Graduate With Who (Whom?!;-), Exactly…?

Time was when the banks used to try to grab the dazed and confused, just-left-home school-leaver at Freshers’ Fair, sign ’em up for a bank account, and then be pretty sure that they’d stick with you for the rest of their hopefully profitable (to the bank) life. It’s the cloud companies that are doing the same now, of course:

(It’s a video of two halves…)

As the Official Google Blog puts it, in a post entitled “Graduate with Google Apps“:

[W]e’ve created the Google Guides program to help you take your Google Apps expertise to your future job. When you become a Google Guide, we’ll equip you with resources to introduce and implement Apps in your workplace. You’ll make an immediate impact by saving your company money and facilitating collaboration among coworkers. Once your company is up and running with Google Apps, you’ll get to continue using all the Apps tools you learned and loved in college—not to mention be known as your company’s in-house Google expert.

Compare this with something like:

“…..some commentators believe that the size of the increase of (student fee) contributions may well lead some disadvantaged students to question the benefit of a university education. I would urge you all to do everything within your powers to persuade disadvantaged students that a university education will offer them huge lifelong rewards”.
Sir Martin Harris, Director of Fair Access in “How to produce an Access Agreement for 2012-13”, OFFA, March 2011

[Pinched from an OU internal consultation document, “Widening participation in the future funding environment: An Access and Success Strategy? “, 201146_30614_o1.doc]

Seems to me that’s a case of: “once they graduate, your job is done…”

Now don’t get me wrong, I personally think the role of the educator should be to do themselves out of the structured, formal education job wherever possible, and help engender skills and enthusiasm for self-directed independent learning wherever possible, which is related to the idea of the job being done. But I also believe in network-mediated learning, where the network provides proximity to folk who can help meet your proximal development needs, and the lifelong subscription model can be part of that. (Network mediated proximal development can also play a part in the day-to-day offering within a traditional HE model, of course, as for example in the case of invisible/ubiquitous support and influential friends.)

But is the role of the university really to shut itself off from it’s graduates and turn them into fondly remembered alumni. How does that sit with the “knowledge transfer” remit, if we year-on-year stop talking to thousands of graduates who are supposedly entering a knowledge economy?

Regular/longstanding readers will know that I’ve previously blogged about the idea of Subscription Models for Lifelong Students in which the three year course proposition is just the start of a university’s relationship with a lifelong learner, rather than the whole extent of it, alumni dinners and requests for donations aside…

…and I’ve also advocated getting students signed up to course related web feeds (RSS/Atom feeds) during their courses, not only for the purpose of feeding course/topic related content to them (such as related news articles, as well as “teaching” materials) in the expectation that a fraction of the students will stay subscribed to the feed having finished the course and will maintain a “learning”, or at least, current awareness relationship with the topic maybe for years ever after. (This may or may not be appropriate in all subject areas; for subjects where continual professional updating is useful, such as health and technology, I think it is…)

What you may not know about is a “meme” that’s going around the OU at the moment relating to the idea of “M-World” and “Q-World” futures (would it be churlish to wonder whether we paid an external consulting firm a shedload for that observation?!;-0). The OU traditionally sold what we used to call courses and now call modules, 100-600 hour (10-60 credit point) units of study on a particular area. If you go to the OU course catalogue, that’s predominantly what you see, and what you hand your credit card over for. The OU offers degrees too, originally as an “open” degree but now increasingly as named degrees, which makes the original model of “take what you want when you want it” harder to justify for a programme that requires progression through a specified sequence of courses…

Despite trying – and failing – to find papers relating to the Q- and M- world strategies on the OU intranet (note to self: spider the intranet and write my own search engine), from the chats I’ve had there appears to have been no mention of the S-world, in which we sign up either Q- or M- students, but only see that as the start of a relationship in which the institution provides micro-content to lifelong students who pay an annual subscription fee, as well as maybe selling the odd 10-30 point course over the lifetime of the relationship. That is, rather than sell “leisure learners” the occasional module (extreme M-world, I guess?) for a 10-30 week relationship, or degree seekers an undergraduate qualification over a 3-9 year period (Q-world), we look for a relationship that is likely to last 10 weeks-50+ years.

Imagine than, you take a course, and sign up to the course feed when you do so. The course feed supplements the course material with items of relevance and interest the course (contemporary/current related wider reading for example, something that might be drawn in conversation relating to the topics covered in the course). There is nothing so damning in the course feed that it can’t be made available to people outside the course, such as alumni of course (people who never unsubscribed).

You finish the course and keep the feed, for free… (it might be keyed with a presentation code, so filtered content can be sent down it). Occasionally, you might get an advert appearing in the feed, announcing a new podcast on a relevant topic or a news release/research paper report from an OU academic working in the area. A mechanism for informed serendipitous discovery is in place.

For subscribers, the whole of the OU archive is open to search. Subscribers can treat the OU legacy course corpus as a learning and teaching styled encyclopedia. They can also get access to premium content. Another subscription tier may provide access to subscription content via the library (see e.g. Lessig At CERN: Scientific Knowledge Should Not Be Reserved For Academic Elite on why this is important). I don’t know if HE product development/curriculum innovation bods watch the quality dailies, but I keep seeing the Guardian and Observer promoting events that look appealing, for a fee; and they’re also developing various membership models, I think, too? (“An audience With…”, or “Join the club, and get hammered with some of our hacks…”, or whatever…) But how many folk outside the university (indeed, within it?!) even know of the many free and open seminars and talks that take place on university campuses and in university buildings, let alone attend them?* (Cf. Keeping Up With Events (broken…?!).) *if the answer is “not many”, that’s maybe in part a failing of the promoter…? For example, the last Cafe Scientifique event I attended (admittedly, nothing to do with a university) was very well attended, in part as a result of effective word-of-mouth promotion.

Now (it) may or may not be a crunchtime for HE (I think the older institutions at least are pretty robust), but if no-one in HE is thinking about how higher level education can become everyday relevant and engage in effective knowledge transfer out of the institution and into the real world (err, Google Guides anyone?!) on a sustainable basis, maybe as part of a lifelong learning culture where the university plays an important role as both authority and hub, to use a bit of social network analysis jargon, then that part of the sector marketing itself as a purveyor of “graduate level skills” to a volume market (as opposed to propagating itself to an academic elite, which was the mainstay of the traditional academic model) deserves to go down. IMVHO, of course…

PS another thought I’ve blogged/ranted many times before that’s come to mind again: how many universities make use of search data (form internal and incoming) searches as a provider of at least weak signals about curriculum offerings as perceived by potential students? Compare that with how many employ traditional market research companies to sound out the market about potential new courses. (If anyone has any (links to) good insights about how universities (can) do the curriculum innovation thing effectively, please post them in the comments;-)

PPS Hmmm – seems like the idea of course for alumni may not be such a good one: The Harvard “MOOCs for Alumni” Thing Parties Like It’s 1999. That said, would it work as part of a credential upgrade package?

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

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