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The Post-Covid Programme Leader? (Trends in HE)

The emergency pivot to remote online instruction (not to be confused with actual planned blended learning) that we saw in March 2020 and then at various points past there has lead to a lot of questions about if academics should see themselves as content creators.

To start with I pretty much agree with everything said in this very interesting Times Higher Education article. There is still too much of a focus about individual academics creating rather than adapting or curating existing content.

However…however… there is a related question – has Covid reset what we expect as the baseline skillset for an academic in regards to teaching and learning?

I think for the moment that is unclear because there are a few different questions we don’t have an answer for at this point:

  • How much delivery in the near future will be blended?
  • Overall how will students ‘reward’ the more technically able in feedback to their Universities?
  • What is the overall shift towards the use of more cloud based systems?
  • How much will individuals really work away from the physical infrastructure of the University for delivery purposes?
  • How much of a turn to technical and skills based education will we see in next five years?

There is one thing that I think is not going away – the use of data in Higher Education as a means of driving student behaviour. Many people have deep-seated objections to the use of data analytics for a range of reasons including a) surveillance objections, b) an ideological aversion to “Big EdTech” and c) they em… often don’t work. A, B and C are pretty good reasons to be wary about data analytics.

However I do think that given (as I write this) that in the UK at least, sept 2021 is likely to be show more blended previous than in say 2018/2019 then Universities will continue to grapple with how they measure engagement as students shift between the virtual and physical. This need will be amplified by a deep fear about what and how PROCEED metrics will be implemented.

The role of the Programme Leader

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I don’t want to try and tackle every aspect of that but tackle a single specific pivot role – that of the programme leader (PL). Now I’ll need to acknowledge that the role of PL varies significantly between Universities and cover people who do administration but have no line management through to line managers who control budgets.

Regardless the role of PL is one that can have the most influence on a day to day basis on a programme and the success or otherwise of students. An engaged switched-on programme leader can be the most powerful weapon to transform the fortunes of a programme.

However – I’m not convinced that across the sector we collectively spend a lot of time thinking about a) the workflows and b) skills that a programme leader needs to be successful. Oh sure we issue role descriptors but in many Universities they have not been updates in years and I came across one that in a nameless University seems to have last been updated in 2008.

Just before Covid, I did some work where I spent some time in 15 different Business Schools and they were a cross-section of UK HE. However across the board, most had no real workflows around the use of student data analytics. Many PLs I spoke to had access to various data sources but really beyond “do something with this”, there was no really systematic attempts to take the different data-sources and build into a coherent workflow.

The programme leader for me as a role needs at its core to have a good understanding of data – how to get it and how to drive performance via careful selection. This cannot be chance and needs to be embedded in the culture and processes of a department.

I am convinced that this type of approach is more likely to drive performance quickly than any other type of short-term change that could be embedded before sept 2021.

Some unsolicited advice for my fellow HE Managers

If I was making unsolicited recommendations for my fellow HE managers they would be as follows:

  1. What data skills do your programme leaders actually have? Do they have a base-line competence in the analysis and use of data and what does that base-line look like?
  2. Do you have a good understanding of what different data sources they have access to? What do these different data sources do? Can they be integrated ?
  3. Do you have an robust AND WRITTEN DOWN(!!!) step of processes that outline what PLs should do with these data sources and what interventions they should trigger?

If the answer to these questions is 1) not sure, 2) no and 3) I think we sent them an email with a manual then it is time to think differently…. If you are quick you can work this out before September.

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