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I seem to be reading more and more reports on the need to retain lectures as a form of teaching, as it is claimed to ensure students are more engaged and committed to their studies when this method is used. Well, these findings have come to my attention just as I am testing online technologies to replace the ‘traditional’ lecture, via Collaborate on the new Waterside campus. Collaborate is a tool in Blackboard which opens an online classroom for students to join, listen to the lecture and see slides or other media, while also being able to pose questions via a chat function.
On the face of it, not so different, just the physical world replicated in the real world, right? Well, I will reserve judgement as I am still coming to grips with what this technology can do, I am aware younger generations of students may embrace this, and the reality is, it is the only forum I have to offer teaching to large numbers of students. I suspect student experiences are mixed, I know some really like it, some are not so keen, so again, not so different to lectures? The article in the times suggests that students are less likely to drop out if they are taught via lectures and have perceptions of good one-to-one contact with staff. Some more interesting issues were raised from replies in the tweet about the story, raising questions about the need to focus on quality, not method, that many universities are playing catch up with new teaching technologies and that this needs to be better understood from social and cultural perspectives. I think it is also worth picking up on perceptions of students, along with their expectations of higher education and remember, they must develop as independent learners. The setting in this respect would not seem to matter, it is the delivery, the level of effort put in to engage students and reinforcing the message that their learning is as much their responsibility as ours.
There is certainly a lot to grapple with, and for me, just starting out with this new technology, I myself feel there is much to learn and I am keeping an open mind. I do feel there are aspects of traditional teaching which must be retained and this can be done via group seminars, with smaller numbers and an opportunity for discussion, debate and student-led learning. If we see the lecture as the foundation for learning, then perhaps its method of delivery is less important. Given the online provision I must use for lectures, during seminars, I step away from the powerpoint and use the time I have with students in a more interactive way. For those modules where I don’t use online lectures, not much has changed on the new campus, but I am always keen to see how online teaching methods could be adopted – and I am prepared to use them if I genuinely can see their value.
It would be easy to offer only critique of this technology, and I think it is also important not to see it as an answer to the perennial problems with lack of engagement and focus many lecturers experience from mid term onwards. Perhaps online provision can at least overcome barriers to attendance for commuting students, those who feel intimidated in large lecture halls, and those who simply find they don’t engage with the material in this setting. At a time when some courses attract high numbers of students, and the reality of having lectures with 150+ students in a room means potential for noise disruption, lack of focus and interaction then maybe online provision can offer a meaningful alternative. There is provision for some interaction, time can be set aside for this, students can join in without worrying about disruption or not being able to hear the lecturer and it removes the need for lecturers to discipline disruptive behaviour. It does require some level of ‘policing’ and monitoring, but the settings can enable this. Having done lectures with 100 plus students, it is not something I miss – I’ve always preferred smaller seminar group teaching and so I can see how online provision can be a better support for this.
Currently, I use the online session as a form of recap and review, with some additional content for students. This is in part due the timing of the session and I am sure it can work equally as well as preparation for seminars. Students can then use the time to clarify anything they don’t understand and it reinforces themes and issues covered in seminars as well as introducing news ways to examine various topics. As with any innovation, this needs more research from across the board of disciplines and research approaches. In order to move such innovation on from ‘trial and error’ and simply hoping for the best, as with any policy we need to know what works, when it works and why. Therefore, along with my colleagues, I will persist and keep a watchful eye on the work of pedagogic experts out there who are examining this. There have been the inevitable issues with wifi not supporting connectivity – I can’t believe I just used this sentence about my teaching, but there it is. I am optimistic these issues will be overcome, and in the meantime, I always have a plan B – relying on technology is never a good plan (hence the featured image for this blog), but this is perhaps something to reflect on for another day.
This week saw the appointment of a new minister for suicide prevention announced on world mental health day (BBC), and an article in The Guardian observing that mental health resources are woefully underfunded.
My thoughts first turned to the fact that the appointment of a minister to address the problem was reminiscent of New Labour’s previous attempts to address issues with the appointment of various czars, none of which were very successful (BBC). Allied to the appointments were the inevitable plethora of new policies, many failing at the first hurdle. Nonetheless their longevity and to some extent durability lay in ministers’ and state agency managers’ egos, and inability to see beyond fantasy and media pleasing rhetoric. However, it would be disingenuous to fail to acknowledge that some policies and strategies are conceived and implemented with the best of intentions, both at the macro and micro.
The old saying that ‘no plan last[s] beyond the first encounter with the enemy’ (Hughes, 1993:14) probably explains why so many policies fail, not because the essence of the policy is wrong but because politicians and those in charge fail to take into account or to rationalise that at the very core of the policy intentions, lay people. People are unpredictable, people do not conform to ideals or preconceived ideas and, yet policies are formulated to address ideal situations and an ideal homogenous population. No one member of the public is the same, whether they are a victim of crime, an offender, a person in need of medical care or mental health services, a worker, a student or a user of a service. They can be one of these things or a combination of them, they are a product of so many differing socioeconomic influences that any one policy cannot ever hope to deal with the multitude of issues they bring. People are both complex and complicated. A plan or policy needs to be adapted and changed as it progresses, or it will inevitably fail.
That brings me very nicely to one of my favourite authors Michael Lipsky. Lipsky presents those working at the coal face of public services as street-level bureaucrats. Attempting to navigate policy and strategy implementation whilst dealing with predominately less than ideal clients. Lipsky observes that in doing so the street-level bureaucrats are faced with a number of different issues:
- Resources are chronically inadequate relative to the tasks workers are asked to perform.
- The demand for services tends to increase to meet the supply.
- Goal expectations for the agencies in which they work tend to be ambiguous, vague, or conflicting.
- Performance oriented goal achievement tends to be difficult if not impossible to measure.
- Clients are typically nonvoluntary; partly as a result, clients for the most part do not serve as primary bureaucratic reference groups.
(Lipsky 1983, 27:28)
Policies and strategies are difficult to implement, if they are formulated purely on ideals without ever having recourse to those, i.e. the street level bureaucrats, that are required to implement them, they will inevitably fail. If plans rarely survive the first contact, then they need to be adapted or ditched, those best placed to advise on changes are of course those at the coal face. Herein lies the rub, politicians and managers do not like to be told their policy is failing or that it will not work in the first place. They inevitably place the failure of policies, or reluctance to implement them, on those at the coal face with little or no knowledge of the issues that are encountered. The raising of such issues are simply seen as an excuse, laziness or a reluctance to change. More often than not, the opposite is true, street level bureaucrats want change, but for the better not for the sake of it or to be seen to be doing something.
It is difficult to see how the appointment of a new czar will make a difference to suicide rates without fundamental changes in the way that policies and strategies are conceived. Those thinking of writing policy whether at the macro or micro, would do well to get a hold of Lipsky’s book and to reimagine the ‘real’ world.
Lipsky, M (1983) Street-Level Bureaucracy: dilemmas of the individual in public services, New York: Russell Foundation.
Hughes, D (ed) (1993) Moltke on the Art of War: Selected Writings, Random House, (ebook)
Professor Nick Petford is the Vice Chancellor of the University of Northampton.
As we gear up to leave Park Campus for Waterside it is only natural to feel a sense of loss. Park has been a great place to work and play and will hold a special place in many hearts, as summarised nicely by Bethany Davies from the Criminology team in a recent Blog.
When I took up post as VC in September 2010 I inherited a draft master plan for the University Estate. It was clear that the split campus was a concern to the previous management team and that both estates were starting to look tired. There were several options on the table. One was to move Avenue to Park. The other was expansion of Avenue and closer physical integration with Newton. The showcase element was a huge glass dome, bigger than the one at the British Museum, enclosing most of the courtyard space at Avenue under one roof. Both were impractical. Building Avenue on Park would have consumed most of the sports fields and greenery that makes it what it is. And the disruption of turning Park into a building site for 36 months would do little to improve the student or staff experience. But it would have achieved a single university site, unlike the Avenue plan that would have entrenched the status quo (with a big window cleaning bill to boot!). Not long after my arrival, and with a change in the way government wanted to drive the regional growth agenda, the newly established SEMLEP created in Northampton a 16 mile stretch of brownfield land bordering the River Nene as an Enterprise Zone. The rest, as they say, is history.
An enduring aspect of higher educational institutions is change. Depending on timing, from a personal viewpoint it can be a slow, almost glacial process. For others, caught up in periods of rapid transition, as we are now, the hurly burley can feel almost overwhelming. But change is always there. And Northampton is no exception. For those suspicious this is more spin than substance I can recommend The Ever Rolling Stream, a book compiled and printed in 1989 by the 567th Mayor of Northampton, David Walmsley, that charts the history of Higher Education in Northampton. In short, the key events culminating in the present University are:
1260: Ancient University
1867: Mechanics Institute
1932: Northampton Technical College (St George’s Avenue)
1967: University of Leicester University Centre, Northampton
1972: Northampton College of Education (Park Campus)
1975: Nene College of Higher Education
1978: The National Leathersellers Centre
1982: Sunley Management Centre
1989: Release from local authority control
1999: University College Northampton
2005: The University of Northampton
The picture is one of periods of relative stability (including a c. 700 year sabbatical!), punctuated by mergers and consolidation. Our most rapid phase of change took place in the six years between 1972 and 1978 and involved the relocation, merger and subsequent closure of four separate educational establishments that ultimately comprise Park Campus as we know it today. Each of these phases would have been a unique cause of excitement, stress, resignations, hope and probable despair! But together they have two things in common – they happened mostly outside our working experience, and (ancient university excepted), ended in success. In our history of relocations and mergers, the inevitable conversations between doubters and advocates are lost in time, one exception being the amalgamation in 1937 of the School of Art in Abington Street, with the Technical College, which seems particularly vexed. Against this backdrop we see Waterside simply as the next stage in our evolution.
The title for Ever Rolling Stream comes from the hymn ‘O God our Help in Ages Past’. It sums up brilliantly the feeling of loss and the inevitability of change:
Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
Yes, think kindly of Park, and Avenue, mourn even as others will have done over those antecedents that culminated in our present estate. But don’t think you are the first to do so. Who knows, at some time in the future, staff and students not yet born will be contemplating a move from Waterside to a new horizon, as the ever rolling stream rolls on.