Tuesday, July 17, 2018

So what now for the OU?

After the defenestration of Peter Horrocks there was a collective sigh of relief from many quarters. Mary Kellett was installed as temporary VC (how temporary I’m not sure), some programmes were scaled back, others continued apace but, it was hoped, under more pedagogically sympathetic direction.

I am now an interested outsider rather than an interested insider so I don’t get regular feedback about what is going on and how it feels inside the institution.

What I do see suggests nothing much has changed yet. Programmes continue to cut the curriculum and save money. This is necessary, because the OU has been shafted by British educational policy. It will take a very long time to recover from this. Perhaps recovery is not the answer so much as reinvention.

When the OU started out, it was unique. Its combination of equal entry, distance learning, inventive use of the best technology of the day were not matched by any other university in the world. That is not at all the case now. The OU’s unique selling points have all been overtaken by universities in one place of the world or another. It is less possible nowadays to be unique with so much inventiveness going on around the world. But it is still possible to take a place at the forefront.

UK educational policy constrains innovation with its insistence on short term measurable outcomes for both teaching and research which coerce everybody towards depressingly average performance. As with most public services nowadays, too much energy is diverted away from doing the job towards demonstrating that targets of dubious relevance have been met.

That will continue under any political governance scheme I can see for the near future. But we can be less or more smart about how we divide up our energies. The OU can save a lot of time and money by changing some of its structure and culture. Peter Horrocks was right that reform was needed, just monumentally misguided in the way he set about doing it.

There are two big areas where the OU still needs internal reform. The first is the management structure which in many cases has power and responsibility badly out of kilter. I might suggest that the next VC is someone with experience of managing a large organisation (i.e. a person who specialises in getting things done rather than in disruption) who can appreciate and authorise the necessary changes. The second is to deal with the divide that still exists between central academics and associate lecturers. Much of this is cultural and requires a deft, firm and persistent hand to deal with it. The one piece of outside consultancy that I saw in my last couple of years at the OU that actually deserved to be looked at was the Pecan report on the OU’s culture. Some of its recommendations are already being implemented in some faculties with good effect. That needs to continue.

While it is dealing with those two issues, the OU can reconnoitre its future and work out where it can once again be unique. If it can successfully bridge the divide between central academics and ALs, it will again be able to explore effective pedagogies that will develop students best and put them at the centre of their own learning experience. We tend to get bogged down into equating pedagogy with technology and delivery methods. No, it is about the relation between teacher and student, and how that can best be promoted. There are many, many possibilities on offer. Perhaps Paulo Freire should be unearthed again. Perhaps compassionate pedagogy is the way forward.

A secondary recommendation: to do this properly the OU needs to improve what is laughingly called its knowledge management system (currently a place where documents go to hide), and it needs to get the IET much, much closer to the other faculties than it is now.

With vibrant and forward looking pedagogies available to it, the OU can consider again what teaching might best suit its constitutional purposes. Perhaps the radical thing here would be to look  at students as something other than just potential employees. Our first aim should be to produce thoughtful citizens. (Capability in employment will almost always follow naturally from that. The qualities needed in a graduate employee are exactly those needed in a thoughtful citizen. In my view the impact of the employability agenda is wildly exaggerated; we’re already doing it, we just need to change the language to show that we are. But that is material for a blog post in its own right.)

An area where I think the OU is still, just, a leader, is in its relationship with its students. Many value the personal touch they get from their tutors. Developing that is worth a lot of effort. One thing that still needs to be said over and over again everywhere, not just in the OU, is that learning is a personal thing, it changes you. We have to keep telling people who come to us that it is not just a matter of stuff pouring out of us and into them, but of them deciding what to do, what to learn, and finding that they change in many unpredictable ways.

Perhaps the student compact needs re-writing:

- what we teach is less important than what you learn
- but we will teach to the best of our abilities
- we will make you think differently
- we will change the way you see the world
- in return you must be prepared to do the heavy lifting involved in learning, and you must be prepared to be personally affected by what you learn. We will change you, and the world will be a better place for it.

You may have noticed me switching person several times between “we” and “they”. As a recently retired associate lecturer, my identity is still in flux.

No comments: