For many students, some of the biggest questions that have come out of the last 18 months are about who is at the forefront of QUT’s online strategy and what they are doing. It’s not an easy question to answer at first glance. The staff that students interact with on a daily basis are their unit teaching teams, library staff, and HiQ staff. While these people are responsible for content access and delivery, the digital strategy falls into the hands of Professor Kevin Ashford-Rowe. He’s the QUT Pro Vice-Chancellor (Digital Learning), and his work is centred around designing QUT’s learning experience into the future. As a writer for the student newspaper, I was surprised (and glad) that my request for an interview with one of QUT’s higher-level executives was not only accepted but encouraged by him.
Kevin is from the UK and holds a Bachelor (Hons) of Economic and Social History from the University of Hull, a Postgraduate Certificate of Education from the University of Exter, a Masters of Professional Studies from the University of New England, a Masters of Education from Edith Cowan University, a Graduate Certificate of Multimedia from UTS, and finally, a Doctorate of Education from the University of Woolongong. In a professional scope, he has worked in the professional streams as a Director at Griffith University and ACU, before starting at QUT as the Pro Vice-Chancellor (Digital Learning) in January of 2019. It’s clear from this resume that Kevin has had an extensive academic career with a core focus on digital learning and student experience, which is also exemplified in his publication history.
Kevin and I met for a coffee to discuss aspects of his career at QUT, what his work does to directly benefit students and what is in the pipeline for QUT in an increasingly digital environment.
For students that may not know where you fit in QUT’s leadership team, what does your role do for students?
I am the Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Digital Learning). I lead the Learning and Teaching Unit which is comprised of the Student Success Group, which support student success and focusses on degree completion; the QUT Academy of Learning and Teaching, focusing on student feedback and the development of staff capabilities and policies; and, the Digital Learning Portfolio, which supports QUT’s curriculum design as well as digital transformation. My role is grounded in supporting academics and students, framed in the focus areas of curriculum and technology support. Essentially, my role is dedicated to developing the success of the QUT teaching and learning communities.
Which project are you proudest of from your time at QUT?
I am proud of the digital transformation in learning and teaching that we are facilitating. We have developed a digital learning framework, working closely with students and academics. This digital learning framework will help inform what our QUT education experience will look like in the future.
What part of QUT’s Digital Future are you most looking forward to providing to students?
I believe that QUT is transforming its learning experience for a digital world. Our transformation has to be world-class, and I would envision that QUT will be a university that will continue to be acknowledged for an excellent learning experience in the digital age.
It’s hard to find a copy of the Digital Learning Framework, which is understandable as it’s a staff document. However, I obtained a copy and essentially, it is a criteria sheet-style document aimed at staff to assist with the design of their learning experience. The framework includes 18 guidelines, an explainer of why they matter, and a delivery checklist, some items being essential and some being recommended. These include things like ensuring accessibility of resources, creating a value-add online environment, and employing the concept of authentic assessment. The Digital Learning Framework ties in with the Digital Transformation outlined in QUT’s Blueprint 6, which is a series of priorities that QUT is focussing on for their future.
Your portfolio was massively important last year, supporting QUT’s mass exodus of on-campus learning due to COVID-19. Which aspects were most challenging and complicated, and which brought the most rewards?
There was the challenge of shifting a predominantly campus-based university to an online experience. And with it came a number of challenges like, how do you enable students to learn in an online space when physical spaces have been established as the standard? That said, I don’t think that we are operating in a ‘new normal’ and many of the challenges that we’ve faced in supporting our students preceded COVID-19. Many students have been challenged with attending campus, and for a number of reasons whether they relate to the need to work or to support others etc. I think that the experiences of the past eighteen months have forced many universities, including QUT, to look at who and where our students are and to ensure that we are maximising their ability to access their learning experience both on and off-campus.
Which aspects of online teaching enhance learning for students from your perspective?
One of the greatest advantages of online learning is that it can enable students to have access to their learning at the times and places that best suit them. COVID-19 showed us that students and staff still value the opportunity to collaborate and communicate with one another. This means that we need to provide the same opportunities for this collaboration in the virtual spaces that we do on our magnificent physical campuses.
One of the largest criticisms I have seen from the digital age of learning is that online delivery modes enable cheating and academic misconduct. Do you think this is an accurate critique, or a critique of teaching tactics not being optimised for digital learning?
I believe that whether online or on campus, better assessment design can and should be the way in which we seek to minimise breaches of academic integrity. I believe that in my role I need to work closely with our academic teachers to support the design of assessments that are more personalised and engaging, so students are less inclined to cheat…
Whenever I pose a question to Kevin, he is thoughtful and intentional with his answer. I can see it’s quite the task for him to encapsulate decades of research and experiences into a few sentences. When I responded to his answers with my experience from my time at QUT, he listens, and I can see he’s actually invested in what I’m saying, rather than waiting to speak. We turned to his research after this, and how he implements that in his unit’s approach to strategy.
A lot of your personal focus regarding academic misconduct is focused on the concept of ‘authentic assessment and learning. Do you think authentic assessment and learning is the future of QUT curriculum development?
Authentic assessment is important, but it is not one tangible entity, it’s a theoretical framework. Authentic assessment means replicating realistic working experiences and bridging the gap between study and employment. This expectation for learning and assessment is explained further in the QUT Real World Learning 2020 Vision, which outlines the aspirations of the university. We’re already implementing these strategies, and many teaching staff are as well, but we’re increasing education on these frameworks to our lecturers and tutors so that they can understand authentic learning and assessment and employ it themselves. It can’t be a bolt-on, or a band-aid solution, so we have to educate as much about the benefits of this approach as possible.
The QUT Real World Learning 2020 Vision can be accessed here.
Digital learning for you holds a focus of ‘access,’ providing flexibility and opportunity in new ways for students. Do you believe ‘access’ is being held at the forefront of QUT’s digital L&T strategy?
There are two phrases that frame our approach, and they are ‘student access’ and ‘student engagement.
Our strategy is to engage through using technologies that increase the student’s ability to access their learning experience.
Ultimately, it’s important to understand that learning in a digital age is not necessarily a matter of just technology. It is much more about understanding the ways in which students can be best enabled and supported to learn and then thinking about how the technologies can be used to facilitate that experience and support their learning journey.
At the end of our conversation, I thanked him for his time, and he thanked me for mine. Quite often, university upper-executives are a mystifying thing to students. We don’t often hear or see them until they’re handing us our parchment and sending us on our way. I felt valued after our conversation, that my questions and suggestions mattered. No matter where you sit on the aisle regarding university executives and their role in our student experience, there is no denying that there’s something good about them joining the table and answering the questions we ask.