Canning, J. (2015 ) Half a million unsatisfied graduates? Increasing scrutiny of National Student Survey’s ‘overall’ question. Educational Developments has now been published. It is only available in the printed version at present.
Question 22 (Q22), ‘Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of the course’ stands alone in the National Student Survey (NSS). University league tables include it more than any other question. It covers a multitude of sins. It is the litmus test of a course. However good or bad the assessment, the facilities, the course organisation, this overall question can condemn or redeem a course. Like checkmate in chess, a boxer’s knockout punch, a judge’s verdict it does not matter who tried hardest, made the best moves or made the best arguments. In many respects it is the only judgment that counts.
After ten years at the LLAS Centre (counting the centre in its LTSN/ HEA subject centre forms) I felt it was now time to move on and undertook a UK-wide job search. The end result was an offer from the Centre of Learning and Teaching at the University of Brighton. Last week I visited Brighton for the university’s internal teaching and learning conference and heard about a lot of the interesting things about some of the interesting things which are going on there. It was also nice to spend time getting to know some of my new colleagues as well.
Statistics for Humanities
This past year has been mostly project based. My Statistics for Humanities student ‘text-book’ is available in draft form and I am awaiting comments from the British Academy nominated reviewers. The British Academy agreed that I could put a draft online for a crowd sourced review. This has led to receiving many helpful comments, and one academic in particular has provided some very extensive feedback. I have long been dissatisfied with introductory statistics textbooks. I hope that mine will reach out to students (and academics) who struggled in the past. The examples in the book come from the humanities and I have attempted to write a book which uses a verbal reasoning-based approach which should resonate better with humanities students than some other texts.
EU Quality Assurance project
We are coming to the end of the second year of this 2-year EU-funded project, Sharing Practice in Assuring and Enhancing Quality (SPEAQ) which follows on from LANQUA (the Language Network for Quality Assurance). I didn’t work on LANQUA and hadn’t worked on an EU-project before. I was quite apprehensive about being involved in the project as I had seen colleagues undergoing the stresses of running a project which involves administrative complications (e.g. currency conversions and daily rates) as well as working alongside colleagues in other countries who work in very difference pedagogic, policy and quality environments. Fortunately our assistant director (and my line manager) Alison Dickens is an experienced director of EU–projects and our senior administrator Sue Nash has worked on them before, so, fortunately for me, I have been able to concentrate mostly on content issues.
In the first year of the project we developed a workshop in which staff, students and quality managers can participate together. I played a big role in this aspect of the project producing a dialogue sheet and writing facilitator instructions. Along with our Danish colleague Ole Helmersen from Copenhagen Business School I attended the EQAF Forum in Tallinn, Estonia where we tried out the workshop on a large group of quality professionals from a range of European countries.
As well as running the workshop the EQAF conference was a great staff development opportunity for me. As a QE person rather than QA person it was interesting the meet people who operate in very different QA systems. The UK seems to be fairly in the middle between those countries in which QA is very highly centralised and regulated through to countries where QA is virtually non-existent—at least in the way that I understand it. If there is one thing that all countries seem to have in common it is that QA appears very different from teaching. As one person I met pointed out, a poor teacher is not a quality issue as far as most university structures are concerned. Even at the Senior Manager level there is often a separation of roles between the person in which of QA and the person who in charge of teaching and the curriculum.
For the second part of the project each partner does their own small-scale project which meets a particular institutional need. At Southampton we decided to do a project on feedback, called "Getting the Most Out of Feedback" (GMOOF). The core principle of GMOOF is that everybody, whether a member of teaching staff, a student or a quality manager, is both a provided and recipient of feedback. The principles of good feedback: Relevant, Timely, Meaningful and with Suggestions for improvement (See Race online), apply to all feedback, not just feedback from teacher to student but also student to teacher, student to student, teacher to teacher etc., teacher to quality manager, teacher to professional body etc. etc. GMOOF is a website which focuses on giving good feedback and making the most of feedback from others rather than focusing on different job roles. (The website is under development at present). A workshop based on the project is being developed and will be piloted in Southampton in September – I’ll be in Brighton by then so will not be leading it(!) Additional material for the website includes a card sort (built using the free software nanDECK), a series of feedback videos with reflective questions (built in xtranormal and put up on youtube), videos of interviews about feedback with the project team and other colleagues at Southampton, and online quizzes for staff and students. There is also a section specific on how we at Southampton work to enhance the quality of teaching across the university.
My teaching this year has focused in two major areas. I have been contributing to the interdisciplinary Curriculum Innovation module “Sustainability in the Local and Global Environment"). 2012-13 was the first time this module has run and I benefited greatly from working with National Teaching Fellow Simon Kemp. It has been some years since I taught undergraduates and the modules made extensive use of technology (including Twitter, Panopto, Blackboard) and had a variety of assessments including a presentation, conference paper and group film project.
My other teaching responsibility has involved teaching research skills to (mostly Humanities) doctoral students. I have run numerous sessions on everything from putting the thesis together, preparing for the viva, ethnographic methods, critical thinking and applying for funding. Most of my materials are available in the HumBox under a Creative Commons license. Students produce critical reflections on the sessions, which also provide me with feedback.
I also presented at the LLAS e-learning symposium about my online open access language teaching research website YazikOpen. I have also been preparing materials for the LLAS annual Heads of Department workshop, which is entitled “Thriving for the Public Good”
At Brighton I am expecting to be involved in a variety of academic development activities including working with teaching staff to apply for the HEA Fellowships, blended learning and undertaking research. I will also being going to Plymouth in November to undertake PASS (Peer Assisted Study Session) Supervisor Training.
This new online publication by John Lea of Canterbury Christchurch deserves a special mention. It's much more than a list of things to think about about-- it also contains references to research into teaching and learning in higher education, some recent, some not so recent. It is also beautifully presented.
As part of my Fellowship of the Staff and Educational Development Association I have to write an annual review of what I have been doing and what I’ve learnt and what I plan to do for the future. We are then alloated 'triads' of other fellows and we will comment on each other's reports. I wanted to do something a bit different year as we don't have to submit as a written report. I couldn't think how I might do it differently, so I decided to make my report public, crowdsource my professional development I suppose.
This year has been the most challenging of my career so far. Last year the Higher Education Academy took the decision to withdraw funding from its 24 subject centres. The decision focused my mind somewhat. What had we achieved as a team in the lifetime of the subject centre? Where were we going to go from here? More crucially what had I achieved in the eight years I had been part of the team? Where was I going?
Subject centres, LLAS at least, was very much a we organisation. This was great on one level, but I had found it increasingly difficult to distinguish myself from subject centre. I have also learnt a lot about how people see subject centre staff, and I don’t always like it. In 2010 I wrote a short piece for the Teaching in Higher Education about the identity of subject centre staff in the educational development community. The anonymous referee was adamant that subject centre academic coordinators are essentially administrators though one or two do some good pedagogic work (we need adminstrators of course, but I sensed very negative undertones in the reviewer's use of the word). I wanted to raise awareness about the job I did and somebody seemed to be suggesting that I had misinterpreted my own job. The reviewer said that he/she was a member of a subject centre advisory board—my first response was that I hoped they weren’t on our advisory board. I have always wanted to be taken seriously as an academic. I'm not sure that I am.
As the 2010-11 academic year drew to a close my angst increased. Our director did some good work in persuading the powers at be in Southampton that it was worth keeping LLAS work going as an independent unit—another opportunity though painful reflection was involved too. Who were we? Could we continue as we were? (How) would we have to change? The team, which had grown through Routes into Languages and Links into Languages would have to be much smaller. We had to reapply for our jobs. I was fortunate in this process, but lost a day of week of hours. We still had some funding from the HEA, but we needed to start charging for the sorts of activity which used to be free or low cost. And we had to start getting the funding in to keep going.
What have I done this year? What have I learnt?
The LLAS work
One of the challenges with the subject centre goings on has not been the changes which have taken place, but the continuity. As usual I organised and participated in workshops for Heads of Department, a workshop for new academic staff and a workshop on sustainable development in the humanities. I have received funding from the British Academy to produce an online statistics books for humanities students under the Academy’s Languages and Quantitative Skills Programme. I have long been dissatisfied with statistics textbooks. In my opinion they explain too little and assume that the reader will take concepts such as the normal distribution as an article of faith. The book uses the sorts of examples that humanities students will use such as historical and population data. I hope that by providing a more verbal resonating approach the book will help students (and academics) who find quantitative data difficult to deal with.
I edited two further editions of Debut: the undergraduate journal of languages, linguistics and area studies. In the latest issue my editorial reflects on the concept of publishing undergraduate research, how good it needs to be and how undergraduates journals help students to complete the research cycle. I am also part of LLAS’s EU-funded Sharing Practice in Enhancing and Assuring Quality(SPEAQ) project which, in my view at least, seeks to allow students and academics to reclaim ‘quality’ for themselves. I often feel that the term ‘quality’ has become increasingly associated with ‘tick-box’ approach to teaching which has little, if anything to do with the learning experience. We have developed a workshop to enable students, lecturers and quality managers to come together to reflect on the concept of quality.It has been interesting to learn about the experiences of academics from other countries who are our partners in the project.
I also headed up the organisation of the main LLAS biennial conference, the first of the post-HEA era. This year it was called 'Language Futures' and was held in Edinburgh.
One of my first tasks of the 2011-12 academic year was to provide maternity cover for my colleague Lisa who was coordinating the HEA’s Islamic Studies Network. As a non-expert in the field I knew this would be challenging, but with the closure of the subject centres most team members left the project too. Lisa was kind enough to draw up a plan of what had been done and what needed to be done. My main task was to begin the post-Islamic Studies Network (funding is about to end) sustainability plan. I drew up the consultation questionnaire over the Christmas period and we received over 50 responses. Now that Lisa is back this work is her capable hands and it looks likely some sort of scholarly association for Islamic Studies will be formed in the near future. I was fortunate to be able to draw on the wisdom and enthusiasm of the Advisory Board members.
Other University of Southampton work
I have been part of the University of Southampton’s participation in Green Academy, a scheme run by the Higher Education Academy to support institutions in embedding sustainability in the curriculum and overall life of the institution. One of the key achievements of our participation is that we have secured funding for full time programme assistant who is working on embedding sustainability into the CORE (curriculum, operations, research, experience) of the University of Southampton.
I will also be involved in teaching on a new Southampton-wide module: Sustainability in the Local and Global Environment. As in previous years I have also contributed sessions on employability and writing book reviews to the Faculty of Humanities Doctoral Training Programme.
The entrepreneurial John
I have used my 'non-working' time to develop skills in new areas. I have developed a website in Drupal called yazikopen a portal for open access research into learning and teaching modern languages. This has been a steep learning curve on the technical side of things as I do not have a background in web development. I am pleased that the website is functional, but I would like to work out ways to grow the website and see if there is any way enabling the website to generate revenue to cover its costs. I have also been being doing some freelance work and hope to develop further in this area.
Hope (Future plans)
At LLAS I am again organising a workshop for Heads of Department which will focus on the growing sources of public information about teaching in higher education (e.g. National Student Survey, Key Information Set etc.). I will also be putting in bids for various projects. I would like to continue development of the yazikopen website and will look for further freelancing opportunities.
I also hope to have a say in the open access debate. If true open access is to become a reality universities have a greater role to play in academic publishing.