‘Critical Friend’ – but what does that mean exactly?

I was already aware of the excellent work on closing student attainment gaps which had been undertaken at NTU in the “Success for All’ project……

I am already confident that this very timely and pertinent piece of work will be of great value not only to the three universities involved but to the wider HE sector

  • 30 January 2018

I was delighted (and also a bit excited) when Jane McNeil and Loyin Olotu-Umoren  got in touch to say they had won monies from the HEFCE Catalyst Fund to roll out ‘Scale Up’ at NTU and would I like to be their ‘Critical Friend’, working in collaboration with the Anglia Ruskin University and the University of Bradford?

 

This HEFCE programme of funding, launched in 2017, has been put together to support Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) wanting to explore ways to address barriers to student success and attainment.  The monies (up to £30 million a year) have gone to 61 different HEIs to support 17 projects.

 

I was already aware of the excellent work on closing student attainment gaps which had been undertaken at NTU in the “Success for All’ project, as I had acted as mentor to Sarah Lawther, the project manager.  The ethos of that work was to support staff to test out and implement evidence-based solutions through a series of action research projects taking place across the institution – allowing NTU to be at the cutting-edge in ensuring that all students achieve their full potential.

 

My connection with Sarah, and also Ed Foster, had begun several years ago – when they were key collaborators on the ‘What Works’ HEA project and, at the time, I was the Student Experience Project Manager at the University of Derby, leading on a variety of projects including International Student Transition and early research into Learning Analytics to support student retention, which we eventually came to call ‘Engagement Analytics’ (working with students as co-producers to scope out a set of traffic light indictors to spot disengaging students).  This research had then seeded a major piece of work at Derby, taking a holistic view to provide staff with a bank of resources in an effort to close the BME/non-BME attainment gaps (‘Practical Recipes for Student Success’).

 

Derby and Nottingham being so close, we would often pop over to each other’s offices to grab a coffee and share our successes and challenges along the way to help build a fairer system with equal outcomes for all students, regardless of their background, gender, race, ethnicity or class.

 

Sarah and Ed moved on to pastures new and I left Derby Uni to set up my consultancy on applying the tools and techniques of Service Design to help HEIs find new ways to enhance their students’ experience and engagement.

 

So, the invitation to join the project was building on my knowledge of the subject in hand and also my earlier relationship with staff at NTU, but what exactly was a ‘Critical Friend’ and how could I contribute to such valuable and important work?

In their 1997 paper ‘The diverse role of the critical friend in supporting educational action research projects’ Kember, et al, summed it up thus ‘Important facets of such a role include the: financier, project design consultant, rapport builder, coffee maker, mirror, teaching consultant, evaluation advisor, research advisor, resource provider, writing consultant, match maker and deadline enforcer. ‘

So that was all clear then!

I was keen for the role to be more than just a token, and in early discussions with Jane and Loyin we began to map out what my relationship to the project would be and how I could find my place.  I was to be a member of the Steering Group and also act as a sounding board for Loyin in her challenging role of overall project manager.

Drawing on my service design background, I was asked to run a workshop where we drew up personas of ‘typical’ staff and students who would be part of the ‘Scale Up’ rollout and looked at how we could map their learning journeys to better understand where any blockages and barriers to implementation might sit.

I attended the September conference to learn more about how ARU and Bradford were addressing attainment gaps through Team Based Learning, and met with a range of staff to hear how they were approaching the project in their own institutions. I also began to attend some of the NTU project team meetings, followed by one-to-ones with team members, to better understand how they saw their own roles and what was working and not working so well for them.

It is still quite early days and a key challenge is to find ways to evidence impact, as there are not many stories to tell as yet, however I am already confident that this very timely and pertinent piece of work will be of great value not only to the three universities involved but to the wider HE sector, and I am pleased and proud to be a small cog in a much larger wheel.

Now…..where do they keep the kettle?

References:

David Kember , Tak-Shing Ha , Bick-Har Lam , April Lee , Sandra NG , Louisa Yan & Jessie C.K. Yum (1997) The diverse role of the critical friend in supporting educational action research projects, Educational Action Research, 5:3, 463-481, DOI: 10.1080/09650799700200036 Published online: 20 Dec 2006.

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/09650799700200036  Accessed: 1 December 2017

Practical Recipes for Student Success (PRESS), University of Derby

https://uodpress.wordpress.com Accessed 1 December 2017

Liz Thomas (2012) Building student engagement and belonging in higher education at a time of change: final report from the What Works? Student Retention and Success programme, Higher Education Academy

https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/what-works-student-retention/What_works_final_report Accessed 1 December 2017

You can find out more about Service Design in HE at the Efficiency Exchange website http://www.efficiencyexchange.ac.uk/author/jean-mutton/

 

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