Some of the topics that came up at the discussions/workshop sessions included a renewed interest in what sort of degree structures would be most appropriate for the new era of mass participation in higher education and the needs for graduates to be flexible in their employment prospects, but also to have acquired some greater awareness of cultural and civic values. Suggestions include a rationalisation of the plethora of programmes and a focus perhaps on a modern equivalent of a 'liberal arts' curriculum (remembering that such includes science as well as humanities and social sciences) or degrees based on themes. Of course, these are not new ideas and we have commented many times about these in this blog, drawing attention to Harvard's revised themes and the similar approach in Melbourne. Nonetheless, in the hectic and relentless pace of semesters and academic years it is not often that we find the time to gather our thoughts collectively on these broader areas, so the discussions were very worthwhile.
The thorny topic of commodification and whether it is legitimate to talk of 'customers' of higher education and if it is, then who are the customers, also arose. Some concerns that modularisation might even encourage students to think in these terms and result in pressures to deliver products rather than transformative experiences and individual personal growth. Some suggestions were that we could embrace the ECTS and Bologna principles to turn the situation on its head by communicating more effectively to students that the implication is that a full-time student must commit to spend an appropriate 'full-time' on study and learning, guided and aided by lectures, tutorials, materials and resources but that they must play the active role in the learning process. The fragmentation of quasi-standalone modules, often with one lecturer per module and the lack of opportunity to engage with curricular development at a higher, more integrated manner were seen as barriers to sending out consistent messages and indeed providing gaps through which students might slip in terms of monitoring their own performance.
We saw some excellent examples of efforts to support students in their learning through peer-assisted learning and were delighted to have students from the pilot project on this theme in AIT and GMIT deliver a workshop at the symposium. Of course, there are many variants of such schemes in place around the world, many of which are seen to be effective, but resourcing, planning and organisation demand not just time but institutional commitment and there is always the danger that such endeavours are viewed as another additional initiative on top of everything else, rather than the glue that links the various components together. The related concept of 'learning communities' is something that we will return to and in which I have some personal interest.
Other themes emerged in the various workshop and discussion strands, and more of them in our next few posts. We'll also let you know as soon as the keynotes are available online and we'll pop copies into the National Digital Learning Repository.