FACE Executive Member Dr John Butcher from the Open University recently attended our sister organisation’s annual conference and shares his musing with you here.
What’s in a name? Beat of your drum (Bowie, D 1987)
Members of FACE will recognise the subtle (and not so subtle) shifts when policy makers talk about ‘Widening Participation’ and/or ‘Widening Access’ and/or ‘Widening Success’. In the English context, the need to deliver Access and Participation plans for the new Office for Students makes the language we use particularly important. What we call what we do, how we name the activities we have been committed to for our careers in higher education, matters, and perhaps matters more than at any time in the last 25 years. I have just returned from the National Association for Developmental Education (NADE) conference, where ‘naming’ support for learners from disadvantaged backgrounds took on greater significance. NADE is the American sister organisation to FACE, and NADE executive regularly attend our annual FACE conference. I was delighted to be representing FACE at NADE for the second time, after a memorable conference in Washington DC (see 2018 blog).
I am fortunate enough to have presented at many academic conferences, and some variation of the formal conference lunch/dinner has often been combined with an awards ceremony and a keynote presentation. However, never have I experienced previously a meticulously seated lunch for hundreds of academics in a large hotel ballroom dominated by huge glittering chandeliers, with ears blasted by the deafeningly amplified drum beat introduction to Queen’s ‘We will rock you’. This was the first full day of the NADE conference in Atlanta, Georgia, the peach (there were lots of peach references) of the southern states of the US.
The ‘We will rock you’ riff was deliberately intended to fire-up NADE colleagues’ emotions ahead of a serious, and in some ways dramatic announcement. NADE was established 43 years ago in 1976, providing public leadership and offering professional development opportunities for faculty and support staff in higher education. NADE’s brief has always been to support student learning, particularly those students from what we in the UK might call disadvantaged backgrounds, learners FACE members would recognise (often from groups traditionally under-represented in HE and/or first in their families to attend College/University). The NADE executive were seated on a high table facing all the delegates, and were keen to ‘rally the troops’ ahead of a controversial announcement. The drum-heavy Queen introduction was faded and replaced with an animated presentation to prepare us all for a re-brand and a new name. Hence, NADE is no more, changing its name to the National Organisation for Student Success (NOSS) with new branding to follow. As if to underline the pressing need for change, the keynote was then presented by a Professor of English who was Associate Provost for Student Success at Georgia State University, on a topic ‘Preparing a New Toolkit for Student Success’.
It was clear in the room that the announcement was not without controversy. Members of the NADE executive had suggested as much to me when chatting at the previous day’s International/newcomers’ reception. Not all members wanted a change, and not all members approved of the newly chosen name and acronym, which had been balloted on, but the result had not previously been announced. It was clear colleagues were proud of teaching under-prepared students, and proud of managing the most diverse groups of learners from the most challenging backgrounds. Talking with colleagues on my table, the name change was approved, albeit grudgingly, and there was a sense that the work of NADE would morph seamlessly into NOSS.
Interestingly, the rationale for the need to change was familiar to the context in which FACE members operate – lecturers and support staff working in developmental education were increasingly reporting being unable to access institutional funding to attend the NADE conference. Sadly, the very term ‘Developmental Education’ had become mistrusted, pigeonholed as ‘remedial education, and if not quite toxic, certainly not playing effectively in an educational discourse increasingly driven by retention, progression and achievement metrics. State and Federal policy (and financing) increasingly focused on student success. For example, California no longer offers separate preparatory developmental education – students go straight into Year 1 writing classes and sink or swim.
This prompted me to consider the number of organisations competing to offer UK leadership around Widening Access and Success in HE, and the extent to which any name (I am thinking UALL and NEON as much as FACE) adequately responds to the zeitgeist language associated with a policy paradigm premised on student success as key elements in Access and Participation plans. Perhaps an issue to watch, and debate amongst the FACE Executive and at the Sheffield conference.
The NADE conference itself was lively and engaging, with presentations naturally dominated by challenges and interventions framed through a US lens. The shifts I picked up from the conference presentations included what was referred to as the great debate in developmental education – reflecting a point of uncertainty in US universities. This was signified by calls for major reforms to address the low pass rates of the 6 million students on remedial courses in open access community college and on 4 year degree programmes, of whom only 29% graduate within 6 years. Black and Hispanic students are even less likely than white students to graduate within 6 years. Essentially (and this was familiar to a participant from the UK) the closure of ‘separate’ learner support units was a result of a new focus on student success (defined as moving students to the next step) and a shift to compressed or accelerated support for ‘almost-ready’ students as co-requisites (called a guided emporium model), rather than separate pre-requisites. This could be viewed as an attempt to get away from a deficit model, but attendees regarded changes as too speedy. While development education was regarded as a US form of social justice, a key concern remained how to stop students slipping through the cracks in the system.
However, it was fascinating how many issues were familiar and relevant to a UK audience. These included:
- Plenty of sessions on evaluation of specific institutional programmes. These were well represented by presentations devoted to supporting first generation students, to alternative pedagogic approaches including problem-based learning, and to a shift away from ‘students should listen to our advice’ to an acknowledgement that students are experts on their own strengths
- The Maths focus felt very recognisable, particularly sessions on attempts to challenge negative perceptions/fallacies about learners’ own mathematical ability, the use of additional Math ‘boot camps’, and the use of authentic applications to counter the querulous ‘why do we have to learn this’?
- As last year, considerable interest in the development of open educational resources (OERs) to replace ‘prohibitively expensive’ text books.
- A social justice focus, exemplified by a presentation ‘Not all take-offs are on time’, which recognised linear progression through education is no longer the norm and advocated building on the retention literature with a fuller understanding to help those students who do withdraw, to return. Much attention was given to issues of inter group bias, stereotype threat and imposter syndrome.
- Technologically-led approaches, including on one hand use of Flipgrid – smartphone filmed introductions/micro lessons and/or bite size videos aimed at engaging learners without additional expense, and at the other institutional learning analytics to target interventions (mainly in supporting English).
- Mentoring students placed on warning/probation – supporting them to gain ‘academic altitude’.
- Far more than the UK, was the visibility of developmental provision with ex-military learners – across the States this was clearly a key Access role for institutions.
I did a presentation ‘Reconceptualising part-time adult learning in higher education: salutary lessons from England’ which attracted a lively audience. What emerged from dialogue with US colleagues were particular challenges around state funding for part-time and adult education, as states choose different priorities (not dissimilar to the four nations funding differences in the UK). I was slightly surprised at the level of agreement with some of my key findings around the challenges part-time adult learners face, and what institutions might do to address them, including making assessment more inclusive to support student understanding and reduce the need for tutor mediation. My understanding of distance education (Open University style) was not commonly understood. In the US distance education is very much a proxy for purely online delivery. Much attention was given to developments by Purdue Global and Pearson, although there remained real concerns amongst presenters with how to engage online learners and how to lessen learner anxiety in online settings.
Last year I learned much about the impact of Dweck’s work on positive learner mindsets, and as a result one of my doctoral students will be incorporating those ideas into her thesis. This year I will be following up bel hooks work on a pedagogy of love, exploring how conceptualising the generosity of an act of care in an affective learning environment helps to anticipate student needs, and sustains a belonging mindset. I was also intrigued that thinking around communities of practice (Wenger and others) was new to the US context.
One point of note ahead of the FACE conference was the disappointingly poor support for poster presentations. While excellent that there was a dedicated slot in the programme so colleagues could attend and engage, the posters themselves were not displayed well, were often too small to be read behind other attendees, and lacked visual creativity. We should give careful instructions to poster presenters, and ensure advice about size, readability is clear.