The great support mystery

Author: mweller
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This is sort of a companion post to a previous one on recognising different types of labour, particularly work associated with women. I enjoyed this article in Wonkhe from Cath Brown, the President of the Open University Students Association. She talks about the difficulties of supporting distance ed students, but also the importance of this support, stating ‘A feeling of being supported – that someone out there knows about you and your studies as an individual, will look out for you, and share your highs and lows – can make a real difference’.

But, as I’ve commented on here previously, support for distance (which in most models translates to ‘online’) students is rarely something that garners interest, headlines or investment. Indeed, given how valuable we know it is, the concentration of effort seems to be on finding ways to remove it. MOOCs, AI, learning analytics, automated assessment – these are often framed in terms of scaling up online learning by removing the need for human support. This is taken as a given to the extent that people don’t often question it. So, let’s question it – why is human support in online education undervalued and deemed replaceable? I propose it is a result of the following four reasons:

1) It’s costly. Much of the motivation for new models of education is couched in terms of the cost of higher education. This is particularly prevalent when students themselves bear the cost through student loans. Then it is framed in terms of a return on investment or democratising education. Someone has to pay for education, that is true, but these questions are rarely asked in countries that view higher education as a civic mission, for example Germany. Seeking a technological solution to the question of cost is missing the more fundamental issue as to how a society funds higher education. If the Bill Gates, Elon Musks and Jeff Bezos of the world turned their resources to adequately funding higher education, then the view might be different.

2) It’s messy. Technological solutions that remove the need for human support are, well, neater. People have problems, illness, dips in performance, and so on. Algorithms don’t. But beyond this trite comparison there is something deeper in our psyche maybe, which is a desire for a clean, definite solution instead of acknowledging an ongoing vagueness. Despite all our study and research, education remains a slippery beast. We sort of know what works, but not always, not for everyone, not every time. And that just grates against our desire for a clear resolution, like a Scooby mystery that doesn’t have an unmasking. By seeking to formalise the support element through technology, this becomes a more controlled aspect.

3) It’s undervalued. A tautology, but part of the reason the support role is undervalued is because it’s undervalued. The significance of support in education is not realised often, partly because it’s messy as we’ve seen but also because it can be hidden. So because it’s not seen, its value is underplayed, which allows other components in the educational offering (content, assessment) to be seen as central. That’s not to say they’re not important, but as we proposed in our OOFAT model, content, recognition and delivery (which equates with support in this sense) are all equally significant. And if it seen as less important then it receives less attention, and thus can be replaced, in a way we would not consider for the other components.

4) It’s not technological. I’ve been reading Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez and she makes a point we all know, that men tend to seek technological solutions to problems. Her example of clean stoves in developing nations is telling – the mostly male developers kept trying to ‘fix’ (educate) the women who weren’t using them. But when they actually paid attention to how they were being used they found that the new stoves couldn’t accommodate the logs women were using, and as chopping logs fell to them also, they didn’t want to take on extra work in their busy schedules. This is relevant in two respects. First, support is probably perceived as being a more female role. This is not necessarily true, there is nothing innate between sexes to make a difference, but it is about perceptions and investors and education innovators probably perceive of support as ‘soft’, ‘caring’, ‘nurturing’ – all aspects they would associate with women. This automatically gives a bias (see being undervalued) in a male dominated industry. Second, like the stove designers the technologists don’t talk to educators, but rather they want to develop a technological fix to the problem.

All of which is not to set up technology and support in opposition. Ed tech can help support be more effective, for instance, attendance at OU online tutorials is around 50% more than face to face. Learning analytics can be an additional useful tool to help tutors know when to intervene. Social media provides meaningful support networks for many learners. And so on. But all these examples start from a premise of valuing and recognising support. So, let’s be those pesky kids and stop those venture capitalist ed tech evangelists from getting away with it.

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The great support mystery
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