17 March 2015

On make-work

A few weeks ago, I was having coffee with former colleagues when the latest edict from management came up. Like most higher education (HE) courses in the UK, theirs is modularised (or unitised). In this particular model, each module is worth 15 credits, which means that it is meant to require 150 “guided learning hours” to complete*.

The course leader had just been told that she needed not only to account for what the students do in the taught contact hours of each module (about 24 hours) but also in the remaining 126 “guided learning” hours. The course itself is a two-year part-time one, undertaken by mature, (mostly) employed adult students who are already qualified in their original discipline, and who are now training to teach that subject in post-compulsory education.

The form—which I have not actually seen—apparently requires a breakdown of, for example, reading set for study outside of class, with the time required to be spent on each set task.

The management have clearly finally taken leave of their senses. Over the eight modules of the course, over two years, the students will receive about 192 hours of direct teaching, plus tutorials**. As a 120-credit course, the total guided learning hours are notionally 1200. So the students are expected to put in roughly 1000 hours of study on their own. That works out, again roughly, at 17 hours a week during the academic year—or 2 working days as well as their half-day attendance. Half a working week. On top of—in the majority of cases—a full-time job

And they do that, and more. Just not quite as the management would like to think.

They do it because their main work is teaching, and so they are gaining practice all the time, they are testing out ideas from the course, they are thinking about*** their practice and relating it to the course. And we know that is what they do because that is what they write about and provide evidence of in their assessments.

But that is not enough for management. Unless what they are doing is, in the management view, under the control of the course, they are not learning.

This is an extension of the ideology of “scientific management” propagated by a charlatan named Frederick Winslow Taylor in the early years of the last century. “Taylorism” as it has come to be known, is characterised by to-down micro-management and de-skilling of the labour force, and is a) discredited, and b) popular in education. (This article is partisan, and US-based but makes the case clearly in that context. This one locates its popularity in the crises of late capitalism.)

I asked my colleagues how they handled the latest demands. I already knew the answer, of course, because it reflected what I had myself done for years. “We just make it up.” they replied.

At that point management forfeits all credibility. It becomes a self-serving defensive activity which is all about managing accountability, and has long forgotten what the substantive task is. It spawns documentation which is an end in itself although interestingly there seems to be no attempt made to account for and evaluate the time (and hence money) spent in designing and preparing said documentation.

As happens every so often, I was reminded of Graham Gibbs’ magisterial keynote at a conference in Liverpool in 2010, including:
“He explored the quality guidance and criteria laid down by many bodies for evaluating the excellence (or otherwise) of courses--and showed that some of the avowedly best institutions might meet none of them. He showed that in some cases staff engaged in "industrial deviance", violating university policies where they actively inhibited the provision of formative feedback to students. The result was the students appreciated this bending of the rules as evidence of the staff interest, and succeeded. But this department seemed to be bucking a trend in the research--because when the investigators visited the staff were reluctant to confess to such "illegal" good practice!
“He discussed the impact of organisational culture on the development of excellent practice; out of four kinds of such culture found in universities--collegial, corporate, bureaucratic and entrepreneurial, it was the first and the last which actually promoted excellence. The corporate and bureaucratic models were dead hands. So why has government and the quality movement (he did not mention the QAA, or Ofsted, by name) persevered in plugging precisely the least effective models?

* Note that this calculation is different across the pond, where a) a module will probably be called a “course”, and b) its credit value will be determined by the taught contact hours per week—hence a 2- or 3-credit course.

** “about 192 hours” because some modules are organised differently.

*** a.k.a. “reflecting”, of course.

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