Australian Council for Educational Research
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You've got the students in. Now what? The idea is to get students emotionally invested in learning so that we can continue to retain them and get them ‘out of the doors’, satisfied, with a degree and prepared for life after higher education - this is student engagement in a nutshell and the topic of the national conference, jointly organised by ACER and the LH Martin Institute.
Chaired by Alan Robson and Leo Goedegebuure, the conference brought together experts from the sector. They provided a varied perspective on how institutions can assure and enhance students’ engagement in effective educational practices set against a political background of risk, regulation and quality.
Student engagement is not a new concept. The sector knows why it matters but is still grappling with what it is and what it means. And whilst the conference was enlightening (engaging even), it produced more questions than answers.
There was consensus that the ‘teacher’ was the key to student engagement. But there was also agreement that the success of student engagement depends on an integrated whole-of-institution engagement plan. Anecdotally, it was found that only 8 out of 21 Australian universities had a focus on student engagement in their strategic plans. What does this say about the commitment of institutions to students? The ‘thousand of flowers blooming’ occurring in the sector will not fully succeed without institutional commitment and support.
If ‘teacher’ is the key to student engagement, how will casualisation of staff affect student engagement? In an environment of diminishing resources, the ability of ongoing academic staff to provide quality education and maintain high standards of teaching and student engagement is reduced. Some may argue that with advent of the digital age, this has brought about new and innovative ways to engage students. This may be true but there is not sufficient evidence to substantiate this.
The digital age has brought about many innovations in higher education. A recent development in innovation is the ‘free for all’ Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs. These are online courses aimed at large scale participation and open access via the web. In Australia, a recent development is Swinburne Online. A venture with Seek, an online recruitment site, its aim is to provide online programs delivering the same qualifications as on-campus study. But if the success of student engagement depends on the learning design, i.e. the curriculum and assessment etc, any innovation in the institution’s business model should not affect student engagement? Or should it?
If student engagement 'varies more within rather than between institutions', is there a rationale to develop a whole-of-sector student engagement standards? One which provides a framework for institutions on one hand but promotes diversity between institutions. This may lead to an agreed sector-wide definition of student engagement and provide further guidance to its measurement, one that the sector continues to struggle with.
Whilst there is no agreed measurement of student engagement, there is general consensus in the use of rigorous data to demonstrate student engagement, for example as key performance indicators and institutional and course-level analytics. Should the use of proxy measures of engagement be extended as a performance management tool for the promotion of staff? Not only at departmental and faculty levels, but also at institutional levels. This may give the impetus the sector needs to commit further to the student engagement agenda.
A number of strategies were also put forward during the conference and there were two that stood out. First, the notion of ‘capstone experience’ which is a culminating education experience that integrates a set of personal, academic and professional experiences to demonstrate learning. A further extension to this is the introduction of a formal student ‘action plan’. Whether students are ready for these is a question that warrants further debate.
Second, is the idea of a ‘third space’ - a social surrounding that is separate from home and the learning. This notion of third space was conceptualised by UCroo. Aimed at improving both the educational and social aspects of life in an institution, it was the buzz on the second day of the conference as interested higher education institutions flock to get on the bandwagon.
So maybe we are one step closer to understanding student engagement. Certainly academic staff play a key role in student engagement, but so do student services staff and student clubs. The key is to immerse students in our institutions in a variety of positive ways. Such that institutions continue to retain them, to ensure students enjoy the learning experience and to equip them with attributes and outcomes to prepare themselves in a highly competitive environment post higher education.
LH Martin Institute
5 November 2012
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Jointly held by LH Martin Institute