Dr. Sue Timmis (University of Bristol) presented at the ESRI seminar “The role of digital media in sustaining epistemic engagement and belonging in higher education”. The talk focused on some incredibly timely issues relating to students engaging with learning and universities, academics and academia through technology but also the various day-to-day activities of studying at a university from the stresses of medical student, not having any meaningful relationships with academics, to spending one and a half hours trying to get something photocopied. As universities are increasingly positioned in a battle for students (read) these issues are becoming a matter of survival for higher education institutions.
The relationship between the student and institution has been conceptualised in terms of student experience but Sue explained that this is currently being usurped by a focus on engagement. There are multiple ways of defining “engagement”. Rather than using a normative definition, Dr. Timmis explained that she prefers relational definitions of engagement that go beyond a focus on activities and instead illuminate the relationships between students and the academic domain and discourses. Ludvigsen (2012), for example, defines engagement in terms of the core aim of education to foster participation in specialised discourses. Furthermore, engagement is a cognate issue to retention and belonging. Sue described research that asserts the importance of a ‘culture of belonging’ with students developing supportive peer relationships and meaningful interaction with academics.
Technology has been positioned at the interface between the student and academic community, as a way of encouraging or mediating engagement. Sue explained that previous approaches to understanding the potential of technology in such a role has been subject to either technological determinism or social constructivism, rather than engaging with the technology in a relational way that considers embodiment, action and usability.
The talk highlighted a series of potentially very serious problems building in higher education. There has been a shift to mass-higher education systems, with increased student-teacher ratios and reduced contact hours in addition to the heavy debt burdens that students are required to accept for access to university exacerbated by the prospects of a reduction in the graduate premium in future earnings. Technological innovation in this context presents the possibility of free, online courses for the masses and technologically-enhanced learning in elite universities for the few (read this).
Sue described a project that she is developing that will seek to develop a culture of attachment through digital media and new learner interactions. Reflecting on some of her earlier research projects e-SIGs and Tel-Me it seems that the most important factors will be students off-line relationships with peers and staff in addition to the learning environments they find themselves in. Rather than focusing on digital media as a plaster on existing problems in higher education, this raises significant questions beyond how the technology works, such as what is education for and how do universities re-design the context to improve student engagement, retention and belonging.