I’ve just entered my tenth year as a student. While my first three years were full-time undergraduate, its been part-time study ever since. Balancing full-time work alongside part-time study has required a lot of jiggling around activities and the stopping of other things entirely. One of the first things to go was exercise. That pretty much disappeared at the end of my final year of university as the assignments stacked up.
I guess the first mistake I made was not finding time for exercise when I first started work again. I just did not get back into a good routine. In hindsight, I had the time. Loads of time. I just never really realised that until I started part-time study. By that time, all the that time was going on my masters. When that stopped, the time went on the doctorate. Any downtime or study gaps went to CPD. Volunteering quickly hoovered up any spare time left. Finding my soulmate and growing our relationship. Well. That threw time on its head. By this point, I was absolutely convinced I had no time for exercise.
Turns out I was wrong.
After much persuasion from some sporty colleagues to join them, and, assisted by the fact I am getting married, I finally jumped into exercise. It started with a yoga class, followed by spinning the week after. Over the couple of weeks following we were heading to the gym and playing badminton. A couple of months later, we were running outside. Most important of all. I feel great, and, it really didn’t take that much time!
Turns out, the whole exercise and time thing I had going on was a mental block and not a real one. I’ve made most of this work by fitting in exercise over lunch. Exercise isn’t eating into my mornings when I catch up on work. It isn’t eating into my evenings when I spend time with my fiancé or study. Combined with some more flexibility about how I fit in doctoral EdD work, I’ve even found enough time to nip to the gym or go for a run on weekends.
The best part about exercise, is that I feel great. I’ve feeling fitter, healthier, more awake and I’m loosing weight. Exercise really wakes me up to the extent that I feel I need less sleep. When I am awake, I feel more awake too. I’m kicking myself for not getting back into exercise sooner.
This last three months has made me realise the benefit of exercise for study. Turns out it’s pretty good for the soul too 🙂
I had the pleasure of being yesterday’s Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert (MIEE) Spotlight. This MIEE spotlight is a nice blog that Microsoft uses to highlight the work of MIEEs around the country. On reading the spotlight post, it made me realise I’ve yet to post my portfolio on my own blog. and as such, I’ve just created this quick blog post to share my portfolio from last year. I’d also like to extend thanks to @misskmgriffin for the summary of my portfolio in the spotlight above.
I also realise it has been a while since I’ve provided an update on what I am up to with Microsoft in education, so stay tuned for some more updates in the new year!
I conduct a lot of personal appointments with foundation and undergraduate students. For some students, ordering their ideas and structuring them is a real challenge. This problem tends to stem from:
not knowing where to start,
a sense of being overwhelmed,
the volume of information they consult,
the volume of information they feel *needs* including in their assignment.
Further, it is not just a case of ordering ideas, but structuring them that can be problematic. I feel that a lot of the poorly structured essays that I see are failing at the paragraph level. This is a real issue for a lot of students, especially those with less writing experience, those who have taken a break from education, or those who have no experience of essay style examination. The later is particularly an issue for international students from countries with different approaches to higher education assessment, often focusing on examinations above course work essays.
This post will detail how I’ve used LEGO to discuss some of these issues with students, and use it to help them outline their approach to academic writing. This starts with a student I saw a couple of weeks ago. I was struggling to communicate the structural elements of an essay to them. The student had lots of ideas, but simply did not know where to start and all the approaches in study skill books were simply not working for them. Instead of just rephrasing, I tried a different approach, running downstairs to grab my tub of LEGO. I think LEGO bricks are an excellent way to visualise some elements of academic writing and decided this was the perfect time to give it a go. I think this metaphor for academic writing structure can really help students struggling to structure their ideas – or more appropriately, to help students who are overwhelmed with their own ideas and sorting them out.
Let me know what you think by commenting below, or getting in touch via @LeeFallin.
Using LEGO as a metaphor for academic writing
When planning your essay, it can be really daunting. You end up with ideas all over the place:
You need to order these ideas into groups. The act of doing this enables you to identify the major aspects of your essay. As expected, some ideas will be discarded at this phrase too (see the pile to the right side). It is still worth keeping a record of these as they may be useful at a later stage (who would EVER throw a LEGO brick in a bin!?!?!):
Once you have grouped all of your ideas like this, they form the basis of your overall argument. Each brick group is an aspect of this, forming one of the micro-arguments that lead your reader to the conclusion in your overall argument. These micro-arguments (brick groups) may by represented in an individual paragraph, or across a group of paragraphs. This process is not easy. At this idea stage, some of your groups will end up too large and you will need to break them up across two or more paragraphs. When this is the case, it is hard to distinguish which paragraph an idea belongs in. In reality, you are more likely to come across this problem later in writing when you have an oversized paragraph that you need to break up:
When all the elements of your points, arguments or ideas are grouped into their individual paragraphs, they need further structuring:
A solid paragraph should have a good structure. I recommend TEAL as a good starting point:
Topic – A brief introduction to what the paragraph is about. What is your point?
Evidence – Academic evidence, reflections, your own research/data
Analysis – The ‘so what’? Persuade the reader that your conclusion is the correct one
Link – Link this paragraph to the next – or to your overall argument.
(Indeed – this stage may be the *best* starting point for some students, but the route described so far is excellent for those struggle to structure all their ideas in the planning phase)
TEAL is a good way to structure all those ideas into a coherent paragraph:
LEGO bricks are an excellent metaphor for how you need to link all these elements together. The bumps and they way they interlock with bricks above makes this point clear. Everything with a paragraph must coherently link together and make sense:
Once you have your individual paragraphs, they need to be assembled into the right order. This is often done as you go along, but as you being to edit, you may realise they need re-ordering. It isn’t just the structure that may change, and as you edit, some smaller points may need removing as you further refine your ideas (and try to get under your word count):
All of these elements together can help you rule your own writing:
Taking this into practice
To put this into practice, I often recommend students grab a stack of post-it notes or use a mindmap to get all of their ideas on the table. The principles above serve as a great framework from which to interpret all these ideas. Working from the ideation phrase, grouping/sorting and through to refining the order and breaking it into paragraphs. If all else fails, literally using the LEGO bricks works well too. Small post-it notes can be used to adhere ideas to the bricks in a way that doesn’t require cleaning them afterwards. This works perfectly with Duplo too.
The model above is designed to help students identify their main points, grouping their ideas under these main points, and then divide those points into interlinked paragraphs. As the bricks represent, these all need ‘clicking together’ to form a stable essay (or stable LEGO model!). This may seem a little obvious for advanced writers, but it is certainly worth trying with those new to academic essay writing. As above, please let me know what you think! I should also note a quick thank you to my colleague Sue Watling. She indicated this approach was interesting when I mentioned it in conversation, so I figured it was worth expanding on my blog.
N.B. The main part of this post is also stored on its own page to allow me to continue tweaking it in future. I realise there may be some other aspects of writing that I need to include moving forward.
This week I had the pleasure of attending the Association of Learning Technology (ALT) Winter Conference. This free conference was entirely online, delivered via a series of parallel sessions. Webinars, Twitter chats and wildcard sessions formed the basis for these sessions, with a good mixture of each across both days. It was my first time taking part in an online conference and so I wanted to reflect on the format here. Technologically, I thought BlackBoard Collaborate Ultra served for the webinars very well and it was nice to experience this first hand. I usually use Adobe Connect in my own practice so it’s always nice to see another system working.
The first thing that is important to note is that I attended from my open plan office at work. This of course makes a difference as I was surrounded by colleagues, and I was fitting conference sessions in alongside other work commitments. This means I wasn’t fully dedicating all my time to the event, which is a very different experience to being at an actual conference where you are fully immersed. This had advantages and disadvantages. On the positive side, I was able to take part in the first place. I simply would not of had the time or money to travel to any conference at this time of year. On the negative, I felt it was not as good a networking opportunity as face:face conferences, and, that it did not provide the same ring fenced development time that you get with being away.
It would be unfair to say networking opportunities were absent. Dialogue and interactivity was present in every parallel session. There was also the #altc hashtag on Twitter for the backchannel conversation throughout both days. However, this is no different to the opportunities afforded at any conference. What I really missed however were the little conversations after sessions, in traveling, between parallels, over coffee, throughout lunch, at evening events and through drinks. I find a lot of the benefit of traditional conferences can be found around the formal programme, not just within it. I should note, the conference did have an always-on cafe for conversation. It was just empty the couple of times I tried to visit. Perhaps Twitter was the better forum?
Pacing the conference around work activities was fairly easy, and I imagine I was not the only person doing this. This did mean some times of day were perhaps busier than others, but this could have been depended on the sessions. The only frustrating thing about attending remotely is the clash between a very useful parallel and a work activity. Of course the work activity takes precedence! It just always tends to coincide alongside the one session you really wanted to see.
The aspect of time away is a difficult one. One of the things I like about a traditional conference is the mental break you get. The time away. The opportunity to focus on self-development, learning, thinking, networking, idea sharing, collaborating and more. The day job, research, writing or whatever else you are doing is placed on hold. Not forgotten, but you put yourself in a different space away. I’m not saying this is absent in an online conference, but because there is a tendency to take part from home or work, it is not the same kind of break. As above, this is advantageous as it means work does not need to stop for your to take part. But it prevents gains in some areas.
While I missed the face to face elements, I think this kind of conference is a fantastic opportunity. As I stated above, I would not have been able to take part were this a traditional conference. I also liked that I did not have to dedicate two whole days and travel to this. While I would usually gladly do this for any conference; work, my research, volunteering and general life are too busy to take all that time out! I’d like to extend a thanks to anyone running a session I attended at the conference. They were all engaging and I look forward to enacting some of this stuff in practice. Huge thanks to ALT too for putting it all together and making it possible.
Maybe I should also celebrate the fact an online conference helped me avoid a few wet days!
Over the last few weeks I’ve been able to find more time for EdD writing (and reading). This hasn’t been large chunks of time, but just making better use of the small pieces of time I would usually waste.
It is easy to fall into the trap of feeling a doctorate needs whole days and afternoons of time. Yes. This helps. But actually, small bits of time really add up. Finding a couple of fifteen or twenty minute windows per day easily leads to a few hours over the week. This is where I’m finding my time.
I’ve been able to get a good twenty minutes on a fair few mornings to squeeze in some work. Instead of waiting for weekends or a whole free evening, I’ve found additional EdD time by squeezing in an extra hour or two on a few week nights. This hasn’t really impacted my personal life as I’ve fit this in after my fiancé goes to bed.
Being able to pick up work in small chunks like this requires a lot of discipline. It’s hard to put the work down after a few minutes. But when you have only twenty minutes – that is what you have to do! It also means you need to jump into productivity quickly and get yourself used to picking up where you left off quickly. This also requires discipline and practice.
I find technology really helps with this. Microsoft Word handily tells me where I left off. One Drive allows me to pick up work on any Mac, computer or iPad tablet. OneNote keeps my notes available everywhere. EndNote lets me take my library with me. All of these tools together allow me to quickly pick up bits of work. Quite often, I find OneNote is the largest enabler. I can quickly pick up some reading and make some notes or record some thoughts.
Track changes and Microsoft Word comments are also a great way to keep up with where I left off. One thing I’ve yet to try is a recommendation for @JaxBartram, she recommended always ending mid sentence. The idea being it is always easier to pick up work mid-sentence than it is to start afresh.
I’ve enjoyed following the #PhDshelfie hashtag on Twitter for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it is reassuring to know my study space isn’t the only way strewn with books. I’ve really enjoyed looking at a whole range of #phdtablie and #phdfloorie too! Perhaps I can use these as evidence for what doctoral study looks like when my fiancé comments on the number of books everywhere… Secondly, well. It links to my research.
I’ve spent a lot of time writing about libraries. With these hashtags, it’s been possible to get precious glimpses into the personal libraries of other students. Each of these photos tells a story. Not just of the books collected: but why they were collected, how they’re organised and who owns them (there are a few university library stamps out there). It’s also interesting to see where they’re stored. Some, all neat on a shelf. Others stacked on the floor or desks in use. Sometimes organised organically. Sometimes thematically. Sometimes chronologically. The placement and organisation gives in glimpse into the mind placing them.
This evening, as a break from writing about other libraries, I’m going to write about my own. While I’ve already tweeted these pictures, I’m posting them here again with more of a narrative. You’ll also note these are a bit better quality for the daylight.
The journey starts with the top three shelves of my primary bookshelf. This houses most of the academic books that I am using a the present. The top shelf here contains journals that I subscribe to. This includes:
Studies in Higher Education
Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers
The Geographical Journal
While most people read journals online, I like subscribing to a few. It stops me falling into the trap of just reading stuff related to my current research. As soon as a journal arrives, I read the list of titles and abstracts. When I get the time, I’ll read through articles too. As high impact journals, these volumes are a great way to keep on top of the developments in geography and higher education. Once I’ve had the first skim, they get filed on these shelves alongside the National Geographic which is decidedly less academic. Of course, this shelf has the globe bookend too. Kinda felt apt.
The next two shelves are a mix of geography, philosophy and higher education monographs and textbooks. There is a smattering of psychology in here too. I wish they were a little more ordered, but everything is kind of where it fit… the lower shelf if a bit taller and has room for the larger books. A few of my favourites are here:
Further down the shelf (out of shot) are a range of popular science books and even my undergraduate work. I’ve found it difficult to get rid of that shelf of work as it not only represents three years of my life, but also several thousand pound… This shelf isn’t my whole collection of books. There is a whole other shelf of fiction and manga opposite this one and then a smattering of books throughout the house. Cookery books in the dining area, comics in the living room. That kind of thing.
Now for the study space. Sandwiched between the two shelves in the office, sits my desk. It is NOT big enough. I have a pretty decent computer running Windows 10 that I do most of my writing on, with a MacBook Pro for when I am on the go. Today, I’ve been using it to read my notes in OneNote alongside my typing into Word on the other computer. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of space on the desk for books so they quite often end up on the floor. It’s not a bad place to study and it is probably the best study space I’ve ever had. This of course is not the only place I work and I quite often work within the library, my desk at work and in coffee shops.
As I am at work tomorrow, I think I’m going to leave it at that for now.
Today I attended my first Northern Collaboration Conference, with the added pleasure of delivering a workshop with Mike Ewen. This conference had the added bonus of being relevant for both work purposes and for my EdD research. The conference theme, Digital Transformation – responding to the challenge in academic libraries certainly aligned across work and research interests, with a good mix of educational technology thrown into the mix.
Digital transformation is a very topical theme for academic libraries, with the conference website presenting the following definition Brian Solis
“the realignment of, or new investment in, technology and business models to more effectively engage digital customers at every touchpoint in the customer experience lifecycle.”
In the library context, this definition really highlights the role of technology and related business models in the engagement of students throughout their student journey. This of course is very topical, and something my thesis touched on in guise of space. The conference theme and its constituent parts were really well brought together and contextualised in the closing keynote from Anne Horn (Director of Library Services, University of Sheffield). Anne highlighted how libraries are embodying such digital transformation(s) through:
energising our teaching
enriching library spaces
developing staff digital capabilities
utilising new digital processes, channels and platforms
pioneering new technology.
In her keynote, I particularly enjoyed the speculation on new technological megatrends and their potential impact on the library sector. With augmented reality, the internet of things, automation, robotics, personal assistants, big data, data visualisation, artificial intelligence, information exchange, makerspaces and wearables all featuring in the discussion. It could certainly be an interesting future for libraries. A great deal of this will depend what technological hypes settle into the mainstream edtech.
I think one thing we can be confident in, is that libraries will be still here (or, at least for some time yet!). Anne gave an interesting angle to the argument. As often said, there was conjecture that libraries would die as paper books and journals diminished in a world of eBooks and eReaders. This did not happen – and will not happen anytime soon. It was here that Anne’s argument got interesting. We are in a world where Uber can be a global leader in taxi transport provision – yet it does not own a single car. Airbnb is a leading hotelier without owning a single premises. So it has to be suggested. Can libraries not continue to exist in a world where they may not own the content (particularly with the vast quantity available freely on the internet)? This begs the question “What is worth owning… the platform or the underlying asset” (Schwab, 2017). Libraries are perhaps another industry that presents a platform more powerful than the assets it provides access to.
I strongly believe that as long as libraries continue to provide compelling services and spaces (both physical and online), they will always have a popular and needed platform, even if it does not directly own informational assets.
I will leave my conference discussion here for now. I would just like to add that I thoroughly enjoyed the parallel sessions that I attended throughout the day from the University of York, Sheffield Hallam, University of Bolton, Open University and University of Sheffield. All were very thought provoking and I believe they will feed into my wider digital literacy and general skills provision work, particularly online. Thanks to the organisers for a wonderful conference.
p.s. Mike and I intend to collaborate on a blog soon to review our session in a bit more detail.
Monday this week I had the great pleasure of receiving an email from Microsoft to congratulate me on being selected as a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert (MIEE) for 2017-2018. This was a wonderful surprise, following my application submission earlier this year. The application process involved putting together a PowerPoint Mix or Sway to overview my work. I chose to create a small portfolio in Sway which was an excellent opportunity to reflect on the last academic year. Now I am part of the MIEE programme I look forward to continuing to model the use of Microsoft technologies for learning and teaching. More importantly, I look forward to training and supporting colleagues in their own use of Microsoft technology for learning and teaching.
The year ahead
The MIEE status stays with me for a year and over this time I’ve been thinking about what I want to work on. Like any other commitment I take, I took to Twitter to outline my plans for the year:
As outlined in my tweet, I have three areas I want to work on and in this blog I’ll add a fourth – my own CPD.
Sways and Mixes
I think Sways and Mixes are fantastic educational tools. I especially love how I can quickly create a Mix in PowerPoint. While I can use more complicated tools, they take valuable time. Time I don’t have. For Sway – I love the dynamic and responsive nature. They work really well for content heavy pages that need to be accessible on any size of screen. The ability to set image focus points always ensures the most important elements of any diagram are preserved no matter what device someone is on. I am looking forward to getting some Mixes and Sways online.
Support colleagues with digital literacy and Microsoft 365
Over the last couple of years I’ve been doing a lot of work on digital literacy. My work over the last few months with Microsoft Office 365 and a whole range of Microsoft tools and apps (Learning Tools, Sway, Office Lens, Snip, PowerPoint Mix) has brought new perspectives to this work. Having built my own expertise through practice, I’m now looking forward to supporting colleagues developing their use of Microsoft educational tools, apps and Microsoft Office too. I’m also keen to update some of my existing resources with the latest tech solutions.
OneNote has long been a component of Microsoft Office. It is however, often in the shadow of Word, Excel and PowerPoint. I think it is one of the most undervalued aspects of the office suite and I always love introducing users to it. Often, students have OneNote installed on their computer but have never even opened it. I want to try and promote it more within my own institution. I think OneNote combined with Office Lens is the perfect solution to all a students note taking needs! Additional aspects of this including further experimentation with Class Notebooks, and I look forward to seeing how they can replace some wikis I am currently using in the VLE.
Technology is always developing and I aim to keep myself up-to-date on any new tools Microsoft release, and any updates to existing tools. I’m also keen to continue developing my knowledge through the Microsoft Educator Community.
Today I visited some of Microsoft’s offices in London to check out Office 365 for education. This was a very informative visit and Microsoft had a fully equipped showcase classroom where we could get to grips with some of their latest hardware and software. The day was structured to overview Windows 10, inking and the powerful combination of this with Office 365 for Education. This includes not only Microsoft Office Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Publisher, but an all-encompassing productivity solution that combines Office with OneDrive/SharePoint, Yammer, Skype, Video, Microsoft Teams and more. I’ve seen and used most of these packages, but I’ve never seen them all working together – properly linked and synced and all in the cloud. The result was convincing.
While I am a fairly confident Office and Windows user, it was a great opportunity to try Microsoft’s own hardware. I personally fell in love with the Surface Book, a hybrid laptop-tablet with a powerful processor that delivers a punch on the go. I particularly enjoyed the deep integration of ink within the operating system and Office as a whole. While I am an experienced user of Windows 10, I’ve never had an ink enabled device so it was nice to get to grips with this. I liked it. I like it a lot! I could quite easily see a device like this replacing the MacBook Pro and iPad Pro I carry, although the Microsoft Product would struggle to beat the battery combination of them both. I think I’d miss the general portability of the iPad too.
Take home points from the session
I think one thing I have learned from this process is that I need to be a bit more patient when trailing previews of software. When I tried the very first release of Mix for example I wrote it off. Yes – the outputs were fantastic but they were locked onto the Mix website. This of course is not the case anymore. The introduction of video exports from Mix solves this problem and makes it a great product. Sadly – it has been able to do this for AGES according to the trainer and I regret not playing with it sooner.
Office Mix Snip
This fantastic little tool is in preview at the moment. It basically replicates everything I love about the Camtasia capture tool I use on Mac. It allows a user to ‘snip’ any area of the screen, annotate and share. The tool is far more developed than the in-built ‘snipping’ tool and it takes full advantage of inking in the OS. You can try the Snip Preview yourself.
Ok. I like Sway. I really like Sway. However – students and staff are not really that aware of it. This session reminded me of the important gap it fills in the presentation market. I think we need to really push this out as an alternative to PowerPoint or Word for certain kinds of presentations.
It is getting better and it isn’t as bad as it used to be. I think it is some time away from being a stable replacement for Chrome or FireFox, but I could see this being a contender really soon. I loved the seamless integration with OneNote, but this is replicated within the OneNote plugins for other browsers so not too much a selling point.
Everything is better with Ink. I’d only really played with this on the iPad before, but seeing it across all the Office programs and across the Windows 10 OS I was overwhelmed with the potential. I am so sad I don’t have access to this on a daily basis.
I’ve used OneNote in patches over the last decade, but recently decided to commit to it as my main note taking application. I transferred all my stuff from Evernote and I couldn’t be happier. Today really convinced me I have made the right decision. I already have it up and running across iPhone, iPad, Window 10 and Mac OS X.
While I learned nothing new about OneNote today, I did discover OneNote Class Notebook. This has some amazing potential and I look forward to seeing it in use within higher education.
Training, support and change
I always get excited about the latest shiny technology. However, not everyone is as confident as I am. I work with a lot of novice users and technophobes. The powerful combination of all of these Microsoft products is kind of overwhelming. While this combination can deliver amazing efficiency and savings, it is problematic from a user training perspective.
For some users, the change to 365 solutions for their existing tools (e.g. Slack, DropBox, Evernote) presents a huge transition. This is no where near as large as the transition for some users who have yet to even move to a cloud tools. It is a new way of thinking. It requires all new business processes. Online training can only go so far and an institution rollout that maximises the user of this software and the efficiencies it can deliver seems like a mountain to climb.
All of the exciting stuff we saw today surrounded Ink. No one in the whole team I work for has access to any Ink enabled hardware. This would represent a significant investment and it is one I don’t see coming. At present, a lot of our work relies on BYOD (Bring your own device) and we all pretty much have an Apple iPad. While that allows us to use some Office 365 apps, these are lighter versions than those you can install on powerful Surface equivalent. While these app versions support Inking, the feature set is nowhere near as good as the program.
Ultimately, it made me realise just how amazing it is to be able to pick up a pen and draw directly onto something running full Windows. It’s just something I am not going to be able to afford to do for some time… although I should note there are some excellent devices from companies like HP that do not destroy the bank.
Most of my use of Microsoft Office is on a Windows PC, although I am a frequent user of Word on my Mac. With Word, I notice little difference between Windows and Mac. There are a few differences, but nothing I miss too much. Today I realised there are larger gaps between Windows and Mac in some of the other programs. Ink is one of these gaps but with my MacBook Pro it isn’t something I had even looked for before. Then again – it is little use on my MacBook Pro.
I hope OS X and Windows versions become more aligned over time and I would like to see versions of other programs like Visio and Project joining team Mac too.
Office 365 is amazing. But it is only amazing when you go whole hog. Unleashing the full power requires integrated versions of Office, Skype, Teams, Outlook/Exchange, OneDrive/Exchange and Yammer. It is the totality of all of these tools, speaking and syncing with each other that really brings the power. Access to Ink helps too 🙂
A big thank you to the team at Microsoft and their consultant for hosting us in London. Lunch was excellent and it was a great opportunity to see all of this in practice within education.
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.