Four members from co-design woke a little earlier on 25th April to head towards the west of England for the CABS Learning, Teaching and Student Experience conference (LTSE) 2017. The location this year was the Bristol Marriott Royal Hotel, an ornate Victorian building in the heart of the city.
This was the 7th annual LTSE conference and the biggest yet. Tickets to attend the first day had sold out, we know because we had tried to get a few extra places for members of the co-design group. With over 150 delegates in attendance, and most UK business schools being represented, the venue was lively with opportunities for making connections and catching up with familiar faces.
The 2017 programme  had a similar structure to the 2016 event in Birmingham. The two day event was structured around keynotes and breakout sessions, with two keynote presentations on day 1 and another on day 2. There were eight break-out themes running across the two days – including assessment and feedback, blended learning, employability, and student experience – with a mixture of paper presentations and activity based workshops. Experiential learning was a major theme running through many of the sessions. Between the keynotes and breakout presentations there were panel discussions on contemporary issues, such as the TEF, and poster presentations.
Representing Co-design from Southampton we had Erika Mantoura (1st year Business History student), Zak Rakrouki (Editor of the co-design blog), Amy Morgan (2nd year Business Management student, who also attended the conference in 2016) and Mark Gatenby (programme lead for BSc Business Management). We were also joined by Rob Jack from the placement’s office, who was presenting a poster, and who made an enjoyable addition to the team.
The first keynote address on day 1 was by Professor Jane Harrington, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West of England on the subject of the current HE landscape and its implications for business and management education. It mostly concerned with the implications of the TEF and how its metrics would seemingly ‘change’ a lot within the HE landscape – specifically for universities who place more importance on research and not teaching. While we know that government policy will link metrics like the NSS to university fee increases, it was interesting to view what challenges to change, from the side of university staff, the TEF produced. The seemingly institutional reluctance to recognise teaching excellence in the same was research excellence is recognised seemed to dominate discussions – professorships through teaching being a real rarity, for example.
The second keynote address on day 1 was by Berry O’Donovan, Principal Lecturer Student Experience, Oxford Brookes University. Berry spoke on the topic of ‘The tyranny of student satisfaction within the context of business and management education’, where she explored the subject matter of business education and how students approach learning and development in business schools. Berry first asked the audience to consider what kind of subject business and management is, whether there is a coherent discipline of business, and how it might therefore be taught. The work of Biglan from the 1970s was used as a frame to categorise different subject areas, with Berry noting that business education actually crosses over most of the categories (hard, soft, pure, applied). This makes business education something like a mongrel subject, but Berry suggested this is something to celebrate. Complex challenges require framing from multiple perspectives using teams of specialists and generalists, and perhaps business school students are particularly well placed to bring together teams to solve future challenges.
The second and main focus of the talk was on how students tend to approach learning in business schools. For this, Berry drew on longitudinal research in the area of student experience, and assessment and feedback, in which she has particular expertise. Far too many students are still taking a surface, transactional approach to study in business schools, and this is a cause for concern. Berry described how students often expected their courses to be highly structured in a way that led little room for exploration, and crucially, making mistakes. Rather than becoming deeper learners over the course of 3 or 4 years of undergraduate study, students often remain surface learners but become more strategic in learning what their course leaders ‘want’ and imitating an academic style of work. Berry’s conclusion, which was music to the ears of co-design, is that staff and students need to share responsibility for their education, to break the transactional relationship, and to take more risks.
As mentioned above, there were a range of different breakout sessions. One particular presentation that stood out was on experimental learning, delivered enthusiastically by Dr Beatriz Acevedo from Anglia Ruskin University. Sustainable education was the overall topic and included fresh, innovative ideas on teaching and learning. Acevedo explained how incorporating art into learning can be both more effective and sustainable as my of us learn through the visual approach. Another benefit, which every educational institute can relate to is student engagement. By adding this creative element to education, students who perhaps lacked confidence to verbally engage, could do so through the median of drawing. She also focused on students’ wellbeing by getting them to take part in mental health surveys at different stages in the year. This was particularly impressive as it was not something that was seen before.
The morning keynote on day 2 was delivered by Phil Race, a Professor Emeritus and education consultant. He spoke on the topic ‘Making learning happen: a fresh look at how students really learn’. Phil is not a business school academic and so this was a ‘fresh look’ in a number of ways. As with the 2016 conference, it was good to hear from thinkers inside and outside of business schools to give fresh insights and ideas for development. Phil’s talk was more about universal themes of learning than anything subject specific. The talk was idiosyncratic and fun, delivered in an approachable style that Phil had clearly honed over decades of experience.
The main technique Phil used throughout the talk was to make the subject of learning intimately connected to the audience, by asking us to reflect on our own learning experiences: “think of something you do really well” … “how did you get good at it, and how do you know you do it well?”. “Think of something you have struggled to learn or gave up learning” … “why did you give up?”, “who was to blame?” He then summarised the findings from research asking thousands of people the same questions and showed, as learners, we can all reflect on how learning happens, but as educators we often forget these basic truths. And as learners we often ignore what we know on reflection to be true. For example, on the question of things we do well, we all know almost all learning is down to the basics of deliberate focus, committed practice, and playful experimentation. But we often don’t structure our learning environments to support practice and experimentation. Too often we ‘cover’ the material once and then leave students to go off and commit it to memory.
The conclusion that Phil reached was that learning comes down to 7 key principles. He arranged these not in a learning cycle, but as ripples in a pond. At the centre is a need/want to learn, then comes learning by doing and by feedback, next there is learning through verbalising what you know and by making sense through reflection, and finally there is learning by self- and peer-assessment.
Phil used some playful techniques and audience participation to keep everyone engaged. We liked the activity of writing personal experiences on post-it notes and circulated them randomly into the audience for them to read out. This could work well with undergraduates and is a change from asking students to stick post-it comments to walls.
Our paper was given in the session after Phil Race’s keynote. We were positioned in the breakout theme of ‘Delivering learning & teaching through collaboration’ and followed an engaging talk by a team from Anglia Ruskin University, who spoke about developing an inclusive curriculum through partnership and the fascinating idea of ‘human books’ written by students from diverse range of backgrounds.
Our case study itself went really well, with Zak, Amy and Erika giving an articulate account of how co-design has shaped their learning journeys. We were able to give an update on our progress from our talk at the 2016 conference and point to the wider transformative implications of co-design. This was Erika’s first conference presenting as part of co-design but you would never have guessed this, and she did a great job. We were delighted by the response from the audience, with many people wanting to make connections, to visit Southampton or for us to visit them. We will see where these new connections lead us next. The student presenters where really encouraged by the very warm reception they received from everyone there. They loved the interest that was shown in them and what they were doing and appreciated anyone coming to ask questions about their experience.
We are pleased we made the trip to Bristol. The conference gave us lots of think about, and a great opportunity to share our work. The conference was capably organised by Oliver Lowe and the team. The CABS conference has become the main event in the calendar for UK business schools to discuss everything related to education. With significant movements in higher education legislation and the introduction of the TEF into UK universities, the attention is only likely to increase in future years. See you next year.