In this post, Richard J. Jones reflects on his involvement in a project looking at ‘Engaged Student Learning’, part of the HEA’s Strategic Enhancement Programme. The project, which took place in the Arts Faculty at The Open University, was run by Lynda Prescott, a Staff Tutor and Senior Lecturer in English. It involved the coordination of several practitioner inquiries into the experience of students studying a first-year undergraduate module. The project ended with a conference in which participants were able to share their findings alongside statistical data gathered from students’ use of the module website.
Richard J. Jones is a lecturer in English Literature at The Open University (firstname.lastname@example.org).
I click therefore I am (engaged). At least, that’s what the data for a first-year OU undergraduate module suggests. The team responsible for gathering such data was very impressed with the people running this module – of which I am one. According to the data, the number of students that were ‘engaged’ was much higher than on other modules. This module was doing something right. Such enthusiasm, however, was not altogether shared by the tutors who were responsible for teaching groups of students on the module. Despite the clicks, they perceived moments of disengagement. A student might click on an online forum, they reported, only to ‘lurk’ there. It was these tutors who had spent six months wrestling with the idea of ‘engaged student learning’ and looking for ways to help their students develop a sense of belonging. So who was right?
The data analytics team is probably not going to thank me for that account of their work – but they will perhaps agree that one result of the recent HEA-supported project was that we were able to help shape their understanding of what they would call ‘data touch points’. The module that served as the focus for this work was A105 Voices, texts and material culture, a new interdisciplinary course that presented for the first time in October 2015 with over 2000 students. It is typical of OU modules in that it provides students with a rich blend of learning materials, primarily through a dedicated website, along with direct tutor support. One of the objectives of this module was to increase student participation online by explicitly connecting some of the learning materials to tutor-led teaching in forums. It also aimed to provide new formative activities, closely linked to preparation for assessed work, as well as more opportunities for online collaborative learning. The ‘Engaged Student Learning’ project was set up by Lynda Prescott to explore the effect of these innovations alongside other areas of inquiry identified by tutors.
One of the first steps in the project was the establishment of an online forum, grandly dedicated to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. In this space, the seven tutors (Associate Lecturers) who had volunteered to take part in the project discussed the fuzzy meaning of ‘student engagement’ (via the work of Hamish Coates) and followed some of their own interests. As it turned out, this forum, intended to facilitate the project, became one of its principal achievements. The forum provided a new opportunity for critical reflection, not only to those directly involved in this project, but to other tutors who were teaching groups of students on the module.
The results of the individual inquiries were presented at a day-long conference, which also included further speculation about what was meant by ‘engagement’.
The conference heard first from Catherine Lee and Trevor Kirk. They had been interested in how students perceived the new formative activities that introduced assessed work on the module. They noted that, as a result of this inquiry, they had become increasingly direct in explaining to students how the module was structured. Furthermore, they noted the importance of establishing students’ expectations about what is required of them.
Next, Lindsey Hewitt and Kieron Winterson presented their study of online participation and collaboration. They had also worked to encourage students to understand the nature and relevance of their work – this time in relation to an online wiki. Vicky Huntley had investigated the so-called ‘vicarious learners’ on forums and was prompted to ask whether they should, in fact, be turned into contributors. In these areas, it was acknowledged that tutors inevitably lacked full control in providing an equivalent experience to all of their student groups.
The final presentations, from Tim Reeves and Lynn Bright, considered student engagement with threshold concepts and deeper learning. Focusing on the reflective components of the module, they considered ways in which the students could regard themselves as authorities for their own learning. Describing some strategies for self-monitoring, they sought to encourage the kind of self-awareness and independence that the other contributors had promoted.
Through these discussions, we thus observed the way that some of the more impersonal structures of the module impinged on the personal work of tutors; we also sought to acknowledge the gap between the student of our imaginations and of reality.
Some changes have been made to the module in the light of this project – notably, in attempts to explain the rationale behind some activities and the introduction of more reflective work. One unexpected outcome was perhaps all the other forms of engagement – from colleagues across the university – that the project fostered. The term ‘engaged student learning’ remains rich in its fuzziness. For tutors on this module, it seems to have encouraged an attempt to increase students’ awareness of the enterprise in which they are engaged. This makes me think that it doesn’t matter too much if we don’t know what motivates a certain click (or the lack of a click) on a website – so long, that is, as the student knows what is motivating it. One of the conclusions of this project for me (as I cannot speak for anyone else involved in it) is this sense of placing trust in the student. Perhaps all those ‘data touch points’ can be viewed in that spirit? We might not know exactly the reason for them but we can trust nevertheless that it is a good one.
Is a click a sign of engagement?
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