In this interview, we talk to William Hasty, Quality and Enhancement Specialist with QAA Scotland. He started the role in March 2018, prior to which he was Learning Enhancement Officer at the Open University in Scotland. Previously he worked with SCQF in a quality development role. He has a background in geography, with teaching and research roles at the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh.
1. Given the diverse range of institutions and organisations you’ve worked with, has that given you a broad perspective of what student engagement means?
What I’ve got from working in a wide range of roles is an appreciation for how flexible the concept of student engagement needs to be at different levels and in different environments. You can’t have one version of engagement and assume it fits everywhere, and you can’t simply transfer one model of student engagement to somewhere else and expect it to fit. Different learners want and need different things. I also think we need to be careful in how we frame engagement. For example, an online forum where only a few students are actively contributing might give the impression that there is a lack of engagement, but the students might be engaging in other ways, ways that are not always visible or traceable to staff, perhaps in WhatsApp groups or Facebook pages.
2. Tell us more about your experience at the Open University. The OU contributed to our recent resource on engaging Online Distance Learning (ODL) students, so what do you see as the challenges and opportunities there?
This is acute in ODL but true of all contexts really: there has to be a reason for the student to engage. They have to see some value in it, and you have to show that it has meaning and is worth doing, and also allow for the fact that some won’t. You can’t force some things – like focus groups or surveys – and that’s especially true in an ODL context where students are more likely to have caring and work responsibilities, or perhaps disabilities that make home study more appropriate. Institutions need to provide appropriate opportunities for engagement – it’s really important to ensure that we are always inclusive – but it’s also important to understand that not every student will have the time, energy or confidence to engage in ways we would like them to.
3. So what do you think are the wider lessons across different learning experiences?
There’s a social justice element underpinning this for me – it’s good to show that people are being engaged and empowered to shape their experiences, in the same way that your vote might not change an election or your voice in a community group might not be definitive, but the sharing of it and being part of a wider process can be empowering in an open and transparent process.
For example, if a student or a group of students have an issue, and even if that issue can’t be resolved to their satisfaction (e.g. a particular form of assessment needs to be performed), there is still a great deal of value in students understanding the process that leads to a decision or change. Transparency is really important.
This might seem like a trivial example, but at a recent event, one institution explained that students were continually campaigning for microwaves in communal areas, and when someone eventually explained that this wasn’t possible due to various regulations and the existence of other nearby equipment, the problem was resolved. The students weren’t exactly happy with the outcome, but they understood that their feedback was being heard and considered and they were able to see the process in action.
Students need to see value and need to understand the wider system.
4. Hence the existence of a wide range of roles and engagement opportunities for students?
Yes, and it’s an assumption that no hands up in a classroom or chatter through the VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) means they’re disengaged, but they might have sent lots of emails, or they might be content and don’t want to see any change.
5. Given your wide experience in different types of institutions and organisations, can we assume that your perspective has not radically changed now you’re back with a national body?
No, it’s not changed radically but there’s something about seeing things at a different scale. We maintain contact and impact locally, working across all the universities without favour, and that requires distance between you and the particular needs. But in the Enhancement Theme student-led project, for instance, which I am working on, it’s nice to get the specifics and hear what’s going on at different institutions. Working for an agency is great for that, to be able to work between those scales – looking back at the bigger picture, trends, policy and so on, but also seeing the practitioner level and understanding the core activity within institutions.
6. So tell us more about the student-led project and what you’re doing in it.
It aims to aid universities in better dealing with student feedback, processing it then reporting back to students with the outcomes – which allows students to feel more empowered and involved and that their voice does make a difference at module, course, and institutional level.
What we are learning is that things do change as a result of feedback, there are good examples out there, and that institutions do take feedback seriously and process it well in a variety of ways. But if we look at the NSS scores for the Student Voice questions, we can see that students don’t feel confident that their feedback has been acted upon, and they don’t see the change.
7. That chimes with what we often see, that one of the difficulties in the feedback process is feeding back to students.
Yes. Everyone is committed to giving the student voice a prominent role and to link that to institutional and programme change, and from QAA’s perspective, sector-wide change too. But the steps you need to take aren’t always clear to all students, so we are working in the project on underpinning principles, good practice and insights from literature, as a way of providing people with the ways of tackling this issue.
For example, “you said, we did” is a classic mechanism, but some do that with more of an impact and we want to dig up some of that. A student voice event we ran in April – which sparqs contributed to – was a great opportunity to get together to learn and share on this. There was a great presentation from colleagues at Robert Gordon University on their “Achieved in Partnership” work – it showed a change from “you said, we did” as a shift in power relationships from a transactional to dialogical approach; “you said, we did” as a conversation that doesn’t just stop at the “we did” and included student participation in the solution.
8. What’s next for the student-led project?
We are interested in a range of options at the moment, primarily around how students are using students’ data to enhance the learning experience and support available. I’m excited about what comes next because this year has proven that having students right at the heart of the project is really fruitful and allows you to speak with more of an authority on the subject than if you simply consulted students or hadn’t engaged them at all. In a sense, it’s a true partnership approach – QAA is responsible for the project, but we do it in partnership with students, who are leading various pieces of work, contributing to the steering group, testing ideas at meetings and so on. There is great value in that and it’s why the student-led project shines through amongst the current Enhancement Theme activity.
Thanks to William 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.