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…


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.


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:

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.

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.

ALDinHE: 23 things for digital literacy

Helen Webster (@scholastic_rat) ran an excellent workshop on ’23 things for digital literacy’, a project she has been working on to help support PhD students and early career researchers. Like Emma, Helen hails from the University of Cambridge, source of the 23 Things Cambridge blog – “the online home of the Web 2.0 programme for University of Cambridge departmental and college librarians”. The essence of ’23 things’ is simple. You start a blog, updating it weekly. The updates are structured around a ‘thing’ of the week, introduced by the programme leader. This could be something like using wikis, twitter, LinkedIn or RSS feeds. As it is done in the individuals own time, the discovery and use of the ‘thing’ is within their own context.

What Helen has done with the project however, is to adapt it to work with research student support. Digital literacy is of great importance for any researchers and ’23 things’ is a brilliant way to break away from ICT training sessions that simply force all the students to sit at machines while some tools are dictated to them. Breaking out of this classroom, 23 things enables students to use their own equipment, helps them to learn by doing and ensures what they are doing is within the context of their own research. The crucial element is NOT the ‘thing’ itself. It is the process of engaging with a ‘thing’ and the confidence to try something new. This is important as any given tool could quickly become defunct, obsolete or even closed – as is the case with Google Reader.

To ensure interactivity, launch workshops were help so students could meet each other. More importantly, they are encouraged to comment on each others blogs. When approaching a ‘thing’ they are told to be skeptical. Just because the ‘thing’ is introduced by the programme leader, it does not mean it is a tool to be used. It is something to be investigated. Only they can decide if it is of use to their own context. An example of the discourse around each topic could be Dropbox. It can be argued it is an excellent tool for preserving historical documents but an inappropriate tool for storing confidential and sensitive interviews.
See it in action here:
See Helen’s website here

ALDinHE: Supporting and developing the digital literacy of staff

I was very interested to hear from Daniel Clark, a learning technologist from the University of Kent and wanted reflect on his ALDinHE session. It was based on the  E-Learning Summer School at the University of Kent. This is perhaps best described by their website:

The Summer School is a two-day event offering an immersive environment for staff to experience all of the tools and technologies available to them at the University and to engage in wider discussions about Technology Enhanced Learning in Higher Education.

The Summer School operates like a mini conference with invited guest speakers, parallel workshop sessions and interactive discussion groups. Attendees have plenty of opportunity to network with their colleagues and to share their own practice.

This event is open to all staff, regardless of whether you currently use technology in your teaching or not. It may also be of interest to staff who are new to the University of Kent. (University of Kent, 2013)

From the conference presentation, what they achieved seemed to have worked. I think the peer-based elements went a long way to securing this success as, from experience, involving academics helps to show the practical implications for technology. This was also seen with the use of guest presenters to provide tangible examples. Sometimes learning technologists are too abstract and this seemed a really good way to make the sessions practical.

I particularly liked the use of parallel workshops to enable staff to choose strands depending on their ability and interests. I think this is brilliant as it avoids patronising staff familiar with tools while providing those comfortable with technology the opportunity to look at more advanced stuff. I think this model has a lot of potential to break the cycle of dull workshops that no one has time to attend. Running this in summer gives staff the real potential to embed ideas into their teaching.

If you are interested and want to learn more:



ALDinHE: Of jigsaws and shape-sorters: visualising common ground in integrated information literacy and learning development provision

Emma Conan, from the University of Cambridge ran a great session on visualising common ground in integrated information literacy and learning development provision. It comes down to the following visual representation Emma developed below:


The diagram is great as it breaks the idea that skills development is sequential – students can follow any path through this diagram. I also liked that Emma argued the jigsaw suggests students need every piece. Perfect analogy! I do think it has great potential, especially for linking to development frameworks. Are we ensuring our students have all the pieces?

There was a great deal of discussion over the question mark in the session. The idea was that it could literally be whatever the student wants it to be. I guess this starts to hint at personalisation. Could this be made into an interactive jigsaw where students can supplement this with additional pieces? Could students arrange the pieces to make their own whole? Definitely some options for linking to PDP here. Another element of the question mark:

“There should not be an authority figure you don’t question”.

Part of the heart of academia. Just a shame that so many staff fear students who would question them…

I will leave it there for now – If you’re interested in reading more, check out Emma on twitter @LibGoddess or check out her blog.