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Educate the Monkey! (= It is a long way to a paper session in a conference)


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Quality Manager Hannele Keränen

Yes, it is my turn to contribute to our management blog. I really like writing these, but you cannot imagine how difficult this is every time. So far I have not found any shortcuts: every piece of writing - short or long, a blog, a report, a conference paper or an academic paper - takes forever to finish because I want to think things through before I let them out in the open. Typical behaviour for an introvert, I guess.

It is Sunday 16th November and I am writing this somewhere over Europe. I have been to Barcelona, where I attended the 9th European Quality Assurance Forum (EQAF). I presented a conference paper in the Forum and heard very interesting presentations regarding the recent trends in quality assurance and enhancement in higher education. Since my brain is still processing the forum highlights, I decided to share with you some of my experiences related to this ‘try out’.

I have been a bit frustrated since the new financing and steering model of the Finnish UAS sector was implemented at the beginning of 2014. It is supposed to promote the quality enhancement of studies and research through various indicators, but so far all I have seen it promoting is intensive ‘numbers management’ and gradually developing and reproducing a quality culture that celebrates performance indicators and rituals around the handling of these (see for example Alvesson 2002). Don’t get me wrong. I am not against performance, but for me it means much more than reaching quantitative measures.

Therefore I suggested to Executive Director Elina Holm from the Student Union ROTKO in February 2014 that we could propose a paper to the 9th EQAF related to this new model. The theme of the forum was “Changing education – QA and the shift from teaching to learning” and the objectives were described as follows:

“Student-centered learning, diversified student populations and new modes of delivery have in recent years set in motion profound changes in higher education. Students are increasingly expected to be autonomous learners and teachers to use innovative teaching methodologies and develop assessment methods that reflect this change. As a consequence, teacher-student interaction is changing, and institutional student support services need to evolve in order to facilitate a quality learning experience. This year, the Forum will explore whether and how current QA approaches are keeping up with and supporting developments in learning and teaching.”

Elina was interested in co-writing right away, but the trouble was to find the time to do the actual piece of writing. We were both occupied with different tasks related to our new jobs. I was also quite occupied with my PhD studies and actually overloaded at times with reading and writing. Luckily we found a common interest regarding the subject of our conference paper at an early stage: the role of students in quality enhancement in higher education. We decided to focus on formally collected student feedback, because it is one of the indicators in the new financing and steering model.

The discourse around student feedback fluctuates between the extremities of “absolutely necessary” to “a waste of everyone’s time”. The consensus discourse emphasises the importance of measuring students’ satisfaction and perceptions of the quality of study programmes. The dissensus discourse points out that feedback collected from students with on-line questionnaires is rarely helpful, because formal questionnaires are designed by administrators and are therefore perceived as inappropriate for evaluating quality.

I cannot really give you the number of hours I spent in reading different articles and books related to the subject and writing the actually draft with Elina. We communicated mainly by e-mail and phone and sent drafts to each other during the spring and summer 2014, which was way too hot for heavy thinking! Nevertheless we managed to finalise the paper before the deadline, which was on 25th July. I was dead tired, because I had other deadlines to make as well. Nobody knows - except my nearest and dearest - what kind of struggles this kind of writing process can entail and how the obstacles in the way were overcome. And do not ask me about the hours – it is so hard to squeeze this kind of process into quantitative measures.

But it is equally hard to put into words the delight I felt, when I received an e-mail from the Chair of the EQAF Steering Committee on 27th August that our paper had been accepted. The joy of sharing the good news with Elina was one of the best moments I have had work-wise this autumn. Suddenly the whole ‘thing’ felt worth of all the ‘four-letter words’ and the tears of sheer frustration that I shed in the darkest moments of the writing process. We got very constructive feedback and it helped us to revise the paper. The deadline was approaching again way too fast, but eventually - with some minor struggles with lost e-mails - we managed to deliver the revised paper at the beginning of October.

It is difficult to describe the feelings of excitement, uncertainty and curiosity when making preparations for the session, where we were supposed to present our paper. And it is impossible to describe the disappointment, when Elina informed me that she could not travel to Barcelona. I felt so sorry for her. We had been working together since February on this issue and now she was going to miss the most exciting and rewarding part of the whole thing! Not only did she miss the discussion related to our paper, but also an excellent conference with interesting discussions related to student-centered learning.

Our paper session went well and the audience did not shoot our paper down, although we were quite critical about the impact of on-line surveys on the quality assurance and enhancement of teaching and learning. I was also delighted throughout the forum that quantitative performance indicators were mentioned only in some of the discussions. But what was highlighted even more was the importance of the key stakeholders of quality in higher education: students and teachers and the partnership between them.

Forum participants were also provided with a wonderful metaphor for building a strong quality culture: the castell. University students built four different castells in front of the terrified yet excited audience. In case you did not know, building a strong castell starts from the bottom. I really liked the idea that this principle applies to building a strong quality culture as well.

What makes it difficult, however, to understand the complexity of building a strong quality culture, is the confusion it causes in the organisation’s management ideology. From a management point of view, the attempt to manage culture and quality as a technocratic project with performance indicators and intensive numbers’ management appears appealing. However, deeper less conscious aspects of cultural patterns – such as grass-roots practices related to quality enhancement – are more valuable, at least in the long run, to focus on.

Alvesson (2002) points out that in functionalist and normative thinking, culture is seen as instrumental in relation to the formal goals of an organisation and to the management objectives associated with these goals, i.e. external and internal effectiveness and performance. The consequence of this thinking is that culture tends to be reduced to limited aspects, which are directly related to organisational efficiency, indicators and competitive advantage.

Hopefully the Finnish UAS sector will not fall into this trap due to the new financing and steering model. Some of the latest developments anticipate that this might happen but, at least for the time, being Finland stands out for example in international students' satisfaction survey, as the best country to study in Europe. Let’s keep up the good work and concentrate on quality rather than quantity in the future as well.

Anyway, thank you Barcelona and EQAF for a wonderful learning experience! It was a long process from the initial idea to the actual event. If someone sent me a ‘happy sheet’ with tick boxes, the scaling of this experience with numbers would not do it justice it. But this ‘try out’ and the forum itself really educated this ‘monkey’, which is far more important than the two quantitative measures met: a conference paper and expert mobility.

Reference: Alvesson, Mats (2002). Understanding organizational culture. SAGE Publications Ltd


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