In this interview, we talk to Conor Naughton, Educational Developer at Nottingham Trent University (NTU), a post he started in June 2022, where he specialises in student engagement, transition, and course design. Before that, he served two terms as President of Nottingham Trent’s Students’ Union from 2020 - 2022. He was also recently awarded Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy. Conor is passionate about student voice, representation, and the power of social mobility. You can follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.
1. You have been a sabbatical officer through most of the pandemic. What was that like, and what was your sense of how the learning experience fared in England through such a hugely challenging time?
It was turbulent! Reflecting now on those really difficult periods during the height of the pandemic, the sheer speed at which things continued to change and the pressure that was put on everyone in the sector, feels like an unpleasant dream. As an officer, it was extremely challenging, but I’m incredibly proud of everything I achieved during an unprecedented time. However, the toughest task was that in some areas, no matter what was achieved, it still wasn’t enough in the grand scheme of what students wanted: a normal university experience.
Regarding the learning experience, despite the outstanding work of academic and professional services staff, government restrictions led to a significant negative impact on students’ learning, something we all know. One of the key impacts on the learning experience for me, was the way the pandemic put digital poverty firmly in the spotlight and highlighted the disparity in access to suitable equipment and internet connection, to allow students an equal playing field to access online learning, the impacts of which we will continue to see for many years to come. Even with countless support measures put in place by universities, students had to compete with siblings for a spot at the kitchen table, care for others, or work to put food on the table; issues that go far deeper than any remedy a higher education provider can offer.
Challenges with the rapid adoption of the necessary digital skills to provide a suitable online learning experience for students also caused concern for students, particularly from those on courses that have teaching staff who you may traditionally expect to be less familiar with the digital skills required to conduct successful online learning. Many positives did arise regarding learning, particularly with the end to ‘in-person for all things at all times’. I am a strong advocate for in-person teaching and engagement more broadly. However, a more dynamic approach to large-scale lectures or how and when we bring students onto campus has had many positive benefits.
2. And what’s your sense of what those benefits are? You mention digital poverty, for instance, and on one level the pandemic may have made people aware of this phenomenon about learning for the first time. Are there others that come with the end to that “in person for everything” that you refer to?
For me it’s made both students and staff think about what value is derived from any given teaching offer. This has resulted in learning content being adapted to be both synchronous and asynchronous in a more agile and beneficial way, giving staff more time for tutorials, supporting students and marking and allowing students more flexibility with how and when they engage with content, e.g. completing it around work or caring responsibilities. You mention opening people up to learning for the first time and I think that’s a great point: more people of all ages and backgrounds are keen to jump in (or back into) learning, and the sector has a key role to play in ensuring life-long learning isn’t just a buzzword.
3. You’re now working as an educational developer. Tell us what that involves.
So I work in the centre for academic development and quality (CADQ) and I’m responsible for a portfolio of educational development services with stakeholders across NTU. What that looks like daily varies widely, but often includes running targeted workshops for academics and professional services staff on student engagement, transition and SCALE-UP learning, to name a few. The role also involves innovating and supporting the development of new and significantly modified courses via design sprints, or guiding schools with the development and delivery of their evidence-based success for all plans.
What I love about the role is the variety of work that each day brings. I work closely with two schools and help them to enhance the learning and teaching experience of the students they serve. Beyond my work with my two schools, I also have the opportunity to support staff and teams right across NTU, which still gives me some of that cross-department work that is so commonplace for officers.
4. What did that role look like to a sabbatical officer, and why were you interested in “crossing the floor” to a university role?
The educational developer role at NTU is still fairly new and wasn’t something I was massively aware of in my first year as an officer. Much of a developer’s work isn’t student-facing in the traditional sense, yet the work carried out and changes facilitated, such as new and improved courses, improved success for all plans, and new methods for engaging students all have an enormous impact on students’ daily experience. As I learned more about the role, I liked how it combined many of the skills and experiences I had gained from my time as a President into a role that would allow me to continue my passion for helping improve outcomes for all students.
For me, “crossing the floor” was an easy decision. As a student at NTU, I came from a BTEC route and low socio-economic background, and I benefited first-hand from the projects, initiatives and support on offer from NTU and Nottingham Trent Students’ Union (NTSU). As President, I continued and built on the great relationship between NTSU and NTU and from a new perspective continued to support work that helped improve the experience of other students.
Whilst I loved the fun, challenging, sometimes chaotic, but always rewarding, day-to-day of a Students’ Union, I was keen to broaden my experience and the opportunities that the role offered to develop myself personally and professionally, whilst keeping my foot firmly in the student engagement camp and continuing work that had a strong crossover with the work of Students’ Union, appealed to me.
5. And what’s it been like moving from an SU President role to educational development and a permanent staff position? They both perhaps share a cross-university focus, but do they also give you different perspectives on learning and teaching?
It’s been an easy transition, thanks in large part to the great people I work with, who have been welcoming and supportive. Many people I am working with, I had existing relationships with from my previous role as SU President and I’ve had the benefit of being aware of many work streams and existing priorities for educational development at NTU. There has been an element of recalibrating this, be it in my working relationships, or having gone from more of a ‘helicopter’ view of many things at a macro-level to now very much focusing on fewer, yet more micro-level areas of work.
There have, of course, been challenges that all officers face going into post-officer life and all the adaptations that come with it. In the team I work in, I’m privileged to work with several former officers, which has been a great chance to compare notes and reflect on the highs and lows that all officers experience. From a learning and teaching angle in my new role, I have an even greater appreciation for the scale and quality of work that so many do, often behind the scenes, to realise innovations, drive positive change and achieve results that benefit students.
6. Can we briefly go back to what you said about your background and journey into education? There is much going on in Scotland, as we’re sure is the case south of the border, on widening access and participation (for instance in the work of SCAPP), and we in sparqs are helping to enable conversations between students’ associations and widening participation teams. Any top tips for us in that area of work?
Where to begin! One of the biggest areas where SUs and university teams working on widening participation can really do some great work, is around data sharing. It’s starting to be talked about and worked through more in the sector, but it really holds a key to unlocking greater (and more equal) access to societies, volunteering and wider Union activity, that is proven to have a positive impact on engagement, retention and success. It can be a large undertaking, so having clear support from the institution, or funding allocated to dedicated SU staffing, is vital.
Another area is how this work can be ‘dropped’ on an officer who, one, may not have capacity, two, has little interest or lived experience and, three, has all the passion for it in the world, but has no idea where to begin. It’s so important that a provider gives good notice and support to officers working with them on widening access and participation and even better if SUs have dedicated staff who hold expertise in the area, to ensure continuation of this work beyond an officer’s term of office.
7. Can we move on to your recent award of Associate Fellowship of the HEA? Congratulations! What inspired you to go for that, and what did it involve?
Thank you! Initially, my inspiration came way back in late 2020 when, during an introductory meeting with an NTU colleague from The Trent Institute for Learning and Teaching (TILT), a department at NTU that promotes excellence in learning and teaching, drew my attention to fellowship. It was mentioned how, as a student officer, much of my work would map nicely to the UKPSF and how beneficial it could be to my contributions to the academic experience of students at NTSU and NTU.
Of course, the coronavirus pandemic took hold again as winter came and my workload and priorities had to be focused on the immediate challenges of fair assessment policies, student hardship, national lobbying and much more.
Despite all this, my desire to complete fellowship during my time as an officer remained strong. I was keen to gain an additional accreditation that, firstly, made me a better officer and representative of the 40,000 students I supported at NTU and secondly, gave me a hugely valuable tool that would give me an edge in my future endeavours. So with a renewed focus and determination to squeeze everything left from my final months as President of NTSU, I got my head down, found some time and got to work.
Having kept my engagement with completing the process close to the boil I would sporadically attend a drop-in session or workshop run by TILT which offered a great suite of support for colleagues completing fellowship at NTU. Doing this meant I had various drafts and ideas at the ready. With time set aside, I was able to pause and take stock of my achievements as an officer and the ways in which I had positively contributed to enhancing the student experience with learning and teaching. I got involved in several workshops and conversations with colleagues across disciplines at NTU and that provided great support in me finishing writing my submission.
8. We’ve worked with Advance HE, who run the HEA Fellowships, to encourage student officers in Scotland to consider fellowship applications. What advice would you give a current sabbatical about the value of the fellowships?
My first and most important piece of advice would be, don’t be intimated by the initial information you may come across. There are plenty of helpful and informative guides on what fellowship is, the benefits and the process itself. However, to a student officer completing a fellowship submission and evidencing how you meet the UKSPF framework and criteria, can at first glance still seem a tough task.
Take the time to pause and reflect on everything you have achieved as an officer. It might not, at first, seem relevant, but that new course representation system you launched, response to a large-scale consultation you led, or changes to collecting and actioning student feedback you started, will have had a huge impact on students’ learning and teaching, and all counts toward you being awarded a fellowship award.
At NTU I was grateful to be supported by a fantastic, dedicated team, who guided me every step of the way and helped me translate my practice into words. I would recommend any officer explore what support your institution offers, and as an increasing number of current or former student officers like myself complete the process, reach out and ask any burning questions you may have. It is always a pleasure to support current or former officers in developing their practice and the work they do for students further.
Thanks to Conor for being an interviewee. To suggest a future subject for interview, please contact us.
This interview is part of a series of occasional interviews on our website with student engagement practitioners – both staff and students, and from within Scotland’s university and college sector and beyond. The interviews aim to capture the different perspectives that people have on student engagement in the quality of learning.