Wednesday, November 17, 2021

The Open University Staff Tutor - a personal perspective

 I joined the Open University as a Staff Tutor in Technology in the mid 1990s. The uninitiated would be forgiven, at this point, for thinking 'yawn, don't care, what's a staff tutor anyway?' It seems like a pretty nondescript job title.*

Fair question if you can even get as far as being interested enough to ask it. Given the original multifaceted nature of the position, there is no such equivalent animal or role that I am aware of in any other organisation. The closest parallel, strangely enough, is that of a member of parliament, who has both national policy and local constituent commitments.

A staff tutor is an academic manager who looks after OU associate lecturers and students but also has central university policy decision making and academic production, presentation and research duties. You can think of the management part as being a bit like a director of teaching, traditional head of department or dean of studies; and the policy/production/research part as being like an academic writer/teacher/researcher and policy maker.

At the time I joined, staff tutors were based in regional centres - I was in Oxford and looked after about 120 tutors teaching the full range of (about 30) technology undergraduate courses in the South of England. Geographically I covered from Milton Keynes at the north end of the region to Portsmouth in the south east and Weymouth in the south west. Centrally we were based in faculties - in my case the Open University Faculty of Technology - and reported to the dean.

The subject matter of the curriculum taught by my tutors included:

  • ICT
  • Engineering
  • Environmental science, technology, policy & decision making
  • Design
  • Materials science
  • Systems thinking
  • Information systems
  • Maths - e.g. engineering mechanics, fluid mechanics and thermodynamics
  • Science - basic (first year) chemistry, physics & biology
  • Development studies

 I was academically comfortable with most of it apart from the development studies which I had absolutely no background in. I was concerned enough to raise this at my interview for the job, enquiring whether I would be expected to take responsibility for such an area when I knew nothing about it. My now friend of many years, Bob Clark, grinned at me and, with his characteristic twinkle, declared categorically, "Nooo, noo, no, we wouldn't ask you to look after a course you know nothing about." Reader, that was a fib.

The OU's development studies group had emerged and evolved in the Technology Faculty, an unusual home for such a group but one which worked. This was partly because of the interdisciplinary, permissive, open, intellectual culture of the faculty and the broad sociotechnical perspective on technology that was encapsulated, at the time, by our unique definition of technology -

Technology concerns itself with understanding how knowledge is creatively applied to organised tasks involving people and machines that meet sustainable goals.

This broad definition has three key aspects: 

Technology is about taking action to meet human needs through sustainable means

Technology is not just about the tech itself but about facts and values, craft/practice and theory, knowledge and creativity

Technology involves organized ways of doing things. It encompasses complexity (technological, organisational, environmental, sociological, economic, political, regulatory) and the interactions (intended, unintended, emergent, foreseeable and not) between products/services and the people and systems that create/make/distribute/use or are impacted/influenced by them

It's a definition, I believe, that stands the test of time.

Returning to Bob's fib and the subsequent offer and acceptance of the job though, I am spectacularly grateful for the 26+ years the OU and its amazing people have, so far, given me. In that time, I've had the privilege of:

  • looking after hundreds of tutors and thousands of students
  • writing for or being involved in the production and presentation of about 40 OU courses.
  • writing the OU's internet law course which played a part in the creation of OpenLearn
  • being an academic consultant on OU/BBC joint productions such as the BAFTA winning, The Virtual Revolution
  • working with the UK parliament, the European Commission, the World Intellectual Property Organisation at the United Nations, the Korean Copyright Commission, human rights NGOs and civil society on technology, policy, privacy, security, surveillance, education, intellectual property and its economics
  • having my work published in academic journals, books, by UK parliamentary committees, by consumer rights groups, in scientific & technical press e.g. from New Scientist to Wired and getting quoted in the broadsheet (and even tabloid) press
  • presenting papers at academic conferences all over the world, in subject matter as diverse as environmental/digital decision making, Maxwell's demon on the internet, gene patents, warring 6th century Irish monks, algebra with tiddlywinks, surveillance, security, privacy, investigatory powers, cultural agoraphobia and much more. (Favourite conference and conference people - Gikii, always)
  • appearing on TV and radio as an academic commentator
  • writing a book (with several others in a pipeline with no capacity, sadly yet, to complete)
  • being at the front line of the OU’s industrial-scale deployment of online learning, from the start
  • being a signatory of the ‘Necessary and Proportionate International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance’ and other collective academic efforts to educate policymakers and the public
  • helping to change the UK copyright law
  • being an external examiner at Reading, Cambridge, Essex, Glasgow and Southampton universities
  • being a visiting fellow at Harris Manchester College at Oxford University
  • working with the most incredibly caring, professional, gifted and dedicated educators, support staff, administrators, activists and policy makers 
  • serving on and/or leading multiple exam boards, regional, departmental, faculty and university committees, developing and writing university policy
  • writing more than 4700 blogposts, here, (this is number 4743) some of up to nearly 15,000 words...

...and in some senses that is only scratching the surface of staff tutor life. Some of my colleagues have properly impressive CVs.

In some senses, too, that list of activities gives an idea of why certain elements of OU management and administration have always considered the staff tutor role as problematic. This had a name, even in the 90s - it was known by the University administration as "the staff tutor problem". 

Staff tutors were considered, in some quarters, to be a bunch of anarchic academics, swanning around, doing what we liked and nobody had any control over us. I had my own staff budget, a brilliant secretary, Geraldine Kirby and the autonomy to run my regional 120 strong tutoring crew as I saw fit, within the constraints of OU staffing policies, overseen by the regional director. The regional director was not my boss, the dean was. That was seen as a problem by the regional director and the regional director's boss.

As a general rule, autonomous employees make bureaucrats intensely uncomfortable. That autonomy did not survive the years and, to be blunt, multiple internal bureaucratic silos now require their pound of flesh when expediting what should be the simplest of internal processes.

To make a very long and complex story short, the Vice Chancellor of the time was convinced, by interested and influential parties, that a review of the staff tutor role was in order. This was to become a pattern - every single Vice Chancellor I have served with at the Open University has agreed to a review (or several) of the staff tutor role. It has been repeatedly and deplorably easy for actors with vested interests to present a distorted caricature of the role to successive VCs, followed by suggesting "reviews" intended to "review" the role out of existence.

Without fail, every single group tasked with the job of doing a serious, evidence-based review of the role, opened the lid on what they quickly realised was a Pandora's box; and concluded "Holy Baloney, shut that thing before chaos reigns; those people are working miracles. The University will interfere with them and what they do at our peril." But they didn't come without a cost. Despite recognising the uniqueness, the essential value and professionalism of staff tutors, they couldn't help themselves in making recommendations for "improvement", recommendations invariably meaning more form filling, box ticking and general micro administration, to ensure we were more restrained and doing at least something that could be seen, understood and measured.

That's not to say the freeloader problem that can accompany autonomy did not exist. There were a small, no, tiny number of staff tutor colleagues who led a comfortable existence. But even those comfortable few, when all hands were needed to the pumps and there was a serious operational crisis, invariably came through.

Staff tutors have managed frontline operations through monumental institutional changes in the past 27 years. When the OU began using the internet in the 1990s, (famously in the face of opposition from an earlier vice chancellor, who declared students would be required to have computers over his dead body, to which John Naughton replied "Challenge accepted, Vice Chancellor!"), we taught tutors how to use it in their teaching. When Martin Weller unleashed the first entirely online undergraduate course in 1999, we overhauled the OU administrative and operational infrastructure in less than 12 months to support it. When the course enlisted 13,000 students in the year 2000, we recruited and trained 550 people to tutor it, at a time when there were nowhere near that number of people in the UK who had the slightest idea of how to teach online.

When each successive VC and head of student services and head of IT [or head of anything else with a big salary, important title, a centralise, command & control psyche and a big ego to polish] or expensive consultants were making their mark, with the US OU, OpenLearn, merging of Technology with the Maths and Computing faculty, absorption of secretaries into general administration silos, the demise of summer schools & regional induction & course choice roadshows, decimation of specialist IT, academic editing and production design staff, the removal of academic control of the University senate, multiple re-organisations of regional centres, particularly the move to "Student Service Team" hubs [Oxford was marked to support the business school and my AL services support was moved to Birmingham and Nottingham; when Birmingham closed my support moved to Manchester], multiple departmental re-organisations, the massive institutional shock of the government fee changes in 2013, FutureLearn, merger of Maths Computing and Technology faculty with the Science Faculty (and other parallel faculty mergers), the roll out of apprenticeships, instigation of departmental silos, 

...and the single most destructive act of structural and strategic vandalism in the history of the OU, the closing of the English regional infrastructure ...

the disastrous group tuition policy and core systems replacement, endless resource intensive vanity projects, disappearing broken and failing support systems, the now, very, very difficult transition to a new associate lecturer contract and a host of other internal & external emergent effects of complex institutional change, staff tutors have continued to manage frontline teaching operations and other duties with immense professionalism and dedication.

But every element of the role has changed. A simple illustration being that whilst I managed 120 tutors and about 30 undergraduate courses in 1995, moving to its height of 157 tutors (with a little over 3000 students) on about 30 courses in the year 2000, in the South region of England, I now manage about 35 tutors, teaching about 75 groups of students (about 1500 students) on four undergraduate modules in different parts of the country. That on its face and on a typical spreadsheetable metric looks as though the operational management burden has been reduced, enormously. Yet, the per capita internal administrative load of managing each tutor and student has increased by several orders of magnitude in that time. And with the loss of, first, my secretary and latterly, with the closure of the regional centres in 2017, my terrific academic assistant, Nick Hook, the amount of time and energy I now expend in administrative gophering to feed the institutional bureaucratic beast with the voracious appetite, has shot up exponentially.

The management element of the role is not so much a director of teaching any more but a troubleshooting absorber of insanity. On the rare occasions I'm now asked what I do, that, in all seriousness, is what I say. I'm required to protect my staff and students from the worst excesses of what would otherwise hit them. It is a 7 day a week job, typically 9 to 12 hours a day. I get to the end of every week exhausted, with nothing measurable to show for it, nothing to please or boost the metrics of those higher up the organisational food chain, other than that my little corner of the OU universe has not collapsed that week. A single email, phone call or entry in an OU system can blow up my day, week or several months ahead.

25 years ago, the right information flowed to me, intelligently filtered to a useful form by my fantastic secretary (the role of the secretary being the most important organisational innovation of all time) and, usually, in timely fashion to enable careful evidence-based day-to-day operational and strategic decision making. Today, to my knowledge, staff tutors have to mine nearly 130 (one hundred and thirty) sources - OU and other information systems and/or websites - of raw data to construct the basic information to do our day-to-day jobs. How do I know it is 130? One of my colleagues went to the trouble of listing the ones she could think of on a spreadsheet. Unfortunately, many of the sources and links she carefully tracked down and identified get dated, information gets moved and you have to start from scratch when needing to find it.

25 years ago, I made tutor appointments by September, for course starts the following February. All undergraduate courses started in February and ran once a year. We had the time, space and resources to take those new tutors through several layers of induction, briefings and procedures on what it meant to be an OU tutor and the core values of the institution; and in the process enable them to have a humane integration into the OU community. Today because we continue to recruit students up until about ten days before course start, I can be appointing new tutors right up to the day the course starts. Some courses run multiple times a year and though our biggest group of students start in October, we now run modules starting in January, February, March, April, May, August, October and November. I run modules with October, February and April starts. For all of those starts the full force of the institutional administrative infrastructure grinds into gear.

Simple tasks that once took a 60 second phone call or email, can now take as long as hours, days or longer, involving multiple parties and parts of the University in the process. An administrator at HQ with a bright idea to make their own particular admin silo more efficient, can add several hours to my working week, requiring, at its simplest, the completion of a multipart form demanding administrative details I don't have, in order to get that silo to provide one or more of the transaction services I need to get something done.

One trivial recent example comes from the ongoing messy transition to the new associate lecturer contract. Someone in authority decided it would be a good idea to set a flag in each new tutor's file, in the OU's new SAP system, to note that the tutor had started work. Now it seems fair to note that the OU has survived over 50 years without this flag but it is now required that it be set before the University is prepared to pay these tutors. The setting of the flag in SAP SuccessFactors is a 17-step process and the OU offered training in how to do it. Who better to be chosen to set these flags than, you guessed it, your friendly staff tutors. So, we have a "solution" to a non-problem which involves "training" 380+ staff on academic salaries to push buttons in SAP SuccessFactors to keep HR files tidy. You have to wonder whether that is a sensible use of academic resources. Perhaps, the starter flag, if absolutely necessary, could be set, at a vastly lower institutional expense, by a handful of HR clerks. This as actually happened for the 2021 October starters, when staff tutors were denied the SAP system permissions to work through the 17-step flag setting.  

The new Open University associate lecturer contract could and should have been a real triumph for the OU. Casualisation of employment in the higher education sector in the UK has got completely out of control. To my and my colleagues' immeasurable pride, our unique and invaluable public service institution decided to buck that trend and provide security of employment to our teaching staff. Contracts that were renewed from module start to module start, if and only if the OU signed up enough students, have essentially become permanent. Actually, if we had stopped at that it would have been a triumph, in itself but it was decided to reform the way tutors are to be managed. Three years into the transition to the new contract the whole thing is a mess.

As I've said here before

Historically the OU turned a discredited education method - correspondence courses - into hugely effective supported open learning at a distance which, for over 40 years, has outstripped the personal support provided by most of the conventional university sector by a street. Through a combination of energy, novelty, creativity, mutual support, organisation, sense, care, goodwill, a following wind and the right people, we, by accident as much as by design, got a lot of the key structural things right in the early days -
  1. The course production module - multidisciplinary concentrated teams producing intensely peer reviewed, tailored, self-contained, high quality self-study print, audio, video, multimedia and networked course material 
  2. The central administrative infrastructure needed to support production and operation at scale, on everything from exams to summer schools and associated logistics 
  3. The regional administrative infrastructure - essentially front-end regional offices and operations - that put the OU in the local community and real people who cared in touch with the people who were our students; names and faces that students got to know and trust throughout their period of study.
  4. Above everything else, the foundation stone that the place is built on is the deep level of care and the goodwill of the staff and students.
Unparalleled care, dedication to duty and goodwill are at the heart of all public services from education to policing, the health services and beyond. Care, dedication to duty and goodwill, unfortunately are also things that cannot be easily measured or counted.

Care, dedication and goodwill are what associate lecturers have provided in spades. At the heart of those gifts and what has made them sustainable for generations, is the working relationship those tutors have with their staff tutors and other caring OU staff. I refuse to micromanage my tutors. Most of them have had the patience and resilience to stick with me for a very long time, the vast majority for more than 15 years. They are amazing, dedicated professionals I trust (and, I hope, support) to do the job to the highest standards. That trust is paid back in spades. My job is to point them in the right direction, support them when needed, get out of the way and shield them from prevailing operational insanities, as best I can.

In the run up to the closure of the regional centres that did such irreparable harm to the OU and in the aftermath, I sank into a deep depression. I've never told anyone that. I considered it the greatest failure of my professional career that I was unable to prevent those closures. During that period, thanks purely to my tutors, the talented AL services staff in Manchester and some other key colleagues, I was able to get through the day to day firefighting in front of my computer screen. I then slumped in an uncommunicative haze in front of the TV, for two or three hours every evening before going to bed, not sleeping and repeating the same cycle the next day. I couldn't talk to anyone or even read a book. 

I have the good fortune to be married to a saint and she saw me through it. But, though they never knew it, my OU friends were critical to me climbing out of that dark hole too.

Most of the management regime that enacted the regional closures are, thankfully, now history. One day I may be able to write a dispassionate account, but for now I retain a deep, simmering anger at the irretrievable harm caused by that action. To this day, I'm not sure whether the OU can begin to recover from that harm without some kind of truth and reconciliation process for the people who suffered through it.

The current senior management at the OU do not have a long institutional memory, relating to much or any of the story I've outlined in this essay. Vice Chancellors, their deputies and other OU executives are transient caretakers, often remote from the day to day operational reality of the complex, tightly coupled systems which keep the place afloat, and the impact that their decisions and actions have at that operational coalface. They have a duty to protect, preserve, nurture and defend the OU and its core values, and, upon their departure, leave this venerable university in more robust health than when they arrived.

It is a disappointing way to have to conclude my ramble through the history of staff tutordom in my OU lifetime, but the mess around the new AL contract transition is a very serious threat to their ability to fulfil that duty. Stress levels amongst staff tutors, AL services staff and curriculum managers are running very high. People have continued to work despite being ill, in some cases suffering severe Covid-19 infections, in order not to let their colleagues down. The implementation of the contract has become a long, slow, painful failure and a hazard to the health and welfare of staff at the leading edge of our critical teaching operations. It is past time for serious steps to be taken to address this.

A final message, then for staff tutors themselves. Staff tutors have, for decades, been the collective conscience and catalyst/engine of care and goodwill for the Open University, pushing the University to live up to its core values, in concrete ways, in all our operations. The thing about being a conscience is that it is institutionally criticial but it doesn't make you popular. The thing about care and goodwill is that they are the foundation of the OU's enormous contribution to the world but these are nebulous concepts, impossible to measure. Neither do they boost the metrics that higher education places so much importance in these days, so they often get neglected, lost or ignored. Nobody and I mean nobody but staff tutors understand the complex, demanding, intellectually engaging, esoteric, rewarding, variable, flexible, exhausting, frustrating, humane reality and nature of the role. It varies between faculties and departments, even between individuals. Nobody and I mean nobody understands or cares about the critical value of the staff tutor role to our teaching operations like you do. If the role, in all its richness and our unparalleled service to tutors and students are to survive into the future, you have to stand up for them... 

...and for yourselves.

*When the OU set up a business school, their equivalents insisted on being called not staff tutors but regional managers. Today the business school regional manager title has evolved to 'student experience manager' but in other faculties it remains staff tutor.