Gwen van der Velden: Student Engagement in Learning and Teaching Quality Management

Academic Enhancement and Standards Committee (AESC) – Away Day, Oxford Brookes University, Tuesday, 17 March 2015, 1130 – 1300. Views and interpretations are my own. Post updated through the day.

Gwen van der Velden is Director of Learning and Teaching at Bath University. Heads, QA/QE, eLearning, Educational Development and English Language Teaching.

Gwen and her team conducted research on how embedded “Student Engagement” is in UK Higher Education. Method: desk research, survey, interviews on what is embedded and what isn’t. 75 of 220 institutions responded (including 28 Students Unions).

Issues highlighted:

Challenges the concept of a student experience

Should we even think about “the” student experience? There is no “the” student. They come with many dimensions. Are students “stakeholders”, “partners” and/or “consumers”. The research uncovered a number of themes: rights, entitlements, cost, evidence of efficacy for employment.

As researchers they were interested to know how students thought. Did they think they were  consumers, partners, stakeholders, experts, apprentices?

Well, all of it.

But this is not what Universities should look at, asserts van der Velden. Higher Education is a transformational process not a consumer purchase. Do we now substitute employment for learning? Can this be differently transformational? The “student voice” appears more concerned about transactional stuff not transformational stuff. But “we” want students on a transformational trajectory. Feedback is the transformational mechanism. In traditional HEIs students talk about “feedback” but institutions talk about “assessment”. We are not explicit about what we think assessment does and what students think assessment does  (see Camille Kamiko, KCL). You can’t “return” the transformation for a refund. University managers and leaders need to know that we all lose if we go down the consumer route.

Stakeholding and partnership

A hybrid model of student engagement (experience) is important. Students are all of many parts: they exhibit different aspects at different points on their journeys and indeed at different times of day.

Stakeholding unifies a number of roles that students have. Students are Consumers in some areas: application, accommodation, transport (buses), food service, library (are the books available); there is a consumerist element in some of the relationship. But it is limited to certain contexts: does not apply to the classroom. If we treat them as consumers in the classroom, they lose and we lose.

And, “Partnership” (as the primary form of engagement experience) is about keeping the consumer out of the classroom”. It is rare for institutions to have the consumerist discussion with students. The question appears in discussions of Student Charters. SUs reported that they found the debate was helpful when it was made explicit.

Do you give students what they want or do you educate them about what they can have? How can participatory co-design be applied to student engagement in all its dimensions Taking a needs-meeting (satisficing) approach leads to ever increasing expectations. Although the number of complaints has not gone up, the robustness of complaints appears to have increased. . Need to manage expectations – this discourse is coming back again.

There is a tripartite relationship:

  • Management
  • Academics
  • Students

25 years from now we may look back at the 1980s and say there was very little diversity back then.

Hampshire College in the US is held up a a model where students pay high fees for a non-consumerist experience.

NSS Response

Gwen challenges the (“insane!”) regulatory model and its evaluation metrics. But is it the regulatory framework what gives the sector its credibility? Has it “gone too far”?

Bath is number 1 in the NSS but “we hate it”. She jokes, if we are the best, god help the rest! It is complex. There is a correlation between NSS top 10 institutions and Institutions who involve students in NSS strategic responses, action plans. I am encouraged that we appear, in some quarters, anyway, to engage students authentically in analysis of issues and design of solutions.

Programme Leads need to include students in the process of continuous improvement.

Students unions

SUs are changing. Students engage at the Programme and course level. They engage at the wider University level. But, they do not engage at the “middle” level: faculty/School? Some SUs are regarded as Undergrad only. SU’s role is to ensure all students are represented, especially hard-to-reach groups. There is a contradiction because if the SU is too close to SMT and Programmes, are they “in bed with” management? SUs have real access. But they become an extended part of the power structure. Could you argue that SUs seem to have once had a consumerist role providing entertainment. But when the student engagement agenda becomes a part of a national political agenda, this new “partnership” role – in contrast to the traditional (entertainment, adversarial, advocate) role – becomes problematic. When institutions were statist, the SU was consumerist. Now when the University is becoming consumerist, is the SU becoming more – what? – communal?

Case Study

Unnamed new entry private for profit HE provider that has a very strong model of student engagement with curriculum and programme design. Students are taught to regard themselves as future employers. This is possible because they are new and are building the institution to a particular vision. Will this change in time? What can we learn from this?








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