I’m going to divert away from learning outcomes for this particular post to offer some reflections after attending the Higher Education Academy’s (HEA) annual conference last week.
Overall, I found this two-day conference a really valuable and stimulating experience. The keynote speakers were particularly impressive. The conference opened with a keynote speech from Anne Morrison, Director, BBC Academy. She offered a rich and unique perspective of what the BBC, as an employer, is looking for in its entry graduates, but also what learning opportunities the BBC can offer to students and HE institutions too. The emphasis in this speech was on employers working with HE too and not just HE providing what employers are looking for, which I found really refreshing. Too often now it can seem, especially from the media, that HE’s only job is to ‘produce’ employable graduates that meet the needs and expectations of employers – in other words, that the onus of responsibility is all one-way. Anne Morrison, on the other hand, strongly conveyed a two-way focus in which HE institutions and employers work together not only to ensure students finish their degrees with the skills employers are looking for, but also for employers to input ideas and/or learning opportunities into the curriculum too. Critically, Anne Morrison reinforced that this working relationship needs to support vocational and academic purposes – that one is not more important than the other and that employers should be just as concerned with developing their students academic, as well as job-related, skills.
The keynote speech on the second day was given by Professor Shirley Alexander, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President (Teaching, Learning and Equity) at the University of Technology, Sydney. This speech was also inspiring for different reasons. She spoke about the creative and innovative learning spaces being created at the University of Technology, Sydney. Whilst she was fortunate to have a very substantial budget, I left her keynote encouraged to look and think creatively about the teaching and learning spaces we have and the uses they could be put to (click here to view her keynote presentation slides).
As well as the keynotes, I attended a variety of useful sessions over the two days. One particular session explored students as partners and was run by the authors of the HEA report ‘Engagement through partnership: students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education’. Another was a workshop in which Simon Tweddell, Alison Hartley and Josie Fraser from the University of Bradford demonstrated Team-Based Learning. I had not come across this method before but I was very impressed with the potential it has to facilitate deep and meaningful engagement from students in class (an overview of TBL can be found here).
As much as I did enjoy the conference, there were certain aspects that left me a bit disatisfied or unfulfilled. These feelings are not really a reflection of the quality of the conference or the sessions that were run. They are more evidence that some topics are so large and complex that they perhaps cannot be succintly summarised in 20 minutes or even an hour. These include the students-as-partners concept and technology within education. I will perhaps just have a bit of a rant about the latter one. It often feels to me that discussions about mobile technology in learning are presented in ideal terms, i.e. mobile devices enhance learning and all students should be using them in class and you, as the teacher, are effectively crazy if you’re not letting this happen. But there is usually no accompanying discussion about what can often be a reality with mobile devices in class, i.e. students on facebook, or texting or doing ‘distracting’ activities that are not related to the session. I would really appreciate for this to be acknowledged that sometimes (perhaps often) students will not behave in ideal ways and will use their mobile devices in class for non-learning or work related activities. And I want it to be acknowledged just so that we can have meaningful discussions about how to address it.
I know a most common response here would be ‘make your session/activities interesting to engage all of your students’ and of course I agree with this – this is always at the core of my planning and I certainly do not try to plan a boring session or activity. But the reality is that you’re not going to hold the attention of all your students in every class 100% of the time. Sometimes the content you need them to cover is not the most thrilling, no matter what activities you design. So I would value discussions about how to engage with students to make them see their responsibilities with the use of technology in classrooms. I always feel a failure when speakers/presenters talk about mobile devices in classrooms because they always make it seem that these issues do not occur.
Perhaps I am just not knowledgeable enough about how to effectively use the vast array of learning technologies out there and how to help students get the best out of them for their learning. I just know that I would find discussion about some of these practical issues as useful as presentations about what technologies to use.