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Christopher Douce

Working with the SST

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On Friday 14 July 23, I spoke with colleagues who work within one of the OU’s student support teams (SSTs) with the intention of learning more about what the SST does. I also wanted to learn about what messages or words of advice they would like to share with tutors.

The aim of this post is to highlight some of the great work the SST does, and to share some practical advice to tutors. This post is intended to be one of a series of posts that aim to offer tutors some practical guidance.

Introducing the SST

Tutors are the academic face of the university. You represent the collective views of module teams, and help students to find their way through the materials they have prepared. Whilst you are expected to answer academic questions, you’re not expected to respond to questions that go beyond the boundaries of the module that you are helping to deliver.

In you are ever asked questions about the next module a student should study, what to do if a student find themselves struggling with changing personal circumstances, of have concerns about student fees, there is another group of colleagues who can help: members of the student support teams who work within what is called the Student Recruitment and Support Centres (SRSC).

It is helpful to think of us all members of an SST: tutors are a member, as are staff tutors and module team members. The SST colleagues located within the SRSC carry out a number of different roles: they may be educational advisors, senior advisors, or enrol students to modules. 

One of the roles and responsibilities of a tutor is to proactively refer students to the student support team if it looks like they need help.

At the time of writing, an article on TutorHome describes the SST as “provid[ing] specialist support such as module choice, transferring credit, regulations, disability and can make referrals for careers guidance.” It goes on to say that tutors “can refer students to the SST for detailed advice and guidance. Support teams may occasionally approach Associate Lecturers to undertake Individual Student Support Sessions (ISSSs) with students.  Referrals are made using the electronic Student Referral Form (eSRF).”

What does the SST do?

The SST provides non-academic support and information to students. The SST provides information about different modules, how study takes place, and what the various options might be for student fees. After a student has enrolled, the SST may help a student to think about how to approach their study, and even their study workload. 

The SST uses a model known as Information Advice and Guidance, or IAG, for short. IAG is a model that is applied across higher education, and in situations where learners need information and guidance about learning choices. 

Consider IAG to be a funnel, or an inverted pyramid. Students may begin by asking for information. In turn, they might have further questions about different curriculum choices, and may end up speaking with a senior advisor or an educational advisor who will be specialised in providing different types of advice and guidance.

Seventy percent of queries that the SST handles relates to study intentions. These can include changes to registered qualifications, or increasing or decreasing of study intensity, which refers to the number of modules a student might be studying at the same time. 

Other queries that the SST respond to might be about offering information about assessment and examinations, helping student to navigate university policies, and to offer guidance about reasonable adjustments for disabled students. Advisors will also help with study postponements and fee credits (after postponements), and signpost additional resources such as the student assistance fund.

SST roles

To learn more about how the SST works, it is useful to know a little more about roles of colleagues who work in a SRSC, and how these roles relate to the IAG model.

Advisors (I)

The main role of the advisors is to provide information. An advisor can be thought of as being “a bit like a GP; we need to know a bit about everything – there are specialists we can refer students to”. The advisor acts like the first stage of a filter, passing student queries onto other teams if more detailed responses are needed.

There are often a lot of queries close to, and after a TMA cut-off date. In many cases students are referred back to their tutor and sometimes queries as passed onto the faculty, which will find their way to the staff tutor. If students ask about TMA questions, these will, of course, be referred back to the tutor, and possibly the faculty.

In this first stage of the IAG model, advisors are not meant to offer advice, or guidance or discuss in depth issues that relate to student finance, but they can direct students to information that they may find helpful.

Senior advisors (A)

After the information (I) stage, an advisor might pass a query onto a senior advisor, for the advice (A) stage. It is always worth remembering that senior advisors can only provide advice about study. They can only make students aware of different options that are available to them, perhaps signposting them to different resources to help them to make decision. What they cannot do, of course, is to provide solutions or answers to students: they can only provide them with tools that help them to make decision.

Senior advisors can do a number of things: they can share information about what modules might potentially be useful to study, they might also help students to understand whether any there are any pre-requisites that need to be completed before students choose a particular path of study or module combination, and they can also say something about what is involved with OU study.

Senior advisors also make telephone calls to students if there are any concerns about their progress that may have been raised by tutors with an aim to find out if there is anything they might be able to help with. They often follow up with an email, if necessary, making records to the university student-relationship management system.

Educational Advisors (G)

Education advisors get involved with more complex issues. For example, if there are potential or persistent barriers to learning. If a barrier relates to a disability, they will work with other teams, such as the Disability Support Team. They may also refer students to specialist mental health advisors, or even to a safeguarding team.

It is worth noting that there are some differences in what happens in England, and what happens in the other UK nations. In England, the Disability Support Team works with students to write a support profile, which is available to tutors through TutorHome. They may also help students to begin to claim for the Disability Support Allowance (DSA), to help students to get their right support for their studies. In the other UK nations this support is provided by educational advisors.

Educational advisors may also gently challenge students if there is a sense that someone is taking on too much. They may also offer practical advice about how to catch up with their studies. They may also speak with students if they are finding it difficult to decide whether to continue with their study, and will offer advice about options. They can also help to manage student expectations in terms of the form and extent of support that they are likely to receive, either from tutors or, more broadly, from the university. In this sense, educational advisors can proactively help students to develop the academic relationship they have with their tutor.

The SST always aims to work in the best interests of the students. They are there to make sure students have the right information to enable them to make the right decision, that matches their needs and circumstances.

When should I refer students to the SST?

There is a simple rule: tutors respond to academic queries, and non-academic queries should be referred to the SST. An academic query can be thought of anything that relates to the study of a module. 

There are also grey areas between academic and non-academic support that tutors can proactively help with. For example, if a student is considering stopping studying of a module due to the difficulty of the module materials or the scores they are getting, a tutor should try to speak with a student to find out whether there is anything they can do to help. Sometimes an additional support session might be enough to get a student back on track. On other occasions, a discussion about their TMA feedback might help them to put their work and progress into perspective.

Tutors can also help if a student queries their marks, or asks for study advice within the context of a module. Whilst the SST is able to offer general advice about student, a tutor is best placed to offer detailed practical study advice about what a student might be able to do to maintain steady progress during a module. In a computing module, for example, this might be making sure a student is aware of the importance of getting better through practice. If you are asked some academic questions that you can’t immediately answer, consider seeking advice from the tutor’s module forum, or your staff tutor.

If a student is experiencing difficulties, and feel their personal circumstances may affect either their TMA or exam performance, tutors can and should refer students to the special circumstances form, which can be accessed through the university help centre.

You should refer a student to the SST if there is any non-academic problem that you cannot solve, or a student is asking questions that are not related to the academic elements of the module that you are teaching, or you are unable to get in contact with your student. The earlier you refer the student to the SST, the better.

You should also refer students to the SST if a student has disclosed a disability. The act of a student telling a tutor they have a disability means that they have told the university they have a disability, and tutors are obliged to pass this information on to the SST.

The SST will “usually try to respond within 2 working days, and then 5 working days during very busy periods. That is the same across the I, A and G”. When a referral or request for information or support is passed between different teams, the respond time begins whenever a new service request has been created.

How should I refer students?

Referrals can be made to the SST in a number of ways. There are two main ways that tutors need to be aware of.

TutorHome

The primary way tutors can refer students to the SST is through their student list, which is available through TutorHome. From your student group summary, click on the name of the student you wish to refer. Under the heading ‘referrals’ you should see a link that has the title: Refer to Student Support team. This will open a form which gives you a number of different options. Always ensure that you provide as much detailed information as you can, also saying what you expect to be done with the referral. If you wish to be contacted by the SST, if you have further information to share, please mention this.

Responses to a referral will either be sent by email, or you can see if there are any updates if a ‘C’ (contact history available) flag is displayed next to the student’s name in the student group summary. You can view any updates by clicking on the student’s name, and then clicking on the ‘Show contact history’ link, which provides a summary of the most recent interactions between the university and our student.

If you wish to share some additional information with the SST after a referral has been made, you can use the ‘Update record’ link, which can be found on the right of the student group summary. 

Staff tutors

Whilst working with a student, you might contact your staff tutor for support. In some situations, your staff tutor might ask you to refer a student through TutorHome, or they might get in contact with the SST to ask them for help, by sending a referral through the university systems.

Other approaches

If an issue is really urgent, tutors can also directly call the SST, but it is advised that on some occasions, the extent of actions that might be possible might be limited, due to data protection limitations. The SST finds it easier to handle written requests, since it enables them to make decisions about priority, identify who should be attending to an issue, and gives the SST time to formulate a response.

What do tutors need to know?

The most important point to reiterate is: if a query from a student is considered to be an academic query, tutors should take the initiative and respond to it as best as they can. Although colleagues within the SST know about modules, they don’t know the details of modules, or know the details of what is contained with their assessments. They do, however, know about when assessments take place and the policies that relate to assessments.

When there is a query that may sit within a grey area, such as whether a student wishes to continue with a module, tutors should feel confident enough to ask some probing questions about the extent to which an issue is one that is academic, or needs SST support. If you are unsure about where the boundaries between tutor support and SST support lie, the best thing you can to is to contact your staff tutor for guidance.

Early referrals to the SST are important, since there are dates known as fee liability points. This means that in some situations, if students defer early, they will be eligible have a percentage of their overall student fee returned. If a student is paying for their studies through a series of student loans, this will reduce the amount a student is liable for had they deferred later. From the student’s perspective, if you are unsure whether a student is engaging, it is always better to send in a referral than to hope they will return to their studies.

If a tutor has referred a student to the SST since they are having difficulty getting in touch with a student, this may mean that the SST may also have the same problem. If a “no contact” referral is made, the SST will always try to contact our student. Attempts will be always recorded, and these should be visible through the contact history part of TutorHome.

If students require advice about module choice, whilst tutors can refer students to the SST, one practical suggestion is to refer students to the OU’s subject sites. Subject sites are available for all students who are registered, and offer useful summaries, and pointers to other resources and events. SST advisors direct students to explore the subject sites.

A frequent request that will come to tutors through the SST are requests for TMA extensions, since TMA extensions are an academic and faculty issue. If there is a request for a particularly long extension which is to be approved from the faculty by your staff tutor, tutors are encouraged to speak with their students. In these cases, tutors should work with their students to establish an informal plan to ensure that they submit their TMA by the date of their new next extension, but also catch up with their study.

The following very practical point is important: since such a lot of the communication between the SST, tutors and students take place through email, it is important to remember to ensure that your Out of Office reply is turned on when you are unavailable.

Acknowledgements 

Many thanks are extended to Felicity Howe, Jamie Ireland, Anthony Short, Matthew Protz and Alexis Lansbury.

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Christopher Douce

1st Computing and Communications AL development conference

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Wednesday, 5 Dec 2018, 12:20

Associate lecturer development events generally take two different forms: they are either large multi-faculty ‘generic tutoring’ events that are run at different venues across the UK, or they are small module specific focussed events. From time to time, the university runs a larger events (I remember running a computing and IT event in the London office a few years ago), but these are the exception rather than the rule.

What follows is a summary of what has been called the 1st Computing and Communications AL development conference, which took place at the university student recruitment and support centre (SRSC) in Manchester. Just as with other blogs, this is a personal summary of the event (different colleagues may, of course, have very different experiences and memories!) I’m sharing this summary just in case it might be useful for someone, and also because it will help me remember what happened when I come to do my annual appraisal...

By way of background, the event was for tutors who teach on Computing and IT modules. One of the reasons for running the event is that the subject of computing can pose some interesting tutoring challenges and it would be helpful to share experiences between tutors who teach on the same undergraduate programme. There’s also the importance of community; in recent years the link between tutors and the university department (school) to which they are related to has become more important.

Manchester was chosen as the location for the conference, since it is also home to the Computing and IT student support team (SST). The conference took place over two days: Friday 30 November 2018 and Saturday 1 December 2018. The agenda for each of these days was roughly the same, and tutors were encouraged to sign up for the day that best suited them.

Looking forward: curriculum and school updates

The conference began with a short keynote and introductory presentation by our head of school Arosha Bandara and David Morse, director of teaching. Arosha mentioned the mission and vision of the school: that it aims to ‘empower our students, industry and society, to leverage digital technologies to address the challenges of the future’ and ‘be a world leader in open, innovative distance teaching of computing and communications, founded on excellent research and scholarship’. I noted that the undergraduate degrees were accredited by the British Computer Society, that the school ran a premier Cisco networking academy, and it is playing an important role in an organisation called the Institute of Coding (IoC website). Arosha also touched on research areas that are important within the school, such as technology enhanced learning, software engineering and human-computer interaction (amongst others).

David presented a summary of the computing curriculum and degree programmes, which ranges from introductory level computing through to postgraduate MSc degrees. In collaboration with Maths and Stats, the university will be introducing a new Data Sciences qualification, and the school of Computing and Communications will be introducing a new level 3 Machine Learning and AI module. Looking further to the future, the school is currently recruiting for Cybersecurity lecturers, which might see the emergence of new modules at levels 2 and 3. 

Spot the difference: sharing your practice 

After a brief break to meet and chat with colleagues, there was a series of short 5 minute presentations by tutors about different aspects of their OU teaching. What follows is a summary of the notes that I made during those sessions. 

Some tricks to establish early contact with students 

Charly Lowndes is a very experienced tutor and former OU student who teaches on a range of different modules. One of his tips was: “send them a 2 line email, and tell them to send you a reply to say that they have got it; when you do that, I’ll send you some useful stuff”. Charly also makes an introductory video that he has recorded and uploaded to YouTube; he said that “it’s nice for them to know what you look like”.

Another tips include: if you don’t hear from a student, send them a SMS; populate the module forum with messages; use email rules to process emails (I do this too, filtering on module code). Charly also said “I don’t get stressed if they never get back to me; I had one student who was on his honeymoon” – the point is that the student support team is able to help. Another comment was: “use a range of methods; everyone is different” and use different bits of information provided by the university to try to create a picture of your student.

A strategy for recording student contacts

The second presentation in this session, given by Helen Jefferis, complemented Charly's presentation really well. Assuming that you had made contact with your student, then what? Helen offers a suggestion: use a spreadsheet. Helen begins by downloading a list of students from her TutorHome website, and then adds a set of headings, which includes a simple notes section. I noted down the sentence: “if they reply, things are ticked off; ticks to show that they’re active”. Other approaches may include using tools such as Microsoft OneNote. Also, further information about student interactivity and engagement if available from the OU Analyse tool (which is entire topic all of its own).

Teaching methods on TM470

Jay Chapman gave a brief summary of what it was liked to be a TM470 project module tutor. I found Jay’s session especially interesting since I’m also a TM470 tutor. Jay began by outlining TM470. The module isn’t about teaching technical stuff, it’s about helping students how to write a technical project, and demonstrating how they can build upon the expertise and skills they already have. An important point is that TM470 students can take on different roles: they may be the project leader, the client and the stakeholder. Also, every project is different, but there are some common challenges: planning is important and students can easily fall behind, and a big challenge is the importance of academic writing and critical reflection.

I noted that Jay sends his students an email, then a SMS (if he hasn’t heard from them), and he runs tutorial sessions using video Skype. During these sessions, Jay mentioned that he uses an agenda, and then sticks to it. An important sentence that I noted down which resonates with me (as a TM470 tutor) is: “you have to show me what you did, and how you thought about it”. 

Approaches to working with under-confident students

Jean Weston shared some tips about working with students who might not have high levels of confidence. One tip was to tell them things that they don’t have to do. One suggestion was that with some modules, students don’t need to go outside the module materials. I noted down some practical tips: read the introductory and summary sections first, and it’s certainly okay to read something several times.

When it comes to exams, Jean shared some really great tips. One tip was: write down the blindingly obvious (since the examiner might well be testing whether a student knows the blindingly obvious). Another tip was: “answer the question, the whole question, and nothing but the question”. Also, successfully completing examinations requires you to balance two resources: your brain (what you know and can apply) with the time that is available, and “and answer is better than no answer”.

Other tips are worth remembering, such as: “learn to pick the low fruit, and apply that throughout your study” (or, in other words, ‘it’s okay to be strategic if you need to be’). Also: do get help if you need it, do take the time to talk to somebody if you need to, and take time to understand the vocabulary and complete the activities (since these can directly relate to the assessment questions).

PG teaching: what's the difference?

Joan Jackson gave the first short presentation on the morning of the 1 December. Joan is a tutor on a number of modules, such as M815 Project Management, T847 The MSc Professional Project and T802 Research Project.

One of the big differences that Joan emphasised was the level of skills that can be applied. From her slides, Joan reported that “undergraduate study provides the ‘grounding’ within a field or subject and academic skills” whereas “postgraduate study allows the subject to be explored further to attain a higher level of proficiency through independent study, scholarship, research and professional practice, emphasising critical thinking, synthesis, reflection and effective academic writing”.

An important question is: how do you learn to do all these things? Thankfully, the university has some resources that can be used. I’ll highlight two free OpenLearn courses that may be useful: OpenLearn course: Succeeding in postgraduate study and OpenLearn course: Are you ready for postgraduate study

A further question is: how can tutors develop postgrad skills once the module begins? I made some notes that suggested that there are opportunities: forums can be used to run activities. Students can explore the library to uncover research or discussion papers, than sets of papers can be compared and contrasted. Also, as a brief aside, there are also some resources on the OU Skills for Study pages, such as a resource about Critical Reading.

Cisco accreditation and teaching on Cisco modules

Phil Irving tutors on a number of Cisco modules, such as TM257 Cisco networking (CCNA) part 1, an undergraduate module, and T828 Network Security a postgraduate module.

Phil gave us a bit of history about the OU Cisco Academy (and Cisco as a company) before beginning to talk about the link between Cisco material and the OU approach to study. One of the benefits of the joint approach is that students have the potential to gain an industrial qualification whilst also learning important academic skills, such as academic writing. Students are also incentivised to pass the industrial qualifications. I didn’t know this, but if students pass their Cisco exam, they get back some of their test fees.

Practice tutors: a new approach for apprentices

The final short presentation of the conference was by Christine Gardner and Alexis Lansbury who spoke about the university’s involvement in degree apprenticeships and the role of a practice tutor. Since apprentices have a lot of study to do over quite a short period of time, practice tutors can offer some advice about how to manage their workload. Practice tutors are just one of many people involved with apprentices: there are also module tutors, and functional skills tutors, and the student support team. Practice tutors visit apprentices four times in a year, typically at a student’s workplace, and they will be a consistent contact across four years of study.

An important thing to remember is that degree apprenticeships differ across the UK. There are different programmes in England, Wales and Scotland. There is also something called higher apprenticeships, which can be linked and connected to postgraduate study.

What makes a good online session?

The first of two longer presentations was given by Shena Deuchars. Shena’s presentation was all about the use of breakout rooms in Adobe Connect. A personal confession is that I’ve only ever used breakout rooms twice. The first time was using Blackboard Elluminate (or, OU Live, as the university called it), which seemed to go very well. The second time was using Adobe Connect, and didn’t go well at all (I remember a few voices in my headset saying the words: “what’s going on?!”) and feeling quite embarrassed!

Shena gave us some tips about creating some layouts that we could use to manage breakout rooms. A sequence of actions were suggested: (1) create a new layout, (2) add content to pods, and (3) create rooms. Then to get things going, (4) tutors need to click on the ‘start breakout’ button. Finally, there is the step at the end to end the breakout rooms and to bring everyone back to the plenary space.

Some of the tips were very helpful, such as: try to get people who are willing to use microphones in the same room as each other (you can do this by asking everyone to give you a green tick). Also, in anticipation of a session, a thought is to email everyone to tell everyone that they will get more about of the session if they are prepared to speak (and have a headset).

I found Shena’s session useful, and it was great that she managed to encourage everyone to login to the shared room that she had prepared so everyone could get a feel for how things work. 

During her session I thought about my own recent experience as a current OU student who was recently put into a breakout room. Initially, I wasn’t happy, especially when all of my fellow students volunteered me to summarise all of our discussions during the plenary session. This said, it was really helpful to hear how other students were getting along with their reading. One fellow student made me realise that I hadn’t read some aspects of the module materials as thoroughly as I ought to have done.

One thought I will add about breakout rooms is they take time. I’ve heard it said that a breakout room activity can or should take at least 20 minutes. This means that if you’re doing a number of things in a tutorial, it’s important to pay close attention to timing. In the case of the tutorial that I attended, I found the breakout rooms so useful, and I became so engaged, I was surprised that the tutorial was over so quickly. In retrospect, a thorough debrief or summary after my time in the breakout room would have been useful to help me return to the physical world!

Teaching of problem solving and algorithmic thinking

I’m not going to summarise Friday Jones’s presentation on algorithmic thinking directly, partly because I don’t think I can do it justice. Friday’s talk was one that encouraged us tutors to think about what it means to teach algorithmic thinking and also how we should (or could) respond to students. From my perspective, it contained a number of themes, such as whether we should teach top-down or bottom up, and how students might understand the notion of abstraction.

Some interesting phrases I noted down was: “I teach by epiphany…”, “I taught them that they could solve the problem” and “I don’t want to make tea anymore; I want to question why we do this”; ‘this’ means “they need to ‘get’ why we do what we’re doing”.

Friday’s talk reminded me of another talk that I went to that I saw at the Psychology of Programming Interest group back in September 2018. Friday said that she learnt to program ‘bottom-up’, as did Felienne. Some thought provoking words from her presentation were: “sensimotor level is syntax”, and “motivation leads to skills”. And skills, of course, can be linked to the ability to develop (and implement) abstractions.

Working with the Computing and IT student support team

This second half of the conference was opened by John Woodthorpe, our school student support team lead. In addition to a series of short presentations, tutors were able to have a tour of the SST to learn more about what happens within the Manchester office.

The first presentation was about the Careers and Employability Service (OU website). Next up was a presentation by the colleagues from the Student Recruitment and Fees team. This was then followed by another talk by the SRSC continual improvement and change acceptance team, who look at how to enhance existing student support processes. During the first day of the conference, Claire Blanchard concluded by speaking about the role of the SST from the associate lecturer perspective. Claire also emphasised the role that ALs can play in the school by applying to sit on the computing board of studies.

One thing I got from this session was an understanding of something called the Information Advice and Guidance model (which is referred to by the abbreviation IAG). Although I had heard of this before, I hadn’t really grasped its significance. 

In some senses, IAG can be understood as three progressive stages. Whenever a student calls up the SST, they may first speak with a front line advisor, who may be able to provide some general information. If the query is more complex, such as the need for study advice, the student will then be passed onto a senior advisor (the ‘A’, or ‘advice’ part of the model), who will be able to answer more specific queries. Finally, if the query is one that is both detailed and complex, the student might then begin to receive ongoing detailed guidance from an educational advisor.

Simply put: there are a lot of calls about information, and not so many calls that are about guidance (and some guidance calls can take a lot of time to resolve). 

Activity: Working through student support scenarios

For the penultimate part of the conference, Alexis Lansbury, Computing and IT staff tutor, divided the room up into tables, and gave us a series of student support case studies. Each table had a combination of associate lecturers, staff tutors, and advisors. 

For each case study, we were asked to “discuss how you would respond, what actions you would take, what you are aiming to do to help the student, and whether you would involve other people (ALs, Student Support, Employability Specialists, Staff Tutors) in both the decisions you take, and, the help that you offer”. The case studies covered all levels of study (first year through to final year equivalents), and issues ranging from requests for very long extensions through to catastrophic technical problems. This activity emphasised the importance of taking time to gather information and the need to thoroughly understand different perspectives.

AL development in the school: priorities, needs and opportunities

During the final session, I asked everyone the question: “what would associate lecturer development activities or events would help you to do your job?” Some points that I noted on a whiteboard were: 

  • How to best maintain the student-tutor link
  • Understanding, mitigating and influencing the impact of the group tuition policy (GTP) and learning event management (LEM) system
  • How to best work together in cluster groups
  • How to tailor a session to suit a module and also take account of local geography
  • More discussion and less presentation during AL development events
  • More information and further discussion about the new tutor contract
  • Information about the ‘bigger picture’ (either in terms of the university or the discipline)
  • Discussions and information about how programming is addressed across and between study levels
  • Degree apprenticeships and the potential impact on the tutor role and tutor practice

Reflections

Over two days, over 90 colleagues attended the conference: associate lecturers, staff tutors, central academics, and members of the student support team. A colleague said to me: “it’s a sign of a good conference if you come away learning something new”. I certainly agree! One of the things that I’ve gained from the event is a more detailed understanding of what the SST advisors do, and how important and essential their work is, and what IAG means. I felt that it was a thought provoking and useful event, and I hope that everyone else found it useful too. Fingers crossed we’ll be able to run another one soon.

Acknowledgements

This conference was very much a team effort (with multiple teams)! The main organising and planning group included: Frances Chetwynd, Christine Gardner, Alexis Lansbury, John Woodthorpe and Ann Walshe. Many thanks to Saul Young (and colleagues) and Jana Dobiasova (from ALSPD). Thanks are extended to all presenters, and to Shena Deuchars and Friday Jones who ran the longer sessions, and to Arosha Bandara and David Morse from the school. Thanks are also extended to Stephen Rice, Claire Blanchard, Vic Nicholas, Dawn Johnson and everyone in the student support team who were able to spare their time to come and speak to us; we really appreciate your time!

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Christopher Douce

First MCT Student Support Team Conference

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I drafted this blog post some time ago, but it got temporarily shelved due to the reality of day to day work.  I never forgot about it, though!  I still feel it’s important to share, since it relates to an important (and on-going) change within the university: the development and implementation of the Faculty of Mathematics Computing and Technology (MCT) Student Support Team (SST).

Introductory bit

Nineteenth of July 2014 was the date of the first ever Faculty of Mathematics Computing and Technology (MCT) Student Support Team (SST) conference that was held at The Open University campus in Milton Keynes.  Although this blog is written primarily for my colleagues, fellow tutors and students might find this summary useful since everyone has been subject to different amounts of change within the university.

The SST comprises of learning support staff (who are based in Birmingham and Nottingham), associate lecturers and central academics.  The idea behind an SST is to create a grouping of people who have more detailed knowledge of how to support students who are studying a particular subject, so we can improve the way that students are supported.  The ideas behind SSTs predate the increased focus on programmes of study due to the availability of student loans for part time students.

Although the SST staff for MCT are based in two regions, all the other Open University regions remain fundamentally important to the operation of the university: they remain centres from where tutorials and day schools are run, outreach events are facilitated, and students can have additional support sessions with tutors (and students can drop in to look at module materials).  They are also essential places from where continued AL development and training occurs.  Without these centres, tutors would not have sufficient training to allow them to offer excellent teaching and learning experiences to their students.

This blog starts with a summary of the plenary or introduction session, and is then followed by a session about retention.  There is then a brief description of session that was specific to the department of Computing and Communications.  This is then followed by an AL development session about disabled student services (this might be of interest to some students who study H810).  The day ends with a session about ‘tutor staff development’.

Introduction plenary

Our former Associate dean for regions and nations introduced the conference and welcomed us all to the SST.  We were shown a bunch of graphs that gave us a bit of context.  I remember that one of the graphs was about the number of students who are studying at a study intensity that is equivalent to full time students (which is a way to allow the OU to be compared to other institution).  In terms of full time equivalent (FTE) students, the number of students in MCT is broadly similar to the number of students in the Faculty of Art and the Faculty of Social Sciences.

An important point is that undergraduate computing and IT modules currently represent the biggest group in the faculty with 60% students registering for a BSc in Computing and IT.  By way of perspective, there are 13K FTE students in the whole of MCT, whereas Birkbeck (as a whole institution) has a total of 17K students.  We were given even more mind blowing stats: there are 1,200 associate lecturers in MCT, who teach a total of 2,900 contracts.

Retention and progression (of students between different modules) is considered to be an important strategy.  One figure that I made a note of was that there was a target of 75% of all students moving to the next module (unfortunately, I didn’t note whether this was related to level one modules only).

Our associate dean also spoke about other university priorities, such as helping to design student interventions (to make study easier), the student induction process (to help students become more familiar with the process of studying) and the development of the OU virtual learning environment (to make smart use of data).  On the subject of interventions, one great intervention that I heard was the SST proactively calling students discuss their study intentions if they have registered for an excessive number of modules.

One of the most important elements of OU study is the relationship between a student and their tutor.  The situation used to be that a student was left to their own devices at the end of a module.  The SST can now talk to a student between modules.

We heard about future plans.  Apparently there is some work afoot to improve the induction process.  For quite a while, I’ve heard about a new induction website, but I really do think there’s an opportunity to do more to help students become familiar with how to ‘survive’ when being a distance learning student. 

Future university activities include an attempt to diversity income, and continuing alignment of associate lecturer services to student services.  Also, quite recently, there has been internal debate regarding a new group tuition policy (which I hope to share some information about to ALs as soon as the details have been defined).

MCT Level 1 retention review

The next part of the day was by a colleague who spoke about a retention review project.  A really interesting fact I learnt was that module presentations that start in October have slightly higher retention figures than modules that begin in February.  I have no idea why!

I’ll do my best to summarise some of the key points that were made.  A really important concern was how well students are prepared for study.  If a student comes to the university without have any prior qualifications, this means that they less likely to complete.  There might be a range of different factors that influence this, such as available study time, workload, and other points, such as a lack of confidence (writing from experience as a former OU student, it takes time to ‘figure out’ how to consume the learning resources that we get from the university.

The one really important point that that has made the difference is: our tutors.  Proactive contact with an associate lecturer can really help to improve retention.

I’ve made a note of some recommendations: it’s important to have consistent module advice, we need to have effective subject specific advice, and have a solid induction programme to incorporate the development of on-line study skills.  The characteristics of a module and its design can make a different too: module teams to consider workload, to carefully consider assessment, and study events should be designed in to the module structure.

According to my notes, the review also offered some really practical suggestions, such as the SSTs could explicitly contact students without previous qualifications (but there’s also a tension between balancing the need to answer the phone in response to incoming student queries, and the willingness to initiate positive interventions: everything has a cost, and everything takes time).

I also made a note of the importance of student support:  AL development is to prioritise soft skills training for ALs (and perhaps points such as using the phone).

Over the last year, the university has made available something called a ‘student support tool’, which brings the associate lecturer closer to the systems that the university uses.  Whilst such tools are great, there is a question which needs to be asked, which is: how can any tool be used effectively.  Again, it’s back to the importance of helping to train and develop our brilliant associate lecturers to make sure that they are as well-equipped as they can ever be to support their students.

Computing and IT session

The next session in the day was by John Woodthorpe, academic lead for Computing and IT.  John opened the question by asking us a question:  ‘Put up your hands if you’re a member of the SST!’  His point was simple: we’re all members! We all have an important role to play.

John asked a rhetorical question about what the members of the SST in Birmingham and Nottingham are doing.  He answered this by providing a long list of activities.  The helped to book and organise exams at different venues, offered study and course choice advice, wrote disability profiles, and were always developing relationships with different members of the faculty.

During the session I made note of the phrase: ‘pre-emption, proactivity, prevention’, which seems like a good way to encapsulate different important aspects of study support.

One gap that has been identified is the need to develop a more comprehensive and structured approach to resubmission support, i.e. what happens if a student doesn’t pass an exam.  At the moment, students could call the SST and request a special session, but not all students know that they may be entitled to this support.  The SST is trying to tighten up resubmission support, aiming to offer more support for students beyond the boundaries of individual modules.

Disabled Student Services

After the faculty session, we were offered a number of different session choices.  I chose a session which was all about disabled student services.  I was interested to hear how the new SST would help MCT students who have disabilities.

We were introduced to different models of disability: the medical model and the social model.  A really interesting point was that people who have disabilities can have a ‘fluid sense of identity’.  What I think this means is that some disabilities may be transitory (such as a physical injury, such as a broken leg), and others may be episodic (such as ME).

We were also introduced to the Equality act 2010, which identifies a number of protected groups.  We were also told about different types of discrimination.  These are direct and indirect discrimination (which I had heard of), but there is also discrimination by association, i.e. discrimination might arise against someone if they have significant caring responsibilities.

We had a discussion about on-line tutorial materials, reasonable adjustments, and the provision of advice and guidance (of which, module accessibility guides play an important role).  We also spoke about the importance of contacting students directly to enquire about the extent of any adjustments that might be necessary, and also the role of examination boards.

Another area that was covered was the Disabled students allowance (DSA).  The DSA covers three areas: ergonomic furniture, personal support (such as non-medical helpers), and travel.  The DSA no longer funds standard electronic devices such as computers since they are now deemed to be an essential part of academic life, but funding for upgrades are permissible.  One really important point is that DSA is only available for students who are studying 30 points and a registered for a qualification (in Scotland this is 60 points).

Non-medical helpers can be really helpful for some students; they can make the difference between a module being accessible and a module being inaccessible.  A non-medical helper always works on behalf of the student: there is a contact between the student and the helper; tutors (or the university) are not able to speak directly to a helper – this relationship is fully controlled by the student.

AL Staff Development: The art of the possible

This final session of the day was all about how we should collectively think about associate lecturer development now that we’re in the new world of the student support team.  This session was facilitated by fellow staff tutor and tutor, Frances Chetwynd.

Associate lecturer broadly takes on two types: generic development (which is about how to perform teaching and learning, to make use of technology, and to be aware of university initiatives and developments), and module specific (sharing good practice about teaching certain subjects).  Now that we’re moving into broad teams, there are opportunities in terms of large subject (or, even programme) specific events.

Like all good tutorials, Frances’s session was very interactive.  We were given sets of post it notes to propose new ideas.  Pink post-it notes were about face-to-face AL development ideas, orange post it notes were about on-line (or other) types of development sessions.  When we had written down our ideas, we stuck them on different sheets of paper that had broad different category headings.

Frances also gave us ten stickers (which were in the form of ‘gold stars’), allowing us to collectively vote for the ideas that we liked best. 

The ones that I’ve noted down are: a session about ‘coding at different levels’ (which could be like some kind of internal symposium), Teaching Sense on TU100 (apparently there is a 10% tutor churn on TU100), making sure that we Record module briefings, and sessions about qualification overviews (or, future plans for modules).  There were loads more ideas, but I haven’t noted them all down.

Reflections

It was a busy day!  One thing that was really good about the conference was that it put the work of the SST and the MCT faculty in context (I had not heard of some of the numbers that our associate dean mentioned) and also helped to emphasise how much change has been going on within the university in the last few years.  It almost allowed us to ‘take stock’ of where we were. 

The session on AL staff development really got me thinking.  I came up with a number of ideas about different types of events that might potentially help tutors from across the UK who tutor on specific modules.  One thing that keeps coming to mind is that there is also more potential in terms of how the student support team members can feed directly into module teams.  I can’t help but feel that these new structures can help different bits of the university to work closer together, and that can only be a good thing.

All this said, it’s still very early days for the student support team and I guess I’m one of many who are still finding their feel in terms of what we do, how we work, and how we communicate with each other.  It also strikes me that although the university has been reorganised along slightly different lines, the notion of a geographic region or ‘place’ remains very important.  The development sessions that are run within our regional centres for our associate lecturers are invaluable.  Developments in information and communication technology has made the SST possible, which means now it’s up to us to figure out how to best take advantages of the opportunities it offers us.

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