On Wednesday last week I attended the HEA event in York looking at students as partners.
The event aimed to look at various aspects of engaging and engaging with students regarding determining and inputting into their own learning experiences.
Mike’s keynote set a challenging tone for the rest of the day, prompting some real reflection on the extent to which we as individuals, professionals and institutions truly engage with students. Moving from a transactional response of “You said, We did’ to an ongoing and meaningful dialogue regarding the experience of learning and being part of the co-creation of knowledge with students. Mike also cited Mick Healey’s work cited as an example of universities being research led and pointed out that students have an important part to play in this process.
Abbi Flint echoed the challenging tone established by Mike and prompted a highly interactive workshop putting our practice of student participation, engagement and participation further under scrutiny. She was able to provide more details of the partnership learning communities and prompted us to reflect on to what extent the projects we as participants adhered to the principles of true student engagement.
Partnership Learning Communities: A conceptual model for students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education (Healey, Flint and Harrington 2014)
Abbi also presented the framework for student partnerships and suggested that locating activities according to the model was a useful exercise in determining, who, how and in what we involved our students.
One interesting point to note from Abbi’s talk was the idea of empowerment. The group in which I had a smaller discussion, had the interesting idea the principles of student engagement were empowering for staff as well as providing opportunities to question and clarify the student voice. The ideas and principles of student partnerships didn’t necessarily mean a complete doing away with the distinction in roles between staff and students but it did mean that education wasn’t something ‘done to’ students. There was an interesting exercise that Abbi started off her session with, asking us to place ourselves along a line according to our beliefs regarding the extent appropriateness of students as partners in various scenarios. One being that student should have a say in determining their learning within modules and two being that both partners were equal. An interesting discussion then occurred from contrasting views provided by opposite sides of the room that covered professional standards and student expectations of education.
Over lunch I was able to contrast experiences of student involved projects with the other participants. Some others were engaging in such projects each bearing a different terminology and at times contrasting approach; from partners, co-producers, voice all were represented- some fully engaged and some still dipping a tentative toe in the water.
One thing that did strike me and in which I was slightly disappointed was a lack of student presence and voice at the even itself organised by the HEA. If there was a presence it was a low profile and for me did not demonstrate any active partnerships with students. I felt that the conversation was at times rather one-sided, potentially idealistic and perhaps the absence of students demonstrated some of the difficulties of undertaking student led projects (scheduling, inclusion, areas of involvement and potentially exclusion). The ethos behind student partnerships and engagement is one that is worthy, beneficial and with evolving eduction environments, agendas and requirements it strikes me as necessary. However I’m concerned that its something that we are discussing at length agreeing is a great idea in principle but doing little about.
Whilst some quotes presented by the facilitators did illustrate the benefits reported by students in undertaking student partnerships I felt the message would have been more convincing if they had been invited to share in the day and discussions. I still found the day incredibly useful but felt that the lack of student involvement did somewhat undermine the message that was trying to be conveyed.
Putting my concerns aside, the final session of the day was delivered by Jenni Carr, who explored the idea of students as researchers. Jenni’s session was interesting and involved participation and exploration of current practices in involving students in research as partners. The aim of the strand was to highlight the benefits both to staff and students of involving students in the research process and how this enhances the learning experience for students. There were some fantastic ideas shared by other participants including asking students to create a fully economic costed research proposal in their second year to undertake in their third year. The idea of this was to prepare students to become researchers and expose them to the realities of undertaking real world problems. This proposal is created by interacting with staff, both technical and academic and administrative and includes gaining ethical clearance. Other ideas looked at developing ‘Wicked’ problems for students based upon a real world scenario. The session was useful in highlighting some of the problems and issues that have been encountered by institutions undertaking this approach such as ethical clearance problems, health and safety and the distinction between the staff role in research and the student role in research. Ultimately though the session aimed at moving the view of teaching and learning towards a research orientated and based experience in which knowledge is constructed, re-imagined and discovered collaboratively between staff and students as a learning experience for all.
To illustrate this point Jenni presented a fantastic quote from Freire (1986) at the start of the session with which I’ll finish this blog post. The quote from Pedagogy of the Oppressed for me underlined the importance of and link between learning, teaching and research and how including students and their viewpoints, input and experience, in this process can be beneficial for all.
“For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge only emerges through invention and reinvention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world and with each other.”
Freire, P. (1968) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Continuous Press, New York