Highlights from #NAIRTL11 (Part 2)

River CorribHere’s part two of my report from the the NAIRTL 5th Annual Conference & Galway Symposium on Higher Education, hosted at the National University of Ireland at Galway, June 9-10, 2011. (See part one for highlights from the first half of the conference.)

Lots of great ideas on engaging students shared here. Is use of these methods prompting changes in assessment methods? #nairtl11
@derekbruff
Derek Bruff

The conference theme was “student engagement,” and it was certainly a strong theme throughout the conference. I’ve found that once faculty start engaging their students in more intentional ways, they often find that the assessments (particularly tests and exams) they used to use don’t seem to capture the gains in student learning they witness in the classroom. One response to this is to say that all this student engagement stuff doesn’t actually lead to better learning. Another response, however, is that the old assessment mechanisms need to be updated to reflect the kinds of learning that faculty really value.

For example, I’ve seen several faculty report that they find teaching with clickers extremely useful for getting students more engaged during class, particularly through the use of peer instruction methods. But often teaching with clickers doesn’t lead to improved performance on exams and tests for these faculty. Sometimes, it’s been clear to me that the problem wasn’t with the clickers and the peer instruction–it was with the tests, ones that assessed fairly basic factual recall and comprehension. It’s quite possible that clickers and peer instruction don’t help students with those tasks any more than straight-up lecture does. There may be gains, however, in students’ ability to solve more open-ended problems or communicate their ideas to others, skills that weren’t assessed on those old tests.

I didn’t hear many at the NAIRTL conference surface this issue, but many of those presenting were just getting started with student engagement techniques. I imagine that they’ll soon be confronting the limitations of traditional assessment techniques as they gain more experience changing what happens in the classroom.

Neary: Students moving from object to subject of the educational process. Student as producer, not consumer or customer. #nairtl11
@derekbruff
Derek Bruff

One of the keynotes was Mike Neary, who heads up the Student as Producer initiative at the University of Lincoln. I’ve heard many in academia lament the idea that students are “consumers” of higher education, mainly because that consumer mentality often breeds some nonproductive behaviors–in both students and instructors. What I haven’t heard as frequently is a clear articulation of an alternative model, but that’s just what Mike provided in his keynote. It’s hard for me to summarize Mike’s talk, so I encourage you to go watch it when it’s posted on the conference website. But I’ll try to capture a couple of ideas from his talk that resonated with me.

I'm reminded of #RevOrEv discussion. With higher ed in various crises, is rapid, dramatic change necessary? If so, who will lead? #nairtl11
@derekbruff
Derek Bruff

The hashtag #RevOrEv refers to a set of conversations I led last academic year with Jim Julius and Dwayne Harapnuik. See our ProfHacker guest post for a summary. As my tweet indicates, higher ed is facing at least a couple of potential crises that might motivate rapid, even revolutionary change in how higher ed works. Jim, Dwayne, and I focused on the technological changes affecting higher ed, particularly the ready access to information the Web provides and the growing “DIY U” movement. Mike Neary focused on the economics challenges facing higher ed, particularly in the UK, where students will now be required to pay up to £9,000 per year for a public, post-secondary education. Previously, it was free!

According to Mike, this economic landscape has the potential to result in students deciding not to work within the existing system anymore, either leaving it for more responsive and cheaper alternatives or rebelling against the existing institutions in ways reminiscent of protest movements of the 1960s. Mike is advocating that faculty and academic staff (as they’re called in Ireland and the UK) work proactively with students to remake higher education into something new. What does that mean?

Well, at the University of Lincoln, the Student as Producer initiative is a campus-wide effort to involve students in the production of knowledge. I gather it’s something like making every course in the undergraduate curriculum involve what we typically call here in the States “undergraduate research.” That’s ambitious, of course, but perhaps not as ambitious as Mike Neary’s other project: the Social Science Centre.

The SSC is “run as a ‘not-for-profit’ co-operative” in which “all students and staff [have] an equal involvement in how the Centre operates,” including the design of curriculum and the teaching of courses. Yes, that means students are involved in those activities traditionally reserved for faculty. Plus, no one is paid to teach at the SSC. Instead, everyone involved pays an annual subscription fee to participate in the SSC, one that scales with their income. For those without significant incomes, participation is free.

Radical, huh? Check out the SSC website for more information. And read this Guardian story for info on other, similar projects springing up in the UK.

One last tweet about Mike’s provocative keynote:

I like Mike Neary's notion of academic freedom for *students*, not just faculty. #nairtl11
@derekbruff
Derek Bruff

There’s more I want to discuss from the NAIRTL conference, but this post is already getting pretty long. Stay tuned for part three of my conference report tomorrow.

Image: “River Corrib, Galway,” by me

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