A Young Lecturer in a Distance Learning University
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Cristina Santos, The Open University
Published August 2007
I was appointed a Lecturer in Economics in September 2006, at the Open University. My teaching experience then far summed up to being a teaching assistant at the University College London, i.e. being quite closely linked to the students, trying to make them understand material that the lecturer had prepared and responding directly to their reaction when I could sense they had not understood something. It was demanding, trying to provide the best service in 50 minutes, once a week, plus office hour for those who would use this extra time. Very boldly, and perhaps unfairly, I can say that the link of that 6-year activity to my current obligations in such a different institution is, at best, thin.
1 The Open University
1.1 The students
The Open University is special. It has been founded with the aim of providing education to anyone who wants it; to those who may have had to interrupt their studies at some point in their lives and feel that conventional in loco universities is not for them; or feel that the programme of studies in these universities is not for them; or to those who live in remote areas and commuting or even living close to the university would not be feasible; or to those who feel they benefit more from these alternative methods of teaching and learning than they would in a conventional university. Some students will be after a degree, others are just curious in particular subjects or topics. Whichever the motivations, it is clear that the composition of OU students is also special, with a varied array of different needs and expectations. This poses unique challenges to us, the lecturers, who have the primary goal of accommodating everyone’s needs, regardless of their educational background or profile.
1.2 The lecturers
Contrary to other universities, each course is produced by a team of lecturers and this process can take up to 4 years. This is a lengthy process, very meticulous and benefits from different expertise, perspectives and ideologies. As a young lecturer, the learning curve is quite steep but it still feels that I am lagging a couple of steps.
The teams I am working with and quite frankly, most of the Economics Department central staff, are all very experienced and have been working together for quite some time. This means they already possess a very broad implicit knowledge that they are not aware of. I am offered adequate training and mentoring programmes, but this tacit knowledge is not easily reachable. Another difficulty I am having lies with the fact that I do not have a good grasp of what the students and their motivations are. The type of student will differ greatly with the courses on offer, with the degrees the courses are part of and with the academic year they belong to (just to name a few...).
The fact that this is a distance learning university also means that courses are designed and produced with limited feedback from students themselves. True, we do have some feedback from the tutors, the academics that actually implement and embody the materials we produce; true, we can also carry out some market analysis by designing questionnaires that address some issues, which can then help us reshape the courses in line with student needs and QAA guidelines. However, and because this feedback is always of an indirect nature, final decisions hinge not only on the feedback we gather, but mainly (I would say) on previous experience of what worked well and what did not. This is a source of information which I, again, do not share with the remaining members of each team...
1.3 When lecturers meet students: the Residential School
The main source of direct feedback we can get from the students are the Residential Schools. Luckily, I am involved in a course which still offers a residential school; the overall tendency in the University is however to replace this learning experience with an equivalent virtual one. Discussing the pros and cons of such a shift is beyond the scope of this note, but I do want to mention I can see the merits of both keeping and replacing the residential school with an alternative method, as long as it does not impact on student performance and sense of fulfillment.
The residential school has given me the opportunity to interact with the students, getting to understand their life circumstances, their aspirations and their difficulties. It was as rewarding as intense: each three and a half days, a group of students would learn the basic tools and research methods they need to carry out a mini research project of their own. For them, this was a unique opportunity to focus on their work without the daily distractions and for most, it was a great experience in terms of academic progress, sense of achievement and interacting with colleagues. For me, the continuous shaping my presentation to student feedback, the awareness of the heterogeneity of their background and the identification of the major bottlenecks for each and everyone's progress made me feel closer to the people and to the institution I am working for. And perhaps, if I may dare, more informed to contribute to the design and structuring of the courses I am involved in.
As a young lecturer at the Open University, I feel I have only now understood the tip of an iceberg. Because courses take so long to produce, it is utterly important to feel and understand who the people we are working for are. But the pool of students is changing and so must our delivery. The way all these considerations can be pinned down to produce top quality courses is still far from being clear to me. But I don't feel the slope of my learning curve has decreased at all yet. This could have been the end of this note. However, and because quite a few academics wonder whether we do any research on top of everything else, of course we do! Like in any other university, I do have to publish enough for tenure. But this is not as overwhelming and challenging as the way teaching and learning work at the OU.