Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Inspiring Capability

I will be in China late this week and early next, as the guest of Shanghai University of Engineering Science, which is a university with which we are currently developing what we hope will be a mutually beneficial relationship. The project is exciting to say the least - a recognition of prior learning project which will involve assessing experienced Chinese managers against our Bachelor of Applied Management degree, and with the added bonus that it is funded by NZ Trade and Enterprise. As part of the visit I have been asked to speak at the" Fourth International President’s Forum on Education ", on the theme " How to Cultivate Talents With Innovative Spirit and Practical Ability ". So, I have chosen to talk about Otago Polytechnic's focus on developing capability - or should I say "Inspiring Capability" !
As I prepared the speech, most of which follows, I realised that we have not actually described "capability" in a public way for ourselves - although it was discussed at Academic Board last year. So, hopefully my address will have the added value as a reference point for ourselves here at home! Here it is:

"Today I would like to make the focus of my address the development of learner capability, which is the approach to cultivating practical ability which we have adopted at Otago Polytechnic. By learner capability, I mean the development of the power of our learners to perform. This, to us, is what practical ability really means – more than acquiring skills or being able to demonstrate skills. Capable people are those who can take effective action in whatever context they are operating, whether that be in their personal lives, at work or in their community.

At Otago Polytechnic we have set out to develop and implement programmes of learning which have the explicit purpose of building the capability of our learners, and in turn the capability of the communities which we serve - captured in our our mission "Inspiring Capability". We do this through a focus on practical learning, and a single-mindedness in applying theory to practice, supported by “real world” experiences.

What then does capability mean for us at Otago Polytechnic?

We see capable people as those who are confident that they can perform, who can explain what they are about and who have truly learned how to learn. Capable practitioners, which we are preparing our learners to be, not only have specialised knowledge and skill (which is so often what university and polytechnic programmes are confined to developing) but also have a range of personal qualities that enable them to be effective, that enable them to perform. For us, capable practitioners not only have the technical/specialist skills and knowledge required for their chosen trade/professional/vocational area but also they:
Ø are effective communicators of ideas and information, both verbally and in writing
Ø are self aware and self critical. They can take into account their feelings and intuition and reflect on their values.
Ø are prepared to learn and adapt. They can participate effectively in and manage change.
Ø use initiative. They are self starters and can work independently. They can set achievable and relevant goals.
Ø listen to and work effectively with others. They can work in teams, respecting and valuing the contributions of others.
Ø assess the effectiveness of their actions and learn from their experiences. They are reflective.
Ø are critical of and creative in their thinking and actions. They are open to new ways of thinking and acting.
Ø have respect and concern for others. They value diversity.
Ø accept responsibility for their actions. They are willingly accountable for their performance

These personal qualities are an integral part of what capability is, yet they can easily be forgotten when programmes and courses of learning are developed, and, if not acknowledged at best they become part of the informal/hidden curriculum. But if we genuinely want to develop capability in our learners we must be purposeful about building into our programmes explicit opportunities for learners to acquire or enhance these personal skills and abilities. This means designing both appropriate learning experiences and assessment tasks. It also means having a teaching and learning culture that supports the development of learner capability and that will allow learners to exercise control, to experiment and to take risks. This is the approach we are encouraging at Otago Polytechnic.

To be more specific:

If our learners are to leave us as capable graduates who accept responsibility, who are self starters and who have learned how to learn, our programmes must provide them with opportunities to be more responsible and accountable for their own learning. The more demanding and complex the situation within which the learner is actively responsible and accountable the more confident and capable the learner can become.

If our graduates are to be able to work effectively with others and to work in teams, then they must also learn with others and in teams. This means setting team goals and objectives, undertaking peer evaluation and being accountable as a team.

If our graduates are to be socially responsible practitioners then we must provide them with opportunities to explore the relevance of their studies to themselves and to society. At Otago Polytechnic we have adopted for all programmes the theme of sustainable practice as a vehicle for consideration of issues of social responsibility.

If our graduates are to be self aware, self critical and reflective they must as learners have the opportunity within their programmes to acquire the enabling skills and to put them into practice. This means acknowledging the validity of and providing opportunities for self assessment, and providing a safe environment in which learners can be themselves.

Thus, there are significant implications for programme design and delivery if we are to develop learner capability. We need to guard against courses being too tightly structured, over-packed with content and over-taught. These are what militate against capability. Learning must not become just a set of learning tasks. We must be concerned with process at least as much as with content, if not more so. Because capability is developed as much by how people learn as by what they learn. This implies less formal teaching, especially passive didactic strategies, and more learner managed learning, including negotiated contracts of learning and learning in teams.

A key challenge when designing programmes which enable capability development is to provide for the assessment of personal skills and abilities, as well as of subject knowledge and technical skills. Assessment is a powerful force in determining learner behaviour, so in a capability curriculum it is essential to reward the development of the personal qualities I have identified. And this, too is about both what is assessed e.g. critical thinking, reflective capacity, team work, goal setting; and how e.g. self and peer assessment, team assessment.

In summary, students will develop capability if they are required to be capable in their learning and, in particular, if they have experience of being responsible and accountable for their own learning – as individuals and in association with others. Our curriculum challenge is to embed such experiences within programmes, not for them to be an added extra or left to chance.

If we are to develop learners as capable practitioners then there are some challenges for the learners themselves. They must be prepared to take an active part in planning and organising their learning, to monitor their own progress against agreed criteria, to provide evidence of achievement against intended outcomes and to do the above individually and collaboratively.

Finally, there are also significant challenges for teachers if they are to participate effectively in a capability curriculum. They need to create the opportunities for students to plan, organise and evaluate their own learning, and need to shift the emphasis of their personal role from that of being the key content expert to one of providing guidance to learners on appropriate resources and expertise, to enable students to draw on expertise across traditional boundaries (subject, departmental/programme area, institutional) as is relevant to their goals, to offer dialogue and critical support and to stimulate reflection on learning processes and progress towards goals. Thus, teachers need to become more of a coach and less a font of knowledge, more of a guide and less of a lecturer. "

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Bitter sweet

Another week almost gone, and what a bitter sweet week it has been. I arrived back from leave very refreshed indeed, and as an added bonus Dunedin was having a warm spell with temperatures not that far off those on the Gold Coast. Come Thursday, mind you, and Dunedin did what only Dunedin can and temperatures plummetted. I lit the fire !!

The week started in the best possible way with the Prime Minister visiting us to announce $12.5m of capital funding as our share of a new $20m design school to be built as a joint venture between Otago Polytechnic and the University of Otago. This funding is a real vote of confidence by government for the work being done in design education at Otago Polytechnic, and caps several million dollars of other capital funding which we have received for design education over the last four years. We have a vision for Dunedin as a world class centre for design, the pursuit of which is being passionately led by Alistair Regan, our Group Manager for Creative Technologies, and Head of Design. We have had fantastic support from our local design related industries for the new design school, and now we must rise to the challenge of really connecting our educational resources with our businesses to build capability for our region. But this is the kind of challenge we should be rising to, rather than that of trying to keep our doors open on Monday mornings - but more about that later.

Also significant about the design school project is the fact that it is a collaboration with the University. Our relationship with the University is excellent, and I believe our commitment to share this new facility is unique in the NZ tertiary scene. But it is also so sensible - the two institutions will each have their own space in the new building, but we will also have common space, thereby avoiding duplicative investment in expensive technology. And by working together we will harness the Polytechnic's applied teaching with the University's research expertise in the interests of our stakeholders.

But this wonderful start to the week soon turned to custard as I turned my attention to what is without doubt the worst part of my job: announcing a surplus staffing review for our School of Art. What made this particularly difficult is the fact that it is almost a year to the week that I initiated the last review of this School, which saw the loss of four staff. Worse, in the light of that review the Art staff have done a fantastic job in redeveloping their whole undergraduate curriculum, including a new diploma programme, and the new wing for the School is progressing ahead of schedule. It is heartbreaking to cut across once again the growing optimism in the School. And again, today, I have initiated a staffing review for Student Services, an area we have been steadily building as we strive to provide our students with better support services and a more satisfying and successful experience. But we cannot afford to maintain the service levels we desire.

So why are these reviews happening? Simply because we are struggling to place the Polytechnic on a sustainable financial footing. We run a very lean operation, as I am sure all staff will agree, but we simply do not have the resources to maintain the current levels of activity and the current educational infrastructure. And this is because we are inadequately funded, as are most poytechnics in the sector. Unfortunately, this is an inconvenient truth for both our owners ( government) and TEC who are charged with managing the sector on behalf of our owners. Actually, we are our owners - we the public of New Zealand, and in Otago we the citizens of this region. Why is it that we do not stand up and insist that our key community assets be adequately funded and maintained?

And something else worthy of reflecting on: apparently the country can afford to introduce a universal student allowance at an eventual cost of $200m pa, but cannot afford the approximately $50m pa it would take to place every polytechnic on a sustainable financial footing. I do not want to begrudge future students receiving assistance with the costs of their education, but many New Zealanders can afford to support their children. I am one of those, and I am happy to be doing so. I was not expecting my children to be educated entirely on the tax payer, but I guess I should just relax and enjoy it! But I would rather have seen some of that $200m paying for world class polytechnics in which my children could be educated. Surely $150m would go along way towards achieving the objectives of a universal student allowance, with the other $50m used to fund the systm adequately? Rather than the disgrace we have for a polytechnic system at the moment - antiquated plant and equipment, poor building stock and inadequate technology characterise the system in which we expect future generations to be educated. How sensible is that?

Enough! I feel my blood pressure rising and sense a rant coming on. So I will finish on a sweet note. Wednesday saw the launch of the "Tertiary Precinct Development Plan" - a plan to improve progressively that part of the city in which we operate: improved transport, better public facilities, improved housing and a cleaner and more sustainable environment. This plan is the result of several years of collaborative effort by the DCC, Otago Polytechnic and the University of Otago, and is born from our collective determination to ensure that Dunedin continues to be New Zealand's tertiary education capital! I am looking forward to ensuring that we at Otago Polytechnic do our bit to bring the plan to life.

Tomorrow the week finishes for me on a high note: a visioning day for our School of Applied Business. I am really looking forward to this, and to what I am sure will be a veritable feast of ideas to establish our business school as a jewel in the OP crown!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Open air, sun and OER

It has been a few days since my last posting, but I have been preoccupied with sun , sand and surf at Broadbeach on the Gold Coast. Not to mention a run and cycle everyday, and two novels under my belt. How do you get paid for this ....... ALL the time!

I mentioned last post that I would write a little more about Otago Polytechnic's Open Education Resource initiative. Well on the way to implementation is the " International Centre for Open Education "- due to "go live" officially in May 2009, although lot's will be happening between now and then. First of all we have to form a charitable entity to house this new not -for -profit Centre, because we will be relying on grants and member fees to ensure the financial sustainability of the venture. We already have approx $70k pa pledged for the first 3 years, so there are certainly people out there who believe this is a timely initiative.

What will the new Centre set out to achieve? We hope that the Centre will be a true catalyst for mainstreaming institutional involvement in the OER movement, which we believe has much to offer the institutions which participate, their staff and our communities. The Centre will:
-provide advice and support to educational practitioners, policy makers, decision makers and institutions to implement OER
-facilitate research, dissemination and sharing of knowledge and experiences regarding the sustainable implementation of OER
-provide financial assistance for collaborative projects working on the design, development and delivery of education materials
-initiate activities that build capacity amongst educators in the design, development and use of open education resources.
I am confident that this initiative will provide real leadership both in New Zealand and internationally for collaborative educational activities. There is so much scope for reduced costs for institutions and reduced workloads for staff if we are willing to give away some of the " noone does it better than us" attitude and to share our expertise. And one of the services that the new Centre will offer is a guarantee of quality assurance around the projects sponsored by the Centre.
One of the things tertiary institutions will have to take on board is that if we embrace OER we have to develop new business models - and especially so if our owners continue to underfund us. I must admit that it took me some effort to get into the headspace that giving things away might be good for business, and not just good for learners. And this comes from someone who has spent over 4 years trying to establish a long term financial sustainability for Otago Polytechnic - a sustainability that does not destroy the essence of who we are. But that is another story!
Well, gotta go and take on some more relaxation.
ps Someone asked in an earlier comment why we were establishing an international centre? My response - why not! It is just as easy to collaborate internationally as it is to do so within an institution. But that does not mean we will not be doing our utmost to encourage OP staff to see the benefits that OER can bring for them. Watch this space! On the other hand, OER will have its application internationally, and an international focus will help with funding - we hope!