Teaching quality- a sticky wicked problem?

Policymakers love numbers, measurement, clarity, performance indicators, benchmarking… even if that means using flawed proxies.

Witness all of the recent efforts to measure teaching quality – for example the current subject level Teaching Excellence Framework, and Student Outcomes pilots including teaching intensity and learning gain. It is the same story internationally – the OECD piloted their PISA test in 2015 (involving 500,000 15 year olds) and the Academically Adrift work in the USA.

Having recently spent two days at sector events focussed on the use of data, learning analytics, measuring learning gain etc I am even more convinced that academic quality enhancement is a definitive “wicked problem”; it is complex, messy, there are multiple factors to consider and it is very difficult to measure. Policymakers don’t like wicked problems, for obvious reasons! So, are there any lessons we might learn from outwith the education sphere that might help us grasp this rather prickly, troublesome and elusive nettle?

Stickiness and intangibility

Back in 2000, Malcolm Gladwell famously wrote “The Tipping Point- how little things can make a big difference” and one of the three concepts presented is the “stickiness factor”. In essence, Gladwell argues that stickiness is a quality that compels people to pay close, sustained attention leading to higher impact. This could apply to a product, concept, idea or message. The Stickiness Factor is, therefore, potentially extremely powerful with wide ranging applications. Another of his concepts worthy of consideration is that of the “intangible economy”. The central argument is that key to successful companies nowadays are assets such as branding, marketing, social media, design and technology, none of which are easily measurable or concrete in the same sense as buildings, machines and hardware, or resources (financial, human) that might more tangibly define a company’s worth.

Since stumbling upon the concept of the “sticky campus” at a learning spaces conference a couple of years ago, I have been a convert to both the simplicity of the idea and the complexity of actually going about it. Fundamentally, it is about creating the right kind of (holistic) learning environment where our students will want to come and stay. There is a wealth of evidence that shows students who have a strong sense of belonging and connectedness with their peers and staff, who feel supported and a part of their university’s learning community, are more likely to successfully complete their studies and fulfil their potential.

So, taking the concepts of stickiness factors and sticky campuses together, maybe we should consider an overarching “sticky philosophy” to university education and enhancement encompassing a sticky campus, sticky pedagogy, sticky staff development, sticky change management etc? Let’s now add some intangibles into the mix. Stickiness as applied to teaching quality equates to engagement and related constructs such as social learning, and active participation. These are recognised contributory factors for successful communities of practice and are all wonderfully intangible and difficult to quantify. Things are looking a lot more wicked…

Enhancement – competitive or collective?

Coming back to policy and directions of travel; in Scotland and England the divergence around quality assurance and enhancement in higher education is increasing at a pace, driven by the current ongoing reforms in England. Enhancement is now seen as market-driven and competitive in England – but in Scotland it is seen as a sector-wide collective, collaborative endeavour. That is not to say that data and evidence are deemed unimportant – quite the opposite, the current quality Enhancement Theme is entitled: “Evidence for Enhancement: improving the student experience”.

At last week’s 15th annual Enhancement Themes conference the QAA embraced, perhaps subconsciously, their inner stickiness with an engaging format for the event – the closing plenary workshop entitled: “Happiness in higher education: influencing the dynamic of wellbeing in the academic world” was wonderfully intangible yet very powerful. Certainly it raised for me some of the serious challenges we face today in terms of student mental health and wellbeing, the potentially adverse effects of providing students with too much choice and dangers of social media leading to chronic dissatisfaction and a FOMO (fear of missing out) culture.

The sticky, intangible theme was carried on the next day with another QAA-led workshop entitled “Using evidence: personalising the student experience. In conversation with….”. The format of the event deliberately focussed on engagement and interaction between the speakers and participants to really probe the issues, sources of evidence and their application, thereby enhancing the impact of the workshop. It was also notable that in the room were representatives from the funding council and QAA as well as institutional representatives, all engaging as peers- this fact was commented on by the small number of English representatives who felt this was in contrast to the direction of travel down south and very refreshing.

One of the keynotes at the event was Ian Dunn, the DVC (Student Experience) at Coventry University, an institution that has very successfully used data to improve their students’ learning experience and graduate outcomes whilst maintaining the importance of engagement and wider role of the university in the community. Key learning points for me was Ian’s clear passion for student learning and the importance of the human elements to academic leadership in this era of data i.e. integrity, empathy, humility, listening, face to face contact etc.

New sources of data and their integration and triangulation are opening up vast new areas of research into the student learning experience and teaching quality but the sector needs to embrace the wicked nature of the problem and recognise that measurement does not boil down to simple metrics. Despite this era of hard data, performance indicators, constrained resources and increased competition, we need to continue to be open to sharing and engaging with our neighbours, for mutual benefit. It is time to get sticky!

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