I’ve been a UK Open University Associate Lecturer (AL or ‘Adjunct faculty’ for US readers) for nearly 40 years on and off, so I’m daily expecting that letter from the nice people at Human Resources suggesting that I really ought to go – now.
But before I go I see that retention is – again- on the university’s agenda. It certainly should be – we now have new students coming in who will be taking out substantial loans to study, but with an 80% chance of never graduating – so never collecting any financial benefit from having a degree (the OU’s graduation rate is currently around 22%). As these people accumulate in the population and maybe compare their situation with their near-contemporaries who went to conventional UK universities with their less than 20% chance of dropping out, will there be growing dissatisfaction with what the OU is offering?
So what is the University doing about this? Well, there’s yet another reorganization coming up in the form of the ‘Student Support Teams’. But these won’t make a difference because they still rely on a model of student support that is largely reactive – responding to contact from students. As my guru Professor Edward Anderson says “Student self-referral does not work as a mode of promoting persistence. Students who need services the most refer themselves the least”. In addition I suspect that students won’t see a team as anything other than distant and impersonal, so even if there is a proactive contact from a team it will be largely ineffective.
No, to make a real difference to retention the OU needs to replace its 40 year-old model of AL teaching and support. It needs to recognise the paradox that teaching doesn’t materially affect retention – what it does is to enhance the performance of students who will probably progress anyway. Students actually drop out for another reason – Anderson again; “The best predictor of student retention is motivation. Most students drop out because of reduced motivation. Retention services need to clarify and build on motivation and address motivation-reducing issues.”
Fortunately the OU has just the tool to build its students’ motivation – its AL workforce. It needs its AL’s to do what they are supremely well-qualified to do – keeping students’ learning motivation switched on through individual proactive motivational support. To do that it should:
· Reduce the AL’s teaching load by reducing students group sizes, cutting Tutor Marked Assignment marking loads (Professor Graham Gibbs says the OU over-assesses its students anyway) and reducing tutorials (which often actually serve very few students).
· Develop learning motivational models based on the work of psychologists such as Keller, Dweck, Seligman and others. The OU’s HQ at Milton Keynes is packed with talented psychologists, statisticians and educational experts in the faculties – set them to work on this. Appoint a Professor of Learning Motivation to support the research.
· Help AL’s develop motivational skills from those models and make it easier for them to make individual proactive contact with their students through mail and email merge systems, text-messaging from pc’s and so on (systems already used elsewhere in the world but not technologically fancy enough for the OU apparently).
Yes, this will cost money. But give me an hour or so with one of the OU’s accountants and I’ll use some simple maths to show them that investing in retention at various levels will actually make a profit for the OU, through increased fee income from more students going on.
In addition the OU could:
· Repair the damage done to retention by some of the previous frankly silly decisions such as dropping the TMA payment – thereby ensuring that the harder an AL works to get TMA’s in, the less per hour they’re paid. Quite a nudge in the wrong direction!
· Stop obsessing about pouring money into new e-teaching initiatives (the term e-learning’ is a category error – what the OU does is ‘e-teaching’; e-learning is what we hope students do, but apparently often don’t). Elluminate won’t illuminate retention. Don’t rely on new technical solutions such as ‘learning analytics’ coming to the rescue. That may be useful in the form of the ‘predictive model’ we invented in the regions years ago, but it can’t replace that personal, caring, proactive motivational contact that only AL’s can provide.
Yes, these are radical changes. But radical changes are what’s now needed for the OU to meet the radical challenges presented by the new funding