Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Letting academics look after students

Professor Andrew Norton
In his blog, Andrew Norton has warned of "growing threats to academic decision making" from an interventionist approach to higher education by government. He worries about "micromanaged allocations of student places". One example is new business start-up programs, with specified course content. I am not as worried as Professor Norton about this. 

It is common to specify course content for a vocational program. These are standardized nationally between TAFEs and non-government vocational education institutions. In theory universities each decide what to teach, but for vocational courses they must all follow the requirements of external accreditation bodies. Academics serve on these bodies, accredit each others programs, and swap note on what and how to teach it. As a result there is not that much difference between universities.

The content requirements for START-UP HELP are reasonably generic, and much as I would specify from years working, teaching and mentoring in this field. I would have no problem designing courses which fitted with the government requirements, and university norms..

A more difficult issue Professor Norton raises is mandated student support policy which all universities must follow. However, any institution making a genuine effort to support students at risk should not have difficult complying with government requirements. Professor Norton gives the example of a student unable to keep up with studies, due to a high paid workload. If this is temporary, an appropriate academic adjustment would be to provide extensions for assignments. If it is a long term issue, other solutions would be work integrated learning and reduce their study load.

One way to reduce the impact of such problems is to catch them early, rather than a crisis at the end of semester. Progressive assessment helps with this. Small regular assessed tasks allows academics to identify studnts who are having difficulties, and offer help. Having trained teaching staff, and specialists they can refer studnts to also helps prevent a problem becoming a crisis. Also this can help force students to make difficult decisions. As an example a student who has 0 out of 2 on weekly tasks for each week of the semester has a clear signal they need to act, or fail.

Course and assessment design can have flexibility built in, rather than added post-hoc. This reduces workload, and stress for staff, as well as avoiding studnts being stigmatized. 

When designing assessment, I am ethically, and legally, required to ensure every student who passes meets the learning objectives for the course. This is not just a matter of equity, as Professor Norton suggests, but public safety. The public assumes a graduate is competent to do a job which livelihoods and lives depend on.

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