16 The student on the wall – an undergraduate’s perspective of an academic conference

Hollie Smith

Day one is over, and it’s time for some reflection. Students’ ability to be reflexive has been a key theme throughout my day, so it would only be right to consider that practice as I mull over what I have experienced.

My day started with two emotions: excitement and trepidation. Excitement because I was in an incredible position which many undergraduate students wouldn’t find themselves in; ready to hear innovate talks and network with some truly inspiring people. And trepidation… well, for the same reason. I was worried I’d feel out of my depth, and as though everybody in the room would know I didn’t ‘belong’ there. I was soon reassured. As people started arriving, the positive buzz in the room was apparent and the humble nature of the delegates was clear – there’s no room for superiority at a social science conference! After chatting with some fascinating people, I quickly realised they valued my perspective and presence just as much as I did theirs. With fear of sounding all “me, me, me”, surely I’m a prime example of who this conference is for? Sure, I’m positive the delegates will have learned some invaluable tips and been able to share ideas to improve their own practice and make their lives easier (!) but in the long run, future undergraduate students and I are going to be the ones who benefit from this, thanks to having such knowledge and practice fuelled academics teaching us, due to their attendance at such events as this.

Today’s keynote was delivered by Steve Wheeler and covered the topic of learning in the digital age. I think I can speak on behalf of everybody in attendance when I say how stimulating his discussion was. Every single person will have been able to take away at least one new perspective on digital literacies which will change the way they engage in or think about technologies. (I do though, wish I was able to listen to Steve’s talk two weeks ago – having this week submitted an assignment on ‘higher education in the digital age’!) Having grown up in the digital age, it was refreshing to hear a perspective from somebody who has not had that experience. In fact, as Steve discussed, current students are younger than Google and Facebook so have never known a world without these technologies. It is critical then for pedagogues to understand how to successfully incorporate the use of digital literacy into their teaching practice. I think it’d be fair to say, a common worry for university lecturers is that when teaching about technologies, their students will have more knowledge than they (whereas the students’ worst nightmare is a bad 4G connection). Steve examined however, that whilst children may feel they have a natural affinity to using technology, we all as learners need a digital wisdom – the ability to be digitally literate is not conceptualised by age, it’s conceptualised by context. This leads me nicely to my favourite new word of the day: paragogy. Steve used this word to express how technologies can encourage equality in learning – we all have something to teach and we all have something to learn from one another! This reinforced my confidence in my own presence at the conference.

My afternoon was spent with some sincerely inspirational and lovely people who presented sessions with the overarching topic of employability. I don’t think it would be unfair for me to say that whilst each pair of speakers offered unique perspectives, there were some common themes threaded through the three sessions, which is where my earlier emphasis on reflexivity derived from. ‘The two Helens from NTU’ (Helen Taylor and Helen Avis) presented the importance of teaching students how to recognise their transferable skills for purposes of future employment, using their ‘path to professional progression’ course. As somebody who is only round the corner from graduating (eek), I found it critical to discover what we as students can do to understand how the skills we’ve learned on our courses can be transferred to nearly any area; it was really interesting to discover the processes teachers have to through to encourage this from their students.

Maddie Jarvis and Jeremy Peach from the University of Chester reflected on the relevance of work based learning (WBL) modules as part of an undergraduate university course. As a student who has experienced WBL, it was thought provoking to hear alternative perceptions, such as from that of the employer who saw a benefit of WBL as being able to contribute to university curriculum, and from parents of students who judged WBL to be a USP of a degree. Finally, Angela Vesey and Anne Owen from the Sociology department of Nottingham Trent presented a paper on ‘Utilising the theory and practice of youth transition to foster employability’. They provoked various concepts, discussing that reflective practice is undervalued, probing the idea that there’s a perception of students simply ‘being’ naturally reflective, or whether it is a practice that can even be taught. As somebody about to embark on either further study or employment, I think I have the common anxiety of most students in my position of whether I will be ‘employable’ in an age where competition for graduate jobs is fiercer than ever. To see there are so many inspiring people carrying out research into what can help us students present ourselves.

A version of this blog was previously published here: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/blog/student-wall-undergraduate%E2%80%99s-perspective-academic-conference

Hollie Smith, Sheffield Hallam University