The aspiring tutors assembled in the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology make a motley crew. They include a vet, a management consultant, a social worker, a language school director and a coordinator of military budgets for Nato.
They have been brought together from all over Europe to hear the task facing them when they work part-time as associate lecturers for the Open University Business School as part of its expansion plans on the continent, where it has operated since 1984. Expansion has put pressure on the OUBS to recruit 500 extra tutors across Europe. This is on top of the 750 or so part-time associate lecturers and 200 permanent staff who deal with the 25,000 or so students on management certificates, diplomas, degrees and masters at any one time.
Aude Leonetti, director of student affairs, says: "More than 2,000 people applied for the posts from the United Kingdom and Europe. On the continent there was 25 per cent from Spain alone."
The OUBS is also running an ambitious marketing campaign publicising its high-tech distance-learning materials and tutorial support to entice students, mostly people in full-time work, onto its courses. As an added incentive, there are now four start dates a year instead of two, and students can break and restart at anytime for a small fee.
Leonetti says: "Personal tutorial support is a central part of the OUBS study experience. Our associate lecturers are the public face of the school. They support students, mark assignments, arrange tutorials and mediate computer conferences. We use a rigorous selection system to ensure they have the necessary knowledge, skills and experience."
Face-to-face tutorials combine with online tuition via the OU's FirstClass software. This virtual conferencing facility allows lecturers to break students into groups - in the same way as in an ordinary class - and then bring them together to share ideas. Lecturers are able to check the time and date students open their emails, which means they can pick up on students who fall behind.
Students also submit assignments electronically to central office in Milton Keynes. These "e-tmas" are forwarded to tutors who use special software to mark them and add footnotes before emailing them back to students. The idea is to cut response times but also to develop student computer skills. A technical support team is on hand in Milton Keynes 24-hours a day to give advice to staff and students by phone or email. It is a technophobe's dream.
The Manchester associate lecturers learn that most students have signed up in Europe for courses that include face-to-face tutorials. But a few still opt for online tutorial support alone. A couple of students who live in Greece, for example, are following a course whose associate lecturer is based in Holland. "Are they totally virtual?" a lecturer asks. "Yes, they are," comes the reply.
It is an impressive package. With the right marketing, it should have an impact in a country such as Spain, where I am based and where the main distance-learning competitors - Uned and Oberta - have nothing like the OU's reputation for quality. Uned came last out of Spain's 54 universities in a recent ranking exercise that assessed the quality of teaching and the success rate of students. The OU regularly figures in the top 12 of Britain's 90 universities in terms of teaching quality.
But there are teething problems, particularly related to the logistics of selecting and placing recruits when the students are still coming in. Some 850 candidates were shortlisted and interviewed at assessment centres in Geneva, Brussels and the United Kingdom over four months last autumn. Existing associate lecturers wondered why they had to go through the recruitment process anew while new applicants, having waited to hear whether or not they were "appointable", found they might have to wait up to 12 months or more to be appointed if student numbers were insufficient.
To maintain morale, the OUBS offered two supports: Europe's regional managers were told to be available for advice by email or telephone; and a virtual "certificate waiting sub-conference" was set up for the "appointable but not appointed to keep in touch".
The OUBS sub-conferences took on a life of their own with associate lecturers hotly debating issues such as whether the OUBS was following the advice in its coursebooks about managing change or whether assessment centres are a good predictor of job success. As one respondent put it:
"This is a good taster of an exciting time ahead."
Details: www.oubs.open.ac.uk </a>
Induction gets under way in sunny Spain
It is a bright Saturday afternoon in Madrid and an OUBS induction for new students is about to begin. An experienced associate lecturer has been flown over from Germany to run the workshop, which, for the first time, has been planned to run to a common framework across Europe. The induction programmes allow students to meet lecturers. The meetings include icebreaker activities, a presentation on the OUBS, an "exploring the materials" exercise and some group work.
All the European inductions have been arranged between 1pm to 5pm to allow students time to travel. In Spain, however, people normally stop at 2.30pm for a siesta. While none of the students shows signs of dropping off, the cultural difference is evident in the speed at which biscuits disappear at teatime.
Sharing and discussing personal fears prove to be popular topics. One student is suspicious when told that the OUBS residential courses are not assessed. "My boss says the same thing when my company has a residential," he says wryly, "but I have noticed that after each course someone gets sacked."
The path to an associate lectureship
Eileen Crawley, an associate lecturer in Spain, says: "In February 2000, I saw an OUBS advert for associate lecturers in Spain. The process was drawn out: the interview was in Geneva in June, I was deemed 'appointable' in August and finally appointed to the MBA foundation course at the end of October.
"The interview was thorough. A combination of practical activities, role-plays and interviews were used to evaluate our presentation skills on a management topic, marking abilities, subject knowledge and computer skills. After the intensity of the interview, it was nerve-wracking to wait. Because the OU allows students to register up to the last moment, it is impossible to predict the number of associate lecturers required.
"I am delighted that I was allocated a group of ten MBA students from Spain, Portugal and Italy. It is an exciting experience to be associated with a university with students all over the world. It was a wonderful opportunity to meet so many professionals devoted to the cause of supporting adult learners."