Thursday, July 04, 2019

The Open University Summer Schools of Old

I have just entered my 25th year at The Open University and that venerable institution is also celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2019.

The period between 2015 and 2018 was the mostly intensely self-destructive in the history of the OU. The most harmful single act, in that period, was the closure of the regional centres but there were a multitude of other calamitous top-down decisions, actions and schemes.

It is the greatest failure of my professional career that I was unable to prevent the worst of the damage and I remain angry and depressed about that to this day. There may come a time when I am able to write about it dispassionately but that time is not yet and not close.

Today I want to talk about the more gradual decline of a key structural element of the OU's provision for our first 30 years, summer schools.

For a large chunk of those decades the OU would take over conventional university campuses, all over the country, for at least a couple of months in the summer. We installed our staff, students and equipment and ran labs, lectures, tutorials, workshops, field trips and all manner of conceivable conventional educational activities; to complement all of the other supported open learning at a distance activities run through the rest of the year. At the time I spent two weeks every year, teaching, lecturing, assessing, testing, experimenting, running tutorials, labs and field trips at and from UEA, Keele, Stirling and Bath universities.

At the time most of our undergraduate courses ran from February to September. Summer schools would happen just as students were beginning to flag, from the heavy workload of studying degree level subject matter at home. The educational, psychological and social boost they would then get from spending a week or two, in a conventional university setting, with their peers and teachers, got the motivational juices flowing again and saw them successfully through to the end of the academic year. They were an enormously important factor in student retention and success.

When I mention summer schools and lament their much diminished role in our current provision, I often get accused of being a dinosaur, nostalgic for and hankering after a non-existent golden age and anyway (and this line is always delivered with the supreme confidence of those who know they have the clinching argument), "students voted with their feet". What's interesting is that even OU staff who were not with us at the time, have bought into this story and repeat it with complete conviction.

The assertion, essentially, is that
  • students are customers (a notion I reject - educational institutions are students' partners in facilitating their learning and growth)
  • customers should get what they want
  • these customer students were declining to go to summer school in increasing numbers
As with all the best false narratives, this one has an element of truth. Students were declining to go to summer school in increasing numbers.

The real reason for that was not, however, lack of 'customer satisfaction.' Rather is was a step by step, often well intentioned and, in each particular corner of the OU where the decisions were made, internally justifiable, bureaucratic dismantling of the institutional processes underpinning summer schools.

When I started at the OU in the mid 1990s, summer school attendance was compulsory. If you signed up to a course with a summer school you had to attend to pass. Excusal was possible in exceptional circumstances but tiny numbers of students got excusals.

Many students hated the idea of being away from home, family and friends for a week and it was often a wrench to get to the summer school. This was especially the case for foundation students scheduled to attend their first summer school.  The vast majority, however, derived enormous benefit from that attendance. I too hated leaving my family to decamp to summer school but got to meet and work with some incredible people and treasure the experience - OU students and staff are amazing.

Summer schools, though, were huge, logistically complicated and resource intensive operations. Even when not in full flight supplies and equipment had to be warehoused for the 10 months of the year they were not in use.

For a big bureaucracy like the OU, costs are nominally easier to measure than esoteric things like the educational, motivational and goodwill value provided by things like summer schools. Staff time, travel expenses, equipment costs, transport, logistics, campus venues hiring costs etc all appeared on the balance sheet and added up to large sums.

The senior management and their bureaucrats realised that courses with summer schools were more costly for the university than those that did not have summer schools.

At the same time there was a partially formal and partially informal loosening of the processes through which students were able to get excusal from summer school. I know several of those directly involved in this enablement of excusal and their motivation was entirely altruistic. It was all about being nice to students. In some instances students were being actively encouraged by the OU to apply for excusal from summer school. With this development the numbers of students getting excused summer school went up. I don't recall the exact figures but I think it reached about 20% of students getting excused from summer school by the late 1990s.

Management also decided students taking courses with summer schools should be charged a significantly higher fee than those without. In keeping with our institutional values, the OU were open about this. They declared, in multiple communications to students, that we were explicitly charging the higher fee due to the summer school element of the course.

This led to courses with summer schools seeing a significant drop in student registrations.

Then academic course teams producing and presenting courses were reluctant to include summer schools in their courses, since it directly affected student numbers. Hence the number of courses with a summer school component was drastically reduced.

At that point it became easy to claim "students were voting with their feet" and summer schools shouldn't be a compulsory part of the OU degree experience any more, unless external accrediting bodies, like the engineering institutions demanded it. Then we could fulfill that obligation by splitting summer schools away from core courses and running a few of them as stand alone courses that students would sign up for a week to attend e.g. to meet the lab requirements of their engineering degree.

So though students did 'vote with their feet,' the bureaucracy, intentionally or not, orchestrated that situation through undermining summer schools value from the perspective of the students over a period of years, through -
  • Loosening of summer school excusal processes
  • Explicit campaigning to and encouragement of students that they could get out of summer school if they wanted to
  • Consequent increase in numbers skipping summer schools (a core part of the learning experience of the courses concerned)
  • Management and bureaucracy then claimed that summer schools could not be that important if so many students were getting excusals; so there was increasing internal pressure to reduce the numbers of summer schools
  • There were some detrimental effects on success of students on the courses where summer school excusals were up but I'm not aware of any explicit empirical assessment of that link
  • Resource intensive summer schools targeted for efficiency savings by senior management 
  • Explicit differential fee pricing was introduced where courses with summer schools charged students a significantly higher sum
  • Relentless communications to students that the higher fee was due to the summer school, including detailing the specific element of the fee charged against the summer school 
  • Consequent decrease in the number of students taking courses with a summer school element
  • Further reinforcement of the internal belief that students were 'voting with their feet' and summer schools were not that important
  • Parallel decrease in the number of academics willing to produce courses with summer schools as we were constantly under pressure to produce popular courses
  • Big cost savings for senior management as the OU no longer had to spend the summer running summer schools on conventional university campuses nationwide; or sustain associated warehouse costs for the remainder of the year
Meanwhile the key motivational and educational value of the summer schools got lost in the noise.

Nowadays none of our courses have an integrated summer school, though some of our qualifications require students to take stand-alone summer school courses as part of their qualification e.g. engineering degrees.

My own Technology Faculty, in 1999, introduced the first entirely online undergraduate course anywhere in the world, T171 You, Your Computer and the Net, chaired by Martin Weller. We piloted it with 1000 students in 1999 and then ran it with 13,500 students in the year 2000. That itself was a massive institutional challenge for the OU and John Naughton, who along with Gary Alexander and Martin wrote T171, likes to describe it as a success disaster. In the space of 9 months the OU had to put in place the institutional infrastructure to support T171 and anything that might come along like it.  It was a massive organisational shock and one to some degree we have been suffering from ever since. Processes and bureaucracy were locked in place that have been restrictive and difficult to change to this day. Again that's a story for another day.

Along with T172 Working with our environment: technology for a sustainable future, T171 then replaced the old foundation course, T102 Living with Technology and its summer school. I was deeply implicated in both T171 and TM172 but by the time they came along the battle for summer schools was lost. I still believe they have enormous value and could feature in a future sustainable and successful OU but they won't be returning in the short or medium term.

Why am I discussing summer schools now? Well I was prompted partly by Martin Weller's and Stephen Downes's recent exchanges on connectivism and scale. I have a high regard for both and both are committed, in the educational context, to putting people in touch with people. Where I side with Martin is that it is expensive to do this at scale successfully. Martin might not agree, as one of his early T171 mantras in the late 1990s and early 2000s was that face to face tuition was old school dated and unnecessary, but summer schools were (an expensive but) incredibly important and successful component of the OUs supported open learning at a distance. By the same token they gave life to Stephen Downes's justifiable conviction in the power of peer student support/teaching/learning.

The second reason I'm writing about summer schools, now, is that every time someone in the OU churns out the "way-da-minute, students voted with their feet" tune when I talk about summer schools, I have threatened to put the record straight. My old friend Steve Walker did just that, when we were both at the 9th Tensions of Europe conference in Luxembourg last week. (I posted my talk on Turing and mass surveillance earlier this week) To the embarrassment of our travelling companions, we got into a loud discussion about it on the train from the university back into Luxembourg city. Maybe now I've finally made good on the threat to write the story down, I won't be so loud the next time someone brands me a dinosaur, pining for a non-existent gilded age.

The final reason is that the last session I was able to attend at the 9th Tensions of Europe conference was on manufacturing industries in the late l980s and early 1990s. Now I spent a fair chunk of that time working in the aerospace industry. And depressing though it was to have academics and PhD students studying that time as history, two of the panelists were describing story somewhat at odds with my experience. Several questions were raised about research methods by the audience and Steve Walker asked specifically how they were going to take multiple perspectives into account. The third panelist picked up Steve's point immediately and the importance of reality in relation to discourse. Yet as with the summer school story, when a narrative takes hold it can be difficult to derail. Yet some of the 'accepted' narratives around computer integrated manufacturing (CIM) are not what I would accept as an accurate portrayal of my reality of the time. Apparently CIM is back in vogue but it's now labelled 'Industry 4.0.' Unfortunately I didn't get the chance to talk to the panelists after their session, as I was hastily departing to the airport.

In any case, it seems all too easy for history to get revised, even by those genuinely studying it (or repeating a believed narrative about it) for enlightenment. So summer school catharis this was.

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