You may have seen on Campusweb the announcement of the introduction, in 2019/20, of discussion boards within modules in Minerva to provide in-course feedback – you can find the announcement here: https://www.leeds.ac.uk/forstaff/news/article/6714/student_voice_enhancing_learning_and_teaching
It’s particularly important to emphasise that this initiative is about the provision of feedback as to the running of the course and the student experience, not for questions about module content (which I know many of us already use Minerva discussion boards for, sometimes making good use of anonymity).
UCU was not consulted on this. We have a number of concerns which we have raised with University management.
1. Understanding how a module is going from a student point of view is crucial. There are many ways of doing this, and colleagues around the university will have their own methods, from mid-module feedback forms, to focus groups, to in-class methods, to discussion boards (anonymous and otherwise). The appropriate mechanism will vary from discipline to discipline and according to class size and learning approach, and is a core issue of pedagogy, not an administrative add-on. We understand that this discussion board method has been piloted but we have not been told anything about how and where that pilot was carried out, and what the outcome was. We are extremely disappointed that more consultation has not been carried out amongst teaching staff to identify the good practice which we know is already in existence around the university. We are professionals, with much expertise and experience in these matters, and deserve better than having our pedagogies dictated to us.
2. The vast majority of our students, we know, would engage with this process, if they did so at all, in a constructive and respectful way. However, we all have experience of that very small minority of responses to anonymous feedback exercises which are non-constructive, hostile and abusive, ranging from critical comments about someone’s accent, dress sense or behaviour through to comments which are clearly sexist, racist and homophobic. These comments are often about staff, but can also be about students. We also have experience of comments that are simply criticisms of the module content, particularly when we teach through perspectives such as feminist, race, queer or social justice. We believe that requiring staff, particularly staff with protected characteristics and those who are casualised and thus more vulnerable, to read such comments and engage with them (even when engagement is limited to removing the comments and reporting them for further investigation) creates a hostile or humiliating work environment which our employer, the University, has a legal obligation to prevent. We note in particular that, unlike anonymous module evaluation forms, these comments would be visible to all students and staff on the module, until they could be removed. We also worry about the impact that such comments might have on junior and casualised staff, both in terms of their mental health and in terms of their future employment prospects, and about the impact of comments aimed at particular groups of students on those students and others.
3. Dealing with this discussion board, and responding within 5 working days (and it is not clear whether this includes university vacation time, staff leave, or time when staff are away on research or University business) creates workload, particularly given the importance of identifying and removing inappropriate or abusive comments. The faculty taught student education committee paper tells us this should be an additional method of feedback and thus additional workload. We would like to know how this is justified and, in particular, what we should stop doing in order to make time for this.
4. In particular, the faculty taught student education committee paper states that students should be told that “the discussion board should only be used when other mechanisms to provide feedback on the student experience have been impossible.” We would like to understand more clearly what sorts of circumstances this envisages- when is it considered that other mechanisms would become impossible? We would also like to understand what the role of management would be in responding to these comments, and would particularly need a clear reassurance that they could under no circumstances be used as a foundation for disciplinary action.
We understand that this is to be discussed in faculty taught student education committees next week and are asking all members who are members of faculty taught student education committees to raise these concerns. We will continue, with your support, to lobby the University to drop this damaging idea. Your feedback and comments would be really helpful in supporting us to demonstrate the huge problems with this approach, and the harm that we think it could cause to staff, students and staff-student relations.