Tuesday, 24 June 2008

General feedback from the first TASH event

This is just to reflect back my experience of the event, and share some of the key points of the discussions. Overall impressions of the event were extremely positive - there was a lot of interest from staff and a high level of engagement throughout. A number of useful resources (in terms of people, materials, ideas, and general goodwill) were identified throughout the afternoon, and I am optimistic that these will be followed up by email and personal contacts in the next few weeks.

There were a number of issues that cut through the day, and questions that pertain to them, and I've tried to separate out some of them below. The big one I'm left with came up in several guises - namely, what is the relation between the staff- and student-facing sides of the project? We clearly need to say different things to each constituency, so how do we structure this, and ensure engagement on both sides? The image I stumbled on in discussion was of a Venn diagram, with an overlapping core but different edges, and by implication, ways into that core. It's right that the precise answer to the question won't emerge until later on in the design process, and it's also right that we keep it in mind throughout these early stages, shaping our response as we go along.

Picked out in rough order of importance (and too much detail - blog posts are meant to be short) are some themes that came up throughout the day, in small and whole group discussions.

Student engagement. This was the most commonly-identified issue. Nick Fox helpfully intervened with the suggestion that before we start engaging students with the development of specific skills, we need to first persuade them of the benefits - they need to recognise that there is a culture in higher education that they need to adapt to, and that their academic achievements will ultimately be closely linked to the level of success of their integration. This culture is, as Willy responded, embedded in practices and lived experiences, which is precisely where TASH needs to be - in induction processes, assessment feedback, Union links, Student Services support, and so on. The academic lifestyle is a performance, and TASH can help (1) foreground this performative element, and (2) support students in developing their own performance. Nick's useful phrasing was that we need to promote academic literacy, and this begins with spelling out that this will be different to what they've done and been good at in school (or other non-HE contexts). Nadine indicated the success of the Inclusive Learning and Teaching project, and how this had been attributed to its emphasis on student involvement; she even suggested student champions for the resource, embedded in departments, and perhaps financially rewarded (or maybe given credit through the Sheffield Graduate award) for actively promoting the resource amongst students.

Tutor engagement. Feelings on this were largely positive, with one participant reporting discussions at Faculty level, calling for exactly this kind of thing. There were, however, outstanding questions about engaging certain tutors who were so embedded in their disciplinary context that the value of generic material would be difficult to communicate.
This might shift the focus of the promotion of the resource onto what has worked thus far - local, personalised approaches, explaining the benefits and taking time to work through anxieties and misunderstandings. The second element to this was the fact that the deficit model of student skills is probably one of the more commonly-held ones for academics, so while we want to move away from that in all we say and do, we should still be prepared to address it amongst academic colleagues.

“Soft skills”. Alice Lawrence noted how HE study was a period of identity transition for students, and that we should be mindful and supportive of this frequently difficult process. This got me thinking about an issue that Debora Green raised, namely the generic skills materials that were on the fringes of TASH, and that she didn't want to be lost. Her example was the Counselling Service's Life Skills materials, which are indeed great, and would benefit all students coming to university. Another question on the already long list might be to what extent TASH wants to signpost resources for the personal development aspects of HE - it's not subject-specific, yet a different kind of generic skill to something like time management. The phrase “soft skills” was used by some Engineering and Science colleagues, and included many of the critical thinking, groupwork, communication, and motivational skills explored during the first exercise. Is this a phrase we want to add to the lexicon, and what would be some of the consequences of that? To come at this another way, is a clearer definition of “skills” required? In the first group exercise, there were clearly different levels being discussed, and how we define this term might help restrict or control the shape of the resource. There's doubtless an academic literature on this, and I'm becoming more and more aware (through a whole range of conversations at the event) that we might want to do this reading sooner rather than later.

Embedding the resource. The feeling of participants overall was that the resource would have greatest utility and force embedded in particular departmental structures, modules, and perhaps even assessment. Students and staff would both welcome (perhaps mainly at Level One) an immediate link with the subject area; they both might be willing to explore later on in their learning journeys, but there should be a familiar starting-point. The idea of centring the interactive self-reflection exercises around Sheffield received a double boost in the Arts group that I was facilitating. Firstly, Stephanie Pitts says she does something similar with new postgraduate students, asking them to produce an index of musical events across Sheffield - this sharpens their research skills, provides a useful product, and allows them to learn a little more about the city. Secondly, Claire Shanks showed our group some work the Generic Skills group had previously done (and which I wonder, Willy, if it's in the folder Margaret gave you). This consisted of “seven hills” of generic skills (can't remember what they were), which they'd considered as a possible basis for a generic skills website. This will be an excellent source when we come to considering in more detail the student-facing activities, and once again proves there's little new under the sun.

There are doubtless more to run with, but that's enough for now. A good discussion, and initial sharing of ideas and perspectives, and it bodes well for future project events.

1 comment:

Willy Kitchen said...

Just to pick up on your introductory musings about the relationship between staff and student-facing sides of the project, and the Venn diagram you allude to, the way I tried to articulate this at a Case Studies (soon to be Teaching Commons?) Project the other week was in terms of three separate online presences - one largely tutor facing (the Case Studies blog, wiki etc.), one largely student facing (TASH), and one more specifically institutional in its flavour (L&T Exchange, containing official docs, structures and links) ... so three blobs to the diagram perhaps?