Meeting Student Expectations 6: The Student Journey

[:en]I joined Birmingham University in the early 1990s just as they were embarking on modularisation. It took colleagues some time to get their heads around what that meant for the programme and for their own teaching. It was my role at the time to begin to rethink the undergraduate programme in a way that reflected some of the positive elements of the older system (effectively three years learning, all assessed by final year examinations, and an extensive use of small group tutorials) and yet fitted in to the new framework. I can remember being very frustrated because my colleagues did not want to go for full flexibility, what colleagues referred to as ‘pick and mix’, something that was seen as an imposition of American models. Ultimately, however, the Theology and Religion programmes probably ended up with something closer to the US model than many other disciplines within the university at that time.

Like all other UK higher education institutions, however, Birmingham only ever went so far in modularisation, and tried to maintain a balance between the idea of progression between levels and open student choice. On the whole, therefore, I would suggest that the resulting experimentation with the modular has never really worked. We have a hybrid system that gives the impression of choice to the students, but sets so many restrictions on what we, as academics and programme planners, can or cannot do that any kind of innovation or experimentation in learning is immediately squashed. I was immediately struck, on coming to Swansea three years ago, by the number of colleagues who told me about the exciting things they would like to do in learning and teaching and yet, they said, the modular structure did not allow them to do it.

The Swansea Graduate project is one attempt to move us beyond that kind of impasse. As with learning outcomes in a module, it begins at the end, although this time of a programme, and asks what knowledge, skills, experience and mindset (or characteristics) do we want our students to leave with as they graduate from the University. The plan is then to work backwards and to develop the strategy, over three or four years, by which all students on a programme have the opportunity to gain that knowledge, learn the skills, share the experience and develop the mindset. This approach asks us to look, in some detail, at the student’s journey, from the transition from school or college discussed in my previous blog, through their degree, to the final outcome.

This kind of approach could generate many different trajectories, depending on the discipline or the programme. We could, for example, take more advantage of programme level assessment and small group project work, drawing on the best elements of earlier models of programme development. We could embed competency based task that need to be passed on a pass/fail basis rather than needing to provide grades and detailed marking schemes. Some of the professional programmes in medicine and nursing, for example, already go a long way down this approach, but is it something that could be adapted for other disciplines? We could develop a more integrated approach to our programmes, recognising that different elements of the degree are not isolated units, but come together, talk to each other, and enable students to develop a more rounded understanding of the discipline.

It also suggests that we could be much more flexible with modular structures, offering 60 credit modules, for example, which contained within them a much wider range of formative experiences, or being more flexible in our definitions of modular weight over the three or four years of the degree. What we need to do is to put the learning of the student first, to think through critically what the students need to learn, or to experience, in order to achieve the learning outcomes of the programme, and then to sit much more loosely to the modular structures, adapting them where necessary to achieve the goals we want for our students, rather than using them as a straight jacket to control our teaching and assessments.

Much of this would, of course, involve changes to regulations and definitions, but all of that is already under our own control. It may also raise challenges about the equivalence of student experience across programmes, and the development of joint honours programmes across the University, but these are challenges that can be faced, and can be overcome. What it does allow is for the needs of the students, and the design of their learning to determine the structures, rather than the other way around.


Meeting Student Expectations 5: Transition and Retention

[:en]Last week I outlined, over the four previous blogs, how the experience for students in the twenty-first century has changed due to markitization, changes in information technology, changes in the world of work, and a decrease in mental well-being. For all these reasons, therefore, we need to make changes to the way in which we teach, in which students learn, to our curriculum, and to our portfolio of programmes. We also need to make changes in the expectations we have of our students and the expectations they should have of us. Once again, therefore, I will outline four possible responses to these changes over the next four days. It is not that one response relates to each one of the issues raised last week. Each response addresses a number of the issues that have already been raised. It is through a combination of each of these responses, and many more, that I would suggest that we can perhaps find a way forward.

First of all, therefore, we need to put far greater emphasis on the transition from school, or college, to university. We have very little time, especially from results day, or clearing, to the time students come to university. We still have to ask, however, what is it that is needed in order to prepare those students for such a significant change in their lives.

Students are facing new experiences, new ways of learning, new friends, new expectations. I have always said that a single week of induction is never going to provide all that a new student needs for three years of life at university. They do not have a chance to take in, within that week, all the new things that they need to know. In the past I have used the core first year module, that I taught for all the theology and religion programmes at Birmingham, as part of a process of extended induction; introducing students to the information, skills and experiences they need as they need them through the first, and into the second term of their first year.

Many universities are now taking advantage of online technology to provide open access online courses that students can work their way through before they arrive. Others begin to establish online communities, through social media, between new and existing students in order to bring students together and to provide a context for belonging before the students even arrive, extending this in to peer buddy systems that provides support between first and second years through the first year of their studies.

Are we sure, however, that this is going to be enough? All the evidence shows that student retention is rooted in a sense of belonging and that this does not occur by accident. We have to work hard, both within the subject area and across the university, to give students that sense of belonging, a sense that they are valued and have something to offer to the wider institution.

The way we expect students to learn is also significantly different from anything they have experienced before. They need to overcome their fears, to adjust, but also to have an opportunity to try things out, and perhaps even to fail before the activities have a lasting effect on their degree outcomes.

It is also in these first few weeks that many of the values that we want our students to leave with need to be instilled, including a commitment to attendance, the confidence to work with peers, to communicate effectively and to present in front of others, to commit to activities that need to be undertaken, and above all to know that they can achieve their very best, with our support, if they are prepared to put the work in.

Do we, therefore, need to rethink how we manage our first year programmes, to provide more time and concentrated activity, perhaps for the first half of the first term? This does not mean that we abandon disciplinary teaching during this period and concentrate solely on skills, or bonding exercises. Engaging in such activities without reference to the discipline seldom works and often leads to boredom among students. It is possible, however, to think of some kind of group project, for example, that at one and the same time enables students to meet other students and work together (perhaps also with second year students), to get used to a very different way of learning, to learn useful skills and to test out possibilities, and also to give us the chance to assess the students, setting a benchmark for future learning gain, and also providing a personalised framework for skills and other development for each individual student.

Whatever it is that we choose to do, it must always be the needs and experience of the students that come first, putting the more detailed disciplinary learning off to later in the year. If we manage the transition correctly, then we will have less difficulty with retention, and the ability of students to engage and to learn will also be improved, making the whole experience a much more positive one for all involved.


Meeting Student Expectations 4: Well-being, Anxiety, Reslience

[:en]There has been a great deal of discussion in the media around the levels of mental health within the student population. We have seen, within our own institution, a steady rise, year on year, of those students who are coming forward and seeking advice and counselling. It is putting an incredible strain on our welfare systems and, when I talk to Head Teachers from the local secondary schools and further education colleges then I am told that what we are seeing is only the tip of the ice berg, there is what one Head described as a tsunami of issues coming our way in the next few years.

There are many explanations of what is happening. Some say that this is a response to social media, a lack of direct personal contact between young people, the developing of social bubbles, the exposure to a constant stream of comment, comparison and criticism, a response to ‘like’ culture and the need to be ‘liked’. Others look to parents, the constant sense of threat to young people, a growing need to protect young people from the perceived dangers of modern society, or perhaps a response to the kind of informal, close and friendship-based relationship between parents and children, a lack of discipline and control. Others again blame schools, the spoon feeding of knowledge, teaching to exams, the stress that young people feel, from a very early age, to perform in order to raise the league table positions of their schools.

Whatever the source, the reality is obvious from all the statistics. The number of students approaching welfare services, doctors, counselors and other professionals is undoubtedly rising fast and this reflects real issues, not just a generation of those who cannot cope with the pressures of the real world.

It is arguable that all the other issues that I have raised over the last few days in terms of marketization, growth in digital technology, concerns around job prospects in and ever changing world, and so on, contribute to this growing issue of mental stress and insecurity among students. It is perhaps this area of student welfare that is going to be the most pressing problem that all higher education institutions will face in the next few years.

This is not directly related to learning and teaching, but we would be foolish to believe that that there is no connection. It will be much more difficult for all of us to engage in traditional approaches to learning and teaching if those who are engaging with us are finding it increasingly difficult to cope. There have to be changes, and changes at a very fundamental level.

Many universities, for example, are already looking, as we are, at programmes to encourage resilience, mindfulness, peer support and many other processes in order to support their students. A few are even asking whether we need to change, fundamentally, our ideas about what a University is, and the expectation we put on students through the process of doing a degree. That is something that, I believe, we have to take seriously, and something that has driven our thinking, here in Swansea, about how the curriculum and related issues should be developed into the future.


Meeting Student Expectations 3: Transforming the World of Work

[:en]In the previous blog I spoke about the way in which digital technology was affecting the day to day lives of students, and their engagement with learning and teaching. It is not only the individual student’s engagement with technology, however, that is being affected by the digital revolution. The whole of society, and most particularly, the world of work is also being transformed by the role of the digital. With the rise of miniaturisation and the development of artificial intelligence many areas of our lives are being transformed by machines. The inevitable result of this will be that many of the jobs that our students are hoping to move into when they complete their degrees will have been totally transformed by the time they graduate or may even have disappeared completely. This is clearly a worry for the students but should also be a concern for us as an institution.

Many areas of the University are tackling this issue head on. Engineering is working on, and preparing their students for, the fourth generation of manufacturing. Law has chosen to place legal tech at the centre of their strategic plan and therefore to place themselves at the leading edge of their discipline. The opening of the new Computational Foundry on the Bay Campus next month is a clear reflection of the changing landscape and the need for us, as a University, to think through the implications of the new industrial revolutions, just as Swansea as a city responded so positively to the first industrial revolution of the nineteenth century. The College of Arts and Humanities is also investing significantly in digital humanities, placing a thread of digital engagement in all its degree programmes and using the recently opened Taliesin Create as a space for experimentation and development in this area. Engaging with the digital is an essential strategy for all of us, and it is one that we are already adjusting to across the University.

The issue, however, goes deeper than any one discipline, or any one profession. The nature of work, the concept of a career and the fundamental ways in which students need to prepare themselves for life have to change. Part of this is focusing on the processes which underpin the technological advances, increasing the digital literacy of our students. For many this will consist of knowing how to engage and interact with the digital. For a significant majority it will also need to include experience of programming and an understanding of how to build and manage the structures and machines that will play such a significant role in their lives. There are ethical and social elements to this knowledge as well as purely technical skills. This will demand a whole new way of thinking, rooted, necessarily, in the thinking of the past, but focused on new challenges and new problems for the future.

There is also the question of how to manage a career in the new digital world. How to adapt to an ever changing landscape of new technological innovations and the impacts they will have on particular professions, or the new professions that will emerge. Flexibility and resilience are words that are often used in relation to the needs of students entering the world of work in the early twenty-first century. Others have argued that emotional intelligence and social skills will be just as important, if not more important, than the traditional emphasis on academic qualifications.

We also need to prepare entrepreneurs; the leaders, developers and moulders of this new landscape. This will demand a very different set of skills, a mixing of creativity, with technical know how and business acumen. Such interdisciplinary approaches will demand a new way of thinking about the traditional disciplinary degrees and offer exciting possibilities for original thinking in this field.

What kind of career trajectory can we expect our students to have? What skills are they going to need? What kinds of values and characteristics? There are no easy answers to any of these questions, but if we don’t teach, or engage with students, in a way that takes such issues seriously then we will be doing a disservice to our students and leaving them with less than they need for their futures.


Meeting Student Expectations 2: Access to Knowledge

[:en]Over the last ten to twenty years we have seen an unprecedented growth in the use of mobile phones and online technologies. Students today exist in a very different world, and have very different experiences, not only from our own student days, but in most cases from our own contemporary lives.

Much has been made of the concept of ‘digital natives’, but this, I think, needs to be treated with caution as it often suggests too much understanding of how the technology works, rather than the experiences of living within it. Many young people today grow up engaging with a wide variety of information. They are natural multi-taskers, flipping between platforms and between media. Their attention span may, or may not, be reduced (the literature is ambivalent on this) but the ability to switch constantly between many different sets of stimuli is inherent. This inevitably means that the students’ access to knowledge, and to understanding, is changing. The medium does affect the message, and the learning style has to change with changing technology.

Swansea University, like many other HE institutions, is already looking at a very wide range of alternative approaches to learning and teaching, with a large blended learning pilot, the arrival of the ‘sticky campus’, developments in active learning and a major conference this September on the use of virtual and alternative realities in learning and teaching (the first of its kind in the UK). This does not automatically mean, however, that the lecture is dead. At its best the lecture is also a performance, and the performance of teaching still has a very significant role in education. Live performance still has a significant role within the digitally enhanced world, as we saw in the recent crowds coming to the Radio One Big Weekend in Singleton Park here in Swansea.

I still remember sitting in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, waiting for a colleague, and watching the visitors moving from art work to art work, snapping the image on their phone and then moving on, never allowing the art to engage with them directly, and never allowing time for the art to capture their imaginations or emotions. Today, of course, it would not just be the capturing of the image that is made possible by the phone. Through Snapchat and Instagram the image is immediately shared and the individual visitor’s personal interaction with the art is instantaneously shared with an online community, becoming part of a collective engagement, not necessarily with the art itself, but with the visitor’s presence in front of the authentic and the real.

What then is happening within the lecture? Which wider communities are being created and engaged with as the performance is unfolding? How do students curate the knowledge and experiences they gain from that lecture, from other student’s comments, from literature and from many other sources? As we move into a post-literary world, then new methods of learning, or refashioned forms of learning (maybe associated with the apprenticeship model, or collective experimentation) will have an increasingly important role within the wider learning experience. We cannot easily predict where this will lead, but we need to be open to the possibilities, and constantly experimenting with new forms of engagement.

I have often been told, since I came into higher education, in the early nineteen nineties, that technology would lead to the death of the lecture and a complete rethink of how students learn within universities. For much of the last twenty five years or so that has been a hope (sometimes a threat) but the old ways have continued. I have progressed from overhead projectors, through PowerPoint and Prezi, to the embedding of video and other multi-media engagements, but in practice little has really changed. I do believe, however, that the rise of social media, the multi-level instantaneous engagement that is now expected by students is about to lead to very dramatic changes, and we need to be ready for this.


Meeting Student Expectations 1: Fees, Commercialization and Marketization

[:en]The primary driver for many of our discussions around Go Beyond and the new curriculum here at Swansea has been the changing needs and increasing pressures on students. Over the next eight days (four this week, and four next week) I am going to upload, in a series of blogs, a presentation I gave at the SALT Conference on 18th July, that asks how the needs and expectations of students are changing and what we should, perhaps, be doing in order to meet those needs.

We sometimes assume that the fundamental student experience has not changed that dramatically for the last ten, twenty, or even fifty years. Students may drink less today, they may be more motivated to work harder, they may spend more time on their mobiles during lectures, but fundamentally, being a student is much the same today as it was when we were students. Life is made up of lectures, seminars, labs, writing essays, completing exams and so on, with a healthy dose of social life, extra-curricular activities and, perhaps here in Swansea, the odd barbecue on the beach thrown in.

I want to suggest that, in very real ways, that is not the case, and that the pressures on students today, combined with some significant changes to the wider context, mean that the student experience in 2018 is very different from what it was in the late twentietentury, and, I would argue, very different from what it was ten, or even five, years ago.

Over the next four days I want to identify four changes in particular that have transformed the student experience in the last few years:

1. Fees, Commercialization and Marketization

We often hear colleagues within the university sector bemoaning the commercialization or marketization of higher education. Some set out to fight against it. Some deny it, insisting that the relationship we have with students is not that of customer, or even client, and providers. Few would want to welcome it. I am certainly not suggesting we should do that, but we should recognise the reality of the new environment.

However the fees are paid, and however much any single student actually ends up paying, there is a strong sense, among the student body, that they are paying for a service, and that they are entering into considerable debt in order to do so. Value for money is not simply a government slogan. Only a third of those students who completed the most recent HEA/HEPI survey felt that they were getting ‘value for money’. This year the survey also asked what it was that students meant by value for money. The results focused less on contact hours, as the government has assumed, and more on teaching quality and access to resources. The same was clear in a debate I organised among our own students. The science and engineering students could see where their money was being spent, on labs and equipment, but the arts students, while being very complimentary about the academic staff, could not identify the same kind of spend or resources (physical or digital) as in the STEM subjects.

An interesting extra element that has come out of this discussion at a national level is that students want to be challenged and feel short changed if less is expected of them. They want to be pushed and they want to see that they are gaining in knowledge and learning something that is new, relevant and of value to them in their future career.

There is, however, another side to commercialisation, and that is the way in which it makes the students feel. Many students talk of feeling diminished, unappreciated, ‘mere customers’ and not valued as individual learners. There has been a rapid growth across HE in recent years, not just in Swansea. Students are increasingly finding it difficult to adjust. They feel alienated from the institution, increasingly even from their own disciplinary home, and find few points of meaningful contact with staff (academic or professional services) or the institution.

We may think that the obvious solution to these problems is to stop growing, to focus more fully on the students that we do have. Unfortunately, this is not an option. Student fees in recent years have not been rising and the gap between inflationary rises in costs, including staff costs, against an essentially static income, has inevitably led to larger class sizes. We may think that we are uniquely placed in these terms, but that is far from the case, and there is growing dissatisfaction among the student body across the sector about the way that this impacts on student experience. A number of other universities are already extending the teaching day and developing other methods in order to address this problem. There are no simple solutions, but we do need to recognise the changes that have occurred and to reflect on what we need to do as an institution in order to address them.


The Icing on the Cake

[:en]The end of the 2017-18 academic year here in Swansea has been something special, especially for those of us who put the experience of our students at the heart of all that we do.

In June we were told that we had the Gold TEF award, providing recognition for all that we do to support our students, the learning and teaching that we provide and the opportunities that we offer, especially for those who come from non-traditional backgrounds.

A few weeks later we learnt that we were within the top ten in the UK for graduate prospects, cementing all the incredible work that we have been doing for a number of years to embed employability into all our programmes and to offer world class experiences through international exchange, work placements, entrepreneurship and volunteering.

At the end of last week, we received the NSS results and discovered that we are now one of the top five universities in the UK for overall student satisfaction, despite the fact that we are no longer the small cosy single campus university that we used to be.

All of this, of course, was crowned by a week of celebration in the graduations, that point in the academic year when we recognise the achievements of our students, acknowledge all the hard work and dedication that has gone into each and every one of their results, and send them out, with our best wishes, into the world of work, or further study. It is always an amazing time of year and one that, personally, makes me very proud of the all the work that we do here in Swansea University.

It is always good to be recognised, to get the awards and the position in the league tables, but that is only a small part, the icing on the cake if you like, of what it is that really makes me proud to be part of the learning and teaching community here in Swansea.

The event, over the last couple of months, that will, perhaps, stay with me most clearly was the SALT conference: a gathering of over 250 colleagues coming together on the Bay Campus to celebrate, and to learn from each other, what is most important about learning and teaching, and student support, here at Swansea.

In the same week the Times Higher Education Supplement hosted an international learning and teaching conference in Glasgow University, and in writing up that conference the THE chose to highlight three contributions that the editors felt were particularly significant or innovative. They highlighted the vice-principle of Glasgow University’s contribution in defence of the lecture, and the wider debate about active learning vs lecturing that is so prominent in the sector at the current time. They highlighted the Dean of the University of California, Irvine, School of Education who is concerned about the impact of declining student attendance and engagement on the quality of education. And they highlighted another vice-principle of Glasgow University who argued that it was not worth building new, innovative and exciting teaching spaces unless we offered training to colleagues on how to use them.

What I found particularly interesting was that it was not just at the international event at Glasgow that these issues were being discussed. All three of these concerns and debates were also addressed, often by more than one speaker, as part of our own SALT conference. Swansea is not sitting out, on the edge of the core debates on learning and teaching in the sector, we have colleagues who are grappling with these very issues, and providing their own solutions, on a day to day basis. It is this commitment and enthusiasm, especially from those who are relatively new to teaching at a University level, that has set us apart and enabled us to achieve the kind of accolades that have been showered upon us over the last couple of months.

However, it is more than this. What the SALT conference offers is an opportunity to share ideas and practices, experiments and developments that colleagues have been working with all year. The conference also enables a level of debate, disagreement and challenge to some of our long-held assumptions. It is this freedom to explore, to work with students, seeking in a spirit of co-creation, what is best for them, supported and encouraged by colleagues in SALT, that creates such a sense of excitement about learning and teaching, and wider levels of student support, employability and welfare across the University. It is truly inspirational to be part of such a day and to learn from colleagues from all parts of the institution. Given this commitment and enthusiasm, this experimentation and drive to work closely with students and colleagues, it is not at all surprising that we are an institution that is nationally recognised as leading in learning and teaching, as well as being one of the country’s leading research-intensive universities.

All we need to do now is to apply all that learning and teaching once again, to push that little bit further and to show the same absolute commitment to our students that we always see across the University and next year, who knows, we might do even better![:]

Congratulations on a Gold TEF

[:en]Later today we are going to celebrate, as a community, the award of a Gold TEF to Swansea University. This is an incredible achievement and something that everybody, across the institution, both staff and students, should be very proud of.

We were somewhat disappointed to be awarded a Silver award last year, but that did reflect where the University was at that point. So much more work has been done over the last year and some of the projects and initiatives that had been started three years ago, when I arrived, have only really come to fruition and begun to have an impact in the last year. What was most surprising, and reassuring, when we came to develop the TEF submission for this year was just how far the University had moved, and all the work that has been done, around employability, academic mentoring, student voice, technology enhanced learning, feedback and assessment, and much more besides, that has made such a significant impact even in that short space of time. It was, in fact, surprisingly easy to demonstrate within the TEF submission just how far we had traveled. It is so fantastic, therefore, to see that recognised and rewarded in this year’s Gold award.

What this also demonstrates, of course, is just how many people across the whole institution have been involved and how many different people can claim some credit for the award of the Gold TEF. These kinds of achievement are never the work of one person, or even a small group of senior managers or professional services. We would never have achieved such a great outcome without all the hard work, and commitment of staff and students across the University. We can seek out ideas and initiatives, as we did with STEP4Excellence, beginning with a visioning day three years ago, bringing together staff and students to ask what needs to change to achieve a radical improvement in student engagement. We can set up working parties, seek staff and students to lead on a range of initiatives. We can work with champions in each College, seeing how they can inspire and challenge their colleagues to make meaningful changes on the ground. We can provide the professional services support, the training and practical interventions from each of the Academies. In the end, however, it is the way in which the staff and students in each of our colleges come together, work together and achieve their local results that ultimately makes the difference and achieves a result such as the Gold TEF.

To begin to offer thanks, therefore, would take pages and pages and pages. My personal thanks goes to all our staff, across all seven Colleges, those who take on extra responsibilities, those who make that extra special effort for their students, those who seek out new opportunities for improving their learning and teaching, that is, of course, all of you! Overseeing this activity are also the Directors of Learning and Teaching in each of the Colleges, colleagues with whom I am honoured to work on a daily basis and the leaders of this activity that make so much else possible.

I would also want to offer thanks to staff in the various Academies and across the professional services. Student engagement, and improving the student experience, is a collective effort and something that is central to all our different roles, something that we all take extremely seriously, and I thank all our staff for their commitment and professionalism. And, once again, to a small group of colleagues, the Directors and senior leaders in each of the Academies, heads of professional service units and others whose commitment to the cause of student experience really does set Swansea apart as somewhere special.

I would also want to thank our colleagues in the Student’s Union, without whom none of this would have happened. To watch their work, over the last three years, the growth in student representation, the growth in confidence of the full time officers, the support that is given to academic societies across the institution, and the many important and transformational ideas that have come from the Union and the wider student body, is phenomenal and I am really grateful for their support and enthusiasm.

Finally, therefore, I do have to thank the team that brought together the final document. Some of the unsung heroes of this kind of activity are those who are fully on top of our data. We made many significant, and probably impossible demands on the data teams, in order to understand what the metrics meant and to demonstrate the impact of so many of our initiatives. Without them this submission would not have been possible. However, it was also the drafters, the writers and editors who put in weeks of work to make the final submission possible. Two names, particularly, need to be mentioned, Rob Bowen who managed all the final data analysis, and Melissa Wood who co-ordinated the whole activity, and without whom we would not have achieved the spectacular outcome that we have. My personal thanks goes to both of them.

Many thanks, therefore, to all our colleagues and to all our students. It is an amazing achievement and one that we can all be justly proud of. All that remains now is to go out and celebrate (and, of course, to begin the work of sustaining and improving all those wonderful activities that have got us this far!).[:]

Celebrating STEP4Excellence

[:en]Towards the end of last week, a small crowd gathered in the new Taliesin Create in order to mark the end of STEP4Excellence and to celebrate all that it had achieved over the last three years. As we gathered, there were those who asked exactly what it was that this programme, aimed at creating a step change in student experience at Swansea University, had actually achieved. They were finding it difficult to identify anything very specific.

As we listened to the various presentations, however, from staff and students who have been involved in the programme over the last three years, two answers emerged in response to these initial questions. What became clear is that a number of things that we now take entirely for granted within the life of the University, originated in, or were inspired by, elements of STEP4Excellence. This showed just how well embedded the programme had actually become in the life of the University. The other answer came in the first presentation. When the programme was originally established, in September 2015, we identified four themes including learning and teaching, student engagement, academic and pastoral support and culture change. The first presentation opened on the theme of culture change. This was the strand of the programme, we were informed, that never really came together, that could never identify any specific activities to take forward. Looking back over three years, however, and at all that the programme had achieved, it was clear that it was in the area of culture change, across the whole University, that STEP4Excellence had had its most substantial impact.

STEP4Excellence was launched with a visioning day to which academic staff, professional services colleagues and student representatives were invited and encouraged to think creatively about what it was that could truly transform the student experience at Swansea. Nothing, we said, would be off the table and we encouraged colleagues to think big and to think the unthinkable. It was on that day that the four initial themes were established, with academic and pastoral support being added as a theme by the students themselves. It was also on that day that we established the principle that each theme was to be co-led by both a member of staff (whether academic or professional services) and a full-time officer from the Students Union. We were very lucky in that many of the officers at the Union from that year also stood for the following year giving two full years of close student co-operation and leadership within the programme. This was essential for the success of many elements of STEP4Excellence, but also underpinned the substantial culture change that the programme helped to instill.

Many activities that we now take for granted, or are piloting and moving out across the University, came out of this initial work. This included the transformation of personal tutoring into academic mentoring and the establishment of the student life network that was set up to transform student welfare support. The growth of student participation and representation in student forums, at all levels within the University, was also one of the primary achievements of the student involvement in the programme. We also developed projects around co-creation in assessment and feedback, the reinforcing of student led academic societies, renewed student engagement and feedback processes, the exchange of student representatives with other universities, and, with more emphasis on staff, the development of a renewed CPD process for teachers. In each of these projects it was the partnership between students and staff that led to transformational proposals and, in some cases, creative and radical approaches to long standing projects. The number of students who are now actively involved in planning and implementing activities across the University, from academic societies within subject areas and departments, through to student representation on all our major University committees, has grown significantly over the last three years, and that, apart from any of the specific projects, has led to a clear culture change across the institution.

Towards the end of the celebration colleagues from the College of Engineering gave a presentation that brought together a number of the threads and initiatives involved in STEP4Excellence and showed how, through a concerted and combined effort between staff and students, they had set about to transform the student experience within the College over the last year. This included giving student representatives from the various programmes a much higher profile within the College and using a wide variety of very innovative methods of engaging with students and involving them in decision making. The metrics that were offered, based on the student experience survey, show that even within one year these activities have made a significant difference to student satisfaction across the College and it is clear that this work will continue to grow and develop even though STEP4Excellence as a programme will now be wound down at the University level.

STEP4Excellence was, as I said, established through a joint initiative between staff and students, and at all times was co-led by academic staff, professional services staff and students. Three years on, however, much of what was initiated by the programme, has become business as usual, and is being picked up by various bodies, committees, or College initiatives, such as that in Engineering. The current, and incoming officers at the Student’s Union, however, have far less investment in this programme than their predecessors. They have different agendas, different skills and new, innovative ideas that they want to take forward beyond STEP4Excellence. It is time, therefore, for STEP4Excellence to move out of the way and for a new approach to student experience to be explored. We have to go back, perhaps, to the visioning event, engage with a new body of students, in a very different world, with different priorities, and to ask, once again, what it is that we at Swansea need to do now, in 2018, to once again make a step change in student experience across the University. That is something I look forward to leading through into the new academic year and beyond.

Finally, therefore, could I take this opportunity to thank all the many colleagues, academic and professional services staff, and our students, for all the hard work that they have put into STEP4Excellence over the last three years. we can all be very proud of all that it has achieved, particularly the dramatic culture change in student engagement across the University.[:]

Educational Technology in Texas and Swansea

[:en]Over the last two weeks I have been travelling across Texas with a few colleagues from Swansea looking at the way in which Universities across the state have been using and developing educational technology in their programmes. It has been a real eye opener and a very informative trip, with a number of distinct possibilities for us to follow up and to link with colleagues in Texas on specific projects that will no doubt benefit the University back here in Swansea.

I have never thought of myself as any kind of pioneer in terms of educational technology, or any other kind of digital technology for that matter. I was always aware of other colleagues around me who could talk at length about the programmes they had found on line and the gadgets that they were using in their classes, and who seemed to be far more advanced in their thinking around the use of the digital in teaching than I ever was.

Having said that, however, I was always conscious, as I reviewed my classes each year, of things that might help to improve the way I got ideas across to the students, or enabled them to engage in the class and in their own learning. My first year module on the Introduction to Religion was always used as the basis for the development of study skills among the students, as all those who took degrees within Theology and Religion had to take this module as part of their first year. I was always seeking new ways, therefore, to provide experiential activities that embedded particular kinds of skill. I took to videos very early on, and asked the students to explore the use of religious imagery in adverts for deodorant or in the television trailer for some major football competition that was on at the time. I developed message walls, and chat rooms, with different years, in order to provide some kind of immediate feedback. I always asked the students to prepare group presentations on theoretical ideas in religion, and learnt a great deal from the students themselves about how to embed video and other activities into powerpoint. I moved over to Prezzi as soon as I could master it, because of the quality of presentation and the way in which it related to my own, more visual, form of thinking. I encouraged submissions by blog, by podcast, by video in order to develop particular skills among the students. I used whatever technology appeared to do the job I wanted to do as part of my learning outcomes from the module.

It was only very late in my time at Birmingham, however, that I actually came to realise that what I was doing was significantly in advance of many of my colleagues. I had been taken in by those who talked incessantly about their latest innovation, or what they had found of the internet, and assumed that everybody else was far more advanced in educational technology than me. I was never really interested in the technology per se. I often found it infuriatingly difficult to use. I regularly abandoned ideas because the students simply could not get their heads around it. For me it was the learning and the teaching that always came first. Technology was a tool to greater engagement, more in depth learning, better student experiences.

I found myself feeling something very similar as I traveled around Texas with my colleagues. There is no doubt we learnt a great deal. Universities in the States often have far more money to throw at things like educational technology. The Engineering College of one University is developing a whole new building specifically for education, and the mock-up of the room that they were designing as the model for interactive teaching spaces within the new building was mind blowing. The interactivity and the connectedness that was possible, not just within the room, but to remote locations across the globe, was phenomenal. Specific individuals were also highly inspiring in the work that they were doing to develop programmes, technologically enhanced learning and whole other worlds online in order to support their teaching and, perhaps more importantly, their student’s learning.

However, we also talked to a number of teams involved in what appears to be called ‘instructional design’, and recognised immediately the problems they were facing. The difficulty of encouraging ‘faculty’ (academic staff) to take up new ideas, particularly long standing tenured professors who had no incentive to develop their teaching. The lack of co-ordination between very independent colleges and a total lack of leavers in the centre to encourage anybody to use the same platforms, or to take up specific programmes. And, perhaps not surprisingly, a perceived shortage of funds, and personnel, to develop the kind of learning environment that the people responsible for this work would have wanted to see introduced across the campus. These were problems that we are very familiar with at Swansea, and many of those we talked to were envious of the amount of leverage and control that we actually had, and of the fact that a senior manager responsible for education within the university was interested enough in this work to join his colleagues on a fact finding mission in Texas.

What became very clear, was that we in Swansea are, in fact, so much further ahead in the area of educational technology than we really believe ourselves to be. We can hold our heads up high, and engage seriously with significant global universities in Texas. We are doing some things that they have not begun to explore, and we can share our good practice with them while learning from those areas where they are forging ahead. Most significantly, however, what came through most clearly, as we talked about what is happening in Swansea, is that our policy, our approach to learning technology is not essentially technology driven. We were constantly talking about the importance of technology to enhance student learning, the way in which our pedagogical training and reflection leads us towards technology, how we support colleagues as teachers and learners first and introduce the technology to support them in their role, and how the students experience always sits at the top of our agenda. Those we met across Texas enthused about what we are doing here in Swansea, and the whole trip actually made me very proud of what we have already achieved, and what we hope to achieve in the future. We may not, yet, be world leaders in this activity, but we are already doing far better than I think many of us believe that we are.[:]