Sunday, April 15, 2018

How the OU needs to change

My first contribution to the debate about the post-Horrocks Open University. This was first published in the OU's Associate Lecturers' newsletter Snowball (behind the OU's password system) in January this year.

The challenges now facing the university are not solely external, says Rob Parsons

By the time you read this, I will be sitting on a warm sunny beach sipping Martini… well, OK, retired. In England. In January. A decision forced on me by life circumstances rather than a wish to leave teaching behind. I was enjoying teaching. I was also enjoying, though often with gritted teeth, my ability to contribute via the AL Assembly to the university’s navigation of the challenges it faces.

The biggest challenge the OU faces comes from outside – educational policy in the UK, which favours short-term market thinking over any other principle. We have to live with that, or die with it. I remain hopeful that the OU will live and maybe will even live well. But to do that, it must overcome three great internal challenges – pedagogical, cultural and managerial.

The pedagogical challenge is the key. Not everybody appreciates the radical effect the internet has on teaching in general and the OU model in particular. Learning has always been collegiate as well as individual. But when the OU started, distance students had to learn alone because it was not possible for them to learn together. The OU’s model fitted that circumstance with brilliant success.

But now people can learn together via the internet. People can learn perfectly well in isolation, but not as well as when they are learning with others. The internet provides that opportunity. We can debate whether the experience online is as good as face to face. In my view it is different – sometimes better, sometimes worse than collaborative learning face to face, but almost always better than learning alone.

Some people in the OU have grasped this, others have not, and some remain implacably opposed to ideas and practices which must revolutionise the construction of modules, particularly at level 1; the relationship between those who write the modules and those who teach them; and assessment structure, particularly the assessment of process as much as product. And other ideas, such as peer assessment (which students can do early in their careers if they are properly prepared for it) will have to come in to the mix as well. If we do not do this, we will be left far behind by universities all over the world which are already adapting more quickly than us.

The cultural challenge is a requirement for co-operation in a world of barriers. There remain, despite goodwill and effort on the part of many people, massive barriers between central academics and associate lecturers. Much of it is fuelled by ignorance. Central academics are ignorant of what ALs can do, ALs are ignorant of what central academics do do. In addition, the OU has for a long time been a terrain of mini-empires, where faculties, departments and teams often erect and maintain magnificent walls and moats to prevent ideas sneaking in from outside. Many do not. Many will happily collaborate with anyone useful, but it remains the case that for everyone building bridges, there is someone else digging a new moat.

This is well symbolised by our lack of a functioning knowledge management system. We have, as many organisations do, mistaken a knowledge storage system for a knowledge management system. We store knowledge in places where nobody else can ever find it. Knowledge management is a collegiate approach to freeing knowledge so that it can be used by anyone else within the system. Our inability to produce something that actually works is testament to the fractures within the totality of the OU community. To overcome these fractures and get everyone working together within a common culture is a massive endeavour, not just for our leaders but for everyone within the system.

The managerial challenge is one we share with many other institutions. It derives mainly from larger movements in the world, and particularly the rise of neoliberalism from the 1980s onwards, with the growth of a managerialist class who were encouraged to believe that, having equipped themselves with the skills of management, they could manage anything. They carpetbag their way from one highly paid job to another, often in completely different sectors, usually leaving mixed results behind them.

Managerialism has now infected, well and truly, the higher education sector in the world in general and the UK in particular. It is founded on a certain truth, that there are skills and attitudes which make a good manager in any setting. But it has gone too far. The belief that it is not necessary to be able to do a job in order to be able to manage it has turned into the belief that it is necessary not to be able to do a job in order to be able to manage it. The baby has been flung out with the bathwater and far beyond it.

This is not an accusation of incompetence, though incompetence has been evident in some of the activities of the OU’s senior management team. It is more a question of arrogant self-belief and lack of understanding of the sector one moves into. To continue the bathwater metaphor, our managers have very effectively up-ended the bath, but there is no plan to turn it back the right way up because they do not understand that it is supposed to hold water.

My best hope is that those of our managers who have that set of beliefs will soon carpetbag their way on to other jobs in other sectors and that, when they do, the OU Council will have the wit and wisdom to appoint new managers who not only have the skills to manage but also understand that education is not a commodity but a relationship.

These challenges are now behind me but in front of you. I wish you as much success as possible with them.

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