In Defence of the Open University

While every university claims to be unique and special, the Open University truly stands out. The OU alone accepts students regardless of prior qualifications and at any time of life, and until recently was fairly unique in providing all of its courses as part time, distance learning, allowing students to get a university level education while balancing work and family life. It is one of those unique, fabulous, and brave institutions that define our country, and it’s my alma mater, so seeing what’s been happing over the past few months and years has been particularly hurtful.

I’m one of the hundreds of thousands of people the OU’s given a second change to, having had to leave school at 15 before completing my Highers. When I started to put my life back together in my early twenties one of the first and best things I did was start studying again through the OU, moving from 10 credit ‘Openings’ courses to undergraduate diploma, degree, and finally Masters in 2016. Over ten years of study, all part time while working full time, and paying for each course as it went, avoiding debt. This was only possible because I was able to squeak in the completion of my undergraduate degree before the 2012 changes to student fees.

That change, which trebled student ‘top-up’ fees to ¬£9,000 per year was disastrous for the Open University in particular, and part time study in general, because it was founded on the premise of full time study for people leaving school. The needs of part time learners and mature students were largely ignored. The government complacently claimed that it would be fine as part time students were for the first time being given access to loans via the Student Loans Company on the same basis as full time students, but they were warned that this wouldn’t be the case; that part time and mature students would be more averse to acquiring such a huge debt burden due to other responsibilities – their homes and families.

Furthermore, an earlier change made in 2007, under a Labour government shamefully, withdrew funding from students studying for a second degree at the same level, making it much harder for people to retrain and change careers later in life. This was another group of students whom the OU excelled at supporting.

The result of this has been utterly and depressingly predictable. Part time study across the UK has plummeted with the Open University taking a particularly heavy hit. This is in turn having a massive impact on their revenue, staff and programmes have been cut in response, and student satisfaction is diving. The former Vice-chancellor, Peter Horrocks, had to resign earlier in April following a failed attempt at making further cuts and an unfortunate and distasteful comment about the nature of OU lecturers’ work. That remark aside, it’s a little harsh to blame Peter Horrocks for the OU’s current woes. He was, after all, only attempting to save the institution as best he thought he could in the face of government policy and the marketisation agenda.

The government’s hand-wringing response to this situation is laughable, with no acknowledgement that it is their own policies that have directly brought about this situation. The fee review announced in February fails, once again, to consider the needs of part time students so it’s hard to imagine how it will resolve anything. The review seems to be in response to Labour’s pledge to scrap tuition fees, something that a Conservative government could never possibly do. The review is unlikely to accomplish anything other than tinkering at the edges, possibly introducing subject variable fees which will likely result in the further devaluing of the already heavily hit humanities. After all, no Tory government wants a well-educated and critically thinking population who might question them.

I think optimistically the best result for the Open University now is for it to be recognised as the uniquely valuable institution it is, and that a separate method of funding is made available to it. On a larger scale, it would be wonderful, even if it is wishful thinking, to pause and challenge the neoliberal dogma that the free market is the solution to all problems. A university education, and a well educated society has its own intrinsic value. For more thoughts on how the OU could be saved, see Mark Brandon, Joe Smith and Martin Weller’s blog post in Times Higher Education.

Piktochart and Academic Posters

health_profile_wakanda

Adding to my many niche specialisms, I seem to have become infographic and poster girl. It’s a rubbish super hero name tbh, but not a bad niche. I’ve done a couple of sessions recently that were very mixed experiences. The first, if I’m honest, wasn’t good at all, but the one I did on Tuesday went down a treat. The difference? The venue. The first time around I was teaching in a funny semi-open access area we have in one of our buildings which has banks of computers in long rows. It’s loud, it’s hot, and even with me shouting at the top of my voice the people at the back couldn’t hear me. That meant I was having to walk up and down, repeating things to different groups of students which meant getting them all at the same place was nearly impossible. It was so bad that the academic and I decided to do a re-run which was on Tuesday, this time ensuring that we booked a proper computer room. What a difference it made. You could see, and hear, things clicking into place for the students. It was incredibly satisfying, and goes to show the power of providing the right environment which is conducive to learning.

What I was teaching was how to use Piktochart to create infographics which could then be used as part of an academic poster. The students’ brief was to create something similar to the country profiles used by the New Internationalist magazine, but with an emphasis on health. My example used Wakanda for topical, pop-culture fun. It’s a little rough, terribly plagiarised, and I made up all the stats, but it served it’s purpose well. The poster template itself is a PowerPoint template from Poster Presentations, a cracking little resource I wish I had known about a few years ago instead of creating my own.

This was to level 6 sociology students and more than one commented on how useful the tool was and how they wish they had been taught it in their first year as they could have used it in other work. It was great feedback, and I strongly suspect that the programme leader is indeed going to build this into the programme at an earlier stage in future. At which point, to my mind, instead of providing ad-hoc sessions directly to students, what I’ll do is teach the programme team who can then build it into their teaching.

ALT Annual Survey Results 2017

The results of ALT’s 2017 Annual Survey have now been released. Unsurprisingly interest in VLEs, content management systems, and eAssessment remains extremely high. I like looking at the changes more. Assistive tech, web conferencing, and collaborative tools all growing areas.

Interest in social networking on the wane. Interesting. Will social networks one day be regarded as some strange phenomenon that gripped people for a couple of decades? I’m seeing more and more disengagement on, well, social media mostly. But is that because I’m writing and reading about that kind of thing lately? Oh the paradox!

ALT Accessibility Webinar

Joined the ALT South webinar on online learning materials and accessibility, in which Tharindu Liyanagunawardena, Chair of the Online Learning Research Centre‚Äč at the University College of Estate Management, presented a case study of their experience in adapting online learning materials to improve accessibility for students. This was initially in response to students who were having difficulty with particular items within a MOOC, but the lessons learned were adapted and implemented in new templates which were subsequently shared across the institution.

There was some discussion about Blackboard Ally, a tool, or ‘revolutionary product’ according to Blackboard, which can validate the accessibility of learning materials and in many instances convert them into alternative formats such as audio, electronic Braille, and ePub. Ally is available for multiple VLEs, not just Blackboard Learn.

The webinar was also my first experience of Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. Well, it’s certainly an improvement as it no longer uses Java, unfortunately is uses Flash instead. I would hope that that is a stopgap measure in the transition to HTML5, but with Blackboard who knows. In keeping with the theme of the webinar, there was mention of a feature in Collaborate Ultra which allows an individual to enter live closed captions. That is a nice feature.

PG Cert AP: Day 8

First day of my optional module, Assessment and Feedback for Learning, began with a discussion of how assessment can be used for learning, rather than as a tool to measure learning. The module has this concept at its core and, as such, the main assessment of this module is to critically analyse two assessments that you have used or written previously. There is also a second assessment, to write a personal reflective report on how you have found the problem based learning approach taken in this module, and how what you have learned impacts on your own academic practice. Very meta.

After setting out the learning objectives and the assessments of the modules, the remainder of the day was spent discussing the various factors and contexts which influence how assessments are set and marked. These included how student expectations have changed as a result of the marketisation of the sector, the university’s generic assessment criteria and how that relates to the learning outcomes on individual modules, and the cascading down of risk onto lecturers, e.g. pressures around graduate employability and how that influences the assessments which are set.

We also discussed the difference between formative and summative assessment, and how and why students often see formative assessments as options. There was a little about Foucault’s ‘regimes of truth’ (got to love a bit of Foucault!), and the concepts of the hidden curriculum and expectations – that everyone has a certain baseline IT literacy for example.

PG Cert AP: Day 1

The first full session of the course introduced us to the UK Professional Standards Framework, or UKPSF, not to be confused with the UK Paintball Sports Federation. This framework is published by the HEA and defines 15 criteria in three sections – Activity, Core Knowledge and Professional Values, against which professional practice can be mapped. To gain Fellowship of the HEA you have to demonstrate ‘a broad understanding of effective approaches to teaching and learning support as key contributions to high quality student learning’ across all of the criteria.

Guidance given to complete the Fellowship application was to provide two examples, backed with evidence, for each of the 15 criteria. So 30 points in total, and for each one you need to answer the questions: ‘What do I do?’, ‘Why do I do it?’, and ‘What impact does it have?’ Helpfully, the mere act of being on this course demonstrates that you have met A5 on engaging in relevant CPD. One down, 29 to go.

In the afternoon we started to discuss how to design courses, and the QAA Quality Code was cited as the starting point if you ever have the problem of having to start from scratch. This was followed by a discussion on how to write good, relevant learning outcomes and how to design the course so that students are guided towards meeting those outcomes. This discussion will be picked up again at the next session.

Festival of Learning and Teaching

serious_play

Last year we had a conference, this year it was a three day festival, run by our colleagues in Academic Development with support from ourselves in Web and Learning Technology Services. We are too cool to be involved in the main festival itself, so we had a fringe which included a Twitter treasure hunt, a stall where we enticed people in with fun stuff on the Oculus Rift and then hawked our services to them when they were captive, as well as providing live streaming of the keynotes from each day and the closing ceremony.

I was proud of the treasure hunt we put on, I thought it was very well thought out with some fun tasks for people which made them engage with our service, Tweet a selfie with a member of Academic Development for example (which we kept secret from them!), but there was little uptake unfortunately, which I think can be put down to the relatively low numbers and insularity of an internal conference. Our stall which was strategically positioned outside key sessions was more successful, attracting a decent number of people and even allowing me to connect with someone who has a project ripe for further development in virtual reality.

In spite of running various things in the background, I was still able to attend a number of sessions over the three days:

Lego Serious Play
Serious Play is an innovative and creative way to facilitate discussion about a typically difficult or abstract topic. In keeping with the theme of the conference, our discussion was focused around what it means to be a student. The foreground model shown in the photo above is a reflection on my experience as a student, thinking back to where I started from. I’m the skeleton, symbolising my lack of knowledge, and I’m leaning back slightly from an overwhelming fear of the daunting barriers in front of me – including a Stormtrooper boss level (my dissertation!) – before I can reach my goal of enlightenment and joining the educated and the successful.

Cultural Diversity and Effective Teaching
A discussion and workshop on the many meanings behind the word ‘internationalisation’, led by external guest Dr. Marita Grimwood, an educational developer. This was the keynote from day 2, and not a session I was originally attending, but due to a last minute room change we were unable to live stream this session, so I improvised a recording solution using my iMac instead of running the WaLTS stall. After the event I edited the recordings, inserted her slides as an overlay at appropriate points and then posted the resulting video to our streaming media server.

Showcasing Learning and Teaching in Arts and Design
A series of short ten minute sessions from various members of departmental staff who discussed approaches to learning and teaching in their area. This was a really interesting talk as it made me realise how many great art events are happening in and around the city of Sunderland, and how deeply involved the university is in almost all of it. A particular highlight was the session from the National Glass Centre who talked about the experience of an off campus event where students had to work with very limited resources and no access to their usual tools.

Spectral Visions Press: Engaging Students Through a ‘Real Work’ Environment
Spectral Visions is product of the university’s English and Creative Writing programmes which aims to give students real hands-on experience with all aspects of writing and publishing. In additional to the blog and a number of student-led projects, Spectral Visions Press has also now published two volumes of work which are available from Amazon – Grim Fairy Tales and The Collection: Volume 1.

Student-Generated Induction
The keynote session from day 3 was delivered by Nick Bowskill who has developed the Shared Thinking Consultancy, an off-shoot of his doctoral research at the University of Glasgow which was designed to improve student induction processes based on social psychology theory and practice.

ALT Annual Survey Results 2015

ALT has published the report and data from their second annual survey which can be dowloaded here. Interesting reading as they now have comparative data from last year’s survey so you can see the trends and changes.

No signs of the monolithic VLE going anywhere just yet, and interest in the field of data and learning analytics is continuing to grow. I was a little surprised to see open badges so far down the list, but as a colleague in another department said to me a few days ago, employers don’t know what they are or how to value them, and as a consequence students just aren’t interested.

Technology Bytes, Semester 2

Our second series of Technology Bytes has just completed. This time, with the benefit of more time to plan and a longer semester, we ran twelve sessions from February to July at roughly fortnightly intervals. The programme of sessions were as follows:

  1. Student Engagement in SunSpace
  2. Engaging Distance Learning Students
  3. Collaborative Learning Material Development and Deployment
  4. Online Assignment Submission, Marking and Feedback
  5. Using Self-Reflection to Improve Student Engagement and Outcomes
  6. Increase Student Collaboration Using Discussion Tools
  7. Improve Feedback for Students by Using Audio and Video
  8. Use Video to Enrich Your Learning Materials
  9. Smart Use of SMART Boards in Your Lectures
  10. Death by PowerPoint? How to Keep Your Students Awake in Lectures
  11. Teaching and Learning on the Move
  12. Preparing Your SunSpace Sites for 2015/16

The big difference from last time round was a change in focus from ‘the tool’ to some problem we could help resolve. This worked better and is more apparent for some than others. I found writing succinct titles with this goal in mind difficult, but it was better achieved in the accompanying descriptions and in our advertisements. Another change was the explicit focus on one thing only per session, though again I tried to theme this around pedagogy or some problem we could help with rather than a specific system.

In spite of these changes attendance remained poorer than I would like and around half way through I modified our advertisements to make people aware that they could also use these sessions to ask us about any related matters. A barrier we face, and one that is difficult to resolve, is that our academics are quite tightly time constrained through the use of a workload planning system that doesn’t allow a lot of free time to attend extraneous activities. Nevertheless there were particularly popular sessions – ‘Death by PowerPoint’ had to be run twice. (One of the sessions I taught, but I’m sure that had nothing to do with it!) Finally, on the back of Technology Bytes, we delivered a number of sessions down at London Campus which were very well received.

Feedback has been very positive overall and outweighs, I think, the relatively poor attendance. As I keep having to remind the team, even sessions that run with only one person can have a huge impact as they propagate what they have learned to their students and colleagues. Informally, I have had many people tell me that the team is now more visible and they are more aware of the work we do thanks in part to these sessions. For all of these reasons I would very much like to keep them going next year, though with changes. One idea I am working on with Academic Development is joint drop-in surgeries, not just the two of us but also including other services such as the Library.