Idiot Wind

There’s a fresh breeze blowing through higher education. Wafting through departments the length and breadth of the land is a new concern – student engagement.
Every time a student walks into a lecture hall, seminar room or opens the pages of a textbook, they are engaging with their studies. If a student joins a University committee or gets involved in the Student Union or fills in one of the many feedback questionnaires they receive as a matter of course these days they are engaging. So, ipso facto, students are engaged. In which case, why the worry about student engagement? Why the long faces and the soul searching?
It’s a truth, universally acknowledged, that a senior manager without a policy must be in search of one. I read that in a Jane Austin novel. In other words, if your job is to manage higher education, it is not only in your interests to find new ways of stating the obvious, but, it seems, in your DNA.
So, student engagement – what is it and why should we care?
The question about student engagement is particularly acute in the context of part-time and distant learning. Let’s face it, any time a student wanders on campus they are engaging with the institution at some level, but if there is no campus for them to walk onto, then what?
This is a question that looms large in the psyche of my own institution, The Open University. Essentially, and giving away no state secrets, our problem is this. Roughly speaking we have retention levels of about 70% at Level One, 80% at Level Two and 90% at Level Three. A level typically takes two years to complete, and we know that we leak students at a rate of approximately 10% between modules and levels. What this means is that for every hundred students who start with the OU about 17 end up with degrees. Fortunately, we recruit in the high thousands every year, so our degree ceremonies are under no immediate threat.
Some of the reasons for this completion rate are difficult for us to do anything about. Students drop out for the reasons they drop out anywhere, mostly life changing events – new jobs, homes, medical conditions, babies, bereavement etc. In addition, given our open access policy a fair few students find that higher education is not the breeze they had hoped it would be and give up. But, and here’s the rub, we also lose students for none of these reasons. Students whose lives have not changed and who are more than capable of achieving their goals. They just leave.
In the literature, oh yes there is a literature on this stuff, student engagement is defined in two ways. The first is the ‘market model of student engagement’ in which students are seen primarily as consumers. The second is the ‘developmental model’ in which students are partners in their own education. I know how I prefer to think of the students I come into contact with.
It seems to me that a lot of the problem with this agenda, as with so many others in HE, is that it arrives pre-packaged by senior managers and administrators somewhat removed from the learning experience. This means that policies are assessed on the measurable outcomes, hence the currently in vogue notion of analytics. Whilst any academic worth the price of their salary knows only too well that keeping students engaged is only partially related to their studies, managers with quotas to fill want to know what the year-on-year increase in percentage terms of any particular policy is. Worse, give them a percentage and they give you a quota to reach.
If engagement is simply a case of finding enough students to fill the numerous committees that consume the waking hours of every university, then it is easily achieved. But, without any reference to the ways in which students themselves think of their own engagement with their institutions.
As social scientists we know that a person’s identity is both complex and in a constant state of flux. Students may think of themselves as part of a learning community, but that does not mean that they only think of themselves in that way. They remain husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, workers, etc. in engaging students we need to think beyond the student-as-learner paradigm. In particular, we have to start moving away from the dependency model of education where academics are drip-feeding students knowledge on a bit-by-bit basis.
At The Open University, we in the Faculty of Social Sciences are exploring the possibilities of students as partners in an exciting new initiative. In July this year we are hosting an online student conference in which we aim to attract around 1,000 students for a week of talks, videos, debates and poster presentations. This is the first time we have attempted anything on this scale, and the first time as far as we are aware that such a conference has been aimed at undergraduate students. What is exciting and different, is not just the scale, but the fact that we are going to have students presenting alongside and on an equal footing with established academics.
Supporting the conference are a range of activities aimed at encouraging students to think that their experiences, views and opinions are not just valid, but worth sharing. One of the supporting initiatives – This Student Life – was discussed in Thinking Socially during its recording. It is now out there and, on the whole, getting a very favourable reaction. Though one Facebook reviewer wanted to know ‘What idiot’s stupid idea was this?’, hence the title of this post.
As the idiot with the stupid idea, I would point out that the idea of an audio drama focussing on the lives of three Open University students is an attempt to provide, what are often isolated students, with some role models encountering situations which are similar to those of other, ordinary, students.
Whilst we lose students through all the reasons that we can do little about we also lose students who lose their motivation. Students who, falsely, believe that they are not capable of completing a degree. Students who miss a deadline, have a drop in grades or simply just find a module challenging who believe that they are the only ones experiencing these things. This Student Life and another new initiative The PodMag are designed to fill the void that the Student Union and coffee bars in campus-based universities fill. If you would like to listen to The PodMag, its only 12 minutes each week, you can subscribe here. This Student Life will also be available to the rest of the World shortly.
These three initiatives are radical in that they are not attached to any particular module/qualification/department but are aimed at, and accessible to, all social science students at the OU. We are aiming to do two things. First, we want to encourage students to develop as social scientists by taking part in an event that mirrors what social scientists do. Second, we want to break the isolation that many students face by providing them with 20 minutes of audios each week that connect them to the Faculty and to other students.
And, guess what? This initiative was not pre-packaged by senior management and won’t be judged on a percentage increase of any type. It will be a success if, and only if, it is supported and liked by students. Early feedback suggests it will. Perhaps, not an idiot wind, more a breeze floating through the academic world.

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