Climb every mountain

Published: Wednesday 23rd September 2015

jim nyland 

Message from Associate Vice-Chancellor (Brisbane) Professor Jim Nyland: One of the best parts of my job is spending half a day with new staff (sometimes, not so new) during their induction sessions to ACU Brisbane.

It is a lot of fun and gives me the opportunity to ask staff what attracted them to ACU.  At the induction session this week, one of our recently appointed Heads of School informed me that one of the reasons he chose to join ACU Brisbane was because we were located on a ‘mountain’.  

I mentioned that it was more like a hill than a mountain to which he responded as he was from India both were probably flattering terms.  In global terms our campus may well be viewed as a hillock, a mound or even a bump however I like the term ‘mountain’ so I plan to use this term henceforth.

In Queensland, university hills are alive to the sound of the student voice as they look to the impending ‘cliff’ year on the horizon and consider how best to chart a course for their organisations to avoid troubled waters and rocky shores.  In 2019 will see 40 per cent less students graduate Year 12 in Queensland due to the introduction of a full time Preparatory program in 2007 and commencement of a half cohort of ‘Prep’ to align with the shift in the compulsory school starting age from 2008.  

The vision for higher education in Queensland seems increasingly focused on emergent innovations around trimesters, pathways and new products and programs as well as fresh ideas about how to widen access and participation for non-school leavers, expand online delivery and cleverly position ‘brand University’ within an acutely competitive environment.  It seems timely to ask students (as well as staff) what attracts them to our University in order to understand how choices and experiences can help shape the future of learning on our university campus.

ACU Brisbane has a history of listening and responding effectively to the student voice - the Brisbane Campus has experienced annual double digit growth over the last five years, resulting in a headcount of 5,400 students today and planned future growth will see this figure approaching 8,000 students when Queensland reaches the edge of its cliff.  

Students continue to choose to come to our campus for any number of reasons and some of the more common ones have been captured in the recent study ‘Real learning in the changing university’.  This research project involved 25 in-depth interviews with students from four faculties at ACU Brisbane. 17 of the students were female, eight were male, 12 were under 25 years old and 13 were over 25. Two interviewers assembled the data collected from the student volunteers, which covered not only actual experiences of learning and studying at ACU Brisbane but also their feelings about a range of issues which are impacting on their studies and on their futures. 

The key findings were:

The campus is still the vital place to be for students

Our students viewed their campus as an overwhelmingly positive asset. Aesthetically many student respondents valued the beauty and tranquillity of the original cloisters whilst the new Saint John Paul ll building was a dazzling addition.

A range of campus-wide issues concerned with student support systems, admission of students, the needs of disadvantaged or minority students and the specific needs of older, return-to-learn adults were all mentioned in a positive light. Particular mention must be made of the efforts to address the needs and concerns of First Peoples, which students valued highly. 

Knowledge is changing but students want to work and to develop relationships

Our students have firm expectations of their studies mainly concerned with vocational and professional outcomes, ie jobs and opportunities in the labour market. The research results clearly spell out the high value students place on their lecturers’ expertise and subject specialisms and professional practice. 

The University’s core curriculum common to all undergraduate programs was seen as a pioneering development which teaches students to think critically and to be guided by social justice principles. Social relationships and communication skills are embedded in our student’s study programs and were found to be important to students. A critical and changing knowledge base can be seen to be emerging at ACU Brisbane where learning is part of a social experience involving professional expertise, social well-being, personal survival and engagement.

Real learning involves technology and real-life tasks at work

‘Real learning’ is now inseparable from the impact of digitalisation and the new literacies. Our students in this research project were, like most students, aware of the significance of computer-led or IT-supported learning. Multi-tasking across different IT platforms and media was common, with most programs offering significant online learning opportunities. 

Not everyone was equally enthusiastic about the benefits of new technology. Older students were less welcoming in general than younger cohorts and perceived the opportunities for digital learning in a less favourable light. Younger students used social media far more extensively than their older colleagues. A majority had a clear preference for small classes and face-to-face contact with staff. A significant proportion of students valued learning outside the classroom undertaken in professional and voluntary settings. Goal directed knowledge was the keystone of much practice-based learning.

Learning is about personal growth and the self

A key concern for the research project involved the search for a curriculum that could be relevant to peoples’ lives in an era of change, uncertainty and challenge. The chance to learn independently and to develop personal competences and attributes was highly valued. This was a form of self-learning. Personal viability, by which is meant the capacity to sort out issues and dilemmas of a personal kind using skills and intelligence, was also highly rated. Emotional learning and intelligence were as important to students as subject knowledge.

 In conclusion we can hear some significant voices and messages emerging from ACU Brisbane students through this research project. It is hard to over-estimate the importance to our students of professional employment outcomes to their studies. As we know, 93% of our graduates secure a job in their first four months of graduation and most respondents had a positive expectation of future work, although they acknowledged that some professions such as teaching, social work and health were highly competitive in the region of South East Queensland. Older students were less optimistic than their younger counterparts for both short-term and longer term prospects.

Many students anticipated undertaking future professional development and/or lifelong learning. Many were already involved in volunteering and considered it a form of career preparation. Part-time work to pay for study was common though some found it to be ‘exploitative’ and older students found it hard to find. Work for modern students is significant and vocational outcomes are a source of positive motivation, encouraging a commitment to real learning.

Each successive generation has its own character and distinctiveness, and forms of knowledge and learning evolve to meet new needs and demands. In the practice-based, enquiry driven learning programs on offer at ACU Brisbane, the outlines of an emerging ‘real’ and values based curriculum can be seen.  This focus on real learning and character development, driven by the student voice and embraced by our campus has created a momentum capable of scaling the steepest precipice.

Professor Nyland will be presenting the full version of his research paper Real learning and the Changing university at the World Congress on Education in Dublin next month.