‘It’s a big time commitment, it’s a big resource commitment’

Speaking to Vice-Provost Linda Hogan, Eva O’Brien examines the early challenges facing the Trinity Education Project.

FEATURESThe Trinity Education Project is the first of its kind: “We have had discussions about particular aspects of the Trinity education over the years,” explains Vice-Provost, Linda Hogan, who as project sponsor is spearheading the project as a whole. “But I don’t really know when was the last time there was a comprehensive review.”

In some ways this is not that surprising. We are all familiar with the fear of change; the temptation to cling to the disadvantages of an old system rather than face up to the challenge of creating something different, something new. This is a challenge that the Trinity Education Project is attempting to overcome as it undertakes a complete review of each aspect of education in Trinity. In the words of the vice-provost, speaking at the recent Forum on Assessment on January 27, the project aims to  “ensure that our undergraduate curriculum is developed and enhanced.”   

The project has grown, in part, out of a series of surveys and forums begun five years ago. Molly Kenny, Education Officer for the Students’ Union, explains that the project is about fundamentally questioning “what Trinity students want from education.” She is enthusiastic about the approach taken, emphasising that “it wasn’t about ‘I want better lectures,’ it was about – what do you want to be?… There’s this idea about what it would be great to instill in people. I think it’s an amazing idea.”

It might be “an amazing idea” to ask for the first time what we really want from education, but the harder work comes in finding out what that idea means and balancing the views of everyone it affects. This is one of the key challenges that the project has faced, and with varying degrees of success. Dr Ciara O’ Farrell, introducing the Assessment Forum, praised the variety of attendees, saying it was “really representative of the many disciplines in college,” and that it was “really important that all these perspectives are heard.

The forum was made up of a majority of academics, with at most one student at each table. Yet asked whether the level of student participation was an issue, Kenny argues that if anything the problem is in the opposite direction: “I think that academic staff actually feel like they are not included in the process at all. But then that’s the nature of anything, there’s loads of staff members, every department is getting consulted, but not everyone in every department is getting their voice heard.” The Assessment Forum is a case in point of how the difficulties of balancing democratic inclusiveness with decisive and clear results play out in practice.

Alternative assessment

If graduate attributes give a direction to learning, assessment determines the shape that this learning takes. And this is one aspect of the project that appears to particularly command attention; the vice-provost identifies with it particularly. “I would have to say that’s what has excited me the most,” she says, recalling the conversations that took place at the Assessment Forum. “People were really interested in alternative assessments – that could be transformative for us, and it could certainly help us to ameliorate the negative effects of the rote learning at Leaving Cert.”

A new model for assessment does not sound like a particularly life-changing suggestion, but that is because most students will think of assessment as the business of writing essays or sitting exams, with approximately 80% of all assessment across Trinity currently taking these forms. Perhaps it is not surprising, however, that when presented with an opportunity to come up with alternatives, there was very little agreement across the forum about what direction the change should take.

Can we have more projects and researched-based assessment, many people suggested, rather than confining these student-led assessments to one final-year project? Should attendance and participation be taken into account? Should there be more assessment of transferrable skills, such as communication and teamwork? Can assessment focus more on practical skills, such as using new technologies? Perhaps students should be given the opportunity to decide how they are assessed themselves?

Taken altogether, the variety of suggestions, while interesting, meant that there was little chance of reaching consensus. The discussion was “broad but not deep”, suffering from one of the problems most commonly identified with the manner of assessment itself.  

There seemed broad consensus on very few issues, and these were in general quite vague and non-specific. Most people, for example, seemed to agree that we need to move away from “a culture of testing” to “learning to learn,” but there was no definition of exactly what this meant; most agreed on the need for extra resources, but there were many different ideas about how these resources should best be put to use. The Vice Provost admits: “a big challenge is trying to make sure that all subject areas understand the needs of other subject areas…to try to get a college-wide commitment to a kind of an agreed agenda.”

All members of the college community, students and academics alike, are invited to participate at each forum, making the forums arguably the most immediate way in which students across Trinity can affect the change in their education as it is taking place, although it is questionable how successful the project has been in making students aware of this opportunity.

The long-term

If there have been several challenges in bringing the project to where it currently stands, there are many more ahead. There is a fairly long time frame laid out for bringing the proposals to their fruition, and this will involve, some possible hiccups, the vice-provost anticipates. “I think the first thing that will be difficult,” she says, “is that when we have our new program architecture, we’re going to be asking all subjects to look again at their undergraduate education.”

This is due to happen in the next academic year, 2016 to 2017, with the new education program coming into effect the following year. “It’s a big time commitment, it’s a big resource commitment. Even if people are really excited and up for it, it’s still going to be challenging.” It is subject to agreement, which is by no means guaranteed.

“There’s also the ‘unknown unknowns,’” Hogan imagines. “There will likely be unintended consequences. We’re anticipating that there will be knock on effects on some things, but there will probably be issues that we can’t really anticipate. I worry a bit about that, I have to say.”

Kenny hints towards some of these unintended issues, speaking about the transition period of the project, particularly in relation to the semesterisation of exams. “It shouldn’t be mandatory for third and final years, because you are all used to this system, and that would be really unfair. I wouldn’t allow that.”

Nevertheless, nearly everyone involved with the project seems to agree that although there may be a long and bumpy road towards its completion, it is a road well worth taking. Although much progress has been made, there is a long way yet to go.