When me and Livia Scott are out and about training SU Officers over the summer, one of the common post-its in the “minor moans” exercise tends to be about inconsistent use of LMS/VLE systems in universities.
You know the sort of thing – a given student on a given module might log in to find lecture recordings, assessment briefs and deadline details all in place and up to date – only to find that for another module, there’s either nothing there or what is there is out of date.
So at InstructureCon, the edtech conference that I’ve been at all week, I made it my business to pop along to Cottonwood 9 to catch the excellent session run by Liza Zamboglou and Stephanie McCorvie – a couple of educational developers from Queens University Belfast.
Resources all over the place
Having first implemented the Canvas VLE in 2019, by last year some of the feedback they were seeing from students when trying to access information – especially in time sensitive circumstances- was that they really were frustrated by differences between each of their modules.
Egged on by the SU’s PG officer, a workshop and a swift “Top Tasks” survey was revealing – staff had put slides, lecture notes and assignment deadlines as the top things they thought students would be looking for, while students were most concerned with being able to access recordings.
A co-design session facilitated by the Digital Learning team involving students then followed (a service the team now offers out around the university), and a core set of VLE Minimum Standards then emerged. But getting staff to adopt the standards and transfer their modules in the system was trickier:
We wanted to take the heavy lifting off the academics’ shoulders because, as I said in the presentation, we understand that our academic staff are tired. I still think post-pandemic that there’s never really been a chance to catch their breath.
So rather than bombarding already busy staff with endless emails or ever-more threatening invitations to training courses, their pilot solution was to engage a group of eight student consultants to do the work across a range of modules in multiple disciplines – taking existing module information and resources and putting them onto the system in a consistent (and more accessible) way.
Eight paid students from across the university were trained up in both the technical aspects of the VLE and the standard that had been developed and were put to work – developing teamwork and collaboration skills from working together over the 16 week period, acquiring digital skills from using the platform and applying the templates, and reflecting on wider transferable skills that have already benefited their future employment prospects.
The project wasn’t perfect – there’s some learning to be done on how students went about it, and there’s now the question of scaling it. But when I sat down with Liza and Stephanie later, I did have to ask the question – if academic staff were doing it, and the university isn’t funding them in a workload model to do it, isn’t getting students in to do it just an exercise in cheap labour?
I’d expected them to get a smidge defensive at this point – and they naturally were keen to stress the benefits to the students and staff concerned, telling tales of students who’d talked about building their confidence or were asking for references for jobs they would never have considered applying for previously.
But I was trying to get at something. It had struck me in the presentation itself that as well as the personal learning and cash that the group of students had gained, they were in one way engaged in community activity – activity that was building their empathy towards staff and students from multiple disciplines (particularly Disabled students depending on some of the functionality), and working positively to find ways to cause both fellow students and staff to succeed.
In another session at the event, there was a spirited debate surrounding the old question of where to “put” soft skills in the student experience. Some suggested that soft skills should be embedded into academic activity and technical training. Others suggested industry involvement in the development of a soft skills “curriculum”. There was some discussion on the way in which soft skills are often assumed but not explicitly assessed and measured. Others called for the embedding of cultural competence, resilience and self-awareness across all degree programs.
No clear conclusions were reached – and you could almost hear the room thinking “well that wouldn’t fit”, or “that sounds like of a lot of extra work”, or both.
So when I got to the QUB session, the question at the back of my mind was – don’t we want significantly more students to do what those consultants did? And if they learned so much from the experience, why didn’t they acquire academic credit for doing it?
Queens, like almost every other university in the country, has a standard student rep structure – there’s elections, student-staff liaison committees (where I assume, like everywhere else, everyone’s too embarrassed to actually talk about teaching quality) and a structure that implies that a select group of students will give up their time ostensibly to improve education for those around them.
But in an era where courses are bigger, students are more diverse and students (and staff) have less time than ever to give up, those models are under serious strain. So if one of the supposed benefits of higher education is that students will develop empathy for each other, social capital and practical skills – perhaps the question isn’t how Liza and Stephanie persuade the university to fund more consultants.
Maybe the question is whether there ought to be one on every course, acquiring academic credit for their work. Or if you’re more ambitious, why isn’t every student a consultant of this sort? Why isn’t this work factored into their academic workload model?
Credit where it could be due
We might have pulled out of the EU, but the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) is still in use across the UK – and represents learning based on defined learning outcomes and their associated workload.
Under ECTS, students can accumulate the credits required for the achievement of a qualification through a variety of learning modes – they might acquire knowledge, skills and competence in formal, non-formal and informal contexts – and one credit corresponds to 25 to 30 hours of normal work.
So let’s take a worked example. Let’s imagine that you’re operating a model that involves undergraduate students taking four 15 credit modules per semester, building up to 120 credits a year to get to the 360 required for the award.
Now let’s imagine that all first year undergraduates are undertaking an assessed 15 credit module in “becoming a student” in that first semester – there’s plenty there to learn, based on a more personalised assessment of need – which should ensure that both academic departments and students themselves take more seriously everything from understanding academic misconduct to free speech in the context of that discipline.
From there, imagine that all students then must undertake a further 15 credit module in Y1 semester 2, and then one either in semester 1 or 2 in the second and third years. Let’s imagine that those modules span roles as diverse as follows:
- Course Evaluation: Works to evaluate the quality of programmes against the standard criteria and suggests improvements
- Social coordination: Designs and runs activity aimed at other students forming friendships and build social capital
- Orientation coordinators: Designs and runs activities aimed at other students engaging in the course, the campus, and the city
- Student success coordinators: Designs and runs activities to help other students do well, feeding barriers to success to academic and professional services colleagues
- Individual Advocates: Designs and runs interventions aimed at students finding other students to share problems with and signposts to professionals as appropriate
- Study confidence associates: Designs and runs interventions aimed at building study skills and academic confidence in others
- Digital learning specialists: Designs and runs interventions aimed at boosting student and staff understanding of and confidence in digital learning tools
- Career boosters: Designs and runs interventions aimed at boosting the employability of other students in their discipline, often competition/project based
- Access champions: Working with partner schools to boost access to the university and provide mentoring
- Subject specialists: Designs and runs curriculum evaluation and design projects (decol, assessment reform, etc) and co-curricular immersion
I’m talking here about something that’s quite distinct from some of the “employability module” approaches that many universities currently bolt into programmes – and about an approach that could also work for PG students, and interface neatly with an academic community/society strategy being led on by the SU.
It would, yes, need some scaffolding – much of which could, over time, be provided by Level 6, 7 and 8 students – and may even need some paid student staff roles to make it hang together. It would also be important to ensure that the implementation was discipline-based and co-designed by students. Professional services, SU staff and community and industry colleagues would be central to success. And many students would find themselves on project teams across their programme or even the university as events or needs demand it.
But the point is that if we used to think of extra-curricular activities as something that could be done in a student’s spare time, there’s very little of that left for many students. And if we think about the range of things that need doing – with agendas on belonging, free speech, civic engagement, harassment, study skills, mental health and assessment design all placing increasing demands on students’ and staff time – we can either solve all the funding problems overnight, or make time for these activities in the credit system that’s there.
Grounding that activity in the success of others rather than as an opportunity for personal benefits would be important. It would be vital to get assessing it right. And centring it at the nexus of professional expertise, student need, the latest research on what works and the realities of staff and students’ workload would be key to making it work well.
Ultimately, if we now understand the educational value of these activities, the way they build empathy for others, and the way they foster concern for a community’s success rather than just their own, it’s surely time to treat them as such. Students are often keen to know what they need to do to succeed – wouldn’t it be great if the answer was “you demonstrate that you’ve helped others to succeed”?
If any university fancies exploring the idea in partnership with their SU, do invite me or Livia to campus some time soon – we’d be happy to come and run a workshop. You’ll have to pay us, mind. And give us some credit.