Students driving initiatives: Student Partnership @ UNE – A holistic approach

This blog was kindly written by the wonderful UNE student leaders, Penny and Koady:

The need for effective institution wide participation by students in decision making at the University of New England (UNE) was the catalyst for the development of a student-led top-down-bottom-up framework. This student partnership initiative is built on the principles developed by Professor Sally Varnham (University of Technology Sydney) to include genuine student involvement in decision-making processes from start to finish, increase and create value in student contributions, develop ownership of institutional decision making, and provide and support student leadership opportunities.

Members of the team had the opportunity to showcase this project as an emerging initiative at the 2018 STARS Conference in Auckland, New Zealand (8 – 11 July 2018). The presentation (delivered by students Penny & Koady) was well received by conference delegates.

The Team is student driven

Driving this project are the UNE student leaders, Penny Leary and Koady Williams. Penny and Koady are undergraduate students of UNE who are proactively engaged in student voice at the University. Both are current members of the UNE Academic Board, and have a portfolio of positions that engage them in University decision-making. Passionate about student partnerships, this project has enabled Penny and Koady to engage with students and implement the principles they helped develop as part of Professor Varnham’s fellowship.

Behind these students is a motivated team of staff within the Faculty of Science, Agriculture, Business and Law (SABL). Assisting with resourcing, project management and development, and mentoring, Professor Darren Ryder – Associate Dean (Teaching & Learning) – SABL has been a major support throughout the development and implementation phases of this project, allowing the student initiated project to evolve. Providing further support, Education Designers Neelam Narayan and Adam Landow have provided expert assistance in the development of feedback strategies and implementation of the pilot into the online platform. Working in partnership, our team of five enabled the project to be delivered successfully.

Pilot Project

A student-led approach to representation is new to many institutions, including UNE, so we designed a Pilot Project to test an approach that was designed, led and implemented by students. This was conducted in the SABL Faculty with the following aims:

  1. Increase student engagement at unit level through a peer-to-peer online portal
  2. Improve timely provision of feedback on unit quality
  3. Create and support opportunities for student leadership

Aim One: Increase student engagement at unit level through a peer-to-peer online portal

The peer-to-peer online portal was designed as a student only space within our existing learning platform (Moodle) with the ability for students to opt-out. Engagement with students was sought at Faculty (all students) and Unit level, and was measured as any access to and viewing of the peer-to-peer portal. There were 7684 initial enrolments, with a retention rate of 98.67% and engagement rate of 48.36%. Students used the portal at a Faculty level for peer-to-peer communication, non-academic engagement opportunities and peer-to-peer support and mentoring. Examples included the social interaction between online students who may never set foot on the Armidale campus, and students asking questions or making logistical arrangements to attend their intensive schools.

A primary focus of the Pilot was Unit Level engagement across 8 units, consisting of 6 first year and 2 second year from throughout the Faculty. These units had a combined emrolment of 2654 students. Using the framework to guide development, we consulted with Unit Coordinators via a workshop to tailor the student roles to the specific needs of each unit, allowing Unit Coordinators to improve their understanding of the Pilot and its potential benefit. At the commencement of term, an Expressions of Interest process was used to generate student nominations for appointment as Unit Representative leadership positions. All Student Representatives were provided an online training package and support for student leaders in the peer-to-peer online environment, designed and delivered by the Faculty Student Representatives (Koady and Penny). This process of peer-to-peer training proved successful.

The role of the Unit Student Representative was to facilitate communication among students and promote the use of unit feedback channels, as well as to ensure opportunities for engagement in the ‘Social Space’ by students. This was achieved, as can be seen in the graph below where substantial improvements in levels of student engagement were made from a week into the pilot (13/3) through to the final week of the pilot (24/6) where levels of active student engagement ranged from 44% (Business unit) to 65% (Science unit).

Aim Two: Enhancement of quality though improving timely provision of feedback

Traditional unit feedback is received at the end of teaching periods, meaning any changes and improvements can only be implemented the next time the unit is offered. The timely feedback on unit quality in this pilot project was achieved through regular provision of feedback from students to Unit Coordinators through an independent Faculty staff member to alleviate stress of any party in this process. Feedback was received through a designated anonymous feedback tool within the Unit portal. Appropriate feedback was collated by the Faculty staff member and forwarded to the Unit Coordinator as thematic issues that were both positive and constructive. Early intervention was then able to occur to resolve issues and communicated to students through Moodle. An example of this is the provision of feedback regarding tutors failing to cover the required content within the allocated tutorial time. Feedback was provided to the Unit Coordinator through this process that allowed them to rectify this with the tutor for future tutorials. Additional feedback showed an improvement in students’ satisfaction with the tutorial experience.

Aim Three: Increase opportunities for student leadership

The pilot consisted of 6 student leaders, 66% of which indicated they wish to be considered for future leadership roles within the Faculty. A training resource package was developed as part of the pilot, and will be incorporated into training within future initiatives.

Conclusion

The aims of increasing student engagement at a unit level through a peer-to-peer portal and the timely provision of feedback on unit quality and increased opportunities for student leadership were all achieved. The pilot project fits into a university wide model to increase student participation in university governance and decision making through a partnership model at multiple points in the university organisational structure – from units, courses, Faculty to university level. These opportunities will increase students’ individual and collective ownership of their learning experience.

Some of our challenges in progressing this model include:

  • Finding and retaining student leaders
  • Establish and maintain relationships between students and staff
  • Online student engagement, especially as UNE has a large online student body

We welcome your thoughts, comments and feedback!

Penny Leary, Koady Williams and Darren Ryder

e: tl-sabl@une.edu.au

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