Monday, February 18, 2013

Challenges in HE

I was alerted to this by the effervescent Grainne Conole. Panos Vlachopoulos has asked these two questions:
1. What would you consider the top 3 challenges that the Higher Education sector faces in your country?
2. Do you see any value of the OER (Open Educational Resources) movement in trying to address any of the challenges?
He has posted a collection of answers on his blog.

My answers are as follows:
1. What would you consider the top 3 challenges that the Higher Education sector faces in your country?
The first challenge is that we are stuck with a certain kind of student arriving. I have no problem with them as people and their experiences so far. Similarly, I have no problem with the schools and teachers that turn them out at the age of 18. There is however something deeply wrong with the UK's educational policy, and has been for several decades. I have blogged about that in more detail here. In a nutshell students arrive having been taught entirely in a system which encourages only individual competitiveness and being told how to achieve grades. When they arrive with us, many of them don't have a clue how to take charge of their learning, or how to learn in a collaborative way. If we let them go on like that, they will emerge as stunted learners, not having achieved anything like their potential. So we need to put massive effort in during their first year to turn them into people who can take charge, and who understand and experience the value of working together with other students.

The second challenge is our obsession with technology. Many people will read that sentence and say either “Hooray, a man who likes pencils”, or “Oh dear, a man who likes pencils”. That's not my point at all. For the record I like what we call technology*, I work with it all the time. As my bio says, I live in my airing cupboard because that is where the computer is. But we tend to focus far too much on the technology and not enough on the teaching and learning that is going on regardless of the environment. As an example, I have done a bit of digging around on blended learning lately. Most of the discussions I have read base themselves on what forms of technology are being used, and are thus forced into the mould of whatever the technology is. We should start with the learning – blended learning is a combination of individual and collaborative learning. Once we have that firmly fixed as our base, we can consider how those forms of learning can be worked out with whatever student and teacher presence is available. I think we would get further than we do at the moment.

The third challenge is something specific to the UK, though it appears in other forms in other places. That is our class ridden obsession with the difference between “academic” and “vocational” learning. I've blogged about that before too. We have come a long way in this country since the beginning of the Thatcher era which finally prised loose the grip of deference from our economy. It hasn't worked so well on our society or on our politics unfortunately, and there is still a specific form which views anything manual as of secondary status compared to proper academic education. It is still evident in the solid support for bringing back grammar schools. (Nobody ever talks about bringing back secondary moderns, which are the inevitable twin of grammar schools, necessary resting places for the majority who fail the exams to get in to grammars.) It is not something that the HE sector on its own can do anything about – it is a society wide problem, but it is one which deeply affects the whole disciplinary structure, award structure and ethos of our profession.

2. Do you see any value of the OER (Open Educational Resources) movement in trying to address any of the challenges?
I cannot foresee what effect the OER movement is going to have. Other people seem to have a clearer vision, but I think predicting the future for OERs is fraught with imponderables. They are going to do things that we cannot possibly predict. Trying to target them would be like trying to target an atom bomb. To change metaphors rapidly midstream, suddenly a tiger has emerged. The best thing we can do is grab hold of the tail and hold on for the ride. Having said that, here are some things that I hope will happen.

It is a lot easier now for any teacher to produce learning material that is of high quality both intellectually and aesthetically. I have just learned how to make an e-book. Now that I know how to do it, I can produce one in five minutes – given that I have written the material – and have it loaded on my students' devices in ten. That has got to change the balance of power between the providers of content (the teachers) and the providers of distribution (the publishing houses etc). Not least, I suspect that there might eventually be a complete meltdown of the entire internal United States school textbook system, which will be watched with a certain amount of schadenfreude in many quarters.

But opening up competition doesn't deal with established interests. People who have power will hold on to it as long as possible. And nowadays knowledge is power. I don't expect to see the world opening up generally without a long and bitter fight. As an example I have an interest in the PACE trial, an investigation into the efficacy of treatments for people with ME. Published results suggest that CBT and Graded Exercise Therapy (GET) are the most efficacious treatments. They are, however, subject to controversy: considerable suspicion has been cast on the trial protocols and on the way the results were arrived at. The controversy could be resolved with publication of the raw data, which the authors are simply refusing to do. They have no interest in openness: they have an interest in keeping the results closed. Such interests will continue to work against openness in educational resources.

I work a little bit with people in Africa, primarily in the field of healthcare technology management (HTM). I (try to) produce learning materials which will enable technicians and engineers in low resource settings to become good managers. When we provide consultancy to hospitals and districts, the headline is about healthcare technology but the skills we pass on are the skills of generic management. A few years ago we wrote a policy manual. We did not realise at the time, but we were producing an OER, and one which is being used all over the world to help inform policy and train staff. We intend to build on this with more, and more specifically targeted, educational materials, which will perforce be OERs. For the organisation I work for, the advent of OERs is helping us to realise that the value in what we do is not in the content so much as in the process. I think that realisation is slowly percolating through many academic institutions, and I hope that it will eventually help us to move away from our reliance on assessment of product as the sole arbiter of the quality of a degree. This goes back to my first point about what students need to learn. They need to learn how to work collaboratively. Module teams in my institution recognise that this is important and work in various collaborative exercises, but many still provide marks only for written assignments. They need to twig that they should be marking process as well as product in order to make sure the students get the best out of it. An excellent example emerged the other day in some work on radiologists, and how they spot areas of concern. It built on the moonwalking gorilla video, which is still one of my all time favourites. I read a report on the BBC website: Why do radiologists miss dancing gorillas? The most important section was a side insert quoting from a senior radiologist Dr Antoni Toms “"How do you know when a radiologist has been trained? They sit an exam. But you could argue what you should do is get them to sit in front of an eye-tracking machine and if they have got a consultant pattern of movements they have seen enough cases. That's the future, but we're a long way off." Classic. It is a stretch from OERs to assessment methods, but the connection is there.

In short, my three problems were: students' ability to learn collaboratively, our obsession with technology and our snobbishness about vocational qualifications. I don't think we will overcome these with OERs, but OERs are going to blow a lot of things up, and they will undoubtedly be part of the process.

*People keep telling me they "don't like technology". My reply is always "A pencil *is* technology".