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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.
I love horology, my passion is antique grandfather clocks. My pride and joy stands in the hallway of my home. Lovingly restored, it makes me smile when it strikes on the hour. Each strike reminds me of the time and effort I put into getting it to work. I’m reminded of the trials and tribulations of having to understand how it worked, what was wrong with it and how to fix it. I have become quite adept at fixing clocks, I understand them, I know them. Each part of the clock has a specific job, each part is dependent on another, each part makes it a clock that works. From the smallest cog to the largest, take any one of them away and the clock no longer functions. It is the same for all time pieces, whether they are driven by weights, springs, or battery. They all have intrinsic parts that make them function, that are inter dependent.
My clock, to anyone else, is a grand functioning timepiece. They would have little or no knowledge of the inner workings, save perhaps, they would know there were inner workings. Perhaps too complicated to understand, the workings would have no significance to them unless they owned the clock and then only if the clock didn’t function, kept stopping or perhaps was running a little slow or a little fast owing to some fault.
Compare the clock to an organisation, the workings are the departments, units or what ever you want to call them. The manager is the owner, the person that winds the clock up, occasionally ensures it is cleaned, even serviced, they make sure it works and works correctly. The manager might decide they no longer wish the clock to chime and they have that part of the mechanism removed. Perhaps they no longer want the clock to have a second hand, that too can be removed, even the minute hand. It would still be recognisable as a time piece. Organisations go through such changes all the time. Who though would the manager call on to make these alterations? Who would advise what is best? A specialist of course, someone who knows the inner workings of the clock, who understands how it works, who understands that some pieces can be removed and that others cannot. Well not if it is still to function as a time piece rather than a useless lump of furniture in the corner. Of course, if the inner workings of the clock could talk, each would be able to tell you what their function is. If you want to make alterations to the clock, you need to understand how it functions, not just that it functions.
Understanding what the right thing to do is often difficult for managers in organisations particularly when dealing with change. They pride themselves on seeing the bigger picture, sometimes they do, sometimes it’s simply a mirage. And like departments in organisations, the chime, the second hand and the minute hand, with all their associated mechanisms would argue that they are needed, that somehow the clock would fail if they were not there. The manager believes this is not the case and dismisses such protests. But such are the intricacies of the inner workings that knowing what will cause something to fail and what won’t is often difficult to discern. When an expert tells you that a cog in the timepiece is failing do you leave it to one side or address it? Do you bury your head in the sand and hope the problem will go away? A good manager listens, a good manager discerns what is important and what is not. A good manager recognises that there are times when understanding the implications of a faulty cog are more important than the grand vision (or mirage). But that means sometimes getting into the workings of the clock, being shown how it functions and understanding what the problem really is. If you want to maintain some sort of time piece, as a manager, you cannot afford to simply ‘leave things to one side’. Ignoring issues because you don’t understand them or you only see the mirage will leave you in a void where time has stopped.
The fact that the digital readout on my car tells me that it is a due a service and that it needs to be looked at because something is very wrong does not provide comfort, just a nagging concern that it might break down soon, but how soon? On my way to work I left a message on my wife’s mobile phone, ‘it’s only me, just calling to say on my way to work’. She didn’t answer the phone, she’s out riding the horse, has something happened? Mid conversation with a work colleague, my phone’s just pinged, I must check it, it’s only my mate asking me out for a drink… ‘Nice one, next Thursday?’… What was that you were saying Susie? It’s not that the conversation is unimportant it’s just that I might miss something important on the phone. Checking emails, that email I sent an hour ago still hasn’t been responded to… back to Susie.
An hour later… must check my emails. What’s on Facebook, another notification has come through… must respond … ‘like’, there done. Better check I haven’t missed anything. Ebay… I’m still the highest bidder… should I increase my bid… just in case, Ebay says it would be a good idea. Google the item… what’s it worth… back to Ebay… Increase bid. Must check it again soon. Text from wife, all is good. Check emails… check phone … check Ebay… Check Facebook… all quiet, are they working..? Is it a network problem? Thank goodness I haven’t got a Twitter account to worry about. Now I have to write a blog entry… what to write about, will anyone read it let alone like it? Off to my seminar, I wonder if the laptop will work, will it connect to that new screen and stay connected, last week it kept disconnecting… will the technology work… busy, worry…
Before the days of connectivity and the great digital advancement, I didn’t worry about such things. But then I wouldn’t have phoned my wife on the way to work, in fact I wouldn’t have spoken to or heard from her for the whole day until I got home. I wouldn’t be worrying about the car because it would either be working or have broken down. Any correspondence I received would be in my in tray on a desk and would be dealt with and put into an out tray, the pending tray, or the bin. The pending tray was usually just waiting for the bin. Nothing to ping and rudely distract me from my conversation with a colleague. No need to worry about whether I was the highest bidder, I would be at the auction bidding, it would be happening there and then. I wouldn’t have been connected to a world of ‘friends’ producing meaningless drivel about where they were having their cup of coffee or the fact they liked some article in a paper about mass rape or murder. As for the laptop and the screen, paper never let me down.
We live in a digital age and everything is at your fingertips and it’s available right now. But what does that do? It may give you an edge in some respects but it also makes you edgy. I look around and see and hear about so many people suffering from anxiety, old and young alike. Perhaps the cause is not technology alone but it certainly doesn’t help. Maybe I worry too much, maybe I’m just becoming anxious about being anxious.