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This is the University I Fight For: Student Engagement in Educational Change

This is the University I Fight For: Student Engagement in Educational Change

This past year, I’ve been leading a research project with my HASTAC mentor, Bill Kules, on student inclusion in higher education change processes. As a 2015-16 HASTAC Scholar, I’ve also been an active participant in The University Worth Fighting For initiative. These two projects share the common goal to tie student-centered, engaged pedagogical practices to institutional change.

Our project examines the methods and outcomes of student engagement in systematic program planning. Our motivations for this research project are to promote inclusive decision-making processes, collaboration and partnerships between students and faculty, and intentional and impactful practices, with the goal of facilitating improvements in higher education programs. Our study’s results provide practical, evidence-based guidance for educators and programs to improve their student engagement and systematic planning practices. We also identified methods that a few programs are using - and more could adopt - that give students a real voice in their education, while at the same enable students to demonstrate the professional skills and competencies that educators seek to equip in their students.

Systematic program planning is a program evaluation methodology that facilitates continuous educational improvements through evidence-based, data-driven decision-making that includes the program’s constituents. Library and information science (LIS) programs seeking accreditation from the American Library Association (ALA) are required to demonstrate that their constituents – students, faculty, staff, alumni, employers, and administrators – are meaningfully engaged throughout the program’s ongoing, broad-based systematic planning processes.

We conducted a hybrid, problem-driven content analysis of 15 comprehensive accreditation self-study documents (called Program Presentations) to understand what methods are used to engage students, how broadly and systematically these methods are used, and what types of changes and improvements were implemented based on student engagement. This study is the first to examine how students are engaged throughout each stage of the systematic planning process: Planning, implementation, assessment, decision-making, and ultimately, improvement.

Our results indicate that programs use a variety of methods – quantitative and qualitative, formative and summative, impersonal and personal, deep and shallow – to engage students. Programs also modeled unique and innovative approaches - student advisory boards, student-run surveys, and student-led meetings - to more inclusively engage students in systematic program planning. These types of meaningful partnerships with students encourage students to exercise agency and ownership over their education, while also providing them with opportunities to learn tangible professional skills, including project management, data analysis, marketing and outreach, and meeting facilitation.

However, these methods do not necessarily lead to fruitful or substantive programmatic changes and improvements. Programs were most likely change and improve to their curricula and student affairs and services based on student engagement, but rarely made changes in other areas: faculty affairs (which includes teaching pedagogy), program administration, financial resources, and programmatic mission, goals, and objectives. Moreover, for every impactful change made based on student engagement, like introducing a series of new degree specializations, programs were just as likely to report making relatively minor changes, like renumbering courses to ease academic advising.

We’ve presented our study and its results at two key venues for LIS education scholars: the Association for Library and Information Science Education (ALISE) 2016 Annual Conference, and the iConference 2016, organized and hosted by the iSchools. Our papers, presentations, and posters can be reviewed here:

  • LIS student engagement in systematic program planning: Inclusion, impact, and innovation Paper and Presentation
  • Analysis of LIS student engagement in systematic program planning: Preliminary results Paper and Presentation
  • Are iSchools more adaptable than library schools? Analysis of LIS student engagement in programmatic changes and improvements Paper and Poster

Most unexpectedly, we identified a number of programs that had established meaningful partnerships with their student. Five of the 15 programs used Student Advisory Boards, which compliment student representation in other forms of governance, and three programs used student-run surveys and meetings, respectively, to directly engage students in the systematic planning process itself. These types of leadership roles provide students opportunities to learn tangible professional skills, like data analysis, meeting facilitation, and marketing. These are really unique and interesting ways to engage students, and while we were pleased to identify and highlight them, we had expected that more programs would have adopted these types of methods.

As a current student and lead researcher on this study, I am left questioning how effectively educators model the practices they expect of their students. Educators expect their students to be inclusive, impactful, and innovative change agents. I and my fellow students want to be prepared to have a demonstrable positive impact on society. In turn, we expect our educators to model this same inclusive, impactful, and innovative praxis. All of us, students, faculty, staff, and administrators, want to effect positive change in our respective disciplines. To do so, we need to work together and establish partnerships across constituency groups to improve higher education.

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