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Part 6 From STEM practitioner to OU tutor

6.1 Making the change

By Diane Butler

As you learned in Part 2, Open University tutors require a broad set of personal attributes, skills and values to be successful in the role. These qualities are reasonably generic across all aspects of the tutor role so the personal attributes which make for a good tutor in one subject are very likely to be the same in any other.

However, there are specific differences between tutors in different disciplines and that is, of course, the subject-based knowledge and any related workplace experience they bring to their role.

In many countries the university workforce is changing, with many people from a variety of different professions, embarking on a parallel career as a higher education (HE) educator. The sector describes these staff as dual or blended professionals as they combine their practitioner role in industry or other settings with a teaching role. The experience of these dual professionals is immensely valuable in teaching settings.

Students often report that exposure to teachers who have real expertise in the workplace makes a significant difference to their learning and helps them recognise the relevance of their learning to real-world issues, and to their own future employability.

In addition, it is suggested that dual professionals offer a bridge between the HE sector and the needs of industry/professional practice.

This may well resonate with your motivation to consider teaching with the Open University. You may wish to combine your career in industry or other fields with some teaching, perhaps because you want to give something back to the discipline field you belong to or because you feel that you would enjoy developing the next generation of professionals in your field.

Whatever your motivation, your subject expertise and workplace experience is highly valuable, but it is important to acknowledge that you may be a novice in the new environment of education.

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The three key dimensions of practice for dual professionals in higher education

Activity 1

What added dimension do you feel that this idea of the dual professional can bring to the tutoring of Open University students?

Do you agree that tutors with a combination of teaching expertise and specialist/subject based knowledge and its application in other sectors can be of value for students?

Write a short post to the discussion forum which explains your views. Read and comment on other forum contributors’ postings, particularly where there are common or radically different views or emerging ideas.

The OU is very conscious of its responsibility to assist tutors in their development as educators in HE and all, regardless of their background in education, are supported to become teachers in their subject and in supported open learning – the OU’s method for delivering quality open and distance learning (Part 3.3). This developmental support occurs in two distinct phases:

  • Induction – describes the training and development opportunities offered to tutors within their first two years or probationary period.
  • Continuous professional development (CPD) - describes the ongoing commitment to further development in the tutor role.

6.2 Induction

All new tutors are expected to participate in a formal tutor induction. This has two components:

  • A module-based induction with specifics about the module and its content including how it is assessed and how tutorials are presented.
  • A role-based induction about the generic aspects of the role e.g. running tutorials, delivering correspondence tuition.
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Digital skills for supporting and managing students

The OU tutor role involves supporting students both pastorally and academically. These two elements are referred to as generic or role specific …and module specific aspects.

When applicants submit applications for tutor posts the OU requires them to address how well they match the generic aspects of the tutor role as well as the module specific elements.

The generic, pastoral elements of the role are very similar regardless of the subject or the module the student is studying and the new tutor’s induction focusses on the methods and mechanisms used to provide this pastoral support.

Key pastoral elements include welcoming students to the module, making proactive contact to offer support and guidance and supporting the student to develop study skills.

During and after induction a wealth of information is provided online to support tutors in this part of their role, this includes the online tutor portal TutorHome and the student portal StudentHome.

For the academic support of their students most tutors rely heavily on the module website, the tutor website for the module and the tutor forums.

Induction pinpoints these valuable resources and ensures new tutors can navigate to the information they need, whether this concerns preparing and running tutorials, marking assignments or support with the module content and the pedagogic approach to the subject matter.

In addition to this wealth of digital information induction of new tutors is supported and facilitated by people who will work closely with the tutor from the outset. The two most significant people in the early days of a new tutor’s career are the Staff Tutor and the Mentor.

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Two key people support new tutors through the induction process:

  • The Staff tutor
  • The Mentor

Mentoring is a vital role in the OU, and the next section outlines what the mentor does and the vital nature of the support they offer.

6.2.1 Tutor mentoring

All new tutors are allocated a mentor, usually an experienced tutor on the same module or a similar module, who provides support and advice on an individual basis. The mentor role is flexible and is designed to meet the needs of the incoming member of staff.

For new tutors with little previous teaching experience mentors are likely to concentrate on the core basic teaching activities – running tutorials and correspondence tuition. Mentors can provide a whole range of support in these areas, ranging from inviting new tutors to sit in on their online tutorials to sharing resources and techniques around marking students’ scripts.

This peer support is both reactive and proactive and the idea is to provide support and guidance when needed.

In this video, Diane, an Associate Dean, asks Mary and Vicky to say little bit about their background and experience as tutors with the OU.

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OK. So Mary, could you tell us a little bit about your OU experience?
OK. I've been a tutor with the OU for quite a long time now, probably over 21 years, actually. I currently tutor on two modules, TT284, the web technology ones that Vicky is also doing, and I also tutor on TM351, the data management and analysis module. Over the years, I've taught a variety of other modules mostly in the web area and databases.
Thank you. So I'm going to come to Vicky now and ask her to expand a little bit about her background and her experience with the OU.
Yes, I've been teaching TT284 for two years now. I'm just coming to the end of my second presentation. It was my first role in any kind of teaching capacity. But I was an OU student myself, and I studied a BSC in IT. And that run from 2012 to 2017. And I actually studied TT284 as a student back in 2013, so I had a lot of experience from the student side of things.
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6.2.2 For the mentor

Mentoring is a mutual learning relationship. If it works well the mentor finds the experience rewarding by exploring new ideas and ways of working and getting a chance to reflect on their own practice.

The following comments were gathered from a mentoring feedback exercise.

"It was useful to both of us. Often it was more of a discussion of issues and problems which enabled both of us to clarify them rather than a one-way advice-giving relationship."

"It has helped me to articulate assumptions about the nature of the work and to re-examine them."

"Meeting a new fellow-tutor can generate new ideas even with an 'old lag' like myself!"

"I enjoy the contact we had – the opportunity for part-time staff to assist one another in the OU is not always present and this system allows that to happen."

In this video, Mary and Diane discuss the role of a tutor mentor and what is expected of them.

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So come back to Mary to think about-- you've mentioned that you've mentored quite a few different Open University colleagues over the years. And generally, you find it a positive experience. Why have you enjoyed being a mentor in these contexts?
Yes, I found it quite rewarding to help new colleagues, such as Vicky, although Vicky herself hasn't needed as much support as other people have. With other previous mentees who are brand new to the Open University, I've had to provide a bit more help and guidance. If you're new to the OU, it can be a bit baffling initially trying to navigate your way around the online systems.
Obviously, each module has its own sort of web sites. But there's other resources too, like the library, understanding the rules, things like how do you go about marking. The electronic TMA system can be a bit baffling the first time around too. And also, maybe if you've got an issue perhaps with your computer, a lot of modules need computer resources. I can't always maybe help with that, but I can usually point you in the right direction of where to go and who to contact. And obviously, that can be quite important when you're new.
There's also a lot of other supports so it's not an onerous role if you're a mentor. There's a lot of other people too who can help. In the TT 284 module we both teach on, our staff tutor is very supportive. He provides sample comments to use in assessments. That can be a problem at the start, trying to work out what to say when you're marking. And we have also tutor forums, and they're very valuable too. So you can get a lot of support from other tutors.
So there's a lot of support out there, not just from the mentors themselves.
Thanks very much. It's good to know that it's not that onerous a task, that you're sharing the responsibility for the new tutor with a wider community of people who have different parts, and different roles to play. And interesting that you mentioned the staff tutor, which is the line manager of the associate lecturers and the part they play in support.
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6.2.3 For the mentee

From the same study, mentees indicated that they appreciated having someone available for seemingly 'trivial' questions, as well as for detailed advice on the module or teaching. Some found it useful to hear from mentors about parts of the module that students found difficult. Being an OU tutor can be isolating and mentees say that the most useful thing about mentoring is knowing that 'someone is there' to contact quickly if a query or problem arises.

The best mentors are probably those who both guide and respond flexibly to the varied needs of a colleague in a new teaching/learning situation. The mentor acts as a sounding board and offers encouragement to new colleagues, as they gain confidence from their own experience.

The job of a mentor in the OU is to:

  • Be proactive in making early contact with a new member of staff (contacting them as soon as possible after their appointment) and suggest a structure to the mentoring process. The relationship can become more flexible as it progresses.
  • In some instances, the Staff Tutor may ask a mentor to brief the mentee on the content and delivery of the module itself.
  • Be available online and /or the telephone, particularly in the early weeks of the mentee's employment, to advise and encourage on all aspects of the job.
  • Make contact before and after the first tutorial.
  • Make contact around the time of the first tutor-marked assignment (TMA) cut-off date
  • Be a continuing resource for the mentee during their first year.
  • Be interested in the new member of staff's previous experience and, how it relates to this new role, not assume 'being new means knowing nothing'.
  • Share experience.
  • Find out answers to questions they cannot answer themselves.

In this video, Vicky talks about whether it is helpful to have a mentor and gives an example of how they can help a mentee tutor like her.

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So Vicki, has it been helpful during your early years as a tutor, to have a mentor? And if so, in what way particularly? Can you give an example of a query that you've directed towards your mentor?
Yes, I have found it useful having a mentor. It's good to have a name specifically you can get in touch with any time with queries. I've mostly used the tutor forums to discuss questions I've had. But one example I can think of where I contacted Mary was when a student had asked me a specific question about an assignment, and I wasn't sure exactly how much information I could tell them. And I was worried about giving them too much information. So I contacted Mary with their question and what I was proposing to respond, just to check I wasn't crossing the line and telling them too much.
I think sometimes there are some questions that you don't really want to necessarily go public with with a large audience, that you would direct one other person. And the mentor is perfect for that part.
So final question to you both-- I'll come to Mary, first of all-- you're mentor and mentee, but you've never actually met one another face to face--
Which is not atypical at Open University. Do you think that makes a difference?
No, I think that, especially these days, you can do a lot through email. And I think we're now getting used to these online conferences. So that might be something for the future. But usually, most of the contact I've had with my previous mentees is through the email, or maybe through the tutor forums. So it is quite normal. So we can be quite supportive of each other without actually meeting face to face. And it sort of echoes the way we support our students too, so it's good practise for that too. And it's always a serious issue though. I mean, in the past some previous mentees-- if there was something perhaps crucial that we didn't want to do through email, it's sometimes quicker to pick up the phone and speak to each other. Sometimes you might meet staff at face to face staff development events. But for the mentoring side, it is quite normal to contact each other through email or phone if necessary.
I didn't find it difficult or unusual, not meeting face to face. Most of my modules that I did throughout my degree were electronic only. So there was sometimes no face to face tutorial. So I had several modules where I didn't meet my tutor in person. And I think most people would be OU being distance learning, they're used to the remoteness of it. And as Mary said, if there was something more complicated or a bit more detailed, then I would just call her and have a phone discussion. So I know that option is always available, as well as Skype for business meetings, as well, if we wanted to have a video chat.
So it's really interesting, Vicki, that the way you describe that sort of flexibility about being able to contact your mentor, as in when, not in office hours, at different times through emails, that flexibility and the way in which it sort of mirrors the way in which we support our students in a distance learning institution, that the support is there, but it's not sort of rigid about the time. You can email. You can phone. And there's a variety of ways in which you can keep in contact and keep working.
So thanks very much for sharing your experiences of being a mentor and a mentee. There's a lot of similarities there between being an AL and a student, and the same sort of developing relationship. And it's really good to know that having a mentor was really supportive for Vicki in her first couple of years as an associate lecturer.
End transcript
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Activity 2

Think about any experiences you have had in other settings regarding being mentored or being a mentor.

What aspects of mentoring worked well for you?

What would you describe as the essential qualities of a successful mentoring relationship?

Having watched all three videos of Mary and Vicky discussing the relationship between the mentor and the mentee, do their experiences resonate with the essential qualities of a successful mentoring relationship you described above?

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6.3 Continual professional development

Continual professional development (CPD) or educational development/academic professional practice as it can sometimes be called, has become much more prominent in the higher education (HE) sector since the 1990s.

In 2003, The Future of Higher Education White Paper proposed a UK Professional Standards Framework for teaching and supporting learning (UK PSF) was needed. The UK PSF was launched in 2006 and revised in 2011.

The UK PSF aims to foster professional approaches to supporting learning. Another key objective is to make students and other stakeholders aware of the professionalism that the staff bring to their teaching. Further, it provides a means of demonstrating that professional standards are supported through an institution’s development programmes.

For staff entering Higher Education without a previous background in teaching the UK PSF can be a daunting read. It’s easy to feel that the areas of teacher professional activity are alien and somewhat impenetrable. However, it is perfectly possible to enter teaching and acquire the required skills ‘on the job’ provided tutors bring their own development needs to the fore in the first few years.

CPD and The Open University

Professional development is not an ‘event’ or something that is delivered to tutors. All staff must take responsibility for their own learning and development as professionals. However, the OU has a very strong commitment to helping staff develop their skills and expertise in teaching and supporting learning.

As a result, it provides a rich range of resources to assist tutors in doing this, as detailed below:

  • A wide range of web-based resources to support tutors in their teaching – for instance, on supporting diversity or disability

  • Resources provided by the module team to assist tutors in preparing their tutorials or with correspondence tuition

  • The Development Fund, which enables tutors to apply for funding to support attendance at a conference or to undertake other developmental activities or studies

  • Access to a fully online academic library

  • A fee waiver for OU modules so tutors can take most OU modules/qualifications at no charge including the opportunity to complete a research degree

  • Support to conduct pedagogic research via funding and staff development provided by eSTEem: The OU Centre for STEM pedagogy.

And most importantly, the OU provides a full programme of development activities specifically to support tutors in their work. These activities can take place face-to-face in a variety of venues or online and enable tutors to get together with each other and with their line managers to support and to share best practice.

These hugely enjoyable events bind together OU staff into a diverse and rich academic community where explorations of the best way to tutor our students and to support their learning are the key focus of discussions.

6.4 Ways of developing as an OU tutor – what tutors say

When OU tutors are asked how they came to develop their skills or extend their knowledge as teachers, they frequently list the following experiences:

  1. Training courses or events
  2. Materials – in print or online
  3. The influence of another person – in a presentation or by example in their practice, for example:
    • Feedback either from students or after observation by a colleague – an informal discussion with students or colleagues
    • In response to the changing demands of the job and/or the need for updating – in recognition of the distinction between development that is essential as opposed to desirable
    • Research or further study
    • Engaging in practitioner enquiry – into their own practice or by feedback on their performance.

You may be able to draw parallels here with the type of CPD you have undertaken in your current role(s).


Make a note of ways in which you have improved your own professional practice in your current role, in this case focus not on your subject expertise but on the related work skills and issues such as communications, project management or supporting others to succeed. This may have been through formal CPD events or by other less direct methods.

Of these, which do you feel is the most effective approach?

Could you envisage any difficulties in acquiring CPD in a distributed organisation such as the Open University?

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You may have focused on the informal learning you acquire ‘on the job’, and the types of experience and skill development which may arise naturally from working closely with others through observation and emulation. You may have cited more formal workshops or even an appraisal process which has provided feedback on your performance and directed you to acquire new skills. Your view on which of these is more effective will be personal to you.

You may be concerned that developing as a professional in a distributed organisation such as the OU would be problematic, given the limited opportunities to meet colleague face to face. However, if you are used to communicating with colleagues via online applications in your current role you may feel that new technology can be extremely effective in supporting professional development.

Whatever your views, they are unique to you and your past experiences will have affected your responses here.

When we asked groups of tutors to note the ways in which they have improved their own practice, four key points emerged, as shown in the diagram below.

What also emerged from sessions with OU tutors was that there is a difference between:

• Development in terms of knowledge or skills that are essential – for example, when new electronic ways of handling processes such as running tutorial software or managing the electronic marking system are introduced.

• Development that the individual tutor personally identifies as a requirement – for instance, understanding the conceptual difficulties students face in understanding areas in the subject or finding out more about students’ responses to TMA feedback.

6.4.1 Face-to-face CPD

When OU tutors were surveyed and asked which methods of CPD delivery they found most useful, the overwhelming verdict was that events involving other tutors and OU staff were the most useful. This suggests that professional learning is strongly social, in that much of it takes place through networks of contacts.

These networks can interact synchronously and asynchronously. As you have seen in Part 3.5 asynchronous methods such as online forums are a very good way to keep tutors in touch with one another but the OU recognises the value of synchronous events too.

Tutors are offered opportunities and supported financially to attend face-to-face staff development events, and these are highly valued.

6.4.2 Online CPD

However, face-to-face isn’t the only option for tutors to interact with their academic community in real-time. Using our online conference system tutors can meet up in the online space for development events. Without the need for travel to specific venues, these events can be more frequent and highly flexible in nature, providing that all-important continuity for tutors.

The OU tutor community (some 1350 tutors in the STEM faculty alone) comprise an enormous distributed team of staff who are passionate about teaching and their subjects. For new tutors, this ‘on tap’ resource presents a fantastic opportunity to learn from the experts.

A shared experience of tutoring OU students provides lots of common ground for tutors from across the STEM curriculum to make contacts and seek advice. However, tutors also belong to other academic communities, usually based within their STEM discipline area.

In the OU STEM Faculty, we have six Schools and tutors have a School ‘Home’ based on the modules they teach. Access to this broad community through School events and communications keeps tutors in touch with the full-time STEM academic community-based at the Open University headquarters in Milton Keynes, allowing them to keep up to date with the latest developments around discipline research and research into teaching and learning in their subject.

6.5 Getting started as a dual professional

As a STEM practitioner, you already have a wealth of subject knowledge and a significant and diverse understanding of your discipline in other contexts such as commerce and/or industry. This breadth of experience provides a great springboard into a teaching role, but you may feel daunted about taking responsibility for the learning of others - many tutors feel like this in the early days when they are learning their craft.

In the OU, a group of people including the module team is responsible for the teaching of the module, not just the tutor. This frees tutors to concentrate not on merely imparting their subject knowledge to the student, after all the module materials are there to do just that, but rather to facilitate the students understanding of the content and their development of appropriate skills.

Despite this shared responsibility for student learning, it is common for OU tutors to feel daunted and somewhat isolated when given a group of students for the first-time. All tutors feel this, but as they develop as a teacher, they see their confidence, skills and even their whole approach to teaching change.

Activity 4

Imagine the prospect of meeting students in an online tutorial for the first time. Can you envisage how you might feel and what issues might worry you?

Write a bullet point list of your most significant concerns below.

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To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
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You may have dwelt on issues around using the online technology for example getting in the right place at the right time and knowing how to use the tools, such as the microphone and the whiteboard within the Adobe Connect room (see the video demo in Part 3.6.1).

You may be also concerned about the ‘content’ you are going to cover in the session, perhaps your own familiarity and understanding of that content. Or you may feel unsure about how much material you have prepared or how much you need to ‘get through’.

You may think a little about the students themselves, but it might be along the lines of will they turn up, will they be able to hear me, what do I do with the students if everything falls over technically or I don’t deliver a good tutorial.

If your list of issues features some or all these points, rest assured that you are not alone. When teaching for the first time, new tutors understandably focus on what they will do during the tutorial. So, delivering, or even merely surviving, the tutorial is the key consideration!

This focus on self is typical for all new tutors in the Open University but as time goes on and experience is acquired, the focus often changes. Instead of concentrating on the part they play in tuition, many tutors move on to focus on developing a real subject mastery.

OU modules are, by their very nature, very broad based and many tutors find themselves teaching outside their own immediate area of expertise. This needs careful preparation for the novice tutor, with many feeling only one step ahead of their students at many points in the module!

It is no surprise to hear that most tutors find the first year or two of tutoring a new module challenging but incredibly rewarding.

In this next video, Diane talks to Gill, Terry, Sarah and Ellen about what it was like when they were new tutors, what they did then and what they do now, and how that might have changed over time.

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Hello, everybody. I've got four associate lecturers here, all from the School of Computing and Communications, all very experienced associate lecturers. I've got Gill, and Terry, and Sarah, and Ellen. Very warm welcome. We're going to talk today about what it was like when you were new, and what you did then, what you do now, and how that might have changed over time. So how did you feel as a novice tutor doing things for the first time?
I remember being extremely nervous about tutorials-- online tutorials. It just felt very daunting, just the thought of it all happening in real time, and being recorded, and things that were completely out of your control, and being on top of the technology. And the thought of trying to manage that as well as interacting with students, and presenting material, and interacting with a colleague that I was co-presenting with just felt-- I was really quite scared, I have to say, at the thought of it.
Yeah, I was concerned about fitting the OU stuff around my full-time job. Would I have the time to fit all this in? I really wanted to do it, so I had to make the time. So I felt that pressure. Also, I was worried about marking assignments. Would I get the marking right? Would there be complaints or challenges?
You're so worried about this sort of minefield of marking students' work and making some kind of statement about their performance. In terms of tutorials and guidance, I felt all right about that because of my previous experience. But there were times when I felt I had the imposter syndrome. I used to think, am I really good enough to do this? We had that concern at times.
Yeah. Sarah, did you want to comment on that one?
OK. So it was really daunting for me at the time, because this was a new module in a subject just outside my normal teaching area. I had to pick up the new systems that I was seeing these emails come through telling me I had to learn new systems. I had to travel to venues which I found intimidating at times, in fairness.
So I was leaning on my staff tutor an awful lot, which was Hillary and later Marina. And they were really helpful during a difficult time. I only had one module then, and that was a lot. There was no forums at that time, so that was unhelpful. And there is now, so that's fantastic. So it was really my staff tutor helping me the most during that time.
Well, my experience was only in training peers or members of staff, so I used to work on a one-to-one basis or with very small groups of two or three. So standing in front of a classroom of 20 adults, all very keen to learn something from my tutorial, was really nerve-wracking. So I really-- my first tutorial was super duper prepared. And I was like, what are they going to ask me? What am I going to tell them? I really need to know my stuff. So it was really daunting to do that, having not stood in front of a classroom before.
The marking was the same. But my biggest worry was, am I going to be fair? Am I going to be telling them, in all fairness, what they did wrong, and also tell them how they can do it better next time and improve their scores? And are their scores really going to be fair? Am I going to be too strict, or am I going to be too lenient? How am I going to find that middle range?
How does it feel when you were new and you were called on to teach on something that you just felt you'd got your fingertips into yourself?
I don't have a background in computing, so it was daunting to suddenly teach students in computing. I had a good understanding of the module material, so I could follow what the module materials were teaching. But it was literally also pushing me to the point of where I said, this is borderline of where I actually feel, as a computer-interested person teaching somebody to use.
At the same time, it's level one, so a lot of it was literally getting students to get used to being in a university environment, and focusing a lot on writing assignments, and understanding referencing, and understanding those areas that I really understood very well.
Yes, I think - I mean, I find it - I found it, and, in fact, do still sometimes find it - slightly alarming to be expected to be an expert on quite a wide field, or to feel that I'm expected to be an expert. But I have to say that is also one of the things that I've liked. I've liked learning new stuff, actually.
Yes, learning it may be only just before the students. But it's an opportunity to really expand your own knowledge. And one is extremely motivated to do that if you know that you're going to have to teach a tutorial or mark an assignment. So yeah, it's got that two sides to it - scary, but also enjoyable and motivating.
Yeah, I think that's something about the Open University and the methods that we use to teach. The module materials have got everything in. The associate lecturer is there to support student learning of that material. So you don't have to be the expert in everything you do. You're not delivering lectures. You can be that guide on the side and that facilitator to help them
Yeah, I was going to say that one of the things that's changed for me over time is the fact that you feel that you have to be an expert in all the content of the module that you're teaching. And over time, I've realised that that's not really possible, and that, amongst your colleagues in your immediate study area-- usually the study centre, you find that there are people with strengths in, say, computing, and others who are better with the technology and the maths.
And in the end, we have an understanding. OK, if it's programming, then so-and-so will do that. And I'll pick up-- I'll do the maths. I'll do the technology or the writing notes-- that kind of thing. So now, I think we know each other's strengths.
You can see the things that they're going to struggle with most. And I think as long as you get those in tutorials, and students start talking about them in the tutorials, that that helps as much as anything else. And that's why I'm saying that the forums are a good place for students to be pushed to to have those discussions, to drop that surface learning down into a much deeper level. But then I think it helps me as an associate lecturer when they do that, because then they come with more interesting questions to tutorials, then.
I think it's a really interesting part of the role, this not being necessarily an expert, but still having a huge amount to offer across the range of skills an associate lecturer needs. Is there anything that makes you cringe? Is there anything you think, oh, I wish I hadn't have done it like that?
I did
And why did I do it like that? Terry, you're nodding. Is this something -
Yes. One of the cringe factors was going to a very dark study centre in South London in the place where I had - there was a trepidation about leaving my car parked outside the building and going inside. And also, doing probably quite a lot of writing up and getting students to take notes, which we've moved on from that stage now. So those are my cringe-worthy things.
There are some excellent points. I particularly like the last one, this idea that you were doing all the work in the tutorial.
That's it, yes.
They just saw a lot of my back.
They saw a lot of the back of your head, yes. Sarah, did you want to comment?
Yeah, in the early days of teaching, and even up to a few years ago prior to doing PG CEAB, I was very driven by PowerPoints and trying to feel like I was putting a lot of information on PowerPoint and doing things like the PG CEAB. And reflecting on my own teaching over the years, I really feel that PowerPoint has always been a tool for me, not for the students, to remind me what to talk about.
So when I feel cringy, it used to be looking back at some of those heavy PowerPoint slides, where I'm trying to feed loads of facts to people. And, of course, it stops engagement with the student by slide after slide after slide. So when I look back now at how I used to teach with tonnes of PowerPoint slides, with tonnes of facts, I realise that I was actually preventing the students from engaging in the interactive element of a tutorial. And it became almost a lecture.
So these days, I back off PowerPoint, and use their resources and their materials the same as what they would have, and start discussions. The first thing I do is, can you please put your mics on and start talking to me? And that's the approach now.
That's why I think how I-- the feedback that I used to give. And I believe it is important to give lots of feedback, but I used to give tonnes. It was as if I felt anything that the student had got a tiny bit wrong, I had to write feedback on and say, no, no. You could have said this. You could have said that.
And I've come to realise that it's better to focus on core issues and maybe a few - less is more. A few issues that actually are core skills that, hopefully, the student can improve on, then they're going to see them - stand them in good stead for future assignments is more important than, oh, well, actually, there was this point you could have made in response to this question, and, oh, yes. Well, you could have got one more mark if you'd said this.
At the beginning, I wasn't quite sure how to connect or how to help students with different abilities. And so I literally just looked at the profiles that we have and just adjusted my presentation to what I thought they might need. And I think, on occasions, that was just not good enough. The moment that that changed was when I started to actually talk to them before tutorials and ask them, how do you need me to adjust so that you get something out of the sessions that I'm doing?
And that has now become completely a norm with me, that I actually talk to them first and try to understand how I need to adjust what I'm presenting. And it's so fantastic to see them when the penny drops. You can see when they say, oh. That's fantastic to just watch that happen during a tutorial or after you return an assignment. It's what keeps me going every time.
It is incredibly rewarding, isn't it? Those light bulb moments and those feelings that students finally got it. All their hard work has paid off, and you've helped. So yeah, it's really interesting to hear how you've changed. Do you feel that your confidence has grown now? I think it's clear that it has.
It's that feeling that you can relax into it and that you don't have to deliver the perfect tutorial, or maybe even give the perfect feedback. The students can be very forgiving and encouraging as well, actually. As long as they can see that you're trying to help, it's not like they're going to be horrified if you can't give them exactly the perfect nugget of information.
You can actually be yourself. You can play to your strengths. You don't have to play to your weaknesses. There's always somebody where you know, OK. Maybe this hasn't quite answered the question, so then let me refer the student to somebody else, or ask somebody else, OK. How can I explain this in a different way so that the student then understands it?
So I think, in the beginning, when you start, and you see all these guidances, and the marking guide, and the presentations for the tutorials and everything, you think that you have to adjust to something that's there. And I think it's only there as a support. And you can then have your own style.
Yeah, I've mentioned it before, but my staff tutors - I've got a few, and I've had a lot. But I have to say, when I decided to detach the idea as a staff tutor as my manager and more to be more like a mentor to me, I appreciate they're my manager, but I think of them more as mentors.
And their guidance has helped me a lot - that breaking down of the ice between them on the wall so that I feel they're approachable always, whether it's email, or call, or dropping in on me periodically, which they do, and just seeing how I'm getting on. And that just makes you feel relaxed.
That's great. That's really good to hear, and I think it is a real strength of our model. And as our communications technologies improve with forums and with various online platforms, we've got better and better at having that distributed group of staff working together for the benefit of the students.
One thing that I reflect on what you're saying is that, perhaps, as you've gone on your journey from a novice tutor to an experienced one, you may have moved from this tutor-centred approach to doing the job to a more student-centred approach to doing your job. Would that be a fair way of reflecting the journey that you've gone on? Terry, do you want to comment?
I was going to say, at one time, I was concerned about, will they turn up to the tutorial? Will I do a good lesson? But over the years, you think, what's important here is getting the students through. So you start looking more at, what can facilitate that? So it's about giving effective feedback and support in assignments-- marking fairly. It's about supporting students when they first start, and also supporting them when they're finishing off.
You get to meet them virtually a lot of the time. Sometimes they talk to you. With icebreakers in the forums, you get to know a little bit about them. These become people that you connect to. And once you start connecting to them, and you start supporting them, and you start marking their work-- and I always email students right at the beginning of the course, talk to them. But then I always email them all the way through, telling them there's an assessment due shortly, how are they getting on? Before every assessment.
And I like that link, that I feel like I want you to do this, and I want you to progress. So I feel like I'm nurturing them. And then if you do the follow-on module, and you see the students have passed, that's great to see, too, because they say, hi, or, I had you last time. I'm glad I got you again. And that's really nice to see. So you always feel like you connected. I like the connected idea. So I feel connected to students.
That's the whole "making a difference" thing, isn't it? And it's really nice to work for an organisation where you can really point at something and say, I made a difference to them. It's fabulous.
Having taught in a traditional bricks-and-mortar university, I think I do feel more connected with more of the students-- a greater proportion of the students-- with the OU than I did in that situation, partly because you've got a smaller group. And distance learning, strangely, seems to bring you closer, in some sort of way.
I would really miss it, because it is giving students that maybe don't have had in their lives a chance to study at university that come into studying and think, oh, God. How am I going to do this? The confidence that, actually, they can. And actually, they have the skills to study, and to learn, and to do it in a formal environment and in a formal way. And then you hand them over to the next course.
So building up that confidence in them-- they can do it. They have the skills to do it. They have the skills to progress, and to learn, and to get higher grades, and to improve their learning, and to show it, and to talk to me, who is in academia. At first, they all treat me like a teacher. And I always say, no, I'm not a teacher. I'm literally just helping you here with your journey through your studies.
Yes, I was going to say, I've been working with the OU for 30 years. I've retired from everything else, and this is the thing I probably enjoyed more than anything else. And that's really strange. I agree with Sarah on that. I really enjoy working with the OU. I've also enjoyed going to staff development events. It was always great to meet up with colleagues and catch up with each other.
If you had somebody in front of you who had never taught before, or only done a very small amount of teaching or, perhaps, coaching in a workplace setting, and they fancied dipping their toe into OU tutoring, what would you say to them?
Do it, because all the support--
Go for it.
--is there. You can learn while you're doing it.
I would try to encourage somebody who was interested from the viewpoint that, not only do you get paid to do this, but you get paid to do this from home. You can learn a new subject in more depth than you had before. You can help somebody. It's a best five or six hours of a paid employment.
As long as you've got the appropriate background-- academic background-- you can learn how to teach while you're doing it. And you've got all the support and the systems around you to draw on, and help from colleagues. So it's a great environment to do it.
Teaching is a journey. You're always reflecting on your teaching. So I would encourage them to not just try it, but to move into that area, and build themselves in both their knowledge and their communication skills, and helping other people.
I think even the fact that they're considering it makes me think that they're good for it. So I would always say, just go for it. Take the challenge, and help other people evolve, and develop, and grow. I think it's very rewarding.
End transcript
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After a year or two most new tutors feel at home with the OU’s teaching approach and gain expertise in the full range of their module’s subject materials, but what stage of their development as tutors comes next?

With experience often comes a shift in perspective, tutors start to focus less on what they are doing when they teach and what they are teaching but more on what their students are actually learning and how they might become more active and independent in their learning.

This transition of tutor behaviour as tutors gain experience can mirror the change from a tutor-centred approach, often the default setting for inexperienced tutors, to a student-centred approach whereby the students are actively engaged in the learning process.

Activity 5

Listen to this audio clip which contrasts the tutor-centred approach and the student-centred approach and reflect on how a student-centred approach can be achieved in online tutorials.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: nc4487_alstem_2020_aug003.mp3
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Student-centred learning environments
The characteristics of the two main types of learning environment
…which are
The tutor in a tutor centred learning environment is the ‘sage on the stage’ and consider themselves the authorial voice, the source of information,
Whereas, in a student-centred learning environment the tutor is more of a ‘mentor’, someone who facilitates student learning.
In a tutor centred environment the tutor transmits information to the students,
so communication is pretty much one way.
Student-centred learning environments encourage students to bring their own experience, knowledge and skills into the online tutorials.
The tutor helps them all.
The students then investigate the subject and blend ideas and concepts to more meaningfully develop their knowledge and understanding over time. They own it.
Tutor centred learning values acquiring knowledge above all else. Often lacking context.
Such as getting the tutorial group to read a particular chapter simply because it will be assessed in the next test.
But authenticity is the order of the day in student-centred learning - “How can I use this information in real life? How can I apply it? Does this information have relevance for me?
Now let's just muse on this thought: What might happen in each of these learning environments?
In a tutor centred learning environment traditionally the instructor will stand at the front of the room, lecture for an hour and the students take notes.
The instructor has the prominent role. Where the students play less of a role; they are simply empty vessels waiting for the information from the tutor.
In UK universities, in traditional face-to-face teaching the lecture is still the most common technique used in undergraduate teaching. Even if they put them online.
It’s often said Tutor centred learning promotes an individualistic approach putting students in competition with each other.
Online tutorials in distance learning are very important because they give students the opportunity to work collaboratively.
It’s a more supportive culture where people share.
They build on each other’s learning.
So which type of learning environment do you think the OU favours its online learning and tutorials?
End transcript
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Give an example of the type of teaching strategies in an online tutorial which might support student-centred learning.

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Bearing in mind that the interactive module materials are studied by students in their own time, it is important that that tutorial time is used by tutors to enhance and consolidate student learning, through active engagement with the material and through collaborative group learning. Recall from Part 3.1 that in this OU way of teaching, the tutor has traditionally been a ‘guide on the side’ rather than a ‘sage on the stage’ (King, 1993).

Given this approach, you may have suggested tutorial activities which rely on students work directly together in small groups; using discussion and collaboration to address the development of their understanding of key concepts or skills.

You may have also thought about activities where you set structured problems for your students to address, so you can check their understanding of the module materials and encourage active participation through the use of the microphone, the chat box or vis other tools within the system such as polls.

6.6 Looking further ahead

As tutors progress in their role and gain expertise there are frequently other opportunities to develop new skills and knowledge.

For example, tutors may be asked to mentor a colleague or undertake some quality assurance work such as monitoring the correspondence tuition of fellow tutors, marking students’ examination scripts or to support their staff tutor in planning developmental activities for others. All these activities contribute to tutors’ growing understand of open and distance teaching.

In addition to taking on a broader range of tasks many OU tutors after a few years in the role, seek external accreditation for their work. One, guaranteed way of developing as a tutor is by becoming a student. All OU tutors are entitled to study modules at no cost and this experience of the OU from the ‘other side’ is certainly one of the most valuable professional development activities a tutor can undertake!

Recognition for development as a teacher in Higher Education

The Open University encourages all its tutors to gain professional accreditation for their work in higher education and runs a highly supportive scheme called Applaud, based on the UK HE Professional Standards Framework.

This is recognised by Advance HE, a government body which accredits staff who work within the Higher Education sector. Accreditation is gained by making a personal submission in which candidates demonstrate their understanding of a UK HE Professional Standards Framework and show how it relates to the OU tutor role. A successful submission results in accreditation as an associate fellow or fellow of the Higher Education Academy (AFHEA or FHEA) - this is a recognised, HE sector-wide qualification.

Many tutors, even those without previous teaching experience, gain this qualification through their OU work.

Activity 6

As a result of studying this course so far, how likely are you to consider teaching with the Open University?

Reflect briefly on why you may be interested in teaching with the OU, what do you feel you might gain from the experience and what do you feel you have to offer?

Write a short post to the discussion forum which explains your views. Read and comment on other forum contributors’ postings, particularly where there are common or radically different views or emerging ideas.

6.7 Summary

This part of the course has focused on the way in which the OU supports the development of STEM practitioners from a variety of backgrounds into OU teaching. It has described the characterisation of the dual professional role and the value such staff bring to the OU academic community via professional practice which embodies:

  • Deep knowledge, conceptual understanding and expertise in teaching and learning
  • Expert subject knowledge and skills
  • Ongoing professional practice or industry activity.

In Part 6 you have learned about the induction, support and academic professional development that the OU provides and the methods it uses for its delivery. This included examples drawn from the ways in which novice tutors develop as tutors. You have also explored the transition from the didactic, tutor-centred approach typical of inexperienced teachers to the focus on student-centred learning more typical of experienced tutors.

The course so far has concentrated on the various aspects of the OU tutor role. Hopefully, you feel inspired to investigate further, so go to Part 7  of the course, where you discover how to apply for OU STEM tutor roles and about the OU’s selection criteria.


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Acknowledgements for Part 6

Programer: © Gorodenkoff / Shutterstock

Technicians-using-laptop-while-analyzing-server: © Wavebreak Media Ltd / 123 Royalty Free

Computer_engineer: © Gorodenkoff / iStock / Getty Images Plus

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