The Society for Research into Higher Education

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The varieties of online learning experiences

by JJ Sylvia IV

This is one of a series of position statements developed following a conference on ‘Building the Post-Pandemic University’, organised on 15 September 2020 by SRHE member Mark Carrigan (Cambridge) and colleagues. The position statements are being posted as blogs by SRHE but can also be found on The Post-Pandemic University’s excellent and ever-expanding website. JJ Sylvia’s statement can be found here.

In the spring of 2020, K-12 and higher education classes around the world shifted online in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. Both students and instructors were forced to quickly adapt to these circumstances even though many had never previously taken an online course or taught an online course. Throughout spring and summer, data collection and reporting suggested that students were not happy with this transition online and may not return for the fall semester if courses were not in person. University administrators faced a difficult balancing act between protecting the health of students, faculty, and staff, and making sure that dropping enrolment did not financially devastate universities. 

For this presentation I will share the results of this process at my institution, Fitchburg State University. As of 2019, there were approximately 3,400 undergraduate students and 1,200 graduate students. Approximately half of the undergraduates normally live on campus. The graduate programs are largely online masters programs. This analysis is based on quantitative and qualitative analysis of the following data: a survey sent to all students just before the end of the spring 2020 semester (n=2760); an end-of-semester feedback survey for my classes at the end of the spring 2020 semester (n=12); feedback collected from faculty members about their technology needs by the faculty union and members of the Technology Advisory Committee; feedback collected by peer mentors from all first-year students in October 2020; and individual conversations with students and advisees.

In the campus-wide survey, 69.7% of students agreed or strongly agreed that the university had done a good transitioning to the remote delivery of learning and services in response to COVID-19. Students reported that their class content was delivered via online synchronous classes (60%), online asynchronous (75%), conference call (8%), email (46%), and other (5%). Totals are greater than 100% because students could select multiple options. I served as a member of our university’s Technology Advisory Committee, and one concern that was raised repeatedly by faculty members was that some classes faced larger hurdles in being adapted for online teaching, which included art courses (including film/video and game design) and science labs. For this reason, we included a survey question for students about how easy it had been for them to perform a variety of assignment types online. The results are presented in Figure 1. 

Student responses generally reflected faculty concerns, in that writing and quiz-based assignments were easier for students than more project-based assignments. In my own student evaluations, I solicit feedback about specific tools and strategies that worked well for students across all of their classes. In responding about specific tools, the vast majority of students thought that the social annotation tool used for course readings (which in my class was already in use before the pandemic) was what worked best. This was followed closely by Zoom and Google Meet with some disagreement in preference over these two platforms. In terms of strategies, most students reported that having optional synchronous check-ins was the pedagogical strategy that worked best for them, while several reported preferring synchronous and asynchronous approaches. This response was perhaps the most surprising to me, as I held optional synchronous sessions for my classes, and only about 2-4 students per week (out of about 75) attended these sessions.

Several questions were geared toward planning ahead for the fall semester. The campus survey asked students which factors were having an influence on their thoughts about whether or not to return in the fall semester. The highest-ranked results were financial concerns (40%), uncertainty with what the university is doing (38%), quality of academic experience in the spring semester (35%), change employment (31%), and fear of taking online classes (31%). Students were able to select more than one option, allowing it to total to greater than 100%. Qualitative comments also indicated that most students supported face-to-face instruction over remote instruction. This feedback, along with national reporting, guided the administration’s planning to include in-person classes for the fall. In my student evaluations, I asked students what advice they would give their professors for the fall semester if some or all of the classes needed to be taught online. The following were representative comments:

  • “Other classmates have poor or no internet at their homes and have to find places to do their work, or live in toxic environments which may affect how much work that they can do at home and don’t feel comfortable disclosing that information to their professors.”
  • “Be patient with us, we’re trying to balance our personal lives with school, and it’s much harder when it’s all online and our situation at home isn’t the greatest. If we’re used to being in a real classroom and suddenly throw into 100% online classes, bear with us. We know you’re learning too.”
  • “Be flexible. Online learning is very difficult for people with learning disabilities or mental health problems.”

I should note that, while the university was not able to provide tools to every student, it did secure enough Chromebooks and hotspots to meet the needs of every student who made such a need known. These were loaned to students at no-cost. 

Guided by this feedback, faculty were given wide discretion in choosing how to offer courses for the fall semester. Several new distinctions were created to allow for greater flexibility in course offerings and encourage even partial in-person offerings. Previously classes were designated as being in-person, online, or hybrid. For the fall, “online” was designated to mean fully asynchronous, while the category of “onsync” was added for fully online courses that would require synchronous attendance via video. Finally, “hybrid” was expanded to encompass several different approaches, which included options such as:

  • Everyone attending in-person one day per week and online the other day
  • Half of the students attending in person on one day and onsync the other day, alternating days
  • Allowing students to choose on a class-to-class basis whether to attend in-person or onsync. 

Faculty were also able to develop additional approaches to hybrid options if those worked better for them. In partnership with our IT department and the Center for Teaching and Learning, faculty-led professional development on digital tools and pedagogy was held throughout the summer. While helpful, these sessions did sometimes highlight competing tools. For example, Blackboard has been the standard learning management system for the university for many years. However, in the fall of 2019, we transitioned to the Google Education platform for email and the rest of the G Suite tools. This opened the option to use Google Classroom in addition to or instead of Blackboard, and many faculty members had plans to try this new tool for the first time in the fall of 2020.

There is evidence that suggests additional scrutiny may need to be given to results that showed a student preference for in-person learning. While students certainly have that preference, it is not clear that this preference was expressed with a full understanding of what socially distanced and hybrid classrooms would look like in practice or of what the public health would look like in the fall. As we approached the beginning of the fall semester, many faculty reported receiving emails from students asking if they could complete in-person or hybrid classes completely remotely. Although only anecdotal evidence has been collected on this issue, it does suggest that perhaps while many students do ultimately prefer in-person learning, they do not prefer it in the limited manner that is possible during an ongoing pandemic. Further research that delves deeper into the question would be helpful. 

This semester, student feedback from freshman via peer mentors as well as informal feedback I’ve collected from upperclassmen indicates that somewhat overwhelmed students are struggling with managing the wide variety of different tools and platforms being used across their classes. For example, there remains confusion about when classes are meeting online versus in-person and where to access links for these meetings. Some have reported that these plans have changed with short notice as well. Other students reported difficulty accessing e-books, online videos, and other tools because of software conflicts. For asynchronous courses, some students felt they lacked support.

In conclusion, because students expressed a strong preference for in-person learning, we opted for maximum flexibility that would allow those professors who were willing to do so to offer some in-person instruction. However, this led to an array of options that continue to be confusing to students. This expansion of services that needs monitoring by students is layered on top of an already scarce attention economy. Even before the pandemic, students reported that the amount of email that they received from various individuals, organizations, and clubs across campus was too much to properly manage. Now, students are facing uncertain and challenging circumstances during a pandemic that continues unabated in the United States. 

At the same time, they are by necessity learning to manage an array of new platforms and tools, while also adapting to time-management strategies that require even higher self-regulation. While most instructors are able to choose one set of tools and deploy those across all of their courses, students are navigating a vast array of platforms and tools that create a variety of online learning experiences that adds to the amount of information that must be learned and managed. This suggests that in the future, some attention should be given to the tension between faculty’s academic freedom to select tools and the difficulty students face in learning and using multiple tools and learning management systems while simultaneously juggling stress related to learning from home. It is also worthwhile to revisit student preferences for online vs. in-person learning in light of their experiences in the fall and the ongoing pandemic.

JJ Sylvia IV is an Assistant Professor in Communications Media at Fitchburg State University. His research focuses on critical data studies, the philosophy of communication, and digital pedagogy. Using the framework of posthumanism, he explores how the media we use contribute to our construction as subjects. He brings an affirmative and activist approach to contemporary data studies that highlights the potential for big data to offer new experimental approaches to our own processes of subjectivation. He lives in Worcester, MA with his wife and two daughters

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Balancing courage and compassion in research-based learning

by Helen Walkington

This blog was first published by Teaching-Focused in HE: the GEES Network, a teaching-focused network for Geography, Earth and Environmental Science academics, and it is reproduced with their permission. Helen Walkington is co-convenor of the SRHE Academic Practice Network.

In Tuesday’s ‘Environmental Hazard Management’ class, live on Zoom, I did a little experiment with my students. In one hand I held a juggling ball (new lockdown skill) and in the other a very ripe tomato. I said that developing resilience is a key concept in disaster management. I asked “If I squeeze the juggling ball and the tomato, which do you feel would best demonstrate a resilient response?” Of course, in wanting them to engage, I asked if they would like me to enact the thought ‘experiment’ (cereal bowl and kitchen roll under the desk at the ready). Once the juggling ball bounced back and the tomato went almost everywhere except the bowl, I made my point about the longevity of tomato seeds and different, sometimes unexpected types of resilience.

I suspect that I’m not alone in having chosen an academic career, at least in part, because I value autonomy. The freedom to pursue research that I find interesting, to advance a discipline that I feel passionate about, and to help share this journey with my undergraduate students is energising, even if it ends up being quite messy at times. In Higher Education we have a relatively high degree of control over how we provide learning opportunities to our students. When tasked with teaching ‘research methods’ for instance, we can choose whether to do this by providing lectures, or directing students through research projects so they can ‘learn by doing,’ or offering even greater freedom to learn by allowing students to take control of generating research questions, designing and carrying out investigations themselves. We probably deliver all three approaches progressively, as a team, across the course of a Geography, Earth and Environmental Science programme. 

Working with students who are engaged in research, sometimes for the first time as undergraduates, is always going to be a careful balancing act. On the one hand, offering students the freedom to pose their own research questions, with the associated authenticity of potential failure, might be considered a courageous pedagogy. On the other hand, we have to consider how students might react to having made mistakes, and be compassionate as they grapple with the potential for creating new knowledge (either new to themselves or new to society) through discovery. Learning by doing research requires emotional investment and resilience, an experience which unites staff (faculty in the US) and students. We can perhaps empathise with students because we share this experience with them, even though we are in a different position, ultimately being judged on the way we communicate our research. For me the cognitive involvement, emotional buy-in and desire for students to succeed has shifted my practice of dissertation and independent study supervision into mentoring. I am acknowledging the ‘whole student’ (Hill et al, 2019).

This aligns very much with Thiry and Laursen (2011), who suggested that academic (faculty) mentors to undergraduate researchers perform three supportive roles: professional socialization, intellectual support and personal/emotional support. These complementary supports acknowledge the importance of working with students to explain why they are engaging in research, supporting their cognitive development, but also acknowledging their emotional needs. The need for a balance between courage and compassion in our practice is clear. However, add to this balancing act escalating concerns about declining levels of student wellbeing (IPPR, 2017) and we begin to appreciate the weight of responsibility for successfully maintaining the balance in our own practice between courageous pedagogy and compassionate pedagogy. Can we still judge securely how far we can draw students ‘to the edge of their ability’ (as one expert mentor put it) and challenge them, when they are self-isolating in student accommodation and can’t collect physical data, get onto campus or access the library? (Using a metaphor, maintaining this balance might feel like walking a tight rope, but if you’ve been working on your balance through yoga during lockdown, then let’s say it’s across Niagara gorge, just to make you feel more alive). By providing all three of Thiry and Laursen’s supports as a research mentor, we hope to open a productive, liminal space for contemplation to our student mentees. My hope is that my students will connect their learning and knowledge production to their values, personal sense of meaning, as well as their relationship to the world around them. 

Learning is an emotional journey, particularly in research mode. The research cycle throws up sticking points and challenges at different (usually inconvenient) times in the research process. (perhaps a large knot in the tightrope, or a sudden gust of wind). This doesn’t just impact our student mentees, but us as research mentors as well. While supervising research prioritises research products (eg the student’s dissertation, group report, journal article) and content (new geographical knowledge), mentoring personalises learning and makes it meaningful and important in shaping the learner’s own esteem and identity, which may impact career aspirations and life chances. 

The benefits of undergraduate research are well established for students, including the development of critical thinking, enhanced degree outcomes and student retention, making it a ‘high-impact practice’ (Kuh, 2008). It is not enough to just make students ‘do a dissertation,’ effective mentoring is central to accruing these benefits. Over the last five years, I’ve worked with a team of researchers to try to work out why, exploring specifically which types of mentoring practice are effective. Our large-scale literature review resulted in Ten Salient Practices (Shanahan et al, 2015; and summarised in Table 1) which are effective regardless of national context, type of higher education institution or discipline. We’ve since completed 32 detailed research interviews on what award-winning mentors from around the world actually do, including strategies to engage students in research, retain their interest through appropriate challenge, and celebrate success (Walkington et al, 2020). One example is supporting students in publishing their research findings through, for example, research journals like GEOverse. Importantly, mentored research opportunities at undergraduate level have been found to confer particular benefits on underserved student groups (Finley and McNair, 2013). As they help all students to succeed, I would argue that these undergraduate research opportunities have the potential to enhance student wellbeing. Indeed, since effective mentoring of students involves getting to know them on a deeper level, recognising their work and valuing them as individuals, this knowledge of the ‘whole student’ is a fundamental underpinning of an inclusive approach. 

1.     Do strategic pre-planning in order to be ready to respond to students’ varying needs and abilities throughout the research process.
2.     Set clear and well-scaffolded expectations for undergraduate researchers.
3.     Teach the technical skills, methods, and techniques of conducting research in the discipline.
4.     Balance rigorous expectations with emotional support and appropriate personal interest in students.
5.     Build community among groups of undergraduate researchers and mentors, including graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and any other members of the research team.
6.     Dedicate time as well to one-on-one, hands-on mentoring.
7.     Increase student ownership of the research over time.
8.     Support students’ professional development through networking and explaining norms of the discipline.
9.     Create intentional, laddered opportunities for peers and “near peers” to learn mentoring skills and to bring larger numbers of undergraduates into scholarly opportunities.
10.      Encourage students to share their findings and provide guidance on how to do so effectively in oral and poster presentations and in writing.

Table 1: Ten salient practices of undergraduate research mentoring

(Shanahan et al, 2015; Walkington, 2020)

However, the Covid–19 pandemic threatens to challenge the benefits of research-based learning. An undergraduate Geography student, alongside a doctoral student and several faculty members have researched the impact of Covid-19 on access to (and thus the benefits from) undergraduate research opportunities. With data from 18 institutions in the USA, they found that COVID-19 reduced access to research experiences*, reduced student access to technology and specialist research spaces, as well as interrupted face to face mentoring (Trego et al 2020). Clearly significant changes are required in approaches to data collection for it to remain safe for student researchers to continue to engage actively in research under these challenging circumstances. Understandably, in some instances there are topics that universities have declared ‘off limits’ due to their sensitivity. However, it is still possible to mentor students. It is possible to connect to students and provide the three forms of support that Thiry and Laursen outlined. 

To be resilient to unexpected changes, such as Covid-19 has posed, we need to embed research experiences that are inclusive of all students within the curriculum, rather than having selective research opportunities at risk from (hopefully!) short term changes in circumstances. We can democratise engagement with research and make it an entitlement, but to ensure effective learning outcomes for each and every student, we have to demonstrate our pedagogic resilience through a commitment to the ongoing balancing act of courage and compassion.

*In the US research opportunities for undergraduates are sometimes embedded in the curriculum, but are also provided as co-curricular opportunities such as summer projects.

Helen Walkington, PhD, NTF, PFHEAis Professor of Higher Education at Oxford Brookes University, UK where she teaches geography and carries out research into higher education pedagogy. She has written and presented widely on research-based learning strategies and mentoring excellence. Helen is a qualified career development coach and co-convenes the SRHE Academic Practice network.


Finley, A and McNair, T (2013) Assessing Underserved Students’ Engagement in High-Impact Practices  Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities

Kuh, G,  2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Colleges and Universities

Hill, J, Walkington, H and Dyer, S (2019) ‘Teaching, learning, and assessing in Geography: foundations for the future’, in Walkington, H, Hill, J, and Dyer, S (eds) Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Geography Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar Publishing pp. 474-484

Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) (2017) “Not by degrees: improving student mental health in the UK’s universities.” Available at [Accessed on 12/05/20]

Shanahan, J, Ackley-Holbrook, E, Hall, E, Stewart, K, and Walkington, H (2015) ‘Salient Practices of Undergraduate Research Mentors: A Review of the Literature’ Mentoring and Tutoring 23 (5): 359-376 

Thiry, H, and Laursen, SL (2011) “The role of student–advisor interactions in apprenticing undergraduate researchers into a scientific community of practice’ Journal of Science Education and Technology 20: 771–784

Trego, S, Nadybal, S, Grineski, S, Collins, T and Morales, D (2020) ‘Initial impacts of Covid-19 on Undergraduate researchers at US universities.’ [online] accessed from:

Walkington, H, Griffin, AL, Keys-Mathews, L, Metoyer, SK, Miller, WE, Baker, R, and France, D (2011) ‘Embedding research-based learning early in the undergraduate Geography curriculum’ Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 35(3): 315-330 Walkington, H, Stewart, K, Hall, E, Ackley, E and Shanahan, JO (2020) ‘Salient practices of award-winning undergraduate research mentors – balancing freedom and control to achieve excellence’ Studies in Higher Education 45: 1519-1532

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Flexible digitally-enhanced courses that foster active learning

by Giovanna Carloni

This is one of a series of position statements developed following a conference on ‘Building the Post-Pandemic University’, organised on 15 September 2020 by SRHE member Mark Carrigan (Cambridge) and colleagues. The position statements are being posted as blogs by SRHE but can also be found on The Post-Pandemic University’s excellent and ever-expanding website.

Giovanna Carli’s statement can be found here.

The lessons learned from emergency remote teaching implemented during the Covid-19 disruption can be used to inform the design of flexible digitally-enhanced education in the post-pandemic university. Flexibility, which has emerged as pivotal during the pandemic and as a key dimension of educational practices in the aftermath of the Covid-19 lockdown, is likely to affect the development of higher education deeply in the near future. In this respect, course design needs to provide students with the opportunity to increase their degree of agency in planning their learning pathways by enabling them, for example, to decide autonomously to switch between various participation modes and select among various types of activities. In this light, course designers and instructors need to bear in mind that digitally-enhanced learning is deeply interwoven with active learning.

Research carried out on some blended and fully online foreign language pedagogy classes delivered as emergency remote teaching at university during the lockdown has identified the affordances of various digitally-enhanced practices suitable for fostering the development of content knowledge and critical thinking from a multilingual perspective in flexible learning environments. The findings of the studies have been used to outline the design of flexible digitally-enhanced courses, combining face-to-face and online modes, taught in a foreign language and suited to catering to the multifarious needs of university students in a post-pandemic learning context. 

The flexible digitally-enhanced course outline developed addresses both the issues related to social distancing and the need of collaborative content knowledge development in higher education. In flexible digitally-enhanced courses, students can choose whether to attend face-to-face classes or online classes, which is likely to cater to students’ multifarious needs in the new normal while increasing their sense of agency. In particular, technology-enhanced activities representative of the Redefinition category of Puentedura’s SAMR model  – “Tech allows for the creation of new tasks, previously inconceivable” – have been designed to promote innovative and highly engaging learning processes. Activities, such as ice breakers, targeted at making learners feel as members of a learning community have been created. To foster a sense of in-group membership, collaborative activities requiring students to co-construct multimodal artifacts have also been included in the blended learning environments outlined. 

In the post-pandemic context, the attainment of students’ wellbeing needs to be integrated into the pedagogical dimension of the learning experience. In this light, in flexible digitally-enhanced course design, teaching and learning practices have been devised from a pedagogy of care perspective. Furthermore, equity, another dimension emerged as essential during the pandemic, has been accounted for while designing flexible digitally-enhanced courses by adopting an open pedagogy approach, targeted at catering to the needs of all the agents engaged in post-pandemic university education. In this respect, adopting open textbooks, instructors can foster equity; in particular, open textbooks enable instructors to personalize content and activities catering to students’ needs in face-to-face and online learning environments. Likewise, using open textbooks, students can modify content to build new technology-enabled knowledge. Digital open educational resources, suitable for enhancing critical thinking through scaffolded hypothesis making and discussions in a foreign language, play a pivotal role in active learning development.

Overall, post-pandemic education needs to be flexible, digitally-enhanced, and targeted at fostering students’ active learning as well as learners’ metacognitive and professional skills through collaborative work.

Giovanna Carloni, PhD, is a lecturer at the University of Urbino, Italy. Her fields of expertise are foreign language didactics, teaching Italian as a second and foreign language, CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning), English linguistics, corpus linguistics, virtual exchanges, educational technology, design for learning, and teacher training. Among her publications: Corpus Linguistics and English Teaching Materials (Milano: Franco Angeli), CLIL in Higher Education and the Role of Corpora. A Blended Model of Consultation Services and Learning Environments (Venezia: Edizioni Ca’ Foscari), and Digitally-Enhanced Practices and Open Pedagogy in English-Taught Programs. Flexible Learning for Local and Global Settings in Higher Education (Milano: Franco Angeli).

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Beyond TEF Cynicism: Towards a New Vocabulary of ‘Excellence’?

By Steven Jones

One might expect that asking a room full of diverse stakeholders to discuss ‘teaching excellence’ would result in all kinds of quarrels and disagreement. In fact, the SRHE’s September 2019 event (The impact of the TEF on our understanding, recording and measurement of teaching excellence: implications for policy and practice) was a refreshingly convivial and creative affair.

Everyone present agreed that the TEF’s proxies for excellence were wholly inappropriate. In fact, there was surprisingly little discussion of existing metrics. We all felt that the consumerist language of ‘value for money’ and the instrumental lens of ‘employability’ were inadequate to capture the nuanced and complex ways in which curiosity can be sparked and orthodoxy challenged in the HE classroom.

Tanya Lubicz-Nawrocka spoke about the absence of the student voice in TEF policy, noting that conceptualisations of ‘excellence’ tend to overlook the very moral and critical components of transformative teaching that students value most highly. Michael Tomlinson drew attention to student-as-consumer framings within the ‘measured market’, noting the inevitability of institutional game-playing, status leveraging and brand promotion in such a relentlessly competitive environment. Both speakers suggested that students were misleadingly empowered, lacking the agency that policy discourses attribute to them.

I tried to push this idea further, beginning my talk by asking whether any lecturer had ever actually changed the way they teach because of government policy. There was broad agreement that while excellence frameworks influenced professional cultures and co-opted university managers, they barely touched academic practice. Lecturers know their own students – and know how to teach them – better than any White Paper.

But is the TEF actually about university teaching at all? Or do too many barriers sit between policy and practice for that to be a realistic aim? Policy enactment in HE is interrupted by institutional autonomy, by academic freedom and, increasingly, by lecturers’ professional identity. The TEF’s real purpose, I would argue, is more about manipulating the discourse. It manufactures a crisis, positioning intractable academics as the problem and students as the victim, thus allowing competition to come along and save the day.

Grade inflation is one area in which the contradictions of top-down policy discourse are laid bare. The market demands that lecturers mark students’ work generously (so that ‘value added’ columns in league tables don’t hold back institutional ranking). Then policymakers wade in, attacking institutions for artificial increases and threatening fines for those who persist. The logic is inconsistent and confused, but this matters little – the discourse persuades voters that their own hard-won education successes are being devalued by a sector overprotective of its ‘snowflake’ customer base.

TEF provider statements offer the opportunity for universities to fight back, but evidence suggests they’re bland and indistinct, tending towards formulaic language and offering little additional clarity to the applicant.

But despite such missed opportunities, 73 Collier Street was full of new ideas. Opposition to metrics wasn’t based on change-resistance and ideological stubbornness. Indeed, as respondent Sal Jarvis noted, we urgently need to measure, understand and close differential attainment gaps in many areas, such as ethnicity. But there was consensus that current proxies for ‘excellence’ were incomplete, and creative thoughts about how they could be complemented. What about capturing graduates’ long-term well-being instead of their short-term satisfaction? Or encouraging institutions to develop their own frameworks based on their specific mission and their students’ needs? How about structural incentives for collaboration rather than competition? And a focus on teaching processes, not teaching outcomes?

The argument that the TEF is less about changing pedagogies than manipulating wider discourses shouldn’t bring any comfort to the sector. I tried to show how the dominant logic of teaching excellence primes the sector for more fundamental policy shifts, such as for-profit providers receiving taxpayer subsidy on pedagogical grounds. One delegate spoke to me at the end of the event to offer another example, explaining how employability-minded managers within his institution were squeezing out critical engagement with cultural theory to allow for further skills-based, professional training. The TEF may not change practice directly, but it retains the power to nudge the sector away from its core public roles towards more privatised and instrumental practices.

The challenge for us is to articulate a confident and robust defence of all kinds of university teaching. We need to explain how our pedagogies bring lifelong gains both to our students and to wider society, even if initial encounters can be difficult and unsettling. Policy has taken us a long way down the market’s cul-de-sac, but what’s reassuring is that we’re now moving on from TEF-bashing towards a coherent counter-narrative. This event confirmed that universities have more meaningful things to crow about than their fleeting goldenness against a bunch of false proxies.

SRHE member Steven Jones is a Professor of Higher Education at the Manchester Institute of Education. His research focuses on equity issues around students’ access, experiences and outcomes. Steven is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He teaches on the University of Manchester’s PGCert in Higher Education. The view expressed here are his own.

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Pedagogic rights and higher expertise in the post-truth society

by Jim Hordern

This post is part of a series tied to a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education that will be published in March 2019. The founding idea behind this special issue was to spark a re-evaluation of what higher education needs to do to respond to the post-truth world, especially from the perspective of individual educators. The twelve papers, nine of which will be accompanied by posts here on the SRHE blog, take different perspectives to explore the ways in which higher education is being challenged and the responses that it might make in terms of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice.

Bernstein’s three pedagogic rights (enhancement, participation, inclusion) set out the ‘conditions for effective democracy’ (in discourse and practice) at the ‘individual’, ‘social’ and ‘political’ level (Bernstein, 2000: xxi). Developed as a reflection on political transition in Chile in the 1980s and remaining to an extent ‘enigmatic’ (Frandji and Vitale, 2016), the rights have recently been employed to discuss the South African higher education context (Luckett and Naicker, 2016) and the role of universities in human development and capability expansion (McClean et al, 2013). Consideration of the relationship between the three pedagogic rights aids reflection on the role of higher expertise in contemporary societies facing ‘post-truth’ challenges. If fully exercised the pedagogic rights could mitigate against the destructive potential of ‘alternative facts’ – but does the current context of higher education allow the rights to be exercised?

The right to ‘individual enhancement’ is described as a ‘a condition for experiencing boundaries’ and ‘tension points condensing the past and opening up possible futures’ (Bernstein, 2000: xx). This is the process whereby individuals acquire expertise through engagement in higher education, and become equipped for future thought and action. The right to enhancement assumes the existence of expert communities that can judge when boundaries and tensions have been experienced and enhancement has taken place, as part of a trajectory towards greater expertise and understanding (Winch, 2010). However, the process by which enhancement occurs is not static but rests on the potential for imagining ‘new possibilities’ (Bernstein, 2000: xx). As Luckett and Naicker point out, this is the right ‘that realises both the private and public goods of HE’ (2016: 12). However, it is heavily compromised without the other two rights (participation and inclusion). If higher education is only concerned with individual enhancement rather than ensuring all have the right to participate and to be included, then there is a risk not only that the most powerful individuals will dominate access to expertise, but also that expertise itself becomes increasingly moribund and irrelevant to contemporary society.

The right to participate means participation in the ‘procedures whereby order is constructed, maintained and changed’ (Bernstein, 2000: xxi). This extends to participation in the re-shaping of expertise to meet new requirements as societies change, while not losing the condensed lessons of the past. Participation is the condition for ‘civic practice’ (ibid: xxi), and affects the extent to which an expert body of knowledge maintains or loses relevance to contemporary concerns. A fully democratic society is founded on a right not only to access expertise but also to become an expert oneself. When participation becomes problematic democracy starts to break down, leading to increasing alienation from expertise and the potential for mistrust of the ‘experts’ themselves.

Lastly, the right to inclusion suggests ‘the right to be included, socially, intellectually, culturally and personally’, but also ‘a right to be separate, to be autonomous’ (Bernstein, 2000: xx), and therefore to have one’s individuality and minority view respected while nevertheless remaining ‘included’ in a community. Inclusion must occur, importantly, ‘without absorption’ (Frandji and Vitale, 2016: 16), allowing new perspectives to thrive and challenge existing expertise. Without this subtle conception of inclusion, higher expertise risks retreating to a notion of ‘received truth’ which all must accept with deference. Expertise may be transformed if new and convincing claims come to light that authentically improve understanding, but this can only be achieved through a mode of inclusion that respects difference and independence.

But are these pedagogic rights practised together in contemporary higher education? Some higher education institutions risk becoming increasingly distant from the communities in which they are located, answering instead to the demands of league tables and notions of the ‘global research university’ (Marginson, 2006). Furthermore, academic work is often defined in terms of narrow output measures, irrespective of concerns for participation and inclusion. Market and bureaucratic logics actively undermine the potential for expert communities to operate, and dismiss the criteria of excellence upon which notions of higher expertise are based, replacing them with a belief in the ‘inevitable obsolescence of accumulated knowledge’ (Beck and Young, 2005: 191). Are these promising conditions for the upholding of an open and iterative model of higher expertise which can effectively challenge ‘post-truths’, while valuing the full participation and inclusion of all citizens?

One thesis might be that the post truth context is a consequence of a collapse of deference for ‘authority’, both in institutional and epistemic terms. An alternative argument would assert that ongoing assaults on deference are necessary to expose dominance and bias, and that a ‘post-truth’ or ‘post-enlightenment’ context allows multiple voices to be heard and undue influence to be exposed. Arguably these views foreground either enhancement or participation at the expense of the other pedagogic rights. A further view might suggest that the post-truth context illustrates how expertise is increasingly ‘divorced from persons, their commitments, their personal dedications’ (Bernstein, 2000, 86), partly as a consequence of the extension of market logics into higher education (and the professions). Truth has become commodified so that knowledge can ‘flow like money to wherever it can create advantage and profit’ (ibid), allowing opportunists to exploit increasing levels of public and private disorientation. Enhancement, participation and inclusion are all threatened – and all must be re-thought for the future vitality and relevance of higher education, and for societal ownership of expertise.

Higher education institutions and professional communities responsible for higher expertise have thus far insufficiently recognised the implications of a non-deferential society in which all assertions are challenged, and need to work harder at ensuring inclusion and participation to make enhancement a possibility for all. Making pedagogic rights central to a refreshed notion of higher expertise thus requires a commitment to all three rights: enhancement, inclusion and participation. Commitment to one or two without the other is almost as detrimental to the future of higher education as commitment to none.


Beck, J and Young, M (2005) ‘The assault on the professions and the restructuring of academic and professional identities: a Bernsteinian analysis.’ British Journal of Sociology of Education 26 (2): 183-197

Bernstein, B (2000) Pedagogy, Symbolic Control and Identity 2nd edn New York: Rowman and Littlefield

Frandji, D and Vitale, P (2016) ‘The enigma of Bernstein’s ‘pedagogic rights’.’ In Vitale, P and Exley, B (eds) (2016) Pedagogic rights and democratic education: Bernsteinian explorations of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment, pp13–32 London: Routledge

Luckett, K and Naicker, V (2016) ‘Responding to misrecognition from a (post)/colonial university.’ Critical Studies in Education, DOI: 10.1080/17508487.2016.1234495

Marginson, S (2006) ‘Dynamics of national and global competition in higher education.’ Higher Education 52(1): 1–39

McClean, M, Abbas, A and P Ashwin (2013) ‘University knowledge, human development and pedagogic rights’ in Boni, A and Walker, M (eds) (2013) Human development and capabilities: Re-imagining the university of the twenty-first century, pp30–43 London: Routledge

Winch, C (2010) Dimensions of expertise: A conceptual exploration of vocational knowledge London: Continuum.

Jim Hordern is Reader in Educational Studies at Bath Spa University, U.K. His research interests are in educational knowledge and practice, particularly in higher, professional and vocational education. He is Book Reviews Editor of the Journal of Vocational Education and Training and a member of the Editorial Advisory Board for the Internationale Berufsbildungsforschung Springer book series.

You can find Jim’s full article, ‘Higher expertise, pedagogic rights and the post-truth society’ in Teaching in Higher Education 24(3): 288-301 at

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The ‘Holy Grail’ of pedagogical research: the quest to measure learning gain

by Camille Kandiko Howson, Corony Edwards, Alex Forsythe and Carol Evans

Just over a year ago, and learning gain was ‘trending’. Following a presentation at SRHE Annual Research Conference in December 2017, the Times Higher Education Supplement trumpeted that ‘Cambridge looks to crack measurement of ‘learning gain’; however, research-informed policy making is a long and winding road.

Learning gain is caught between a rock and a hard place — on the one hand there is a high bar for quality standards in social science research; on the other, there is the reality that policy-makers are using the currently available data to inform decision-making. Should the quest be to develop measures that meet the threshold for the Research Excellence Framework (REF), or simply improve on what we have now?

The latest version of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) remains wedded to the possibility of better measures of learning gain, and has been fully adopted by the OfS.  And we do undoubtedly need a better measure than those currently used. An interim evaluation of the learning gain pilot projects concludes: ‘data on satisfaction from the NSS, data from DHLE on employment, and LEO on earnings [are] all … awful proxies for learning gain’. The reduction in value of the NSS to 50% in the most recent TEF process make it no better a predictor of how students learn.  Fifty percent of a poor measure is still poor measurement.  The evaluation report argues that:

“The development of measures of learning gain involves theoretical questions of what to measure, and turning these into practical measures that can be empirically developed and tested. This is in a broader political context of asking ‘why’ measure learning gain and, ‘for what purpose’” (p7).

Given the current political climate, this has been answered by the insidious phrase ‘value for money’. This positioning of learning gain will inevitably result in the measurement of primarily employment data and career-readiness attributes. The sector’s response to this narrow view of HE has given renewed vigour to the debate on the purpose of higher education. Although many experts engage with the philosophical debate, fewer are addressing questions of the robustness of pedagogical research, methodological rigour and ethics.

The article Making Sense of Learning Gain in Higher Education, in a special issue of Higher Education Pedagogies (HEP) highlights these tricky questions. Continue reading


What if flashier buildings don’t make happier learners?

By Steven Jones

In some respects, students at UK universities have never had it so good. Dusty old lecture theatres are being torn down and shimmering new ‘learning environments’ erected in their place. Between 2013 and 2017, outlay on buildings and facilities at higher-prestige institutions alone matched that spent on the London Olympics (BiGGAR Economics, 2014), with some universities issuing public bonds to raise extra coffers for campus development projects.

But how can the UK Higher Education sector be sure that its unprecedented levels of capital expenditure are leveraging commensurate ground-level pedagogical gains? Evaluation mechanisms, where they exist, tend not to be student-centred. For example, the Association of University Directors of Estates reports that income per square metre increased by 34 per cent across the sector between 2004 and 2013. While this might make for a healthy balance sheet, it tells us little about the ways in which staff and students engage with their environment. As Paul Temple noted in his 2007 report for the Higher Education Academy (“Learning Spaces for the 21st Century”), university buildings have the potential to transform how learning happens. The challenge for the sector is how best to assess their impact. Continue reading

Ian Kinchin

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Pedagogic paupers: where’s the distinctiveness?

By Ian Kinchin

When you scan a range of university web sites, they all seem to claim their institution offers a distinctive student experience. In many respects, this may be true. However, when it comes to pedagogy, I wonder if there has been a trend towards homogenisation rather than distinctiveness?

Pressures of work and the emphasis on research outputs appears to drive many academics to “play it safe” when it comes to classroom practice. The irony is that these same academics would claim to be serious researchers – people to reflect, innovate, question and experiment. And yet these ‘researcher traits’ don’t seem to be carried over into teaching. The ‘it’ll do’ sentiment of the unenthusiastic amateur seems all too common, though (I would hasten to add) not universal.

I would not for one moment claim that the pressures on university academics are not real, the squeeze on resources and the restrictions posed by accrediting bodies (for example) all appear to drive academics towards a conservative approach to teaching. The old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” seems to be the underpinning philosophy for many.

However, my own undergraduate friends and relatives often provide me with stories and anecdotes that suggest that, if not broken, much university teaching still requires something of an upgrade. Continue reading

Alison Le Cornu

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MOOCs: Uncovering the learning experience

By Alison Cornu

There has been an enormous amount of hype around MOOCs since they first entered the UK HE arena roughly five years ago. That tens of thousands of students from around the world could enrol and study simultaneously was something both to marvel at and question.  Two big issues have dominated discussions about the future of MOOCs on the HE landscape: first, what business case can support them; and second, what evidence is there that students learn? Today, with much water under the bridges of both experience and research, we are in a better position to put forward a view of what we think about MOOCs.

At the outset, the notion that so many students from so many backgrounds could all learn together, and learn ‘properly’ and effectively, seemed to some impossible. As a society we have consistently had drilled into us the fact that learning best occurs in small groups. One-to-one is perhaps the crème de la crème, but groups of four to six adults offer an excellent environment for learning one from another, epitomised in the traditional Oxbridge style. Parents are keen to see their children in smaller classes and governments hasten to reassure them that everything is being done to ensure that is a reality. The paradox with MOOCs, of course, is that while at one level thousands learn together, at another, in typical distance learning fashion, each student is a lone individual working away in isolation, miles from any peers whom they don’t know and are unlikely ever to meet.

So are these initial reservations merited? What do we now make of them pedagogically? Continue reading