HERDSA 2012: Final general talk – that tricky relationship, University/School

When working in Higher Education, you fairly quickly discover that there is not actually a genuine continuum between the school level and the University level. School curricula are set, with some input from the higher ed sector, mostly by school and government, but they have little-to-no voice at the Higher Education level. We listen to our peers across the water and around our country, adopting ACM and IEEE curricula suggestions, but while we have an awareness of what the different sectors are doing (in terms of local school and University) it’s certainly not a strong, bi-directional relationship.

That’s where the Australian government reforms of 2009, designed to greatly improve participation in University, get interesting. We’ve been told to increase participation from lower SES groups who hadn’t previously considered Higher Education. We, that is ‘we the university’, have been told this. Ok. Great. Now some people will (flippantly) start ranting about how we’ll have to drop quality standards to do this – an argument that I feel is both incorrect and somewhat unpleasant in its tone. Given that we haven’t gone out of our way to try and form a continuum before, well some people have but with limited success, we can certainly address some of the problem by identifying higher education as a destination to students who may not have been aware that it was even an option for them.

This is where the work of Dr Karma Pearce comes in, won “Building community, educational attainment and university aspirations through University-School mentoring partnerships”. Dr Pearce’s research was based on developing student aspirations from traditionally disadvantaged regions in South Australia. The aim was to look at the benefits of a University/High School mentoring program conducted in a University setting, targeting final year secondary school students from the low SES schools in the area.

We are all aware of the problems that disadvantaged schools face and the vicious circularity of some of these problems. Take Chemistry. To teach chemistry properly, you need teachers and lab resources, including consumables. It’s not like a computer lab that can be run on oldish equipment in a room somewhere – chemistry labs have big technical and safety requirements, and old chemicals either don’t work or get consumed in reactions. If your lab is bad, your numbers drop because the teaching suffers. If the numbers drop below a certain level for schools in South Australia – the class gets cancelled. Now you have a Chem teacher and no students. Therefore, repurposed teacher or, shortly, no teacher. (Of course, this assumes that you can even get a chemistry teacher.)

The University of South Australia had recently build new chemistry labs in another campus, leaving their old labs (which are relatively near to several traditionally disadvantaged areas) free. To the researcher’s and University’s credit (I’m serious, kudos!) they realised that they could use these labs to support 29 secondary school students from schools that had no chem labs. The school students participated in weekly lecture, tutorial and practical chemistry classes at Mawson Lakes campus, with the remaining theory conducted in their own schools. There were two High School teachers based in two of the schools, with a practical demonstrator based at Mawson Lakes. To add the mentoring aspect, four final year undergraduate students were chosen to be group mentors. The mentors required a minimum of credit (B) level studies for three chemistry courses. The mentor breakdown, not deliberately selected, was three women and one man, with two from private (fee-paying) schools and two from regional state schools. Mentors had transport provided, a polo shirt with logo, were paid for their time and received a significant amount of mentor training as well as a weekly meeting with a University coordinator.

The mentors assisted throughout the 26 week program and, apart from helping with chemistry, shared their experiences of University as they worked with the students. Of the 20 secondary students who completed the program (10 F, 10 M), they indicated in surveys that they thought they now understand what Uni life was going to be like but, more importantly to me, that they thought it was achievable for them. From that group, 35% of them had family who had been to University, but all of the secondary participants who made it to the end of the program had enrolled to go to Uni by the end of their Year 12 studies.

In discussion, a couple of points did emerge, especially regarding the very high teacher/student ratio, but overall the message from the research is pretty positive. Without having to change anything at the actual University level, a group of students, who didn’t come from a “university positive” environment and who were at some of the most disadvantaged schools in the state, now thought that University was somewhere that they could go – their aspirations now included University. What a fantastic result!

One side note, at the end, that I found a little depressing was that some students had opted to go to another University, not UniSA, and at least one gave the reason that they had been lured there by the free iPad that was being issued if you enrolled in a Bachelor of Science. Now, in the spirit of full honesty, that’s my University that they’re talking about and I know enough about the amazing work done by Bob Hill, Simon Pyke and Mike Seyfang (as well as a cast of hundreds) to completely rebuild the course to a new consistent standard, with a focus on electronic (and free) textbooks, to know that the iPad is the icing on the cake (so to speak). But, to a student from a disadvantaged school, one where a student going into medicine (and being the first one in the 50 year history of the school) is Page 3 news in the main state newspaper, an iPad is a part of a completely different world. If this student is away at a camp with students from more privileged background, this device is not about electronic delivery or lightening the text book burden or interactive science displays and instant communication – it’s about fitting in.

I found this overall talk very interesting, because it gave an excellent example of how we can lead educationally by sharing our resources while sharing the difficulties of the high school/University transition, but it also made me think about how students see the things that we do to improve their education. Where I see a lab full of new computers, do students see a sign of stability and affluence that convinces them that we’ll look after them or do they see “ho hum” because they’re only 21″ screens and not the i7 processor?

Once again, when I look at things from my view, what do my students see?

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