8 Dec 2014

Interview with Phil Ker, Otago Polytechnic, New Zealand

In this interview we talk to Phil Ker, Chief Executive of Otago Polytechnic, whose main base is in Dunedin, in New Zealand’s South Island. He was involved in the student engagement project that sparqs contributed to earlier in 2014, and has had a long career in teaching, management and leadership in tertiary education in New Zealand.

1. We first met you in April 2014 at the NZ Union of Students’ Associations’ conference on student engagement in the polytechnic sector. Can you just briefly set the scene by telling our readers a little about some of the distinctive features of the polytechnic sector in New Zealand?

The Polytechnic sector in NZ has a broad mandate from second chance foundation education at level 1 on our qualifications framework through to post graduate study including doctorates. In between are vocational certificates and diplomas as well as degrees, all of which are practical and which are designed to meet the needs of industry and the professions. Polytechnics are characterised by more personalised learning in small classes, with most if not all programmes having significant work related learning. This work related learning may be work experience itself, internships, clinical placements or capstone industry projects.

2. What does the phrase “student engagement” mean to you, and what do you feel it means to the wider sector in NZ?

Student engagement to the wider polytechnic sector generally means consulting with students around broader aspects of the learning environment and getting student feedback on the quality of teaching, resources, courses, programmes and learner support. Most if not all institutions respond to such feedback by fine tuning service provision in some way. All of this is important, but for me student engagement starts to have real meaning when students are regarded as and worked with as bona fide learning partners at both the level of individual study and institutional decision making. As learning partners students co-create the programmes of learning, within the constraints of regulatory agencies, and are instrumental in co-designing the broader learning environment.

3: That sounds like the debates we’ve had in Scotland – moving the student role from reactively giving feedback to something more proactive, like the co-creation of the learning experience and having a role in institutional governance as you mentioned. Is that reflective of a debate going on in NZ just now?

It is not exactly a debate we are having, so much as an increasing awareness that students are expecting to have more say over their learning, and increasingly want learning to be more directly relevant to them personally. On the governance front, more institutions are looking for more effective ways to connect students with the governance process, given that our small (8 member) councils/boards do not anywhere have direct student membership. I think there is a growing appreciation by institutional management that it is just smart management to listen more carefully to what students have to say.

4. In your presentation to the conference we mentioned, you talked about the importance of student engagement in curriculum design, avoiding content-heavy courses and allowing students the freedom to manage their learning. Presumably this has a huge impact on not only how you support students in this process, but also how you develop staff too?

Involving students in curriculum design is much more an aspiration than a reality, unfortunately, although here at Otago Polytechnic we do have many programmes for which there is a significant learner designed component, and several programmes which are entirely learner designed. The latter consist of enquiry focused, practice based qualifications where the learner defines the subject matter of study and negotiates a learning agreement which sets out not only the learning outputs and outcomes but the nature and method of assessment, including aspects of the assessment criteria.

For all programmes I believe there should be elective opportunities at all levels where the student chooses the subject matter to be learned or the skills to be developed and negotiates a learning agreement as outlined above. There should also be elements of self and peer assessment, both for formative and summative assessment. My experience is that students are remarkably astute when it comes to assessing their own learning and that of their peers. Of course, students must be supported in this process through training and development in the process of assessment, including making evidence based decisions. And tools need to be provided.

Indeed, for learners to be learning partners we need to de-emphasise the content acquisition of their courses and place much higher emphasis on a wide range of generic or transferable skills which are relevant to the process of learning, including learning how to learn (in particular reflection and enquiry skills), working effectively in teams and communication skills.

On a basic level, working with students as learning partners also requires a much more flexible approach to teaching and learning - less tethered to rigid weekly timetables and involving more student managed learning including online learning.

However, all of the training and development in the world will not make for a learning partnership unless there is a genuine desire by the teachers to share control, and a belief that students are capable of making good decisions about their own learning.

Not all learners want to take on the level of responsibility of co-creator of their own learning as outlined here. Some very much want to be directed down the pathway of least resistance and would prefer to receive the wisdom of their teachers and be assessed on that in more traditional ways. Does a learning partnership therefore allow for students to opt out? This comes back to what it is that the institution is trying to achieve with its graduates. If our promise is that we will graduate students who are highly capable and work-ready then students taking more responsibility for their learning is not negotiable. However, the learning partnership should be scaffolded and should not outrun the capability of individual learners to cope. Nor should it hold back those willing and able to take on even more responsibility.


Thanks to Phil 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.

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