Feedback is a gift
Warren Buffett is the latest in a long line of influential people advising us to value the gift of feedback. He explained “Honesty is a very expensive gift; just don’t expect it from cheap people” meaning that the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s ambivalence.
The Open College of the Arts has been around for over thirty years, however it’s a small organisation, fifty times smaller than the Open University in terms of the numbers of students. This means that to OCA the value of feedback is critical in helping us shape what we do. With fewer students we really must value every response and piece of feedback from our students and to be informed by our students. Indeed our vision encapsulates this aim by wanting “to be at the forefront of student-led creative arts education through open, enhanced, & supported distance learning, for an evolving society”. This small scale also makes it is a challenge to extract enough feedback in order to make a judgement or decision. Unlike the OU our students don’t form cohorts in the same way (except at Postgraduate level) and can start and complete their studies at any point throughout the academic year, they also study at a slower pace, around a third of the pace of full time study. OCA’s student association is also extremely small and has relied on the goodwill of a small number of volunteers.
Recently the latest round of the National Student Survey was made available, over the past two years in which OCA has been included we have performed very well in the survey for overall student satisfaction. However, in a traditional University environment the results of this survey inform the quality plans for the following academic year and the improvement will then be evident within the survey results for the next year. With OCA, due to the nature of our courses and slow study intensity, we may not see the results of work reflected in satisfaction for perhaps two or three years; additionally because of the modular nature of study some courses have small numbers of students at a particular stage, i.e. below the threshold for individual NSS course level feedback. We conduct internal surveys to improve the information we receive however the situation remains that our formal feedback cycles are slow and patchy for informing decisions.
We therefore rely heavily on informal proactive methods to receive feedback to help us improve. For example, we are increasingly using students forums and focus groups as a method of engaging students in critical discussions about topics such as the academic regulations, online environments, or access to library services. We also also increasingly using student data and statistics to help inform our decision making. For example, by better understanding where students succeed through assessment statistics. We also ask more explicitly for students and alumni to post up reviews and to provide online feedback to us and to assist other students with deciding about whether or not to take OCA study. I believe this is essential because our current and ex-students have a far better grasp of the barriers to student success and the benefits of OCA study and can frame this in a way that is an honest reflection of the highs and lows of their time with OCA.
In the current digital environment it is very important for us to remain customer focussed and therefore one of the biggest surprises for me is the fact that very few OCA alumni have taken time to reflect on their study with OCA and provide feedback. I now make a habit of providing reviews for services provided to me, everything from boiler repairs to holidays, providing feedback on positive experiences and not just using reviews to flag up when something has fallen below my expectation (although I do that as well!).
It is essential as OCA moves into a new decade, embraces new challenges and looks to the next thirty years, that we understand what is most important to our students. My challenge to OCA students and alumni is therefore to make the time to reflect and to work with us to make positive change.
We will take steps to ensure that any feedback is not taken defensively but treated as a gift, and indeed a very expensive and valuable gift. Now what’s your feedback?