As we said in our first post, the next step in our Joint Degrees Project was to look through all the data we have on joint degrees to get a better feel for what works and, perhaps more importantly, what doesn’t. Our investigations are ongoing, and we are yet to conduct our interviews with staff and students. However, we do have some findings worth sharing.
Since last time, we have looked through NSS free text comments regarding joint degrees from the past four years (2015-2018 inclusive). To do so we first identified comments addressing joint degrees (not the easiest of tasks!), compiled those comments into text documents for each year, and loaded the documents into nVivo. We then coded the text comments according to general grounded theory principles. Once the coding was complete we were then able to identify themes, develop a picture of their relative frequency, and dive back into the comments to extract representative examples.
As this project is about joint degree enhancement, it made sense for us to focus on negative comments. Applying the hierarchy chart function in nVivo to our coded comments produced the following results:
Clearly for students, organisational issues far outweigh all others. When we looked at the content of the organisation code we found that while students loved the substance of their degrees, organisational issues had a big impact on the overall experience. Concrete problems raised included:
- deadline clashes
- a lack of clarity regarding key procedures
- a sense that Schools were not harmonised in their goals and communications.
In fact, organisation is imbricated in all the major themes we identified in the free text comments. Student workload problems, a lack of course choice, and problems seeking support all appear to stem from our organisational practices not aligning with the ‘students-eye view’ of joint degrees.
This of course makes intuitive sense. It is also a situation with which we can all empathise. The analogy that sprung to mind immediately was the experience of getting my mortgage sorted out. On the whole the experience was fine, and I got a nice house that I am really happy with. But those moments when no one could tell me which document needed to be completed by when, or how valuations relate to the amount you can borrow, or when documents I had painstakingly collected got lost in the system, are inevitably what I recall when I am asked about the process.
Cathy Minnett-Smith at the University of Bedford has conducted pioneering work into student perceptions of their degrees, which demonstrates how students view their degrees through the lens of ‘success’. She found that scaffolding degrees to help students formulate goals and succeed in concrete, measurable ways is a key component of excellent degree provision. However, our preliminary investigation suggests we must also acknowledge ‘the organisational lens’ through which students view their degrees.
At its best, the organisational lens is transparent. At its worst, it has the potential to magnify and distort certain facets of our students’ degrees while obscuring others. A real worry is that the organisational lens interferes with the success lens, blurring our students’ view and making it difficult to recognise, articulate and celebrate their successes. This cannot be allowed to happen.
So how can we keep the organisational lens as transparent as possible, so that students can focus clearly on their successes?
We clearly need centralised golden copies of information for our students on joint degrees, and that information must be agreed by all partners in the degree. For example, joint degree students could be given access to roadmaps that clearly detail when assessments for courses are due, so they can make informed decisions about course selection and study plans. Moreover, this bird’s eye view of our joint degrees would enable staff responsible for joint degrees to monitor workload and suggest adjustments to deadlines when necessary. Such a roadmap could also be a focus for inter-department or inter-school teaching review meetings and student-staff liaison meetings.
But centralised information does not magically appear, roadmaps do not make themselves, and review meetings are not spontaneous events. Joint degree programmes, or clusters of programmes, need people to make all this happen. And, in turn, those people need the workload recognition and administrative support required to work with their inter-departmental or inter-school counterparts to shape joint degrees into clearly identifiable, coherent, and manageable programmes of study, with their own documentation, goals, support structures, and sense of forward motion.