Monday, May 30, 2011

63/100: The State of My Work

My work role is undergoing a subtle shift. In the first six months in my job in the college, I was mainly involved in strategic developments, which meant I dipped my toe into almost everything, from planning new customer service initiatives to talking to strategic partners overseas. However, since January, after the college recruited a new Managing Director, whose role includes everything business related, my role has changed into one overseeing the learning and teaching in the business courses of the college. Which I indeed love, it is in line with what I am studying at the UCL and something that I wanted to do: In a way, I am dead serious when I say I have retired from business.

My own assessment of the job is that there is a lot to be done. We do a much better job than most other private colleges around, but there is a lot to be covered still. Private College industry in Britain is sort of a cottage industry, without much professional practices in recruitment, design of courses, evaluation or marketing. This is not to say that the universities here are all good - I would rate some of the bottom ones as bad as any - but since the students are paying from their own funds for a private education, the private colleges have an obligation to be better than publicly funded institutions. I see this as an important job - one that can make or break the company in the days to come, when the college must grow out of its comfort zone of international students (who are far more forgiving and takes into account the 'foreign' experience when evaluating the college) - and indeed, have started working on this in all earnestness.

My first challenge is indeed to assemble a team of tutors who can teach the subjects in a manner consistent to our requirements. Till this time, the requirements were defined in simple terms - number of hours, indicative syllabus and quite loosely defined learning objectives. The assessments, usually written by the tutors themselves, kept the whole system going: It was quite easy for individual tutors to simply stay in their comfort zones. I am trying to change these requirements, and trying to bring the learning objectives to the fore. This will need some deep structural changes, I reckon, and I have started by creating an independent assessment team whose job will be to ensure that the students are fairly and comprehensively assessed against the learning objectives. This may sound a bit prescriptive, and I have been accused of low confidence on our tutoring. However, this is where my previous life in the sharp end of business is helpful: I am not very uncomfortable in being unpopular, as long as I have the conviction that this is the right thing to do.

Other than assessments, I have also started focusing on what goes on in the classroom. Too often, I suspect, our teaching is 'telling'. We recruit far too many people to teach who have been in the training industry (where I have spent a significant part of my working life) and their styles revolve around telling students what is correct. Most students, primarily the Asian ones, love it, as this is what they expect to happen in a classroom. However, in my mind, this is not in alignment with what a course at the Masters level is supposed to do - encourage Critical Thinking. I have picked that one from the Subject Benchmark statements of the British Quality Assurance Agency, and ended up agreeing with wholeheartedly. So far, I have found this difficult to do - encouraging critical thinking starts with encouraging conversations, and most tutors and students I have met so far dread conversations after all. To implement this change, I have started working on two things. First, to recruit a teaching team which is in alignment of this thinking, and this I wish to achieve by setting a recruitment process and candidate benchmark in place. The candidate benchmarks, this time around, need to go beyond just qualifications and experience, and need to involve their teaching philosophies, level of motivation and interpersonal skills, as well as their knowledge of the subject and their own ability to think critically and explore. Second, I am also trying to work out a document clarifying the teaching and learning strategy: this is surely a rather heavy sounding name for the slim document I am actually putting together, but a tag like Manifesto is more likely to alienate people than attract them. But, considering the spirit of what I am doing, this is really a manifesto - a set of ideas how we should be teaching - and for a matter of fact, this is not prescriptive but just a statement of intention. And, finally, this document, a trick I have learned from one of my teachers, will forever remain in draft, so that it can be changed as we go along. The idea is to have a conversation, around how we should be teaching: The only reason I am trying to put something together is because every conversation needs a starting point.

Finally, I am also trying to define the distinctive areas of what we teach. This is more strategic than the other two areas I am working on, but in alignment. What we are trying to do in the new business school is to focus on small and medium entrepreneurial businesses, which are at the sharp end of the technological change and demographic revolution. So, our idea is to develop programmes aligned with the agile and flexible business environment that these businesses have to live in. We are not expecting many senior executives from big banks and oil companies taking a course at our college: Instead, it will be the aspiring entrepreneur in East London trying to put his New Media company together (Someone told me that they don't go to college, but they do, as the data would prove). This area of work involves talking to universities and looking at programmes and adapting them to context: Something I was already doing for many years and something that is only helped by my experiences in marketing education. I have no illusions that we are only at the starting block, and aligning what we offer to this objective will take time and will not be without disappointments (I already had my share of them). But, in my mind, this is a journey worth making, and as always, I am in it.


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