Friday 25 April 2014

Bread and Circuses

I was very interested to read this piece about the popularity and efficacy of university teaching staff.  As so often, I enjoyed it because it spoke to my own prejudices.  I think that the whole issue of Student Satisfaction, whilst important, poses risks to the quality of Higher Education.

I see the same issues arise in my own professional life.  Frequently, corporate clients (and I include Universities here) re-book a programme because the feedback is so positive: 'Your programmes are always really popular' is a typical comment.

Whilst flattering, that assessment is normally based on a Happy Sheet either completed at the end of the workshop, or online shortly afterwards.  It seems to me that it is mainly based on whether people enjoyed the day or not.

I am much more interested in the longer term evaluation: what people learned and how (or whether) they applied that learning in ways that were helpful.  Organisations are often very poor at such longer term evaluation: when they do happen it is often at my instigation, and frequently unfunded by the client organisation.  I do them because I learn from them, and I hope that my clients may do so too.

One of the things that I have learned is that it is sometimes the parts of a programme that fare less well in the short term Happy Sheet evaluation (typically the instructional lecturing parts) that are found to have been of most use; whereas the popular parts (group discussions and activities) are mentioned much less frequently in the longer term follow up conversations.

Of course, both are important, and they do in fact serve different and complementary purposes as part of a learning process.  But my concern is that because organisations so often focus on the short term Happy Sheets, it is tempting (and relatively easy) to play to the crowd, and run a very enjoyable, but perhaps relatively undemanding, programme. That is easy, will win plaudits, but may not add value, and risks undermining serious development events in the future. I remember a friend and colleague taking on the management of a training department in a commercial environment where the trainers were, as he described it, dedicated to crowd-pleasing, and whilst programmes were popular and enjoyable, they were not delivering significant benefits to the business.  It took a lot of work to reorientate the trainers and the training

I think that risk is inherent in my profession; I think it is a risk in Higher Education. and more broadly still, I think, as Aristotle pointed out, there is an analagous risk in Democracies: “What is democratic behaviour: that which preserves a democracy, or that which the people like?”

In learning and development, clarity of vision and courage are the pre-requisites - allied to a commitment to reviewing learning outcomes against objectives, not just measuring student satisfaction in the short term.  What we can do about democracy is a rather larger problem...

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