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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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