In Oxford discussing student engagement: pedagogy or politics?

Before I write about the event I must just mention that I stayed at Keble College, Oxford the night before and really enjoyed the atmosphere of staying in an Oxford college – even one built “later” in 1870. There was a lovely chapel which housed the painting The Light of The World by Holman Hunt. And having breakfast in the dining hall was fantastic. And the event was excellent too, loads of food for thought.

Image of Keble college

Image Source: Kathrine S.H. Jensen

The event was jointly organised by the Higher Education Academy (HEA) and the network for researching, advancing and inspiring student engagement (RAISE) with representatives from the National Union of Students (NUS) and the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) among others. There were over fifty delegates from a wide range of institutions and looking at the job titles and departments of delegates a lot of different roles were represented. Twitter tag was #PedOrPol and when there is a storify link I will add it here.

We started with a welcome from Dr Abbi Flint from the HEA and she began by outlining the focus for this event, namely that we were here to discuss the rationale for student engagement; addressing the questions of why student engagement is worth doing including what the benefits are. Dr Flint is part of the HEA team who is organising the Students as Partners Change Programme.

Dr Alex Buckley (@ajbtwit) from the HEA then set the scene for the discussion. He talked about the dimensions of Student Engagement: from individual, to curriculum design, to institutional and national policy decisions. He raised some difficult questions about whether student engagement is about learning and power being intertwined and to what extent student engagement is always underpinned by critical pedagogy (and to what extent there was a consensus on this).

A panel discussion followed with contributions from

  • Lewis Stockwell (Student Engagment Co-ordinator and MA student, University of Hertfordshire)
  • Dr Camille Kandiko (Research Fellow, Kings College London)
  • Rachel Wenstone (Vice-president Higher Education, National Union of Students)
  • Chris Taylor (Student Engagment Manager, the Quality Assurance Agency)

As part of this the panel chair, Dr Ian Giles (@iggiles) quoted from a recent article, which presented a critical view of how the term ‘student engagement’ has been used in Australia HE.

Student Engagement: Rhetoric and Reality by Paula Baron and Lillian Corbin from 2012

“… ideas about student engagement in the university context are often fragmented, contradictory and confused. Even the meaning of the term “student engagement” is uncertain. Further, while government and universities urge attention to student engagement, many of their actions, it may be argued, have contributed to greater student disengagement” (taken from the abstract)

Lewis Stockwell (@lewis_stockwell) talked about how the term ‘student’ could be problematic and constraining and how he preferred the term ‘learner’.

Rachel Wenstone (@rachel_wenstone) talked about how often the Students’ Union (SU) was a covenient locus for politics but that there was a need to recognise politics in the contexts of teaching and learning. In response to the title of the event, Rachel concluded that you absolutely cannot have pedagogy or politics, pedagogy is about politics so it must be pedagogy AND politics.

She also mentioned the example of Liverpool Hope SU giving students £s to buy lecturers coffee and ask: what do you hope we get from our course? I think this is a fantastic and very low cost idea for opening up dialogue about teaching and learning, which could be a way of creating some foundations for staff and students working in partnership in a variety of ways. Would be really interesting to know how this initiative developed.

Dr Camille Kandiko added some international perspective to the discussion of what student engagement means including trying to adapt some of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) questions for UK context.

Is the purpose of student engagement linked to the purpose of education?

There was also a lot of discussion around whether it was really possible to define or understand the purpose of student engagement without considering values and beliefs about what HE is about, what constitutes learning and what the purposes of education are.

I couldn’t possibly cover all the many questions and discussions that took place as part of the Liquid Café, which was expertly facilitated by Mick Healey, but I believe the outputs will be available soon so I will add the links when I get them.

One of the table discussions I took part in was about what evidence we have that student engagement enhances the quality of learning and how we can fill any gaps. One idea that came from the discussion was that we should make better use of pre-existing large scale data in relation to student engagement and ensure this evidence/data is available to all (and written in plain English). Though it was noted that using data in this way had to include discussion of the purpose and ethics of doing so first.

A few thoughts on what kind of student engagement is happening in the ‘Students as Teaching and learning consultant’ project?

All this discussion got me thinking about how to evaluate the ‘Students as Teaching and learning consultant’ project (a HEA funded project I am leading) in relation to the different levels and kinds of student engagement discussed. Of course it would be nice and easy to say the project is a good example of SE going beyond ‘student voice’ because students are actually working with staff and being part of activity. But on closer inspection the partnership model that the project is using has several limitations (I would argue these are necessary ones because of the nature of the work undertaken).

The consultation process is initiated by members of staff so in that sense the students are not part of setting the initial agenda for the interaction. This is of course a limitation as student concerns or needs are not the starting point for the activity (or can’t be guaranteed to be the starting point). The starting point is a member of staff wanting to work with a student consultant to get an objective student perspective on an aspect of their teaching and learning activities.

However, the consultation does involve the student meeting with the member of staff to tell them about the project and negotiate the task they are undertaking. The student is the expert here, offering a perspective and feedback based on their experiences. In this way the student meets the member of staff as an equal, a student external to the course and department and hence not subject to being assessed by that member of staff. Students taking part in the project have talked about how, in the role of consultant, they feel equal to the lecturer (and treated as an equal with relevant and useful point of view). See my blogpost on this.

Please note that this blog post reflects my understanding of the points made by the speakers and presenters and discussions on the day.

A few resources:

Posted by Kathrine S.H. Jensen (@kshjensen)


About talintuoh

Supporting and connecting colleagues to develop inspiring and innovative teaching and learning
This entry was posted in Conference, HEASTLC, Learning experience, pedagogy, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to In Oxford discussing student engagement: pedagogy or politics?

  1. Robin Parker, NUS Scotland President says:

    On the subject of what is student engagement, you might be interested in the Student Engagement Framework that Sparqs have put together on behalf of the whole Scottish college & uni sector:

  2. talintuoh says:

    Hi Robin
    Thanks for the links to the student engagement framework. The five key elements looks to be really useful as a focus when thinking about different dimensions of student engagement.


  3. Pingback: Student as Producer: from partnership to racial participation | nearymike

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