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The Digital Tutor: Digital Tools, Relationships and Pastoral Support in Higher Education

by Jodie Pinnell and Sukhbinder Hamilton

If navigating higher education in recent times has taught us anything, it is that digital technology for teaching and learning is no longer an ‘option’ but imperative for an accessible and inclusive learning environment. With the sudden response to Covid-19 leading to remote online approaches overnight, some professionals in higher education have been thrust into a new digital world, and in survival mode, this has naturally prioritised its potential for pedagogy. Unsurprisingly, research has investigated digital technology and pedagogy thoroughly (Williams, 2012), but outside of the remit of formal counselling (Situmorang, 2020) and distance learning (Hilliam and Williams, 2019), the potential for digital tools for pastoral support has yet to be thoroughly explored. This gap in research prompted us to see how digital tools can benefit personal tutors, and more importantly, how these tools can aid relationships, in a climate where students and academic staff find themselves more disconnected than ever before.

Working in the capacity as senior lecturers, predominantly for undergraduate Childhood Studies programmes, the ‘digital awakening’ brought about by Covid-19 has been a welcome development in our practice. For us, it has paved the way for new approaches, new thinking and ultimately innovations in all areas to support students. Even before the unexpected impacts of Covid-19, we had identified a gap in our personal tutor practice at level 4, a crucial time for students to feel supported as they settle into the first year of their undergraduate degrees. For context, within a study skills module, students are allocated a designated academic ‘personal tutor’ to address academic and personal matters. Whilst this module design has historically allowed for a holistic approach to study skills and pastoral support, it has relied on students being confident enough to approach their personal tutors to articulate needs, something that many were often reluctant to do independently.

The nature of the personal tutor and tutee relationship within higher education is one conducted in a climate which is growing ever more ‘consumerist’ in nature; with inflated expectations for ‘value for money,’ and rhetoric defining students as customers (Modell, 2005). With increasing student numbers (Yale, 2019), it is notable that more and more students are demonstrating wellbeing issues (Universities UK, 2020). The personal tutor is the first point of contact for students to discuss concerns, and with a focus on emotional wellbeing through individualised support, the personal tutor role can be increasingly compared to that of a counsellor (Jorda, 2013). A supportive relationship with a personal tutor in the first year of a degree can prepare students for more challenging times (Brinkworth et al, 2009), and in managing transitions, provides a familiar face and a door to knock on. Giving ownership to the student to share information with their tutor is needed, especially where personal or sensitive issues need to be discussed, and the student signposted to necessary services is required.

Despite this, it has been found that students can struggle to understand the role of their personal tutor (Ghenghesh, 2018, p 571), and with diverse student needs, tutors are pressured to help at all costs, with support not appropriately suited to the confinement of ‘office hours’ (Jorda, 2013, p 2595). Other challenges span a general lack of effective tutor training or the ability to meet increasingly complex student needs (Lochtie et al, 2018). With growing workloads, academics already have a plethora of ‘hats’ to wear (Knight, 2002), with competing demands in other areas, causing a conflict for a role that cannot necessarily be time bound.

Within this consumerist culture, and with a focus on the personal tutor role (and its challenges), we decided to do something different. A Google form asking pastoral questions was forwarded to first year students at the start of the academic year, giving them the opportunity to provide a written background about themselves. Without knowing this would prompt a research project and prove to be valuable, the form aimed to ‘break the ice’ between tutor and student, to remedy reports that some students struggled to open up. Without an opportunity for students to discuss their needs, the correct support is difficult to provide. The form’s questions included; How are you currently feeling about enrolling at the university? What are your hopes and fears regarding university life, and the course? What do you expect from the tutors? And importantly (and most effectively) the request to ‘Finish this sentence… I wish my tutor knew…’ (Schwartz, 2016). All answers were collated in a spreadsheet, and tutors were able to find their tutees’ answers through a search function. The aim of the forms was to give personal tutors an insight into the student’s world without requiring them to initiate conversations in a ‘cold’ meeting with a stranger, ‘fast-tracking’ a relationship between personal tutors and their tutees. The form was completely optional and formed the basis of the first tutorial meeting between tutors and students, giving some background, but ultimately allowing students to outline issues that they may struggle to articulate in the first instance.

Following the success of this approach, a second form was issued at the end of the year, with questions about the effectiveness of using the initial form. Both ethical clearance and student consent were sought to publish the findings. All responses from the students who agreed to participate were collated in one single document, and with rich findings two papers emerged, one focusing on the role of the tutor, and the other on the impact of Covid-19, but with threads of student wellbeing and a sense of belonging running through both.

It’s safe to say that the findings have made a real impact on our practice. Firstly, the value of the forms for relationship development were clear, with snapshots illustrating that it allowed students to reflect on how they are feeling and to raise any concerns they had. Linked to wellbeing, the approach meant that students could discuss mental health issues and their home life situations, without needing to ‘physically disclose something to a stranger.’ Linked to expectations surrounding the personal tutor role, it was clear that students saw their tutors as the first person they felt ‘comfortable’ with, and they expected them to learn about their names and backgrounds. Qualities of a tutor were clearly identified as ‘respect,’ ‘empathy’ and ‘trustworthiness,’ and at level 4, this was largely characterised by the transitions associated with first year study. Anxiety, relief, wellbeing and the impact of Covid-19 were threaded through these findings, leading back to the role of the tutor primarily for support.

So, what’s next? For practice, the continued use of the digital forms will remain an integral part of our pastoral strategy but rolled out across other year groups also. The value of the personal tutor role needs to be reiterated across the team and plans are afoot to provide in-house training. This is not just a useful step to take within our establishment but should be the case for higher education in general as it is imperative for successfully supporting students as a first point of contact. Further research is needed in the area of digital tools for pastoral care and their potential for fast-tracking relationship development and ‘breaking the ice.’ Working towards the goal of creating an inclusive learning environment starts with relationships, and with the rise in remote working, we can rely on digital tools to help, harnessing their perceived unlimited potential to enhance the student experience.

Jodie Pinnell is a Senior Lecturer, Course Leader and Senior Tutor in the School of Education and Sociology at the University of Portsmouth. She is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy UK. Follow Jodie on Twitter @jodieEdu

Dr Sukhbinder Hamilton is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education and Sociology at the University of Portsmouth. She is a Co-Convenor for ‘The Women’s Workshop Sociological Collective,’ and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy UK. Follow Sukh on Twitter @sukhhamilton1

References

Brinkworth, R, McCann, B, Matthews, C and Nordström, K (2009) ‘First-Year Expectations and Experiences: Student and Teacher Perspectives’, Higher Education 58 (2) 157–173. https://DOI:10.1007/s10734-008-9188-3  

Ghenghesh, P (2018) ‘Personal Tutoring From the Perspectives of Tutors and Tutees’, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 42 (4), 570-584. DOI: https://10.1080/0309877X.2017.1301409

Hilliam, R and Williams, G (2019) ‘Academic and pastoral teams working in partnership to support distance learning students according to curriculum area’, Higher Education Pedagogies, 4 (1) 32-40 https://doi.org/10.1080/23752696.2019.1606674

Jorda, JM (2013) ‘The Academic Tutoring at University Level: Development and Promotion Methodology Through Project Work’,  Social and Behavioral Sciences 106 (1) 2594- 2601

Knight, P (2002) Being a Teacher in Higher Education  Buckingham: SRHE Open University Press

Lochtie, D, McIntosh, E, Stork, A, and Walker, BW (2018) Effective Personal Tutoring in Higher Education. Critical Publishing

Modell, S (2005) ‘Students as Consumers? An Institutional Field‐Level Analysis of the Construction of Performance Measurement Practices’ Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal 18 (4) 537-563 https://doi.org/10.1108/09513570510609351

Schwartz, K (2016) I Wish My Teacher Knew: How One Question Can Change Everything for Our Kids Da Capo Lifelong

Situmorang, D (2020) ‘Online/Cyber Counseling Services in the COVID-19 Outbreak: Are They Really New?’ Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling 74(3) 166–174

Universities UK (2020) Coronavirus (Covid-19) https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/covid19

Williams, J (2012) Technology Education for Teachers BRILL

Yale, AT (2019) ‘The Personal Tutor-Student Relationship: Student Expectations and Experiences of Personal Tutoring in Higher Education’, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 43 (4), 533-544, https://doi.org/10.1080/0309877X.2017.1377164

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Another fine mess

by Rob Cuthbert

The overweight man in charge had an unprepossessing thin sidekick doing his bidding, but constantly making things worse, prompting Laurel and Hardy’s famous catchphrase[1][2].

In unrelated news, if English HE was a movie, what is the story so far? It features the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Education, government and HE policy. English HE continues to enjoy a very high reputation worldwide, not least with potential future students. Numbers of home applicants continue to exceed expectations, promising a student population which outstrips even the boost given by the demographic upswing in numbers of 18-25 year olds. After the pandemic all public services face questions about financing acceptable levels of service, but HE might seem partly insulated from the problem because of the continuing demand by fee-paying students. However the real cost to government of subsidised student loans has been made apparent by watchdog-driven changes to government accounting; those changes make costs obvious and applicable now, rather than in 20 or 30 years’ time. The Willetts reforms to HE and student finance, by their lights well-intentioned as redistributive, might have worked in theory, but they have failed in practice as the cost to government of subsidising partial loan repayment has steadily risen.

Despite the rising demand for places, students are not happy with the level of service they get in the current ‘market’. Student campaigns like the one at the University of Manchester for fee reductions are misconceived unless they deliver cash in hand for the students, because fee reductions make no difference for most graduates. Otherwise they help only the highest-paid graduates, the small minority who would actually fully repay their loans, but – crucially – lower fees would reduce the costs to government. Next year, students want a return to the teaching-in-person experience they expect, and are already bridling at the prospect of on-line-only lectures. Too many institutions seem to have a tin ear in responding to such opinion. Meanwhile students are reporting mental health problems, discrimination and harassment at unprecedented levels. UUK has issued guidance on avoiding sex and race harassment, and the inequalities in admissions and student achievement based on socioeconomic, racial or other disadvantage are a central institutional concern.

Most HE staff have gone many extra miles to adapt their practice to the pandemic restrictions, problems made worse because there are cohorts of students lacking preparation for HE because of their interrupted school experience. At the same time many are enduring worsening staff levels, the threat of redundancies, reductions in pension benefits and more, because the supposed ‘boom years’ for HE (as labelled by James Forsyth in The Times on 4 June 2021) have brought worsening financial problems for many institutions. The continuing trend to deterioration in management-staff relations is not helped by too many examples of excessive VC salaries and insensitive managerial actions. It is the staff who have made it possible for government ministers and institutional leaders to maintain their challengeable position that the quality of the HE experience has not diminished, a position built on the need to keep tuition fee levels at their very high level.

This, then, is the context. How did the government’s proposals address these key problems? Consider the Queen’s Speech for the new Parliamentary session, recent ministerial speeches and consequent initiatives from the Office for Students – the ‘independent’ regulator chaired by the campaign manager for the Prime Minister, who still takes the government whip in the House of Lords.

The government response to fast-rising demand is to propose a reduction in HE places, with a supposed shift of resources to FE and training. Governments of all kinds have often proposed spending more on FE; FE is still waiting. Not only would reducing the size of HE be a world first, reversing the global trend to HE expansion, it would no doubt do much to ensure that FE is ‘for other people’s children’, as government adviser Alison Wolf once said. Alternatively, and if it were ever achieved, more likely, it would convert the balance of payments surplus on HE to a deficit, by driving many well-qualified home applicants abroad and choking off international recruitment. It might become an electoral and economic mess.

Ofqual, having shared culpability for the 2020 A-level and GCSE examinations shambles with DfE and the Secretary of State, has a new chief regulator and a new chair. The newly-confirmed head is Jo Saxton, most recently an adviser to Secretary of State Gavin Williamson. Before that she was the much-criticised head of a chain of academy schools in Kent, embodying the continuing patronage which delivers government supporters into key unelected roles, via the ‘strict’ public appointment procedures which have already seen Lord Wharton appointed as chair of the OfS. This will not inspire hope or confidence among school heads and staff, after the resignation of the widely-respected Sir Kevan Collins, the Education Recovery Commissioner – tsar of catch-up for schoolchildren who missed learning in the pandemic – because the government fell woefully short of the investment he deemed necessary. It might become an educational mess.

Government, while continuing to assert that the quality of HE has been maintained, at the same time asserts that there is a problem with ‘low quality courses’, a continuing theme of almost all recent Conservative ministers for HE, which Jo Johnson used to justify his 2017 legislation for the HE market. None have yet passed the ‘Skidmore test’, calling on anyone discussing ‘low quality courses’ to name and shame them, or else succumb to ‘low quality argument’ (Chris Skidmore being the honourable exception in that list of recent ministers). Serious attempts to identify ‘low quality courses’ through data analysis invariably collapse, as Wonkhe’s David Kernohan has shown. But the OfS has pressed ahead with its ‘Proceed’ initiative, which simply multiplies completion rate by the rate of progression to graduate employment, and the odds are that these ‘experimental’ data will become the measure of ‘course quality’. The Skills Bill now published gives the OfS carte blanche to decide which measures it might use to identify ‘low quality’. The many other issues affecting both of the flawed component measures mean that using such a metric will probably work directly against the government’s ‘levelling up’ mantra by targeting universities which take many disadvantaged students, not least in the ‘Northern wall’ and those with high proportions of BAME and socioeconomically disadvantaged students in London and the South East. It might become a political mess.

Government also envisages changes to HE financing, which might involve reducing fees for some (non-STEM) courses. This is being strongly urged by the Treasury, which is more worried about the fast-growing burden of subsidy for student loans than the prospect of financial collapse for the most precarious HE institutions – many of which would actually be prime candidates for support if ‘levelling up’ were taken seriously. A different group of institutions, for the most part, are also facing the long-running and growing threat of a potentially unaffordable revaluation of the Universities Superannuation Scheme. The prospect of significant diminution of pension benefits has already led to widespread strikes and other industrial action in recent years. With no solution in sight, staff morale and commitment will be even more challenged. It might become a managerial mess.

However, none of this was the HE headline in the Queen’s Speech, which was reserved for the long-awaited legislation on free speech, the latest twist in the so-called ‘culture wars’ and the ‘war on woke’. The summary of informed commentary, beyond the hard core government supporters, seems to be that at best such legislation would be a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Even Conservatives like Danny Finkelstein argue that this kind of legislation will cause many more problems than it might solve. So the headline act of government in the near future will be to focus on a problem which, if it exists at all, is well down the priority list for any well-managed university. It is bound to become a mess at every level.

In sum, government HE policy is in something of a hole, pursuing internally contradictory policies which might play to a wider ‘anti-woke’ agenda but in economic and political terms seem likely to run counter to any thoughts of levelling up. But the Secretary of State keeps digging, even after the great A-level disaster of 2020. It may not be too long before this becomes another fine mess.


SRHE News Editor Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics rob.cuthbert@btinternet.com. Twitter @RobCuthbert

[1] They never actually said ‘Another fine mess’, despite making a movie with that title. The phrase Oliver Hardy often uttered was ‘Another nice mess you’ve gotten us into’.

[2] As well as Another Fine Mess, their movies included A Chump at Oxford and Chickens Come Home.


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Silver linings but no silver bullet: Graduate careers in (times of) crisis

by Andrew Dorrance and Daria Luchinskaya

It should come to no-one as a surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the lives of students and graduates alike in an unprecedented way. The recent SRHE event Graduate Careers In (Times Of) Crisis, jointly organised by the Student Access and Experience and Employability and Enterprise and Work-based Learning Networks, explored the impacts of the pandemic on graduates’ transitions to work. While there have been scattered silver linings for students and graduates, many challenges remain. This blog summarises the key themes emerging from the event and discusses potential steps forward.

Introduction

The ‘Graduate Careers In (Times Of) Crisis’ event aimed to discuss the early impact of the pandemic on graduates’ experiences, to explore how careers advice, information and guidance has changed with physical distancing requirements, and to reflect on the broader labour market context (please see the section at the end for more details). The speakers contrasted findings from the ‘Class of 2020’ Graduating in a Pandemic project, that tracked the experiences of recent graduates with the longer-term experiences of the 2009/10 ‘Recession graduates’ from the Futuretrack project. Careers professionals discussed their responses to the pandemic and highlighted different projects aimed at helping students and graduates. There was a general sense, too, that the pandemic seems to have acted as a catalyst for reflection, among students, graduates, careers staff and other stakeholders.

Pandemic challenges

The pandemic seems to have exacerbated existing inequalities among students and graduates that then had different effects on their transitions to employment.

Digital inequality, where students and graduates struggle with access to sufficiently high-quality internet connections and personal devices, accentuates barriers to accessing education, job interviews and jobs that have moved online. Both Futuretrack and Graduating in a Pandemic found that there was vast difference between people’s experiences of working from home, accentuated by digital inequality and potentially the environment in which they can work.

There was also qualitative evidence of work placements, interviews and job offers ‘falling through’, with graduates reporting difficulties in doing their jobs and some even saying they lost their ‘perfect’ job offer. College graduates who undertook vocational courses orientated towards the service sector were particularly affected, and reported difficulties in finding or doing their jobs when in industries that were particularly affected by Covid-19 – for example, in events management or beauty therapy.  College graduates were also more likely to come from less advantaged backgrounds than university graduates.

Some graduates who would have, in other circumstances, joined the labour market, have been opting to go into education (eg graduate to postgraduate or college to degree-level) as a temporary solution to a lack of graduate job opportunities.

Ultimately, the labour market impact of the pandemic contributed to an increase in anxiety amongst students and graduates, particularly those studying subjects that required placements to complete their degrees, and those who were already facing disadvantages. These findings are consistent with what we know from the experiences of ‘recession graduates’ of 2009/10. Futuretrack and related research found that existing inequalities structured access to careers information, networks and useful resources and the ability to navigate the recession stemming from the crisis, and that these educational and social (dis)advantages were cumulative.

Silver linings

Despite these challenges, Graduating in a Pandemic found that around a third of graduates from 2020 were employed in or had been offered a job that was related to their intended career path (although such graduates were more likely to be from more advantaged backgrounds). For those working in the so-called ‘non-graduate’ jobs, it may be a matter of time before they move to more appropriate employment, although it remains to be seen hoe Covid-19 will affect different industries over the longer term.

The majority of Futuretrack’s ‘recession graduates’ had moved to ‘graduate’-level employment 9-10 years after graduation. Over half of those reported that it was exactly the type of job they wanted to do and over three quarters were generally satisfied with their jobs. However, even 9-10 years on from graduation, a substantial minority of Futuretrack graduates were not well integrated into the labour market and unsatisfied with their jobs. This less-well integrated group of graduates, as well as those who recently changed work and those working freelance and the self-employed, were perhaps more vulnerable to the (indirect) effects of Covid-19, for example, regarding job security or eligibility for furlough.

Reflection

The pandemic had also offered people a chance to reflect. Futuretrack graduates reported taking time to re-evaluate career priorities and life values. A small number of 2020 graduates whose job offers were impacted had indicated that the pandemic had given them the time to rethink their career path and look for and attain their ‘dream’ job rather than the ‘graduate’ job they would have done otherwise.

Careers services professionals found themselves in a ‘unique’ role as a link between HE, students, graduates and employers, and stepped up to the pandemic challenges. They worked hard to develop inclusive and innovative ways in supporting students and graduates. For example, online workshops and events improved accessibility and speaker availability. However, there were also challenges in attaining consistently high levels of attendance and ensuring that the services reached the students and graduates most ‘at risk’ of falling through careers service provision.

Careers services also developed new resources, for example focusing on virtual recruitment practices and work placements to address the changes to the recruitment and placements process as a result of the pandemic. Over the pandemic period, careers services were also able to learn what services work better online (eg using the shared screen feature to look at students’ CVs) or in-person, and to adapt as the pandemic unfolded, and continues to do so.

Looking forward

Fortunately, going forward there are perhaps tentative grounds for positivity, as student recruitment had seen an uplift and employers were becoming optimistic about growth in the short-term with opportunities for graduates coming into the labour market. However, there were also concerns around the ongoing uncertainty around the unfolding impact of the pandemic. It was also clear that not all graduates were motivated by financial gain, which led to a discussion about including social returns in measuring the value of higher education in addition to the current focus on individual labour market outcomes.

We know that it is taking longer for graduates to find an ‘appropriate’ job in the labour market. Time will tell whether graduates of the pandemic will settle into the labour market like the graduates of the 2009/10 recession eventually did. For the moment, offering accessible careers support to students and graduates, while highlighting areas of inequalities in labour market entry, the experience of work, and the mental and physical health of students and graduates to inform policy, remain ways in which we can help pandemic graduates navigate their post-graduation transitions.

Andrew Dorrance is an Undergraduate Student in Economics in the Adam Smith Business School, University of Glasgow, and Research Assistant for the Graduating in a Pandemic research project.

Daria Luchinskaya is a Lecturer at the Department of Work, Employment and Organisation, University of Strathclyde, co-convener of the SRHE Employability, Enterprise And Work-Based Learning Network, and a member of the Graduating in a Pandemic research team. Follow Daria on Twitter @DariaResearch.

Further links and resources

The Graduate Careers In (Times Of) Crisis event was co-hosted by the Student Access and Experience and Employability and Enterprise and Work-based Learning Networks and took place on 16 June 2021. The aim of the event was to provide evidence from the UK on the early impact of the pandemic on graduates’ experiences, and to explore how careers advice, information and guidance has changed with social distancing, as well as reflecting on the broader labour market context. Presentations by Scott Hurrell (Senior Lecturer, University of Glasgow) on the class of 2020 (Graduating in a Pandemic) and Kate Purcell (University of Warwick Emeritus Professor) on the class of 2009/10 (Futuretrack) highlighted research findings about graduates’ early and mid-careers. Susan Bird (Careers & Employability Manager, University of Edinburgh) and Rachel Firth (Employability Consultant, Sheffield Hallam University) presented the experience of careers professionals’ responses to the pandemic. The event attracted a diverse audience, including academics, careers professionals, and representatives from think tanks and employer organisations.

Graduating in a Pandemic is investigating the post-graduation activities of the class of 2020 and 2021. It is run by researchers at the University of Glasgow and the University of Strathclyde (PI Dr Scott Hurrell). See the project website at: https://graduatinginapandemic.wordpress.com/

Futuretrack is a nationally-representative longitudinal survey of applicants to full-time HE in 2005/06, run by Professors Kate Purcell and Peter Elias at the Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick. Findings from the longitudinal projects and published reports, including research reports from Stage 5 (2012 – 2019) and Stage 6 (2019 – 2020), can be accessed via https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/ier/futuretrack/findings

A report co-authored by Shelagh Green, Director, University of Edinburgh Careers Service, ‘Careers Services in times of Covid-19’ (March 2021), COIMBRA Group can be accessed at: https://www.coimbra-group.eu/wp-content/uploads/Career-services-in-times-of-Covid-19.pdf

The University of Edinburgh Careers Compass resources: https://www.ed.ac.uk/careers/students/undergraduates/careers-compass

Sheffield Hallam University careers services resources: https://www.shu.ac.uk/careers/


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Offering a curriculum change evaluation tool

by Camille Kandiko Howson and Martyn Kingsbury

This blog offers an overview of a curriculum evaluation tool, part of a recently published article ‘Curriculum change as transformational learning’, in Teaching in Higher Education.

A decade ago, one of us led a strand of work exploring global best practice in whole-institution curriculum change, as part of a wider Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) project. The resulting book, Strategic Curriculum Change, identified that while huge amounts of time and money were spent doing large-scale curriculum change, as well as vast costs on the subsequent marketing of it, next to nothing was invested in evaluating it.

One of the main challenges is that while a curriculum change initiative starts off as a separate project, it eventually becomes business as usual. Such change efforts often come at a high political cost as well, with senior leaders often moving on and leaving the implementation to others. Many efforts never really get off the ground, instead lingering and taking on board new ideas, blending the old and the new. These may water down the original vision and drive for change, further hindering evaluation.

Evaluating change

We have recently had the opportunity to remedy this gap, through evaluating a whole-institution curriculum review project, part of a comprehensive nine-year investment plan to reposition teaching and learning within an institution. While it is easy to check the administrative side of a change effort (were boxes ticked, forms filled out), analysing the whether the ethos, purpose and guiding principles were adopted requires a much more nuanced approach.

We designed a multi-stage evaluation plan to explore to what extent were the principles of a Learning and Teaching Strategy embedded within new curriculum structures, as well as the impact on personal and disciplinary culture.

This output provides insight into the first stage of curriculum change – taking new ideas and pedagogical approaches and building them into the bricks and mortar of the educational experience and into the minds and practices of those delivering the curriculum. This approach allows for evaluating to what extent a change effort is just words on a slick new webpage, or whether there has been a transformation of the curriculum.

The review in context

The review is based in a highly devolved, mid-size urban research-intensive institution in the UK. The institutional change programme is based on four pillars:

1) Assessment Reform: A review of curricula with the objective of reducing over-assessment

2) Active Learning: An evidence-based transformation of pedagogy, to make teaching more discovery-based

3) Diversity and Inclusion: The fostering of an inclusive and diverse culture and sense of belonging

4) Digital and Technology Enhanced Learning: The development of online and digital tools to enhance curricula, pedagogy and community

We evaluated the degree of departmental engagement with the institution-wide curriculum review policy through a discourse analysis of three sources: 1) a public Learning and Teaching Strategy; 2) internal Curriculum Redesign Forms, the quality assurance process stating changes, rationale and engagement; and 3) external Programme Specifications, detailing the educational offer for prospective students.

The evaluation tool

We designed an evaluation rubric, and in the paper we cover two aspects of it. The first explores engagement with the four pillars of the Strategy in the Curriculum Redesign Forms, through the adoption of language, intent and application, resulting in 12 indicators. This allowed us to evaluate the degree to which words and meaning of the Strategy were embedded within the new curriculum structures of the departments.

We also explored the alignment of the Curriculum Redesign Forms and the Programme Specification, focusing on the sections on Programme Overview, the Learning Outcomes, the Learning and Teaching Approach and the Assessment Strategy. This led to another 16 indicators. This offered insight into the extent the internal changes had made it into the public ‘offering’ of the course.

These 28 indicators were judged on a scale of Absent, Vague, Implicit, Present, Explicit. Scores were assigned and each department in the institution was reviewed by the researchers. We found varying engagement across the pillars of the Strategy and the challenge of applying principles in practice. We identified three different patterns of engagement across departments, with ‘active’ departments integrating the aims of the Strategy with disciplinary knowledge and pedagogy, ‘engaged’ departments adopting much of intent of the strategy, and group of ‘passive’ departments with minimal engagement and a focus on structural changes.

We hope this research and evaluation tool help others conduct evaluation of curriculum change. We found this approach uncovered both structural and cultural change. This is just the start of our research on curriculum change, and we hope it kickstarts other curriculum change research and evaluation, whether at the institution, faculty or departmental level.

SRHE member Dr Camille Kandiko Howson is Associate Professor of Education in the Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship at Imperial College London. Follow Camille on Twitter @cbkandiko

SRHE member Professor Martyn Kingsbury is Director of the Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship at Imperial College London.


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Reimagining academic conferences: toward a federated model of conferencing

by Dror Etzion, Joel Gehman and Gerald F Davis

In the wake of the COVID pandemic, most academic conferences have shifted to online formats. This disruption to our routines presents a unique opportunity to consider alternative conference configurations. One possibility is that the momentum behind the shift to online conferencing is leading to a future in which gatherings are entirely virtual. At the same time, old habits die hard, and many in the academic community are assuming that a travel-free world is a temporary anomaly, and that very soon researchers will resume convening in person.

Several scenarios for the future of conferencing are possible, and most seem to have benefits but also drawbacks. We begin by identifying some pros and cons of in-person and online conferences. To maximize the positives, we propose a federated model of conferencing that thoughtfully integrates both in-person and online events. This model may help scholars not only to share academic knowledge but also to pursue values of inclusion, diversity, community, and environmental stewardship.

In-person conferences

For those attending, in-person conferences have four basic functions. First, they provide opportunities for intellectual development. Presenters are able to receive feedback on works in progress and are exposed to nascent ideas being pursued by other scholars. Early-career scholars are able to solicit advice, and more established ones are able to test the waters with riskier ideas before investing significant time and effort in preparing journal articles. Second, in-person conferences provide career development opportunities and constitute an important part of the academic job market. Conference presentations add heft to a CV, and provide valuable networking opportunities. Third, in-person conferences provide ample opportunities for ancillary professional activities such as editorial board meetings, professional association gatherings, and in-person collaboration. Fourth, in-person conferences provide opportunities for non-professional activities, such as socializing and sightseeing.   

At the field level, conferences can focus scholarly attention on specific topics, theories, or ideas. They can serve a coordinating function and facilitate collective sensemaking. Sometimes, powerful conference experiences can become field-configuring events that trigger meaningful academic advances. In addition, conference revenues are often the main source of funding for sponsoring associations, providing them the means to pursue other worthy initiatives.

Despite these benefits, in-person conferences do have some notable downsides. Large conferences can be overwhelming and take a significant physical toll due to disrupted biorhythms and jet lag, not to mention long and tightly packed days. Instances of sexual harassment and assault are all too common. Beyond these criminal activities, gender inequality continues to affect conference participation. Conferences also strengthen the status hierarchy, and many lower status participants find themselves on the receiving end of microaggressions and slights. Accessibility also continues to be an issue. Many venues are not easy for disabled academics to navigate. Travel bans prevent many scholars from attending conferences, and travel costs limit attendance to well-resourced scholars, primarily from the Global North. In-person conferences also produce a massive carbon footprint.

Online conferences

The forced shift to online platforms during COVID has addressed some of these downsides of conferences. Online formats promote accessibility by removing barriers associated with travel costs and physical impairment. They also help remove social barriers to participation, as some of the traditional markers of status do not translate well to the online format. Online platforms also promote inclusivity and content-richness. On platforms such as Zoom, it is easier to implement practices to ensure that conversations are not dominated by a few high-status people. For example, text-based chat functions enable participants to formulate questions at their own pace and provide links to helpful materials. They also serve as an archive that can be revisited when participants have more time to engage with the material.

Moreover, because online conferences are not constrained by time and place, they have the potential to promote ongoing engagement. Rather than several intense days, a series of shorter events, spread out over time, might facilitate greater reflection. Online conferences also promote diversity of session formats. Rather than 90-minute panel sessions, it is possible to have sessions as short or as long as people desire. Presentations could be live streamed from research settings, and practitioners who normally do not attend academic conferences could login to sessions that interest them. Online conferences also have timeliness benefits, as researchers do not have to wait to present their work. Likewise, meetings can be convened immediately to address urgent topics (eg COVID).

Yet, online conferences are not without their downsides. Due to low transaction costs, the number of online conferences is proliferating, creating the potential for overload. Online conferences have also led to anomie in the academy. Many yearn for a return to at least some in-person conferences, as the social interaction and random experiences they afford can be energizing. Moreover, the shift to online conferences has exacerbated the digital divide, constraining scholars who live in areas with less well-developed technological infrastructure. Surveillance capitalism is another potential pitfall, as online interactions leave traces that could have repercussions. Gaffes can go viral, and online interactions may be watched and listened to (and misinterpreted) by unintended audiences. Less malicious, but perhaps more insidious, would be a scenario whereby the dreaded teaching evaluation model is applied to conference presentations. Additionally, online conferences may reinforce tribalism in the academy. With a plethora of conferences to choose from, scholars may splinter off into self-reinforcing cliques entrenched around specific research programs, thereby eliminating opportunities for cross-fertilization and creating echo chambers. Gaming the system is another potential problem with the online conference format. Evaluating scholarly impact is a key focus in the academy, and tactics used to boost citation counts or journal ratings could easily translate to online conferences. Winner-takes-all dynamics are likely to ensue.

A federated model of conferencing

Having analysed the pros and cons of both in-person and online conferences, we propose a federated model of conferencing that constitutes the best of both worlds and produces a lighter environmental footprint while promoting equity and inclusion. As an organising principle, federation recognizes the utility of some central authority, but delegates most responsibilities to partially self-governing units which set priorities based on local preferences. Compared to unitary governance, federation embraces experimentation and fosters learning across units, thereby striking an optimal balance between scale and autonomy.

In a federated conferencing model, organising, decision-making, and participation would be pushed to the regional level while maintaining global coherence. Regional conferences that are centrally located and accessible by public transport would be easier on both attendees (by reducing jet lag and travel costs) and the planet (by reducing the carbon footprint of travel). Smaller regional conferences could provide opportunities for human contact that reduce anomie without being overwhelming. They would still enable senior scholars to participate on panels and pursue ambitious research programs while providing junior scholars and PhD students with valuable networking and career opportunities. Regional affiliation that stops short of tribalism also could support the development and adaptation of solutions to local circumstances. For instance, a regional conference in the North American Rust Belt would likely yield scholarship with different underpinnings, datasets, and points of emphasis than one in Central America. Regional conferences also may promote greater engagement across different academic fields and with non-academic participants.

With foresight and planning, such a federated model could strengthen the global academic community. For example, global meetings could be held synchronously across several regional hubs, thereby enabling access to both region-specific and global content. Hybridization within (ie questions submitted in-person and via text) and between (ie global and regional) presentations would enable participants to customise the extent of their physical and virtual participation and support an equitable global community. A federated model also could facilitate the establishment of local communities around research interests or other facets of identity, thereby providing valuable sources of support, particularly for scholars who feel isolated. Robust online platforms could support ongoing engagement among like-minded peers and strengthen their voices within the academy. Finally, a federated model could encourage relatively low-risk experimentation with other formats (eg unconferences, PechaKuchas), and a variety of other online and offline gatherings.

Conclusion

COVID has provided a unique opportunity to reflect on and potentially reshape the current conferencing model to better reflect values of inclusion, diversity, community, and environmental stewardship. As a tangible manifestation of the spirit of the academic community, conferences serve as a bellwether of our profession. A federated conferencing model has the potential to maximize the benefits of the in-person and online formats, thereby strengthening the academy, now and into the future.

Reference: Etzion, D, Gehman, J, Davis, GF (2021) ‘Reimagining academic conferences: Toward a federated model of conferencing’ Management Learning, 41: 429–442 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/13505076211019529

Dror Etzion is an associate professor of strategy and organization at the Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University, and an associate member of the Bieler School of Environment. His research program focuses on grand challenges: the unyielding, intractable problems that characterize the Anthropocene.

Joel Gehman is Professor of Strategy, Entrepreneurship and Management and Alberta School of Business Chair in Free Enterprise at the University of Alberta. His research examines strategic, technological, and institutional responses to grand challenges related to sustainability and values concerns.

Jerry Davis is the Gilbert and Ruth Whitaker Professor of Management and Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. His latest work is on reining in corporate power and alternatives to shareholder capitalism.