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A brave new world of AL development?

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Tuesday, 12 Apr 2016, 11:14

One part of my job that I take really seriously is associate lecturer development. I've been to loads of AL development days. It was through these days that I, essentially, learnt how to become an effective teacher and facilitator. It is true, however, that I was pretty confused and bewildered during many of these events – but, gradually this feeling dissipated as I became more experienced.

AL development has always been a regional activity. Even though many of the regional centres are closing, I have heard that the university is still committed to running these events. I do, however, worry. There are a whole bunch of unanswered questions, such as: will we be able to effectively plan things in the ‘brave new world’ without all of our English regional centres?

Back in February, I attended what was my first ever ‘STEM faculty’ (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) AL development event. It was held in Kent’s Hill Conference Centre, which is just across the road from the OU campus. Since a large proportion of the tutors had to travel, the university laid on accommodation and kindly fed us all.

What follows is a quick summary of the event, or, my main ‘take away’ points. I hope to submit a very different version of this article to the Snowball Associate Lecturer newsletter when I’ve got a moment.

STEM Faculty – why, how and where we are

The keynote was made by Anne De Roek, dean of MCT. Anne spoke of ‘shifting sands’ (in terms of developments in STEM, and in the university), and mentioned that division between subjects, such as science and mathematics is artificial. A thought that came to mind was: surely everything is Mathematics, right? I countered this with another thought, which was ‘I’m not sure the social scientists would agree…’

Anne went onto talk about jobs in STEM, the importance of engineering, security and privacy in IT, and the ethics of technology. Another point was that there were opportunities for growth: there will be new curriculum areas: an MSc in Space, modules in electronics, mechanical engineering and environmental engineering, and the availability of ‘shared research facilities’. Anne also presented a bunch of stats. One notable figure was that there are over 1,800 STEM associate lecturers in just one faculty.

The STEM faculty is being made up of the two ‘heritage’ faculties: Science and MCT. One of the arguments in favour of the faculty mergers is that faculties will then have more of a direct responsibility for retention and progression: the STEM faculty will ‘own’ their students more directly than ever before.

There is clearly a lot going on: work on the ‘student seamless journey’, work on subject specific bootcamps, a review of level 1 assessment, forthcoming changes to the academic year, and a new approach to induction. There were other changes: changes in the staff tutor contract, which means that many of us will become home workers; there are changes to governance and management of curriculum, and in the world outside the OU, there are private providers clamouring to offer degree apprenticeships.

At the end of Anne’s talk, there was a short question and answer session. One of the key points that I noted down was that ‘ALs knowledge of students is not getting through to the people in the student support teams’, with the implication that tutors are not as effectively sharing knowledge about the needs of students as they could.  Other points related to travelling time to tutorials, and the FutureLearn MOOCs (which are paid for by OU capital funds). Anne also emphasised that ‘this faculty has no intention of going on-line only’. Colleagues in MCT had been worried, because as far as I know, Science (I believe) delivers all their modules on-line.

Group Tuition Policy Implementation

The second presentation of the day introduced the Group Tuition Policy (or GTP, as it is known). It was described as being all about increasing student choice of 'synchronous teaching'. One of its aims is to publish timetables a time table of events three months in advance. Students will be able to make decisions whether to go to events, since its purpose (which is linked to module learning objectives) will be described in advance. This means, from the staff tutor perspective, timetables have to be planned five months before the module start date. I have to confess, this is a bit of a worry, particularly when we’ve got to deal with new modules.

A really good bit of the policy is the concept of an academic community. This, I understand, is going to be up to the staff tutors (with help from the module team). This may, of course require us to do some more work, but I think it is important work that needs to be done. The aim of academic community building is also in keeping with the intention of improving the student learning experience and academic success.

Learning events can be either face to face, or can take place online.  Another principle is that if there is a face to face event, there must be an online alternative. In principle, this also sounds like a great idea. The challenge, of course, is that face to face and on-line can never be directly equivalent, since they afford different pedagogies: one teaching modality will be able to convey certain learning objectives better than others.

Tutor groups will be organised in clusters of between six and eight students, and boundaries between clusters will be based on student density (I’m not sure exactly what this means, and my notes are not giving away their secrets). There may be either two or three clusters per module, and these will be managed by a ‘cluster manager’. The ‘cluster manager’ will choose venues where face to face teaching events will happen, but at the moment, I have no idea how these will be booked.

A key bit to the GTP will be something called the learning events manager, or the LEM: a new YAOUTLA (or, also known as ‘Yet Another Open University Three Letter Abbreviation’)

Group Tuition Policy Workshop

After the GTP talk, tutors were encourage to attend a number of different events. I decided to attend a GTP workshop (which I thought might be useful, since I’ll be responsible for scheduling some of the GTP events). The workshop was facilitated by three colleagues are performing some research to review tuition practice at MCT.

We were put into small groups and shared ideas about how the policy might be realised.  We chatted about the scheduling of timetables and events. Another topic that I noted was the question of whether there would be mechanisms to email a group of students who signed up to remind them about an event.

Panel session

The final session of the day was a question and answer panel session, which was run by a group of staff tutors. One important point that was discussed was the associate lecturer contract negotiations; since I’m both an associate lecturer, and someone who is a staff manager (who is the designated line manager for associate lecturers), I’m also very interested in these discussions.

I have to confess that I’m really worried about the new contract, for the simple reason that I have no idea how it will affect my role. I have, however, decided not to worry about it too much, though, for the reason that negotiations are still going on, and the final character of the new contract might be very different to the picture that is being painted through the snippets of information that I receive from time to time.

Another important theme was the impact of the regional closures. All MCT contracts are to be moved to Manchester by the beginning of January 2017, which feels like a very short timescale, especially since contracts from seven regions have to be moved to one region all in one go.

A final point that I’ve noted down was a reference to the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Tutors were encourage to record any teaching qualifications they might have. I haven’t had a look into it, but there’s a possibility that the TEF might be allied or connected with Higher Education Academy (HEA) professional recognition.

The university currently supports a route to application through something called OpenPAD (an abbreviation for Professional Academic Development), which is currently being refreshed. There was some talk about that the Institute of Educational Technology’s Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice might get reinstated, but there were no clear conclusions at this point.

Reflections

This first STEM Faculty AL development event was overwhelming. I don’t know how many associate lecturers were there, but I seem to recall someone mentioning that there might have been around ‘two hundred’ attending that one event.

In terms of getting a key message out about the group tuition policy and some of the changes happening across the university, the event certainly did its job for those who attended, but I’m mindful that this event just represented the start of a new way of doing things.
I did, however, find it difficult to find everyone I wanted to chat to. I personally prefer the smaller, more defined regional events.

From my side, I’ll continue to do my best to make as much noise as I can to make sure that these smaller (regional) events still happen, but I do worry that the constant movement towards centralisation might make it harder to run the development and training events that help our tutors to make a difference.

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