22 SES 03 A, Teaching, Learning and Assessment in Higher Education
The development of the knowledge society in Europe and beyond has been accompanied by a shift towards mass higher education. Challenges, though, have emerged around engaging students in their studies within mass systems (Trow 2006). This study aimed to develop our understanding of why students engage with their studies. It, furthermore, sought to address the specific context of learning that is supported entirely online. Online learning represents an area of higher education that is relatively under-developed within Europe, at least in relation to the United States where a substantive contribution has been made by the private sector. Adjustment in the roles played by the State and the market in the provision of higher education has, indeed, been a feature of recent changes in the sector. But if there is to be a greater take up of online learning in Europe in further developing a knowledge society, it is essential that academics, policy makers and investors understand more clearly how such learning can be employed in engaging students. A substantive body of research linked to the National Survey of Student Engagement in the United States has already established that a certain set of educational practices have a ‘high impact’ on student engagement (Kuh & Schneider 2008), with uses of learning technology included amongst these practices, but the underlying reasons for this linkage remain substantively un-theorised.
On-going research by the sociologist Margaret Archer (2003; 2012) has, though, demonstrated ways in which the ordinary capacity to use one’s mental powers to consider oneself in relation to social contexts, namely reflexivity, mediates the impact of social structure on agency. Our study thus set out to test empirically the hypothesis that student reflexivity represents a key determinant for engagement in online learning, and that it mediates the impact of educational practices on that engagement. The study looked to extend Archer’s realist social theory, which has principally been developed in relation in relation to social mobility, to the context of student engagement in online learning. In this, the study built on recent theoretical arguments by Kahn (2013), which suggest that the requirement for students to take on responsibility for action in the face of uncertainty, something particularly characteristic of high-impact practices, can foster extended forms of both individual reflexivity and co-reflexivity. In regard to this latter reflexivity, one that involves dialogue conducted around mutual concerns, the relational sociology of Pieropaolo Donati (2011) further suggests that social relations play an important role in framing the communication that is entailed; with work by Rourke et al (1999) also relevant. The study was grounded in the premise that it is essential to develop a robust basis for understanding student engagement if we are to establish innovative models of higher education appropriate to the knowledge society.
Archer, M.S., 2003. Structure, agency and the internal conversation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Archer, M.S., 2012. The Reflexive Imperative in Late Modernity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Donati, P., 2011. Relational sociology: a new paradigm for the social sciences, London: Routledge. Kahn, P.E., 2013. Theorising student engagement in higher education. Submitted to British Educational Research Journal. Kuh, G.D. & Schneider, C.G., 2008. High-impact educational practices: what they are, who has access to them, and why they matter, Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities. Rourke, L. et al., 1999. Assessing social presence in asynchronous text-based computer. Journal of Distance Education, 14(2), pp.50–71. Trow, M., 2006. Reflections on the Transition from Elite to Mass to Universal Access: Forms and Phases of Higher Education in Modern Societies since WWII. In J. Forest & P. Altbach, eds. International Handbook of Higher Education. Dordrecht: Springer, pp. 243–280.
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