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The expansion, diversification and digitization of higher education is creating challenges for understanding and leading students’ engagement in effective learning, as Hamish Coates explains.
Associate Professor Hamish Coates is Higher Education Research Director at the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) and Program Director at the LH Martin Institute, University of Melbourne. He will be presenting at the 4th National Student Engagement Conference, 29-31 October in Melbourne.
Engaging people in tertiary education has never been more vital for universities, the sector and Australia. With new regulatory and competitive contexts emerging here and around the world there is an urgent need to be efficient, to grow and to improve.
Student engagement taps into the heart of education strategy and practice. It links with tertiary education quality, the management of academic risk, how academics can use technology to support learning, aspects of the student experience that can be publicly reported, and funding reform. Authoritative, imaginative and practical discussion of these issues is vital for leading and managing opportunities for success.
Australian higher education – institutions, government, faculty, learners, stakeholders – must steer student engagement with poise and dexterity over the next few years. Significant changes in policy and contextual dynamics have combined to make this more important, and difficult, than ever.
As forecast, shifting from a quota-driven system to one in which institutions are free to determine the quantum of students they will enrol, coupled with demand-driven funding, has been a game changer. Universities are enrolling more students. This has immediate implications for engaging students in the system, and for keeping students involved through to course completion.
Opening access to higher education does not just increase student numbers, it also changes the student mix. We move from an ‘elite class’ to a ‘whole population’ system, which has immediate and non-ignorable implications for student engagement. Institutions have to consider each student on their merits and shape provision accordingly.
Opening access to top-quality coursework materials to anyone with an internet connection is another significant shaper of student engagement. With the exception of a few selective fields, the capacity of universities to act as gatekeepers to information appears over. The ‘engagement experience’ is becoming a more important differentiating factor in how institutions guide students’ management of learning.
Online provision – servicing just-in-time, just-for-me learning – helps institutions, teachers and students manage new permutations and patterns of provision. But by ‘virtualising’ the higher education experience university study further blurs with a tapestry of competing online activities and commitments. The lecture or seminar is replaced by the hand-held screen and earpiece, creating even greater challenges for understanding and leading students’ engagement in effective learning.
The overall growth in student numbers goes to staff/student ratios, and to casual academic appointments. Looming retirement booms and generational change make it all the more important to understand how to teach today’s students. Thought must be given to new forms of teaching, and managing the academic workforce.
Expanding, diversifying and digitizing higher education carries numerous benefits, but also carries risk that new open structures and asynchronous processes decrease the interpersonal facets of learning. The key challenge is to identify the approaches that large and complex institutions take to create the social and academic conditions that help people develop.