Students as Partners in Higher Education

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking around students having a say in the way they learn and the concept of students as consumers or customers. I read a scathing article about student experience surveys (SESs) on the Campus Review website  back in March and have started being far more aware of their impact.

For instance, I’ve suggested that perhaps we don’t link every damned thing in an online course – that we teach students the valuable incidental skills of working within an information architecture, of learning to browse and identify credible resources, etc. and have been told that students complain about it. When I said “Really? But what about teaching information literacy as a skill?” the replies I got basically boiled down to this: if a student complains on a student experience survey, the instructor can be held back from promotion or get their wrists slapped.

So when a round-table discussion day on Students as Partners came up, I went along to find out if this were a work-around to the extremes that typically respond to the dreaded Student Experience Surveys.

I’ll admit I went into this new area of learning for me with a certain amount of skepticism.

When it comes to students as partners in their own learning, all I have is SESs and some ad hoc conversations. Based on the SESs I’ve seen, most students either love a course or they hate it. Some have the typical remarks – lectures too long/not long enough, learning tasks too hard/too easy, lecturer interesting/boring, assessments too hard. Meh. To my mind the courses that would get the biggest ticks would be the “fun” ones and the ones that would get caned would be the “hard” ones. Not exactly a great tool. Plus, they’re a lagging indicator. Not exactly proactive. Once a student cohort finishes a course, there’s not much that can be done to improve the experience for them, let alone understand the nuances of the opinions they share. 

Another big point of cynicism for me is that we seem to be in an age where opinions don’t have to be based on experience or expertise or research or facts. 

The first presentations were from students who had been part of projects. The first had researched a project and shared their findings. They voiced some hard truths about how students often perceive our higher education institutions’ view of students: meal tickets.

The second presentation was from a student who, after taking a course on cultural competence and seeing it fail, had identified what she felt were the failures and how they could be solved. The institution let her partner with an expert and they produced a winning course.

It was great to hear from these students. I just wished the next to last presentation – from Professor Philippa Levy of Uni of Adelaide – had been the first. To position SaP from the start as coming from Inquiry Based Learning would have beneficial to a n00b like me.

We then discussed throughout the day what the structure of SaP looks like. It needs to involve leadership, academics, professional staff and students.

Leadership operates on KPIs – so SaP projects need to have clearly defined goals that are measurable. Leadership also needs to be willing to support the embedding of practice – writing it into strategy without slowing it down with bureaucracy. There needs to be change management strategies involved because engaging students as partners is a new paradigm for academics.

Academics need to be open to suggestions about their pedagogical decisions and learning designers need to be open to suggestions about how courses are designed. Students must be treated as equals at minimum. There needs to be a collaborative approach, with clearly defined roles and ensuring that there is agreement and understanding.

How do you decide on the projects? Well, typically that comes from the people holding the power – leadership and academics. However, at one discussion table I was at, it was raised that with multiple modes of communication perhaps ideas could and should bubble up from the students as well as being identified based on learning analytics and trends.

It was widely acknowledged today that the sorts of students that are going to participate in these sorts of partnerships, even when they are paid, are those students who have the time, passion to learn and make a change and are reasonably comfortable with learning to begin with. You aren’t going to engage the unengaged in designing engaging learning or solving problems.

A side note on engagement: one SaP was on engaging students as part of a community, and it was interesting to find out that students feel more a part of a learning community via their relationships formed in classes and programs with academics than with each other or through social clubs. It was also raised that professional staff need to shut up and listen more to student needs.

The benefits of SaP to students, academics and institutions were interesting to hear about and I’d like to find out more.. Some of the students said they were thrilled to find that the faculty cared so much about students learning. When they linked projects back to Graduate Outcomes and KPIS, Leadership were far more enthusiastic. Learning Designers had some of their cherished beliefs challenged and defeated – but we could pick up some things about designing group work.

The notion that there can be an attitude between Leadership, Academic, Professional staff and Students that “we’re all in this together, how can we make it better” is wonderful. Apparently the UK’s version of TECSA asks Unis to prove they are implementing some level of SaP. So it’s highly thought of and there is quite a body of work building up about it.

I really liked Philippa positioning SaP’s importance in an era where students are being asked to pay more for their education.  The emphasis she makes on giving students value for money. She posed the question “Will being a fully participating member of the academic community equate to getting value for money?”

To me, this goes back to the ensuring students get the incidental learning skills they need to be lifelong learners: information literacies, digital literacies, metacognitive approaches to learning. I believe that the more you think about how and why people learn the more you’ll think about how YOU learn and thus will develop strategies to keep on learning. 

There is a Students as Partners Australian Network that anyone can join to receive updates via email on projects, research and events.

I need to do more research into SaPs . Because even after today, I am not convinced about the value of one student’s viewpoint on pedagogy and learning design when academics and professional learning designers base their work on research that encompasses the viewpoints of many people over time. 

So unless a student has talked to a significant population of fellow students and is representing their views, I still don’t quite get SaP without quantitative research. But I’m willing to learn. Anyone care to partner with me to help me do so?