In this interview we talk to Dale Whelehan, Education Officer and Deputy President for 2016/17 at Trinity College Dublin Students' Union in Ireland. Outside his sabbatical year he is a student of physiotherapy, and this past year was involved in creating Ireland’s first Student Partnership Agreement. His main interests in the role as Education Officer were in Quality Assurance in Module and Programmes, and the importance of staff and students working collaboratively to enhance student engagement. He also has a keen interest in the clinical education experience and assessment of experiential learning.
1. We’ll start with our favourite opening question – what does student engagement mean to you?
To me, student engagement means students feeling empowered to become active citizens in the teaching and learning environment and feeling like they can really make a change by explaining their educational experiences. It is about students feeling like equals in the institution and thus feeling like they are a stakeholder in all decision making processes pertaining to them, and subsequent cohorts of students. In a teaching and learning perspective, it’s about students delving into their course of study and really questioning the norm which will ultimately offer a transformative opportunity to learn.
2. And tell us about your journey from student to sabbatical. What got you interested in the idea of student engagement?
As a Junior Freshman student, I was encouraged to run for class representative for Physiotherapy. I really enjoyed the role as I felt I could raise the concerns of my class with relevant lecturing staff. After my year as class representative, I felt like I wanted to be more involved in school-level based activities and ran for the position of School of Medicine Convenor in Senior Freshman. In this position I got to learn a lot about how different programmes in the School were structured and taught.
Fascinated by this, I ran for the position of Faculty of Health Science Convenor in my Junior Sophister year. This year really opened my eyes up to the vast amount of work happening in my institution, and through my seat on University Council I was exposed to many different pedagogical rationales for college-wide academic initiatives. It was from this experience that I decided to go around to all students in the college and ask them what academic issues they faced. It was clear that the issues, which ranged from poor teaching, to administrative issues, to lack of learning spaces, could all be enhanced if more students engaged in problem-solving with staff on these issues. I learned of the benefits of student engagement, and set foot in my manifesto to implement a Student Partnership Agreement if elected as Education Officer – and here I am!
3. One of your big projects this year was creating that Student Partnership Agreement. Tell us more about why and how this came into being.
I guess, reiterating my previous point, I saw the importance of students and staff working together to foster a sense of collegiality and parity of esteem across the college. There is a growing worry in higher education right now, particularly with an animosity about the future of funding of the sector, that institutions may move to a consumerism model. I think this leads the future of higher education down a dangerous path of passive learning experiences, and ultimately a passive workforce. With limited resources, we need to begin to engage in long standing issues in the teaching and learning environment in a different way. If students and staff can work together, within the resources available, enhancement is inevitable.
While the Student Partnership Agreement highlights the importance of engagement with the teaching and learning as one of its core areas, it also recognises the importance of engagement with governance and representation, as well as engagement with the wider community. Through having effective skilled student representatives, we offer partnered solutions which will benefit both staff and students alike. Through engagement with the wider community of the college through societies, clubs and volunteering, we enhance the overall student experience here in Trinity while also recognising that the co and extra curriculum have parity to the formalised curriculum in achieving the desired graduate attributes as laid out in the College’s strategic plan.
4. We have of course been working a lot in Ireland lately, supporting the development of the National Student Engagement Programme, and we interviewed its Coordinator Cat O’Driscoll last year. Although Trinity has not been involved in these early phases, presumably you’ve been following with interest?
I definitely have! I think the programme is a wonderful initiative and something I really welcome in the landscape across higher education in Ireland. Without a doubt, the support and guidance of Cat O’Driscoll and the outgoing Vice President for Academic Affairs of USI, Jack Leahy, has been instrumental in helping me achieve the agreement in this academic year. I envision that my successor, and subsequent successors, will work closely with NStEP in the future, and that through sharing and disseminating best practice across the country, Trinity will be able to reinforce and enhance the partnership agreement and its agreed principles.
5. Next year you return to study as a “normal” student! Do you think you will approach your studies differently, given the knowledge and experience you have acquired as an education sabbatical of the importance of students to the quality process?
Without a doubt! I think a lot of work happens amongst the academic community in attempting to engage the student voice in quality processes and curriculum design, formation and mapping. However, sometimes the work carried out is not transparent or explained to the student body, leaving many students feeling disempowered. I look forward to appreciating the range of assessment methods in my course next year, ranging from experiential learning in placement, to group projects, to research, and understanding that they ultimately are pivotal in making me a competent professional who is highly employable. I hope to stay engaged in the area of Quality Assurance over the next year, and become involved in European Affairs in the area of higher education.
Thanks to Dale 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.