HERDSA 2012: Final general session – connecting with the community.

Today I’m sitting in a session whose theme is engagement and connection, with the community, with Vocational Education and Training (VET) and the university-school relationship. All of this goes to our greater role in the community, as knowledge leaders, as mentors and in giving value to the community as a whole. This post is the first of a couple that I want to make about this session.

It would be fairly easy to only think about the students who are already in your class and, given that they’ve got in, that it is up to the student to do all of the heavy lifting to stay there but it’s becoming increasingly obvious that there are many students who, for reasons beyond their control, will have difficulty even making it to University, let alone staying there.

The first talk discussed the issues from the rural Canberra perspective. For those who don’t know, Australia is heavily urbanised with a coastal major city focus. There is still a rural community but with 201o numbers of rural population estimated at less than 2.5 million and steadily declining, Australia’s population heart is its cities. The declining rural employment sector and the movement of population, jobs and resources to the cities is leading to a drop in standards of living and rising unemployment. This is accompanied by a low percentage of families who have engaged in higher education and a very low level of attainment of the final years of secondary education. These low engagement rates with high secondary and higher ed make perfect sense when lifetime jobs are there without much further training, or with low levels of VET assistance, but become a trap once unskilled or traditionally apprenticed roles start to dry up.

The Commonwealth Government (that’s the Australian Federal Government for those who don’t know that we’re a commonwealth) has identified that they want to see a lot more low socio-economic status (SES) participants in higher ed by 2020 as they are largely unrepresented in the existing higher ed community. As people who did not traditionally attend University, this is a rich source of new students – assuming that we can solve some of the key problems in engaging, preparing and retaining these students.

Barbara Cram presented a paper on “Establishing a regional enabling pilot programme through uni-community engagement” which deals with the rural catchment area around the University of Canberra. Canberra, Australia’s capital city, is situated in the middle of a rural area and U Canberra sees itself as the University of the surrounding district. (The Australian National University is also in Canberra but, I believe, tends to focus on urban students from around Australia.) In the areas surrounding Canberra, roughly 8% of people have Bachelors’ degrees, well below the national levels, and, more depressingly, up to 50% of students who finish their schooling do not go on to either employment or further study. The social implications of this are profound – a community steadily heading towards disengagement and multi-generational unemployment, reducing opportunities further.

University of Canberra’s goal was to enhance regional participation in higher education in a thin market but what does it take to establish a new program in a regional town using a community-based participatory approach? The strategy is to use a community-based partnership strategy to develop community trust and to ensure that the community sees the value of the offering. Two course styles were offered: a community capacity development course (volunteer training and Certificate IV courses), or an enabling (university preparation) course. The community that U Can were working with, the town of Merimbula, decided that an enabling course was the best way forward.

The UCanReach program ran over 14 weeks, 2 evenings a week, and allowed participants to study three units: Learning at University, Communicating for Professional Futures (analysis of, and practice in, the range of text types of u/grad study), and Understanding Community (critical analysis, active participation, independent learning, primary and secondary research and academic literacy). The support provided here was considered critical to the success of the program, including in-house tutoring if students had particular difficulties and taxi vouchers to get people to the course if required. The support, from library resources to putting books into local bookshops, was based on the principle that all barriers to attendance should be reduced.

The overall results were very promising. From the 16 students who started, 14 stayed to the end of the course and, in an equivalence test to assess their University entrance rank, scored in the band 74-89 (out of 100). The benefits identified, through surveying, included the obvious educational benefits, economic and financial benefits, employment prospects, personal/family benefits and the community/social benefits. Ultimately, the last should be no great surprise, because there is less need to give support to these people and this reverses the overall trend of decline.

The major lessons learned here were that communities do place high value on university-community engagement but they need long lead times to ensure broad community-based promotion and ensures sustainable class sizes. Localisation into the community is important. You need to train local tutors in overall resources, keep links between the university and the students to maintain motivation, but relationship with other universities in the region is also important as enabled students may move to other Universities. However, support can’t finish at the end of the course. The presenter identified that there is still a need to provide scholarships for graduates wanting to study in Canberra.

The risks for the future, given how fragile this engagement is and that ongoing support is required, include the increasing costs for the students. When first run, the only cost was $40 for the textbook. Now, student amenities fees are going to add $200 for this. It is, of course, the mistake of privilege to make such statements as “well, if it’s important, then it’s only $200” and pick something that we perceive as a luxury for the target group to forgo. I found this talk interesting from many perspectives and also went up to thank the presenter for their efforts in trying to make a positive change to their region which, ultimately, will have great benefits for the community.

HERDSA 2012: Session 1 notes – Peer Assisted Teaching Schemes

The second talk I went to in session 1 was more work on A/Professor Angela Carbone’s work in Peer Assisted Teaching Schemes, for which she has highly awarded and, for 2013, will be taking up a senior fellowship at the national level to continue this work. Congratulations, Ange! The subtitle of the talk was “A Way of Creating and Developing New Connections”.

There is a lot of support for new academics in terms of induction and teacher preparation but what about those educators who are already established but have units that are in need of reform or reduce? Who do they turn to in order to get help? What if you just want to adopt new technologies and you’ve been in the game for decades? Who can you ask for help? The core of the PATS work is that we need to think about teaching standards, more experienced staff, transition issues, risks, and new technology.

We are constantly being assessed – CEQ, SETU/SELT, lots of controversy around these instruments. Arts and Humanities seem to appear better than physical sciences, and there is not much research from either side to answer the question ‘why?’ Do student evaluations measure student outcomes or teacher effectiveness? According to the research, they don’t actually measure either. The use of these things for management addds stress to academics and their school – people get stressed when they even just use these measures in their class.

So, if we’re stressed, struggling and trying to adapt, it’s pretty obvious that we need help but the question is “where does this help come from?

What is PATS: academics within a faculty are partnered together and follow an informal process to discuss strategies to improve unit quality and develop educational innovations.


  • to improve student satisfaction with units
  • improve the quality of teaching
  • to build leadership capacity amongst teachers.

A mentor and mentee are linked in a reciprocal partnership. The theoretical basis this comes from a large number of sources including Vygotsky, Lave, Gratch and Boud, looking at our teaching through four lenses, after Brookfield 1995. The four lenses are: the student view, the theoretical view, the autobiographical view and the colleague’s view, where another academic can serve as a critical friend.

The relationship between mentor and mentee begins before the semester, where the relationship is developed, with ongoing catch up sessions through the semester, discussion and review, including subsidised coffee meetings, culminating in a critical review (with a friendly perspective) and self-reflection. This is looking at all of the aspects with a critical eye but alongside someone that you now have a relationship with – a critical friend to assist you in your own reflection. However, within this, there are workshops and deliverables to make sure that both parties are actually working in and at the relationship – it’s not a free coffee club.

I can’t summarise all of the PATS work in one post but I think we can all identify people around us who might fall into this category: people who might need help but are outside of the traditional bootstrapping systems that we employ. A/Prof Carbone also commented that there were people that were taking part who were looking to improve good courses to really good ones, rather than just trying to fix courses that had been identified as under-performing. This was helping to reduce any lingering stigma at being in a PATS relationship with someone. Some of the unexpected results included the mentors and mentees forming a relationship that allowed them to work together on research and development beyond the designated course improvement.

In the framework of this conference, which is all about connections and community, it’s obvious that PATS is helping to link people together, making connections and building community. There are lots of works to read on this, and I enjoy reading through the theoretical underpinnings as well. (Plus, you know I’m a Vygotsky fan…) I already knew about this work but it’s always interesting to see how it’s evolving and developing.