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In conversation with Dr Nicole Crawford

Earlier in 2020, we were fortunate to welcome Dr Nicole Crawford to the NCSEHE as Senior Research Fellow.

Prior to this appointment, Nicole was a NCSEHE 2019/20 Equity Fellow and Lecturer in Pre-degree Programs at the University of Tasmania (UTAS). Her research focuses on equity and inclusion in higher education, including enabling education; mature-aged students; regional and remote students; and student and staff mental wellbeing. Nicole initiated UTAS’s Social Inclusion Community of Practice, and the National Association of Enabling Educators of Australia (NAEEA) Special Interest Group on Mental Health.

This month, we asked Nicole to share some insights into her background, her ongoing research and her visions for the future.

NCSEHE: Could you tell us a little about your background and what led you to become such a passionate advocate for student equity?

NC: I grew up in a regional town in Western Australia. University wasn’t a typical pathway at my high school and, as a result, I didn’t know a soul when I started uni in Perth. I lived in a residential college for two years (thank goodness!), and I made lovely friends from all over WA, who were in different courses and different years. I found meeting all these new people fascinating, due to their different backgrounds and interests. I’ve had a range of jobs and I travelled quite a lot as a young adult — perhaps some of those experiences led to my interest in equity. In many ways, I’ve just fallen into it, but there’s always a history of coalescing factors, isn’t there? For instance, I was aware of racism and sexism as a youngster in my country town, and I had a strong sense of social justice from quite a young age. I became aware of class when I moved to the big city, and also when I worked in shearing teams on stations during uni holidays. I was aware of hierarchies and inequalities between neighbouring countries when I taught in the Czech Republic. At uni, studying an arts degree blew my mind and opened up another world of learning, thinking and questioning, and that’s due to magnificent professors who left us with more questions than answers at the end of lectures. And, in the history units, for example, they inspired a desire to learn more about whose voices were invisible in the historical texts and to read between the lines.

NCSEHE: You worked at the University of Tasmania in Pre-degree Programs for almost 10 years. Can you share some of those experiences and how they’ve influenced you and your approach to student equity research?

NC: I’ve loved working in enabling education. It’s been challenging, intense and an emotional rollercoaster at times. I think it’s the diversity of students’ circumstances, their prior educational experiences and different starting points that make it so interesting and challenging. It’s also incredibly rewarding as you witness students (who would otherwise not get into uni) develop the necessary academic skills and literacies, and confidence to go on to an undergraduate course, and often, in the process, change the circumstances of their families and even their communities. These programs have the potential to really make a difference in people’s lives.

Working in enabling education has directly influenced my research. In fact, my research has evolved alongside my teaching and the specific challenges that have arisen over the years, such as students experiencing mental ill-health or stress or challenges associated with students learning differently. I was a teaching intensive academic (unit coordinator, lecturer, tutor) and I also had a student support role, so I had an overview of the students’ progress and challenges. We aimed to be proactive in implementing holistic and student-centred, wrap-around support, and I’ve endeavoured to link each new or ongoing challenge with research. In doing so, I’ve collaborated with colleagues across the country in enabling education who have had similar research interests.

NCSEHE: You recently completed a NCSEHE Equity Fellowship project on supporting the mental wellbeing of mature-aged students in regional and remote Australia. What drew you to that particular topic?

NC: My topic is really the intersection of three areas I’m very interested in: i) student mental health and wellbeing; ii) students in (and from) regional and remote areas; and iii) mature-aged students. Significant issues underpin the topic. Student mental health and wellbeing is increasingly a concern of universities in Australia and overseas. Regional and remote students are in the national spotlight in Australia; mature-aged students are often overlooked, but are an important sub-group within the regional and remote cohort. The Fellowship research has been an opportunity to explore their experiences and issues, and to make recommendations for positive change.

NCSEHE: Engagement with your research was phenomenal, with over 2,000 students participating in the survey alone. Why do you think this cohort felt so strongly about contributing to this research? 

NC: The response to the research was beyond my expectations, especially the fact that 760 of the survey respondents indicated their interest in being interviewed. I think that says a lot in itself! Many felt invisible and wanted to have a say. At the end of each interview, I felt both the seriousness and hope with which the participants engaged in the research and their desire to really make a difference for future students by sharing their experiences. They had a lot to share and wanted to tell their stories — the good and the bad; the empowering and the disempowering. I do feel quite a responsibility to get their voices heard and for the research to make a difference.

NCSEHE: The final report will be published in the coming months — what do you see as being the impacts of this research?

NC: I hope the research results in improved outcomes for students (e.g. a better quality experience), for universities and government (e.g. improved retention and completion rates for regional and remote students), with positive outcomes for regional and remote communities, as mature-aged students often remain in their communities.

I hope that the findings and suggested proactive approaches/recommendations will help academic and professional staff, as well as management, to gain more of an understanding of who our students are and the diversity of their circumstances, strengths and needs, and thus to shift some of our attitudes and expectations around what it means to be a student. We need to make the shifts in policies too and embed the strategies, so we’re not leaving them to chance.

We need to keep broadening our understandings and challenge entrenched and unconscious practices in institutions that privilege some students over others. The more we realise and embrace the diversity within our student cohorts, and teach for diversity, the more inclusive we’ll be and the more of a level playing field we’ll provide. Understanding the students’ circumstances—such as juggling work and family with uni, as well as distance from their campus—can lead to improved course design, more relevant course content, and flexibility around assessment tasks and deadlines. Understanding the circumstances of a FIFO worker, for instance, would result in providing flexibility around assessment deadlines, while understanding the circumstances of a student seeking an extension because they were fighting bushfires would result in granting a much-needed extension. These are two examples from the research in which students did not experience flexibility or receive extensions; with knowledge of their circumstances, their experiences could have been quite different; such issues are easily solved.

I hope the findings and recommendations will provide staff with practical ideas for implementing what are often very small strategies and changes in the teaching and learning, and support contexts, which can make a big difference to students’ daily experiences and mental wellbeing. As I mentioned in a recent piece from the research, the impact of staff on student mental wellbeing is enormous — it’s the small (human) actions that really count. Small changes implemented by individuals can achieve large impacts, but there are lessons for all levels where improvements can be made.

NCSEHE: With the mass shift to online learning during COVID-19, your insights into supporting students studying remotely have been particularly relevant. Do you think the online landscape for regional and remote students will look any different in light of our learnings across the sector during this time?

NC: Yes, I think so! I think the experiences and challenges that staff (academic and professional) have had/are having this year with working from home—such as having unreliable internet and/or tech issues, as well as juggling family life—have provided us all with insights into the lives of students for whom these experiences are pretty “normal”. I think having these experiences gives us more understanding and empathy — we’ve really been in their shoes!

Post-COVID-19, I hope there will be more flexibility for students who live far from a campus: for example, having the option of attending a tutorial online via video conference instead of driving 100 kms for a 50-minute tutorial. We know now that such practical challenges can easily be solved because we’ve been offering alternatives for most of the year. Some of the recommendations in my report, such as online provision of student services, would have seemed difficult or inconceivable pre-COVID-19. A positive from COVID-19 is that the quick pivot has shown what is possible. The conditions have been put in place; now we need to keep them and continue to improve them.

NCSEHE: In July 2020, you took on a new role with the NCSEHE as Senior Research Fellow. What have been your experiences so far, and what new opportunities do you think this position will offer?

NC: Well, I’m excited to be working at the NCSEHE and to be undertaking research on student equity. I’ve been disseminating the Fellowship outcomes in presentations and working on publications. It’s been great to share my findings with different audiences, such as with colleagues interested in student mental health and wellbeing; colleagues interested in teaching and learning; and with colleagues interested in student equity. From the one project, there are a lot of spinoffs and different foci. At present, my work is resonating with different audiences in different contexts and the messages—in particular, the positive ways of enhancing students’ mental wellbeing—have been welcomed. I’m keen to make sure the outcomes of my research are practical and can be implemented institution-wide to improve student equity and provide “the best chance for all”.

Nicole’s final Equity Fellowship report will be published in coming months. Nicole will present key findings from the research at the NCSEHE Student Equity Snapshots Forum later this month.

Posted 6 October 2020 Posted in Editorial, General, NCSEHE Equity Fellows