Thursday, November 24, 2011

JISC Innovating e-Learning 2011 - Bill Rammell

Notes from 'Tensions in collaboration in a changing landscape'. Really didn’t enjoy this presentation.  It smacked of the sort of talk you hear VCs give up and down the country.  There were nods to ‘student expectations’, the ‘changing educational landscape’, ‘cross sector collaboration’, but really nothing terribly concrete.  It felt like lots of soundbites glued together in many ways. The presenter was Bill Rammell, currently Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Plymouth responsible for the 'student experience' (a mysterious phrase if ever there was one) and internationalisation.

Rammell started with an ice breaker, where he asked what was the key source of innovative ideas - students, colleagues, JISC publications or another university.  Most people said ‘colleagues’ which doesn’t really come as a surprise since most practice is grounded in the shared day-to-day experience of lecturers.  He then went on to talk about cross-sector collaboration and highlighted it as one of the challenges for consideration, what to do about it and how could we facilitate collaboration.  I do wonder, however, that if the reality is that shared experiences with colleagues, grounded in their own discipline and practice is where people are comfortable, what benefit would they / could they see from something much broader than that?

After that followed mention of the UK Government White Paper ‘Students at the Heart of the System’ and he said that the funding reform was the most radical change in a generation.  The argument then followed - as is typical - that student expectations would increase with the increasing fees.  I always wonder however, whether this reflects correlation rather than causation?  It also saddens me that the only thing that seems to have shaken some out of complacency about the ‘student experience’ is the thought that students are now paying customers and *that’s* what drives their expectations, rather than the commitment to a high quality education.

The real turning point in my engagement with Rammell’s talk came when he shared the promo video for Plymouth University.  It encouraged students to think of their university education as ‘less than the weekly cost of their cinema ticket’.  I found this profoundly depressing.  Reducing what is and should be a life changing, mind opening experience of university to being something which is ‘less than the cost of your weekly cinema ticket’ seems to trivialise it to the level of just another consumer good.  And not even any consumer good, but a form of entertainment.  Something which doesn’t even figure in most people’s lives due to cost, the fact that it is a luxury good and often an extremely lightweight, passive means of spending time.

At this point, the response to the talk seemed to change.  People seemed uncomfortable with the terminology being used (judging by the reaction on Twitter) and points were made in response about fear of debt, students as customers / partners etc - and very little mention of their learning.  Rammell also suggested that things like ‘’ might be an appropriate means for selection of HE provider for students - and the commodification of learning made for extremely uncomfortable listening.  His examples of students sharing information about university was also lightweight and again, rather uncomfortable.

Rammell moved on to talking about the potential for shared service and highlighted the guidance available from JISC on this as being a cost-effective and powerful possibility - JANET being a prime example, though increasing cost for these shared services also needs consideration.  He also talked about the importance of digital literacy and asked whether any institutions had a digital literacy strategy.  Only 6% of people responded that they had - however, I’m not sure to what extent this even matter.  Not everything that’s working is that way because of a strategy.  Not every strategy even makes an impact.  

His conclusions were that we face significant challenges in terms of in terms of funding, student numbers, distribution (types of students), increased expectations (from funding) - nothing unsurprising there, but little to do with collaboration.  Rammell’s idea of good news seemed to be that with 40% of cuts to the teaching budget in Higher Education, this was better than in other parts of the public sector.

Thoroughly depressing stuff.
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