In this interview we talk to Lindsay Henderson, Quality and Learner Engagement Co-ordinator at North Highland College UHI (NHC). Lindsay joined NHC as a secretarial assistant, moving on to work in Quality part-time while studying at NHC towards a Business Management Degree. Following this, a year working between Quality and Curriculum Support led to her current role which she took up in August 2015.
1. Let’s start at a general level – what does student engagement mean to you?
I strongly believe that students are the true experts on what they need to ensure that they get the most from their time as a student, be it inside or outside the classroom. Student engagement for me is about making sure that our students have every opportunity to really get involved with the working life of the organisation and that this benefits each individual student, as well as the whole student body.
2. Your college teaches a lot of very industry-focused courses, and many students study part-time or as part of work training. Is that an advantage for student engagement, in terms of students being very focused on the content and desired outcomes of their courses, or a disadvantage, in terms of them not necessarily having much spare time to get involved in quality activities?
We do indeed! It’s fantastic to be able to offer such a varied range of attendance methods and practical learning experiences to students, though this is not without its challenges. Finding time to get involved with activities can be difficult for all students, and even more so for those who do not attend college on such a regular basis. As a partner of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), we have access to fantastic software and tools; such as Blackboard Collaborate, Jabber and our online Red Button feedback system. Myself and our Students’ Association Depute President plan to expand the use of such online forums next year to ensure we can engage with students even when they are not on campus. Our students also bring with them varied experiences outside of college which provide them with unique viewpoints when it comes to working together to make improvements and changes. For the many who are in employment they also bring with them the industry perspective.
3. You recently experienced an Education Scotland college review for your further education provision, and the report had some positive things to say about student engagement at the college. Tell us about that, and how easy it is to get students to engage with the issues and processes that review presents.
Our review report identified many areas where students are well engaged with improving learning and teaching and also with activities outside the learning and teaching context. Our monthly Learner Council gives Course Reps, the Principal and other senior staff a chance to meet regularly and discuss college business. Support services attendance at Learner Council often leads to staff and students working together to develop ideas and make improvements to services. Course Reps also sit as members of the Course Team and attend three meetings a year with academic staff to discuss their specific course and how it can be developed and improved for the future.
With regards to the review process, from an early point we made sure students knew the review was taking place and why it was happening. The majority of students who are likely to come into contact with the review team members will do so during classroom observations, so we made it really clear to students that the team weren’t there to check up on them as individuals but just to get a better picture of everything that happens at NHC. Feedback from the review team about how willing NHC students were to talk to them and provide open and honest answers to their questions was very positive.
4. North Highland College is a part of the University of the Highlands and Islands, and its new regional students’ association HISA. What are the opportunities or challenges in learning and sharing about student engagement practice at a regional level?
We always say that UHI and HISA are unique; 13 academic partners, over 70 learning centres, close to 40,000 students and covering more than half the land mass of Scotland. This sounds complicated, and it can be logistically, however the advantages far outweigh this.
For NHC, joining HISA has given our students a regional voice but has also allowed us to develop the student voice locally in a way which has been difficult in the past. Bringing together resources and expertise across the partnership ensures that we have structures and governance in place, and most importantly independent support for student officers.
Many cross partner committees and working groups comprising staff and students have been established and are working well, most recently the Class Rep Working Group which is reviewing the training and ongoing support needs of reps across the partnership.
We learn from each other by sharing; be it the things which have worked well or things which have not worked so well. We work together to drive forward student engagement, which often means having an overarching approach with enough flexibility for each partner to tailor the practice to their students. Our cross partner early experience survey is now into its third year and allows us to compare results to see where areas of joint working to improve the student experience are possible, but we still have the flexibility to look at local opportunities independently.
This is such an exciting time for student engagement at NHC and within the region, I can’t wait to see how things shape up in the months and years to come.
Thanks to Lindsay 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.