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This article is one in a series of reflections on strategic directions in higher, vocational and professional education. It is written with an audience of senior managers in learning organisations in mind. It is part one of eight. Each section has proposed actions for senior managers to consider.

The Challenge

Institutions operate in increasingly competitive environments. Funding is a challenge. Identifying and recruiting students, the right 'kind of students', is also a challenge. Even if you operate in an open educational context with barriers to access being largely absent you still need to ensure that students self-select the right programme of study, at the right time and that they are prepared, with whatever support required, to be successful.

The meta-view, including national agendas for widening participating, increasing transnational education and student mobility, as well as rapidly emerging disciplines and their associated unforeseen employment opportunities, all compound the challenge.

Who are your programmes designed for? This is not as straightforward a question as it first appears. The minimal 'market research' into new programmes carried out by many providers, whether by means of listening to international recruitment agents or industry leaders, risks producing ill-fitted programmes frequently in a rush to market. Sometimes running pilots, floating a balloon, tweaking an existing programme, even sometimes just changing the title on an existing programme, all can lead to the 'wrong' students embarking on your programmes. The number of programmes that are designed but never launch, or launch and under-recruit, is sizable.

Strategic Implications

The strategic implications of designing learning with learners in mind are profound. Not only is it important to ensure that the learning is designed to fit student needs and aspirations, but they must also reflect the nature of the institution, the professions they work with and prepare graduates to serve and to the societal service that any given institution claims to address.

A strategic approach to this student profiling;

  1. determines the 'fit' of the student to the programme ensures retention and progression
  2. predetermines learner support needs, and allows institutions to cost programmes accordingly
  3. acknowledges and develops unique cultures of learning, not least to account for governmental expectations
  4. aligns student participation with programme needs to fulfil institutional strategy, ethos and purpose.

At the heart of any learner's experience is their programme of study. Regardless of whether this is articulated as a curriculum, syllabus, programme, course or module outline, and whether it is strictly regulated and deemed formal or more loosely defined as non-formal education; the educational design is at the core of every learner's experience. Great marketing and recruitment processes attract learners and excellent support services work to retain students, but it is the relevance and efficacy of learners engagement with their programme is what matters most.

Profiling Students

There are two levels of profiling students. The first is the individual's epistemological framework (prior assumptions about the nature of knowledge) and the second is their, often unconscious, orientations to learning, their cultural, educational, circumstantial and dispositional influences. The first could be regarded as a higher, more abstract, perspective. The second more practical and easier to grasp. Both are important. The illustration at the top of this article, and reproduced again here,  represents an aide memoir for design groups and strategists to reflect on.

Strategic leaders need to pay attention to the orientation of the incoming students. The outer circle reflects the work that emerged from the POISE project (Atkinson 2014). The inner circle is an illustration of the work by Thomas and May (2010) in establishing the basis for developing inclusive learning approaches. Despite the fact that this work might originate from a desire to better integrate international students with domestic students and to recognise diversity and equality in teaching, it manifests itself as a very useful framework to allow tutors and students themselves to assess their own influences.

POISE Framework

The POISE Framework is an attempt to identify the epistemological assumptions of students, and their faculty, by exploring five facets of learning, the first letters of which stand for POISE: Pace, Ownership, Innateness, Simplicity and Exactness. In its most simplified form, it can be seen as the representation of five beliefs about knowledge represented as binary opposites.

This resulted in the following matrix.

Pneumonic Binary concept Belief statements (after (Schommer, 1990)) Scholarship roots
Pace Quick or not at all Learning is quick or not all (Quick Learning) (Schoenfeld, 1983)
Ownership Authority or Reason Knowledge is handed down by authority (Omniscient Authority) (Perry, 1968)
Innateness Innate or Acquired The ability to learn is innate rather than acquired (Innate Ability) (Dweck & Leggett, 1988)
Simplicity Simple or Complex Knowledge is simple rather than complex (Simple Knowledge) (Perry, 1968)
Exactness Certain or Tentative Knowledge is certain rather than tentative (Certain Knowledge) (Perry, 1968)

The notion of binaries presents an opportunity to engage in a ‘dialogue about beliefs’. It is appropriate to establish the beliefs about learning that underpin a student’s (or faculty member’s) approach to learning and teaching, rather than to identify a ‘problem’ and tackle it with an intervention in isolation.

For example, a challenge in many western universities is that students are not fully aware, or in tune with, the institution's guidance on plagiarism. It would be useful to introduce this dimension of academic practice by first exploring the question of whether knowledge is based on authority or reason. Without a fundamental understanding that the western academic tradition expects students to develop their own reasoning skills, and to acknowledge pre-existing authority in a particular way, one cannot effectively explore the detailed nature of academic referencing, citations and intellectual ownership.

The online POISE resource articulates this using five questions to explore each binary element. These could be woven into class tutorials, set as introductory work for debate or implemented in a learning support setting. Personally, I would prefer to see them integrated into students initial study as part of orientation work. Questioning one's assumptions is the basis for fresh learning.

Binary concept POISE Questions
Pace Quick or not at all Is hard work enough?
Ownership Authority or Reason Who has the answers?
Innateness Innate or Acquired Who is responsible for my learning?
Simplicity Simple or Complex Is there a simple answer?
Exactness Certain or Tentative Is there always a right answer?

Any airing of such deliberations at the beginning of any learning process, and revisiting them periodically, serves to properly orientate the learner.

ACTIONS: POISE

Review your policies for pre-enrolment engagement, recruitment and on-boarding of students. Consider sharing a contextualised version of the POISE questions with your students. Design a customised self-diagnostic tool that all incoming students complete that reflects back to them in the feedback how your institution values knowledge against each of these five questions. This will cause potential students to reflect on their expectations and relationship with the meaning-making process.

Once students have been enrolled you might review your pastoral and tutorial support. You may find it helpful to establish small-group seminars or one-to-one tutorials and work through each of the five questions in a non-judgemental context. In doing so teaching staff come to understand the degree of homogeneity within a cohort and also, in some cases, to contrast the approaches of their students to their own.

Framework for Inclusion

The second epistemological dimension of the student, before and after enrollment, that requires some attention falls under different names. It will appear in reference to an institution's equality and diversity agenda, widening participation or inclusion strategies. In some countries, these are mandated by funders, in others, they are less formally expressed but are usually present in any growth and recruitment strategy.

Much of tertiary education globally is seeing its student population becoming ever more diverse, and disparate with increasing part-time, distance provision growing.  We know that different groups of students have different rates of success, measured by retention, completion and attainment. It is critical institutions either declare their focus (where they are expressly exclusive: male only, Catholic only, etc)  or risk disadvantaging specific groups of students.

Working in a way that advocates equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) universally enhance the learning experience of all students. So we can use the matrix define by Taylor and May (2010) to not only value the contribution of students regardless of their backgrounds and appreciate, in an active sense, the contributions individuals bring from different value systems, enriching the experience of everyone, we can also use it to assess the 'fit' of students to programme.

ORIENTATIONS INFLUENCES
Dispositional Identity; self-esteem; confidence; motivation; aspirations; expectations; preferences; attitudes; assumptions; beliefs; emotional intelligence; maturity; learning styles; perspectives; interests; self-awareness; gender; sexuality.
Educational Level/type of entry qualifications; skills; ability; knowledge; previous educational experience; life and work experience; learning approaches.
Circumstantial Age; disability; paid/voluntary employment; caring responsibilities; geographical location; access to IT and transport services; flexibility; time available; entitlements; financial background and means; marital status.
Cultural Language; values; cultural capital; religion and belief; country of origin/residence; ethnicity/race; social background

All of these factors will express themselves in the values, attitudes and orientations to learning amongst your student population. Giving an early opportunity for individuals to express their views, without judgement, as to how meaning is made, how knowledge is acquired, curated and exchanged. A supportive dialogue about a student's relationship with knowledge allows the student to identify how they may need to adjust their own approaches to learning. Although I do not recognise the constructs referred to as 'learning styles', I do believe there are important orientations to learning that are contextually and culturally specific and are acquired as language is from infancy.

ACTIONS: INCLUSION

Faculty and learning support staff: the four things institutions can do are to make sure that all faculty and learning support staff are equipped with the skills to anticipate their diverse students' needs, to reflect on their own orientations, to encourage learning designers to build flexible approaches to learning to accommodate difference and to do so in collaboration with students themselves. This means valuing the professional development of your faculty and learning support staff.

Be Upfront: the strategic advantages of not delegating these concerns to the back-end student support service and bringing them right up front in your pre-enrolment and onboarding activities with students are that you are much more likely to create a community in which each individual brings their real self to the community and is valued for their unique contribution. Institutions may want to have anonymous discussion boards that allow prospective students to share their readiness to learn.

Reflect on Materials: Students will always connect more effectively with learning materials that are relevant to them. Materials can be alienating for learners. Cultural references or unfamiliar contexts can slow the learning process. You need to ensure your materials are easily ‘translatable’ from one cultural context to another. Instruct your materials design teams to adopt an inclusive matrix as a  quality enhancement mechanism.

How should institutions respond?

There are three possible strategic responses to this challenge.
Ignore it. We continue to design courses that fit into our educational structures and work harder at selling them to students in general.
Accommodate it. We attempt to incorporate some of the principles suggested here, perhaps implementing a version of POISE questions in our tutorial support structures, establishing an orientation questionnaire based on the four dimensions of the learner's context, and possibly implementing some diagnostic assessment at the beginning of each course or module.
Embrace it. Design orientation questionnaires and data capturing processes that inform the discussion between the student and their institution. Explore options for student-defined learning outcomes and assessment models, implement real-world, in-place, situated, flexible learning options, micro-credit accumulation frameworks leading to awards, and begin to redefine our institutions as enablers and validators of learning rather than curators of knowledge.

There is an old adage about a container ship leaving Tokyo and being just one degree out on its course heading to San Francisco and missing the United States completely. I have not checked the geography but the implications are clear. Pointing students in the right direction is our first strategic challenge.

Consultancy support is available institutions that feel they would benefit from an external review of their strategies, policies and practices. See Consultancy pages.

References

Atkinson, S. P. (2014) Rethinking personal tutoring systems: the need to build on a foundation of epistemological beliefs. BPP University Working Papers. London: BPP University.

Dweck, C. S., & Leggett, E. L. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review95(2), 256–273.

Perry, W. G. (1968). Patterns of Development in Thought and Values of Students in a Liberal Arts College: A Validation of a Scheme. Final Report. Office of Education (DHEW), Washington, DC. Bureau of Research.

Schoenfeld, A. H. (1983). Beyond the Purely Cognitive: Belief Systems, Social Cognitions, and Metacognitions As Driving Forces in Intellectual Performance*. Cognitive Science7(4), 329–363.

Schommer, M. (1990). Effects of beliefs about the nature of knowledge on comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology82(3), 498–504.

Thomas, L., & May, H. (2010). Inclusive learning and teaching in higher education (p. 72). York: Higher Education Academy. Retrieved from http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/inclusivelearningandteaching_finalreport.pdf

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