Friday, 27 June 2008

So here we are. Again. End of Pathfinder "celebration"

Back in November 2005, Heads of e-Learning attended a Town Meeting at the Higher Education Academy in York. at this meeting, we were informed that there would be a benchmarking and Pathfinder programme initiated from the debris of the UK eUniversity farrago. I was one of a limited number of people who expressed, either at the meeting or via e-mail, concerns that benchmarking meant metrics, which in turn meant measurement and effectively a new column in a league table. A central concern for me was that any focus upon metrics should be subservient to, rather than lead, our enhancement/improvement agenda. Moreover, where metrics were deployed they should be used in context by HEIs to plan and deliver enhancement.

During the implementation of Benchmarking and Pathfinder at DMU the threat of the deployment of metrics and measurements receded. I felt that we embarked upon a process of understanding our own narratives, and helping both staff and students to come to terms with 21st century technologies to enhance their learning. We formed part of a collective, participant-led agenda for change, which for me was about:
  1. empowering staff and students to make good choices about the technologies they deploy;
  2. learning from others; and
  3. developing e-pedgogies that demonstrate fitness-of-purpose and fitness-for-purpose in the 21st century.
The joy of our engagement in this national project has come through meeting other practitioners and celebrating their stories. I had hoped that this would be an outcome of our Making a difference day in London yesterday. Despite being talked at for over two hours in the morning session, we did get the opportunity to engage with people who are trying to change lives at the chalk face in the afternoon.

In the morning we heard from John Selby from HEFCE, who highlighted how institutions need to think about value the money, efficiency and latterly enhancement. Now maybe he didn't mean it in that order, but that's the order in which he spoke about these issues: money and metrics first, enhancement second. Dr Selby also highlighted that the Educating Rita model of curriculum delivery was outmoded and inefficient. Sadly he did not note that the politics of Educating Rita, and the empowerment of Educating Rita and the emancipation of that student in that story show its true value, more than the resource implications of one-to-one teaching.

Dr Selby did also highlight how the sociological power of technology-enhanced learning needs, more emphasis. He hinted at a pedagogic shift; one that takes notice of complex behaviours, and thereby empowers people to make their own decisions. This, I believe, is the next step for us. How do we engage with progressive pedagogies? How do we rethink higher education that has relatively static models curriculum delivery and design, in a world that is ever more networked? Do we have a 19th-century model of education in a 21st-century world?

The afternoon was powerful and important - we talked with and learned from other projects - theworld becomes a better place at the chalkface - we need leaders who can empower us there. The afternoon was also depressing. I had a crushing sense that we were back to where we had begun in November 2005, ostensibly due to a single unchallenged comment by John McLaughlin, from DIUS. He was asked, in effect, how we could engage with senior managers within universities to embed change and move the lessons that we have learned forward. His answer was that we have to talk about students as consumers. We have to talk about students in terms of value-for-money. We have to talk about our students in terms of metrics that would deliver efficiency.

Now at the PRHE conference last week, I heard an empowering 10 minute talk from the Vice-Chancellor of Liverpool Hope University, Professor Gerald Pillay. In it, he argued for a higher education that focused upon the mind, body and spirit of our students. My thinking about what Professor Pillay had argued relegated metrics, in the form of retention and progression, and value-for-money, to a secondary means of ensuring enhancement where measures supported our staff in improving learning. When we highlight our students as consumers, we raise up the power of metrics, and relegate the mind, body and spirit of our students. We all lose something in this argument; notably, we lose the opportunity to set progressive agendas about opportunity and meaning.

Sarah Porter, from the JISC, argued clearly that we need to know our strategic plan in order to engage with our strategic managers in an effective way. However, it was left to the QAA to offer a sensible and meaningful way forward. It is totally remiss of me not to remember the name of their assistant director who was speaking, but Icannot. However, his argument was that we had "a problem with the rhetoric". He argued that we have to focus upon giving our students "something of lifelong value". A constant, persistent focus upon metrics and outcomes, where those issues define and shape the landscape of higher education, demeans the work that we do every day with our students and staff. It reduces us all to units of measurement, or to actors in a process of measurement.

So, I feel like I let myself down by not challenging Mr McLaughlin. I feel like saying to him that all of the work we have done as practitioners since 2005 has been focused upon enhancing the life chances of our students, through a process of learning from each other. It has only been about costing models, or value-for-money, or efficiency gains, where each of these has been driven by something more humane, "something of lifelong value".


Lawrie said...

Really nice use of the educating Rita metaphor. I realise that all of the the rhetoric on the day was not to your taste, and the write up makes it sound like some sort of sales meeting talking about targets, but is anyone writing up the narrative that you expressed; the other side of educating rita, the chances and opportunities etc.

P@ said...

I have two views of the 'student as consumer/customer' issue.
I hate it - I wanted to study at an academic institution. If, in fact, I had wanted to just get training, I would have carried on earning money in a job and done just that - training. The whole slant of having industry's fingers in the pie (whilst I can see why it happens) makes education harder and harder to provide - because what industry 'needs' (or really what it's behaviours indicate it wants) is trained people, and just a few educated ones to occupy a couple of key roles. Educated people tend to ask a few too many questions for the average manager to be comfortable.

And industry's involvement also encourages management to think in terms of metrics, and in terms of consumers/customers. Whilst, in many ways, it should actually be the students who are producing knowledge. Both in their own minds, and through the debates with others at their institution (although inter-disciplinary debate is not all that widespread, sadly). Lecturing staff, like managers in industry, should really be there to facilitate this process - not to make it overly regulated or restricted.

On the other hand, as a student in an institution which left us in no doubt that we undergraduates were some kind of lower life form (not exclusively, some staff were awesome), it was particularly galling that we were paying out money only to be treated as though we were school children. If you charge people money for something, you have to treat them as customers. And when you treat students as customers, you have to consider the consequences.