The Search for a Metric for Learning in Higher Education
by Roberta Nicora

Now that the metrics that sit at the heart of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) have been legislated onto the ‘naughty step’ of an ‘independent expert’; most likely the Office for National Statistics, should we brace ourselves for the end of TEF? Or merely the start of a renewed search for new proxies for excellence in teaching?

With both the NSS and DLHE changing in the near future, it is at best going to be challenging to work with three years’ worth of data when data apples have turned into data oranges in the final year.

But let’s take several steps back and contextualise. The TEF started as nine lines in a Tory manifesto geared for a potential coalition government. It did not spring fully-fledged into life. Indeed, would we have had Gold, Silver and Bronze if the Rio Olympics had not been on whilst policy makers were reviewing feedback on the initial TEF proposals? Key Information Sets (KIS), which combined data from NSS and DLHE, were introduced by the Government to fulfil their 2010 pledge to prove better information for potential students in their choices of universities, not to measure the student experience nor the quality of their teaching.

Such a step back in time shows that metrics that have driven so much in HE over the last decade are now being used by TEF in ways that they were never intended for.

This is before we even start to consider that TEF scores are meant to be proxies for excellent teaching, when shouldn’t the whole thing be about learning?

So now is the time for some new metrics, ones that are not proxies of proxies but lie as close to the heart of learning as is possible. We need to move from seeing engagement as being a recordable presence to being able to see how, and in what ways, students actually engage with their learning materials. It is a fact of our times that students tend to be much more instrumental in their approach to investing time and effort in engaging with learning materials. They ask “will this help with my assessment?”. They want to know more than just what book or article to read, more than which chapter of what book, but between which pages lie the information needed for success in an assessment.

As this will now pose quite a challenge to the annual routine of preparing reading lists, perhaps we should take the opportunity to look beyond such lists which, after all, cut the ground from under approaches to learning that centre on collaboration and self discovery.

What is then required is the ability to close the loop in a new model of excellence in learning. A loop that starts with highly focused learning materials that need not resemble a ‘learned tome’, which in turn lend themselves to collaboration between staff and students. Then we can produce highly focused data telling us which pieces of material have been read and for how long, and if they’ve been shared, commented on and correctly referenced.

This will finally take us so much closer to measurable notions of learning which, after all, is what education is all about.