The OU centre for STEM pedagogy
Staff in academic and academic-related posts at other higher education institutions worldwide have been welcome at the OU since its founding in 1969. The University publishes policy and guidelines (Open University, 2017 and Open University, n.d.) covering the purposes of and arrangements for such visiting scholarships. Implicit in these documents is the suggestion that such visitors are a normal part of university life and that the university benefits from their presence and the work they undertake.
Although little is said specifically about benefits to the institution, nothing at all is said about how the visitors themselves, others around them and their home institution benefit. The work reported here represents an attempt to identify and document the effect engaging in a visiting scholarship has on the individuals concerned.
The particular scholars chosen for the study were all from China. Not only were these scholars easily identifiable as members of the distance learning (DL) communities in China, with whom the OU has had a long relationship, but the cohort constituted what is probably the largest group of scholars who share at least one common characteristic.
In evaluating the impact of an experience on an individual, the time dimension is of utmost significance. We aimed to bring to light both the short term effects that might have been established relatively easily at the time of the visit and longer term impacts, by engaging as participants in the study scholars whose visits took place over a range of time from the recent past to many years ago. Undertaking a longitudinal study may be complex but the passage of time enables individuals to give meaning and attribute value to their past experiences. Such longitudinal studies allow for informants’ experiences to accumulate, enabling them to focus on reflection.
Among other goals (see Section 4.2) we hoped the outcomes of our study might guide the University towards a strategy for international scholarly exchange and collaboration to replace the ad hoc approach embodied in the policy documents cited above. By evidencing personal and institutional benefits to be gained on both sides from scholarship visits, we anticipated being able to start a debate within the OU that could lead to more outwardly-focused staff development.
The work reported here is the product of interviews conducted with a sample of former scholars, exploring the longitudinal impacts of their visits on the scholars, their institutions and their wider communities in China. The number of interviewees was determined primarily by the investigators’ time and the logistical issues surrounding conducting the interviews face to face.
Although many of our goals have so far been achieved, there is still much valuable work that could be done with former scholars, particularly by widening the sample of scholars to include smaller institutions more remote from Beijing. Moreover, we have been unable to date to undertake the parallel study of impact on our institution arising from hosting scholars and we are unaware that it has yet been attempted at the OU. In the absence of a complementary perspective, our findings provide support for the view of the OU as benefiting the DL sector worldwide by hosting scholars, without ourselves gaining from the experience. Our own personal experience and our interactions with scholars and their supervisors supports a fuller picture but, without hard evidence, such ideas remain merely assertions.
The report begins with brief profiles of the investigators, outlining our respective backgrounds that uniquely qualify us to engage in this investigation. Section 3 outlines the organisation of distance learning provision in China, providing the context for the scholars who participated in our study.
Section 4 details our approach to the investigation. Our findings are set out in Section 5 followed by conclusions. Finally, we provide some suggestions for follow-on studies.