Dynamic Conversations: Stepping back to get forward: Enhancing student & staff partnerships for higher level degree learners

Dr Marc Duffy, Helen McKenna and Paul Mellon, Ulster University Business School, Business Engagement Unit, Belfast.


Our role as educators has been to teach. We provide our students with theory, and they (hopefully...) bring it back to us, suitably argued and cited. In traditional undergraduate education, our learners often have limited work experience, and students are challenged to critically reflect on the limitations of academic theory and arguments. This has been the process and comfort zone of higher education institutions for hundreds of years. Universities are familiar and secure in adopting such approaches, which can easily be measured, assessed, and quantified from a learner perspective. However, what if the style of student drastically changed? How might universities need to change themselves?

Enter the higher-level degree apprenticeship learner. Employed, experienced and often carrying significant seniority at work. These students have frequently been outside of education for a number of years and are nervous to re-engage with the process of higher education. This is in stark contrast to their traditional counterparts, who attend university on a full-time basis, and arrive with fresh experience of education. The practical experience of the higher-level degree apprentice often shines through, meaning they are quickly and meaningfully able to critically engage with academic theory, including identifying its strengths and weaknesses. This presents challenges and opportunities for educators in universities. The established benefits of 'filling our students with theory' and promising them how useful it will be in some distant future is less obvious, perhaps the learners would benefit from an alternative approach to applied learning?

As part of the Ulster University Masters in Business Technology, the Course Director and Module leadership team opted to design a new and innovative approach to delivery. The students in Closed and Open Cohorts represented senior employees in their respective organisations. The students had already studied a variety of modules ranging from technology to leadership and had studied theory sufficiently. In the final stages of the programme, where a dissertation might normally sit, the delivery team opted to ‘step back’ in the hopes of ‘getting forward.’    

Furthermore, as the students had significant experience of work, leadership, and in many cases managing their own departments, the tutors sought to capitalise on this experience to extract the student’s full potential. This approach has its challenges; without a pre-scheduled and defined teaching structure, the tutors had to be flexible and willing to adapt to the needs of the students at any given time, including adding additional sessions, and cancelling sessions where they were not needed. This approach has the potential to cause anxiety for tutors and learners alike.

In place of more theory, students were given the freedom to select a final year project (Capstone Project) that reflected challenges that they had experienced at work. The learners were encouraged to genuinely select an issue or challenge that they had experienced in their normal work. Projects relating to real business issues, whose solution would add value to their business that no-one had time to address in the course of normal business.

Importantly, and as part of our attempt to step back, there was very limited definition of what constituted a ‘good project’ in place of one-on-one supervisor discussions to identify genuine business issues that could be addressed in a short Capstone Project.

In designing the programme, three check-points were identified. First was an initial scoping exercise where the project was identified and discussed (Capstone 1), second was a research instrument design, where the process of collecting data (to either further identify the problem or assess the impact of the solutions) (Capstone 2), and third was the final overview of the project and impact (Capstone 3). Importantly, in Capstone 3, the students were encouraged to share the ‘artifacts’ that demonstrated the impact of their project.  In all three cases the students presented the problems and solutions to each other as a group with limited tutor involvement. The process of presenting, and the experience of the group led to meaningful discussions, and in some cases solutions in themselves. The approach of tutor facilitation over domination provided significant benefits to the learners who needed time to reflect and to think.

Importantly, in this scenario, the role of the tutor was a facilitator and not a subject expert. Indeed, the projects were so varied and specialist, it would have been impossible for any-one tutor to be an expert in the whole cohort. The tutor was tasked with keeping the students on track, and not letting the projects get out of hand. Close communication with student representatives was essential who provided feedback as to how the cohort were experiencing the module, and where changes were required.

The projects ranged from new human resource projects encouraging the employees to return the office in a more structured approach, to projects that addressed legacy project management systems that were no longer fit for purpose, projects designed to improve support for employees with disabilities, or projects that assess the impact of commercial relationships and opportunities for growth through data. The artifacts for such projects ranged from a photograph of employees at work, to a video of the new technological project system, to new employee forums, to a presentation of quantitative data to demonstrate the state of business relationships and challenges.

The impact of stepping back was significant and allowed the students to thrive, both academically and in work. The average grade for the students’ projects was over 70% and the impact of the projects were significant for the students in their employment. Importantly, in stepping back to allow the students to get forward, the students were able to decide for themselves where theory from other modules may be relevant for inclusion, improving their critical thinking skills.

The projects facilitated promotions, progression, and solutions for long standing issues within the respective organisations. Importantly this all began with the tutor stepping back and allowed the students to get forward.

Important questions arising from this approach include:

  • How can we build group support sessions around varied projects?
  • How can we future proof the approach when new tutors arrive on the module team who might be less comfortable in this approach?
  • How can we be flexible in delivery within the context of a slow-moving University timetabling process?
  • How can we safe guard the students from selecting projects that might be politically challenging at work?
  • How can we retain confidential examples of the outcomes of the projects that have been produced?

Dynamic Conversations: Reimagining student partnerships for a sustained future of learning

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