Today I attended the University of Sheffield’s 5th annual Learning & Teaching Conference…
The idea is to bring together staff (and suposedly students) to reflect on the curret and future directions of how the university teaches its students, and what is expected from all parties involved in learning at this particular institution. Although primarily attending in order to assist my tutor Rosie Parnell in delivering a paper on the ARC571 Module, it was interesting to gain a wider perspective on ‘learning at university’ and the views of its professional facilitators – in what is often considered ‘the other world’ of teaching.
I regard the University of Sheffield to be a forward-thinking institution – indeed, that is why I transferred here from my previous institution – and I believe this to have been reinforced by the conference attended today, although there are clearly still areas for improvement.
It was interesting to note the conference’s focus on matters that could loosely be termed as ’employability’ of its students; the plenary (introductory or key note…) session identified that often the things employers look for in graduates relate only indirectly to the actual technicalities of their subject of study (these were ’employers’ such as PriceWaterhouseCoopers, NPower and HSBC…), and what they actually value are the ‘other things’ that a critically engaged university experience brings; curiosity, competency, integrity, self-awareness. Techincal knowledge – says one speaker – can be taught relatively quickly, whilst these other qualities are usually harder to develop. The breadth of a university experience, then, is what employers value in a graduate, and therefore what graduates should value in a university experience, and the question of facilitating this seemed to be a recurring theme at today’s conference.
I attended specific sessions supporting this general aim, including;
Kroto Institute – an institute based at the University that was established with support from Harry Kroto, alumni and Nobel prize winner in order to promote a resource and enthusiasm for university learning in schools and colleges. A representative from teh Institute described their efforts at creating a TED-like database of ‘talks’ and presentations that are effective in an on-line context, produced by students and researchers at the University and available globally to colleges and schools (alongside presentations from other institutions)
Lecturing as Performace – which focussed on the idea that if students are paying for tuition, they expect to be entertained, and effective learining might be facilitated by embracing this aspect of the student attitude. Letting ‘persona’ and ‘context’ influience and support tehdelivery of context can be used to teh lecturer’s advantage in tehdelivery of learning.
Social Media and new technology in teaching – which focussed on asking how things like Skype, Blogs, Twitter, etc. might be used by reluctant and technologically illiterate academics in order to facilitate learning, especially in the context of distance-learning and decreasing contact time.
In summary, the conference had added an ’emergency’ session, in which a ‘workgroup’ presented a draft of the universities strategy for addressing the 2012 fee increase, the ensuing expectations of prospective students and what this might mean for the university-student relationship. This is where I think my view of this institution as a forward-thinking entity was reinforced, as the draft was being presented in order to start a discussion amongst those staff ‘on the ground’ about how they feel they should be teaching. I made my point about the lack of student involvement, which was courteously accepted, although no ‘action’ emerged…but what seemed to be apparent was a shift from research-led-teaching to research-led-learning. This conceptual transformation necessitates a commitment of responsibility from students, and the discussion touched upon how this might be facilitated. What needs to change in learning environments in order for student to be generally more committed, more autonomous, and value the ‘softer’ things – other than the degree classification – that they leave the university with. The assumption is that valuing this leads to a vibrant learning ‘community’, that perpetuates the institution’s reputation for excellence. Quite how you managed expecting this ‘commitment’ whilst increasing what you charge for the privilege three-fold, I don’t quite know…..
Our session itself seemed to go quite well – I was responsible, alongside a colleague for delivering a series of 5-minute discussions about ‘self-appraisal’ in architectural education and its application on other disciplines. The main idea seemed to be well-understood, and I feel like my presentation of it as a concept enabled a good understanding of our intentions and ocntxt amongst our particpants. However, in 5 minutes it is incredibly hard to have a valuable discussion. One point that was made in another of the workshops, which focussed on peer-assisted learning, was teh issue of appropriate mentoring – how do schemes like the Good Peer scheme ensure that the students acting as mentors (us) do so with integrity and competency? Teh answer, at teh moment, is that there is no guarantee other than that we have been through teh undergraduate programme and therefore should have some appreciation of appropriate behaviour. In discssion later with Rosie, we talked about the particular relevance of this to health issues such as depressiona and anxiety, which seem to be particularly prevalent amongst students of architecture.
In all a good day, with some good experience gained of the conference context. It was encouraging to see that there were at least 150 delegates who wanted to discuss the issues presented, and reflect upon their own practice as facilitators of learning. It was also encouraging to contribute to discussions and feel like my voice was recognised and accepted. These people really aren’t a million miles away for myself and my colleagues, and we have views, skills and interpretations that are valid and have value for others.