking: ‘what do you do regularly to take care of your mind?

A point I noted was that our actions and choices are important.

Final thoughts

At the end of Emma’s session, something really interesting happened: colleagues who had made contributions to our participative display were asked whether they wanted to say something about what they had added.  This gave way to a series of amazing impromptu talks about a range of different issues, worries, concerns and experiences.  Everyone took the time to listen. In that space and situation, what was said was both important and interesting. In an atmosphere of respect and mutual support, we began to talk about mental health, mental well-being and resilience.  Suddenly, these subjects didn’t seem so hard.

After the talks, we all broke off for some lunch. The equality and diversity group had made a special trip to the supermarket to buy some bread, cheese, salad, some juices and other goodies to accompany awesome home-cooked food that some of our colleagues had prepared. There seemed to be a consensus amongst those of us who helped to run the event: this had been the best, most challenging, and most useful event that we had run. Our participative display worked.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Emma Greenstein who commented on an earlier version of this post, and all my colleagues who worked on the event and made amazing contributions.

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