02 October 2006

On cultures in adult education

It's the new academic year! Time for new year resolutions:
  • I resolve only to blog things which will make sense to me a week later.
Let's see if it works.

I am a student again! On Tuesdays, that is. 10-12 am; I take "The Problem of Evil" at the Retirement Education Centre. 6-9 pm; I take "Introduction to Macromedia 'Flash'" at the local FE college.

I have blogged previously about the wonderful REC courses. This time around they are even better because the so-called "assessment" requirement has become even more tokenistic and hence honest; now all the University expects is a two-paragraph essay proposal, rather than a pretend essay. Now it is clear to everyone that this is a game about funding, and nothing else; we know where we stand. All pretence of measuring "education" has now been abandoned. It's a gentleman's agreement (I did think of correcting for sexism, but then decided the principle goes too far back). It helps that the University involved is Cambridge; whichever way you cut it, this is one of the top five universities in the world; even the Higher Education Funding Council for England (you don't really want a link to their website, do you? How sad can you get?) hesitates to pick a fight with them.

It's not like that in the Further Education (FE) sector. Their funding comes from the local and national Learning and Skills Councils through a convoluted formula which takes account of the costs of offering a course (logical, but far from the whole story) adjusted with reference to under-represented groups in further education (including in my case, the over-60s, so I got a half-price deal on the up-front fee) and retention and completion rates. These are sausage-machine systems.

I hate to admit it, but it comes down to class. I and others (with much more reason and experience) resented the previous regime of accountability on the Cambridge courses. I don't know the details, but the funding bureaucrats are backing off; they are progressively conceding ever more liberal course requirements.

It doesn't work like that in FE. FE students have little voice. They have little engagement with their college. For many of them it is simply a place to access teaching. Many of them don't even know how to recognise good teaching.

At the REC, there is an equal dialogue between the class and the teacher. OK, there is a degree of manipulation;
  • Tutor; I am supposed to introduce "student-centred" methods into these classes, such as setting you tasks to perform in small groups. Do you really want to do that?
  • Class; No!
We were all aware of the game we were playing (although it was sad that the tutor was forced to go through the motions) and probably I was the only person present who knew what was fundamentally going on, but who cares?

[Note; we did do a small-group exercise in week 2, regardless of the class' judgement. It would take too long to disentangle that, now; email me if you are desperate!]

In FE, you can't treat it as a game. I did some calculations and worked out that, assuming a balanced 50% marginal and 50% overhead rate, and 14 students, this course would more than meet its costs, regardless of LSC subsidy. In fact there were 20 students last week, so assuming about 20% attrition....

I hate this. I know. Wherever you start it comes back to this. But....

We'll revisit this when I can think beyond feeling something is wrong.


At 11:17 AM , Blogger Jonathan said...

I started my teaching career by running Flash courses in an FE college!
It was a tough introduction, partly because the people on the phone who accepted students didn't realise that with only 20 Macs to use, the maximum number of students was... 20! Plus they didn't impose a 'prior knowledge' requirement, which meant that the groups always consisted of everyone from experienced designers and animators looking to broaden their skills to people who'd never touched a computer before but had heard that there was money to be made in this internet lark. And everyone in between.
Honestly, I once spent most of a Saturday helping one man hold the mouse the right way up.
I never quite figured out the tortuous logic behind the costing of the classes which meant that advanced courses never ran because 'only' 10 people wanted to do them, which with 'on costs' meant they were uneconomic to run - but when they didn't run the room they would have been in was still open, lit and switched on...

However, somehow the powers that be heard good things and I was 'invited' to take up a full-time teaching post. 24 hours/week teaching load, 900 hours per year!
The rest is history. I have loads of respect for FE lecturers but I wouldn't go back to that sector if my life depended on it - as I suspect my life would be much shorter as a result ;-)


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