Some time ago the University decided it would be a good idea to offer every student the chance of studying a language, in order to improve their employability and general life chances. Great idea - but as with so many ideas, implementation was not thought about in any detail, with the result that those providing the service - the Modern Languages Teaching Centre and others - have had to do the best they could with limited resources and a tangled skein of spreadsheets to manage the tracking and processing of students and classes. To these problems are added the complexity of module code structure and the differences in fees for different types of students.
Last year the MLTC came to us to ask for help with fixing some of these problems. Unfortunately, owing to pressure of work on the MLTC team we were unable to hold an improvement event until July this year - meaning that changes for the new year would have an extremely small window.
As part of the scoping and planning meetings, we identified that a successful outcome would likely mean simplification of the module codes and fee structures , and the ability to track students’ progress more easily.
At our improvement event we examined the reasons for the fee structure and decided that the stated objective, which was to give incentives not to take the exam when not necessary for the student’s main course of study, and to accrue extra income from external students, did not really work as planned, and caused a great deal of extra work in processing payments, refunds and so on (around 100 hours staff time each year). The decision was made to unify the fee, and after consulting experts from our Strategy and Planning Office we found that there were no hurdles - encouraging as the existing fees had just been re-confirmed for the new year.
Next for consideration was the question of the module codes. This was complicated. Each language course, say, Italian has not one but for module codes - as follows:
IT101C, IT101I, IT101H, and IT101M. Students are assigned to one of these module codes depending on their year of study on their degree course. IT101C is year 1, IT101I is year 2, IT101H is third year, and IT101M is masters level. Externals (staff and others) are put on IT101C. The logic of this is that students must study modules at the same level as their degree course. But in fact students on all four different codes are studying at the same time, with the same teacher in the same classroom, and taking the same exam at the end of the module. The ramifications of this setup are: four times the amount of exams to set and timetable, four times the amount of class lists, four times the amount of setup work to create each module and so on; and perhaps more importantly, confusion and chaos for the student, and a great deal of work fixing problems when students are assigned to the wrong code - as often happens. The team calculated that 184 hours staff time each year are devoted to this activity.
Again consultation with experts was undertaken to see if removal of the ‘level’ suffixes would cause a problem anywhere within the University’s processes. Nobody could see that they would, everyone was supportive - but equally, nobody felt they could actually authorise the change.
Given the short window for change, the result was that the new year will use the same course codes as previous years. Already this has meant that some 60 students, allocated to the wrong module code, will have to be moved to the correct code, and this will continue through the start of the new academic year.
What is our learning from this project?
- Make sure that approval for changes has really been given, so that team members are not disappointed.
- Make sure that consultation with stakeholders is genuine and that they understand the purpose of the improvement event.