The task, to produce a brochure for a restaurant, had been explained in some detail. "Yeah, but what's it for - nothing?" Jon asked with an emphasis on the "nothing" that brought a whole weight of existential angst to bear on the word, as if all our future hope was called into question.
Well, we deserve all we get in FE. The emphasis on competence-based learning means that everything a learner tackles has to count. And it does.
Practice work all builds towards competence in the subject area and produces successful achievement of the outcomes. Well, that's what it says in the book. But more and more, learners want to get straight to the heart of assessment. What do we want? Assessment! When do we want it? Now!
Bad news for the well-meaning souls who write to the letters pages of our national press, urging a more rounded learning experience as a preparation for life. Bad news, too, for the theorists in education who discuss with us how to include value-added learning, how to go above and beyond what is required and to stretch students. What we are struggling with is learners who simply want to take the narrowest route to assessment. And with many of our learners working long hours to support their learning, you certainly sympathise.
Competence-based learning is seen as a commodity. If you are training for a ticket you want it delivered promptly. Getting the balance between education and training is tough. As lecturers we are part of a business process, and we operate within tight structures as regards delivery and assessment. Skills-based competencies we can do. Preparation for life may take a little longer and will certainly be a whole lot more expensive.
So what's it for, Jon, when you are asked to do something that isn't an actual assessment? And what if we suggested you stretch to doing something above and beyond the call of duty? Something for nothing?
Most learners have to recognise the validity of their tasks. So how do you keep them looking past college, to the real world of multi-skilling, where problem-solving and communication skills and emotional intelligence all count?
You need a good sales pitch. This week, budding entrepreneurs Chris and Dave popped in to talk about their plans for a national students' magazine and wow -did they galvanise our media and visual communication students.
The pair are under the wing of an embryonic business start-up group and were recruiting contributors who could write, do layouts, take pictures, edit and who wouldn't be averse to getting freebies to review movies and gigs. "We need you guys," Chris said to the groups who had herded in.
These two could have charmed our lot into buying a timeshare on the edge of a cliff or reading the entire works of Shakespeare by next Wednesday.
Judging by the buzz after they left, I guess there is going to be a lot of interest in working for the magazine, and in using the skills learned in college in the real world. Jon is suddenly pretty keen to improve his DTP skills to a professional standard, and it looks as if all the theory he has been learning has a validity he couldn't see before.
Just so long as he remembers he's here to pass assessments, to work within my tight strictures, with all the little boxes ticked. I watch him improving on an already OK layout. I may go up to him and ask, in suitably angst-ridden tones: "But what's it for, Jon - nothing?"
Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in media at Dundee College.