Learner empowerment through student partnership and co-creation strategies: Reflections on Day 1 of ALT-C

This year’s Association for Learning Technology conference #altc at the University of Liverpool identified ‘empowerment in learning technology’ as one of the headline themes for discussion by delegates. This offered plenty of scope for experience sharing on effective design strategies for student-led learning activities which develop skills and propel learning – a theme which is central to pedagogy developments and programme renewal at the University of York.

For the sessions that I attended on Day 1 of the conference, empowerment was addressed on two levels, through formalised student partnership schemes which promote staff-student interaction in the design and delivery of learning and teaching activities and resource development, and through co-creation strategies – i.e. curriculum design approaches which invite the direct involvement of students in the shaping and leadership of learning, teaching and assessment activities.

Fiona Handley’s workshop reported on her research on student partnership schemes across three different UK higher education institutions, which has built on the findings of previous initiatives such as Jisc’s  partnership project work. Her research has focused on the impact of student technology ambassador projects, which have been introduced to drive the development of digital skills training, supporting the upskilling of both staff and students. Typically the numbers of students involved in these schemes tends to be quite small (from 4 – 50 students per year) and can be quite localised in terms of impact, associated with the department or school where this activity is situated. Fiona reported on the scope of these schemes to support a ‘role reversal’ between staff and students in the design of teaching, with ambassadors suggesting ways to academics in which technologies can be introduced to their lectures and classes to enhance contact time with students. More commonly though, ambassadors have found themselves employed to deliver digital skills training to fellow students in an associate instructor role, with key benefits relating more to the development of their communication skills and wider awareness of how digital tools may be applied to support learning activities, than to enduring changes in academic practice through partnership with course instructors.  There is of course a sustainability challenge to these types of schemes –relating to how these schemes can be sustained beyond initial start-up project funding and scaled up, so that staff-student collaboration can lead to enduring innovation and change in pedagogic practice.

In contrast, Andy Beggan and Chavan Kissoon offered an institutional perspective on how student partnerships are being enabled at the University of Lincoln to support changes in pedagogic practice through the creation of internship opportunities for student video production teams, as an extension to their central lecture recording service. The recording of their talk is available here. The internship scheme is aligned with the University’s commitment to recognising students as producers –acknowledging their role as ‘collaborators in the production of knowledge’ and is directed towards promoting the use of video as a learning tool. In practice, this means employing student interns to highlight the learning benefits of the Panopto lecture recording service to students through the creation of guidance resources, as well as drawing on their creative talents to develop high quality video learning content commissioned by academics for use as part of the formal curriculum. This scheme is intended to offer interns professional work experience opportunities, whilst at the same time making a direct contribution to learning and teaching activities across the institution.  Whilst again the numbers involved are small (6 undergraduates and one postgraduate committing to 15 hours per week), the institutional commitment suggests that this provision may be sustained over a number of years with opportunities to influence staff and students in their use of video resources.

Nick Botfield’s presentation looked at learner empowerment from a different angle, exploring how assessments may be co-created through the direct contributions of students. His presentation focused on a summative assessment activity on a Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education course at the University of Hertfordshire. The PG Cert cohort was invited to critique the design of the most recent assessment that they had tackled, which had been poorly received in terms of its purpose and the target criteria for assessment.   Students were then invited to work in groups to design a follow-on assessment task, with candidate tasks from each group then appraised and voted on – leading to an agreed task which the cohort then performed. Nick drew on a range of technologies (VLE, Google docs, electronic voting systems) to guide students through the critiquing and creative tasks, with the net result being a clearer understanding by participants of the rationale, criteria and value of the assessment task – as reflected in the end of module feedback. This approach appears to have been successful on a number of levels in engaging students in reflection on assessment criteria and understanding of the targeted learning outcomes, as a precursor to the performance of the task itself. It would of course be interesting to discuss the transferability of this approach to other disciplinary contexts and the appropriateness of these methods to different levels of learning. What are the boundaries to learner empowerment and co-creation of assessed tasks, or is this approach relevant only to specific groups of students, such as practising educators?

These questions formed part of the discursive agenda for the workshop that Wayne Britcliffe and I led on student-led teaching and content creation through technology, with attention to the opportunities and challenges in supporting students at all levels (undergraduates and postgraduates) in the performance of user-led tasks as teachers’ or ‘co-creators’ of learning resources. (The slides for the session are available here.) The workshop introduced student-led tasks by positioning them on a spectrum of active learning and engagement in course design, explaining how these tasks may provide opportunities for learners to rehearse and articulate their knowledge as part of their independent study. Making reference to a series of case studies of blended courses delivered at the University of York, we then explored how instructors have employed learning technologies to support contrasting modes of ‘user-led’ education, ranging from unguided problem based learning to the creation of videos to disseminate research findings to a public audience. This led on to a wider discussion of student-led activity designs for formative and credit bearing tasks enabled through the use of learning technologies, with a selection of design approaches from different institutions captured in the following Google template. These ranged from student-led peer review tasks as formative work, mediated through the management of their own e-journal (University of Leicester), through to credit bearing public blogging exercises as individual assignments to explore online identity and personas (University College London).

The workshop went on to explore the challenges in supporting students in the performance of user-led tasks as ‘teachers’ or ‘co-creators’ of learning resources. The discussion touched on preparation and induction responsibilities, workload implications for staff and students, as well as the timing of these activities -when they occur and how they relate to established teaching, learning and assessment practices across a programme of study. A summary of the instructional responsibilities in support of student-led learning tasks is set out in a five-phase delivery model, which is available in section 4.2 of our TEL Handbook.

The output from the workshop discussion offers a valuable selection of ideas for us to share with York programme teams in thinking about effective uses of technology to empower student learning.  

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