Dr Ailsa Crum discusses the fundamental nature of higher education and the benefits of engaging students as constructive collaborators in an advancing digital environment
What is the connection between student engagement and ChatGPT? For me, they both prompt questions about the fundamental nature of higher education and require us to think about the relationship we have with our students.
Generative AI tools are not new, but their sudden ubiquity with the promise (or threat, depending on your point of view) that they will soon be integrated with everyday software and search engine packages means they have been the story of the academic year so far.
Like many advances in technology, they present advantages, for example enabling us to do more things more quickly, but the fact these particular tools could be used by students to complete assessments without much critical reasoning or reflection raises questions about how we can protect the value of academic qualifications.
An early step must be to engage students in an active conversation about the fundamental nature of HE – what its purpose is, and what they hope to get out of their time studying.
An early step must be to engage students in an active conversation about the fundamental nature of HE – what its purpose is, and what they hope to get out of their time studying
The rise of a market-orientated approach to higher education in England has prompted many commentators over recent decades to ask how this has affected student attitudes and identity. The student-as-consumer approach in higher education and its effects on academic performance study by Bunce, Baird and Jones in 2017 found that having a consumer orientation affects the traditional relationships between learner identity, grade goal and academic performance. In particular, they reported that having a high consumer orientation was associated with lower academic performance.
Similar findings were highlighted in The depersonalised consumer subjectivity and its effect on fostering meaningful relationships between undergraduate and academics in higher education by Eloise Symonds in 2020, which indicated that a consumer-related view amongst students promoted a depersonalised and superficial relationship with their institutions.
The fundamental nature of higher education should not be transactional or superficial. One of the most prized characteristics of HE is its ability to transform individuals. Students who are only superficially engaged are very unlikely to have a transformative experience – and may even be tempted into poor academic practice, such as the undeclared use of AI tools.
Writing in 2012, Graham Gibbs emphasised that ‘Students do not consume knowledge but construct it…they are co-producers and collaborators’ (Implications of ‘Dimensions of Quality’ in a market environment, Higher Education Academy research series). This line of thought is often at the heart of student partnership models of engagement.
Engaging students as constructive collaborators
So how can we encourage students to engage with us in a meaningful way? Reports – including the QAA-supported collaborative enhancement projects – have found that student engagement across the sector is still lower than at the start of 2019-20.
We frequently hear that students are present on campus but are not necessarily as present in teaching spaces as they were in pre-pandemic times, and responses to surveys or calls to join staff-student liaison committees similarly can result in lower levels of interest than previously.
One way to turn this around is offering absolute clarity about what you hope to achieve through engaging students. When students can see that sharing their views will have a clear impact, they are more likely to invest their time.
When students can see that sharing their views will have a clear impact, they are more likely to invest their time
Engaging students to identify potential responses to a shared challenge, like generative AI for example, can be particularly rewarding, as opposed to those occasions where the main purpose of engagement is to communicate solutions that have already been worked through.
Through one of the QAA Enhancement Themes we identified that, while most universities are good at seeking students’ views, they are less good at letting students know the outcome of their feedback.
The Student Voice project involved a scan of international practice, consultation with the European Students’ Union, a survey of Scottish HEIs and a sector ‘think tank’ event. This resulted in identifying eight principles of practice for responding to the student voice including: working in partnership, using existing representative systems, encouraging dialogue, being timely, embedding ethics and celebrating achievement.
These principles were produced as a set of cards with activities that can be used for a range of purposes including to evaluate institutional policies and practices, gauge consistency across an institution, or as a framework for establishing and responding to student views.
The cards were initially produced as a hard copy set and were updated subsequently so they can be used in person or online. They are suitable for a wide variety of settings including as part of regular staff-student interactions, during programme or module review exercises, or in staff/student development sessions.
As part of the QAA membership resources we have a Student Engagement Toolkit, which is consistently one of the most downloaded items from our Membership Resources site. As a QAA member, all staff and students at Portsmouth have access to the site.
The toolkit is aimed primarily at student representatives and those who support them. It encourages student reps to prioritise actions they would like to take during their term of office and provides steps they can take to implement and evaluate the effectiveness of their plans.
Levelling the playing field
Students are often engaging on unequal terms with staff – they have more limited access to information and are likely to be less experienced. However, students do have very fresh knowledge of their own and their peers’ learning experiences.
Working closely with your student cohort, you will want to ensure you are hearing a diversity of voices, whether that is diversity of individual characteristics or diversity in study mode. It is important to ensure that all students are comfortable about putting forward a view – knowing their voice will be heard, even if the views they are expressing are not the same as anyone else, is vital to encouraging further engagement and is central to ensuring you have a full understanding of how students are experiencing their education.
Speaking about quality review processes that were moved online during the pandemic lockdowns, some students told the QAA that they found the meetings more ‘democratic’ compared to their previous in person engagement. Something about the discussions taking place online removed the privilege they considered senior academic staff (in particular) had over student representatives on those panels.
Conducting discussions in a digital environment can enable a wider group of students to engage as it removes the need to be in the same physical space. Including some asynchronous discussion opportunities, such as digital whiteboards, can also help students to participate, for example those who are located outside the UK or who have jobs that clash with engagement sessions. Helping students to understand the evidence base for decision-making is really valuable in securing a more equal partnership approach to engagement.
Helping students to understand the evidence base for decision-making is really valuable in securing a more equal partnership approach to engagement
QAA commissioned a Student Guide to Using Evidence which has been highly acclaimed by students and staff. Such was its popularity, we commissioned an adapted version aimed at a staff audience. The guides take the reader through key concepts in qualitative and quantitative evidence, with information on interpreting, gathering and analysing information in support of decision making. Alexander Hedlund (Enhancement Theme Student Lead, 2019-21) said, ‘Combining activity-based learning, infographics and a video-based digital glossary, this modular guide is a one-stop shop for all your evidence needs. You’ll always feel completely prepared when presenting cases in meetings with (its) help.’
We are at an exciting time in higher education – possibly on the cusp of a technological revolution in the way education is delivered and assessed. What this might mean for how students learn, how we interact with them and how academic awards will hold their value, is well worth an engaging conversation.
Author: Dr Ailsa Crum is Director of Membership, Quality Enhancement and Standards at the QAA. She is also a Trustee/Director of Edinburgh Napier Students’ Association.