Up close and personal

With its part-time external tutors, Britain's largest university gives students the attention they need, says Derek Rowntree

June 25, 2009

What is happening to tutor-student contact in British universities? Is it dropping to dangerously low levels? Are we losing the personal tutor-student relationship that many say once distinguished our universities from those of so many other countries?

This was the issue that Times Higher Education recently posed to me and other members of its readers' panel.

That got me thinking about Britain's largest university, which enrolled its first 25,000 undergraduates in 1971. It was initially derided as "blithering nonsense" by Ian Macleod MP, who, as incoming Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, immediately cut its budget. But by 1992, the Conservative Minister for Higher Education was calling it "a jewel in the crown of UK higher education".

I write, of course, of The Open University. Uniquely, its 1,100 academics have little or no contact with its 150,000 undergraduates. Yet students feel intensely in touch with the ideas and writings of those academics; and the National Student Surveys suggest that they are more satisfied with their education than students in any other publicly funded university in Britain.

So how has this university managed to satisfy its students so well despite what looks like an abysmal staff-to-student ratio of about one academic to 150 students? Well, appearances can be deceptive. The OU recognised from the start that excellent course materials may be important to making distance learning work but are not sufficient. Such information delivery needs to be followed by personalised teaching.

Someone needs to interact personally and frequently with each student, confirming or correcting their developing understanding, leading them on to new insights and assuring them that they have a supporter who cares about their learning.

However, there seemed no need for those supporters to be the academics who plan and develop the courses. Instead, as many Times Higher Education readers will know from personal experience, the university conjured up a nationwide network of part-time tutors who quickly cut that ratio from 1:150 to about 1:20.

Over the years, the OU has employed tens of thousands of part-time tutors (about 8,000 at the time of writing), a large proportion of whom have day jobs in other universities and higher education colleges. Each tutor is responsible for a "class" of about 20 students.

University teachers hitherto resigned to delivering information to huge classes on campus have often declared the part-time experience of working intensively with a small OU group to be very refreshing.

Apart from telephone, email and web contact, and perhaps occasional face-to-face sessions if they can manage to attend, students interact with their tutor via the assignment system. Every few weeks each student sends in an assignment related to whatever course materials he or she has been working on since the previous assignment. Their tutor not only grades this work but also writes extensive comments intended to help the student overcome weaknesses or build on their strengths.

All new tutors are, of course, trained in how to give effective feedback (and, furthermore, their subsequent commenting is monitored periodically by a more experienced colleague in the interests of maintaining teaching quality). This formative feedback often leads to further discussion with the tutor and helps fuel a continuing dialogue.

By such means, even when enrolled on a course with 2,000 others, each OU student is provided with far more written feedback from his or her tutor than are most students on similar courses in other universities - perhaps even 50 times as much.

Of all the OU's many innovations in teaching, I believe this use of part-time external tutors to be the one most crucial to its success. With online learning becoming widespread, research demands increasing and tutor-to-student ratios worsening, is it now time for more universities to consider whether the recruitment of part-time tutors (retired academics or other professionals, for instance) may offer a cost-effective means of providing the kind of personalised contact that many students feel they are lacking at present?

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