Designing to constraints

Seamless integration

It’s summertime, so in between the flood warnings (seriously), it’s time to be doing some Big Thinking about teaching.

As part of my new role at the Open University, I’m contributing to a new Masters in IR, including the development of a simulation exercise.

I’ll be writing a lot more about this simulation in the next couple of years, mainly because the constraints are very different from those I’ve worked to before, with a big pile of knock-on consequences.

As a completely new programme, we’ve got relatively more space to manoeuvre than would be usually the case, but still the constraints loom rather large. As such, I’m dwelling on my third step of my usual approach to such situations.

For those unfamiliar with the OU, it’s the UK’s largest university (nearly the enrolment of the University of California system) working almost entirely on a distance-learning model. We have a lot of adult learners and a very flexible approach to working up to qualifications: you take a module at a time.

The new Masters will be entirely remote, with a taught module that runs for 36 weeks, followed by a dissertation. For most of that 36 weeks, we provide a collection of teaching materials – written and audio/visual – through our website, with structured activities for students, building up to interim and final pieces of assessment.

My role, as part of the central teaching staff, is to create those materials, which have to be able to stand being used by students for several years before a refresh, with activities supervised and moderated by a large team of associates, who handle the bulk of the direct interactions with students.

The upshot here is that I’ve been trying to work up a negotiation simulation that fits a number of requirements that are usually not that conducive to such things:

  • Student numbers will be variable across iterations;
  • I can’t assume all students will be doing this via our website (we have a significant number of students with various accessibility challenges, so they might only be able to learn via a printed version of our materials);
  • As such, synchronous interaction is not an option;
  • Even asynchronous interaction will be a problem for some;
  • And I can’t assume any prior knowledge of negotiation.

As the old joke about getting directions in Ireland goes, you wouldn’t start from here.

But that’s been precisely why I’ve enjoyed my first months here: it’s not run-of-the-mill and I’m being forced to think about how to manage the situation, rather than simply reinvent the wheel.

For those of you not moving jobs, then remember that you too are working to constraints, but you might just have internalised them to a degree. None of us gets a completely free hand, or even something close to one.

The response here is to work with the constraints, not against them.

Whether it’s a oddly-shaped room, or a limit on your timetabled time with students, or making necessary adjustments for students with disabilities, or building in assessment obligations, or a departmental edict against X, Y or Z; then it’s the same thing. Whatever things might be blocked, then other things become possible.

The beauty of education is that it’s not uniform and that there’s no one correct way to do it: variety is a good thing, for so many reasons.

In my case, I’ve used those constraints to explore the options with the rest of the team. That meant presenting a number of basic models to them, with their benefits and disadvantages, all grounded in the question of what purpose this simulation is fulfilling within the programme.

Off the back of that discussion, I’m not working up an approach that combines at least two of those models, which we’ll discuss again in September. And as we settle on things, I’ll write more about how that might work and the further integration and delivery challenges that have to be addressed.