Effectiveness and capacity building in ODL: increasing the number of eggs we lay …(#change11)(#fslt12)


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[Image retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/aug/31/farmers-flout-battery-hen-ban 20 May 2012]

The alternative title for this week’s blog is: “Confessions of a tired battery chicken”…

Organisational effectiveness is high on the numerous agendas of higher education institutions – whether reflected in our risk registers, guidelines for performance management or employment contracts. Open distance learning (ODL) institutions are no exemption to these general concerns about organisational effectiveness. It is also an established fact that institutional and administrative effectiveness and efficiency in ODL are crucial in determining student success, retention and throughput. Research (e.g. Subotzky and Prinsloo, 2011) indicates that organisational and administrative efficiencies in ODL often outweigh other factors impacting on student success e.g. students’ preparedness, number of modules, etc.

While no one questions the role of institutional efficiency in student success in ODL, it would seem as if the concerns about efficiency and effectiveness in ODL border on an almost unnatural obsession with increasing the productivity of our production lines, quality assurance regimes, performance management systems and the resulting proliferation of reporting. This seeming obsession can possibly be ascribed to a number of things – such as the constant battle to prove that ODL is of comparable quality to face-to-face teaching; or the fact that offering hundreds (or thousands) of courses and programmes to thousands of students does take an immense administrative system aimed to deliver cost-effective courses based on exploiting economies of scale.

While the reputation of brick and mortar institutions (often) depends on the fame and expertise of their faculty; the effectiveness and efficiency of systems in an ODL context may actually outweigh the reputational value of individual lecturer expertise. The concerns about efficiency is therefore not out of order.

And yet… an obsession with effectiveness and productivity may hide a discomfort and inability to deal with the bigger questions such as the purpose, scope and format of higher education in the 21st century and the need to create a space where faculty and staff can thrive. It may be easier to focus on individual efficiencies and productivity than to address the systems in which those individuals work. Instead of addressing systemic change, we become obsessed with individual productivity, individual performance agreements and monitoring and evaluation of individuals to ensure that the assembly lines of knowledge production run smoothly and faster than ever.

Recently a lot has been written about ‘free-range’ learning where students in the 21st century forage for knowledge in unrestricted ways like free-range chickens. While ‘free-range learning’ as metaphor is an enticing (and most probably apt) description of learning in the 21st century; no-one talks about ‘free-range teaching’ within the confines of traditional ODL – on the contrary. There are glimpses of ‘free-range teaching’ with some MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that run outside established universities. But for most faculty in ODL institutions, the notion of free-range teaching is a foreign (and often scary) concept.

Within this context, it would seem as if an appropriate metaphor for staff in ODL institutions is the metaphor of being battery hens, destined to lay eggs in the defined-by-performance-agreement-cages. The effectiveness of faculty and professional staff are then carefully measured by the number and weight of the eggs they lay. There are weekly initiatives to increase productivity – leaving the lights on to create the impression that the sun never sets and monitoring the consumption and outputs of every hen based on carefully designed criteria and standards. Based on the latest research the cages of the chickens are made smaller to prevent unnecessary movement, beaks are trimmed and diets carefully controlled. The moment an unfortunate chicken’s productivity decreases (as measured by a comparison of the amount of eggs she lays to the national prescribed criteria); she is earmarked to become an item on a menu in a fast food restaurant.

So we lay eggs, as fast as we can – forever fearing that moment when the amount of eggs or the weight of our eggs  will not compare well with the national averages, standards and criteria. Weekly broadcasts remind us of how fortunate we are to be battery hens who contribute to the national development goals of the nation. Managers scurry around to measure our cages and go on breakaways to determine how to adjust our menu and what music to play to increase the number and quality of eggs we lay. We may even be requested to fill in questionnaires to tell the management of the factory what training we need, not to thrive, but to be more effective. And although the productivity of some hens is in question, most of the hens in my battery are doing our best – despite our trimmed beaks and the increasing osteoporosis.   

Which brings me to the end of exploring this rather unfortunate metaphor.

While concerns about organisational effectiveness and efficiency are valid in higher education and in ODL in particular; can our obsession with quality and effectiveness be attributed to the fact that quality and effectiveness are much easier to describe than questioning the appropriateness of our curricula to contribute towards a more just and compassionate society? Maybe it is easier to measure eggs than to questioning the health of the system?  Why focus on individual effectiveness while we keep legacy systems in place because it will take too much, cost too much, it is not the right time, etc?

In closing:

The issue is therefore not only how to increase the effectiveness of teaching and learning in ODL but also how to create a space for reflecting on the appropriateness of our systems to support teaching and learning in the 21st century. What conditions should we put in place to allow educators and learners to thrive?

Maybe it is time to realise that it is not the size of the cages or the forced meals or the music that is played that increase the number of eggs I lay; but appreciating me for who I am – an educator and researcher with a passion and calling for teaching and research – nothing more and nothing less.

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About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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