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Participation, engagement, identity and employment.

The module system that underpins Edinburgh Napier's courses has strengths and weaknesses: it facilitates the breadth of topics our students cover and enables us to develop a range of single and joint honours programmes; but it also fragments the university experience for any given cohort as they bounce from one module to the next. The following post, coming as it does between the exam boards and graduation ceremonies which habitually round off the teaching year, puts forward some ideas to try and develop the current situation.

  • Increase student participation in the management of the programme.
    • Students have a vested interest in the effective management of their programme, but the systems in place to enable this don't always prove particularly effective: poorly attended Boards of Studies for example. Opening up opportunities for more meaningful dialogue could well spur new ideas and innovations, as well as recognising that in many way the people who know the most about the modular degrees we provide are the students who follow.
    • Some potential ideas for development:
      • Giving greater recognition to the student reps from the beginning of the year: a meal for all Festival and Event Management reps perhaps, attended by a few tutors and funded by the School.
      • Provision of an online space for ongoing, sustainable discussion: Facebook, Posterous or Moodle based perhaps, depending on what makes most sense to the reps. Topics covered here can then be fed into the more formal Board of Studies.
      • Putting the online discussion to further use, it would provide a forum for staff keen to test new ideas and gauge student opinion.
      • Models of good practice may well be identified through this process, whether from within Edinburgh Napier or from other institutions – a form of 'this worked well in my friend's programme' perhaps.

  • Better class attendance and engagement from students.
    • I fully appreciate that face-to-face contact is not the only way students engage with their courses, whether or not a given module is designed to be 'consumed' in that fashion. Some students do well in their summative assessments on the back of very poor attendance – perhaps a reflection of the lack of 'added value' the tutor brings to the classroom, yet also a signal that their regular contribution in class would have been very welcome. Attendance reflects engagement and it facilitates communication between tutor and student(s), which in turn means the module can be explained  to the student and tailored to their particular interests, especially in the upper years. I don't have evidence to say whether offline contact between students begets online communication (or vice versa), but my hunch is that they feed off each other. (Hence my PhD interest.)
    • Some ideas:
      • Clear enunciation from the start of the year (especially at the start of university life) that the different elements of the student's course fit together: a holistic view which lends each weekly topic a little more value on account of its place in the bigger picture.
      • More accessible online tools as part of the LTA experience, which in our case might have to wait until the successor to WebCT has become the norm. Smaller projects might be able to work with a more eclectic mix of social media, but for most module-based contact the standard platform rules. These contributions to then form a part of the classroom-based discussions around particular topics; this could prove very useful if the topic spans two or more weeks or is particularly topical at that time.
      • It needn't be difficult to integrate a small amount of summative assessment into the mix: online participation as a prerequisite of coursework submission.

  • A stronger programme identity.
    • The modular system was cited above as a guilty party in the diminution of a stronger programme identity, by dint of the range of modules students study, often sitting next to colleagues from a wide range of other subjects. The 'Festival and Event Management' cohort (c60-90 students per year) is therefore rarely seen in isolation, more likely to be found among other flavours of Edinburgh Napier student. Is this important? ...I would argue that it is important: clearer recognition of who's studying the same course as you has important psychological benefits; the practical advantages that could come from better networks and connections could change people's careers, particularly if they extend to recent graduates looking to recruit staff and be recruited.
    • Ways to try and bring this about:
      • Consult the student reps: do they perceive a problem, what could help overcome it?
      • Establish a social media base for past, present and future students to pledge their allegiance to the course – Facebook would probably be the easiest to work with thanks to widespread existing familiarity, although LinkedIn might appeal more for those with professional/career priorities. Programme leaders and other academic staff could provide a beacon for those looking to re-engage with their alma mater.
      • The graduation ball is due to make a reappearance in June 2011. Marketing was left relatively late in the term, but encouraging earlier involvement could make this year the first of many. (Possibly run by 3rd year students, if there's a profit to be had.)

  • Establishing more meaningful connections between students' employment and their studies.
    • While it's true that modules exist within the university (delivered by my School) that do a great job of providing academic rewards for students' part-time work, these aren't taken by the majority of students. To my mind they're only a starting point as well: they're not embedded in the programme but could be said to isolate the issue. That's not the fault of the module or it's teaching team of course, but rather a challenge to those working on other parts of the programme to better reflect the students' employment and make the most of the experiences they're building up outside the classroom. Class discussions are a start, where students will readily draw on their own experiences, but could more be done?
    • How about...
      • An annual audit: who's working in which area of the festival/event industry; what experiences, contacts and opportunities can they bring to the classroom; what ambitions do they have for their careers and what do they want to get out of the course?
      • Best practice seminars: a monthly chance for students to sit in a room, with their lunch and some School-funded coffee perhaps, and discuss their current projects. This could be very simple, and student-led, but if it helps reinforce the idea that university is a place that can offer assistance, ideas, support and contacts that's all to the good. In an ideal world any tutors who attended would be no more than equal contributors (with perhaps a little facilitating to keep things moving).

These ideas have been formulating in my mind for the past couple of months and now seems the right time to put them out for further discussion. Rather than limit this to a discussion among colleagues at Edinburgh Napier I've posted it up on the blog to try and catch a larger audience. If you've tried some of these ideas yourself, or found alternative ways to achieve the same results, please let me know.

In an age of rising tuition fees and uncertainty over the direction higher education is heading in the UK it is right that students should take a keen interest in the management and development of their courses. Regrettably the opportunities to do this aren't always taken up: there were nostudent representatives present at our final Board of Studies, with only a couple sending their apologies. Is everything perfect already? Is there a lack of faith that engaging will change anything? Are the channels of communication simply ineffective and outdated? What more can be done to promote a little participation...?

In response to Eli Pariser and online 'filter bubbles'.

Lessons from Holland.