Last Tuesday was the fourth AoC HE Research and Scholarship conference, and it was hugely interesting to see how far the college HE sector has moved in terms of research and scholarship during the three years of The Scholarship Project.
I took three main messages from the conference experience proper – one is simply an observation on the increasing interest and breadth of scholarship and research in college HE, another is a comment on how far we have moved towards looking beyond our institutions for funding into networking on a national level and partnering with business directly, and the last is also about networking; people at this conference already knew each other – we are part of an existing network of praxis, and this wasn’t so apparent at the first conference, when we all sat on tables in a far more separate manner. There was if you like, an increased fluidity, increased optimism and increased rigor.
If you consider the turbulence of the last three years this is even more surprising; with mergers a-plenty, some of my Development Manager colleagues found they were losing colleges in mergers only to pick up other colleges, some already with a Development Manager in place. An Alice-in-Wonderland scenario which might have led to increased abrasion and competition but, because we are college HE, instead added to an atmosphere of increased collegiality and the will to continue the conversation.
In terms of the role of college HE in opening access to education, it was good to hear Kevin Orr’s keynote outlining the distinctiveness of the sector – a distinctiveness which brings both challenges and opportunities. Orr’s presentation pointed out that it is easy to conflate ideas of “widening participation” with those of social mobility, but that existing familial social capital and economic health has a large role to play too. Attending degree-level education is valuable, but ideas of value are hugely complex, and college HE has a role to play, through the curriculum, in ensuring it does not simply prop up or re-enforce the very traditional idea of power and society associated with the University Education, but is instead a critical voice in this argument, in practice as well as in theory.
Breakout session one
Theory and practice – and how technology can support innovative practice – was apparent aplenty in the first breakout session I attended, with Simon Stevenson, Joanna Kazik and Heather Thaxter from University Centre Doncaster sharing innovative practice which used google classroom as a virtual learning environment which presented information in a connected, visual way and enabled real interactvity with learners online.
Personally, I have some critical concerns with using google as an educational system – this is an area of incredible complexity to navigate – but what was abundantly clear was that the educational practices on this blended learning course were enhancing the learning experiences of students, and, crucially, presenting material in a way which encouraged self-efficacy and collaborative working.
Adrian Mills then shared some equally inspiring practice around how The Grimsby Institute uses a global digital competition to support innovative teaching and learning and learner employability. The ‘games jam’ encourages learners to create an indie game in a very short time-scale. Graduates and undergraduates work alongside staff for a very sleepless weekend creating games in teams and submitting them as entries in this huge digital competition. This might well replicate the real-life experience of a start-up at its most demanding, but the clever use of this as part of an extra-curricular teaching and learning experience is also very exciting!
Breakout session two
It was great to hear from Bootah Singh and Raman Sing from Warwickshire College Group share – and give a live demonstration of – their work creating a curriculum directly in response to employer’s needs. Their learners are educated to use the digital computer aided design tools which local employers would otherwise have to separately ‘train’ employees in learning. Warwickshire College Group’s work is also exciting in that it looks to be pioneering a UK model of working directly with employers for research funding. This wasn’t part of the presentation but a lively discussion during session three around the future of research for our sector.
I am also keen to get involved with Paula Jones and Norman Crowther from the National Education Union (ATL section’s) ULF transformers project. This looks to be a great opportunity to start conversations with employers to benefit our curriculum and our learners.
Breakout session three
During the third break-out session I presented our work at Hereford College of Arts around scholarly spaces and listened with interest to the research which Alison Milner is conducting in South Devon College around how we encourage and support research in a college HE context. Entering into these conversations is hugely valuable and rewarding, and the post-session discussion equally so, with a range of different perspectives and ideas brought forward by delegates and presenters.
The Scholarship Framework
And, of course, this conference launched the Scholarship Framework. Having been part of the community of practice which contributed to the resources on the framework, and participated in conversations with colleges adopting the framework, I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation digitally with colleagues once it goes live. Watch this space.