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Monday 13 June 2016

The importance of being engaged... academically!

Learning Skills Developer Helen Capstick talks about the importance of staff and students working together on joint projects, and the benefits this collaboration can bring to everyone involved.

Hosted by Birmingham City University, the JISC Change Agents’ Network (CAN) conference had a real buzz to it as I arrived on a sunny March morning to discover how staff and students have been working together across UK institutions to make things happen.

Student Engagement Partnership Manager Ellie Russell (NUS) highlighted the value of students as ‘active and participatory agents…digital pioneers, co-researchers, student fellows…’ and the importance of a clear definition of ‘student engagement’ within every institution.

So why does student engagement matter? From the research carried out by Ellie’s team, engagement leads to a ‘culture of enhancement’ and, of course, retention: there is a correlation between students who actively involve themselves in research projects which improve the student experience and those students who take an active role in their learning, subsequently completing their courses! Partnership is key –in fact, theprocess of engagement can be as transformative as the outcome.

The thornier issue of reaching out to those students who are less engaged is certainly a tougher nut to crack and there are no easy answers. That said, the act of sharing good practice about meaningful projects at this conference went a long way to encouraging a more collaborative approach. The research projects on display at this conference were both practical and inspiring.

Students can be mentors, collaborators, experts and agents of real change.

So how does Paul Chapman, Head of Engagement at Birmingham City University, and his team represent the student voice in terms of teaching and learning? Two major projects stand out: the Student Academic Partners (SAP) and Student Academic Mentoring Partnership (StAMP).

The SAP project encourages students to present their ideas for projects which strengthen learning and teaching. StAMP facilitates student-led interventions. This mentoring project encourages students to ‘take advantage of peer-to-peer support by offering students the opportunity to gain academic support from more experienced students, under the guidance of academic staff.’ Both these projects involve students in institutional governance.

In addition, the SEDA accredited JISC Institutional Change Leaders award, or CANLearn course, aims to recognise the work of these staff-student partnerships, however small. And accreditation is a real incentive here for any keen student!

So how can we jump on board? It seems we are already doing so. For one, the Mountbatten Library’s Digibuds project seeks out peer mentors who work with other students to enhance their digital skills (see this link), and there are many more staff-student partnerships around the University.

Elsewhere, Westminster University’s ‘students as co-creators’ project has the tantalising strapline: “If you could start a project to influence change in your university, what would you do?” Projects so far have included an ‘app slam’ (where experience of learning apps is shared) and the development of podcasts as a learning tool.

Finally, I felt privileged to be in the audience as students presented a selection of the best Summer of Student Innovation projects. The competition runs every year with the best ideas developed into apps and tools. Further details can be found here.

The general consensus was that working as change agents gave students the most flexible job opportunity they’d ever had, offering real work experience not to be sniffed at!

The conference ended with us all writing letters to ourselves – included in these letters were any action points, notes or memories of the conference which particularly resonated. We addressed them to ourselves to be posted back to us at a later date. I’m still waiting for mine – I wonder how many of the notes I made have become a reality? I hope the letters didn’t get mixed up!

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