In early July, on the banks of the Brisbane River, over 500 higher education scholars from around the world gathered to share research and wisdom about how best to support our students’ education at the Higher Education Research & Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA) conference. World-renowned researchers mixed with first time presenters and PhD students. Sandstone university academics swapped stories with TAFE educators. A marvellous time was had by all.
Linda Brown, the driving force behind Torrens University, opened the conference. She emphasised that higher education in some form should be a human right for all, and took us through the critical factors in that institution’s success.
Angela Barney-Leitch, the PVC (Indigenous Strategy) at QUT brought her passion for real change to the second keynote, and introduced a major theme of the conference. That it is lovely to have well-meaning strategy and policies that include Indigenous Australians, but nothing has changed and nothing will change without a cultural shift. And to shift culture, we all need to look hard at our own practices and acknowledge that we need to do better, together. Barney-Leitch did not just call us to action, she showcased what QUT are doing to bring about lasting change in this area.
The redoubtable Dr Mollie Dollinger from Deakin University gave the third keynote, again calling for cultural change in research methods. We know what our students need, she said, we’ve known for decades. They need to feel a strong relationship to their educators, and we all have to work out how to advocate for that in the modern university. Dollinger is also definitely not against mixed methods of research. But she did paint an alarming portrait of the privilege quantitative methods of research are given in all areas of university life. We should make room for the thousands of voices of our students. Students must not be reduced to the objects of our research, but instead be our colleagues and peers in working out what is best for their education.
We had the enormous privilege of hearing from Professor Mary O’Kane, the Panel Chair of the Australian Universities Accord, at the close of the conference. She had to be quite circumspect on how the process was going, with the interim report coming out shortly. She urged us all to make a submission to the Accord before the opportunity closed in September. As many voices as possible need to be heard in developing this once in a generation reform.
The program was full to overflowing. There was a breakfast for over a hundred new delegates. There were presentations on teaching and learning, on partnerships, on governance, on integrity, and on professional learning. An entire corridor was filled with posters. There were roundtables that were so well attended they spilled out of the room.
There were some major themes evident at the conference, in addition to wanting to shake up the culture of universities:
- We discussed the wellbeing of our students, how to help them after what they’ve been through. We wanted to know how to engage them with their learning again, acknowledging that this had been an issue of concern before the pandemic. I presented a poster with Robyn Martin on the preliminary results of an assessment structure that both measured and stimulated student engagement in a multi-faceted way.
- The discussion around educational technology seems to be maturing. The focus was much more on affordances that can enrich learning experiences, rather than a look at the latest crop of shiny new apps. This included the inevitable discussion of generative AI. There seemed to be general agreement that it should push us to make changes to our assessments that we should have made when Google Search first appeared on our screens.
- Digital literacy, of both academics and students, needs a boost – now more than ever.
- Could we please start agreeing on definitions for things, otherwise we’ll never be able to collectively research and measure them?! The top three items in need of a generally agreed definition were:
- Student engagement
- Critical thinking
I presented a showcase on the findings of an investigation into the behaviour of academics when confronted with minor breaches of academic integrity. Indications are that they manifest their professional identity in deciding how to act instead of following policy. The development of professional identity of both staff and students was a minor theme of the conference.
Our international visitors got some extra education at the tropical-themed conference dinner. In honour of the late Tina Turner, we attempted to break the world record for the largest number of academics doing The Nutbush at the same time.
The jury is still out on whether this is a reportable output or not.
We are all looking forward to getting together again in Adelaide in 2024.