#HEASTEM13 Conference Reflections

Last week I attended the HEA STEM 2013 Conference . It’s taken a wee while to process all the different presentations and conversations. I was exhausted when I got home, and my head was spinning all through Friday as it tried to sort itself out. You can read through the tweets on Storify, collected by Simon Lancaster. It’s lovely to go to conferences where there is so much chatter online, and where presenters respond to things after their talk.

There were a couple of notable themes in the parts of the conference I saw. Firstly there was so much about employability.  I’ve changed my mind about employability about 4 times in the last week. There are lots of great activities being developed for students to develop skills that are useful in the workplace after their degrees. I like those a lot, although many students seemed to like them less. I can understand why it’s difficult to see the advantages in some assignments, and the potential benefits may come long into the future. I am, however, very uneasy about the inclusion of lots of ‘do this and you’re more likely to get a job’ activities in curriculum. I think fundamentally I disagree with the notion of degrees as training for the workplace (in the sense that a degree should fulfill more than just one purpose). That isn’t to say I think that graduates should not develop a wide range of skills during their degrees, many of which will become very useful in certain kinds of jobs, but I dislike the current emphasis. For one, we don’t know what jobs our students will do and we don’t know what skills will be relevant in 5, 10 or 25 years. We need our graduates to be skillful and adaptable, mindful and proactive.  I would prefer activities that develop the so-called employability skills to be neatly embedded in activities that further subject knowledge. I’d also prefer for those skills to recognise the diversity of skills available. It isn’t all about business. If we’re going to run business activities, should we run introductions to teaching for those interested in PGCEs? How about workshops on how to write theses for those interested in research degrees.

The thoughts above are still half formed, and as mentioned, I keep changing my mind.

There was lots of talk about PeerWise and I think I’m sold on it. I’ve heard a lot about it in the past two years and hopefully we’ll be letting our incoming first years loose on it in September. Briefly PeerWise allows students to write their own multiple choice questions based on course content, and answer each others. There seem to be various social effects that make this particularly useful including competitiveness to write the ‘best’ question, peer moderating and discussion to point out mistakes or unclear wording, and a resource where students can answer lots and lots of questions which I firmly believe is a good and useful thing when learning.

I was incredibly taken with the UCL Arts and Science degree (Carl Gombrich, Keynote speaker, Day 2). I loved the combination of core modules taken by all students that focused on general and useful methodologies and theories, then the opportunity to focus somewhat.  It sounds like an incredibly interesting course. I’m jealous! I was also very taken with Martyn Poliakoff (Keynote speaker, Day 1), and as I work my way through ‘Teaching as a Subversive Activity‘, as recommended in his talk, I’m simultaneously alarmed and amused. I’m having to remind myself that things were different in the late 1960s when the book was written and that to my modern and female sensibilities, referring solely to men as educators was probably more acceptable then. I’m trying hard to not let my irritation at the strong gender bias interfere with engaging with the points made in the book. It’s not bed time reading, that’s for sure.

All in all I think the conference went well. I’m sure I missed so much because there were so many parallel sessions but I think I’ve taken a lot from what I did see.

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