Sunday 11 December 2011

Taking Care, Being Fair and Quality agendas in education

Educational institutions have a tendency to obfuscate the path to educational success. When students just want to know how to pass the degrees which they now have to have (and to pay for) to get anywhere in their lives, Universities find ways of making it "more complicated". Obfuscation often takes the form of 'quality improvements': political agendas to which students have to conform, ranging from 'Information literacy', 'personal development planning', 'internationalisation', 'professionalism', 'employability' etc all of which increasingly become burdensome and swamp the curriculum as the criteria for satisfactorily meeting these constructed learning requirements are understood by no-one: neither learners nor teachers.

Why does this happen? I think it's got something to do with technology and institutional anxiety to "do what technology cannot do" as a means to guaranteeing some role for universities in a world where more and more actual learning goes on on YouTube and Wikipedia. The ever ratcheting-up of quality criteria is the response of the institution who believes that this sort of 'quality' is what their customers want. Yet whilst YouTube can teach people about diffferential equations and Keynesian economics, it cannot award certificates.

What if the raising of compulsory schooling to (at least) 21, or until you get a degree, has more to do with the economy finding ways of maintaining education as a vital part of the service economy, rather than meeting 'skills' agendas?? There has been a key political and economic shift in the last 20 years. Governments used to think directly in terms of skills and promote skills development by funding education programmes (and other 'quality' initiatives in universities!). But maybe this isn't the agenda now. Maybe it is about keeping the education industry going...

Looked at this way, students are in a difficult situation - they are the pawns for keeping the system going: placed in an impossible situation where they either pay their fees for their degrees, or face a future in a professional wilderness where it becomes increasingly difficult to get a job without having paid your fees for a degree. And a good deal more of those available jobs will be in education itself, or in fields associated with it.

Quality agendas then become pernicious. Because they make the process of being awarded a certificate more difficult, less transparent and potentially unfair. After all, the over-dependence on individual judgement already introduces levels of uncertainty into the system. Couple this dependence on individual judgement with increasingly nebulous areas where those judgements have to be made, and you have a double-whammy for students: "how do I pass my degree?" "get on the right side of Dr x, whilst adhering to the requirements of quality agendas a, b and c - each of which are pretty incomprehensible and open to interpretation".

This is nonsense.

There are two fundamental things that must happen in educational processes:


Good teachers take care of their students, steering them through the difficult emotional landscape of learning. Institutions need to ensure that good care is a universal across all teaching. But more importantly, institutions must be fair with their students, ensuring that all students know where they stand and understand what it is they have to do to pass, and ensure that one student in one part of the institution doesn't stand a better chance of passing than another of equal ability.

As institutions globalise and expand their provision internationally and nationally, it is getting harder to BE FAIR. Dissonance between individual judgements causes 'autistic ruptures' within institutional processes which can be deeply unfair to students and which are fundamentally out of their control.

As education has been made increasingly compulsory over the last 100 years, the process has been accompanied by increasingly standardising assessments (often against much opposition). That means standardising the 'fairness bit' - ultimately to make it more fair, and to take away the element of 'pleasing Dr x'.  I think it's time Universities standardised their assessment. That would mean they could concentrate on "TAKING CARE", whilst "BEING FAIR" became part of a separate process.

But this doesn't have to follow the 'exam board' route. I think this ( would be a way of doing it...

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