How to develop partnerships that offer students real-world learning experiences
Rhianedd Smith shares insight on how to collaboratively create real-world learning experiences for students with professional partners
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We want our students to be prepared for the world beyond university when they graduate. This requires us to craft real-world experiences through which they can build confidence. This is not a solo endeavour. We work in collaboration with external partners who can give students access to these experiences.
I am based in a working museum, library and archive and these suggestions come from 16 years of developing partnerships to enable students to engage with messy real-world problems in our workspaces.
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Build trust and take time
All good participatory and collaborative working requires time and effort. You cannot just parachute in and expect to be able to design a full working collaborative project on day one. Start small and help out on little things. Take time to have a cup of coffee with people and get to know names and roles. Just because you’ve got an “in” with one person doesn’t mean that same contact will be responsible for all aspects of your student project or that they will stay in that role forever. Don’t assume that because you’ve got the director’s approval, you’ve got carte blanche. Communication within organisations can be patchy and changeable so get to know as many people as possible.
Share anticipated outcomes
You need to be up front about what you want your students to achieve. This might not fit in with the aims of your partner organisation. You will also have very different deadlines and different deliverables which you will need to align. Work with your partner organisation to identify what is in it for them. Supporting a student project will take a lot of their time and it needs to be worth their while.
If it is not the right time for your partner organisation, don’t try to minimise the amount of effort involved to cajole them into working with you. You know that supporting a student takes a lot of time so don’t try to convince anybody else that isn’t the case – it will simply come back to bite you.
For example, we are moving from letting students generate project ideas towards slightly less choice by co-creating briefs. This might seem like it is taking away some of the fun, but it provides a safety net, models professional expertise and better mimics the real-world experience. It also ensures students and staff can project manage and assess their progress against a shared set of achievable deliverables.
Students do not automatically develop the ability to project manage because they are in their final year of university. In fact, many professionals continue to struggle with this throughout their working life. If you haven’t embedded project management opportunities and skills training throughout your programme, you can’t expect students to be able to project manage at an arbitrary point in the project. Listen to what they are saying when they are feeding back and bring them in as co-producers of the curriculum.
If you think you are building in those skills, great, but do check with your students and remember a one-hour lecture on project management will not cut it. These skills take a lifetime of experience to grasp. You might do better thinking about how partner staff can model professional skills for students in less didactic ways, such as through mentoring, shadowing and reflecting on past projects.
Assignments can also be designed to help with scaffolding. For example, we provide a logbook with prompts and a “meeting minutes template” identifying key deliverables for different parts of the process. Think about breaking up the assignment to move away from marking the final project and towards marking the process, through self-reflective tools. This can also be done to create natural deadlines in a longer-term project. For example, the formative assignment for our exhibition module is two exhibition templates of increasing complexity which need to be submitted at specific checkpoints.
Iteration planning and communication
Feedback loops are key and you need to involve your partner organisation in planning this aspect. Iterative or agile planning is something we have embraced in our professional service following an Arts Council England-funded project on digital confidence. This moves away from the idea of the big final deadline and creates smaller loops, sprints and scrums as ways of moving projects forward. We have embedded this within our teaching, both on the planning and communication side of things. For example, this year our students have been given a Microsoft Teams space and Trello board, like the ones used by our professional teams, in order to be able to plan projects with staff.
Embrace your context
A final word. The lecture/seminar structure puts a lot of emphasis on the individual lecturer as expert. With this project-based way of working, expertise is dispersed among many parties and you have less control. It takes a lot of work to set up successful projects and it is not a one-time thing – you will have to continually refine and renegotiate. However, when you get it right, it is so rewarding and energising that, strangely, it doesn’t feel like hard work.
Rhianedd Smith is the University Museums and Special Collections Services (UMASCS) director of academic learning and engagement at the University of Reading.
She has been shortlisted for Innovative Teacher of the Year at the THE Awards 2021. A full list of shortlisted candidates can be found here, with the winners due to be announced at a ceremony on 25 November.
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