Monday, 10 October 2011

Tutors need to shut up and listen too

"We are looking into different ways to survey students to capture the 'learner voice'". Saw this on a Curriculum Champions Forum and I was about to reply with the usual survey webtools ideas when I stopped and thought a little more. Just what is this 'learner voice'?

A few years ago I remember a Quality Manager getting very excited about something called Learners' Voice which seems pretty similar apart from the capitals and a slightly more appropriate s and apostrophe at the end. A few days later the place was filled with Learners Voice (sic) posters and before we knew it this had become a compulsory item in tutorials and things called SARS where we take a guess at what grade a Department will get next year.

Now the Quality Manager concerned was genuinely interested in getting learners' views on what was going well and, I suppose, albeit a little more reluctantly, in what wasn't, but once the concept became an item that could be put on an agenda like Every Child Matters, Equality & Diversity and so on it all became rather drab. Previously enthusiastic tutors got forms to fill in. They were told off if they didn't get them in by certain deadlines. Presentations were issued to guide us and, basically, try to persuade students that when they did fill in the questionnaires that were now being developed left, right and centre they remembered to, er, say the right things.

Each group had to have a Course Representative. Now I have always thought that a better name would be an Of Course Representative because you can just guess who'll get elected. Few people tend to offer themselves up for the job, especially after they've been given a pile of assignments, and the ones that do will be those who prefer talking to listening and it gives them a chance to have a good moan about the premises, too many assignments, equipment or a tutor - and they'll do precisely that. It may or may not be the general view of the group. It can be pretty difficult to tell sometimes as some in the group are so quiet and really do just want to get on with the job in hand as best they can with whatever tools they've got available. A bit like tutors really. We could all go to meetings and say that we could do a much better job with this equipment or that application but it wouldn't make much difference. A decent manager will know that already and if he can squeeze the extra cost - and there's always an extra cost somewhere, even when you don't think there ought to be - out of his boss then he will have done so. A decent tutor will similarly know what changes, improvements, developments or whatever would make life, social as well as academic, better for the students. They'll have asked for them already. So whilst it can be nice to have another body asking for the same things, (and the current view is that students get listened to more than tutors), I am not convinced that much actually changes as a result that wouldn't have happened anyway.

Before the Learners' Voice got its capitals, tutors still knew what students thought, their concerns and their desires. All that seems to have happened is that it has become enshrined as Good Practice, got its own page in the Manual and, of course, ticks an OFSTED box. What seems to have become important is the process - the collection of views rather than listening to them or doing anything about them. Yes, against each statement there'll be an Action Point and against each Action Point there'll be a set of Initials for whoever has to do something by whatever Date goes in the last column. But smart managers will always put in there things that they had in train anyway so that it is no extra work to record action being taken. It's all a procession of evidence now. If we really listened to the learners' voices then we'd hear all sorts of little things that the Of Course Representative isn't going to bring up at a meeting with an agenda and Action Points. But those little things, people chatting about this or that to do with their course or tutor, wishing they could have this or that a bit earlier or later - these are the things that actually could make a difference and are what managers should be hearing. Not the selected sentences or big issues but the casual comments - that's what may tell you or colleagues something new about how the group feels.

So, to answer the Forum post: simply watch and listen, and let the students feel that you are genuinely listening to their voices. Your phone is likely to be a great tool, just tap the video button and record some of them telling you what they think about the course, the environment, tutors etc. Or if they don't like being filmed, record just the audio. Or just get them to share comments with you on a blog or VLE. Freestyle. If you try and structure it all then the originality and flow of comments can cease and they'll be thinking before they speak and it'll get a bit average and grey. Except for the Of Course types. They'll have plenty to say whatever you do! But you'll get a bit more balance this way.

Now, having got all these wonderful, probably rather amateur-looking or -sounding files, what do you do with them? Management and Marketing will adore the positive stuff and will gladly take that off your hands and you may even get back some clips to put on your own programme VLE or blogs. The bits where they're moaning and groaning about things? Oh dear, such a shame that the quality wasn't very good or you forgot to set the volume properly, wasn't it? Never mind. I'm sure you'll put anything important on an agenda for a meeting sometime.

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