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Current issues in learning and teaching in higher education

The 6th Excellence in Teaching Conference at King’s today discussed one of the major concerns of research-intensive universities: the connections between research and teaching. This – and ratings in the national student surveys – is becoming an increasing preoccupation as universities begin to charge high tuition fees and seek to justify the investment which students are making in their futures.

As ever, no consensus emerged on the headline topics during the day. I tweeted from the conference using the hashtag #eitc2012. As you can see from a review of my tweets a variety of perspectives and issues were discussed.

One of the most interesting discussions was in a presentation about an on-going research project at King’s, which we’re participating in at the Institute of Psychiatry. From interviews which are currently being conducted with staff, there appear to be emerging some typologies of academic staff:

1) Those who do research and nothing else.

2) Those who do research, but enjoy teaching because of the human contact it provides.

3) Those who teach and do a little research on the side.

4) Those who value both teaching and research and seek to integrate them so that they are mutually supportive.

I think most universities have people in most of these categories. I probably fall into the final category as I feel that both are important academic roles, particularly in an applied discipline such as social work. The challenge for universities – if this typology holds up to scrutiny – is to consider what are the implications of this for their learning, teaching and research strategies. I think it would also be important for departments to consider whether or not they have a balance of staff across these typologies and how this impacts on the academic discourse of the discipline.

The two plenary speakers, Steve Jones from University College London and Peter McPhee from the University of Melbourne, were both excellent. Steve Jones shared his scepticism about the value of genetic research and argued that education is important irrespective of genes. I had wanted him to explore the implications of his arguments for learning and teaching in higher education, but he stopped short of this. Peter McPhee, on the other hand, outlined five challenges facing universities like King’s and seemed to be spot on.

My paper, on the other hand, was a little bit different. Rather than presenting a study I had completed or was working on, as I would normally do at a conference such as this, I chose to present some thoughts about my use of social media as an academic. The PPT presentation is available here. I gave three examples of how engaging with social media has helped over the last twelve months:

1) The national survey of stress and burnout in Approved Mental Health Professionals conducted earlier this year by Janine Hudson (one of my MSc students and an experienced AMHP in Kent) achieved twice as many responses as a postal survey of mental health social workers ten years previously. Janine made extensive use of social media, which helped to effectively disseminate information about the survey. The data are currently being analysed and will be reported soon.

2) Crowdsourcing on twitter and via this blog is a particularly useful tool for obtaining feedback on issues. It also helps to reduce the isolation of writing things like this post late at night!

3) Engaging with people via social media sharpens our critical thinking skills. I think both students and academics can gain by using the medium to debate and form opinions on important matters.

I had relatively few questions from the 50 plus attendees in the session. I’m not sure how to read this. It was mid-afternoon and siesta time by the Thames, so I may have lulled everyone to sleep. It may have been so dull that no-one wanted to engage and they were keen for it to be over. It may have been that it was so comprehensive that it answered all their questions. I don’t think so. But this experience highlighted for me that it is not only twitter or blogging which sometimes produces no or few responses. People can behave the same in face to face encounters as online.

Finally, I presented a poster on the findings of our study examining reasons for non-response to the Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey. The main finding of this study (to be reported in a later blog post when it’s finally published) was that students who didn’t respond to the survey last year felt that it wouldn’t have any impact. This led to an increased publicity campaign for PTES in 2012 and I was pleased to learn yesterday that the College’s PTES response rate has doubled from last year. While this of course could not be put down to our study, it is nice to see that responding to students’ concerns raised in PTES may have encouraged students to engage with it this year.

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