What is learned in higher education? And what use is it?


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Slides for the keynote address by Professor John Brennan (Centre for Higher Education Research and Information and The Open University) at the Learning in Law Annual Conference 2011.

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What is learned in higher education? And what use is it?

  1. 1. What is learned in higher education? And what use is it? John Brennan, Centre for Higher Education Research and Information, The Open University Learning in Law Annual Conference, January 28/9, 2011
  2. 2. The SOMUL project <ul><li>The Social and Organisational Mediation of University Learning” (SOMUL) or </li></ul><ul><li>What is learned at university? </li></ul><ul><li>Research team from Open University and University of Stirling </li></ul><ul><li>University learning and the student experience in different settings in UK universities </li></ul><ul><li>15 university case studies of student learning in biosciences, business studies and sociology. </li></ul>
  3. 3. The SOMUL project: the focus <ul><li>Student conceptions/perceptions of “What is learned” </li></ul><ul><li>- as cognitive development, </li></ul><ul><li>- as academic identity, </li></ul><ul><li>- as personal identity. </li></ul><ul><li>How this learning is affected by </li></ul><ul><li>- its organisation within HEIs - ‘organisational </li></ul><ul><li> mediations’, </li></ul><ul><li>- the characteristics of and the relationships </li></ul><ul><li> between the learners - ‘social mediations’. </li></ul><ul><li>Comparison of ‘official’ and student accounts of student learning </li></ul>
  4. 4. SOMUL: some assumptions <ul><li>‘ learning is influenced by the social, cultural and organisational contexts in which it occurs’ </li></ul><ul><li>higher education systems increasingly diversified </li></ul><ul><li>‘ what is learned’ a function of….. </li></ul><ul><ul><li>the social composition and life experiences of the student body on a particular programme (social mediation) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>the organisational features of the programme and its institutional context (organisational mediation) </li></ul></ul>
  5. 5. Commonalities and diversities – a) Commonalities <ul><li>Academic subjects: identities, loyalties and ‘benchmarks’ </li></ul><ul><li>‘ Generic’ benchmarks </li></ul><ul><li>The ‘English’ tradition – residential, liberal </li></ul><ul><li>A ‘personal’ pedagogy – supporting students </li></ul>
  6. 6. Commonalities and diversities b) diversities Diversities of students Diversities of universities Diversities of outcomes? <ul><li>educational backgrounds </li></ul><ul><li>social backgrounds </li></ul><ul><li>lifestyles </li></ul><ul><li>life stages </li></ul><ul><li>forms of engagement </li></ul><ul><li>curriculum organisation </li></ul><ul><li>organisation of staff </li></ul><ul><li>organisation of students </li></ul><ul><li>organisation of space </li></ul><ul><li>reputation and tradition </li></ul><ul><li>subject knowledge and competences </li></ul><ul><li>generic competences </li></ul><ul><li>social capital </li></ul><ul><li>confidence and identity </li></ul>
  7. 7. Diversities of learning settings <ul><li>Type A: Shared experience and high student diversity </li></ul><ul><li>Type B: Shared experience and low student diversity </li></ul><ul><li>Type C: Individualised experience </li></ul>
  8. 8. Experiences and outcomes <ul><li>In a Type A context, a diverse group of students come together to share a largely common experience. This provides opportunities for ‘learning from difference’. </li></ul><ul><li>In a Type B context, broadly similar kinds of students come together to share a largely common experience. This might imply ‘the maintenance of existing differences’, of ‘reinforcement of existing identities’. </li></ul><ul><li>Finally, in a Type C context, students have only limited contact with other students. Their time for study is limited and even more so is their time for other aspects of university life. For such students, university may be more about ‘living with difference’, about ‘maintaining and constructing multiple identities’- at university, at home, at work. </li></ul>
  9. 9. Outcomes: the student view <ul><li>Change among students appears to be conceived of more in terms of social and personal aspects than in terms of the academic </li></ul><ul><li>Characteristics most emphasised were to do with developing personal self confidence and an ability to get on with a wide range of people. </li></ul>
  10. 10. Outcomes: Type B settings <ul><li>Students from Type B university settings appear to develop strong loyalties towards their universities which are not shared by students in the other two types. They generally emphasise the importance of the people they have met at university, their ability to get on with a wide range of people and their commitment to maintaining contact with them after university. </li></ul>
  11. 11. Outcomes: type A settings <ul><li>Type A students share the commitments of Type B students to friends made at university but without the associated loyalty to the university itself. They are the students who seem to be most committed to their subjects and their studies. But they are rather less likely than other students to feel that their time at university has changed the way they see the world. </li></ul>
  12. 12. Outcomes: type C settings <ul><li>Students from Type C settings differ from other students in a number of respects. They report lower gains in self-confidence and are much less likely to expect to retain university friendships after graduation. They are more likely to feel that they ‘never fitted in’ and very much more likely to feel that the ‘qualification was the main thing’ and that life outside university remained the most important aspect of their lives. However, compared with other students, they were more likely to have a clearer view of the future than when they commenced their course. </li></ul>
  13. 13. Implications for institutions <ul><li>How much ‘within institutional’ diversity is practical? </li></ul><ul><li>Flexibility in curriculum design and delivery </li></ul><ul><li>Recognising ‘which diversities’ you are catering for (and recruiting accordingly) </li></ul><ul><li>Changing the institution of changing the students? </li></ul><ul><li>Running “parallel universities” </li></ul>
  14. 14. National system implications <ul><li>‘ part-time’ students on full-time courses (implications for duration, funding, standards) </li></ul><ul><li>Balancing diversities and commonalities in quality assurance </li></ul><ul><li>Celebrating diversities rather than being embarrassed by them </li></ul><ul><li>Heeding the student voice on the outcomes of learning (higher education is about more than jobs and skills! </li></ul>
  15. 15. Some questions for ‘Law’ <ul><li>Acquiring a ‘professional’ identity </li></ul><ul><li>Getting a job/career (for some) </li></ul><ul><li>Combining the personal, the social, the academic and the professional </li></ul><ul><li>Understanding diversities – students, institutions, careers </li></ul><ul><li>Relative importance of ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘how’ you study </li></ul>