Student transitions to, within and beyond Higher Education. Special Issue of JPAAP.

Over the last few months I have been working with Lorraine Anderson (University of Dundee) and Roni Bamber (Queen Margaret University) to co-edit a new Special Issue of the online, open access Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice (JPAAP).

The theme of the  Special Issue is Student Transitions and the issue has been published in partnership with the QAA Scotland to capture work resulting from, and relating to, the current national enhancement theme of Student Transitions which is now drawing to a close. The Special Issue, which was launched this week at the 3rd International Enhancement in Higher Education Conference, features a range of full research papers, case studies, opinion pieces and ’emerging work’ articles relating to multiple challenges, issues and dimensions in the transitioning of students to, within, and beyond HE.

The production of the Special Issue itself was made possible by by Kirsteen Wright, editorial officer of JPAAP based at Edinburgh Napier University, and by the Special Issue copy editors Tonje Hefte (@TonjeHefte) and Douglas Walker (@D_M_Walker91) who are students on the MSc Publishing course at Edinburgh Napier University.

The Special Issue is now online and you can read our editorial for the issue below.

Editorial

Welcome to the Special Issue of JPAAP on Student Transitions. The inspiration for this Special Issue is the current national Enhancement Theme of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) for Higher Education, Scotland, and we are delighted to bring you this Special Issue in partnership with the QAA Scotland.

JPAAP has come to develop a wide readership in recent years, and for colleagues who are unfamiliar with the Enhancement Themes their purpose are to enhance the quality of the student learning experience within Scottish Higher Education through a co-ordinated period of enhancement activity that is focused on a specific developmental theme. Every Higher Education Institution (HEI) across Scotland engages with the Enhancement Themes, through internal and cross-institutional initiatives. The Enhancement Themes are managed by the QAA Scotland in collaboration with a Theme Leaders Group (TLG) comprising institutional and student representatives from each HEI in Scotland.

The current Enhancement Theme of Student Transitions has been running for the last three academic years, since summer 2014. The work for the theme is currently drawing to a close, and will be marked by the 3rd International Enhancement in Higher Education Conference to be held in Glasgow from 6–8 June 2017, and also by the publication of this Special Issue.

While this Special Issue of JPAAP is brought to you in conjunction with the current Enhancement Theme of Student Transitions, and indeed features several articles that relate to work undertaken in Scotland as part of the theme, we are delighted to also feature a number of contributions from colleagues based in universities across the UK and Australia.

Within this Special Issue, one of our largest issues to date, we are pleased to feature a rich range of original research papers, case studies and reviews, opinion pieces, and On the Horizon articles which report on emerging work. Between them, the full papers and other articles within this issue address several important dimensions of Student Transitions to, within, and beyond Higher Education.

Widening participation and the articulation of students from further education to higher education are addressed in the respective papers by Neil Speirs and colleagues from the University of Edinburgh, and Debbie Meharg and colleagues from Edinburgh Napier University.

The capturing of the student voice to ease transitions into and through Higher Education is the focus of the case study by Hope Christie and Karl Johnson, while other important dimensions of peer support and social integration are addressed in the papers and articles by Rick Hayman and colleagues from Northumbria University, Sidonie Ecochard and Kirsteen Wright from Edinburgh Napier University, and Shona Robertson from the University of Dundee.

Transitions within the undergraduate student journey are explored by Celine Caquineau and colleagues, in their consideration of assessment practice and transitioning to Junior Honours, and by Margaret-Anne Houston and Lindsey Carey from Glasgow Caledonian University who look at the academic reintegration of final year students following work placements and study exchanges.

Supporting the transition from undergraduate to postgraduate study, and student experiences of becoming postgraduates, are to the fore in the contributions from Jessica Bownes and colleagues at the University of Glasgow, and Charlotte McPherson, Samantha Punch and Elizabeth Graham from the University of Stirling. Furthermore, in the case study by Jennifer Scally and Andrea Cameron from Abertay University, you can read about the experience of an undergraduate student who transitioned to becoming a postgraduate research student through interning as a research assistant.

Student transitions beyond Higher Education and into employment and professional practice, in areas including veterinary nursing and teaching, are explored by Patricia Logan and colleagues who represent a number of Australian universities, and by Donna Dey, Angela Lindsay and Patricia Thomson from the University of Dundee.

Cultural and intercultural dimensions in student transitions are the focus of the literature review on the challenges faced by international students that has been contributed by Sidonie Ecochard and Julia Fotheringham from Edinburgh Napier University, and in the opinion piece on ‘multilingual mindset’ by Argyro Kanaki from the University of Dundee.

In the second of our two opinion pieces for this Special Issue, Mike Murray and colleagues ask “Are career academics gatekeepers to students’ tacit knowledge?”, while in the remaining case study paper that we are pleased to feature Josephine Adekola and colleagues from the University of Glasgow report their work to support students in making the transition to blended learning.

Perhaps fittingly, in the remaining contribution to be mentioned Ashley Dennis and colleagues present their research into stakeholder perceptions of the current QAA Scotland Enhancement Theme of Student Transitions, including recommendations for future Enhancement Theme activities.

Whether you have been engaged directly with the work of the current Enhancement Theme on Student Transitions, are engaged in your own practice and research relating to student transitions, or are simply looking to learn more about some of the work underway across the sector, we hope that this Special Issue will be of some relevance and value to yourself and colleagues.

With thanks equally to our contributing authors, reviewers, editorial officer, and the publishing students at Edinburgh Napier University who worked on this Special issue and made it possible.

Guest Editors

Dr Lorraine Anderson, University of Dundee
(Deputy Chair Enhancement Theme Leaders Group)

Professor Roni Bamber, Queen Margaret University
(Chair, Enhancement Theme Leaders Group)

Professor Keith Smyth, University of the Highlands and Islands
(Professor of Pedagogy)

 

 

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Academic development and technology in the next 5 years

I was recently invited by two colleagues to write a short reflection on how I thought academic development would evolve over the next five years, with respect to supporting and taking forward good practice in technology-enhanced learning. My reflection is one of a number that they are collecting for inclusion in a book chapter they are currently working on.

The request was a timely one, as it came on the same day I was dipping back into the e-textbook version of a handbook I co-authored a few years ago, the second edition of which had coincidentally been published 5 years previously. I was revisiting the handbook – a practical guide to using educational technology written partly for the Masters programme we were running at the time – in order to share a few ideas for online collaborative learning activities with a colleague who was redesigning one of their undergraduate courses.

Cover of Pedagogy and learning technoology: a practical guide In looking back over the handbook I was pleased to see that most of the guidance it offered still stood up pretty well 5 years down the line, possibly because we tried to write the handbook primarily from a learning and teaching rather than a technology perspective.

However in simultaneously looking back 5 years while thinking ahead to the next 5, I can’t help but feel that the key challenges we face in trying to encourage academics to use technology in their learning and teaching practice really haven’t changed that much. Establishing a dialogue with those who are reticent or reluctant, or who simply don’t see the need to use technology in their practice, remains a concern. So too does contextualising the use of technology in learning and teaching to the different discipline areas that the willing or curious are coming from. Time and direct support for academics go hand-in-hand as another constant challenge and barrier.

There are also new challenges to be acknowledged and addressed if our universities are to make effective use of technology in learning and teaching, a critical one being the creative ways in which young learners are being engaged with and through technology in school.

The specific challenge that my colleagues put to me, in writing my reflection for their forthcoming book chapter, was to “Describe in 300 words the role you envisage academic development will play in the next 5 years within higher education institutions, and the sector more widely, to drive pedagogical innovation supported my technology?

Quite a big ask for 300 words, and a good lesson in writing concisely. One I failed, but only by fifteen words.

This was my response:

In the next five years, academic development will continue to play an important role in how we engage academics in effective digital practice and the sharing of that practice. We will see further diversification in how academic development is ‘delivered’ and facilitated online, and we will see more creative use of institutional PG Cert programmes to engage academics in experiencing then applying digital approaches to their own teaching and student support activities.

However, the degree to which the above happens will vary considerably between institutions, depending on institutional strategy, leadership, and the extent to which a general culture of enhancement in learning and teaching is shared, embedded and celebrated.

A critical enabling factor here will be whether the enhancement of learning and teaching is appropriately resourced. Many institutions will not move beyond their current position of trying to engage a greater number of staff in making use, or slightly more effective use, of the VLE and other institutional educational technologies. This is where much of their academic development effort around technology-enhanced learning will remain focused, very possibly to the exclusion of important emerging areas.

Institutions that invest appropriately in academic development, and who are alert to the potential of using digital approaches in making learning and teaching more creative, inclusive and sustainable will move farthest in the coming five years. These institutions, and their academic developers, will also be cognisant of the benefits and opportunities of digital scholarship, and digital engagement in scholarly and professional communities, for improving the outreach of the institution and extending the learner experience beyond the physical walls of the campus and virtual silos of the VLE.

Academic development, as an area of practice and a community of practitioners, will have an important role to play in the Higher Education sector in ensuring that current discussions around the development of digital literacies for students begin to focus on discipline-specific digital literacies.

The University as a third space?

Ray Oldenburg’s (1989) influential work on third places (or third spaces) within communities has been pivotal in encouraging sociologists, civic leaders and activists to look critically at how our public spaces for congregating (e.g. museums, cafes, pubs, parks, even barber shops) can provide a locus for democratic discussion and debate, community action, creative thought and expression, and importantly also for frivolity, friendship, and harmonious interaction.

The concept of the ‘third space’ has also become central to current thinking and a burgeoning movement of direct action in providing more inclusive alternatives to tertiary and adult education out with the confines of the systems, structures, policies and expectations of the higher education institution, and the systems, structures and policies under which higher education institutions are themselves governed.  The groups and collectives leading the way in providing alternative higher education in the UK include the Social Science Centre in Lincoln who provide free, co-operative access to higher education at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and more recently the Free University Brighton who are currently exploring how to offer a free degree.

Over the last two years or so, I’ve been privileged to come to know and experience the work of the Ragged University. Working at the nexus between formal and informal education, the Ragged University is active across the UK (particularly in Edinburgh and Manchester) in utilising ‘third spaces’ in the community to create opportunities for the sharing of knowledge and facilitation of learning.

Based upon the philanthropic tradition of the Ragged Schools of the 1900’s, and the Madras ‘peer teaching’ or ‘mutual instruction’ method pioneered by Andrew Bell, the Ragged University provides opportunities (in libraries, pubs, and other public venues) for scholars, academics, artists and artisans to share their knowledge and experience with peers who have similar interests, a simple curiosity, or a hunger and thirst to learn. Encapsulating Oldenburg’s vision of the third space, you find free food, drink and music are an important feature of Ragged University’s events, ensuring that hunger and thirsts of other kinds are also provided for. The Ragged University are also active online, and finding increasingly creative ways to reach out digitally in realising their motto that “knowledge is power, but only when it is shared”.  I’ve been fortunate to share many discussions with Alex Dunedin, the ‘Principal Janitor’ of Ragged, and my own outlook on education is all the richer for that.

Alex often describes the Ragged University as providing ‘an annex’ to formal education, rather than an alternative. As someone working in formal higher education who has also been involved in community education initiatives – some but not all of which would have been supported in my formal role – I could readily identify with this. An ‘annex’ can be seen to provide a neutral space for academics to do something that relates to their discipline expertise, and which may or may not be directly related to the work they do within their formal role in their institution. It takes away arguments around ‘either or’ and creates an ‘as well as’.  In my own experience, and in speaking with colleagues who are seeking to engage through the opportunities that initiatives like the Ragged University provide, that’s important for many community-minded academics who may want to do something away from the constraints, expectations or even scrutiny of their institutions.

Screen shot from Ragged University website

The Ragged University’s website http://www.ragged-online.com

Regardless of whether we talk about third spaces for learning and teaching as ‘annexes’ or ‘alternatives’, their inclusivity is arguably as empowering and enriching for those academics who come into the space to share their experience as it is for those who come into the space to learn.  In this respect the engagement of academics in third spaces may also, in some way, lessen the frustration or constraint that they may be feeling over the lack of opportunity their own institution provides in allowing them to be educators in a broader sense of the word. This is critically important, as the willingness and freedom of academics to engage in third spaces for learning and teaching provides the opportunity to offer more inclusive and participatory forms of education (formal and informal) than many higher education institutions often allow for.

However it also raises another important, perhaps controversial, question.

Does the engagement of academics in third spaces for learning and teaching redirect our energies, at least in part, from a critical challenge we should be tackling – which is to confront the internal barriers and externally imposed confines that stand in the way of universities becoming places for adult learning that are non-discriminatory with respect to qualifications, aspirations or personal means? This is not to suggest that universities should become all things to all learners, but to underline the fact that many of our universities could do so much more to allow access to their campuses, courses and resources for those learners that aspire to be there, and for academics (and scholars from the wider community) who are seeking a space to share their knowledge and experience with whomever may be interested. In short, could the university become a ‘third space’ for alternative forms of learning in the communities where they are based? Could we look towards what our educators are doing in the ‘third spaces’ for learning that they are creating and engaging in, and re-purpose the university as a space for alternative educational practices?

During her time as Chancellor of Syracuse University, Nancy Cantor (2010) directly addressed this very issue in arguing for a reconceptualization of universities as third spaces in the community and as “anchors in our communities…that can not only model from afar the inclusive practices of our diverse democracy but those that engage as agents of transformation” (p. 2).

Leaving aside the rhetoric that inevitably characterises institutional strategy within any university, there is common ground here with the ethos and outlook of organisations like the Ragged University, and the point Alex Dunedin and Susan Brown (2012) make in asserting that “The promise of inclusivity is something which we think needs to be substituted by action – everyone is a stakeholder in knowledge capable of participating in the intellectual activity of civic society.”

Unfortunately the strategic rhetoric of inclusion, community engagement and outreach is rarely fully realised in the educational practices of many universities – certainly not to the extent being exemplified by alternatives and annexes such as the Ragged University. Universities are also resource-rich but risk averse. These two factors are not unrelated, and so for example the reluctance to move beyond the delivery of largely nine-to-five courses to predominantly full-time registered and fee-paying students goes some way to explaining the corridors and rooms of dead space that characterise many university campuses come the evening, weekend and between semesters.

I recall a personal experience from some time ago, when a colleague and myself were attempting to organise a free programme of educational events aimed at disadvantaged young adults in the local community where the campus was based. Rooms and dates were identified across a number of summer evenings, and colleagues from different subject disciplines were ready to dedicate their time, only for our efforts to falter at the insistence of the estates department that someone had to pay for the hire of the rooms. These were classrooms and labs that were not otherwise being used, and they remained silent and unused that summer.

When I look at the pivotal work of the Ragged University, and comparable initiatives, I feel at once both inspired and frustrated as an academic that is seeking to make a broader educational contribution, but who like others has largely had to go out with the formal institution to do this.

Universities need to challenge themselves to properly define their relationship to the communities within which they sit. In doing this, they need to move beyond broadly-worded aspirations and strategies relating to public engagement and civic responsibility, and instead commit to and help drive a culture of action and active partnership between their institution and their wider community.

Individuals and communities will continue to persevere regardless (and perhaps in spite of) the stance our universities take. However, depending on the position that they take many universities may find themselves left behind in the wider social mission (rather than business) of education.

For many of the educators who work within their walls, and who deal on a daily basis with the policies, procedures and bureaucracies of higher education, the reality is that many universities are extremely effective at keeping academics busy without letting them do enough.

Or enough that matters.

Cantor, N. (2010) Academic excellence and civic engagement: constructing a third space for higher education. Office of the Chancellor. Paper 1. Syracuse University. Online via http://surface.syr.edu/chancellor/1

Dunedin, A. and Brown, S. (2012) Developing social capital: from promises to knowledge exchange. Paper presented at Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) 8th Annual Conference 2012. Online http://www.ragged-online.com/2012/10/developing-social-capital-promises-knowledge-exchange/

Oldenburg, R. (1989). The great good place: Cafes, coffee shops, bookstores, bars, hair salons, and other hangouts at the heart of a community. New York: Marlowe and Company.