Learners take leaf out of an imprint of the Renaissance

July 6, 2007

A 15th-century Venetian printing press is the inspiration behind a new organisation devoted to equipping students with university-level study skills. John Hilsdon explains

In late 15th-century Venice, a vital contribution to the Renaissance was made by the establishment of the Aldine Press. This printing house had a "widening participation" mission to bring learning and scholarship to the people of Europe, using the popular languages Italian and French (as well as Latin and Greek), by publishing "affordable" books, both classics and new works of scientific and philosophical importance.

A new professional organisation takes inspiration (in name at least) from this venerable ancestor. The Association for Learning Development in Higher Education - ALDinHE - came into being in April, and I am proud to be its first chairperson.

So who are we, and should you be interested? Well, if working with students as they experience learning at university is your passion, then you may want to join us. ALDinHE is associated with a Jiscmail discussion list, the Learning Development in Higher Education Network (LDHEN). Our concerns arise from the great changes that have come about as a result of the rapid growth of higher education and we focus on issues such as those traditionally associated with "study skills".

Back in the early 1990s, as a new lecturer in the swiftly expanding university sector, I wrote a rather self-righteous paper for a teaching and learning conference titled "What Do We Expect?" commenting in exasperated tones about what I saw as the unfair and unrealistic attitudes of some of my colleagues towards students in the new higher education sector.

I was then employed by my institution, a polytechnic now elevated to university status, to develop programmes of study, to teach and to devise learning materials to "support" students from non-traditional backgrounds.

They were mature students, many without A levels, with "vocational" rather than academic experience of learning, from social-class backgrounds with little or no history of university education, and from minority ethnic groups, some of whom had English as a second or third language.

It puzzled me that so many of my colleagues expected all our incoming students to be already competent in, and at home with, the academic conventions and practices associated with studying and writing university assignments, and they believed that those who were not should be sent somewhere to get these problems fixed. It seemed that working with students to understand how to learn and communicate in an academic context was not on the agenda of most academics.

As the 1990s progressed, new "study support" services, "learning skills" centres and "drop-in" workshops emerged in many of the new universities, and in some of the older ones. Much-needed help and encouragement was and is provided by such services to students who grapple with how to write essays or reports, how to do "critical analysis" and "reflection", and how to survive the confusing world of bibliographic referencing.

But the development of such services has been slower than many of us would have liked, and insufficient resources have been devoted to them. Our collective experience of learning-development work, moreover, suggests that this remedial "add-on" or "sticking plaster" approach is not sustainable, rational or equitable.

Associating problems primarily with the influx of new students and assuming that university practices and "standards" (modelled on the elitist higher education of former times) were unproblematic seemed to me a very faulty conception. This was compounded by frequent encounters with students who felt inadequate or marginalised by experiences of failure.

From discussions with peers it became clear that there were many of us working with students and struggling to encourage colleagues in the disciplines and in management to see things from the point of view of those experiencing the new higher education.

In 2003 the LDHEN discussion group held its first symposium. We have met each year since then, in growing numbers, and now have more than 0 subscribers, representing almost all of the UK's universities, as well as several from Ireland and other countries.

The most recent symposium was held at Bournemouth University and was addressed by Ron Barnett of the Institute of Education, who spoke about the complexities of "being a student in an age of uncertainty". The conference also included a wide range of sessions on topics such as students as "stakeholders" in higher education; working in new "learning spaces"; the efficacy of "e-learning"; using anti-plagiarism software; and creating learning resources that students will choose to use.

ALDinHE uses the term we have chosen to describe our varied and multidimensional work with students: learning development. We chose this term carefully as against the alternative "learner" development because we wanted to emphasise that it is the whole gamut of processes (social, psychological, technical, institutional and political) involved in learning that we address rather than just the "needs" of students themselves.

The latter narrow focus runs the risk of implying a "deficit" model that, as Tamsin Haggis of Stirling University suggested (in her article in Studies in Higher Education of October 2006), can lead to a kind of pathologising approach, where students are characterised in terms of their needing support.

The phrase "learning development" also acknowledges the importance of the work we do collaboratively with academic subject specialists (for example, teaching in the context of courses, participating in curriculum development, and building specific learning activities and materials) as well as with students directly.

As our debates have gathered momentum, so the term "learning development" has entered more common usage and is now recognised as a field and a community of practice in higher education, as evidenced by its use in departmental, service and post titles over the past few years.

Some of us are classed as lecturers, some as "support" staff, some "developers" or educationalists of other kinds. Our common territory, however, provides a rationale for a professional association: a group committed to student learning, to inclusive and socially relevant higher education, to exploring and sharing our findings about learning with students and other academics.

ALDinHE will encourage and draw on the wide-ranging discussions about learning development to promote events and publications and will endeavour to represent the professional interests of those employed employed within this work.

Announcing a renaissance would be pretentious, but we hope ALDinHE will contribute to a renewal of interest in promoting learning at university in its contemporary, democratic contexts, and to aspirations for increasingly accessible higher education.

John Hilsdon is co-ordinator of learning development at Plymouth University. For more information about ALDinHE, visit www.lincoln.ac.uk/ldhen/

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