When I studied TU812 in 2010 and first attempted an answer to this question, my domain of practice was very different to what it is now. Then I worked in local government and was engaged in policy development and partnership coordination. Now, I spend the equivalent of my ‘working week’ engaged in the practices of ‘researching’ (doing my PhD) and ‘educating’ (as an Open University associate lecturer).
On and off for the last 6 months or so, I have been trying to construct a ‘claim’ for associate fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (via a scheme operated by the OU itself). In essence this is a way of getting recognition for my teaching competences. One of the main elements of the claim is a ‘reflective statement’ that needs to demonstrate the ‘why?’, ‘what?’, ‘how?’ of my practice in supporting adults to learn at a distance and any ‘so what?’ that arises from that reflection. When I set out I thought that this would suit me down to the ground given how much I have written about my experiences and practices in the past. But, I have experienced it as really constraining and at times annoying. I think I can understand why. Firstly, there are certain ‘buttons’ that I have to press in terms of the range of tasks I am involved in, the types of knowledge I use as I am doing so, and, how certain values guide me. Secondly, there is word ‘guidance’ in essence a hint of how much material the assessment panel will want to read. These constraints are making me focus so much on achieving an acceptable output that I am not enjoying it or getting any value (i.e. learning) from the experience.
I guess any student (OU or otherwise) reading this post will be smiling now. I suspect these feelings are familiar – writing to a set of criteria for assessment (formative or summative) and to a word count is very different to writing for yourself. And, it’s particularly ironic that I am having this problem now, given the point that current TU812 students are at in their module. The bottom line is writing can be hard – that’s why it’s important to practice it quite a lot.
Anyway, that’s not really the reason I started this post. I started it because I wondered whether I could articulate what I do when I do what I do as a higher education tutor in my own words away from the assessment framework. It could be that I will then return to the assessment framework and word limits with clearer thinking – alternatively I could just be engaged in task avoidance 😉
As all practise is situated (Ison, 2017), it is worth me starting out by considering how the context shapes the choices available to me as I engage in the practice of educating.
So, first up, I work for the Open University which was established to provide open and distance learning opportunities to promote participation in higher education…
The openness of the OU’s courses means that students come from many, many backgrounds and carry out their studying practice in a wide variety of contexts and circumstances. As a tutor I have to be aware of this. This does come quite naturally to me as I have always valued inclusivity and social justice – it’s great to have that sort of alignment with your own values. I approach the way I work with students with awareness that I know very little about their ‘other’ lives. When I get allocated a tutor group at the beginning of a presentation, I check student records to learn about the history of their OU study and any recorded disability that may impact on an individual student’s progress. This is important in terms of helping me consider the way I communicate and how to approach occasions like dealing with requests for extensions. But, you often learn much more if a student opens up to you in their correspondence – the disability that isn’t on their record, their work or family circumstances, their attitude to their studies, the parts of the materials they love and the bits they hate.
This brings me to the other aspect of working for the OU – the fact I teach at a distance. The modules I teach on do not have any face to face elements – all the interactions I have with students are mediated through technology whether that is text, telephone, email or a rare skype call with an individual; or interacting with groups in online rooms (synchronous) or forums (asynchronous). The degree to which you get to know students and for them to get to know me and each other is really, really different to what can happen in face to face. There is little peer-to-peer interaction in an online tutorial and students mostly contribute through the chat box rather than verbally using the microphone (Butler et al 2018). Of course, this can be partly down to the design of the tutorial – something that tutors like me have discretion over – but our desire for interactive tutorials can be thwarted by both our own fear and students’ fear of the technology.
My practice is also situated in the context created by the design of the particular modules I work on (TU811 and TU812). OU modules are designed by a module team and then have a life of 7-10 years during which time they can be studied by hundreds even thousands of students. There are occasional adaptive ‘tweaks’ made but on the whole decisions about the assessment strategy, the way the forums will be set up, and, how many tutorials there will be and how they will be run (tutor group or module wide) are made up front by the module team in the context of OU policies at the time. This means the design of the module shapes the choices and the options available to me as a tutor. Through a rather incomprehensible set of formula, they also shape the actual time I am contracted to work on the module so whilst there is some discretion for me in the way I enact my role, I have little capacity for anything radically ‘new’ or additional.
As a practitioner, I come to this context with a history of traditions, understanding and experience and these too influence what I do when I do what I do (Ison, 2017). When I think about what I bring (juggle the ‘b-ball’) the first thing that comes to mind is my experience of studying at a distance. I bring experience of struggling to juggle the demands and enjoyment of work, study, family and leisure. I know what it is like to sit learning on my own; reading brilliant stuff and not being able to talk to anyone about it; having to do stupid tasks and not being able to gripe to anyone; not knowing whether others are experiencing material in the same way as me; worrying that the eTMA system will breakdown when I submit at the last minute; and, sitting at the end of tutorials with a poor connection thinking ‘I am wasting my time’.
More importantly, I bring my scholarly and practical experience of being a systems practitioner, including achieving the MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice with the OU. In fact, I don’t know whether I would have ever become an OU Associate lecturer if a vacancy hadn’t opened up to teach on the modules I studied myself and got so much from. My MSc qualification is more than me having a good grasp of the subject I teach, it is part of the identity and attitude I bring to the job. When I started off in this job I thought of myself as ‘systems practitioner that teaches’ more than being ‘an education practitioner that teaches systems thinking’ – as time has gone on I have realised the importance of being a scholarly education practitioner too. It is as important that I draw on education scholarship if I am to engage in praxis (theory informed practice).
This history shapes the framework of ideas that I draw on as I do what I do. At the moment systems thinking predominates over education scholarship. Fortunately, these fields aren’t completely distinct – there are lots of cross-over especially in terms of (social) learning – and gradually I am taking opportunities to expand my knowledge of pedagogy and educational scholarship. Being a systems practitioner in the way that I teach may mean I act in ways that students don’t expect or don’t experience on other modules – there are times when I acknowledge my own uncertainty or highlight the ways in which I am learning with, and from, my interactions with students signalling that systems practice development always involves ongoing inquiry and interaction. I have never really looked into the evidence behind this (if indeed there is any) but I work in this way because I assume that it is important to role model being a systems practitioner. Consistent with systems thinking too, I am always aware that we need to create a context, a space, where the students experience systems practice and learn as they use the ideas and tools it brings. The learning isn’t just about a set of ‘facts’ to acquire, the learning is about a transformation in the range of possibilities for thinking, acting and even being. Some students find this really exhilarating, others are less comfortable – that’s why the space, the learning environment, I provide along with my colleagues is so important.
When it comes to the ‘methods’ I use as an educator they can mostly be summed up under the banner of ‘communication’. I have highlighted above that methods and channels are highly influenced by the distance learning context and module design choices. Nevertheless, there are many different forms of communication practice I am involved in:
- telling (e.g. the deadline for your TMA is…),
- advising (e.g. I recommend you don’t have such a long extension as it may be difficult to catch up later),
- feeding back (e.g. Your work here is excellent),
- feeding forward (e.g. Next time, I suggest you focus on building the quality of your referencing),
- sign-posting (e.g. The OU’s guide to harvard references is at the following URL),
- explaining (e.g. A situation of interest is…),
- inviting reflection (e.g. What do you think?)
and so on. Of course, each of these are verbs so I can think of them of practices and engage in another level of reflection (e.g what do I do when I feedback?)
The task at hand requires me to choose and contextualise both the type of communication and the technology I use. I communicate with all my students through TMA in-script and assessment summary feedback, this is a great opportunity to be really individualised in terms of feedback, guidance and encouragement. I always invite students to make contact by other means when they have questions or need for additional support. Not all students contact me directly but most of those who do choose email with the occasional phone call. As the modules I teach on have no tutor group forums, I use group email for tasks such as introducing myself and then getting in touch at key points in the journey. I communicate with a group of attendees at an online tutorial which is good for explaining and inviting reflection/discussion. This is an odd one because in doing so I am always aware of the ‘absent’ audience who may watch the recording later. It is also different depending on whether I am delivering a tutorial with my own tutor group or with a range of students working with another tutor. I can communicate with all students on the module through a plenary forum and as I have recently become a plenary forum moderator I have a particular role in creating an environment where students learn with, and from, each other. I am aware that only telephone/skype (individuals) and online tutorials (groups) are synchronous, offering interaction in real time. All of the other options are asynchronous – not only does this mean that replies will be delayed, you also have no idea what is going on in the student’s life when they first see the correspondence.
One practice I engage in that doesn’t really come under the banner of ‘communicate’ is assessing/grading of the student’s work. There is a communicative element in terms of feeding back the grade, why it is what it is, what areas could be improved next time, and some key reference materials that may be helpful. But grading also involves an act of judgement drawing on marking guidelines and my experience of various different qualities of student work. For me the grading process requires a really active awareness of my emotions and reactions and given the diversity of professional backgrounds and traditions of understanding it is so important that I am open to multiple possible interpretations of concepts. I am in a constant dialogue with myself, checking my emotioning, referring to materials, referring to the marking guidelines and questioning why it is I am grading how I am. As time has gone on and I have had feedback through the OU’s quality assurance process, I have got more confident in awarding a grade but it is rarely an easy judgement to make.
In addition to interacting with students and supporting their learning process, being an OU tutor requires me to work with colleagues such as the other tutors on the module and the ‘central’ academics. Once again a lot of this is at a distance and is therefore also mediated through technology. However over time there has been the opportunity to meet most of my colleagues, it does help us ‘gel’ as ‘a community of systems practice educators practicing systems thinking in our educating practice'(!) A lot of our interactions are to do with operations – coordinating dates, preparing for tutorials, working through the stages of exam marking. But I also approach interactions with colleagues in a way that means I learn with, and from, them about the practice of educating systems practitioners. This has happened in a formal way through the OU’s peer mentoring and peer monitoring processes which I have experienced as mentor as well as mentee and monitor as well as monitee. It also happens informally in various emails, staff forum exchanges and the occasional skype call. We’re all busy people so it can be a bit hit and miss but I do enjoy it when it works well.
So what have I learned from considering my practice in this way. It is clear that there is scope for me to engage more with educational scholarship with a view to improving my praxis. I also have questions about assumptions I have made in terms of good/best practice – I wonder if empirical research has been done that will reinforce what I do when I do what I do or even question those assumptions that I base my practice on.
However, in thinking there is more to learn I must also consider the ways others’ experience my practice performance. The end of module student survey always provides some nice feedback (though student response levels are low) and I am always encouraged by the student emails that say ‘thanks for…’ either during or at the end of the module. The quality assurance processes involving peer monitoring and peer observation also provide me with feedback that indicate my practice performance is good and at times exemplary. So all in all I should be really pleased with the progress I have made since I started as a higher education practitioner in 2016.
Now let’s see whether I can write that claim…
Butler, D., Cook, L. and Haley-Mirnar, V. (2018) Achieving student centred facilitation in online synchronous tutorials. eSTEeM Final Report, Available at http://www.open.ac.uk/about/teaching-and-learning/esteem/projects/themes/supporting-students/investigating-factors-which-affect-active-student-participation [Accessed 9 January 2019]
Ison, R. (2017) Systems practice: how to act, Springer/The Open University, London