Archive for the ‘students’ category

The social academy?

April 3, 2017

You’re all very young, so you’ve probably never even heard of Bebo. But actually, Bebo was the real thing in social networking before Facebook got going properly.

Anyway, I first came across Bebo (and social networking) in 2006, when a colleague in my then university asked to see me urgently and rather urgently implored me to ban access to the website, particularly in the library, but also everywhere else. Students were, he told me, logging in to it at all times and were neglecting their studies. Some could even be seen looking at Bebo during lectures (on their laptops, no real smartphones in use back then) and inviting others to look over their shoulders. The world as we knew it was about to end.

It was not just my colleague who was concerned. A few weeks later I received an email from a student, complaining that she could not get access to computer workstations in the library because other students were on Bebo and were preventing her from using them for her studies.

Nevertheless, I decided I would join Bebo, which I did that year. And as I became aware of it I also joined Facebook in 2008; and Twitter in the same year. As some readers will know, I am a regular twitterer, though a more restrained user of Facebook. I occasionally use WhatsApp and Instagram.

Fast forward to the current decade, and Bebo has been bought and sold and bankrupted and re-released as something entirely different; but Facebook and Twitter are still very much there. In universities in the meantime the discussion is not about whether or how to ban social networking on campus, but how and whether to include it in the academy’s armoury. This has become even more important as students have tended to move away from other forms of electronic communication (including email).

An interesting study carried out in the University of Glasgow revealed that 68 per cent of students think social media can enhance their learning experience; though it also concluded that inexpert use of social media can make it all go badly wrong. Overall, it is hard to ignore social media – and universities cannot operate in an environment that is divorced from the experience of their students. Back in the early 1960s I learned to write with a nib pen that you had to dip in an inkwell every few words. We don’t use that now, nor should we expect students to use the technological equivalent (for them) of the inkwell.

Universities are generally taking a more direct interest in social media as marketing tools. But the more interesting potential lies in pedagogy, not least because social media, as the name implies, provide a social experience which can be an enabler for learning collaboration. Some interesting work on this has been done by Dr Fiona Handley at the University of Brighton.

The significance of social media in higher education is not that universities can invade their students’ social spaces, but that they can adopt the look and feel, and the potential for learning interaction, that social networking platforms provide. That is the place to start.

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The travails of student politics

September 27, 2016

I entered university as a student slightly later than most of my contemporaries. After I left school I decided to take a job rather than become a student. I did this for a couple of years before changing my mind and deciding to study law. I started in Trinity College Dublin on a bright October morning in 1974, and decided that I’d probably learn more about TCD by taking a tour organised by what was then called the Student Representative Council. We were given a student handbook and asked to study this before the actual tour.

The handbook was totally wonderful, featuring as it did two motivational articles, one each by the SRC President and the Vice-President. Except that the two of them didn’t agree on much. The President was a key activist in the Communist Party of Ireland (Marxist-Leninist), which in turn saw itself as mostly following the teachings of Chairman Mao, and later Albanian Communist leader Enver Hoxha. It liked armed liberation struggles (including in Northern Ireland), but was not much into liberal decadence. The same President once suggested during a debate on gay rights that this wasn’t much of an issue in Mao’s China, meaning that that was the end of the matter. His contribution to the student manual was to call for a struggle to free the working classes globally and beyond. He believed that it was every student’s duty to oppose the capitalist bourgeoisie, including its placemen in university management.

The Deputy President was an altogether different man; indeed he more or less personified the ‘liberal decadence’ so disliked by his President. His contribution to the manual consisted of exhortations to enjoy sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, in whichever order suited.

The year that followed this induction saw some major actions in the university, in pursuit of the various ideals of both student leaders. Without necessarily suggesting I pursued all of his proposals, I much preferred the Deputy President; he was without doubt rather good company, and it may be worth saying in passing that he was later a known figure in Irish broadcasting circles long after the President dropped into complete obscurity. But in a year off occupations and protests and marches and demonstrations, most students got on with their studies, many of them completely oblivious of all or any of this.

But are student politics irrelevant? One key moment in all of the fun back in 1974 was during a debate organised by the SRC, which featured a motion that ‘we’ should liberate South Africa’. It was not a bad debate, and it included really interesting contributions from leaders of the Anti-Apartheid movement. However, one of these suggested, with a twinkle in his eye, that maybe the TCD Student Representative Council,  regardless of how it voted on the motion, would not itself liberate South Africa; what would matter more would be persuading the influential western middle classes that this was a goal worth pursuing. There was complete silence at this suggestion, as students digested the horrible possibility that they were not in the vanguard of liberation. There was no applause.

The issues around student politics are maybe not that different today, as this recent assessment by a current student indicates. Today’s student leaders still sometimes manage to fight battles that don’t particularly resonate with the masses and that over-play the impact of student politics. But student politics do matter. They provide an opportunity for engagement and for debate, and so at the very least they allow students to develop leadership skills. Maybe student politicians sometimes over-estimate the interest felt by most students in radical politics, but many of them go on to be highly persuasive as politicians in the ‘real’ system.

I’m glad I don’t face the particular brand of political agitation favoured by my student president in 1974 – but I’m glad also that students still come forward to represent their colleagues and hold us to account. Doing so provides a genuine service.

The value of student engagement

May 9, 2016

One of the questions the academic community should be asking itself more regularly is what exactly they think is the student’s stake in the higher education framework, beyond that of a learner. Some of this debate would probably these days focus on whether students are, or are not, consumers or customers, and therefore whether they have a right to insist on something like contractual performance from their institutions and teachers. Others might ask whether students have what we might describe as democratic rights of co-determination – a perspective we pursued a little in the review I chaired of Scottish higher education governance, and which has recently been explored in a very interesting Irish report.

One way or another, all this is tied up with how we can secure student engagement – a commitment to learning going beyond managing the curriculum in order to secure a degree. This is something universities do try to encourage in a general way, but perhaps not always in a principled manner, because we have not really settled what the principle is. Some recent studies have revealed one consequence of student disengagement: what could be a gradual death of the classroom experience, as technology gives students access to material independent of their teachers and the socialising effect of classes is no longer recognised or appreciated. So students simply no longer turn up, many of them opting to undertake what are in essence correspondence courses, with very little if any engagement with the corporate entity of their university.

In an age in which the concept of stakeholders in this and that and everything is ubiquitous, we need to do better in securing an understanding of the student’s stake in his or her learning process and the institution that offers it. We have not yet got very far in this, all appearances to the contrary.

Culture wars on American campuses?

December 8, 2015

As we all know, youtube videos can go viral, and here is one that has done so recently. It shows an exchange of views – if we can call it that – at Yale University. Should you wish to learn a little about the background to this incident, you can read it here. And finally, here is another account from a participant of sorts, published in the Washington Post.

Should you not wish to read the stories, here is a short summary. A Yale academic, Erika Christakis, sent out an email in which she reflected on the potential benefits of students and others being allowed to express themselves (in this case in the choice of Halloween costumes) in ways that could include being ‘a little bit inappropriate or provocative’. Some students took offence at the email, and this in turn led to the recorded confrontation between Dr Christakis’s husband (who was defending the email) and some students.

The question that all this raises is one I have covered before in this blog – whether there is on a university campus (or for that matter, anywhere else) a right not to be offended. Do universities have an obligation to ensure that no one is troubled or disturbed by what they see or hear? And of course, how does all of this affect freedom of speech?

Of course universities do have a duty of care towards their students, including a duty to ensure that students are not the victims of discrimination or bullying and that they can learn in an environment that encourages them and supports them. I do not believe, however, that universities are obliged to ensure that no student ever hears anything they do not like, or that they never meet anyone who disagrees with them. Intellectual inquiry is about hearing every point of view, even offensive ones.

As a result of the backlash against her email, Erika Christakis resigned from her Yale University teaching post. That, I would suggest, was not a good day for the university.

Parental care

September 7, 2015

A few years ago I recruited a very impressive American to work for my university. As could be expected, he encountered a number of cultural issues in his new place of work, but most of them he was able to deal with appropriately. One that he found particularly difficult, however, was our reluctance to engage in any way the parents of our actual or prospective students, except during university open days. He was used to parents being a key stakeholder group with whom universities would engage on a regular basis, keeping them informed of their daughters’ or son’s progress and of the university’s plans and achievements. We did no such thing. Indeed if parents contacted us about their children, we would routinely tell them, politely I hope, that we could not discuss them with ‘third parties’ – a category that included parents.

I confess that I have felt particularly committed to this approach because, often, parents tended to push their children in all the wrong directions, in particular by pressing them to do courses because of the social standing this would give their offspring (rather than choosing courses to fit the children’s talents and interests).

And yet of course parents are a genuine stakeholder group. Their influence in the choice of university and courses is usually significant, and of course the years that follow often see parents having to make major financial investments in their children, even where there are no tuition fees. The role that parents play is now often recognised and promoted. And to return to America, some universities there now contact parents when students misbehave.

Perhaps we need to think again and to strike a more reasonable balance between the correct recognition of the personal autonomy of students and the legitimate interest of parents (though perhaps less so in the case of mature students). Or perhaps that interest is better expressed in communications between the students and their families, without university involvement? Even if that is so, involving parents in discussions about institutional strategy and priorities cannot be a bad thing.

All in a day’s work?

August 11, 2015

A recent survey conducted (as far as I can tell) in England has revealed that 77 per cent of university students have a paid job. More strikingly, 14 per cent have full-time jobs while studying.

Of course students working is not a new phenomenon; when I was a student many of us did some sort of paid work while at university. But in those days it tended to be during holidays, and not everyone felt any real pressure to earn money. Nowadays more students come from backgrounds where they cannot expect parents and families to provide funding, and costs (in particular accommodation costs) are much higher. Of course work can be an enriching experience for students (and course-related work placements are excellent), but when financial pressures are piled on and working hours invade study time it becomes a different matter.

This is another reason why public money needs to be targeted more specifically at those who most need it, so that earning money does not crowd out studies.  Universities also need to be stronger advocates for students, so that society understands that financial pressures must not compromise the opportunity to learn.

Sorry, what was that again? The problem of a limited attention span, technology-enabled

January 20, 2015

A former colleague with whom I worked in another institution a good few years ago told me recently that, about half way through a lecture, he had asked his class a question. No one responded. By this I don’t just mean that no answer was offered; there wasn’t even much evidence that the students were aware that a question had been asked of them. In fact, it turned out they were almost all focusing on their phones and tablets, because someone was live-tweeting an event in which they all had an interest. My friend suddenly realised he was talking to himself.

In this case there may have been a particular reason for the student inattention, but even in other circumstances it has become difficult to know how long students will focus on the teaching. A few years ago the BBC reported on a survey that had found that ‘the average length of time a student could concentrate for in lectures was 10 minutes’. A more recent American study had this finding:

‘The researchers observed a pattern in which the first spike in reported attention lapses occurred just 30 seconds into a lecture segment, likely reflecting the same “settling-in” period of disruption… The next consistent spike in reported attention lapses occurred at 4.5 to 5.5 minutes into the lecture, followed by another spike at 7 to 9 minutes, and then another at 9 to 10 minutes into the lecture. This waxing-and-waning pattern continued throughout the lecture, with attention lapses occurring more frequently as the lecture progressed. By the end of the lecture, lapses occurred about every two minutes.’

If this pattern of attention and lapses is typical, then we would have to ask serious questions about the effectiveness of lecture-style teaching. If in addition we factor in the impact of personal technology such as smartphones and the ease with which they provide nearly indetectable access to something other than what is going on in the classroom, we would have to wonder about the possibility of significant learning taking place at all in such settings. Part of the answer is to have as much ‘active learning’ as possible: when students are asked to do something, the evidence is that they pay more attention. Part of it is probably also related to the communication skills of the teacher. But overall we need to accept that traditional teaching may not engage students much these days, and we must ensure that we employ an active assessment of pedagogy that never assumes we must always continue to do what we did before.