Is ‘student engagement’ a dangerous concept?

Do some of the common conceptualizations of student engagement overshadow what is really important? This post will somewhat (intentionally) overstate an argument, but I want to summarise some of the discussions from the SRHE Conference with the respect of ‘student engagement’. It has been argued that in the UK context, ‘student engagement’ has been under-theorised (Gourlay, 2016). This is not to say there is no theory. Trowler (2010) has demonstrated some diversity in how ’student engagement’ is understood and while this isn’t surprising for any ideal in academia, it is suprising how rarely it is defined in use. To consider one such definition, Trowler (2010) introduces ‘student engagement’ as:

concerned with the interaction between the time, effort and other relevant resources invested by both students and their institutions intended to optimise the student experience and enhance the learning outcomes and development of students and the performance, and reputation of the institution

Still doesn’t really say much…

At the SRHE conference, many speakers suggested that outside the UK context, ’student engagement’ is better theorised and this is reflected in Trowler’s (2010) introduction, arguing the term is more established in the North America and Australian literature. Perhaps the problem with the term in the UK is that it is associated too heavily with league tables, metrics and university advertising.

So why is ’student engagement’ a dangerous concept? In her session, Gourlay exemplified ’student engagement’ with the use of Coats (2007) definition. This is because it is a widely used definition, which constructs student engagement as “a broad construct intended to encompass salient academic as well as certain non-academic aspects of the student experience” (Coates, 2007:122). This is :

  • active and collaborative learning;
  • participation in challenging academic activities;
  • formative communication with academic staff;
  • involvement in enriching educational experiences;
  • feeling legitimated and supported by university learning communities.

All of these words focus on participation with others. This is problematic for many reasons but I want to focus on two:

1 | Where is learning?

Okay, so this isn’t just learning. It’s to do with everything related to education. Most definitions of student engagement focus too much on process and do not necessarily make learning, knowledge application and knowledge creation clear. Surely the most important aspects of student engagement is engagement with learning? There are often too many references in the ‘student engagement’ literature to wider and extra curricular activities/experiences. Yes – all of this may be an important part of higher education, but it isn’t the sum of higher education.

2| It’s all interaction

‘Student engagement’ focuses too much on interaction between students, staff and others. To engage students (or for them to be engaged) there must be some physical or measurable interaction. They must actively participate. This could be group work with others, discussions with the lecturer or participation in a debate. Perhaps attending lectures alone is enough to class as engaged in some situations! In the world of metrics and learning analytics, interaction can also include usage of the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). These are all quantifiable, observable and measurable interactions. The interactions of the engaged!

But not all people want to engage like (nor do they need to all the time).

What does ‘student engagement’ hide?

The essence of ‘student engagement’ focuses on active forms of engagement (collaborative, participate and communicative learning). However, not all students learn like this – or at least not all the time. Gourlay (2016) argues learning can be placed on a spectrum:

The ‘intense’ and ‘collaborative’ forms of working very much align with the active forms of working expected within the ‘engaged student’. The problem is that this overshadows the ‘independent’ and ‘passive’ forms of working. These forms of working can be seen as ‘unengaged’ as they are counter to the active, collaborative, participative and communicative learning. Somehow along the way this has become seen as problematic for it is not representative of the ‘engaged’ student. Yet, independent, solitary work is a major part of learning in higher education. Such independent work is a vital part of assessment in higher education and, as a learning process, it enables students to grapple with their own understanding of key concepts. As suggested in Gourlay’s (2016) paper, this is problematic as an important part of the learning process has become labeled as ‘unengaged’. This a damaging perspective for something that is core to the student learning journey. Even more problematic when considered in the terms of league tables, the TEF and university marketing…

Conclusion

Okay. So ‘student engagement’ may not be dangerous – but it can be problematic. The focus on active and measurable engagement overshadows legitimate working practices. This is an important for consideration for anyone researching student engagement as it is far too easy to sideline learning. This is perhaps further problematic for prospective students as universities sell their courses based on the whole range engagement opportunities. While these are valuable for building student experiences and employability skills, they often neglect learning and learning support.

References

Coates, H. (2007) A Model of Online and General Campus-Based Student Engagement. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 32 (2), 121–141.

Gourlay, L. (2016) ‘Student engagement’ and the tyranny of participation, Society for Research in Higher Education (SRHE) Annual Research Conference, 9-11 December 2016, Celtic Manor, Newport, South Wales, UK.

Trowler, V (2010) Student Engagement Literature Review. York: Higher Education Academy. Available online: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/studentengagementliteraturereview_1.pdf

SRHE Newer Researchers Conference

Today I attended the SRHE Newer Researchers Conference at the Celtic Manor in Newport, Wales. Titled Exploring freedom and control in global higher education, the conference has been a fantastic networking opportunity to meet other researchers and look at some of the latest developments in diverse fields. The day started with an icebreaker where we got to meet everyone on our tables:

Which leads well onto the keynote:

Knowledge creation – a dialogic approach: the power of networks and networking, mentors and mentoring

Helen Walkington opened the conference with a very throught provoking keynote. She demonstrated the importance of dialogue in the creation of knowledge, but also stressed the importance of involving undergraduates in this. A core part of this process was the use of students as researchers, engaging undergraduates in real research-based courses that enable them to make their own discoveries.

From the library perspective, this was particularly interesting as their institutional repository was used to disseminate the student outputs (or at least those that have passed the assessment criteria). This emphasis on real and meaninful research was very interesting and it is easy to see how this can be very engaging for students. Arguably, the role of student as researcher highlights a new liminal space providing students a real taste of academia, particualrly when research outputs are later disseminated via papers and conferences.

While this summary does the session no justice, it was very useful for my work and research.

[NOTE: Take a look at Universities, the Citizen Scholar and the Future of Higher Education, this was recommended by Helen and it is something on my list now!]

Parallel sessions

The parallel sessions (which included my own contribution on rhythmanalysis) were really interesting. The first strand, research methods and methodologies contained presentations looking at diverse tools in interviews, models for research-based learning and research risks. From a work perspective I was quite interested in the card sorting, network maps and documentary analysis of the first presentation. In particular I would like to thing about how this could be analysed with software like NVivo 🙂

The next set of parallels looked at supporting student success with presentations on student leader development, perceptions of failure and mature student experiences. Choosing one again the paper on student leader develop was particualry interesting as it looked at the advantages of a monastic retreat in helping leaders develop, reconceptualise time and realise the benefit of their volunteering on others. While the context for my own work is very different, I think there is a lot of benefit to be gained from remote retreat in helping students cope with pressure.

The final session looked at educational futures including my own peresentation. This strand was interesting and featured other presentaitons considering the REF and gender conceptualisaiton in Turkey. The feedback for my own contribution was very productive and I look forward to taking some of the ideas sparked from this in my own work.

Fireside chats

Sadly – no fire, but lots of chat. These sessions were an excellent opportunity to network with experienced researchers and get general advice. The group I was in focused heavily on work-life balance, time management and general career advice. It was good to know my concerns are not mine alone and to realise there are a whole range of pressures researchers face. It seems emails continue to be a major problem for a lot of people and it was interesting to see a number of people choose to only check their emails once a day. I’m not sure I could manage that but I am interested in the different management techniques people choose. I was also facinated by the different spaces people chose to work in and it continues to highlight the beauty of ‘finding a space to work’.

Conference close

I have already made some connections from the conference and look forward to making more at the main SRHE Conference tomorrow through to Friday. So fortunate the SRHE Newer Researchers Conference provides us with business cards.

Writing your way to success

Today I took part in my first writing retreat, organised by @azumahcarol as part of the University of Hull, Doctor of Education (EdD) programme. I have to admit that while I had read some literature on support of this process (Murray & Newton, 2009; Moore, 2003; Petia & Annika, 2012), I was sceptical about it in this context. Sitting down from 9am to 5pm and focusing on writing alone sounds like a great idea – but I had two main concerns:

  • The third year EdD students had not seen each other for weeks. In the case of our three Netherlands-based peers this was MONTHS. Surely after so much time apart we had too much catching-up to do to sit in silence?
  • We are all at the very start of our thesis stage and sitting and writing for a whole day seemed like a big commitment and something we may not be ready for. (Okay – I admit, moving house has seriously destroyed my reading time!)

Despite my concerns, I hit the ground running this morning. I was determined to make the most of this opportunity. It isn’t often that I get such a large block of time to work on EdD coupled with the guarantee of no distractions. I had to make the most of opportunity as it was costing a day of annual leave. If I was going to waste the time, I’m sure I could have found something more fun to do.
For the first session I was able to write over 1,200 words in the 90 minute block. In honesty, most of this was achieved in the first 60 minutes as my concertation seemed to stagger towards the end of the block. I had a similar record for my second session 90 minute session, taking my total to around 2600 words. I have to admit I was proud of myself. 2600 fairly decent words in 3 hours. Just some tidying and referencing to go.
We concluded the morning at 13:00 and set off for an hour break. I was certainly hungry by this point and needed the break. I have to admit I had some concerns about the afternoon as my head was rapidly running out of things to write about. My lack of reading was finally coming to bite me.
Strategically, I spend the third session in the afternoon looking at something different. I was recently rejected from a journal and had to respond to some comments. This wasn’t my best idea as after the first 40 minutes I was thoroughly depressed and it soured the rest of the session.
That brings me to the last hour. It gave me the opportunity to Mindmap some new ideas, add another 300 words to my total and then write this.
All in all, I’ve written 3460 words today (including this blog post) and I’m pretty happy with that 🙂

Yes – I’m completely sold on structured writing days and I look forward to the next similar opportunity. We also did pretty well at resisting the temptation to write so clearly we’re all very dedicated! The power of finding ‘space’ to work.

References:

Moore, S. (2003) Writers’ retreats for academics: exploring and increasing the motivation to write. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 27(3), 333-342.

Murray, R. & Newton, M. (2009) Writing retreat as structured intervention: margin or mainstream? Higher Education Research & Development, 28(5), 541-553.

Petia, P. & Annika, C. (2012) Using structured writing retreats to support novice researchers. International Journal for Researcher Development, 3(1), 79-88.

An 8 point manifesto for the EdD

As part of the EdD weekend we were asked to develop a manifesto for the professional educational doctorate. This was something we were challenged to work with in isolation and here is my first (and very under-developed) draft.

  1. There needs to be a contribution to professional knowledge

    The primary differentiation between a second tier doctorate is the contribution to professional knowledge versus the philosophical contribution of the PhD. This is not to say the EdD is absent of philosophy, but that the outcome must have some practical implications for practice.

  2. The EdD must have a grounding within a conceptual framework

    This will ensure the EdD provides an original and academic contribution to knowledge – not an evaluation.

  3. The EdD must be gounded in literature 

    A full appreciation of the wider literature must be incorporated into the EdD. This will ensure existing debates are established, helping to ensure the EdD provides an original contribution to knowledge.

  4. Community is core to the EdD experience

    The EdD is not a solitary journey. The community surrounding taught elements are a core part of the EdD experience and it is important to have peers for both support and critical friendship.

  5. Be resilient!

    The EdD required writing at level 8 from the first assignment. This is not easy and there will be set backs along the way. Critical comments, minor and major amendments and the stress of balancing research and work – The EdD researcher needs to be resilient.

  6. Be independent

    This is a doctorate! The EdD experience provides a whole range of support mechanisms but it is also a doctoral qualification. Researchers must take responsibility for their own work and be the driver of their EdD.

  7. Negotiate supervision

    The assessments and thesis provide a range of supervisory experiences. it is important to not only take advantage of these opportunities, but to negotiate them in a meaningful way to ensure that you both get the most out of the experience.

  8. Relish the discomfort

    Relish the discomfort. It is in the liminal spaces that we have the opportunity to discover new things.

Exporting from EndNote to NVivo

In EndNote, all you need to do is open your library and select the papers you wish to export. You can use Ctrl/Command and A to select all, or you can hold Ctrl/command and select individual papers. Papers you have selected will be highlighted in blue. Once you’ve done this, go to File > Export…

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Save this as an XML file (Save as type) and keep the output style as Annotated.

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You can now head to NVivo to import.

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Importing into NVivo

I’ve started a new NVivo 11 Project so I have a blank file ready to go. To bring in all the papers from Endnote, all you need to do is head to Data > From Other Sources > From EndNote…

This will open a dialogue you can use to browse to the file exported from EndNote. Once found, select the XML file and click open:

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This will open the import dialogue in NVivo. This has a series of useful tools that will check for existing papers in your project and allow you to specify where you want to store the imported papers. Anything with a PDF (journal articles for example) attached will be imported as an Internal. Anything without a PDF attached (most books for example) will be imported as an External. As this is the first import and the project is literature only, you don’t need to change anything here so click Import.

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You’ll see the status of your import reported at the bottom left of the screen. Be patient while it loads:

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This should give you an NVivo file with all of the relevant papers for your project.

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The official QSR guidelines for this can be found on their online help guide, including instructions for Mendeley, RefWorks and Zotero. Additional guidelines for making this work with EndNote and NVivo on different machines can be  found in the Importing EndNote references in NVivo help guide.

Using EndNote to collect literature

This is a short blog post that looks at how you can collect literature on mass from a database for export into EndNote. I wrote this brief post to provide some background on how to prepare an EndNote library ahead of using it with QSR NVivo. When this second post is ready, I’ll link it here.

Collecting the literature

No matter what I am working on, it always starts with a literature search. Like most of us, I focus on using the resources available through my institution and as an educational researcher, I tend to use a mix of databases available though Web of Science, ProQuest or EBSCOhost depending on the topic. I start by identify my key
search terms
and then use a mixture of operators and Boolean logic to develop my search query. While I try to be precise with this step of the process, I don’t worry too much as I can use NVivo later to prioritise my reading.

After conducting a search, I’ll either batch add all the results, or skim through the abstracts to select the most relevant papers. How this works varies by database and I don’t want to spend too much time discussing this as I want to get to NVivo. Here are a couple of examples on how to export results to EndNote.

Web of Science

 

Select relevant results and then ‘Save to EndNote desktop’ or batch export by range (e.g. results 1-500)

ProQuest

 

Select relevant results then click ‘more’ and then ‘RIS (works with EndNote, Citavi, etc.)

Essentially, this will download a file with the metadata for each article including title, authors, abstract, DOI, journal and other relevant information. This can be achieved with pretty much any academic database that lets you batch export results into an EndNote compatible file format like RIS.

Using EndNote to collect PDF files

You can either use an existing or new EndNote Library for the next bit. In EndNote, select ‘File > Import’

 

Browse to the RIS files you downloaded from the database and select them. This will import all the information about the articles into EndNote. Then all you need to do is highlight the references you have important and then select ‘References > Find Full Text > find Full Text…’. Generally speaking, this will only work on campus unless you can authenticate at distance with something like EZproxy (ask your library). In doing this, EndNote will try it’s best to find the PDF file of every article you have. If it finds it, it will download and attach it to your EndNote file.

 

This will give you an EndNote library with all of the papers from your search including their PDF files. Now this might look like a lot of work, but generally speaking, this can take about 15 minutes when you know what you’re doing and that includes loading time. By this point you should have an EndNote library with the papers that are useful or relevant to your current project and it is all ready to import into NVivo.

You’ve got to love the journey. Simple and straight it is not.

Today I hit a wall.

I’ve been working through some of my research plans and I simply could not connect the dots. I have solid pieces of work here and there but I just could not get the connections to work. The connections seemed illusive and the most frustrating thing was that I knew the connections were there.

So, I took the metaphorical wall, and made it literal:

Post-it wall of ideas

Sometimes that change of environment can make a big difference. Stepping back can help you seen new things and new connections. I always find the flexibility of some post-its and a wall invaluable, especially if it means getting away from the computer screen or a book.

Now the real reason I wanted to share my troubles today is found in the title of this post. While stepping back helped, what really made the difference was a simple message from @JaxBartram. I was venting my frustrations to her and she simply text back the following:

You’ve got to love the journey. Simple and straight it is not.

That one liner made me smile and somehow made it all better.

The doctoral journey is definitely not simple or straight.

But it sure as hell is fun!

 

 

ALDinHE Conference 2016 – Herriot Watt

It is with great sadness that I depart on the 17:00 train back home from the ALDinHE Annual Conference. It has been a fantastic three days in Edinburgh and I am already planning my return visit. I seem to fall into the nasty habit of always being here on business and I am determined to come back for leisure.

I fully intend to post a few blog posts spawned from the conference and in particular, a few more details about my presentation from today. I wanted to make this very quick post to solidify that commitment as I often tend to find myself *busy* after such an event. I do however believe that no matter how busy I am, it is important to make these reflections, ideas and thoughts a bit more concrete. At least, in the digital sense.

One thing that strikes me surrounds the reoccurring themes through the conference. This in itself is not surprising as the conference had four key themes: professional identities, social justice, students as partners and diversity. I was however surprised by the reoccurrance of freedom, civil liberties and belonging. This has linked to a lot of the conversations at the Freedom to Learn Conference in Hull, The Liberal Democrat Spring Conference and general discussions with my peers on the Hull EdD. I think this gives a real feel for some of the genuine concerns people have about education, freedom and government policy. There is every chance I am working hard to find these themes as they are important to me, but I feel their prominence is real. Let’s keep this conversation going!

I really appreciate the energy, enthusiasm and ideas from my loosely related learning development buddies at ALDcon. I am looking forward to getting back to Hull and working on some new ideas based on what I have heard. I also can’t wait to write up my own paper and look forward to trying to get it published. A big thank you to our ALDinHE Steering Group and to Andy for his hard work with the conference.