Life-Long Learning and Adult Education

For the beginning of a new year, and especially in the light of all that is happening around COVID, I want us to start a debate within the University on the nature, purpose, and delivery of life-long learning. What is it that we really want to do in this space, what should we do, and is it possible to deliver life-long learning to the people of Swansea, the region, and beyond in an effective and sustainable way? There are many questions that are raised in this space, and many different approaches, each of which has a substantial literature and body of evidence to support it. However, I do think that there are a few fundamental questions that we need to ask. In this blog I will set out the first of these: what would we hope to achieve through life-long learning? In subsequent blogs I will look at what the market for life-long learning might look like, and what kind of platforms or technologies are available for life-long learning. This will lead to my final question, about the content of life-long learning that could/should be delivered by Swansea University.

The answers to the first question, what do we hope to achieve, are in many ways ideological, but this does not mean that the various answers are incompatible. We may want to do any, or all, of the following. However, the answer we give to this question, the primary focus that we want to place on our offering, will determine the market, the delivery, and above all, the content.

There are, I would suggest, three clusters of answers to the question of what we might want to achieve through life-long learning.

Learning for Learning’s Sake

The first cluster comes under the general heading of learning for learning’s sake. This suggests that education is a good in itself and should be made available to as wide a cross section of the community as we can reach. Questions of open access, research engagement programmes, the work of Oriel Science and other outreach programmes, all sit, primarily, under this category. We, as a University, are in the business of producing and disseminating knowledge and that is what life-long learning should be about. Many of the earliest explorations of adult learning and bringing education to those who had no previous access to it, worked from this very simple premise, it is good that people are educated. Adult education, the development of evening classes in philosophy, local history, crafts and languages all grew out of a basic desire to offer education and the possibility of learning to all. The OU was founded on this principle and has perhaps struggled in recent years because it has not been able to develop a means of perpetuating this principle in an increasingly market driven educational world.

Much of the rhetoric around the internet, Wikipedia and search engines, also builds on this basic principle, and it is possible to ask whether the democratisation of knowledge through the web, now available to very large sections of the population, actually means that Universities and other educational establishments no longer have a role in this wider educational project. On the other hand, of course, this democratisation of knowledge opens other opportunities, from the training of people in how to access, use and evaluate the knowledge that is now so widely available, to becoming one of the principal providers of such knowledge, drawing on our century of expertise to provide such knowledge in the most accessible form to the widest possible audience, not just in Swansea and the region, but across the world.


The second cluster grows primarily out of the work of Pablo Freire and the use of education to improve the lives of the poor and marginalised. This approach has a clear radical edge and is often recognised as part of a political agenda. I drew on this tradition as a church-based community worker in Manchester in the nineteen eighties and nineties and rooted my own analysis of this approach in the community organising principles originating in Chicago, and the work of liberation theologians. At much the same time the reaction to the miner’s strike across South Wales and the other coalfields led to an upsurge in adult education, often led by women, and focused on the good of the community as a whole. In both traditions, education has a social goal, the lifting of whole populations out of poverty and the push for social mobility. Many Universities, including Swansea, played an active part in this movement at that time.

The liberation element of this tradition focuses more on race, gender and sexuality and has been transformed in recent years into what is now understood as ‘identity politics’ and the various anti-racism movements such as Black Lives Matters and the call for the decolonisation of the curriculum. It is from this work, the fall out of Brexit and the election of Trump, that have led many to suggest that Universities may have failed in their primary function of providing a liberal education in which freedom, equality and opportunity is made available to all. It is not far from this position to one in which the University, and all good educators, should be challenging and calling out fake news and the manipulation of the media, especially the web, by powerful global companies and those who simply want to make money. Most recently, the same principles have also been co-opted by those fighting for a radical response to climate change and promoting the essential place of education in the fight to save our planet.

Supporting the Economy

Among the most recent arguments for Universities to engage in adult education and life-long learning has been the need for Universities to support, and develop, the local economy. This argument suggests that the pace of change in employment, and the new skills that are needed for a creative digital economy, are such that we all need constant upskilling in new ways of engaging with the digital. Once again there is a focus on social mobility within this tradition, but in this case, there is less focus on the poverty and oppression that are being left behind, and more on the kind of entrepreneurial individual that is required to support, or even to kick start, a local economy. The drive to offer retraining when companies go bust can also be seen as a part of the same cluster of approaches, so that individuals can become productive members of society once again and engage in purposeful employment. Ultimately this approach sees education as a product, or good, that has a value and is understood as an investment, with the goal of greater financial returns in the future.

In a wider perspective this cluster is underpinned by those who are looking forward to new patterns of employment and the impact of AI on the economy. Universities are seen to play a central role in this agenda, given the complexity of contemporary employment, the high-level skills, including imagination and creativity, that are seen as essential when computers and robots can take over many of the low skilled jobs, and the global nature of the contemporary economy. At the heart of many of these approaches is upskilling in digital literacy, but other essential skills such as languages, project management and disruptive creativity can also be developed through engagement in life-long learning. There is no doubt that this is an agenda that has the backing of the current UK government, and one that is supported by Welsh, and local government bodies. It is also driving the contemporary agenda for apprenticeships and motivating those who are currently exploring ways to reinvigorate part time learning through financial incentives. I would also suggest that this is currently the primary driver for much of the work around the Civic University agenda, rather than either of the two other two strands that I have outlined.

Positioning the University

As noted above, these three clusters often derive from different ideological positions, but they are not, in themselves, mutually exclusive. What we need to do as an institution, therefore, is to work through where we wish to place ourselves in relation to each of these clusters, perhaps engaging in some of each, but ultimately, probably, committing ourselves to one as our primary focus. I would welcome any feedback or questions.

The Value of Role Models

Over the last few weeks there have been a number of events that have focused on the idea of the role model. The Gutsy Welsh Women event featuring Hilary and Chelsea Clinton’s latest book brought together a small number of prominent women to discuss their own experiences and the need for role models (among other things). In previous weeks I also attended two excellent events organised by students as part of the Black History Month, both of which focused on the value of role models for students from within the BAME community.

When I was at Birmingham I was part of an LGBTQ mentoring programme for students in which colleagues from around the West Midlands gave of their time to mentor LGBTQ students around the transition from University to the workplace. The feedback we had from the students was that it was just as much the fact that so many individuals from very different workplaces and sectors across the region were able to stand up and present themselves as role models, as it was the specific experience of mentoring that was ultimately inspiring for them. It was also clear that it was the variety of potential role models, at different levels within the organisations and having taken very different career paths that made the whole experience so interesting and inspirational.

Mentoring was also a key theme within the talk by Professor Emmanuel Ogbonna in the School of Engineering, organised by the student BAME community within the College. Not all role models are mentors, but many do take this role and give of their time to support others in doing this invaluable role. However, what Professor Ogbonna was emphasising was the importance for those being mentored to find the right person, to establish a good relationship and to know how to use that mentoring context for the best outcome. He was also stressing that this was a two way process and highlighted a point that I have also found, that the mentor is often just as impressed and inspired by those that they mentor as the mentees are of their mentors.

The other Black History Month event, a panel discussion on the issue of adversity, organised by a full time officer from our students union, picked up a number of points that were also part of the Gutsy Women event.

The first of these was the emphasis on adversity. The panellists in both cases were asked to outline how they coped with adversity and barriers to their careers and public lives. There appeared in both cases something of a reluctance to talk about adversity or barriers. The speakers wanted to focus on the positives, and while it is clear that all the women on the Gusty Welsh Women panel, and all those on the BAME coping with adversity panel had very inspiring stories to tell about the oppression they had faced and the strategies they had used to overcome it, this was not the real point that they wanted to make. It was what had been achieved, and those who helped them achieve it that they felt should be emphasised, not the barriers that they faced.

Last Wednesday I attended the Richard Burton Lecture in the Great Hall, given by Rhian Samuel, a welsh composer who started her career in the second half of previous century. She talked about her life as a woman composer and commented that after meeting another woman composer while at University, it was then almost thirty years before she met another one. Music, and particularly composing, was clearly a male dominated profession, and she offered a number of appalling examples of the comments and behaviours that she had to endure. It was inspiring, and clear moved the audience, but it also begged the question; what needed (and still needs) to be changed?

Both the Black History Month panel and the Gutsy Welsh Women panel took this question seriously and those speaking on the panels noted that an emphasis on adversity and barriers, and more specifically an emphasis on them as individuals overcoming adversity, placed too much focus on those who had succeeded, despite the barriers, and not enough on the structural issues underlying the oppression of women, or BAME people. This was also a point raised by questions to Professor Ogbonna. By placing the emphasis on individuals the wider structural questions often get ignored. What is more, by emphasising the role model, the impression can be given that it is for those from oppressed groups to fight for their own identity and rights, rather than the responsibility for the whole of society to recognise the structural elements of oppression and fight to transform our systems.

Having said that, role models are still essential. We all need people, who look and sound like us, to look up to, to admire and to be inspired by. Such people do not even have to look and sound like us at all times, and I have clearly been inspired by the many people I have listened to over the last month, whether from the BAME community, or the Gutsy Welsh Women.

[:en]Thoughts from Thessaloniki 2[:]

[:en]It now seems some time since I travelled around Greece at Easter, ending at Thessaloniki for a week. In my last blog I wrote about genocide. The other issue that struck me particularly during this trip was the way in which different museums choose to engage with their publics.

Greece has some truly wonderful museums, and many have been updated, refurbished, or entirely rebuilt in recent years. The new Acropolis Museum in Athens is an imaginative building, echoing the structure of the Acopolis opposite. Of course, many of the objects on display within the Museum have notes on them indicating that what we are seeing is a reproduction of an original that sits in another museum in London, Berlin or Paris (something that I came to be familiar with across the museums of Greece, although in most of the provincial museums the note indicated that the original was in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens).

In this blog, however, I want to focus on the two key museums in Thessaloniki, the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki and the Museum of Byzantine Culture. The Byzantine museum is a much more recent construction and presents a series of masterpieces of Byzantine art and architecture in expansive rooms arranged in a spiral around a central core. It is an incredible building that is perfectly designed for its purpose and a museum that I could spend many hours moving from one amazing object to the next.

The Archaeological Museum is older and well designed as a museum space, but the curators have clearly felt that the original presentation of objects was getting stale and have sought to find new ways to engage with the visitors. At the core of the museum was a fascinating exhibition looking at copies and reproductions of ancient artefacts, including those produced for the tourist trade. In the next layer around this, however, the curators had chosen to build a display focusing on the use of gold within the ancient world. There were clearly some very impressive objects within this series of galleries, but the emphasis was firmly on education and the format was dominated by large boards explaining elements of the exhibition, the source, working, trade, economic value and regal or ritual use of gold. It was certainly very interesting, and I did learn a great deal that I did not know already, but somehow it did not inspire me nearly as much as the Byzantine exhibitions.

This discussion hints at a perennial problem in museum studies. Is the museum there primarily to educate, to inform and to provide information for the visitor, or is it there to inspire, to present the best objects, the impressive, the unusual, the ‘wow factor’. Most Greek museums at the various ancient sites have, in my opinion, got this balance very nearly perfect. They certainly had many impressive objects to wow the public, but they provided plenty of useful information for those who wanted more.

This got me thinking, however, of how the digital fits into this wider debate. Since being involved in number of projects in Birmingham, before coming to Swansea, in which we were exploring the use of touch tables and other digital means of engaging the public, and enabling learning, within museum spaces, I have been very interested in the use of technology in museum displays. There were plenty of examples across the various museums of Greece including a temporary exhibition at one site that focused specifically on digital enhancements and interpretive methods of museum displays.

The question I was left with was how far all the educational material, that so dominated, and in my view stifled, the display on gold in the ancient world in Thessalonki, could have been provided more effectively in a digital format, and made available for solely those who wanted to engage with it. Would the visiting public have turned to their mobile phones for the information if it was available in that format? Would they have bothered to look it up later? I know there were various objects in the Byzantine museum that captured my attention so much that I went on to explore the web to track down further information or to answer specific questions that I needed to follow up. Nothing in the Archaeological Museum display, however, led me to explore further; all that I needed (and much more besides) was provided there and then.

Of course, this also raises questions about education more broadly. Should a module, or the lectures that form the core of the module, for example, in whatever discipline, provide everything that the student needs, whole and complete in itself, however boring and inefficient this might be? Or should the lectures simply offer provocative, inspiring and captivating examples that encourage the students to go off and explore for themselves wherever they can find further information (books, journal papers or the web)? I would always want to think that it is the second of these that should guide our teaching, but I know very well that this only works when the students are already inspired and enthusiastic about the subject in the first place (as I readily admit I am about Byzantine art, history and culture). Where this pre-requisite is not in place then we do, perhaps, need to learn from the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki, and other museums across Greece, and offer students that balance between inspiration and necessary knowledge.[:]

[:en]The Gift of Inclusivity[:]

[:en]4 different coloured semi-circles surrounding a circle, arranged in a square. Hoping to depict outward-facing unity and also representing round peg in a square hole!

What did you get for Christmas? Among all the shoes, books, hand knitted jumpers, umbrellas and chocolates, I received one gift just before Christmas that was very different from all the others. I was asked if I would be happy to receive an inclusivity badge from the University.

This is a real honour and something that I am very proud to receive. In my previous role, before coming to Swansea, I spent two years leading on Birmingham University’s equality and diversity programme. This was a major challenge, not just because we were starting at such a low base, but because of the commitment we made, right from the beginning of this programme, to work across the whole range of characteristics identified within the Equalities Act 2010. This meant that we not only worked with the Athena SWAN group on gender equality, we also worked on BAME attainment gaps, disability accessibility, LGBTQ mentoring and raising the profile of the chaplaincy and the various faith societies. This was a crash course in intersectionality and we managed to make a significant difference to policies for both staff and students. At the end of what we designated a year of equality in employment we held a major conference for all staff across the University which was addressed by the VC and highlighted work done in many different parts of the institution. That work continues and has developed, with two people being appointed to the role that I left to take on my position here is Swansea.

Swansea University is, for very many reasons, very different from Birmingham and I discovered one of those reasons very shortly after coming to Swansea just over three and half years ago. Where, in Birmingham, we had started from a very low base, and almost from scratch on a number of these agendas, in Swansea I came into an institution where equality and diversity has been taken seriously for a number of years. Work was already well underway towards achieving an institutional silver award in Athena SWAN and PVC Hilary Lappin-Scott was championing the role of women in STEM, and across the HE sector, in a major way. Swansea was also scoring well within the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index that measures the work done within the institution towards LGBTQ equality. SAILS was also working hard around BAME attainment and disability issues in relation to our student community. I found my own role to be far more one of supporting others who were already developing the initiatives and activities needed, rather than one of prompting those initiatives in the first place.

I have, of course, continued to support the work of the LGBTQ staff group and initiatives towards LGBTQ inclusivity across the University. I have spoken at a number of conferences and events that have encouraged or explored aspects of gender or LGBTQ equality and supported those who are working in this area in different Colleges. I also helped to organise a conference, in September 2016, on LGBTQ inclusivity within the curriculum, developing some of the work that I had began with colleagues back in Birmingham. Beyond Swansea, I have attended events on LGBTQ equality at a national level and was very honoured to be invited last February to speak at a LGBTQ history month event in the University of South Wales.

The other area in which I have tried to work specifically around equality and inclusivity at Swansea has been within the field of religion. Work around gender, BAME, disability or LGBTQ inclusivity is often recognised and understood, that around religion is not so clearly identifiable. Religion and belief, however, is one of the protected characteristics within the equality act and in a community, such as that at Swansea University, where we have a significant number of overseas students, then the place of religion is important to many individuals and to the community as a whole. Once again, however, there is already considerable work being undertaken in this area, and my role is one of being supportive and encouraging others to engage in a constructive way. I have been involved in the reorganisation of the chaplaincy and the appointment of our new chaplain, Mandy Williams, and I have taken an active role within a number of events, including offering a talk to the Newman Society on why I became a Catholic.

There is, as I have suggested, some incredible work going on here at Swansea in all areas of equality and inclusivity and it is great to see that some of this work is now being recognised through the inclusivity badges. Our great concern, however, as with so much across the University, is one of co-ordination and co-operation. Those involved in the various initiatives around equality and diversity do not always co-ordinate their activities such that each supports the other and we benefit from a momentum that is greater than the individual initiatives. It is beginning to happen more, but there is certainly much more that could be done. Where I think this is most clear is in the relationship between staff and students. Many of the initiatives, campaigns and activities, do still tend to focus on issues relating either to staff or to students. Only occasionally do both groups come together, with the support of senior managers, to make a difference across the University as a whole. We are currently in a time of considerable change, and so perhaps this is the time to rectify this failure. Perhaps now is the time to recognise all the work that is happening, across the different characteristics, and among both staff and students, and to begin to plan an event for the whole University, perhaps to welcome the new VC later this year, that celebrates all that Swansea is doing in this area. You never know, we might surprise ourselves by just how much we have to give.[:]

[:en]On Travelling in Cameroon[:]

[:en]It is now just over a week since I got back from two weeks in Cameroon, and I am still adjusting to the cold. It was a great visit and there was so much to learn and to enjoy. The people of Cameroon were so welcoming and friendly.

The first thing that struck me was that here was a country that was trying very hard to be truly bi-lingual. There are over 140 different local or indigenous languages, and the country has a complex colonial history that has seen German, French, and British rule over all, or part, of what is now Cameroon. The official languages are French and English and, at least in the West of the country where the anglophone area exists, there is a real attempt to hold both simultaneously. There is an assumption, in written communication, posters and notices, that everybody will understand both languages and so the same notice will contain parts in each language. They are not, generally, translations, but the dual use of two languages.

Also in the television broadcasts, there is an interchangeability of language. In one discussion programme, following the re-election of Paul Biya as President a few days before we arrived (he has been in power for 36 years and won easily, at least according to official figures), the first guest was interviewed in French, the second in English, and the questions and discussion between the two guests shifted from one language to the other, all without subtitles. It was interesting to watch. Language, however, is also at the heart of the dispute between anglophone and francophone communities that external media describes as a ‘separatist insurgency’. In practice, it appears to be more a question of rights and of respect for different cultures. It is a dispute about the levels of autonomy that the different regions hold.

My overriding impression of Cameroon, however, is one of lush and green vegetation. It was the very end of the rainy season and on most days we had a rain storm at some point. Within the greenery, I was struck by the wide variety of flowers, of many different colours and shapes. I would almost say that Cameroon in November is a land of flowers. It is certainly very fertile, and one of the few sub-Saharan countries that is, in fact, self-sufficient in food. Having said that, and despite the fact that coffee is one of their main exports, we hardly ever had a single decent cup of coffee for the whole of the tour.

Cameroon is also one of the countries with the highest level of literacy and primary or secondary education in Africa. As we traveled through the major cities, we constantly saw large number of uniformed youngsters flocking in, or out, of schools. Our guide was very interested in my connection with Swansea University as he was looking for a University for his son. He had considered both the UK and the USA but rejected both because of the very high fees that are charged. Even the possibility of scholarships, bursaries and fee waivers did not make them seem any more attractive. He was currently looking at sending his son to Oslo and was very enthusiastic about the possibility. Being a largely agricultural economy, however, the birth rate continues to be very high and there is little work for those with higher levels of education to undertake leading to very high levels of unemployment.

In the last few days of the trip, we headed for the Dja reserve, one of the largest areas of untouched African rain forest outside of the Congo. We stayed for two days in huts built for us by the Ba’Aka pygmies and followed them through the forest learning how they built their huts, fished in the rivers by building temporary dams, and collected palm wine and other foodstuffs from the forest. We also had a chance to meet chimpanzees and gorillas who had been rescued from the pet and bush meat trade. The destruction of habitat is the biggest threat to the wildlife of the reserve, as well as the rest of Cameroon, either through deforestation or logging. There are still large tracts of forest left, but their days may be numbered, along with the forest elephants, great apes and many other creatures who live within them, and that is a tragedy for such a beautiful country.[:]

Measuring Excellence in Learning and Teaching

On Wednesday of last week, I had the pleasure of attending an event at which many of the winners of our Excellence in Learning and Teaching Awards (ELTA) for 2018 gave short presentations on their work. It was a very inspiring event and I was asked to provide an introduction outlining how the ELTA awards, and teaching excellence more widely, related to our recent successes in the Gold TEF award, NSS and League Tables.

I had to admit, at the start of this short talk, that I could not outline specifically how teaching excellence relates to these University accolades. Whatever else the TEF might measure or recognise, it is difficult to agree with the official UK government line that it is a measure of the teaching excellence of an institution. It is based on student satisfaction (NSS), and student outcomes, both of which have some relation to teaching excellence, but it is not, and cannot be seen as, a direct measure of the teaching excellence of an institution.

As I have reflected on this in the past, and as others have reflected in the media and other literature on teaching excellence, it is widely recognised that ‘teaching excellence’ is a very difficult thing to measure, especially if by ‘measure’ we mean turn into a number that can be compared between lecturers or between institutions.

Having said that, however, I do think there are three elements that come together in all excellent learning and teaching that, in themselves, raise other interesting questions about measurement.


All excellent teaching is performance. It is, of course, much more than that. However, the ability to stand in front of a hundred, four hundred – occasionally even more – students and to hold the room demands some level of performance. I am sometimes amazed at the transformation in character in some of our lecturers, and the marshaling of self-confidence, as they enter the lecture hall and begin to lead the class.

Our mid-module and end of module student feedback does, to a certain extent, measure performance. These are student satisfaction surveys and tell us how the students respond to the lecturer. However, we also know that such surveys and feedback has in-built difficulties. There is an increasing literature on gender bias, and there is probably bias based on ethnicity as well. Such mechanisms also tend to inhibit lecturers who wish to innovate in their classes, as they are concerned about potential falls in such surveys, as students tend not to like too many changes.

The surveys therefore have some limited value. There is always a concern, however, that performance turns into entertainment. There is nothing wrong with entertainment in its rightful place, and even as an element of teaching. Each evening I catch up with an episode of Coronation Street, not because I expect to learn anything, nor do I particularly remember any of it ten minutes after the close, but it is entertaining. Learning and teaching, however, has to be more than entertainment. Performance is important, but excellence in teaching goes beyond that.


All excellent teaching is also a matter of communication. For all classes, for all modules, and I would hope for all programmes, there are learning outcomes. There are things that the lecturer would like the students to know, things they would like the students to be able to demonstrate that they can do by the end of the session. This information and these skills need to be communicated, and the ability to do that, in an effective and productive way is an essential part of any learning and teaching excellence.

Presented in this way, however, there are also problems with thinking about learning and teaching solely in terms of communication. There has been a great deal of talk around the sector in the last few years about ‘learning gain’, some measure of the difference in knowledge, skills, or ‘learning’ between the start and the end of the learning process. There have also been a series of pilot projects established specifically to look at how we measure learning gain. Many of these have run into the ground, a few of the more high profile ones have been abandoned. Learning gain, it appears, is not something that is easy to measure.

Even if it could be measured, learning gain, along with a strictly ‘learning outcomes’ approach to learning and teaching continues to have another fundamental problem. Both of these concepts imply a particular relationship between the learner and the teacher, such that an active teacher is conveying something, be it knowledge or skills, to a passive learner, who, like a half empty vessel, is being filled up to an appropriate level. The measurement is either the level to which the vessel has been filled, or the rate at which the information/knowledge/skills are being absorbed. This is not an appropriate model for excellence in learning and teaching.


I would want to suggest, therefore, that, alongside performance and communication, an excellent lecturer or teacher also connects in a significant way with those they are teaching. What I mean by this is that over the period of a course, or module, there is an expectation of change. This change is not something that can be measured in terms of knowledge or skills acquired. At its best, in truly excellent learning and teaching, it is a fundamental change of who the student is, and how they understand the world.

All lecturers recognise the point, in any class, when a particular student, or occasionally a whole class, suddenly clicks, they get what it is that the lecturer is trying to get across. Suddenly everything changes, there is a shift in language and communication, there is a meeting of minds and, I would suggest, a point of connection between the lecturer and the individual or class.

Students often talk about this in very different terms. They talk about teachers or lecturers who inspire confidence, who show passion, have time for the individual. They talk also about what they have learnt in terms of gaining in confidence, achieving goals, becoming a better human person. It is this kind of language that we see, over and over again, on the submissions from students when they are nominating a member of staff for an ELTA. It is in these terms, therefore, that I would argue we can best measure truly excellent teachers, and true excellence in learning and teaching.

The Beginning of a New Academic Year

[:en]We are once again at the beginning of a new academic year, my fourth here in Swansea, and we are expecting all the students back very soon. Fresher’s week is planned and many of us are thinking about the teaching that will be starting in the next few weeks (if it has not already started!).

This is probably the time, therefore, to stop, briefly, and to reflect on what is going to happen in those first few days and weeks, during our first couple of lectures. Do we ever consider what this experience is like for our students, especially the first years who are here for the first time, utterly disorientated, discovering new things, new people, new ideas? Do we reflect on what we can do during those first few lectures or teaching slots to help those students to adjust, to make them feel welcome, and to establish some sense of continuity and certainty at a very uncertain time.

As we plan our next set of classes, I want to suggest that there are a series of principles or ideas that we should all consider and try to build in to our teaching, especially in the first couple of weeks of the new academic year.

The first is around tone. Whether we are teaching four to six hundred or a small postgraduate seminar group, the way in which we, as lecturers and the people responsible for the class, open the first session and address the students sets the tone for the whole class. Do we ever stop to think what that ‘tone’ should be? How we approach the first session will, inevitably, influence whether the students feel that they can participate, ask questions, engage in discussion, or perhaps more negatively, whether they can get away with spending the whole session on Facebook. This is in part where the performative aspect of the role plays a particularly large part. How do we establish authority, and yet give the impression that we are approachable? What role does humour play? How informal do we feel comfortable being with the students in the room? These are all vitally important part of the lecturing, or teaching experience, but they need to be considered and approached in a reflective manner.

Closely related to this is the setting of expectations. There are regular concerns raised, across the University, and across the HE sector, about the levels of attendance among students. In the first couple of weeks, almost all of our lecture theatres and classrooms are full. What can we do in those first couple of sessions to mean that they have a good chance of staying that way for the rest of the term? Tone helps – students have to want to come. They must also feel that there is something worth coming for. Other exercises and engagements can help to establish that either the students would miss out on something if they did not come (and there are things that can be done in class that add to the live experience even if the lecture itself is being recorded). Alternatively, are there things that can be done that demonstrate that they will be missed (asking students by name to answer questions within the class, for example)? These kinds of activity and approaches are best done during the first weeks of the first year, and ideally across a whole programme, to set expectation when the students are new and before they pick up bad habits. We need to think about their experiences at school, where attendance is compulsory and enforced, and look to maintain the pattern of behaviour, if not the exact methods to achieve it.

This leads on to a wider issue of culture. What is the culture of our classes? What do we expect of the students? What can they expect of us? Are there patterns of behaviour that both ourselves, as lecturers, and the students, would consider unacceptable? Are there limits to the kind of language, or questions that can be asked? Many lecturers consider establishing a contract, or agreement, with the class, setting out the expectations on both sides. Of course, this has to be handled carefully, and is often best done by taking time out of an early class for the whole cohort to discuss what the acceptable levels of behaviour might be. It will be accepted, and adhered to, much more fully if it is mutually constructed and mutually agreed. This might be difficult in very large classes, but is certainly something that could be considered in seminar groups and environments where the level of student engagement is expected to be high.

Finally, therefore, I come on to the question of student participation. Another way of looking at this is to ask how we can establish a learning community (to use NSS language). There are real advantages of finding opportunities and activities in the first week or so of a class that allows the students to engage with each other and to undertake some kind of extended exercise that necessitates that they talk to others and work together. This does not have to be a banal bonding or team building exercise that has nothing to do with the module. It is often relatively easy to find some activity that has the effect of mixing the class up, getting students to work together, and relates directly to the topic or approach that is inherent in the module. Doing this enables the group to cohere, and often has the advantage of enabling the less forthright to relax and feel comfortable in contributing within smaller, safer groups.

These, of course, are only a few ideas and suggestions of my own. I know that many of you do already do these kinds of exercises and think very creatively and constructively about how modules are constructed and how you set the tone, expectations and culture of the class from the very start. Please, do feel free to exchange good practice in this area with your colleagues as we approach the beginning of term.

Very best wishes to all of you for the new academic year, let’s start as we mean to go on and celebrate all that is good about Swansea.[:]

Meeting Student Expectations 8: Reducing Student Stress

[:en]All the issues that I have raised so far could, in theory, be introduced by any programme across the University who wished to move in that direction within the next academic year. We own the rules and regulations. We can change them to make some of these more experimental approaches possible. We would need to know why it was that we wanted to transform our first year programme to allow for a more complete transition from school or college, why it was that we wanted to be more flexible with the modular structure in order to enable a more balanced and more authentic learning journey, why it was we wanted to distinguish different learning communities within a single cohort, and so on. But we could do it, and we could fit that around our current structures, regulations, and academic year. My final response, however, does go beyond that and, I would argue, will demand a much more radical change across the University as a whole, probably a complete transformation of the academic year as I have been advocating.

It only takes a cursory look at the graph of appointments to well being services matched against the weeks of the year to see, immediately and obviously, that there are peaks and troughs, and when the significant stress, on the system, on students, and I would suggest on staff, fall out across the current academic year. There is an initial peak before Christmas, with the submission of course work for the first term, a peak in the January exam period, another in early April and the final one during the summer exams. We have created a system that is almost designed to accentuate those peaks, and not just for the students but for the staff as well. Inherent in that design, of course, is the accepted ‘truth’ that for any module, or whatever segment of learning, there is a period of input that ends with a form of assessment and, as we have things set out across the current academic year, all that assessment falls on students and staff alike at particular points in the year.

Surely it is possible to think about this differently! Is this the only way in which our engagement with student learning can be modeled? As part of the Go Beyond project we looked particularly at assessment and feedback and many different models were reviewed, most of which had clear advantages to the student (and in some cases to staff) over the standard approach of essays or exams. Of course, these alternative forms of assessment take more thinking about. They will also need a different distribution of resources, perhaps a series of rooms set aside throughout the academic year that are dedicated to assessment for example. But they all have the advantage of bringing assessment and learning much more closely into alignment in real time and many of them also break our dependence on peaks and troughs in stress throughout the year.

If, however, we remove the assessment periods, especially the summer exam period, then students will find themselves with large chunks of the year when they have nothing more to do. A number of students already think that the spring term does not begin till mid-February and use the January exam period to catch up with their skiing as they have no formal assessments. Others leave as soon as they are able in the summer, wasting valuable time for potential learning and often money in holding accommodation when it is not needed. Shifting the modular weight of each term, however, has the potential to both reduce the number of modules, and therefore the amount of work, undertaken in any one week, and spreads the load for the student across the full thirty-two weeks of the academic year. This must have advantages, both for learning and for student stress levels.

Of course, this kind of radical rethinking of the academic year cannot happen without the other responses that I have already outlined. It will also take considerable effort and serious rethinking across all degree programmes. It cannot be introduced overnight. Much of the thinking and reflection on the various elements that would be needed to embark on this approach have already been thought through as part of the wider Go Beyond programme, but we would still need to make the commitment, as a University, to head in this direction. The potential benefits, however, particularly for the students, would be huge. What is more, this one single innovation, I would suggest, would go further to meeting the expectations of students in the next ten years or so, as outlined in the first part of this paper, than any other single action that we could take as a University.[:]

Meeting Student Expectations 7: Personalisation, Diversity and Inclusivity

[:en]While digital technology has the potential to change the way in which students access knowledge, and the way in which we, as academics, engage with them in learning, it also presents a number of other opportunities and challenges. Most significantly, it allows us to use the growing expertise in big data, personalisation and artificial intelligence in order to engage with our students in a very different way.

Many universities are already developing personalised apps that provide a bespoke time table, information on submission dates and other useful information to students, increasingly in real time. Other work, based on student analytics and algorithms, linked to our knowledge of the relationships between student engagement and student success, measure all of a student’s contact points, their marks and other data, to be able to predict, and hence support, those students who are falling behind. Turning this around, such technology also allows students to take control of their own learning, to monitor their own behaviours and to see where they are going wrong and what support is available to help them improve. We already have projects, within the wider work on the digital strategy, that will enable us to develop appropriate apps, from our own data, that can support students in this way.

What such technology enables, however, is more than a benign big brother, looking over the shoulders of our students and nudging them towards behaviours that lead to academic success. The processing of data, and the individualisation of outputs, means that we are now in a position, should we wish to go in this direction, to treat every single student, across the university, as a unique individual. Of course we cannot offer them all personalised service, if by that we mean the dedicated attention of an individual member of staff, but we can personalise our service and, in theory, adapt it fully to meet each individual student’s own needs and requirements.

What I want to ask, in this case, therefore, is what impact such technologies can have on learning? Is it the case that we have the opportunity to mould personalised assessments, or even learning experiences, to play to a student’s strengths, to develop their weaknesses, or perhaps simply to meet their own particular preferences? Should student choice be seen, not just as the choice of one module among a limited selection of modules, but at a far more granular level, of different trajectories within a module, different forms of assessment, different engagements with their learning?

One significant possibility that this offers, I would suggest, is that we have the potential (again in theory) to match learning to the pace of the student. Much of our current practice runs at the pace of the slowest learner in the room. We do not have a ‘gifted and talented programme’ at the university level, as they have in many schools, and we probably do not do enough, I might suggest, to really push and support our most talented students.

The same, of course, is true of any of the characteristics from the equality legislation and we could, through much the same means, allowing for slightly different learning trajectories linked to a student’s particular needs, transform what it means to develop a truly inclusive curriculum. Technology has the potential to change so much of what we do in learning and teaching. However, we do not need to wait for the technology if we want to accept some elements of personalisation and student choice as a principle that we might want to embrace. Much of the work that we have been undertaking as part of the STEP4Excellence programme is already making some of this personalised approach a reality.[:]

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.