The Greatest Story Ever Told

I inhabit the borderland between science, education and storytelling. Most of the time, these companions are well-behaved and don’t poke sticks at each other. The last few weeks though, they have collided as I watched my university become a protagonist in its own drama.

If you are UK-based, it is hard to have missed the furore surrounding the Open University – its leadership issues, the effects of a damaging political climate that has become less and less supportive of education as an equal and open right for all individuals, regardless of background, current circumstances or challenges to be overcome. We live now in a political climate where it is fashionable to lay claim to support of equality and opportunity, but where it is acceptable to ignore the reality of the requirements for equity. There have been many eloquent explorations of this and of the challenges that the funding climate raises for the Open University, an organisation dedicated to providing educational opportunity for all. It’s not my intention to add to those here. Instead, I want to delve into the story and the reasons why, in two short weeks, the Open University became a cause to rally behind and a unifying symbol, bringing together diverse individuals across ages, political allegiances, socioeconomic status, gender, sexuality and race. Many of us already understood the potential for it to become this and indeed, our outgoing VC fought valiantly for recognition of the issues facing part-time learners and the organisations that teach them in a funding climate that is increasingly putting the weight of that on the students themselves. So why is it only now that the wave of momentum crested and broke nationally? I think the answer to that lies in the art of storytelling.

Writers know that to capture your reader, you need not only a great plot, but a relatable cast of characters that inspire loyalty, hatred, love. Characters that the reader is invested in. As authors, we take these characters and do dreadful things to them. We give them great highs, and diabolical lows. We challenge them with circumstance and write them out of it. We bring them alive and they walk from the pages of the book into the minds of our readers, fully formed and ready to do battle. If you doubt for a moment that characters on a page can inspire great emotion and intense loyalty in their readers, look no further than some of the intense debates that rage over readers’ favourites in some of the intense fandoms on the web. Personally, I have a degree of mistrust for anyone who is unable to instantly recall which Hogwarts house they are in … and no-one trusts a Slytherin. What then does this have to do with the Open University and the issues that have hit the public arena over the last few weeks? Come with me on a journey into one of the greatest stories of recent years.

OU VCs have made the public case for the challenges it faces for many years. It’s not just restricted to our outgoing VC, Peter Horrocks, although he did campaign tirelessly in Westminster in support of the part-time learners’ agenda. There was something missing in the cauldron though – there was bubbling, toiling and troubling but the potion was never quite right. People didn’t know it but what they were really waiting for was a captivating story. It’s fair to say that politicians listen. They suffer from convenient selective deafness though, if public opinion doesn’t drive them to also hear and act. Here begins the greatest underdog story of recent years, with a cast of characters worthy of the chunkiest of NY Times bestsellers.

The Hero

Everyone loves an underdog story. Enter the staff of the Open University. Embattled. Under threat. Fighting for a greater cause than simply their own jobs. In an era where society is looking for reasons to criticise the high earners and to shake the status quo, they were given a character full of attributes we all yearn for. Loyal. Courageous. Potentially selfless. The staff were a collective Gryffindor, forgiven for their impetuousness because it was clear that the fight came from a collective passion for something great, and that it was in defence of those that needed fighting for.

The Villain

For there to be an underdog, there has to be a villain. The power at the university lay with someone who became a true literary nemesis for the valiant heroes fighting their cause. The heroes of this story faced him in battle, and against the odds, came out standing. As with all villains, it served the writer’s purpose to make them on one level complex and believable, but on another to emphasise key traits that make them easy to dislike. We want our readers to be invested in their downfall.

The Supporting Characters

OU students became a fully realised supporting character in this battle. They gave the hero a chance to protect them, and they themselves had a narrative voice in this story.

The Plot

This one was a page-turner. The world-building was exemplary. Our villain, after first attacking our hero, then waged a military campaign to ensure that he retained his position in the world of academia. Together, these characters faced down the illusive ‘Council’. A secret organisation where decisions happened behind closed doors. The valiant Senate, propped up by Faculties and Schools, provided a welcome contrast – filled with familiar faces and people the hero understood. Nonetheless, the fight was hard and culminated in the ultimate denouement – the university Council met to seal the villain’s fate. In the end, the hero won through and lived to fight again in the next book in the series. The villain retreated, but the writer didn’t kill him off. After all, who knows what will happen in the sequel.

In reality, there are no heroes and villains. In fact, we are all a little bit of both. But that doesn’t make such a compelling story. The reason the issues our University faces are now reaching the politicians in a way that means they can’t ignore them is because there’s been a perfect storm of public support, cross-party support, news media support (across the news spectrum) and support from the rich and the famous. Politicians are suckers for things that they think will affect their re-election chances. Our VC was right when he campaigned for part-time learners in Westminster. So were his predecessors. I think, though, that the ultimate irony lies in the fact that for the politicians to really take note of what has been said, he needed to become the villain in this piece not the hero. In taking up that role (and we can argue about how much characters in any story are in charge of their own narrative arc), he enabled the Open University to become the hero in a story that has captured the imagination of a nation.

The Open University is looking forwards now. For the first time in a long while, I think it is doing it in a unified way and with a sense of excitement about the challenges we have to face. Whether intentional or unintentional, that’s a direct consequence of the events of the last few weeks. There are many intelligent pieces on the web already addressing what the university needs to move on from here, both from management and from the institution itself. I would like to add my own request to that list. I think that we need leaders and individuals who understand the story and who understand the craft of reaching our audience. We need people who can maintain the momentum that has been gained, not without casualties along the way.

We don’t simply need visionaries, we need storytellers. If we have them, then I can look forward with hope that the university’s tale will be woven into the fabric of our nation for generations to come.

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Monsters

‘It’s the biggest ice cream in the world!’

You looked down at me and I received the offering reverentially.  You knew you had me.  Your eyes crinkled with mischief and, wrapping my free hand in yours, we walked towards the shingle.  Wind whipped my unruly hair.  Sea wind.  Salty.

‘You can’t take it home with you!’

You knew I’d try.  We had the same kind of stubborn in us, you and I.

Your feet outpaced mine.

‘Daddy!’  I stopped, my nose almost touching the carefully crafted frozen edifice.  You watched my eyes expand with anticipation.  The saliva that filled my mouth hid itself away.  My hair refused to behave.  The gusts played with it.  Dancing strands.  Tears dried on my cheeks and you knew you didn’t need to wipe them.

It was over in a moment.  The wind snatched my prize and tossed it to the ground.  There it lay.  Shingle and ice.  You knelt, your eyes meeting mine, and tried to stem the salty waves overflowing.

‘We’ll get another one, sweetheart.’

I knew though, that there are things we can’t replace.

 

Today, I sit typing this in my converted attic room, a warm blanket nurturing my feet, keeping the brutal December wind at bay – it finds its way into cracks that I didn’t know were there. Houses on hills are used to that.  Mine is immune to the rain lashing its sides and beating against the window, overlooking fallow fields and the tantalising walled edge of the deer park.  It knows that I will tolerate the buffeting, wrapping toes and gradually growing layers as the winter draws in, because I find it hard to give up the view.  Houses on hills are known for their view.  The horizon plays with perspective.  The further out I look, the smaller it all seems.  Even as things recede though, there are places that stand proud against the sky.  These are my beacons.

A child of the 70s, I cut my writing teeth on an Olympia Portable Deluxe carefully extracted from its red-felt-lined box and placed on the small table in the front porch where I could type in the sun.  It belonged to my mother.  Cherished.  The rounded indentations on the keys encouraged my small fingers to form words. My writing belonged to my father.  I was born into a house of writing, the books lining the study walls never off-limits but always given the respect due to them.  I was born into a house that wrote.  Stories embossed on paper, each keystroke unleashing a hammer blow, leaving an indelible mark.  Words had permanence.  Sharing was a tactile act, accompanied by smudges of carbon paper, transmitted from hand to hand.  We bore the marks on us too.  It was unavoidable.

 

We talked about that day on the beach often.  It became our litany as you sat by my side at night, keeping the monsters under the bed away.

‘Don’t think about what might be there.  Let’s think about “The Biggest Ice Cream in the World”.’

‘I don’t like the noise.’

‘It’s just the wind, sweetheart, just the wind.’

I closed my eyes.  Your voice rumbled and sometimes I thought I could hear the waves on the shingle.  Sleep stole me.  The monsters daren’t intrude.  When I woke, you had always gone but I could still feel the ghost of your hand on mine.

It wasn’t until my daughter and I found our own litanies, that I truly appreciated what it meant to grow up in a house built of words.  I missed the moment in the years in-between when my hand became the large one and the stories became mine.  She had new monsters for me to chase.

‘Mummy, Tom told me that one day the Sun will become a red giant and swallow the world.  Everything will be gone.’

‘Not for a long while though.  Not for longer than anyone has ever lived.’

‘But I don’t want to be gone.’

I know now that the Biggest Ice Cream in the World was really just an ice cream.  I can’t tell her that one day we won’t be gone.  Instead, I weave tales to transport her, building a shell around us as we snuggle together, hiding from monsters I know are there.

 

We hunted monsters one spring, you and I, in a loch village in Scotland.  Seven-year olds still believe they can slay them.  I was no different as I scanned the water’s edge, waiting for the promised beast to raise its serpentine head above the wavelets as I skimmed Scottish stones across the rippled surface.  I could never make them travel as far as your practiced hand.  It wasn’t until decades later, when I absorbed the lexicon of geology into my own, that I truly understood the magic I had held and cast away from me.  Lewisian gneiss.  Garnet mica schist.  The poetry of rocks was tantalisingly beyond the grasp of my small hands.  The static undulations and complex folds entombed in the stones drew me to them, nonetheless.  The ripples crossing the loch threw back a distorted reflection and I held a moment of time in my fist.  I remember the independence of footsteps where the wavelets broke.  That small girl never looked back though, and now as I do, I see that she was never truly alone.  That wasn’t a summer of ice creams and shingle, but of buzzards lifting upwards from heather-hued Highland slopes, of pebbles and lochs, and a cottage near the water’s edge.

The cottage held treasure.  You knew as soon as we walked into the small study at the front of the house.  Books!  The owners had children slightly older than me.  I dismissed you easily as I catalogued the large bookcase that covered the rear wall.  It was the summer of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, and of a dog called Max, tar-black and devoted to me, or so I thought.  I drank in the stories and poured them out again in imagined worlds, certain that the mysterious lady of Mirror Bay would appear one morning floating across the loch.

One night, waiting for the ferry that brought us home, rain lashing around me, a kind man helped me put on my gloves.  You watched us.  I thought I could do it better.  He smelt of whisky, oak-barrelled, aged.  It was a scent of home, made strange by the Scottish wind.

Whisky and Old Spice.  The scent still lingers.

The man on the boat had soft eyes and a Scottish lilt but he cared about my hands even if his own were shaking.

“Someone drove their car off the ferry into the loch.”

Your tone was matter-of-fact.  You didn’t shield me.  Country people understand impermanence.  Perhaps I wondered why anyone would do that, or how sad they must have been.  Now, I would consider their family, left behind to remake a thing that was broken.  All I remember though, is the wind and the rain and the kind Scottish eyes smiling at me.

I still watch buzzards from my window, soaring above the arable land, calling to each other in the wind as they ride the updrafts.  I tell myself that they find joy in flight but I can’t really understand them.  We are all strangers.

 

The night the monsters came, wind lashed the windows, firing raindrops at them like bullets.  I had never learnt to tame my hair.  Strands stuck to my cheeks, channelling salty rivulets that I had carried across miles and years from that windy shoreline.  You told me they didn’t exist.  You lifted the covers and peered into the darkness for me.  That night, I stood in a doorway, afraid to look back.  I never realised that the monsters were coming for you.

My house on the hill is only a mile away from that doorway as the crow flies.  In other ways, it’s a lifetime.  I can no longer remember what it felt like before, when that house was my home and I trusted its walls to keep out the storm.  It has been remade.  The bricks are fragile.

Staring at the horizon now, I can see a young girl standing on the bottom step, peering round the corner.  She can smell the chilli her mother is busy cooking in the galley kitchen at the back of the house.  A hint of a smile touches her face as she looks at her father in his chair by the fire.  Something in his expression though, tells her that this isn’t his idea of a crazy joke.  Her mum drops the spoon.

“Call the doctor! Now!”

As she turns the dial on the now old-fashioned phone, her fingers are suddenly much larger than those that tapped out phrases on the old mechanical typewriter, she repeats in her head the words she will say when the phone is answered.  The phone isn’t answered.  Her fat fingers have failed to dial true and she is met only with the incessant monotone of a dead call.  A hand takes the phone away and she is relieved.  It isn’t her responsibility anymore.  She shrinks back and becomes a child again.  Only she will never be a child again.

I can’t place the moment when I began to see this in the third person.  For years, I lived in first person. Screen memories.  My smile.  His face.  The scent of onions.  A dial tone.  It was the 1980s and, in those days, children remade themselves, block by block, piece by piece, brick by brick.  I remade myself with bricks formed from words that I had inherited from someone who no longer had use for them.  The old typewriter has now been replaced with a modern laptop, somehow though the light touch of fingertip to symbol feels like I am giving words away too cheaply.  I miss the solidity.  The sense of permanence.  In the second decade of the new millennium, I am still patching old holes with new bricks.

Gazing out across the hills from my window, I convince myself if I look back hard enough, I can see the sea, denying the impossibility.  I know though, that somewhere on a windy coastline, alone in the dark, the Biggest Ice Cream in the World lies half-buried on a shingle shore, and I hold the echo of your palm in mine.

Defining a University of Radicals: education in the modern age.

“We are in a new age – the age of the student.”

This was the divisive rallying cry from Sam Gyimah at the launch of the Office for Students.  We are, apparently, present at the inception of a ‘revolution in accountability’ – and his speech made it quite clear that he feels that this is a novel concept in academia.

Gyimah was right in a way.  It is the ‘age of the student’.  I don’t think that means what he thinks it does.  The current narrative that this government, and its predecessors, is spinning to students places them securely in the post of ‘Defender of Value’, ‘Champion of the Student Voice’.  If you break down this narrative though, it’s clear that their words themselves dispossess them of the right to claim this.  We hear repeatedly of the need for universities to generate employable students, to fill the oft-referred-to ‘skills gap’.  Look closely at what this says.  Yes, the country has inevitable ‘skills gaps’.  Education, interests and, lets face it, employment opportunities created or denied by any sitting government, ebb and flow like tides being pulled by forces that are multitude and complex.  It is absolutely the government’s responsibility to highlight these gaps so that all students, of all ages, can make decisions about their future aims and the education they need to get them there.  So, we have the current push to rebrand universities as employment pipelines.  I propose though, that this is not at all an indication that we are in ‘the age of the student’ or that a government that pushes for this is acting in the student’s best interest.

Let me elaborate, before someone rebrands this as an argument against producing employable students.  Universities have always produced employable students and will always continue to adapt to the changing needs of an ever-evolving world.  More than that, they will remain at the forefront of the minds that create new knowledge that enables the world to evolve. The difference is, our focus (and particularly the focus of my organisation, the Open University) is on the needs and aspirations of individual students rather than the need for a pipeline to fill certain job niches.  Of course, we will provide you with the skills and education to enter the work market.  We see each student as more than that though, and we see our duty to them as greater than simply providing a pipeline for jobs.  It is our responsibility to challenge our students intellectually and, in doing so, to ensure that they see the entire range of possibilities that their life holds for them.  If they choose to follow a path that takes them into areas represented by the ‘skills gap’ then they will be qualified to do so and we as institutions will facilitate that but we will only succeed in our duty to our students if, in reaching that point of choice, we have forced you to challenge yourself in a way that means that you see that action as a choice, one of many, one you can revoke at any time, one that you have taken ownership of rather than simply drifting into along a government pipeline.

Education can never be a consumer exercise.  I don’t mean that we, as educators, don’t have a responsibility to provide a high level educational experience – that is the bare minimum we owe our students.  At the Open University, and increasingly elsewhere in higher ed, we also take the responsibility of delivering the support and tools necessary to enable as many students as possible to qualify further incredibly seriously.  It is not enough for us to simply provide educational material as a hub and a certificate at the end – we also need to teach.  If students don’t feel they receive that, then their voices should be heard.  Does this mean that the tuition fees you pay guarantee you a degree though?  Bear in mind, before I answer, that we as educational institutions fought long and hard to prevent governmental tuition fee imposition.  Given the choice and the funding, we would educate you for free.  That choice is not ours.  To distil higher education to simply a consumer transaction devalues it for all.  There is a partnership involved in achieving a degree.  As a university, we must deliver on our part of that.  As students, you too must contribute something to this partnership.  If modern students do not fully engage with the intellectual challenge a university is delivering, then I would argue that ultimately, no, they do not necessarily have a right to a degree and we, as institutions, have not failed them in not awarding that.  What is lost in the commercialisation of education and the language of division that permeates our discourse, is that sense of partnership, with dual-sided responsibility.  In fully embracing this universities, both academic and student bodies, can achieve something that I would define as ‘radical’.

We live in an age of outrage and division, where opposition is becoming a societal norm.  How then, do we truly become a ‘University of Radicals’ – Peter Horrocks, our Vice Chancellor, called on the Open University to return to those radical roots and ‘[embrace] innovation and disruption’ in a speech to the university a while ago.  I would argue that we have never left those radical roots, that we are still and will remain, a University of Radicals.  The real question is what passes for ‘radical’ in today’s world.  In a world that is characterised by division, surely the only radical path is that of unity.  We effect disruption by embracing cohesion.  Our society is a disposable world – when something’s value isn’t immediately apparent, we cull it.  It is the age of decluttering.  In doing so though, we absolve ourselves of the challenging task of seeing past our superficial divisions and finding the common core values that drive us academically and personally.  We are the university.  Students, academics, staff of all categories that support teaching, research and administration, that support the university.  Including the Vice Chancellors.  Do we best serve this by ‘decluttering’ our institutions?

A spotlight has been directed on the Vice Chancellors of our country’s universities in recent months, not just for their salaries but for the role they play in defining the trajectory of the country’s academic institutions.  I’m an academic, a teacher.  I do not have the facts at my disposal that the Vice Chancellor of my institution, or of any other, has.  Nonetheless, I have an opinion on this.  It may be disruptive and somewhat radical.  I guess that depends on your perspective.  I believe it is time to stop simply ‘decluttering’ when we don’t agree with the direction our universities are travelling in, only to refill the empty space with another version of the same.  I think that is the easy option.  Instead, we need to reclaim the academic vision for our institutions and demand leaders who will work with us to sustain that vision far into the future, not leadership that believes it is their role to craft it.  We are educators.  It is not enough to declutter when we find that this academic vision differs from the vision of our higher management.  As educators (to self-quote), we need to break this vision down into its component parts and give our Vice Chancellors the tools to rebuild these parts, developing both an understanding of the concepts and the skills they need to execute them.  We need to be radical.  We need to respect that professionals at all levels have skills that can be levied to drive our institutions headlong into a future that puts our students and our study at the forefront.   It is our responsibility to build the bridges that enable a dynamic synergy to form between ostensibly contrasting views.  In doing so, we can become beacon institutions, leading others towards a more cohesive educational structure.  In doing so, we can really usher in ‘the age of the student’ and embrace the fact that this does not preclude it also being ‘the age of the university’.

It could be that the Open University is about to ‘declutter’ at a higher level, I neither know nor am I going to use this piece to speculate on the outcome of our internal debate.  I am going to use this opportunity as a rallying cry to higher educational institutions throughout the country though.  I watched my daughter perform an ensemble poetry piece a few weeks ago and listened to the feedback the judges gave them.  I mention it because it applies here.  The judge noted that there were many strong individual voices but that it was when each of these were used to support the less confident performers, when the girls listened to each other and truly heard their co-performers, when they responded as one, that the performances flew.  In higher ed right now, I think that we have many strong individual voices but I think that we are still learning to listen rather than speak.  I think we need to stop allowing the government to define our narrative.  As institutions, we need to hold our leadership to account and own our academic vision.  We need to build bridges and accessways across institutions, and all the country’s universities need to raise their voices in one choral whole.  I can think of no better common cause to rally behind than my university, the Open University.

Our current VC talked at Durham University, about breaking down ‘fortress university’.  I am arguing for the contrary.  I think we need to become a new and modern fortress.  We need to unify students and institutions and raise our fortress walls to defend our right to educate and innovate from those outside who are attacking the essence of education.  If what we need is more fluid qualifications, easier organisational transitions, a different student experience, then we need to take down ‘fortress government’.  Universities are not hiding behind walls that are so long standing they believe they will never fall.  Universities are redefining the concept of a wall.

We are the future.  We are the students.  We are the institution.  We are the academics.  We are the support staff.  We are the thinkers.  We are the innovators.  We are a chorus of voices raised as one.  We are the university. And we are Open.

The Story of a Module: How we teach at the Open University.  

 

For those that follow education, it’s hard to miss the discourse this weekend in response to the comment from the Open University Vice Chancellor regarding his belief that the central academic faculty don’t teach, but instead write.  I could spend a lot of time deconstructing his words on the recording of that discussion with our OU Students Association reps, but as a central academic, an educator and a teacher at the OU, what I see here is an opportunity to educate and to share knowledge – not with our VC, but with the students themselves.  It occurred to me that our students at the OU may find an insight into how we work on the courses that they study both interesting and empowering.

Let me tell you the story of a module, and as I do, let me take you on a journey into the world of an academic at the OU.  I hope that in doing so, I can show you that the possibilities for you, as an OU student, are vast.  I have a lot of responsibilities as a central academic, but the one that overshadows everything is the responsibility I bear for helping every student understand and realise the potential they have inside.  I know a lot more about this than many may realise.  In fact, the story of this module, in a way, starts two decades ago when I decided to requalify via an OU degree myself.  It changed the trajectory of my life and enabled me to fully explore my potential in a way that the standard education system didn’t, primed as it is to force young people to make educational choices and to fit into specific subject boxes at an age where many haven’t even begun to explore and understand who they are.  I understand what it’s like to study an OU degree, around full-time work, when bumps in the road and failures to succeed have real impact and consequences for you as a student.  I have been that student who used every available moment to cram OU material.  I know what it’s like to be writing a TMA after midnight the day of the deadline, once the house is quiet, dinner is served and the family have gone to bed.  I understand the dedication that is needed to push through, the friendships that are put on hold as your weekends become all about the study.  I have also sat there at 2am, trying to get to grips with a complex concept, with just the cats for company and a large mug of coffee.  I was fortunate to find the OU, an institution predicated on the principle of open access and staffed by academics, both central lecturers and the more diffuse network of associate lecturers, who are driven by the principle of giving students opportunities to succeed rather than opportunities to fail.  That degree changed my life in many ways.

I studied an undergraduate degree in Natural Sciences.  The module whose story I would like to tell is S111, the entry level module for the OU Natural Sciences pathway.  The module I studied all those years ago when I was first stepping onto the academic path, was a distant predecessor, S103.  This will probably age me – courses, like children, grow up fast and before you know they’re stepping out in the world on their own and you have more grey hairs than you started with.  I worked while I studied and became very good at understanding how to present the transferable skills I learnt at the OU and the science skills and knowledge I was developing to employers to convince them that I was a good risk to hire for science jobs for which, on paper, others seemed more qualified.  Nowadays, the buzz-word for that is ‘employability’ and I embed that in my teaching to help this generation of students understand how they can present what they learn to employers to get the jobs they need and want.

Here’s the montage scene.  With ups and down, I progressed professionally and progressed academically and my Natural Sciences degree led to a scientific PhD, a post-doctoral position and eventually an academic post at the OU as a lecturer in the School of Life, Health and Chemical Sciences.  Along the way, I have been involved in teaching and education at all levels.  I have taught in schools and to adult learners face-to-face, as a scientist and before that, teaching English (the discipline I transferred from thanks to my OU degree).  I have a long pedigree in scientific outreach at school level, working alongside teachers to help develop scientific knowledge and skills in the children they work with.  I am a Trustee of a local Academy Trust and work intensively at the level of school education to ensure our school develops and thrives in an extremely difficult educational funding landscape.  I know education from base level through to higher level – we can only fully understand how to teach our students if we have a solid understanding of what our students have come from.

S111 Questions in Science is a fantastic module that I have worked on the production of and that I support through presentation.  Maybe some of our fantastic students will happen upon this article – if you do, I would like to tell you that it’s the students we work with and for that make it such a rewarding and important module.  You are the module.  We, as academics, focus a lot of energy on trying to make sure that you are inspired and are given the opportunity to shine, hopefully in places where it might surprise you that you can.  I measure my success as an educator by your success as a student – and that doesn’t mean simply getting high grades.  My greatest successes are the times when I have helped a student realise that they can learn something that they find difficult, and most importantly where I have designed and delivered the teaching that enable them to do that.  I am writing this today because I want all of you, as students, to see that barriers you perceive to be in place, in reality aren’t there.  I was a student once.  I was just like you.  Higher study and learning is not something ‘other people’ do.  You can all achieve great things and we, as a university, are incredibly experienced in teaching you how to do that.

So, what happens when a module is born?  Is it really just ‘writing’?  I’m guessing that the majority of people reading this, experienced in education through teaching or through learning, don’t really believe that.  In case I need to add a longer pedigree to convince you that I know the difference, it’s worth saying that I’m partway through studying a Creative Writing Masters degree now at the OU and I’m doing extremely well so I do understand not just teaching but the craft of writing.  They are two different things.  When this particular module was born (and I work on a number of different modules, each one with a different story, each one an individual like the students studying it), so much pedagogic work and educational work happened before a word was even committed to the page.  Before we write, we consider what our students need to know and what our students need to understand how to do.  We consider this not just in the context of a module, but in the context of a pathway (and really, many pathways because we are aware of the multitude of possibilities a module at level 1 opens up for our students, all of which we need to prepare them for).  We consider the immense spectrum of skills a student may have.  We consider groups of students that may be particularly vulnerable, due to a multitude of factors from accessibility to prior educational level … the list is long.  We decide on an educational strategy to ensure that we are teaching in a way that stretches the students that need it but supports the students that need us to teach them skills and concepts that, for many reasons, they are coming to us without.  The OU doesn’t pre-screen students.  We, as educators on a module team, take the responsibility of ensuring that no-one slips through the cracks of our teaching extremely seriously.

Then we write.  Although, we don’t ‘write’ as such.  We take the scientific concepts that we need you to understand and we unpack them to their component parts.  Then we guide our students through teaching material that is designed to help them to rebuild these concepts themselves, all the time learning not just the concept but the skills that they will use throughout their academic and professional careers.  It’s hard to do.  I’ve taught face-to-face.  This is harder.  You, as students, have amazing associate lecturers as tutors.  They don’t simply spring out of the woodwork when a module is fully formed.  Module teams work closely with associate lecturers and with staff tutors in the regions and nations during production of a module to ensure that we are giving you the highest standard of teaching we can.  This doesn’t stop when the module goes ‘live’.  Teaching isn’t just about words – we also take scientific concepts and activities and break them down and translate them to digital activities to give all students the opportunity to achieve learning outcomes based on scientific experimentation and scientific activity.  We do that in in partnership with fantastic software developers who take our teaching designs and work crazy programming magic to deliver an immense amount of teaching in an innovative and interactive way that transcends words.  We invite criticism because teachers understand that they never stop learning, and we approach this as academics with an openness to constructive dialogue about whether or not our teaching is achieving its goal.  Which is lucky, because once we’ve started putting the module together, we hand our work to the editors.  This is the academic version of TMA feedback.

Once the module goes live, the teaching doesn’t stop.  We have immense module populations in relation to a brick university so we have a diverse network of amazing associate lecturers that tutor the students.  As central academics, we are constantly in dialogue with them regarding responsive adaptations to teaching and individual student needs.  We both support and learn from the associate lecturers’ experience with their tutor groups.  In the first of presentation of S111, I monitored nearly 140 student scripts on a TMA I wrote to gain direct feedback on how well my teaching materials were functioning to ensure my students were succeeding.

Research from brick universities with a similar demographic to the OU indicated that students highly valued informal communities of practice that develop around social hubs and credited them as a factor in the success of their study.  We know that studying a distance degree can feel isolating.  We understand that teaching doesn’t stop when the lecture ends.  Students have amazing tutor groups.  As central academics, we try to supplement that by building a wider community for our students to embrace.  On our module, we use Twitter to enhance and broaden students experience of science … and to have a bit of fun!  The best teachers understand that to be effective, teaching also needs to have an element of fun.  We are also trying to broaden our Level 1 students horizons by involving them in live labcasts, where we get to teach and extend from the labs at the university directly to the students.

This isn’t an exhaustive list.  We do so much more and in so many ways.  I haven’t even touched on the direct student teaching we do via tutorials, specialist forums and other module-specific opportunities.  What I really wanted to do in telling you some of the story of this module, is to reach as many students as I can and show you that the Open University has some of the best teachers in the world working on its modules, both centrally and in a more dispersed network of nationwide lecturers.  All of us are driven by the great desire to see you succeed, whatever your personal definition of that is.  We are all invested in individual students’ successes.  While our module populations are large, we see each of you as an individual not a number or percentage point.  We take every opportunity to build your confidence in yourself as a learner and show you where that confidence will take you.  We underpin this with a vast foundation of teaching knowledge and experience.  We give you the tools to grow and develop.

While not everyone understands what teaching really is and what it looks like, I hope this has gone at least some of the way towards correcting the notion that academics at my institution are getting away with not teaching.  For us, teaching is like breathing.

Original Soundtrack (Redux)

In the wake of Prince’s demise this week, I’ve been dwelling on the importance of music as an accompaniment to life.  It still amazes me that I have important memories that are intimately tied to Prince’s music from the time I was not much older than my nearly-9 year old daughter is now to the nearly-45 year old I am.  I lament the fact that there’s really no-one in the musical landscape that my daughter inhabits that will have that influence or staying power.  It seemed like a good time to repost something I wrote a while ago that sums up the importance of music to me.

Words on a page don’t do justice to memories. When I peer backwards into my past, there’s a soundtrack. Music and memory are intimately entwined and the link is visceral. The tune, the lyrics, the era – for each person a different catalyst but the physical jolt that occurs years after when a song insinuates itself into your consciousness from a distant radio broadcast or a car passing by as you walk is common to us all, bringing the past so close you can taste it. They are the moments that shaped us and the soundtrack that accompanied them is integral.

Before I became a ‘responsible’ parent, I used to be a ‘girl who gigs’. Live music nourishes me. When I listen to ‘This is the Sea’ by The Waterboys, I’m thirteen again, once again living the moment when this lifetime love affair began. Simple Minds playing at Milton Keynes Bowl – I can feel the butterflies in my stomach even now. It was my first live gig and, even though it was quite obvious that I would die if I didn’t get tickets to go, my Mum couldn’t find the money to pay a small fortune in concert ticket capital. I have never been daunted by circumstance, even at thirteen, and I decided to put my skills to work and earn my ticket (OK, so I filled in a crossword and won them but I have word skills not car cleaning skills). 1986. The year of yellow pastel fishtail skirts, white stilettos and the realisation that a great band can sell themselves to you on an amazing live performance. They weren’t even the headliners but the moment they took to the stage, my life changed in a profound way. I stalked this album after the concert – Saturday afternoons in the local record store avariciously caressing the vinyl dust jacket. The skirt and the shoes were retired – denim and black was now my de facto uniform.

1987 sees a different girl pass under the Wembley lions, clutching a golden ticket, bootleg gig t-shirt casually arranged over her ripped 501s, drawn to her Mecca to see U2 play their Joshua Tree concert. The uncertain steps of the previous year are replaced by a confident saunter as she appraises the ticket touts and merchandising stalls that line the route. Even though my O-levels began that Monday, it never occurred to me that I should be anywhere else. Two and a half decades later, I don’t even remember the exams I sat that Monday but the opening bars of ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ transport me back to the Stadium that day. It’s not Bono that I remember so clearly, for all his musical prowess, but the wheelchair-bound man at the back of the pitch, scooped up in the arms of his friend, dancing, lost in the music. I learnt that great music can make you less earthbound, that you can be freed from limitations by a sequence of notes.

The eighties passed but I carried this lesson with me long after the print had been washed off the t-shirts and the jeans had been folded away, replaced by tie-dyed trousers and beaded hair. The early 90s were a bittersweet time of transition, the scar left by the incision made when we left school behind still raw as the brilliance of future possibilities lit the touch-paper that ignited us and sent us skywards to explore the world. Lives are tied to moments that change our paths forever. ‘Under the Bridge’ by the Red Hot Chili Peppers brings me back to one of those pivotal times, even now forcing a tightness into my throat as I relive the sadness of the passing of an era. The smell of wood smoke from the log fire in our living room and the grainy odour of malt whiskey in a crystal glass surrounded by a group of friends, mourning the passing of childhood. This was the last time we sat together as allies without the complications of partners, a widening network of friends and a lot of mileage between us. It was the reason I packed this album when I set off around South East Asia later that year, the reason it now has more associations than merely teen-angst, why I now hear it and see children playing with machetes outside a shack in a hill-tribe village in the Golden Triangle north of Chiang-Mai. I had learnt how to fly and the music lifted me.

Everything that takes to the air eventually has to become grounded again and I returned to earth accompanied by the Pearl Jam album ‘Ten’, but it was a colder, harder Eastern European earth on which I landed. November 1st, the ‘Day of the Dead’, nostrils seared by the cold and saturated by the scent of hot wax from the candles that lit the graveyards brighter than any neon could. November in Warsaw is the kind of cold that steals your breath away – Pearl Jam playing live at the Towar arena is the kind of performance that steals your breath away. My future husband and I watched them play the songs that had defined the past 5 years of my life – university, upheaval, the working world, all of these were encapsulated by Eddie Vedder’s rendition of ‘Alive’. As I relived my history, I also forged a new history. As much as the songs then reminded me of the years before, so now I am removed to that cold, cold night asleep on a bench at Warszawa Centralna station surrounded by prostitutes and drunkards, the underbelly of a post-Communist state that few have the opportunity to witness.

This is the mix-tape of my life. Without it, I wouldn’t be the same person typing here today and even as I do, I am adding to the playlist – new songs, new memories. As Eddie Vedder sang over a decade ago, ‘I’m still alive’.

Tracks in the Snow

Tracks in the Snow

It snowed in the night.  While we were sleeping, it snuck up on us as the world held its breath.  We woke to a new monochrome morning, the air electric with the possibility of a day unspoilt.  There’s something regenerative about a covering of snow – somehow it erases yesterday, leaving a fresh canvas to mark with tracks.  And tracks there were.  A polka-dotted trail of prints left by our soft-hearted, firm pawed, slightly dimwitted tomcat as he had earlier forged a path across the roof, off to carry out his daily inspection of his extensive lands.

This time last year, BMO and his sister Bellatrix (Trixie) were gracious enough to decide that we have the privilege of being their humans.  “BeeMo” was the result of an 8 year old’s naming decision, the culmination of a fortnight spent compiling a flip chart of potential identities for the tiny black ball of chaos and his sister, rescued from the streets and adopted with glee by us all, condemned as we had been to a temporary feline hiatus.  Since then, BMO and his 8 year old have been inextricably linked by a combination of dogged persistence (the 8 year old), inexhaustible patience (the cat) and Dreamies (also known as ‘cat crack’).

This time last year, it was easy.  BMO was a tiny black ball of crazy with no interest in the outdoors, happy sleeping between us on the pillows at night.  This year though, he’s started to wander further afield.  First came the late nights, although I convinced myself that was just because he was ignoring the call and hiding out in the garage or the orchard.  Then last week, I spotted our practically-challenged black devil at the bottom of the hill.  Quite definitely not in the garage or the orchard and quite obviously most comfortable with that eventuality.  I resisted the urge to bolt out of the car, scoop him up and lock him inside forever.  He’s not an ‘inside-cat’ after all, and to restrict him for protection would, by equal measure, diminish him.  Besides, knowing the great big gallumping oaf, ill could just as easily befall him in the confines of home … he has been known to fall off things and run into doors.  Even if that isn’t his destiny, I was moved to ask myself what I was protecting him from.  So instead, I drove on and waited on tenter hooks until his eager face appeared at the bedroom window, much to my relief.

This morning though, on a day so full of possibilities, he had left us tracks.  Tracks that beckoned seductively, whispering, ‘Follow us’.

This was how we had ended up here, gazing downwards on a snow-covered road, bedecked in all manner of thermally-assistive clothing, following the siren’s call of the little black indentations in the snow.  Tracking something is a strange mix of meditation and serendipity.  Before long, we had fractionated, the 8 year old lured away by pheasant tracks, the loping traces of a rabbit and once, the memory of a fox in the crystalline carpet.  I stuck with BMO though, eager to see if following the ghost of his passing could give me insight into the life he had that was no longer mine.  He zig-zagged, marking his territory with a capricious freedom, drifting from one interest to another until I lost his tracks under a hedgerow in a patch of meltwater where his world became private once more.

I turned around to call back to everyone, to tell them that we’d followed as far as we could, that we’d have to let him go here into his own world.  In that instant, as I looked back up the hill towards a small child bundled up in brightly coloured woollens, scooping up snow with abandon and launching it skywards with a cry of delight, I realised it wasn’t really the cat I was tracking.

I read somewhere recently, that having a child is like taking one of your vital organs out and letting it live on the outside, spending the rest of your life with a deep-rooted fear for it as it will always be integral to your survival.  That resonated.  Just as the cat spread his paws and outgrew the garden, so too will his 8 year old.  In September, there will be new schools and new challenges, buses, distance and freedom.  We are not raising an ‘inside-child’.  BMO needs the sights, scents and secrets of the outdoor world and our daughter needs no less.

Looking back along the path we’ve walked, there’s another set of tracks interspersed with the prints that have led us this far, those of a small person stepping out in the world.  Maybe one day, these will be what we have to follow.  But not this morning.  This morning I scoop up my own handful of possibilities, run back up the hill and throw it high with laughter.

Find Some Beauty

Two of my favourite quotes. Beauty isn’t always at the other end of a camera lens, sometimes it’s from the end of a pen.

‘What I’ve written here is a message to myself. I toss it into the air like a boomerang. It slices through the dark, lays the little soul of some poor kangaroo out cold, and finally comes back to me.

But the boomerang that returns is not the same one I threw.’

Sputnik Sweetheart
Haruki Murakami

‘It’s been that way since I was little. When I didn’t understand something, I gathered up the words scattered at my feet, and lined them up into sentences. If that didn’t help, I’d scatter them again, rearrange them in a different order. Repeat that a number of times, and I was able to think about things like most people.’

Sputnik Sweetheart
Haruki Murakami