Open University confronts change;Professional development

7th May 1999 at 01:00
Lesley Kydd and Bob Glaister look at how the OU is facing new demands as providers of professional development.

THE OPEN University's school of education is the only UK provider of continuing professional development (CPD) for education professionals. The school offers a modular MA, taken over three years, as well as both a certificate and diploma in professional studies in education. On completion of the MA students may move on to the doctorate programme.

As with other institutions of higher education, the OU finds itself operating in a turbulent and sometimes difficult environment. This is nothing new but government proposals both north and south of the border, and the imminent Scottish parliament, add to the feelings of uncertainty.

Current proposals in Scotland to link CPD to a framework of standards, and thus to career development, not only challenge traditional notions of professional development but also indicate a greater desire on the part of government to regulate the teaching profession.

On the other hand, the experience of the OU suggests that many teachers undertake a great deal of professional development for personal reasons. There is then a balance to be sought between regulation and professional autonomy; between the needs of schools and education authorities and those of the individual practitioner. These issues are not easily resolved but perhaps some kind of solution may lie in the appraisal process.

Providers of CPD also face a situation where the definition of '"professional" within the education field has widened beyond the teaching profession and teaching is moving towards a more regulated and accountable practice of professional development. As the market widens an increasing number of education professionals taking CPD courses are not schoolteachers - they may be nurse teachers, social workers, those working in the field of guidance and counselling or those working with adult learners. Courses must be sufficiently broad-based to accommodate a wide range of professionals but specific enough to fit in with the needs of the teaching profession.

This changing environment presents some interesting challenges to all higher education institutions and particularly to one which specialises in teaching and learning at a distance. The Open University is a leader in providing support for students on line, in making course materials available through the Internet and CD-Rom, in using video conferencing techniques and in using conferencing systems such as First Class. The university is making real progress in moving multi-media beyond the "how to work the technology" development phase to using this new medium for teaching and learning and for balancing on line methodologies with more traditional print media.

So what might this mean for teachers and CPD? The Open University in Scotland welcomes proposals for an enhanced role for the General Teaching Council in teachers' professional development. In order to provide the appropriate courses within a framework of standards the university will work in partnerships with other providers, importantly with education authorities and schools. Such partnerships will mean provision can more closely match both local and individual priorities.

Over the years the OU has developed partnerships built around particular courses or qualifications. The transfer of funding for the OU's Scottish students to the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council in 20002001 means that we will need to look at linking our current study programmes with the standards framework as well as developing new and innovative ways of providing CPD for teachers.

As a final point, the OU recognises that while a new framework for CPD is being proposed, the question of how we fill this framework has to be considered. Traditional masters courses are often built around the reflective practitioner model and place a heavy emphasis on research. It may be that CPD will need to develop shorter, more specifically targeted modules which look at particular aspects of classroom practice. A mixed menu is to be welcomed.

The OU in Scotland, with its well developed support systems for students, its commitment to new modes of teaching and learning and its long experience in providing CPD for teachers no matter where they live, looks forward to being an active participant in future developments.

Lesley Kydd and Bob Glaister are staff tutors in the OU school of education. They write in a personal capacity

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