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.

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!

 

 

Freedom to learn and civil liberties

Last week I attended both the Freedom to Learn Conference and Liberal Democrats Spring Conference. After two excellent events, it’s hard to avoid the urge to blog about freedom, education and civil liberties. They are all under threat…

This Conservative Government keeps trying to erode our civil liberties all in the name of security. They want to keep us safe. Apparently. There is no doubt that targeted surveillance of criminals should be allowed. I am not disagreeing with that, I don’t think anyone is. What I am arguing against is the wholesale collection of bulk data and essentially spying on every citizen in this country. This amount of data is dangerous and no-one should be trusted with it, least of all our government. After a string of hight profile data breaches, how can they be trusted to keep this data safe? Even if you trust a conservative government with this data, what is UKIP or Greens achieved a majority… would you be happy then? Hasn’t Snowdon’s high-profile whistleblowing demonstrated how our data is at risk?

As we live an increasingly large amount of our lives online, it is important to think of what that means. The data you share online is your communication with family and friends. It is your photographs and memories. It is your ideas and studies. It is you. Even if you have nothing to hide – do you not have something to protect? All of this stuff is precious and needs to be protected. I know the risks and benefits for engaging with this technology. I fear many young teenagers don’t. My biggest fear is that they ‘expect’ the government to spy on them to keep them safe. Is this a fair trade off? Bulk surveillance is the equivalent of the Home Office steaming open love letters sent in class. Even with this metaphor they don’t seem bothered…

This is where education comes in. While we can lobby the government, there may be no stopping Theresa May’s desire to know everything about everybody. Despite her lack of technical competence, there is a real chance the government will sink an awful lot of money to achieve the near impossible. The bulk collection of data about it’s citizens. So how can we fight back? I think education has a real power to make a difference. We need to teach, train and education our citizens to make sure they make informed choices. I share a lot of stuff about myself online. I use cloud storage. At least I don’t do this in naivety. I want everyone to know of the advantages and disadvantages of sharing their information so they can make informed choices too.

If we don’t do something, I genuinely feel we will raising a generation that expects to be observed and surveilled. The fight that we are having to protect our civil liberties is under threat unless we educate our teenagers to pick up this fight also. I am deeply concerned about the lack of education available, but maybe there is light. I had a brief opportunity to discuss this with Shami Chakrabarti and was heartened to hear there is a fight back. Some teenagers are looking carefully at what they share online and deciding against it. Some teenagers are shying away from Google and Facebook, aware of the consequences for sharing so much data with large companies. Lets hope this critical approach to sharing online is picked up by more.

So where does freedom to learn come in? Wherever our civil liberties are under treat, there is no freedom to learn. There is no freedom to debate. There is no freedom to think. Control just drives thinking underground not out in the open where it can be challenged and debated. This, if anything is the biggest threat to freedom to learn.

A cacophony of spaces

A few days ago I took a short break from Soja’s Thirdspace to make this diagram. In ThirdspaceSoja identifies what he calls a cacophony of spaces in a list that is so long, I had to make this visualisation to display them all. While there is nothing new in this list for me, I found it quite striking to see so many of the spaces identified across the literature listed in a single place. I’m going to keep this as a living diagram  on my computer so I can continue to amend it. There are indeed spaces missing 😉

Spaces of protest, repression, sexualities, identity and dystopia. What is missing for you? (Comment below)

 

spaces

Postmodernism: It’s impossible to move!

I would say this is a form of procrastination, however after such a productive morning I am happy to label this as a well deserved break. I’ve spent most of this week so far buried in the spaces of modernity (Dear & Flusty, 2002)an interesting volume that focuses on postmodern interpretations of space. Tucked between a couple of the chapters I came across this excellent comic from Calvin and Hobbes (Watterson, 1990) and I needed to make this quick post to share it.

I think this little strip perfectly captures the headaches we all go through when grappling with new concepts. It kinda makes me wish I was seeing the world through a neo-cubist art lens as opposed to the Marxist or postmodern! Nevertheless, I think the real gem from this strip is the following:

The multiple views provide too much information! It’s impossible to move!

Maybe that alone should form my definition of postmodernism. Shame it would have to end there. After all, we can’t let the world fall into a recognisable order…

Calvin and Hobbes

Source: Calvin and Hobbes Comic Strip, July 27, 2014 on GoComics.com
One of the many great comics you can read for free at GoComics.com! Follow us for giveaways & giggles.

 

SAGE Research Methods

I just wanted to write a quick blog post today about SAGE Research Methods (SRM).

I think this is a fantastic resource and wanted to share some details about it for my fellow #HullEdD students. Azumah did try to show this at the end of our weekend, but there were some technical issues on campus.

To paraphrase SAGE, SRM is a research methods tool to help researchers with their papers and students with their studies. SAGE particularly specialise in humanities and social sciences research giving them a large catalogue of resources that are pulled into SRM. This means in includes over 720 books, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and handbooks, the entire Little Green Book, and “Little Blue Book series, two Major Works collating a selection of journal articles, and specially commissioned videos, with truly advanced search and discovery tools. As the resource focuses on methodology and not discipline, it is widely applicable to lots of disciplines including us in education (SAGE, 2014).

As EdD students, the dictionary and encyclopaedia entries may not be something we would want to reference, but they do serve as a useful first place to check the definition of something. The text books within SRM can then be used to build on your initial understanding and the case studies and journal articles will show these methodologies and methods in action. As with any other journal articles, the articles accessed via SRM make a great addition to your bibliography, as may some of the books and case studies. For EndNote and RefWorks users, you will find SRM supports citation exports to make referencing just that little bit quicker! I should add it supports Zotero for anyone going off piste with their choice of bibliographic manager 😉

As SRM is an online resource, everything is available digitally which is a big plus for any of our international peers!

Accessing SRM at the University of Hull

As a University of Hull student, you will get access to SRM, you just need to login through Shibboleth. First click Log in to SAGE Research Methods:

The select Sign in via your institution:

You’ll find Hull under: University of Hull (Shibboleth) and selecting this option will take you into our familiar log in page.

Methods Map

The reason I think SRM is such a powerful tool comes down to the Methods Map. You can find this under Methodologies > Method Map. If you navigate through to Qualitative data analysis you’ll find everything from Foucauldian discourse analysis and grounded theory through to interpretive phenomenological analysis and visual research.

Give it a go! It is awesome!

 

SAGE video introduction to SRM

The EdD – One year on!

It seems like only yesterday that I started on my EdD journey.

As I sat at home filling in my annual review, it really struck me just how quickly this year has gone. While this year has led to many achievements of which I am proud, I have also noticed an absence of many things I *should* have been doing as part of my EdD journey. While I can be proud of my bibliographic management, organisation, note-taking and writing – many other things are absent…

Where are the conference papers/attendances?
What additional seminars have I engaged with?
What happened to my blog…

I figured writing down these shortcomings would be a useful way of (publicly) identifying some goals for the year ahead. I have made a great start in so many ways, but now is time to pick up the pace and continue to develop my wider engagement with the programme, with doctoral study and with the communities of practice for which I subscribe.

Perhaps I am being too harsh on myself in the context of the other achievements I have made this year. I have gained both my Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy and my Postgraduate Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society. I now need to leverage these networks alongside the Association for Learning Development in Higher Education to continue to develop my thinking in all things to do with learning development and space. After all, what is the use of joining networks if I do not use them…