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Where next for tuition at the Open University?

Should Open University students be entitled to particular types and amounts of tuition during their studies?  Should provision be consistent across tutor groups, regions and nations, and qualifications?  What are the most successful pedagogical strategies for online synchronous sessions?  How should we engage with Facebook as an institution?  What role do face to face sessions provide in an increasingly online world?

I’m just out of a workshop with an enthusiastic and experienced bunch of people from various parts of the University which was examining some of these questions in greater detail.  The OU has never had a tuition strategy before; practice has developed organically across different faculties and regions.  This leads to inconsistencies of approach and inefficiencies, while also allowing great flexibility and responsiveness to local and individual requirements.

Various factors are coming together however which make the development of an overarching strategy for tuition a necessity for the University:

  • The necessity to optimise our use of tuition resource and methods in order to help retain students
  • The availability of a range of tools which can be used for tuition within the virtual learning environment – and understanding the many possibilities for how to deploy them
  • The greater use of the Internet in society as a whole and increased acceptance of technology (with the caveat that computer literacy and access to technology is variable)
  • Students’ increased expectations in a world of higher fees

The group today brought together a variety of perspectives but achieved consensus on how to develop the tuition strategy and on a number of key issues, namely:

  • There is a lack of evidence on current practice in tutorials and on student perceptions and expectations.  We need to build up an evidence base for what is working in tutorial provision.
  • The default situation for the University should be the provision of online tuition.  We should then supplement this with face to face provision where appropriate.
  • Whatever ends up being in the strategy there needs to be some flexibility to organise provision at a local level to meet changing needs.
  • It may make sense to organise face to face tuition on a local basis while organising online tuition across all regions/nations.
  • We need a clear policy about how we engage with external environments such as Facebook where we have limited ability to take action on misuse.
  • Finally we need to think about tuition at the earliest levels of module production.  In the past our Fordist production methods led us to think of tuition as an add-on, quite separate to the development of learning content.

I’ll be drafting the first version of the tuition strategy and then passing it to my colleague Pat Atkins and others to refine.  It will then travel through the University’s governance processes for further enhancement.  The aim will be for the document to set the direction of travel for the University in tuition, to provide guidance for faculties, module teams and associate lecturers, and to ensure that we maintain excellence in and enhance our tutorial support for students.  The challenge is to produce a document that is concise enough for people to be motivated to read, at a high enough and generic enough level that it is acceptable across all faculties and regions/nations, but low level enough that it can actually achieve something concrete.   It needs to help increase consistency in the student experience without being so prescriptive that it restricts the flexibility to respond to dynamic circumstances.  Fortunately I enjoy a challenge.