Executive of Education; Thoughts on the HEA SLTA conference

“The biggest impact you can make,

the biggest Impact you can leave behind

Is the mark you leave behind on someone else.”

– Quote from an International student.

This quote was echoed by NUS (National union of students) VP of Higher Education Usman Ali, when speaking yesterday at the HEA (higher education academy ) conference on “Student led teaching awards”. A bit of a mouthful but these conferences always are, it can take a long time to wrap your head around anagrams and official bodies when you start getting involved in this kinda sector (like any industry I guess).

Why am I talking about this, well the short answer is Heriot watt was the first university to award deserving lecturers who were nominated completely by students, hence the “student led” part. Eventually we decided to turn it into an actual award night, and rather than just giving it at graduation allow ALL students from all years to effectively praise the lecturers that have the most positive impact on their learning in different categories, and kickstart them to  engage and think about their learning at university in a very simple way.  It also lets us as a union look at where all the innovation and best practise is, and allow lecturers in an industry that sometimes forgets to praise staff for great teaching in a field where the old mantra certainly was “Teaching is punishment for bad research”.

This year will be the 3rd year Heriot watt and several other institutions Scotland will be holding their awards, the great thing about these awards that are now funded by the HEA with a grant of £1,500 to put towards making your event that bit more “special”, Is that  every institution running these awards is given advice and support by NUS but has full reign on how they develop the whole process and actual award ceremony.Heriot watt alone has had 2 very different themes from black tie to an almost whimsical “garden party” with fake grass gnomes and tea cakes.

This adds to the uniqueness of the project, it empowers universities to really make the night special and because there is scope for institutions to create their own categories the winners and nominees really feel part of something special, with awards ranging from “best lecturer” all the way to “guiding hand” and “mistress/master of vision” (online learing environment). With no two award ceremonies being the same.

But what is the point, why have it? Several other reasons spring to mind, with such a rather glum and dire year for the education sector as a whole, it is a very clear morale boost for staff, and even for class reps, who time and time again ask “Whats wrong with your degree?” now they can go to students “whats right? What makes you come to class, Did someone  go that extra mile for you?”. Coming from someone who has sat and read over 800 heart warming nominations as a proud believer in education for all and that students are more than just consumers but intellectuals and academics that should shape their learning in a joint effort with staff and universities. There was never such a proud moment as reading comments like “In the class room this lecturer makes the class feel like equals”  or “This lecturers commitment, passion and ability to make lectures engaging, saved me from dropping out of university”.  Truly astounding and goes against anything any nae-sayers have to say about the decline in both quality of education, staff and students. It’s also a fabulous tool for any academic, department, or union to use in “improving academic enhancement, or the student experience”. Of course with 800 detailed nominations, and remember winners are determined by quality not quantity of votes.  Leads to their being many deserving lecturers being up for an award, so lecturers that didn’t get an award can receive some feedback and praise. Many  of the staff we spoke to said it was an honour to even receive a nomination and meant more to them than ANYTHING any of their peers or the sector could award them.

Of course This conference is essentially a chance for institutions on the forefront of this scheme and ones only now getting involved to learn a little more about the scheme and converse and exchange ideas. I want to just walk you through my experience of the whole event, I think as a member of the union Executive, it Is important I give feedback and report back on these events, so anyone whether they are the most engaged student or the student who may just have a casual interest can still learn about whats going on and what I am doing during my time as Exec member If nothing else to prove I am not just sitting around on my butt with a title, that im out there trying  to make things better on and off campus, local and national.

After the morning speeches from HEA staff  (including our ex VP of education and welfare Murray Hope). Everyone headed off to their first workshop, a gathering of different conference members discussing a different topic relating to the awards. My one was “How can the awards be used as a tool for improving academic enhancement”. It was a really interesting discussion, with a good mix of staff and students, Including sabbatical staff from Edinburgh, Aberdeen and stirling. (Presidents and VP’S).I won’t pretend I dont find these events daunting and I am always terrified I wont know what to say or how to engage, but I think the position I hold is the kind that your dropped in at the deep end and you just learn how to do it by doing it, because before I knew it, I was leading the discussion at my table, being the only one that was a student at my table/group discussion. Really asking questions and taking it a step further, with only some random tangents, and quite a few humorous anecdotes along the way. Discussing how we can take this feedback from students, a USE it, feed it back into the system and not just dump it into a box somewhere, we came up with a great bunch of ideas, everything from creating reports and passing it to important university committees, to gathering groups of lecturers to share their best practise approaches, with lecturers not nominated as well , to following some of Edinburgh universities approaches like creating a “best practise handbook guide”.  How we can change the Idea of Lecturers putting complete stock in research, which is seen as the big focus and  bringing in the research money that goes with it or how many post grads you can get through the system. That this the only way to promotion, of course none of these issues are openly declared but yesterdays academics were very honest in saying that it very much is “the last man standing that gets to be department head, or that research focused lecturers do sometimes seem to progress to heads of departments, and that can be instilled in new lecturers because they say it is the way forward. That promotion can be for excellence in teaching. Excellence is even more important these days, especially with students looking to pay even MORE for their degree and the rising threat coming from europe of cheaper degrees and promises of smaller classes and better funding than what the UK can offer (whether they can is a very different kettle of fish but the appeal is there for MANY students willing to take the risk faced with such daunting debt and barraged with the notion UK education is essentially down the pan which couldn’t be further from the truth).

The second session was “International students and how to engage them” Hosted by ex President of Strathclyde university, Phillip Whyte, a stunning orator and with a huge passion  and drive with an acid tongue to match, when he is so inclined to use it. Sitting around the table with staff from some of the most prestigious universities in the country including Durham and St Andrews. Which is good to see even prestigious universities being open to new ideas.

The essence of the presentation was because of clear and not necessarily enforced ideas, are foreign exchange students “silent” or “silenced” during their time at university. Cultural differences should not be ignored at university, and of course we delved off the subject in getting them involved  in the awards and just focused on their engagement  in general, we came to the conclusion that it is a vicious cycle.  That  there is faults on both parts, and yet at the same time it no ones fault, that we not wanting to offend anyone shy away from differences in cultural or accidentally miss them without realising, the example I was given that in china students view lecturers as total authority” and sometimes don’t realise they have to challenge and discussion and engage in debates, or come from a culture where you don’t question authority and the word “campaign” sends them running  a mile as they don’t think they should ask for more, or better.  these are things we need to consider, because only when we consider them, we can devise solutions and then engage better  with our students, at every level across all spectrums of academic life. We cannot bury our head in the sand or allow our students do the same, because they deserve better and we CAN give better.

I met some amazing people at this event, and to me, It is the reason I stay involved in the movement, The two most rewarding aspects of the job is seeing students engaging at any level whether its discussing improvements to the university over a quiet pint or getting them riled up and along to protests an demonstrations. The second is going to events like that, feeling like your part of the change, your facilitating and coaching passion and interest and developments up and down the country, no matter how small a part you play.

The best part of the day had to be Birmingham university asking me to come visit and speak to lecturers and members of staff at their campus. To help kick off their campaign, which has made me realise I really need to invest in a grown up suit so i can start looking like a proper adult since im turning 20 next week! starting to feel under-dressed at these events.

So I guess that’s a break down of some of the key points from yesterday, and I could go on forever about more implications but I Think I have talked enough, as always I will be around the union throughout the week and always around on Facebook and here to reply to comments and always keen to talk about any issue whether it comes under the mantle of Education or any student issue.

I think this has been helpful, and I think the more of these things i go to the more I love and feel inspired to carry on doing what I am doing at that this will be useful to someone else, or that sitting writing this up will solidify everything from yesterday and make me more useful to my union.

As a final point I wanted to share some  articles to check out for further reading.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/oct/17/lecturers-win-student-awards (has a nice photo of our president )

http://www.studentledteachingawards.org.uk/about-the-nushea-project/

As always peace :).

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~ by conorstrife on October 21, 2011.

One Response to “Executive of Education; Thoughts on the HEA SLTA conference”

  1. […] On Thursday I attended the Student-Led Teaching Awards (SLTAs) Conference put on by Higher education Academy (HEA). The conference was held in Edinburgh so there wasn’t too much travel involved which is always a good thing. Over the last 2 years institutions within Scotland have led the way with SLTAs. Heriot-Watt University Student Union has been very successful with its Learning and Teaching Oscars which are widely recognised across the higher education sector. HEA is now providing further funding for SLTAs to get set up within institutions around the UK. This year your Union will be moving into the third year of putting on an awards ceremony and it is an excellent way of recognising the hard work that is put in by our lecturers and support staff. Conor Murray-Gauld has written a more in depth article about the conference which you can find here. […]

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