SHED SHARE blues ...

Posted in: Comment, New Publications

One of the characteristics of the HEA's SHED SHARE mailbase is that hardly anyone uses it for discussion.  Most often it's used for self-promotion or just to announce stuff, and discussion rarely gets beyond three contributions.  I understand from those who say they know, that we are all just supposed to agree with each other.  The rationale for this is the need for a united front against ESD unbelievers, blasphemers and heretics.  As an academic, I find that impossible to accept.  So it was good to see Kerry Shephard from Otago contributing last week, fanning the embers of what seemed fated to be another non-discussion about QA[A]  and [E]SD.  Specifically, Kerry was responding to a comment of mine that was based on this blog.  I should note that a number of contributions followed this intervention; sadly, however, many of these were as self-promoting and uncritical as ever.

Here are Kerry's thoughtful views ...

This is a follow up to Bill Scott’s last post, primarily about quality assurance; itself triggered by the Leading Curriculum Change for Sustainability project report. I have been thinking a lot about developing better links between ES/ESD and educational quality in my own institution recently so I guess that I could contribute some ideas. My concern is that we (in the SHED) may be in danger of polarising viewpoints around these important educational matters, especially QA. Are we ‘for it’ or ‘against it’?

Clearly the Leading Curriculum Change for Sustainability project is broadly positive about applying some quality assurance principles to ES/ESD (It had a specific strategic intention, to connect EfS with systems for Quality Assurance (QA) and Quality Enhancement (QE)… ). Bill’s post to the SHED is far less positive ("given that what goes on at the moment is much more education for unsustainability, than EfS, it has to be a problem that the current emphasis on quality doesn’t push universities towards being more sustainability-focused in terms of vision, purposes and operation".)

My aim is to explore some middle ground and perhaps make reference to both ends of this continuum.

It seems self-evident to me that quality assurance, as currently operational in higher education, is not particularly fit to create the change in HE that many anticipate or hope for.  A particular problem may be that there is not one model of a quality educational system that encompasses the views even of those who read the SHED mail-list, let alone the larger number of university teachers who do not. Whether the focus of QA is on outcomes, or on process, we are likely to have different views on what ‘quality’ is. (I have read the LCC report, though not watched the videos, and it is apparent to me that there is no blueprint of a QA system within it; probably a good thing considering the diversity of our aspirations). And we need to be open about academia's aversion to some QA, with its undertones of accountability. More of the same may not help us.

But it also seems unreasonable to me that the ES/ESD movement would anticipate change in the QA processes that might benefit our cause without some soul searching about the nature of ES/ESD itself and how we conceptualise the quality educational provision that we seek.

So, first I must be positive about the potential for QA to lead to change. At a pragmatic level, I wonder what changes have occurred in higher education in recent years and what processes have contributed to change? Whatever our personal views on outcome-oriented higher education and the role of the Intended Learning Outcome, few in the SHED will argue about the magnitude of these changes in recent years. Just a few years ago a list of topics was enough for many of us as we described courses that we were about to teach. Nowadays we are obliged to describe the learning that we hope students will achieve and align this with our assessments. I say nothing here about the desirability of this change; just that it has occurred. And I suggest that the broad quality movement has been greatly involved in this change. Like it or not, in many parts of the world the ability of academics to describe the impact that they hope to have on their students has been packaged (along with other parameters) in a broad description of educational quality. So I see the argument that quality assurance does not necessarily simply maintain the status quo. It may be one of the better tools for change that we have.

But then I need to make a case for the ES/ESD movement itself embracing change. I think that to make good progress we shall need to. Here is just one important example. Perhaps it's a personal concern of mine, but when I read about institutional commitment to ‘Foster Environmental Literacy For All’ (one of the statements in the Talloires Declaration that many of our institutions have signed), I want to ask… how’s it going? After all these years of fostering, is it having an effect? Similar urges result from the HEFCE vision, 2005 (that the HE sector in England will be recognised as a major contributor to society's efforts to achieve sustainability). Well, if I had written that I would want to ask, periodically, how is that recognition developing? And what of some of the hopes and expectations expressed by individual higher education institutions about the achievements of undergraduate students? As I read lists of ‘aspirational’ or ‘holistic’ statements of graduate attributes (many of which relate to social good in general or to sustainability in particular) I admit to feeling embarrassed on behalf of higher education. If it's that important to us, to our students, to their future employers, and to society in general, surely these attributes should be more than aspirational? The phrase ‘show me the money’ comes to mind as I struggle to put to one side my need for some evidence that we are actually having some of these desirable impacts. It may be unfashionable to look to QA to provide this evidence, but the alternative (to my mind) is to become more circumspect in what we promise. I worry that academics nowadays are finding themselves making all sorts of commitments that may be collectively difficult to keep and that, perhaps, our professions and institutions have little intention of appraising. With an eye on making QA work for us, perhaps if we focus on aspirations that we have some chance of monitoring, appraising or evaluating we might anticipate more generous support from our academic colleagues.

And then there is the methodological dilemma of how to assure ourselves, and others, that we are having some sort of positive impact. Perhaps our aspirations are simply too complex at present to describe in detail, and make judgements about ‘how’s it going?’. QA also comes to our assistance in this area. While mainstream higher education has immersed itself in assessing the learning outcomes, and judging the achievements, of individual students, QA has taken a different route. Quite reasonably (it could be argued) and for example, we tend to ask our students what they think of the learning-support they receive while studying at our institutions, using anonymous surveys. Experience suggests that if students are confident that their response cannot be attributed to them they are more likely to offer honest and potentially helpful feedback. Academics argue about the usefulness of this data but few I suspect would totally discount it as without use. The key features of this form of enquiry is that it is cohort-based rather than individually-focused, and anonymous. We would not wish to know individual’s perspectives on their experiences and achievements but it's quite useful to know cohorts’ perspectives. If we are interested in whether we are having an impact on the sustainability attributes of our students perhaps we could look to QA to guide us. Simply asking identified or identifiable individuals whether or not they have a global perspective, or a sustainability-minded attitude, is not an option for us. (If you thought that your degree, and future, depended in some way on you giving the ‘correct’ answer, what would your answer be?). Some of these attributes may not be accessible to individual assessment but may be open to cohort evaluation using a range of research/evaluation instruments available (or still to be developed that do far more than simply canvas opinion). If, on balance, and following cohort evaluation, we are not having the sorts of impacts on our students that we expect to have, I hope that we would be able to either change our aspirations, or our educational approaches, or both. The QA movement has taught us a thing or two about cohort evaluation.

Of course much depends on what individuals regard as quality, quality assurance, evaluation and assessment; and how we individually interpret our roles in ES/ESD. Increasingly I think that if university teachers cannot find reasonable means to evaluate the extent to which our aspirations are being realised, they may be the wrong aspirations.

I would, of course, like to hear some counter arguments. I am aware (even from this side of the world) that this Shed-share mail-list is less used now than it was a few years ago… but it still represents one of the best ways for its many readers to communicate informally and in a low-stakes manner. So please do challenge my ideas or send us details of where your institution is evaluating students’ attainment of sustainability attributes, graduate attributes and other aspirational outcomes. Even if you have not contributed to SHED before, it would be good to hear some new thoughts on where HE is heading.


Professor Kerry Shephard
Higher Education Development Centre
University of Otago
PO Box 56
Dunedin, New Zealand

Oh that we has more posts like this: engaging in both senses ...

Posted in: Comment, New Publications


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