There are some days when I feel very lucky; lucky in the sense that my transition from school, to college and to university happened pretty painlessly. Although my background has been far from privileged, I feel that I ended up making the right choices the exactly right time, all by accident rather than by design.
Some of these thoughts were going through my head as I walked towards the hotel where the Widening Participation through Curriculum conference was held. Other thoughts were connected with my day job, which all about supporting the delivery of a range of undergraduate computing and ICT modules. WP (as it seemed to be known within the conference), is something that I consider to be fundamentally important; it touches on my interactions with students, and the times that I work with members of a module team. I also had a question, which was, ‘what more could I do [to help with WP]?’
This post is a summary of my own views of the Widening Participation through Curriculum conference that was held on two days from 30 April 2014 in Milton Keynes. It’s intended as a rough bunch of notes for myself, and might be of distant interest to other delegates who were at the event (or anyone else who might find these ramblings remotely interesting).
The opening address was by Martin Bean, Vice chancellor of the university. He asked the question, ‘how do we ensure that widening participation is achieved?’ This is an easy question to ask, but a whole lot more difficult to answer. Martin talked about moving from informal to formal learning, and the challenge of reaching out and connecting with adult learners in a sustainable way. Other points included the importance of access curriculum (pre-university level study). Access curriculum has the potential to encourage learners and to develop confidence.
Martin also touched upon the potential offered by MOOCs, or, massive open online course. The OU has created a company called FutureLearn, which has collaborations with other UK and international universities. A question is whether it might be possible to create level 0 (or access) courses in the form of MOOCs that could help to prepare learners for formal study (connecting back to the idea of transitions from informal to formal learning). One thought that I did have is about the importance and use of technology. Technology might not be the issue, but figuring out strategies to use it effectively might be.
Keynote 1: WP and disruption – global challenges
The first keynote of the conference was by Belinda Tynan, PVC for teaching and learning. As she spoke, I made some rough notes, and I’ve scribbled down the following important points: models of partnerships, curriculum theory, impact of curriculum reform, and how students are being engaged.
Belinda touched upon a number of wide issues such as changing demographics, discrepancy between rich and poor, unemployment, and the relationship between technology and social inclusion; all really great points.
Another interesting point was about the digital spaces where the university does not have a formal presence. We were told that there are in the order of 150 Facebook groups that students have set up to help themselves. As an aside, I’ve often wondered about these spaces, and whether they can tell us something that the university could be doing better, in terms of either technology, interactive system design, or how to foster and develop collaboration. Another thought relates to the research question: how much learning actually occurs within these spaces? How much are we able to see?
A phrase that jumped out at me was, ‘designing curriculum that fits into people’s lives’. Perhaps it is important that curriculum designers create small fragments of materials to allow students can manage the complexity of their studies. Other key phrases include the importance of motivation, the role of on-line discussions, and the challenge of finding time.
We were shown a short video about learning analytics. Learning analytics is a pretty simple concept. Whenever we interact with a system, we leave a trace (often in the form of a web request). The idea is the perhaps the sum total of traces will be able to tell us something about how students are getting along. By using clever technology (such as machine learning algorithms), it might be possible to uncover and initiate targeted interventions, perhaps in collaboration with student support teams.
One thought that I had during this presentation was, ‘where is the tutor in this picture?’ Technology was mentioned a lot, but there was little mention about the personal support that OU tutors (or lecturers) offer. There are many factors in helping students along their journey, and my own view is that tutors are a really important part of this.
The concluding points in Belinda’s keynote (if I’ve noted this down properly) return to the notion of challenges: the importance of the broader societal context, and the importance of connecting learning theory to student journeys.
Session 1: Measuring and demonstrating impact
Delegates could go to a number of parallel sessions about different topics. The first paper session I dropped into was entitled ‘measuring and demonstrating impact’. This session comprised of two presentation.
The first presentation was entitled, ‘Impact of a pre-access curriculum on attainment over 10 years’, and it was from representatives of an organisation called Asdan Education, which is a charity which grew out of research from the University of West of England. I hadn’t heard of this organisation before, so all this was news to me. Asdan have what is called Certificate of personal effectiveness (Asdan website). The presentation contained a lot of data suggested that the curriculum (and the work by the charity) led to an improvement to some GCSE results.
The second presentation of the morning, given by Nichola Grayson and Johanna Delaney was entitled, ‘can the key principles of open skills training enhance the experience of prospective students’. Interestingly, Nichola and Johnanna were from the library services at the University of Manchester. Their talk was all about revision of library resources called ‘my learning essentials’.
The university currently has something called a ‘Manchester access programme’, which includes visits from schools, and an ‘extended project qualification’ (which I think allows students to gather up some UCAS points, used for university entry). The open new training programme (if I have understand it correctly) has an emphasis on skills, adopts a workshop format and makes use of online resources.
During this presentation, I was introduced to some new terms and WP debates. I heard the concept of the ‘deficit model’ for the first time, and there were immediate comments about its appropriateness (but more of this problematic concept later).
Session 2: Theory revisited
I went to this session because I had no idea what ‘theory’ means in the context of Widening Participation; I was hoping to learn something!
The first presentation was by my colleague Jonathan Hughes who gave a presentation entitled, ‘developing a theoretical framework to explore what widening participation has done for ‘non-traditional students’ and what it has done to them.’ Jonathan and his colleague Alice Peasgood has been interviewing WP experts, which includes mostly professors who had been published. Interviews recorded and transcribed, and then analysed.
Johnathan made an interesting comment (or quip) that this is a technique that can be considered to be a short-cut to a literature review. This is an idea that I’m going to take away with me, and it has actually inspired some thinking about an idea about how to understand the teaching of programming.
His analysis is to use a technique called thematic analysis (Wikipedia) drawing on the work of Braun and Clarke. This was also interesting: in terms of qualitative research, I’m more familiar with grounded theory (Wikipedia). This alerted me to one of the dangers of going to conferences: that you can easily give yourself lots of homework to do.
Jonathan highlighted three main themes: the policy context (tuition fees in higher education), wider context of marketised higher education, and how policies are interpreted and operationalised. (He has written more about these in his paper). I’ve made a note of a comment that there are different theoretical frameworks to understand WP: one is to enable the gifted and talented to study, another is how best to meet the needs of employers, and how to transform the university rather than the students.
The second talk by Jayne Clapton, was entitled, ‘seeing a ‘complex’ conceptual understanding of WP and social inclusion in HE’. Jane presented a graphic of a metaphor of a complex mechanism which had a number of interlocking parts (which, I believe, represent various drivers and influences).
The discussion section was really interesting, particularly since the deficit model was attacked pretty comprehensively. To add a bit more detail, the ‘model’ is where potential students have some kind of deficit, perhaps in terms of socio-economic background, for instance. To overcome this there is the idea of having some kind of intervention done to them to help prepare them for higher education. An alternative perspective is to view students in terms of ‘assets’; development opportunities can represent investments in individuals.
A concluding discussion centred upon the importance of research. Research always has the potential to inform and guide government policy. The point was that ‘we need effective research to back up any arguments that we make, and we need to know about the effectiveness about projects or interventions’.
Keynote 2: The ‘academic challenge’ in HE: intersectional dimensions and unintended affects on pedagogic encounters
The second keynote was by Professor Gill Crozier from Roehampton University. I’ve made a note that Gill was talking about transition; that the transition to higher education is more difficult for working class, and black and ethnic minority students. Some students can be unsure what university was all about (I certainly place myself in that category). Studying at university can expose students to unequal power relations between class, gender and race.
A really interesting point that I’ve noted down is one that relates to attitude. In some cases, some lecturers are not happy giving additional support, since this requires them to ‘become nurturing’ in some senses, and some might consider it to beyond the remit of their core ‘academic’ duties. I personally found this view surprising. I personally view those moments of additional support as real opportunities to help learners find the heart of a discipline, or get to the root of a problem that might be troublesome. These moments allow you to reflect on and understand core ideas within your own discipline. In comparison to lecturing in front of a room, you need to be dynamic; you need to get to the heart of the problem, and try your best to be as engaging as possible. I also made a note about the importance of creating a ‘learner identity’.
There was a lot in terms of content in this presentation. Two interesting notes that I made in my notebook are, ‘social identifies profoundly shape dispositions’ (I’m not quite sure what context I’ve written this), and ‘little attention given to the experience of students at university’ (which is something that I’ll come back to in the final part of this blog).
Keynote 3: Widening success through curriculum: innovation in design and pedagogy
Stephanie Marshall, CEO of the Higher Education Academy (HEA website) gave the third keynote speech. Stephanie began with an interesting anecdote, and one that I really appreciated. Stephanie spoke about her early days of being a lecturer at (I think) the University of York. She spoke to a colleague who apparently told her that ‘the OU had taught me to do all this’, meaning, how to become a lecturer by running training sessions that allows associate lecturers to understand how to run group sessions, and how to choose and design effective activities.
My ears pricked up when Stephanie mentioned the HEA’s Professional Standards Framework (HEA website). The UKPSF relates to the HEA’s accreditation process where lecturers have to submit cases to demonstrate their teaching and learning skills in higher education.
Like so many HE institutions, the HEA has also been through a period of substantial change, which has recently included a substantial reduction in funding. This said, the HEA continues to run projects that aim to influence the whole of the sector. Work streams currently include curriculum design, innovative pedagogies, transitions, and staff transitions (helping staff to do the things that they need to do).
There are also projects that relate to widening participation. One that I’ve explicitly taken a note of is the retention and success project (HEA website) (it appears that there’s a whole bunch of interesting looking resources, which I didn’t know existed). Other projects I’ve noted connect to themes such as attainment and progression, learning analytics and employability.
On the subject of WP, Stephanie gave a really interesting example. During the presentation of a module, students studying English at one university expressed concerns about the relevance of particular set text to the students who were studying them. This challenge led to the co-development of curriculum, a collaboration between students and lecturers to choose text that were more representative (in terms of the ethnicity of the student body), thus allowing the module to be more engaging. This strikes me as one of the fundamental advantages of face to face teaching; lecturers can learn, and challenging (and important) debates can emerge.
A final resource (or reference) that I wasn’t aware of was something called the Graduate attributes framework (University of Edinburgh). Again, further homework!