Conference season is in full swing. As we go out and learn, share and contribute to our shared knowledge of our chosen fields of endeavour – it is important to think of and include indigenous people of the lands upon which we meet.

Why? Well, whether you believe the lands upon which you meet are stolen, occupied or rightfully taken — acknowledging an indigenous history at minimum shows respect and understanding that there is a past with which we need to work in order to move towards the future. Problems don’t disappear because we ignore them – when we ignore problems, they fester. It is not divisive to apologise or acknowledge past hurts, it is a healing gesture that takes courage and honesty.

So, if you are presenting in a country where the lands were taken from those who once were caretakers, consider researching who those people were and acknowledging them.

This video from the University of South Australia presents a good format for doing so:

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?

ePorfolios have been around for several years now, but it’s not safe to assume educators and students who have been asked to use them in past understand what they can do for them.

I created a video based on workshops I conducted with UniSA students and have been told by colleagues that it is useful – so I’ll share it here.  The first 02:32 of the video discusses ePortfolios in general.

Mahara – introduction and basics from EASS Media on Vimeo.

I recently read an interesting Op Ed piece on why university student experience surveys are inherently flawed.

A few sentences about designing learning stood out for me as I grapple with the balance between spoon feeding students and reducing their cognitive load.

“It is patently counterproductive for students to struggle with understanding the curriculum, with the requirements of learning and assessment tasks, or with the reasons why they are being asked to do what they do. These should be as straightforward as possible and made perfectly clear to students. The acquisition and updating of deeper conceptual understanding, on the other hand, does often require grappling with new ways of thinking and synthesising knowledge. This is hard cognitive work for most people.”

As a learning designer, I want to create an environment where there is just enough challenge. As a learning designer for adult learning, I want to provide authentic learning experiences and challenge people to be problem solvers.Is providing the reason why they are being asked to do an unmarked task, then outlining a procedure and describing the result spoon feeding when that doesn’t always happen in a workplace?

Over my work life I’ve been under-managed and provided next to no brief and over-managed where the manager all but wrote things for me and translated for me in meetings (“I think what Kerry is saying is…”).

Would we be better breaking down the steps into what the output will be (what), the learning outcomes (reason why) and then providing them a planning tool with some suggestions of how to accomplish the task?

I must admit the last of this – unless we are talking about a highly technical task – is where I start biting my lip. How much detail do we put in here?Do we provide SOME resources or ALL the resources?

I am concerned if we provide ALL the resources, we end up with students who are lacking in one of the most important aspects of information literacy – the discernment necessary to find and recognise credible sources.

Finally understand the relationship between Problem-based and Project-based learning.

Problem-based learning CAN BE a TYPE of Project- based learning.

Project-based learning can be prescriptive and low on the Bloom’s/whatever scale (as in an assignment – you will do X using Y method to achieve Z outcome).

It can be semi prescriptive (here is a prob, pick from these solutions or here is a prob – but only explore it in the context of the topic/subject we’re studying).

However, if a project is Problem-based – then all students start with is a problem to solve and they have to draw upon multiple disciplines in order to solve it. 

It is worth noting however, that if you look at the real world definitions of problems and projects, there is an argument that problem-based learning stands on its own and cannot be a subset of project-based learning. The reason being is that projects involve structured approaches to a pre-defined solution whilst problems are open-ended, messy and often require a program involving multiple projects to resolve.

Thanks to Annette Kolmos for her wonderful article in the European Journal of Engineering Education, Volume 21, 1996 – Issue 2.