Saturday, 7 January 2012

Why are you here?

A small group of Level 4 students returned from Christmas holiday this week. I don't know quite where the idea came from but I decided to start by asking them this question: Why are you here?

We had some fun with the replies which came eventually - albeit after quite a while! They took just two basic forms:

Well, it's our lesson now. It's on our timetable.

To learn about project management.

Before the break I had published their first assignment - quite a tough task that required them, amongst other things, to explain what ideas for projects they had considered, which particular one they'd decided to plan to go ahead with, a detailed project proposal for that one which would include first attempts at setting milestones and considerations of their own strengths and weaknesses.

They had also been provided last term with a lot of information about the assessment criteria, the subject itself, including some very pertinent notes and presentations covering what they needed to write about in this assignment. All the material was available on-line in case anyone had missed a session when I might have gone through it in class.

I had also made it pretty clear that I needed to have their first attempts or drafts during the break or when they returned as the hand-in date was the end of January and it was plainly obvious that not only was the topic itself something new to all of them but even the brightest was finding the academic demands of this programme markedly more challenging than the mostly practical based National Diploma Level 3 programme they had completed in the previous year.

They really should have been coming in either to give me some work, to finish off whatever they'd been working on or to ask me, or maybe the others, for some help to explain what was actually required. Something along those lines started to emerge when I reminded them about the request. To which I then replied along these lines:

Well, there's not much point you coming out in the wind and rain, spending money on fares or petrol just to give me some paper. E-mail works well these days and is free. There's no way I could provide any meaningful feedback as it would take me best part of the session just to read one draft.

You all have perfectly good computers at home so coming in to use these rather average machines and reluctant printers - the 'coming in to finish off' thing - doesn't make a lot of sense either.

Asking for help? OK, but you have phones or, again, we could do that by e-mail quite adequately.

To learn about project management? One of the first thoughts. That sounds very reasonable but you should already have learned enough to do the first assignment. If you'd thought a bit more about that you'd have concluded that I'm hardly likely to go through all that again. I might have moved on to the next topic but, in the circumstances, with everyone's first assignments still outstanding that would probably only confuse you or delay still further when the first gets handed in.

So the only reason left with any validity was because it's on their timetable. It's like they're still at school and will get told off or have letters sent home if they don't turn up. They come because they feel obliged to. They expect me then to persuade them to do something useful during the morning - like get on with what they should have done earlier. In fact, just like all the previous years, very little actually gets done in class at all or it's used as a sort of 21st century typing pool. If I don't nag and prod then, with one or two notable exceptions, I'd get little work until the last possible moment and even only then if I'm lucky and, if previous programmes' submissions are anything to go by, it will be unlikely to be good enough to pass.

The real reason I would like them to be there is to get feedback on what they have submitted in good time beforehand, to discuss queries that either they've raised previously in correspondence or a phone call and I'd even be delighted to help with something that just occurs to them on the way in or is prompted by another student's question.

That would maximise the use of my time in providing constructive support and advice or imparting a little more knowledge and understanding as necessary. However, even all that, indeed, could be dealt with without their having to attend a class.

So, after a fascinating discussion, we all had to conclude that the only time they should attend would be to learn something new as and when it's appropriate. So a few lectures or discussions each term can do that and I can run workshops on the other days for those that want them.

That would be a nice conclusion but for some target I am supposed to meet. If my programme's attendance is below a certain figure I get talked about in whispered and disapproving tones at managers' meetings. Then I get lots of paperwork, action plans and the students have to complete Individual Learning Plans with SMART targets indicating how they'll meet some institutional attendance target so that my target gets met so that the department's target gets met and so on.

So, the answer to my original question, Why are you here? has to be So you can tick the box that says we're here, sir.

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