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.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Where do universities fit?

Young people still go to university in large numbers, despite educational policy having raised the price to the point where many question whether it is worth it. And there is questioning among policy makers as to whether or not too many are going to university. This frames the purpose of universities as being to fit the workforce for the needs of the economy. There are other good reasons for having universities and an educated population, but let us stick with this one for now. The answer to that question depends on what you want to do in your society and economy. When Tony Blair wanted 50% of the population to go to university, he had in mind a future economy which depended on large numbers of smart and agile people.

He was also working with rather than against the grain of this country’s entrenched snobbery towards vocational training. This snobbery is one of the main factors in the disjointed quality of our policy on higher education. Changing our minds about the value of vocational education would be a large and long term job, involving major culture shifts, but it would enable us to look more clearly at what a university education is actually for.

Standard economics points us in one of two directions. The first is that we compete as a country by shifting upwards. We become a high value added economy, competing constantly against other highly developed economies to produce extra added value in services, manufacturing, scientific achievement and so on. We have created an education system in which only our universities can produce such people in large numbers.

The second is that we compete by shifting downwards. We become an economy that siphons profit up towards the elite by cost cutting wherever possible and keeping the bulk of the workforce either in precarious conditions, or close enough to precarious conditions to be too scared to do anything different.

While Tony Blair was in office we had a brief stab at the first option. Since he stopped being Prime Minister, we have headed towards the second. But there is a problem, a conundrum for employers and those who would wield power in our neoliberal world. Even employers of precarious workers need them to be active thinkers and to use their initiative in their jobs. The problem is to instil that without the workers then using their skills to contest the system. What is required is an active docility, in which people learn to use considerable skill and initiative to make profits for their employers, but who do not use their skills and their know how to create power for themselves. What is wanted is a university educated population living in or near precarity. And we seem to be heading that way. (It should be noted that precarity is not just about conditions of employment. It is an entire political system. It accounts for the reluctance of our politicians to take any effective action to reduce house prices – high prices keep people worried. The massive changes in our benefit system, and the way in which any claimant may be routinely hounded and demonised is part of precarity. The massive changes in our immigration system, and the way in which any immigrant may be routinely hounded and demonised is part of precarity – and is a taint, a personal stain on Theresa May’s political record.)

Currently, populations are disciplined by the need to keep working harder and harder at wage labour in order to be able to live, let alone to live well. But soon a new reality will be upon us, one that requires a new economics, and a different approach to both economy and society. At some point in the future, possibly not too distant, there will be a giant collision between people’s need to work harder and harder, and the capacity of technology to supplant labour for producing so many of the goods and services that we want. Then an entirely new settlement will be needed, based on an entirely different relationship between people, income and work. Britain is an advanced economy in which automated working will take hold more quickly than many other places. But our nineteenth century insistence on the ethic of alienated work might make us one of the least well prepared countries in the world for that collision. We should start thinking about that now.

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.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Tao of Reflection

If you're going to learn properly you have to go beyond what the module teaches you. You have to do stuff beyond the letter of the learning outcomes. Reflective work is an area where this is very often the case. To learn properly, you need to go back over what you have learned. You need to give it time to germinate. You need to sketch in mentally where connections are beginning to occur. Many modules do not build this in specifically, but you need to make it part of your habits of learning.

Time is always a problem. No sooner have you finished this chapter than the module calendar is beckoning you to the next. You can still build in some time for reflection, and it will repay you many times over. Often when you start out doing things like this, you wonder where the time is going to come from. When you have made it a habit, you wonder how you ever did without it.

Reflection may be just a fancy word for what you do already. You may sit and work over notes you have made. You might move bits of paper around on a table. You might be staring out of a train window pondering the connection between Plato and the Dalai Lama. A study session might turn into a prolonged pause as you consider how the subject matter is changing the way you think. Allowing those moments is important. It is also important to structure some time in so that turning over and piecing together what you have done becomes habitual.

You can structure your reflection according to the study material. Most of our modules deliver their content in books, and books have chapters. Different modules organise their material differently, so you can take a cue from what the module does.

For instance, on AA100 there are four books each with a number of chapters. Each chapter has aims at the beginning. I advise my students to spend some time with the aims before embarking on reading the chapter. Then, when they have finished reading, I advise going back to the aims and spending half an hour working on whether and how far the aims have been fulfilled. I advise keeping a journal and making some notes in the journal at the end of each chapter.

On DD102 the chapters do not have aims, and the introductions are not very useful for the purpose of planning the reading. But the chapters are divided into sections and each section has an excellent summary at the end. So I advise my students to read the book backwards – to start by reading the summary at the end of each section, and then read the section. When they get to the summary again, I advise a pause for thought as to whether the section does what the summary says, and again make some journal notes. Whichever module you are on, look at the structure of the books and figure out the best way to read them intelligently, and where the natural pauses for reflection are.

The journal is important as a way of collecting and structuring your thinking. There is endless advice as to how to structure the journal itself. I do mine in a web page that I keep on my computer. That does not require any great technical skill – in fact, you'd be surprised how simple it is. It has the virtue of being able to use links to connect pieces of the journal, and also of being infinitely expandable, so I can go back and make more notes on any particular topic. If you prefer hand writing, then I suggest a loose leaf folder, and write your journal on one side only of the paper. You can then use the other side for jottings, tags, connections that you make later, additions, doodles and so on.

And on occasion you can take a spare hour or half hour and look back over your reflections, and be amazed at how far you have come. You will also see pieces of the jigsaw beginning to relate to each other, and you will see insights that have been on the edge of your vision come into focus.

Occasionally we actually teach reflection. On AA100, for instance, we have two assignments which could be called reflective. But students often just treat them as hoops to jump through. That's fair enough, because, to be honest, we present them as hoops to jump through. I have taught quite a few modules for the OU now, and only one has systematically got students to do reflective work. But if you only do what the modules tell you, you are selling yourself short. The essence of being a student is that you decide what you are learning and how. And in particular we revisit things:

"As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives." (Henry David Thoreau, in Walking .)

G K Chesterton wrote a rhyme:

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.

The Roman road is the module materials. They take you straight as an arrow towards the goal of fulfilling all the learning outcomes, boxes neatly ticked, goals achieved. The English road is the one the student takes. It gets pulled back to the Roman road sometimes, usually by assignments, but in between times the module unleashes the student to do what they will with the material on offer.

This is not only OK, it is actually the way things should happen. Teaching should never corrall you onto a straight and narrow path: that way you never get to see the lush vegetation on either side. Reflection is one of the ways in which you see all that is going on around, and you begin to transcend the learning outcomes. You take direction from the module materials, but you should never be limited by it. At some point you *must* leave the module material behind if the learning is to be your own. It is not the OU's knowledge and ideas you want in your head, it is your own. Reflection is the key that turns knowledge acquisition into deep learning when you understand differently and make new realities with your new knowledge. Dewey says, “We state emphatically that, upon its intellectual side education consist in the formation of wide-awake, careful, thorough habits of thinking. Of course intellectual learning includes the amassing and retention of information. But information is an undigested burden unless it is understood. It is knowledge only as its material is comprehended. And understanding, comprehension, means that the various parts of the information acquired are grasped in their relations to one another – a result that is attained only when acquisition is accompanied by constant reflection upon the meaning of what is studied.” (Dewey, J. (1933) How We Think Boston MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, pp78-9)

Nietzsche puts it more poetically. “No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life. There may be countless trails and bridges and demigods who would gladly carry you across; but only at the price of pawning and forgoing yourself. There is one path in the world that none can walk but you. Where does it lead? Don’t ask, walk!” (See “Nietzsche on How to Find Yourselfand the True Value of Education”.) He is referring to life in general, but it describes perfectly the act of learning – it is your road, yours alone, and the act of reflection helps you to find it.

You should take the initiative, and build reflective time habitually into your study routine. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

On the subject of cheap essays

Dear Albert Jacson, James Anderson et al “Cheap Essays”

Thank you for your complimentary comments on my blog post on educational policy. I am afraid I cannot reciprocate about the Cheap Essay service that you offer. I have not published your comments. I have placed them in the spam box where they belong. (Actually they belong in a box marked “Roast the sender slowly over an open fire”, but I don't have one of those.) I will also place there any subsequent comments I get from you or your colleagues. Perhaps you are in fact all one person, suffering the Grant Shapps illusion that using another name makes you somehow invisible, or perhaps more plausible than you really are.  I picture you as a sharp faced individual with a expression that you think displays worldly cunning but which actually looks shifty to everybody else. You make a reasonable income out of connecting the immoral with the unfortunate, enough to enable you to keep drinking premium lager and to fuel your patio heater. You probably want to drive a BMW but you can't afford one yet. I hope you never do. In the educational world you are the worst kind of parasite, making your living out of encouraging students to cheat. There's a line in that piece about Grant Shapps that suits you nicely: “it’s hard to escape the sense of a bloke who has always felt the need for deceit in order to get on”.

You only exist because in most of the world educational policy, like society in general, has become obsessed with measurement rather than development. You already live in the world the neoliberals are trying to create for the rest of us, a world with no soul, with no ethics, with no hint of humanity, a world intended for the 1% with a loaf or two thrown overboard to the technical and managerial classes the owners need to maintain their grip on the entire population's information and production. Their mission ultimately is to destroy creativity, because creativity is the one thing needed for disruption and revolution, and you are the anaesthetic to their scalpel. For them schooling is necessary because skills are needed to run the world, but the problem with schooling for them is that it enables people to think. So they employ two means to prevent people thinking too much. The first is the obsession with measurement that has gripped our political classes for the last thirty years, and has squeezed the soul out of any kind of teaching relationship from kindergarten on. The second is the propensity of neoliberal thinking to remove any hint of ethics from consideration of human behaviour, so that all that matters is the achievement of a position regardless of the means by which you got there. For so many students the destination has become everything, the journey nothing, robbed of substance  by the vacuous febrility of a money obsessed world. And it is only because of that that you exist. Otherwise there would be as much use for you as there is for a pimple on a teenager's acned face.

You are the ultimate neoliberal. (In my house that is a term of abuse, in case you didn't quite get it.) You know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. You will have to travel a long way, a long long way, to get from where you are to any point where you might understand that the value of learning is in the effort, the struggle to put one's own thought on paper, something earned with sweat, brain muscle, sometimes actual hurt and disappointment, but ultimately joy in knowing that you achieved something yourself, and are a better person for having figured out yourself where this particular piece of the jigsaw fits. It's not just something bought with the cash value of a cheque or a credit card.

If I ever meet you, I will shove a rhinoceros up your fundament pointy end first. You probably don't know the meaning of the word “fundament” do you. Look it up. Oh, of course. You don't do “looking things up”.

If you are in any way hurt or offended by what I have said, this picture is for you.

(The picture belongs to Rentokil, by the way - http://www.rentokil.co.uk/blog/my-big-fat-rat-is-back/  - which gives me another option for dealing with your verminous self, should I ever meet you.)

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

The Tao of the Midnight Assignment

Time pressure has always been a problem for OU students (Who am I kidding? All students.) Perhaps it is becoming more prevalent as students try to maximise their investment, juggling work, family and one or more modules. I have known students work full time and do two modules, which is effectively full time study. “Foolhardy” is a word that springs to mind, but they do seem to survive, and even prosper. Inevitably there are times when there is no time, when a book has to be read, a forum digested, an online session devoured, and an assignment produced in the space of three days, or less. So this post is about the best way of approaching an assignment when you have limited time.

Using your time 
When you have time available, concentrate. Richard Nixon, famous for Watergate, did have some good qualities. One of them was an ability to focus. Like all managers he rarely got more than a few minutes for any one decision, but he had an immense ability to concentrate. He would be given a problem and he would focus fully on it for the few minutes he had, till he reached a decision. Then he would put that one out of his mind, and focus fully on the next one. This is an admirable trait for an OU student to copy. If you have only half an hour now, don't try to pack too much in to that half hour. Decide what you can do properly in that time, then focus fully on it. You may not cover as much ground, but what you do you will do well.

- go fast and slow. Something being urgent doesn't mean it has to be done as fast as possible. That may sound paradoxical, but let me explain. Some points in the genesis of an assignment are pivotal.

Reading the question

Planning the reading

Planning the assignment

Writing it

Submitting it

Each of these needs your concentration when you get to it, and you need to think about the thing you are doing rather than thinking about the time you don't have available.

Reading the question
Let's say you have an assignment due in four weeks time, and little study time available. At the beginning of the sequence of work, read the question that you will be answering in four weeks time. Do spend some time with it. Make sure you understand what the question wants. If it is short enough, print it out in very big type and stick it where you can easily see it. For OU students, read the guidance or student notes that come with the question. They usually point you to key parts of the module material. Then you know what you need to read. Don't start reading till you are sure you have grasped what the question is about.

Planning the reading
It still amazes me how many university students fail to read intelligently. They start at page 1 and work their way to the end of the chapter, then go on to the next chapter.....  If you're in time trouble you need to decide what to read - the stuff that you need for the assignment. So do some planning. Be realistic about the amount of time you will have available to read, and list the chapters and sections you need in order: essential, important, desirable. Before you start reading the essential stuff, look at the context. Take note of the chapter introduction, and its structure. This is important for understanding, and it will dictate how you read. It is different in different books. One module I teach on has aims at the start of each chapter, so I tell my students to spend some time with the aims so that they are clear about what they will be reading. Then when they have finished the chapter, they go back to the aims and determine how far the aims have been achieved. I recommend writing a reflective paragraph or two about that. On another module the chapters do not have an aims section at the beginning, but each section has an excellent summary at the end. So I recommend reading the book backwards. Read the section summary first, so that you know what the section is about, then read the section, then compare what you have read with what the summary says. Whatever the structure of the chapters is, there will be some natural method of appraising it, then reading it, then reflecting on it.

The point about doing this in a hurry is that you can't hurry learning too much. It is very important not to compromise this process - appraise, read, reflect - just because you have limited time. You will do better to read one section thoroughly and use it well in your assignment, than to read two sections hurriedly and make only shallow use of them. So that is the business about going fast and slow. You have a limited amount of time, so you will feel rushed. But do not rush. Whatever the time is that you have available, slow down when you reach it so that you make best use of it.

Planning the assignment
You have done the reading. You still need to plan the assignment. All the advice about planning still holds. Collect together your theories and your evidence. Figure out what the answer to the question is going to be, and then figure out how your argument gets you there. Like the other parts of the process, this needs time. You may have only half an hour for it, but you should still do it. And in that half hour you should focus utterly on what the question is and how the evidence bears on it. Let it take you off the topic if it will: that way learning occurs which will emerge in the assignment, even if you don't see it there.

Writing it
Everyone is different. Everyone has their own writing method. Some methods work better than others under time pressure. For what it's worth, if you have been staring at a blank sheet for five minutes, and can only think about the time ticking away, I suggest employing the fifteen minute method. You have done the plan, so you know what you're writing about. If you have a timer, set it for fifteen minutes. Start writing. It doesn't matter if it is not grammatical, logical or even coherent, just write. When the buzzer buzzes, stop writing, and set the timer again for ten minutes. Spend ten minutes editing what you have written.

If you are then part way through the assignment, give yourself a break then do more fifteen minute writing sessions and ten minute edits, until you finish or until you run out of time.

Submitting it
The submission process has its own importance. Submission includes things like spell check, proof read, add the references (in the correct format). Read through the question and make sure you have answered all the bits. On one module I teach, the students have to write around 50 words of reflection on two questions they are given with each assignment. They do not get marks for the quality of the reflection, but they lose five marks if the reflection is not there. It takes two minutes to write 50 words, but so many students forget to do it, and lose five marks. It is not that they don't want to, they do just forget. So, even when you're in a hurry - in fact especially when you're in a hurry - take a few minutes to read right through the question, every paragraph, every word of it, and make sure you have done everything you are required to do, before you press the submit button.

Other people's ideas: