Is there a fundamental tension between student belonging and the flexibility of our university provision? This is the question I have been exploring recently as we develop fully online provision and one which I am repeatedly brought back to when talking with colleagues.
In an attempt to map the territory within this question I created a simple diagram which I’m going to step through to navigate my thinking.
Access and Inclusion
I’m unapologetically starting with the idea that access and inclusion are a good thing. This doesn’t represent the thinking of the whole of the Higher Education sector but it’s where I’m starting from. If you believe that education should be hyper selective and only support those with ‘talent’ then this probably isn’t the diagram for you (That sounds facetious but I’m not aiming to disrespect selective approaches. They are just less interesting to me than the access question.).
This is a classic ‘bucket term’ in that it can contain any number of definitions. Often the assumption is that flexibility is related to academic choice but here I mean flexibility in the mode of provision. More specifically, forms of flexibility which account for students having busy lives. Or which don’t assume that students are building their lives around university in the character of a ‘traditional’ school-pipeline residential student.
One could argue that the form of provision, in terms of the academic calendar, assessment practices and teaching patterns, has not changed significantly during the period UK Higher Education has expanded. Instead we have added ever more support services around a relatively fixed core. Sometimes this support requires more time from already time-poor students. So a struggling student has to find time to do ‘do the course’ and to be ‘supported to do the course’. Clearly, the support itself should be provided but I worry that we don’t add up the total time commitment of a student who is not rich in time or educational capital.
Intriguingly the fixed ‘core’, or focus, I mentioned is the course itself and not the student. This is, at least in part, because the regulatory frameworks of tertiary education tend to be structured around academic quality and what is required to put students ‘through’ Higher Education. Things are changing quickly though, and the Office for Students in the UK does attempt to advocate for students albeit with somewhat lumbering regulations which don’t necessarily account for the full diversity of life circumstances and motivations. There is still an implicit ‘right way’ to do university surrounded by an increasing set of exceptions and modifications.
Whatever the politics of this might be, what we can say is that a lack of flexibility in the form of provision risks disengagement. Not the kind of they-just-didn’t-seem-to-be-interested disengagement, but a circumstantial inability to engage with the provision because ‘life happens’. Not ideal in terms of access.
I’m wary of this term as it assumes that belonging-to-the-academy in some form is something all students want and is rarely properly defined. Incoming students, especially those who haven’t arrived from the school pipeline, are likely to already belong to quite a few things. I think the mistake we make here is not in thinking belonging is important but in assuming that the institution should be a primary, or significant, location of belonging. Hence the reference to ‘mattering’ which is a principle that applies more evenly across all students, or in fact to everyone – who doesn’t want to matter?
A feeling of not belonging, or alternatively, not mattering is likely to lead to disengagement through alienation or lack of motivation. Not ideal in terms of inclusion.
If we run with the idea that flexibility means that students can study at their own pace (within certain bounds) and at a time which works for them, does this always cut against the possibility of belonging? What if that includes multiple course start times, elective modules, recordings of ‘live’ teaching, significant chunks of asynchronous or ‘supported’ teaching etc. That level of flexibility means that no consistent group of students will be ‘together’ at the same time and in the same place very often. The notion of the cohort is eroded, raising the question of what we imagine students are supposed to belong to? (especially in fully online provision where we don’t have the convenience of conflating belonging with ‘being in a building’)
I believe there is a tension here but that it might be being misrepresented, or centered too closely on, a ‘traditional’ student. We need to consider the extent to which any given student expects their relationship with university to be a cultural rite-of-passage or an educational journey. I’d argue that our notions of belonging contain a complex mix of rite-of-passage and education – which are, of course, interwoven. I’d also argue that a fully online student is likely to be primarily interested in aspects of belonging which keep them educationally motivated. They probably don’t imagine going punting will help them finish the course, even if it would help them to feel part of the academy (Extreme example I know).
To what extent do students who opt for a fully online course hope, or expect, for a cultural-rite-of-passage other than gaining accreditation (and hopefully the associated learning)? I’m not sure we know?
Negotiating the Flexibility-Belonging tension must be done through the design of provision, as I believe we are reaching the limit of what can be achieved by offering more support around a less-than-flexible model. This is not a simple path though, as increasing flexibility is not only in tension with foggy, but well meaning, notions of belonging but possibly also with what we believe the identity of our subjects are.
The headline design-principle for educational provision which responds to the flexibility-belonging tension is ‘presence’. I’ve written about presence before and my conclusion is that we should provide the opportunity for students to engage via a range of modes and channels i.e. multiple forms of authentic presence.
We already, variously, do this but I suspect we still have a model of ‘ideal’ engagement lurking in the background which is a subset of the many possible routes to being a successful student. For example, we will often talk of the student who submits brilliant work despite hardly ever ‘attending’ – even in institutions who do not mandate attendance. In this case their work is their authentic presence. Another example would be the student who only seems to watch recordings of teaching but gains a decent mark or the student who never asks a question etc. There has to be many routes to success to reflect the diversity in personal circumstances and motivations, as opposed to a single ‘correct’ route and a stack of support and exceptions.
The value of inconvenience
Not of this is straightforward and I worry that multiple forms of authentic presence does not equate to multiple meaningful routes to success. In short, I think it is easy to accidentally choose a pragmatic, but less than enjoyable, route. This brings me back to my Belonging is Inconvenient proposition, in that sometimes it’s good to do things in a less than efficient manner. Sometimes having to go out of our way is what makes the activity worthwhile.
To be very clear, I’m not saying that it’s good to be draconian, obfuscating or needlessly complex on the basis of providing a ‘character building’ environment (unless your institution is keen to perpetuate and protect entrenched forms of generational privilege and opportunity in the classically mean British style). It may well be character building but I’m not sure I like that particular character.
If we have to go out of our way because of a lack of thought in the design of the provision then I suspect we only learn how to feel annoyed, or that we somehow don’t belong. If we choose to go out of our way because we understand the value of taking a less-than-direct-route then we are gaining in personal agency rather than losing faith in the institution.