Students as partners

Former UQ Journalism students, Shi Pui Ng and Kirsten Slemint pose for a selfie Former UQ Journalism students, Shi Pui Ng and Kirsten Slemint pose for a selfie

Third-year UQ communication students Kirsten Slemint and Shi Pui Ng.

Third-year UQ communication students Kirsten Slemint and Shi Pui Ng.

ChangeMakers spoke with Dr Nicholas Carah from the School of Communication and Arts and two of his former students, Shi Pui Ng and Kirsten Slemint, about the Students as Partners project they all participated in.

Co-creation and evaluation of FutureLearn materials in COMU1120 was one of 11 pilots conducted within the project and aimed to reposition students and staff as active collaborators in the process of teaching and learning enhancement. In other words, empowering students to be actively engaged in, and sharing responsibility for, their own education.

Dr Nicholas Carah Dr Nicholas Carah
Dr Nicholas Carah Dr Nicholas Carah

Senior lecturer in media and communication at UQ's School of Communication and Arts Dr Nicholas Carah.

Senior lecturer in media and communication at UQ's School of Communication and Arts Dr Nicholas Carah.

The teacher's perspective

When I heard about UQ’s student strategy, the thing that jumped out at me was the connection between working in partnership with students and integrating digital platforms with on-campus learning. 

UQ is distinctive in its effort to use online platforms to enhance on-campus experience and active learning generally, rather than just ‘transfer’ learning off-campus. The idea is that if we can use digital platforms to do some things at scale – like deciding what content to teach or developing assessments – that should enable us to do more engaging and social learning activities on campus. 

I’m a media and communication academic who specialises in digital media, so the reason this caught my eye was that digital media platforms are both technical and social. Technical in the sense that digital media are tools for delivering content at scale: videos, lecture recordings, automated assessments. But also social, in the sense that they foster new forms of reflective and participatory engagement in online and offline settings. 

Here’s the thing – we can put a lot of attention on the technical side, and not enough on the social side. At first glance, we might think that making a course digital means making content. But really, the work is in thinking about the kind of social and learning experiences they might foster.

A digital media platform becomes meaningful, and useful, because of the culture of participation that emerges on it. This is true for Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Reddit, just as it’s true for digital learning platforms like edX. 

Online participation works best, is at its richest, when it interconnects with participants’ real-world relationships and experiences. 

We embarked on a project that sought to convert a large first-year Media and Society course into a ‘blended’ form. That meant it would be a mix of on-campus seminars and tutorials, and resources on an online platform. We decided to do this project in partnership with a group of students. 

I’d been thinking about the ways in which there were, in a sense, ‘two voices’ in a course. There was the voice of the academic, who tended to explain concepts, present different arguments and fashion ways of thinking about the world. And there was the voice of the student, who was trying to navigate the ideas and employ them in the assessment tasks. 

The age-old challenge in university teaching is to hold those voices in a productive exchange. 

If we think of the traditional model of the university, the voice of the academic is privileged in the lecture, and the voice of the student is privileged in the small-group tutorial. 

Digital platforms offer a new way of thinking about the design of learning as a social exchange between academics and students.

My initial thought was not that digital platforms might be a tool to make teaching radically easier or better, but rather that we are now teaching in a world where both students and academics are immersed in the participatory culture of digital platforms. The university has an important role to play in critically engaging with and developing digital media platforms as an enduring part of our public culture.

My first experiments with animating the student voice in my courses were with Facebook groups. In the early days of Facebook, these had really lively discussions. But, I’d noticed over the last five years that students had become much more reticent to share on these forums. 

I’d also started working with students to produce podcast versions of their assessments that we’d share with other students. 

Student partnership builds on a longstanding aspect of university culture: the collegial relationship between academics and students. My thought was that student partnership was intrinsic to ‘blending’ courses because it would involve students in the design, production and facilitation of the course. And that would help to model the exchange between academic and student voices throughout the course. 

So, we recruited a group of students who had done the course previously and started working together on designing an online version. Our student partners worked alongside us – they came to design meetings, wrote and edited scripts, co-produced audio and video content, evaluated and edited material from a student perspective, and helped facilitate the course once we launched it. 

Student partners are particularly good at making their voice and experience a central part of the course.

They do this in two ways.

The first is taking the theoretical arguments and concepts of a course and making them real. They share cultural references and experiences with their peers. So, for instance, if we are discussing the data-driven advertising model of digital media, students are good at taking the theory and illustrating it by showing examples from their own Snapchat. 

The second thing is that students can model assessments. The student partners produced video and audio that illustrated how they dreamt up their ideas, did their research and produced their final piece. They were also really great at articulating what a course’s meaning and assessments look like from a student perspective. And so, we end up with a course that has a student perspective integrated into its design. 

Our partnership is one then that involves an intellectual exchange about the arguments, how we present them, and how we make them useful to students. 

My hope is that our partnership is one of many across UQ that will, over the coming years, ensure that the fundamental relationship at the heart of university life – the collegial, creative and intellectual exchanges between academics and students – remains an enduring feature. 

Learn more about UQ’s Students as Partners project.

Dr Nicholas Carah is a senior lecturer in media and communication at The University of Queensland. His research examines the brand culture of social media platforms, with a particular focus on the promotion and consumption of alcohol. He is the author of Brand machines, sensory media and calculative culture (2016), Media and society: production, content and participation (2015), and Pop brands: branding, popular music and young people (2010). 

Kirsten Slemint and Shi Pui Ng Kirsten Slemint and Shi Pui Ng
Kirsten Slemint and Shi Pui Ng Kirsten Slemint and Shi Pui Ng

Third-year UQ communication students Kirsten Slemint and Shi Pui Ng.

Third-year UQ communication students Kirsten Slemint and Shi Pui Ng.

The students' perspective

Kirsten Slemint: I heard about Students as Partners from one of my lecturers and thought it would be an incredible opportunity. The whole goal of the program was to bring together students and academics and build something – in our case, online course material – that worked well for both parties. Because I have no qualms about expressing my views and providing feedback, I hoped I could accurately represent the views of my peers. I found the whole process very rewarding and fun. 

Shi Pui Ng: I also found it to be an amazing experience. I learnt so much. Being involved in creating course content, seeing how content is delivered and how academics consider what to present – I really appreciated the insight into what goes into preparing a course. For my own professional development, working in a group and being treated as an equal – even though the academics were considerably more experienced than me – was just incredible. 

Kirsten: We met once a week to collaborate on projects, to help each other and to give advice. We were all contributing equally as colleagues. The academics – our former lecturers, Nic (Dr Nicholas Carah) and Nat (Dr Natalie Collie) – were a dream to work with.

Shi Pui: But we weren’t just receiving help; we were helping each other grow, and I think it was refreshing for them too.

Kirsten: The project felt like a breaking down of the proverbial divide between students and academics. 

Shi Pui: There was no hierarchy within the group, and I felt that Nic and Nat really listened to us and valued the student input. I think the fact we were paid* for our involvement showed that there was respect and value for us and our work. We created and produced audio and visual content about the evolution of media, and its implications and impacts in our everyday lives and society in general. 

Kirsten: I couldn’t agree more - and it was also an incredible opportunity for us to build our personal and professional skills with a significant boost to our creative portfolios. We had such a wonderful time making those videos.

Shi Pui: It definitely was a highlight of our student career!  We had a sense that our ideas were worth listening to and that we had a realistic idea of what could be achieved. We worked together to refine our ideas – the collaboration was amazing – and I think that what we produced will be 100 per cent beneficial to students in the future. 

Kirsten: Yes, I think that was made clear when we were answering [current] students’ questions. We infiltrated some of their classes to try and evaluate our work. The creative content was received extremely well, and I think students were not only very willing to give us constructive feedback but also happy to ask us questions and discuss their work. 

Shi Pui: Knowing how the platform was received made it more relatable compared with the original concept from the academics. I think that instead of just passively accepting everything we heard [from the academics], we had a more honest and comfortable relationship and could provide practical examples of how assessment could be improved…

Kirsten: …in a non-traditional – and sometimes hilarious – way. 

It was valuable for everyone involved. I have nothing negative to say about the Students as Partners project and feel lucky to have been involved. It really opened doors for me professionally – I even got some paid work as a videographer, thanks to contacts I made as part of the project. Since my goal in life is to make documentaries, this was a huge step in the right direction.

Shi Pui: But all in all, we were breaking down the traditional, rigid structure of teaching and receiving information. 

Kirsten: And we enhanced our own critical thinking. It wasn’t just theory: it was incredibly practical. We were helping students with real-world application of the course, translating education into something practical. It really broke down those traditional teaching methods.

Shi Pui: I think this project is changing education at UQ. It is transformational.

Kirsten: Yeah, it broadened what I thought was possible and in many ways, I feel more prepared than ever to achieve my goals.

* All students involved in Students as Partners pilots were selected on merit and received a scholarship for their participation.

Following a successful career in debt collection and private investigation, as well as extensive world travel, Kirsten Slemint decided that she wanted to become ‘David Attenborough 2.0’. And so she enrolled in the joint Bachelor of Science (majoring in zoology)/Bachelor of Journalism program at UQ. Currently in her third year of study, her plan is to create documentary films and use the power of science communication to change the world. 

Shi Pui Ng enrolled in UQ’s Bachelor of Journalism straight from high school, before taking a two-and-a-half year break to travel the world. His travel experiences, as well as his upbringing as an Asian Australian helped him realise the importance of cultural awareness and the power of communication in today’s increasingly globalised society. Now in his third year of study, he hopes to impact the world by working in diplomacy, foreign affairs or humanitarian aid.   

Help create  transformative teaching and learning experiences for students, or learn more about the Student Strategy in action.

The student selfie photo The student selfie photo

The selfie that Kirsten and Shi took of themselves in the School of Communication and Arts lounge area (see opening photo).

The selfie that Kirsten and Shi took of themselves in the School of Communication and Arts lounge area (see opening photo).