Friday, 24 October 2008

Final student focus group, and meeting with Patrice Panella

Continuing the stepped-up pace of recent blogging, this is a short report on two good TASH meetings this week - the fourth focus group with more students from across the institution, and a helpful discussion with Patrice Panella of CiCS. The focus group first - thanks to the students who came out for this, and shared their views about study support, academic writing, and a whole host of other issues. One particular skill that drew plenty of comment was time management, again identified as a key skill that students need to quickly develop at university - as one participant explained, "If you don't manage the time well, your self-motivation goes, because you think there's too much for me to do, and I can't be bothered". Greater guidance on how to divide up your work time and meet the competing responsibilities all students face would be welcome, as would more of an acknowledgment that the practices of academic life are complex and not necessarily natural -
In your first year, you're literally sent off to a lecture theatre with a notepad and a pen, and told 'go and learn, go and learn, it'll be good', and you sort-of go, 'Right, ok'...It takes you a good three or four months to work something out.
This group of students in particular were keen on writing support, and offering more clear guidance about what is expected from university essays. Greater support early on would mean "a lot more effort would be available for people to do the beginning of their academic work if they weren't trying to get the nuts and bolts right". Yet at the same time, there was acknowledgement that maybe different disciplines required different things in essay writing - and maybe even different tutors within the same discipline. So (and I'm drawing heavily here on work by Mary Lea and Brian Street) the TASH resources on academic literacy need to equip students not just to determine and address the demands of different disciplines, but also to be comfortable switching between different disciplinary paradigms of knowledge. We all do this all the time, of course, but the academic world might offer an appearance of epistemological uniformity that belies its varied and complex nature.

The academic world has also passed through a strange historical moment, where learning, teaching, and research were seen to be done over here, in oak-panelled libraries and high-tech laboratories, while supporting the infrastructure for these activities was done over there, in open-plan offices and functional administration blocks. Thankfully, we're now coming out the other side of this, and at Sheffield, it's particularly welcome to see CiCS becoming explicitly recognised as playing a part in learning and teaching. They have always, of course, supported these activities (and much else of what goes on in the institution - Chris Sexton's blog does a nice job of spelling out how far their influence spreads), but through projects such as Clearspace, this role will become much more visible. Our meeting with Patrice talked through some of these developments, and how the peer communication facilitated by Clearspace and other Web 2.0 technologies relate to the TASH project. We're moving closer to responding to how students perceive the university as service-users, rather than how we see it as service-providers; and this can only be to the good.

A full report on all the focus groups, and how they've affected the developing TASH project, will follow shortly.

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