The Student Experience Project

Project Leaders: Annette Cashmore and Jon Scott.

The Student Experience Project is an innovative, long-term research project involving undergraduate students and video cameras. Twenty students from the School of Biological Sciences were recruited to the project at the beginning of the 2007-08 academic year. The students will use the cameras for the duration of their life at University and it is hoped, beyond. The video diary data is being complemented by the involvement of the same students in focus groups. More students were recruited to the project at the beginning of the 2008-09 academic year. 
students looking at a laptop computerThe overall aim of the project is to gain a more fluid and open understanding of the student experience than tends to be achieved through the use of questionnaires, surveys or even interviews. Through this, it is hoped that a more nuanced understanding of issues that are central to students’ lives may feed into and enrich the experiences and concerns of future students within the Department of Genetics, the School of Biological Sciences and the University as a whole.
The innovation of the project lies in its long-term utility of the ethnographic research method. This method was pioneered by the Polish social anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski during the early 20th century. Malinowski inspired social anthropologists in particular to believe that good quality research could only be achieved by spending a significant time with people ‘in the field.’ Ethnography is increasingly being used by social scientists and other professionals in educational settings and institutions. As was evident at a recent ‘After Ethnography’ workshop organised by the Department of Education at the University of Oxford, however, there are concerns that the quality of this research is being compromised by time and funding constraints. This use of ‘drive-by ethnography’ is increasingly being utilised in industry.  
students on campusThe Student Experience Project retains the principles of Malinowski’s believe in and benefits of conducting research with people over a significant period of time. The longitudinal emphasis of the project, for example, provides a basis to understand how students make sense of and adapt to the various social and academic transitions in their University life and ongoing lives as young adults. The use of video cameras facilitates unique insights into the ‘whole student experience,’ the blurred and yet distinct boundaries of the personal, familial, social and academic world that are embodied and transgressed by students on an ongoing, daily basis. The research has thus far provided initial insights into the ‘first-year experience’ of students and the ways in which they make sense of the transition from ‘home’ to University life, the first to second semester and a college to higher education learning and teaching environment. Some of these findings were presented at the ‘1st Southern African Conference on the First-Year Experience’ in Stellenbosch, South Africa, in September 2008.
An article was published in the Guardian Newspaper, in January 2010 about this project.

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