Monday, 27 February 2017

Credit transfers are great - but making them easy to manage will be hard

Interesting reading this morning was Ant Bagshaw's article in WonkHE about Jo Johnson's encouragement for a more effective credit transfer system for Higher Education.

In case you were unaware, a credit transfer system is the means by which you can study a course in one institution, and accumulate 'credits' from that course.  You can then transfer those credits to another institution and apply them to a course there.

It's a great idea - it means that higher education can be studied more flexibly.  You can begin your degree in Lincoln, and should you then find yourself having to move house to Glasgow you can simply transfer your credits over and carry on studying.  One of the many benefits of an effective credit transfer is that it emphasises the extent to which Higher Education is seen as a cohesive whole within the UK, and how the national qualification for the UK nations align effectively with each other.  At the same time, things like the Bologna process and the European Higher Education Area it is easier than ever to establish equivalence with qualifications across Europe, making the accreditation of prior learning easier to manage.

The trouble is, right now it is not very good.  I mean, the idea is great and all that, but it often feels like one of those 'awkward-parts-of-the-job-that-nobody-really-understands-quite-how-it-works-so-best-to-just-not-mention-it-for-the-sake-of-a-quiet-life'.

So the funny thing about credit transfers then, and the accreditation of prior learning (APL), is that very few people seem to know about it.  Many people applying for courses don't seem to know about it, and those that do often end up asking somebody who looks blankly at them before referring them to somebody else - usually one who is impossible to contact.  If they do manage to get hold of that person, then there is a lot of ‘umming’ and ‘ahhing’ as they desperately track through their institutional regulations to find out what, exactly, their policy on APL is:

  1. How many credits worth are allowed?
  2. Can they transfer over an entire level or not?
  3. Do the credits they bring with them have to map EXACTLY across to the learning outcomes of their new course?

The first two parts here are difficult enough.  After all, because different Higher Education Institutions all have different regulations about APL, an applicant might have been told by one institution that it is perfectly possible to transfer over the whole of a level - only to discover from another institution that they only allow a certain percentage of a whole level to be transferred.  Now this is fixable, and perhaps this is something Johnson might be looking at.  There is no reason why APL regulations cannot be more standardised across different institutions in the UK, and this certainly seems to be the root of the recommendations made by the Higher Education Academy in their 2013 report.

It is the third bit though, that I suspect might be the biggest problem.  Because while the idea of being able to transfer credits over from one course to another sounds great - in practice it is actually very complicated.  If, for example, I decide to stop studying my Chemistry degree in Lincoln and and move over to Glasgow, there is no guarantee that the modules on my degree at Lincoln will be the same as those at Glasgow.  There might be essential learning which I had not yet covered at Lincoln, but which may have already been covered at Glasgow.  There may be modules on the degree at Glasgow that don’t even have an equivalent at Lincoln.

All this means that in order for me to transfer my credits from one institution to another, I need to have entire bespoke schedule set up for me: One that may well involve me studying two level 4 modules and two level 5 modules in the first semester (although the institution regulations might prohibit this), or maybe only 90 credits in the first year, or any one of a number of varied patterns of study.

This bespoke schedule needs to be carefully mapped against Programme Learning outcomes, and against module pre-requisites.  So it takes a long time to sort.  And it is complicated.  And it can cause all sorts of headaches with finance.  And it can extent the overall length of study.  Which can create even more headaches with finance.

It is little wonder then that while institutions generally love the idea in practice the whole thing feels like a bit of a mess.  And it is little wonder too, that when applicants get to understand something of the complexities of APL, many of them come to the conclusion that it would be simpler and easier not to bother.

Developing mechanisms by which these messy processes can be made easier probably involves a significant re-think about course structures and delivery.

Credit transfer is a brilliant idea that increases participation.  To make it work though, I hope there will be recognition that we need to do more than simply standardise a regulatory approach to it.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Betsy DeVos and the Brainwashing of HE

Oh how delicious!  The US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has made her first speech to the HE community, and used the opportunity to slag the lot of them off for brainwashing students and telling them what to think.

'What the hell?'  I hear you cry!  Is this a protest from DeVos against the anti-capitalist Frankfurt-School influences of the Social Sciences?

Nope.  Seems like it is another veiled dig at the University of California, on account of them cancelling a talk from a far-right newspaper editor (Breitbart) after violent protests.  This was certainly seen by Breitbart as yet another example of an academic elite institution pandering to left-wing sentiments - and since a former Breitbart editor is now the Presi... a close advisor TO the President, it was kind if inevitable that Trump would weigh in and declare the University an enemy of the people, or something like that.

Actually, Trump's response was:

Now, leaving aside for a moment the that fact that this statement came so quickly from a man who seemed to find it far harder to denounce the Klu Klux Klan, let's think for a moment about DeVos.  We all know that her confirmation hearing was frankly a shambles.  She did not seem to know much about education, seemed utterly incapable of giving straight answers, and at one point seemed to bizarrely suggest that schools should be allowed to keep guns to protect themselves from grizzly bears.  Don't believe me?  Well, just look:

Given this performance, I guess it is at least possible that what DeVos referred to in her address as 'telling people what to think' is just her way of saying 'education'.  More likely though, the comment relates again to Trump's ire at Berkeley, in which case the problem is not that the Universities are telling students what to think, but that nobody seems to just be letting Trump do it.

Either way, I think we have a golden opportunity here.  DeVos clearly agrees with Trump that anything impinging on views he supports a violation of freedom of speech.  Anything he doesn't agree with is fake anyway, so needs no rights.

In a room full of HE professionals, there seems a way to resolve this issue.  DeVos and Trump on one side.  Some of the finest academics and minds of there generation on the other...

Friday, 7 October 2016

A fond farewell

Every time a new term starts, I find myself wondering what the hell happened to the supposed weeks inbetween?  We leap from teaching, to marking, to assessment boards to enrolments - and after all that, BANG!  Back in the classroom!  At which point we often start wishing there had been at least some time to prepare our classes...

But things have been rather different this time.  About a three months ago I was (admittedly to my own surprise) considered worthy enough to be offered an incredibly exciting job with the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) and the University of East London.  The regular whirlwind of activity over the Summer then, is having something of a more terminal period: Teaching, marking, assessment boards, enrolments and BANG! I'm walking out of Newham College for the last time!

It is now almost exactly 10 years since I joined Newham College.  The plan then was, at heart, very simple: The residents of Newham Borough represented a vast population of people with limited resources.  They also represented significantly a demographic of people who had often been told (by society, by educators, by family or even by themselves) that they could never get a degree.  That they weren't smart enough. That they weren't white enough, or that their 'received pronunciation' left a lot to be desired.

The plan was to prove this all wrong.

The years since that meeting have been rather a slog, but I think we have proved that a thousand times over. I only have to think of the number of times I have felt myself utterly humbled by the astonishing ability of students rejected by more traditional Universities.  The number of times I have clapped and cheered as students who were once convinced of their own inadequacy, have walked onto a graduation platform to receive their first-class honours.  The number of times I have shaken my head in disbelief at students fighting through obstacle after obstacle (financial desperation, eviction, bereavement, disabilities, language), and remembered what an easy ride I have had in comparison.

Yes, it has been a slog.  There were times when I felt a great weight of responsibility on my shoulders, and when the pressure to deliver was (in the literal sense of the word) awful.  Working in this sector has often tried my patience, tested my limits and told on my health.

But blimey charlie, it has been worth it.

It is sad for me, to be leaving a place I feel so invested in.  But here's the thing: NUC doesn't need me, and will manage perfectly well without me.  Believe it or not in the early years (when we were so utterly dependent on a very few people) this was not always the case - a sign perhaps of how desperate we were.  But NUC has grown beyond recognition from those early days.  It has outgrown me, and outgrown any single person.  And this is better than good: It is amazing.

I am sad to be leaving - but I know that I am leaving a place which has the stability and the infrastructure to keep going, to keep improving and to move beyond all the limited and modest early ambitions.  I know that the pantheon of students achieving amazing things, often in the face of extraordinary challenges, will continue to grow.

Goodbye NUC. It has been an absolute honour and a privilege.

Friday, 24 June 2016

This Be The Referendum

The fuck you up, the electorate.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They vote for things in ignorance,
And drag us out of the EU.

But they were fucked up in their turn,
By ignorant self-serving twits,
Who sold us lies and false concerns:
The myths of this Brexit.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens, with terminal velocity.
Move to Scotland as quick as you can,
Before the end of our economy.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

What's the problem? (or, A Plea for Consideration)

I can't sleep.  I have managed to wind myself up over the amount of seemingly ill-considered demands that keep flying the way of teaching staff in my College (the latest arriving at about 8pm this evening).

The first was a grand announcement that in order to save money on actual teaching time, we were all expected to create online activities instead - which would replace teaching hours, thereby freeing us all up to teach more modules.  Like a kind of MOOCAC (Massively Open Online Course At Cost).


But they were more specific than that.  It was to take the form of an hour's online activity each week for each module.  Since we are currently teaching the equivalent of around 8-10 modules per semester (likely to go up to 12 or more with the hours freed up by this wheeze), this means we could be developing around 144 different hour-long online activities per semester.

Starting this September.

Oh and there is no money to pay for any preparation time for lecturers, so it will all need to be done in our own time.

Now, of course, there are far worse things, and people far worse off (I'm not working for Mike Ashley, and for that I am grateful).  One does wonder, though, just how much consideration was given to the demands this places on teaching staff?  Being a naturally optimistic kind of a chap, I generally assume the best.  There must be some reason for it, I say to myself.  Everyone is doing their best in difficult circumstances, and I am sure a decision like this was not made lightly.

But then along came another directive.  And another, and another.  Each one entailing additional workload.  Everyone has to do this form (which replicates information that we are already putting into another form).  Everyone has to do that form (which means copying and pasting information which already exists on the system).  Everyone has to provide this other information (which is meant to be for the students benefit, but is so tortuous that even lecturers can't understand it).

With the best will in the world, 'considered' is not a word that comes to mind.

Ok, that's the whinging part over with.  Because all of this got me to wondering what 'considered' should look like?  Any decisions that involve increasing the work-load of a workforce should, I feel, have a minimum level of consideration - a level which means that the additional demands can be clearly explained to a workforce in a way that convinces them of its value.  What this means is that before any new demands are made, managers should be able to answer certain questions.

So, rather than trying with an increasingly furious futility to get some sleep, I have been thinking about what questions these might be.  Here is the list I have come up with...

Questions to address before making a management decision:

Do we have a choice?Sometimes there are things that just have to be done, not matter how silly they seem.  It is nobody's fault (or at least, nobody close enough to be blamed), so we may as well just get on with it.

What is the problem being solved?If the workload is being increased by some process or procedure, then there should be a clear idea of what problem is being solved by it.  There must, in other words, be a reason for it.

Are there existing mechanisms to solve this problem?Replication of activities is rarely anything more than an inefficient use of time and resources.  Before any new process is put in place, there should be a careful check to make sure it is not already being done.

If there are existing mechanisms, are they clearly inadequate?Of course, just because processes already exist, doesn't mean they are any good.  It may be that they need to be replaced.  It may be that they don't.  Either way, it needs to be considered.

Is there clear evidence to justify it?If a significant new workload is going to be added, it needs to be worth it.  This means either having unambiguous evidence of its effectiveness elsewhere or trialling it and checking that it does what you want it to do.  

If it entails additional workload, is there something that can be taken away to balance things?This is one that seems rarely to be thought about.  Plenty of people seem to spend their time thinking about what more we can do, but far fewer think about what we are already doing that doesn't need to be done.  Workloads should be seen like efficient and well-maintained spaces - regularly cleared out of unnecessary dross in order to make way for The New.  Too often staff workloads are seen like an attic - everything goes in it, but nothing comes out.  At least until the bodies start to smell.

It is perfectly possible that all of these directives come from a deeper understanding of the problems than I can fathom.  It is perfectly possible that all of these things have been considered.  If they could only be explained to me, though, I would feel a lot less like I am being asked to spend every waking hour fulfilling pointless and inefficient requirements.

And I would probably be sleeping peacefully right now.