Intervention and Risk: An Anonymised Anecdote

Yesterday morning, we found some students sleeping in one of our computing labs. This isn’t that uncommon, especially during the crunch times, but it is uncommon to see people disrobed and obviously moved in, with food, clothes and the like. The initial reactions are almost always “Argh, what are you doing in here?” and “Grr, have you been getting in the way of other students.” However, and I can’t go into too much detail, as the story unfurled, with the intervention of some excellent staff members who managed to get the students talking, what appeared to be students taking advantage of our resources quickly turned out to be a situation where one student in extremis was being watched and cared for by another student – while both students were dealing with other, far more serious, problems.

To put it simply, one student had almost run out of hope and places to be. When you think about it, you’re not going anywhere good when you end up hiding in the corner of a lab that’s going through software rebuild and, hence, has no-one in it. The initial problem that we had was that, for mainly cultural reasons, the students had a great deal of difficulty talking to the first people to contact them – because we were lecturers and there is a great deal of potential embarrassment for certain people in admitting to problems in front of us. Fortunately, many heads knocked together to look at the problem, someone managed to start the students talking, we got more information and, as of this morning, a number of key problems have been solved. The major issue (stress regarding study) has been dealt with and the intervention to address other problems continues.

Reflecting upon this situation, I was reminded again of the burden that is placed upon the relationship between student and staff member when there is a cultural gap, especially one involving academic staff. I tried to talk to the students but, having been set up into fixed roles (in their heads), we couldn’t communicate. It was only once someone outside of the academic hierarchy got involved that information started to flow. Yes, there were linguistic issues but, ultimately, it didn’t come down to language, it came down to willingness to talk and these students didn’t want to open up. After they were reached, then the vast array of helpful resources that we do have were suddenly available to them.

As was noted at HERDSA recently, students don’t look at the ‘where to go for help’ slides early on in a course because they don’t need help. If students do need help, but can’t ask for it or don’t know where to go, then all of our helpful and assistive systems just won’t be able to help. But, of course, expecting students to know when they need help does give us a convenient ‘out’. Given that we can see their marks, and to a large extent their academic performance in courses that we administer, we should be able to see students who are heading towards crisis points. (We do look at this in our Faculty but more on that later.)

My own research, to be presented at ICER in September, talks about the amount of information that appears to be contained in the first submission that a student makes. But let’s say that all I can see is a semester of Fail grades – given that performance like that wouldn’t have got them into my course, I’m looking at a problem. Now, we can and we do redirect students to our (very good) Transitions and Advisory Service but this is a manual step. I’ve been looking at automated solutions to this for some time, and I’m looking forward to talking to people in more detail about AWE (the Wellness Engine) at University of New England, because I should not have to use myself as a processing element in order to achieve something that can be done better by a computer.

A colleague and friend of mine was describing middleware to some people at the University. If you don’t know what it means, middleware is software that connects two or more other systems together. Rather than writing one big piece that does everything, or two pieces that fit together like a jigsaw, middleware allows you to bring together lots of different systems that weren’t necessarily designed to work with each other. Probably the example that you’ve seen, and not realised, is using a database through a web-page. The underlying data (like Amazon’s store) is one system. Your web browser is another. Middleware allows you to exchange data with the data store and buy books. Middleware sounds great, right? It is – but here comes the catch.

Dave’s killer question on this is “Why are we using our staff as middleware?”

He’s right, of course. We take data from our marking of assignments, put into another system (by changing format and restructuring it), then we put that into another system (with manual intervention and checking) and this is then finally made available to students. Now if I want to see how the students are doing, I need to remember to manually request that a search be made, showing me all students who have failed anything – and then give me their GPA for this semester. I note that we already do this at the Faculty level using a mechanism called the Unsatisfactory Academic Progress process, which has identified a lot of at-risk students and helped a lot of people back, but how is it done? People acting as middleware.

What I want is a system that alerts me to problems automatically. If I have to search, it takes time and (worse) it becomes a task to be prioritised because there many not always be problems. If I am contacted when there is a problem, the task is automatically high priority. That requires a good set of middleware that spans all of a University’s systems and can bring that data together, then get in touch with the right people when there’s a problem. We’re actually not that far away from it – the systems are all there, we just need to streamline some processes. Fewer people acting as middleware means more people doing the things that we actually pay them for, especially when it’s academics!

There are lots of things that can get in the way of a good working relationship between educator and student. We don’t have to be friends, but we do have to be willing and able to talk to each other. Taking that further, it would be nice if the systems all talked to each other as well, including yelling at us when a student hits a mark where we might be able to intervene and do something useful, sooner.

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