I was invited to be a panel member at the University of Greenwich’s APT 2017 conference in lieu of George Siemens who had been scheduled as keynote, but who was unable to make the journey over from Texas due to illness. Myself, Helen Beetham, Viv Rolfe and Liz Cable addressed the theme ‘The future ain’t what it used to be: inventing and re-imagining higher education practice’. That’s the sort of title I really like – whatever you say, tell us how things will be different.
And then we were joined by George Siemens, via Skype who became a ‘big brother’ figure to the panel, looming above us. Quite fitting.
I prepared some notes prior to the panel and I have written these up to share here.
If I look ahead, reflecting on the first iteration of the TEF in part, but mostly looking at the student experience of learning at university, I believe we need to rethink and be clear about the changing purpose of a higher education. The drivers for this are the TEF, but more importantly, the driver of uncertainty around the future destinations for students and a graduate’s need for resilience and agility preoccupy me. Since the massification of higher education and the introduction of fees following the Dearing report (1997) [see The Guardian’s 10 years on summary], the employability discourse has become omnipotent. While some academics may be scathing of this, I am not. However, I take a very broad view of what it means, noting the benefit from an employability focus for developing graduate aspirations and capabilities for lifelong and lifewide independent learning.
I would argue that the purpose of a higher education requires educators and students to pay much greater attention to:
- the experience or learning,
- developing our learning and lifelong identity,
- developing learning habits, and
- having the space to learn safely.
These foci affect student futures more than the epistemological knowledge around which we tend to design curricula, often superficially engaging students through the driver of assessment. We must look at how we challenge students through engaging pedagogies so that they become fluent in deeply interrogating knowledge and confident in interpreting and applying findings from their enquiry. In other words, excellent teaching is about developing excellent learning.
The name of the TEF suggests we need to value excellent teaching much more, but one of the lessons from the TEF (nb: the 10 lessons from the TEF from the Chair of the TEF panel is being updated at the time of posting) is that we need to understand and focus on student outcomes – not inputs such as teaching or ‘the content’ we give students.
That means, as academics, we need to understand what excellent learning means and how we can develop learning capability in our students. Learning capabilities, I argue, are not left to key skills developers, but fostered through the learning environments that academics construct pedagogically. Authentic learning and situated learning strategies allow us as academics to accommodate our students’ lifewide and lifelong learning needs, developing their expectations, so they develop the agility they now need through life.
However, generally, we are not set up to do this. At this conference, with its attention on technology, we can look to social media for learning for an example of the changing environment within university and life beyond.
Social media makes networked communality explicit. It empowers each one of us to ‘place make’. Social media gives us agency. When we use it wisely, we become responsible for ourselves and others. In a higher education learning space, we can develop our familiarity with networked living to become critical, digital placemakers. By developing good digital habits and ‘ways of being’ we become agile and responsible citizens, able to respond with confidence and authority to professional and personal opportunities and challenges.
However, this requires a step change – not just academic innovation around the edges. We need to develop student and academic expectations to create a shift from the relative safety of a knowledge and assessment paradigm to a capabilities paradigm in which knowledge is scrutinised by the learner through its critical application. If we can work out how to make this shift in our teaching and our infrastructure, we can begin to develop confident and agile graduates who are able to refresh their learning independently and socially throughout life.
This is partly about reframing employability to accommodate digital nomadicism through having good learning habits – employers want employees who can adapt, and graduates need to have a sense of their greater autonomy over their futures. Digital nomadicism suggests more of our students will be their own employers in the future (I am not sure if ‘self-employment’ will remain an adequate way of describing this as future life patterns and motivations are changing so much).
So, educators and students need to become much more engaged in the idea that a typical undergraduate experience is one that equips the graduate for uncertain futures by creating safe spaces within university to develop resilience and a student’s own sense of self.