It is that time of the year again when students’ examination results are scrutinized and various investigations held to determine not necessarily why students failed, but more importantly, who can we held accountable for the state of affairs. Mostly, (however sadly), faculty is held responsible for a downturn in pass rates as inquiries, workshops and think-tanks are held to decide what faculty should do to improve the pass rates of students.
While genuine concern and care about students’ pass rates are laudable and praiseworthy, a lot of the concerns about students’ pass rates are driven by managerialist approaches to managing student success. As national governments hold higher education institutions increasingly accountable by setting performance and student success targets, so does the management of these institutions respond by holding faculty responsible for student success. There is nothing wrong with being accountable and being held accountable for student success. My concern is that much of the accountability discourses on student success in distance education contexts resemble kangaroo courts. A kangaroo court is defined as
1. a self-appointed or mob-operated tribunal that disregards or parodies existing principles of law or human rights, especially one in a frontier area or among criminals in prison.
2. any crudely or irregularly operated court, especially one so controlled as to render a fair trial impossible.
The notion of kangaroo courts is most probably as old as humanity where mob justice often provided instantaneous relief for the aggrieved parties without a possibility of a fair trial for the accused who faced his or her creator earlier than expected. The legal online dictionary refers to the term as having originated “to the historical practice of itinerant judges on the U.S. frontier. These roving judges were paid on the basis of how many trials they conducted, and in some instances their salary depended on the fines from the defendants they convicted. The term kangaroo court comes from the image of these judges hopping from place to place, guided less by concern for justice than by the desire to wrap up as many trials as the day allowed.”
There are many similarities between kangaroo courts and what we experience during inquiries into student success. Much of the court hearings are based on circumstantial evidence, a crude use of statistics, a deeply suspect understanding of the inter-dependencies in distance education delivery and a total disregard for rich history of research into student success and retention in higher education. For example, what does it really say if the pass rate in a particular course or module decreased from 2012 to 2013? Was the student cohort the same? Were all other variables such as curriculum content, assessment strategies, focus in the summative assessment, and exam timetables similar? What about institutional and macro-societal impacts such the replacement of servers, a 5-week postal strike followed by a disastrous staff strike?
In these kangaroo courts justice cannot done, neither to students nor to everyone involved in the delivery of distance education. The student journey consists of mostly non-linear, multidimensional, interdependent interactions at different phases in the nexus between student, institution and broader societal factors (Prinsloo, 2009; Prinsloo, 2012; and Subotzky & Prinsloo, 2011). In distance education contexts the amount and interdependency of variables makes it almost impossible to find direct correlation between a single variable and an increase or decrease in the percentage of students passing of failing a module or course.
Knee-jerk reactions to being found guilty in these kangaroo courts are almost the easiest way to please those who must report to higher authorities. Yes, of course there is always room for improvement in learning experiences, but without thorough research and analysis, the adding of extra learning or reading materials, or even assessment opportunities may not have the desired effect. In a developing country where postal services are unreliable and student and faculty digital fluency and sustainable access to the Internet are still a future dream, there is only so much that a learning experience can entail in a semester of 14 weeks.
Huge numbers of students in developing world contexts study with the help of national student funding and often the funding arrangements are not finalised by the time the semester starts resulting in students registering late. Only once students’ registrations are finalised do they get access to their online study materials and resources while waiting for their printed study materials to arrive. Add to this scenario a postal strike of five weeks and/or a staff strike of three weeks and the whole scenario (and its predicted outcomes) changes.
This is not to say that faculty is innocent. Accountability for student success is, however, an institutional responsibility and in distance education contexts faculty is but one role-player amidst many others that impact on the success of students. To address concerns regarding student success in an institution or in particular departments and modules/courses, the following are tentative pointers to disrupt the belief that kangaroo courts will solve student success.
- Acknowledge and manage the inter-dependencies between faculty, administrative and support departments (e.g., ICT comes to mind). While the quality of the curriculum and study materials fall within the responsibility of faculty, the teaching of a module/course is embedded and held ransom by teaching periods, assessment regimes, the expectations and workload of faculty, as well as professional development and support.
- Get the basics right. Some of the basics that come to mind include the careful and informed design of curricula and pedagogy, an enabling environment for faculty, ensuring effective administrative processes, and responding timeously to student inquiries
- Do research. At present the evidence presented at these kangaroo courts are suspect. Surely we must look for longer trends than just responding to two years? Should we not also compare apples with apples? What information do we need to make sense of change in pass rates – surely the examination statistics are just one factor or do I miss something?
- Professional learning and development. We urgently need to, one the one hand, recognize the expertises and experiences of faculty, but at the same time, on the other hand, dramatically increase the understanding of faculty (and management) of the historical and recent developments in higher and distance education. Listening to some of the arguments and claims offered during these kangaroo courts makes me shudder. If students would offer us such unsubstantiated evidence and theory-poor arguments, we would not only fail them but consider them to be “not-higher-education-material.” Distance education and teaching in a digital age requires a thorough understanding of the field and specific capacities to respond in informed and appropriate ways. Can it be that some of our faculty are not “teaching-in-a-distance-context-material”?
No one benefits from a kangaroo court approach to addressing student success in distance education contexts. The lynching of faculty may provide brief respite for managers looking for neat answers and commitments to raise student success by a certain margin, but it dehumanises teaching as a moral and value-driven imperative and impoverishes us all.
Prinsloo, P. (2009). Modelling Throughput at Unisa: The key to the successful implementation of ODL. Retrieved from http://umkn-dsp01.unisa.ac.za/handle/10500/6035
Prinsloo, P. (2012, 17 May). ODL research at Unisa. Presentation at the School of Management Sciences, Pretoria: University of South Africa.
Subotzky, G., & Prinsloo, P. (2011). Turning the tide: a socio-critical model and framework for improving student success in open distance learning at the University of South Africa, Distance Education, 32(2), 177—193. DOI: 10.1080/01587919.2011.584846