Wang Zhenfang, Professor, Head of Foreign Language Institute, Hunan Open University
Overseas Based University: the Open University
Advisor: Duncan Sidwell
Study Area: Quality assurance and learning support
Quality Assurance and Learning Support of the Open University of the UK
As is well known, the Open University of the UK (OU) has earned a worldwide reputation for the quality of teaching material and the effective learning support services it pioneered. And it is also a world leader in the use of new technologies to improve the quality of education for students and to broaden their access to it. As a distance educator, I had a great desire to have a chance to work and study together with the academics and staff there in order to learn more from them. Thanks to the Sino-British Scholarship Trust, China Scholarship Council and OUC that I have had the opportunity to be a visiting scholar in the Center for Language and Communications (CLAC), the Faculty of Education and Language Studies (FELS) of the Open University of the UK. The following is a brief report on my academic visit to the OU and practical research after my return.
I. The Objectives and Contents of My Research in the OU
Nowadays education in China is developing rapidly. More universities have expanded into mass teaching systems with greater numbers of students, more flexible modular programmes, and the increasing use of electronic communication – much of this new environment drawing on the prior experience of distance education. How could we use more effective methods to improve the quality of our student services, learning support, tutorial services, monitoring of distance learning? All these should be paid more attention to. So I've mainly focused interests in the following areas:
1. Function and system of teaching in regional centers of the OU in UK, including the system of regional learning centers, their different teaching function, their staff tutors, students' learning support services and quality assurance.
2. The content and methods of evaluation on distance learning language course, including the process of compiling language course, the aim, contents and methods of evaluation on distance learning language course.
3. Teaching design and innovation of network learning environment, including course design and course tutorials in network learning environment.
II. Academic Activities
In order to successfully finish my academic research here, I have adopted the following methods: attending seminars and meetings; visiting regional centers; meeting academic staff in the OU; meeting experts in my research area; consulting information in the library or on-line and making some investigations and so on.
1. Attending some seminars and meetings
1) Seminars on various topics: Meaning making in science classrooms, CLAC research day, learner interaction using email, Vice Chancellor open forum, enhancing diversity in Open University courses, Open University teaching award ceremony & workshops.
2) Course meetings: course meeting; English grammar course meeting; French beginners course meeting; Spanish course meeting; German beginners course meeting.
3) Other meetings: Meeting with staff of International House: discussing the Chinese market for a postgraduate degree/diploma by distance learning for the teaching of English as a Foreign Language.
2. Visiting OU regional centers
Paid visits to 5 regional centers, which include the south of England, the West Midland, the East Midland, the east of England and London. They are: the Birmingham Regional Center, the Nottingham Regional Center, the Cambridge Regional Center, the London Regional Center, and the Oxford Regional Center.
3. Visiting Vice-Chancellor of the Open University Professor Brenda Gourley
I paid visits to Vice-Chancellor of the Open University Professor Brenda Gourley, who I once met in the International Conference of Distance Education held in South Africa. The purpose of visiting her is that I only wanted to know how she could run this famous Open University and what she was busy with then. Professor Brenda Gourley was kind enough to invite me to attend several meetings or seminars hosted by her.
4. Visiting some experts who are doing the same research as in my study area
I visited some experts who have developed courses on-line or have developed personal websites. I met some doctors who are doing course evaluation and research in evaluation. I paid some visits to the professors who are in charge of course production, and I gained more information about the process of the production of the course books and the evaluation of the course books as well. I also visited dean of the Faculty of Education and Language Studies (FELS), Dr. Alan Tait, who is well versed in student support and is famous for student support research in the world. We discussed the design of language courses on-line, the content and methods of courses evaluation and so on.
5. Visiting some staff tutors, associate lectures and specialist tutors
I talked with staff tutors, associate lectures and specialist tutors at the London Regional Center, the Oxford Regional Center, the Cambridge Regional Center, the Birmingham Regional Center and the Nottingham Regional Center, discussing particularly their different duties and responsibilities.
III. Results of My Academic Activities
From these academic activities and the meetings with specialists and experts, I came to understand the reasons why in the twelve teaching quality assessment exercises conducted by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) since 1993, the OU has gained seven subject designations of "excellent" and, under a revised system, the highest possible grade for each of six core aspects of higher education, which is well above the average for all universities in the UK. And also I came to understand the reasons why the OU has earned a worldwide reputation for the quality of its teaching material and the effectiveness of the supported open learning methods it pioneered. I should say that the whole OU, in general, the functions of the center and the regions and the duties and responsibilities of academics, staff tutors, associate lectures and specialist tutors are well designed. It is a great well-integrated project, which definitely guarantees its educational quality.
1. Course evaluation
The OU has clearly understood that evaluation has become a principle of the educational times, and is closely linked to the drive for "quality" in education. There are therefore many procedures for course evaluation. In the faulty of Education and Language Studies, there are 4 sub deans. 3 of them relate to the courses: their curriculum development, production and presentation. There is also a Sub-dean Research. . Evaluation goes hand-in-hand with course development.
Process of development of courses
Course development has four steps:
• Approval of the course/programme so that it can be included in the Faculty's Unit Plan.
• Development. The course team writes a specification, and then it is approved.
• Production. Course production begins. The production group takes charge of the work of course teams, to ensure they can finish their work on time and to assist if there are any problems in the course team.
• Presentation. The course is sent to students.
Evaluation on the process of course book production
During the production of each course, an external assessor and critical readers are invited to be the course evaluators. Evaluation is closely linked with the course team’s work. And furthermore, each course should be a developmentally tested during course of production if possible. Let’s look at the function of each step of evaluation:
An external assessor would be selected from another university to work with the course team. His or her CV should be good. Usually this person is nominated by the course team, and recommended to the faculty. The course team regularly sends their drafts to the External Assessor. After the External Assessor has read the draft, he or she writes an interim report, giving suggestions and opinions. At the end of the course writing, the External Assessor writes a final report about the draft.
Usually in the process of course book production, the course should be drafted, discussed and revised three times. After the course team has reviewed the draft for the second time, they send it to the critical reader. When the critical reader finishes reading the draft, he or she generally gives suggestions and opinions on the draft. Then the course team discusses them and revises the draft.
When some parts of draft are ready, the course team should do development testing. The course team needs to find volunteers among staff at the university, other universities or the public in general. The course team gives the draft to the volunteers to study with a questionnaire. When the volunteers finish studying it, they should write comments on the course to the OU’s Institute of Educational Technology (IET). IET analyses them, comments and then makes suggestions on revising it. The course team revises the draft again. The whole evaluation process in course book production is the key component for the good quality of teaching materials.
Evaluation on the process of using the course book
Every year IET evaluates a number of courses. They evaluate the courses by feedback, comments from students, tutors and seminars. The process of evaluation is as in the follows:
• Course team liaises with IET to design a course specific element to a questionnaire to be sent to students
• IET sends the questionnaire to the students
• IET publishes the results of questionnaire
Every year course teams write an End of year report, in which it reports how many students study this course, how many students finish studying this course, how many students drop out and the range of the grades they have achieved. The most important thing is that the course team should express its view of the feedback of the students, what measures they would like to take, how to solve the problems that the students have noted and also explain some comments. If the students have some problems with the course books, course guides and assessments, course team should guide the students to help to solve them and also give supplementary information. For example, some students complained that the activities in the assessment of L140 were too much, so the course chair told the students not to do all of them in the chair’s letter. If the tutors report that the assignments are too difficult, the course team should take this comment into consideration when they prepare the new assignments.
There is a course evaluation every year and there is also a course half-life review in the OU. On the one hand evaluation is to maintain high course quality, the justification for learning support, student services, and possible improvements in service standards. On the other hand, evaluation, which arises from the process of the course production, is driven by the professional ethic to constantly review and explore professional practice. In the OU each course should be used for 6-8 years. But evaluation is constant, assisting with the next course remake.
Evaluation on the problem courses
If too many students feel it very difficult to complete the course, too many students drop out of the course, or too many students fail the exam, then the course is evaluated by IET. Evaluation usually involves the process of gaining feedback from the questionnaire, which covers workload, TMAs and other issues. IET analyses the information gained, trying to find what the problems are.
All academics in the OU want to do the best for their students. However, without evaluation they would not know how they were doing, what their students wanted or needed, or what would support their learning most appropriately. They wouldn’t know if the content of the course, their comments on the course guide, the number of TMAs and programmes achieve the goals they would wish. Evaluation helps them find how effective their work is and what they might do to enhance their quality of open distance learning materials. Evaluation of courses in the OU is the process of collecting information about the design of their programmes, such as course book, course guide, TMAs and the learning support. Usually staffs give feedback on the reasonable suggestions and opinions providing supplementary materials and information, and improving their guidance, which leads to greater job satisfaction, better academic programmes, improvement of student learning, and contributes to the quality of education in the OU.
2. Staff tutors
5 academic visits to regional centers made me realize that the function of each regional center is mainly to supply support services to students and tutorials as well as monitoring the quality of all services.
The OU has several kinds of tutors for different functions, such as: staff tutors, associate lectures, specialist tutors. In the past they had personal tutors and counseling tutors. In the process of quality assurance, staff tutors have played an important role in the OU. These staff tutors are the interface between university systems, course team processes and the student learning experience in an academic context. As regional academics within the Open University, they accumulate expertise and knowledge, which is particular to them. And their understanding of the student learning needs helps the OU curricular development and course production as well as course presentation. As they are vital to the quality assurance process of face-to-face and electronic tuition, the OU has paid high attention to their experience. They should come to the university with a range of academic and administrative expertise, and most of them came from other universities. When they are staff tutors for the first year, the OU provides them with mentors whose quality and range of market intelligence within the staff tutors is exceptional and who should have expertise in the staff tutors’ job and their role. The mentors work together with new staff tutors and give them guidance and more help. In this way the quality of staff tutors has been guaranteed.
In the regional center, staff tutors liaison with Regional Student Service staff and with Advisers ensuring that appropriate guidance and accurate academic information is always available to students. They have expertise in staff development that is central to their role as line managers of associate lectures and ensures the quality of learning support for students. They take responsibility for managing the monitoring of associate lectures performance and provide constructive feedback. They follow up any areas, which indicate a need for further guidance and support for tutors by telephone, email, and letter or with a personal visit.
3. Student support services
Student support means offering the students some choices and some chance to challenge themselves. Typically, in distance learning there will be students who are experiencing difficulties---illness, divorce or bereavement--- or who are simply struggling with the intellectual demands of a course. At this time, encouraging and supporting such students helps them overcome their problems and encourages them to continue their study. So in distance learning, it is an essential element of teaching and learning, which is of critical importance. The OU provides student support services from the very beginning; then continues while the students are enrolled; and extends even beyond graduation. We can see student support services provided by the OU in great detail from the following aspects: Before enrolment, there is information to prospective students on admission, financial aid, academic advising and registration in the student support services. While enrolled: there are course materials, technical support, academic support and services for students with disabilities. After course or program completion, there are alumni associations, continuing education opportunities and career services.
For the students with disabilities, the OU has many special support policies for their additional needs, such as support for the blind or those with impaired sight, support for the deaf or hard of hearing, support for those with restricted mobility, support for those with restricted manual skills, support for a specific learning difficulty such as dyslexia, support for those with mental health difficulties, support for some medical conditions, and support for impaired speech. When the disabled students have difficulties going to certain places to take an exam or doing an exam for 2 or 3 hours without a break, the OU invites invigilators to go to the disabled students' home to invigilate their exams. With this excellent support for disabled students, more and more students with disabilities choose the OU for its unique methods of study. That’s why there are 8,000 disabled students in the OU now.
4. Software: Lyceum
During my staying in the OU, I have found that one kind of software is widely used in their tuition; it is called Lyceum.
Lyceum has many functions, which combine the function of phonetics room, chat room and CAI. It allows the students to "meet" each other miles away online in a group with their tutor. With Lyceum, the students can speak, see pictures, edit text and use many other features in groups with fellow students using a normal Internet connection. It is a big virtual classroom or conference room. The tutors and the learners can sit together discussing something or do so separately. The learners can put questions and get answers from their tutor immediately as if they were face-to-face, without traveling. So, the OU widely uses it in all language courses as well as face-to-face tutorials. Lyceum is a unique product and features other facilities such as: Select object, Draw with pencil, Draw with paintbrush, Add rectangle, Add ellipse, Draw highlight, Add drawing pin, Draw lines and polygons, Add text, Add image. There are also the following tools: Color palettes, Arrow, palette, Open whiteboard, Save whiteboard, Clear display. You can choose any tools you need in your tuition.
This software is really good for tutorials in distance learning. The learners can join their study and have discussion with their tutors and classmates at home. Clearly this software has made a great contribution to learner support.
I'm grateful to the Sino-British Fellowship Trust, OUC and the OU, who have done a lot for my research work. Without their support and help, I couldn't have had the chance in the Open University of the UK for over 4 months and there would be no such report either.