Students as Partners and some Radical Participation – The 15th Durham Blackboard Users’ Conference

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the 15th annual Durham Blackboard Users’ Conference, organised and held at Durham University. It was my first time at this particular conference, although I had heard from current and previous colleagues that it is always very worthwhile and enjoyable.

Whenever I attend conferences, I always come back feeling energized and brimming with ideas and this one did not disappoint. The theme of the conference was ‘Students as Partners’ and conference organisers had been particularly keen to receive papers with student co-contributors. Our friends over in the Hull York Medical School did exactly that and brought along two students who are employed over the summer to assist with curriculum development and who have been involved with the ‘Changing the Learning Landscape @ HYMS’ project.

I was particularly looking forward to hearing the keynotes by Abbi Flint from the Higher Education Academy (HEA) and Doug Belshaw from the Mozilla Foundation, and this post will focus on the themes discussed in their keynotes, rather than try to provide an exhaustive list of all of the sessions I attended. However, I’ve been assured that conference presentations and materials will be made available on the conference blog and you can also explore the conference Twitter hashtag for opinions, links to blog posts and presentations from the event: #durbbu.

Engagement Through Partnership – Abbi Flint

Abbi is a Consultant in Academic Practice for the HEA, and specialises in engaged student learning and students as partners in learning and teaching. She began her presentation by stating that the terms ‘partnership’ and ‘engagement’ are very wide concepts, and the use of such terms can be open to much interpretation and manipulation. Abbi’s work for the HEA has involved the development of a framework for partnership with students in learning and teaching. The framework is designed to be non-prescriptive, but invites education practitioners to consider how partnership can be fostered between staff and students in their particular institutional contexts. For example, the framework suggests that students could have a say in curriculum design or take part in subject-based research and inquiry alongside academic staff, to become a part of the knowledge creation process. More information and the paper on this framework can be found in the paper below:

It was interesting to hear Abbi explore the issues around the ambiguity of the concept of ‘partnership’ and how it encompasses behavioural, psychological and socio-cultural perspectives of engagement. The Higher Education environment can be a complex place and the current, dominant, consumerist discourse in HE means that incorporating ‘students as partners’ into things such as curriculum design and pedagogic consultancy might not be readily accepted. Students have become ‘consumers’ of Higher Education and many expect to be filled with knowledge by the ‘experts’ in exchange for paying student fees. There are also issues surrounding the discourses of power and culture, and for many academic staff it could be difficult to ‘let go’ and relinquish a sense of control by allowing students to have a say in curriculum design and the pedagogic methods adopted by teaching staff. Too much change could be perceived as a threat to the traditional structures of HE institutions. The tensions and opportunities present in engaging students as partners, as well as the wider issues of power structures in HE and wider society, are things that I am particularly interested in from my own research as part of my Postgraduate Diploma, so I was keen to learn more about Abbi’s work. The panel discussion that followed Abbi’s keynote allowed delegates to ask more questions on these themes and we were able to hear more from Abbi, Doug, Leigh Spanner from Durham Students’ Union, Bob Matthew (Head of Centre for Academic & Researcher Development at Durham) and Malcolm Murray (Learning Technologies Team Manager at Durham).

Radical Participation – Doug Belshaw

Doug’s keynote was a self-titled smörgåsbord of Mozilla’s approach to radical participation and Doug himself admitted that a lot of the critique of the concept of ‘students as partners’ had already been covered in Abbi’s keynote, so he spent the night before his presentation making some last minute changes. For those who are wondering what on Earth ‘radical participation’ is, Doug helpfully provided Oxford English Dictionary definitions of both terms:

Radical: adj. Esp. of change or action: going to the root or origin; touching upon or affecting what is essential and fundamental; thorough, far-reaching.

Participation: n. The process or fact of sharing in an action, sentiment, etc.; (now esp.) active involvement in a matter or event, esp. one in which the outcome directly affects those taking part.

Doug also gave everyone in the audience a couple of index cards as we came in. First, he asked us to write down our organisation’s ‘mission’ and, secondly, think about the ‘architecture of participation’ of the institutions that we work in. It is crucial to consider these things when attempting to explore the conference’s theme of ‘Students as Partners’, as any attempts to make the concepts of engagement and partnership work in practice will definitely be helped (or hindered) by the individual contexts we are operating in. Doug emphasised that the ‘radical’ side of what he was talking about involves really getting to the root of something to initiate change – and dared us to try this in our own work contexts, rather than just making small changes around the edges of a much bigger problem or issue. The idea of taking a more radical stance to working practices is something I’ve also looked at as part of my research, so I had been particularly looking forward to this keynote. However, as some of the questions in the session highlighted – implementing more radical ideas in practice can often be more difficult than anticipated, even with the backing of management.

Doug helpfully scanned the index cards we all filled in as part of the session and has made them available in a blog post:

It was also interesting to find out more about the Mozilla Webmaker project and the Web Literacy Map that Doug and others at Mozilla have been developing, to enable people from all over the world to become more digitally literate and ‘build the web’ in an open, collaborative way. There are many ways in which people can volunteer to get involved with the Mozilla Foundation, which is something that those interested in the open web could get involved with. More information about Doug’s work can be found in the links below:

And finally…

I enjoyed my first ever experience at the Durham Blackboard conference and was able to network with people from lots of different institutions, learn some new things and enjoy a lovely dinner in the surrounds of Durham Castle. Until next year!

3 responses to “Students as Partners and some Radical Participation – The 15th Durham Blackboard Users’ Conference

  1. Pingback: 15th Durham Blackboard Users’ Conference | The University of Derby Learning Technology Blog·

  2. Pingback: Reflections on Day 2 of the Blackboard Users’ Conference | E-Learning Development Team·

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