Wednesday 19 January 2011

The learner 'value proposition'

In 2012 the major stakeholder for UK higher education will decisively shift from the government to the learner. What a government wants and expects from education and what a learner wants are not the same things. Governments tend to want accountability and evidence of effective control and management for how their money is spent. That tends to mean bureaucracy.

Learners want a degree, inspiring experiences, great friendships, a foot on the career ladder, fond memories.

We're currently set up for delivering what the government wants, and much of the resource that goes into HE addressed those requirements. I wonder how much of that resource needs to be refocused on delivering value to learners.

If a learner pays £7500 for six modules, what are they receiving for that? What's the deal? Affiliation to the university, library services, careers services, etc are all there and fairly easily costed. But what about teaching 'services'. The problem with teaching is that it encompasses assessment. Added to that, the perceived value of standing in front of a class is challenged by the fact that much content is now 'out there' electronically. What learners really require is a map of 'how to get a degree' and a 'GPS' which tells them how far they are progressing. The former is not teaching, it's assessment: what do I need to do and pass? The latter is not teaching in the sense of delivery, but feedback; isn't the best teaching always feedback? Can we cost these separate components: how many universities know how much their assessment and certification services cost? How many know what feedback costs?

Feedback is almost always meaningful to learners (even if they disagree with it); 'teaching' may be rather nebulous and unpredictable by comparison. So the bargain might be free delivery, but costed feedback. What does feedback cost? How long does it take for a teacher to inspect a piece of work and give an informed judgement about how the learner could develop? Maybe slightly quicker verbally (but it could be recorded) than written (although brief written feedback may be quicker still). It may be 30 minutes. If the cost of employing that teacher is £500 per day (a scary figure!), then the cost of a feedback point is around £35 (on a 7 hour day). Thoughtful feedback from someone who 'knows their stuff' which can tell me how far I have progressed on my learning journey doesn't feel desperately poor value at £35 (although a bit steep!): it's typical of this sort of professional service (my friend's violin teacher, who's lessons are predominantly 'feedback' cost £40 an hour).

Given that the £500 cost of a teacher is also paying for the associated services of the university, the cost of the feedback itself is less than £35. If the £500 daily rate is costed in terms of (say):
5% for library
10% for estates
10% for summative assessment and certification
that leaves 75% for feedback = £26 each session

On a £7500 fee, 75% for feedback = £5625

Currently we deliver about 10 taught weeks * 6 modules, with roughly 2 formal feedback episodes per module - 12 formal feedback sessions per year. In fact, this is probably slightly more, since informal face-to-face feedback occurs over those 10 weeks (lots of GPS going on), so (being generous) we might triple it to make 36 'meaningful' feedback episodes. The rest is delivery and the provision of infrastructure for peer support.

£5625 should buy 216 'feedback episodes' at £26 each.

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