22 SES 02 C, Teaching and Supervision
This paper examines lecturers’ perspectives on teaching part-time flexible (PTF) students in Irish Higher Education (HE). PTF HE has not been extensively researched; little is known about students’ experiences of learning, similarly lecturers’ experience of teaching part-time students in Irish HE has not been examined.
Drawing on findings from a case study which included lecturers (n=30) and students (n=63), the paper focuses on insights into experiences of teaching and supporting learning of PTF students across a range of disciplines. The research examined:
- Lecturers’ approaches to teaching older students,
- What factors were influential in shaping the teaching experience,
- The extent to which differences if any were encountered when teaching and supporting full time and part-time students,
- To what extent were PTF students included within HEI’s,
- Types of supports older students required,
- Lecturer’s perspective on factors contributing to persistence and retention.
PTF learning was neglected by policy makers for many years as attention focused on mainstream full-time students within Irish HE (HEA 2012). Coinciding with the economic downturn from 2008 policy-makers showed renewed interest in this strand of widening participation strategy. Whilst PTF was ‘underfunded and underdeveloped’ nevertheless efforts were made to promote and expand this aspect of lifelong learning policy (Byrne Murray 2017:26). At the same time funding for HE was reduced and a national strategy for HE was implemented, leading to increased accountability across the sector (DES 2011). Furthermore as student enrolments increased an embargo on the recruitment of lecturers across state funded HEI’s was introduced. Research indicated lecturers workload increased as did student diversity across HE (Clarke et al 2015).
During the economic downturn, strategies to increase supply of PTF HE programmes were orientated toward the labour market and linked to economic growth. State funded labour market activation schemes such as ‘Springboard’ were introduced providing free places on programmes, and the majority of programmes were part-time and flexible. As the economic crisis deepened and spending cuts continued, the HEA noted that PTF learning could provide a valuable revenue stream for HEI’s (HEA 2016).
Misleading and mixed messages shaped the discourse around PTF HE, it was presented as a flexible mode of ‘delivery’ that was market driven targeting working adults and orientated toward employability. Further it was marked by poor completion rates (Woodfield 2014, Darmody & Fleming 2009). Lately alternative discourses which suggested PTF HE was complex and not straightforward began to emerge (Loxley et al 2017, Flannery & McGarr 2014, Callender 2011). In Ireland, PTF students were not counted in the recurring grant allocation model to HEI’s until recently and no data was collated on retention of PTF students across HE (Clancy 2015). Unlike full-time students, PTF students continued to pay fees and could not access grants.
In an under-funded HE context the findings remained relevant to policy and discourse on PTF learning. Findings related to three overarching concepts of; pedagogy, inclusion, and integration. Data indicated that part-time flexible students were heterogeneous. There was no uniform approach to teaching PTF students, however evidence indicated lecturers employed adult education theories and methods that were; student centred, interactive, experiential and relational. The challenges lecturers’ experienced included; managing student’s expectations around course workload and supporting students who juggled multiple responsibilities. There was a temporal dimension to teaching which restricted interactions and engagement with students. Lecturer’s aimed to respond and be inclusive in their teaching. However the wider campus was not often flexible or inclusive of PTF students. Access to supports and services was found to be inadequate and integration within HEIs’ was poor. Lastly, based on lecturer’s experiences there were high levels of completion amongst PTF students.
The purpose of this study was to examine a problem within a contemporary setting. The subject of inquiry, part-time flexible learning within Irish HE involved examining experiences of lecturers and students. Case Study has a long history. Whilst there are several definitions, Yins assertion that it is ‘an empirical inquiry about a contemporary phenomenon set within its real world context especially where the boundaries between phenomenon and context may not be clearly evident’ captures the primary features (Yin 2014:16). This case study set out to explore and understand part-time flexible learning, in particular what lecturer’s know and understand about teaching and supporting a diverse cohort of students. Whilst the research sample was small nevertheless the intention was to draw on findings to explain the situation on the ground. Notwithstanding arguments regarding the limitations of generalising using case study methods the research was instrumentally focused (Gomm et al 2000, Lincoln Guba 2000). A case study approach across multiple HEIs involving fieldwork was undertaken. The Irish HE sector is a ‘binary model of tertiary education’, that includes large and smaller HEI’s (Clarke, Loxley 2015:34). Eight HEI’s and thirty lecturers participated in the research. The intention was to involve lecturers from multiple disciplines from different types of HEI’s including those who taught full-time and part-time students at undergraduate and or post-graduate level and those who were teaching part-time flexible students only. Non-probability sampling applied in the approach to selecting lecturers and HEI’s. Ethical approval was sought from several HEIs in order to undertake interviews. Whilst a number of HEI’s were invited to participate it was not possible to obtain approval in every instance or to obtain a response in each case. Finding out what was happening on the ground within HEI’s from the perspective of lecturers was important in addressing the research questions. Semi-structured interviews were undertaken with lecturers’ within large and small HEI’s including: University, IoT and colleges of education. Interviews were digitally recorded, transcribed verbatim, using MAXQDA software to assist in analysis of data. Open and axial coding applied and inductive methods were employed. The primary themes informing interview questions included: pedagogy and practice, responding to learners, influences and challenges, retention and persistence. Tinto’s theory of integration (Tinto 1993) was used as a sensitizing concept framing the research.
The study explored part-time flexible learning in Irish HE in particular lecturer’s perspectives on teaching older students. Though the research was small scale findings indicated that part-time flexible learners were a heterogeneous group. Lecturers employed a range of approaches to engage older students further PTF students were motivated and completed their programmes. Lecturers recognised PTF students as knowledgeable and experienced, also they were vocal, which could be demanding of lecturers nevertheless student’s demonstrated high levels of commitment. Lecturers encountered a number of challenges when teaching PTF students specifically, managing expectations in relation to workload and fears in relation to assessment. PTF students juggled responsibilities also as the profile was diverse often students needed support with academic requirements. There were limitations on time which was an important factor shaping the learning and teaching experience. Findings indicated that there was an ‘episodic’ aspect when teaching PTF students, which meant that there was less time to build the relational aspects of the learning experience. Findings indicated Tinto’s theory of integration does not translate straightforwardly to part-time flexible students in Irish HEI’s as they are a heterogeneous cohort with multiple responsibilities. Lecturers observed that PTF students successfully completed their study. Limited access to supports and facilities continued to hinder integration of PTF students within HE. Though integration within HEIs’ was poor nevertheless students persisted. Lecturers’ observed there were several factors which contributed to student persistence such as; intention, motivation, the relational aspect of teaching, pastoral care, managing expectations, active learning, learning that was challenging also programmes that were flexible and responsive to their needs. However the extent to which a link existed between pedagogies of engagement, curricular flexibility and student’s persistence remained unclear, therefore further research on this subject is required.
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