14 September 2009

On a New Year

In the world of education, it is a New Year. Last Friday evening we had the induction meeting for the incoming cohort of the PCE course. Thinking about this post and the academic cycle I decided to go back and see whether my thoughts have changed about this marker over the four years of this blog. There has been no direct university intake for the past two years, so I checked 2006, and then 2005. For some reason the September entries are blank.

So I can start from scratch with a few observations/reflections;
  •  We had real business to transact last evening. Students were signed up and they left carrying their university ID cards! What am I getting so excited about? We'll come back to it, but at the severely practical level, this year is the first time, after four years of trying, that the on-line registration system has worked and people have received their IDs at once. Many thanks to B. and her team who went out of their way to turn up on a Friday evening and make this a reality!

  • But there was another agenda, too. Uncertainty/anxiety/excitement... We don't think much about the emotional challenges faced by students signing up for courses, and the extent to which those feelings frame their experience of the induction/enrolment process. This is not an over-blown touchy-feely sensitivity issue... Most dropouts occur in the first six weeks, I gather (sorry, I'll take this on trust. It'll take too long to research properly, but it is consistent with other research on crises and adjustment periods). You could see it in some of our (potential) students on the cusp of committing; I mis-directed one who was looking for the finance office, and when she came back for further directions she was clearly on the edge of giving up. This year the emotional agenda was more apparent than ever before; changes in the funding procedure mean that students are expected not merely to produce a letter from their local authority confirming fees will be paid, but actually to produce a credit card or a (large) bunch of used fivers in order to proceed.

    Psychoanalysts apparently used to argue (perhaps the remaining members of that endangered species still do) that payment was a critical part of the therapeutic relationship. It means, quite literally, that you value the therapy, and ensures that you will do your share to make sure it works. Without being so explicit, I am sure that "alternative therapists" and assorted charlatans also make use of the same principle. It's largely a matter of managing cognitive dissonance.

    The course, as recognised teacher training, is still (almost) free. But now, instead of all the nasty financial business being handled behind the scenes, students have to apply for funding directly, and then pay for the course personally. It will be interesting to see whether this does lead to a "consumerist" or "entitlement" disposition on the part of students, as colleagues have claimed to detect among fee-paying undergraduates.

  • This level of (admittedly apparently minimal--we may be diverse, but we are still British after all) emotional arousal may account for an observation by a colleague. He is new to the university staff, but not new to the programme, having been a (very successful) Centre Leader at an associate college for several years. He noted that delays in receiving university ID cards had been serious bones of contention among associate college students for years, despite the fact that they had minimal practical significance.

    What is going on? First impressions. First impressions frame later experiences. For traditional undergraduates there is not much point in trying to manage those first impressions beyond trying to convey a sense of underlying order and competence, because everything is up in the air for them. They may be leaving home, ... you can complete the list.

    But for mature students, paradoxically, who are not changing their whole lives; for whom a course is going to be a regular additional hassle for a couple of years; the cost-benefit judgement is different...
Until a couple of years ago, all our students were volunteers. The qualification was not required as a condition of employment in mainstream post-compulsory education. Now it is. For a few years, until the previous conditions have been forgotten, there will be an undercurrent of resentment among a few of the students that they have to do the course. And that will affect the course group. It won't, after a few weeks and all being well, be a "problem", but it will always be there like a dormant infection which may erupt and disrupt normal acitivity in unpredictable ways.

That undercurrent is powerful as students approach the start of the course. In the past, if it became dominant they could easily say "Stuff this--I don't need it! I'm off!" and walk away.

That's no longer as easy an option. Their employers expect completion and qualification, and the university has debited their card!

They are looking to us for re-assurance that they are not simply stuck with two years of time-serving penance.

And it may not be sufficient, but it is necessary. Re-assure them with competence. Administration staff rarely appreciate how much students' learning is framed by the emotional container of their efficient and friendly procedures.

Our admin. colleagues delivered brilliantly last Friday. They will probably never know, but they have probably set the tone for the entire run of the course here at the university. "Probably" because I'm not setting up a controlled trial...

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