UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Students Complain of ‘poor value’ Courses! How Should we Respond?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 15 May 2013

Students Complain of ‘poor value’ Courses

@Students complain' item on BBC NewsEarlier this morning I came across a news item on the BBC News which summarised a report commissioned by Which and the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) on how “Students complain of ‘poor value for money’ courses“.

The opening paragraph provided a blunt summary:

Almost one in three first year students at UK universities say their courses are not good value, suggests a study.

The report was based on a large-scale survey of over 17,000 students, with 29% feeling that their courses were not good value for money, compared with only 16% when the study was carried out in 2006 (when the fees were only £1,oo0 per year).

What Is To Be Done?

What is to be done? The government response focussed on the presentational aspects:

A spokesman for the Department of Business Innovation and Skills agreed that “people must be able to make informed decisions about what and where to study.

“Institutions should explain to prospective students how their course will be delivered in order to help them make the right decisions.”

Yes, it seems the official response is to provide prospective students with a combination of factual information about the courses together with feedback from student satisfaction surveys. The good universities will, it seems, appeal to prospective students but those with poor rating will, presumably, simply fade away. This is how the market economy is now being applied to the higher education sector!

The Importance of the Online and Networked Environment

Other Relevant Factors Besides Contact Time

The news items focuses on a single aspect of the student experience, face-to-face contact time: “Students who received less contact time with tutors in the form of lectures, seminars and tutorials were three times more likely to say they did not think their course was value for money“.

I wonder, though, whether this emphasis is based on the experiences of those who commissioned the report and interpretted the findings. Looking at the Executive Summary of the report (PDF format) I can find no mention of the IT infrastructure which is used to enrich student learning experiences. Perhaps an awareness of the importance of e-learning was not appreciated by those who commissioned this report. And perhaps the student discontent isn’t primarily due to the changes in face-to-face contact time (perhaps students are happy to be able to develop their skills in using IT) but is based on other factors – such as the increase in student fees from £1,000 to £9.000 per annum!

Improving the Online and Networked Environment

The Institutional Web Management Workshop series, IWMW, was launched in 1997 to provide an environment for those with responsibilities for managing large-scale institutional Web services to share best practices and to develop their services in light of, initially, the rapidly changing technical environment and, over the past few years, the changing political and economic environment. This year’s event, IWMW 2013, will be held at the University of Bath on 26-28 June. The theme of this year’s event, “What next?” was chosen to provide an opportunity to hear about how institutions are responding to these uncertain times:

There are the ‘known knowns’ (such as, for example, the student fees which are now being levied and the growth in use of mobile devices), the ‘known unknowns’ (the implications of the increases in student fees and the implications of the patent wars taking place between vendors of mobile devices) and the ‘unknown unknowns’ which, by definition, are difficult to illustrate!

It would therefore be timely to summarise how the sector is making use of the online and networked environment in order to enhance the student experience and other key institutional activities.

Marketing and Communications

The news item emphasises the importance of student awareness of the University environment. I would agree that this is important. This is a reason why we invited Tim Kaner, Director of Marketing & Communications at the University of Bath to give a plenary talk on “Marketing 2.0” at the event. Another angle on such issues will be given by Dai Griffiths, Professor at the Institute for Educational Cybernetics at the University of Bolton. In his talk on “The University in a Bind” Professor Griffiths will describe how Universities are finding themselves subject to increasing financial, regulatory and marketplace pressures which are pushing them in a number of different directions. Consequently institutions are constrained in their ability to adapt or reinvent their identity. Dai will explore these contradictions at multiple levels and discusses the practical implications for the future of universities, and particularly for those with the profile of the Million+ Group.

At the IWMW 2012 event, held at the University of Edinburgh, Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, the Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Robert Gordon University gave a controversial talk in which he asked “Do Universities Really Understand the Internet?“. In the talk Professor von Prondzynski argued that many University home pages were dull and unappealing to potential students, and even went on to name and shame a number of guilty institutions (a video recording of the talk is available for those who would like to find out more!). This talk generated much discussion, with an acknowledgement by some of the truth of these remarks, but the defence being that senior managers and conservative policy groups were responsible for barriers to the development of more engaging institutional Web sites. At this year’s event Paul Boag, co-founder of the digital agency Headscape, will be developing this discussion in a talk entitled “Institutional Culture Is Crippling Your Web Strategy!“. As described in the abstract:

Most internal web teams in higher education agree their web strategy is being held back by the culture and organisation of the institution. Internal politics, devolved leadership and committee structures are incompatible with the fast moving nature of the web.

Unfortunately most web teams feel unable to bring about change. They feel like a small cog in a very big machine. In this talk Paul will challenge those pre-conceptions and point out that if you don’t change things nobody else will.

In another provocative talk, Ranjit Sidhu, founder of statistics into Decisions (SiD) will reflect on “9am, 16th August, 2012: ‘What the fcuk just happened then?‘”. The talk describes how universities around the country got a shock on the morning of 16th August 2012 when the A level results came out. “The education market in the UK had significantly changed in nature and purpose” argues Ranjit, and he will explain the important of the Web in this changed environment.

It should be noted that the IWMW 2013 event isn’t just a series of plenary talks: amongst approximately 20 parallel workshop sessions there will be one on “Institutional Use of Social Media Services” which will provide an opportunity for Web managers to discuss how social media can be used to engage with students, share best practices and address the challenges posed by use of the Web as a communications channel.

The Changing Learning Environment

Beyond use of online technologies to enhance institutional marketing and communications activities and the need for appropriate institutional strategies to support their use, other talks at the IWMW 2013 will address developments which are particularly relevant for the learning experience.

In the opening plenary talk on “Open Education: The Business & Policy Case for OER” Cable Green, Director of Global Learning at Creative Commons will provide examples where institution, provinces / states and nations have built effective business cases for OERs (Open Educational Resources). He will explore how to build effective teams for institution / system-wide OER projects in a way that both builds high quality OER and takes institutions through the cultural shift to open.

In a talk entitled “Et tu MOOC? Massive Online Considerations” Kyriaki Anagnostopoulou, Head of e-Learning at the University of Bath, will explore some of the opportunities and challenges MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) pose to educational institutions wanting to partake in such developments.

What Else?

I have highlighted five of the 13 plenary talks which will be given at IWMW 2013 and one of the 19 parallel sessions. Beyond the talks related to teaching and learning there are talks on use of the Web to support and enhance research activitiesthe User Experiencethe Changing Technical Landscape and What Does the Future Hold?

The event costs just £350 which includes two night’s accommodation, lunch and a conference dinner and a wine reception at the Roman Baths. Bookings are open. I hope to see you in Bath next month where you can learn how to respond to accusations that higher education is failing to provide value for money!

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One Response to “Students Complain of ‘poor value’ Courses! How Should we Respond?”

  1. Didn’t the same report say that 9/10 students were satisfied with the quality of their course? The questions we should be asking are not “how can we demonstrate value for money”, but “who are these people demanding that we use crude measures like this as a poor proxy for student needs and why are they doing it?”

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