This article introduces a new author to ACM Inroads and begins a new chapter in Moray College, The University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI)'s contribution. We have a new heading for our opinions column—Convergent Pathways in Tertiary Education. The theme of this new title—that of inclusivity and the different pathways on which students arrive in computer science at Moray College—is expanded on in this first opinion piece.
Having just returned from attending the Moray College UHI 2016 graduation awards ceremony we are pleased to report that we had very few students graduating from Computing this year. Why pleased? Well, because most of last year's cohort have stayed with us into the new session! We have the privileged status of being comprised of Further Education colleges, Moray College being one, and a University combined and for our students that presents an opportunity that may be difficult to find anywhere else in the world. Students can graduate with a qualification at the end of each of the four years of their prospective studies. Our qualification structure allows students to graduate with a Higher National Certificate (HNC) in Computing in year 1, a Higher National Diploma (HND) in Computer Science in year 2, in year 3 a Batchelor of Science in Computing and finally in year 4, a Batchelor of Science Honours Degree in Computing (levels 7–10). Students graduating with these distinct qualifications can either continue studying with us, go into employment, or move to another university perhaps to pursue a different pathway. This yearly graduation ceremony at Moray College UHI is unique. We can be celebrating a first-year student graduating with an HNC in Computing with the intention to continue studying elsewhere and at the same time be celebrating a fourth-year student graduating with their honours degree.
This article introduces Graham Wilson, a computing lecturer at Moray College UHI, new to writing with ACM Inroads, and two Moray College UHI students each with his own story to tell about graduation. At the post-graduation gathering afterwards Graham spoke with these two students who had graduated this year. These are their stories as told to Graham.
Two of the students I chatted with highlighted the unique opportunities available at Moray College UHI. Both started in one of our entry-level further education courses. Although by their own admission neither excelled in secondary education, they gambled on a return to education—one has just graduated with a BSc in Computing and the other a BSc (Hons) in Computing. The latter tells me that he was advised not to take Computing at school but he did so anyway and now the local authority employs him, designing front-end apps for management. Like graduates everywhere, ours are clearly proud of their achievements and rightly so. For many, an educational false-start means that they must work extremely hard to achieve academic success. I wouldn't claim that we, their lecturers, have worked miracles, but maybe we have helped inspire them to turn the seemingly impossible into reality.
I (Graham) asked both students about their experiences at Moray College UHI and they were very candid; they enjoyed it and claim to be very different people from when they started. They were uncertain at first, taking it day-by-day, but now they are confident and still enjoying learning on their own terms. The cumulative achievements of passing units and course levels and overcoming personal obstacles have helped them to shape their identity.
To get a record of these valuable post-graduation perspectives, I asked Jim (happy to be named), a non-traditional age student, if he will do a short interview with me; he happily agreed. He initially came to college to learn how to make a website for his novels, of which he has written dozens and is self-published with a growing fan base. Jim had 2 O' Grades from school, but had been out of education for a long time (25 years) and his initial feelings were of being out-of-place, alienated, and "older than all of the lecturers." After passing a further education entry level course, Jim set his sights on going as far as he could, then he encountered serious difficulties at HND level. At that point he visited a counsellor, was diagnosed with learning disabilities, and officially registered as disabled. After coming to terms with the nature of his disability and learning to appreciate his own strengths, Jim found that he could work around his problems .
Jim reported that once the support structure for those with disabilities swung into action:
With the help of the lecturers and staff of the college, I was able to push myself much further than I would have been able too otherwise. The biggest difference was actually realising that I had strengths that I could utilise as well. Without that knowledge, I would never have passed my HND year.
I asked Jim if college has changed him, to which he gave a remarkably honest and heartening response:
On a personal level, the changes have been very dramatic. To begin with, I was very unsure of myself in the learning environment. The bad experiences I had at school were never far from my mind. I was probably quite brash, always on the defensive, maybe even offensive at times. Now I am far more confident, more patient, more willing to listen. To that end, I feel that I have grown substantially on many different levels.
Clearly, Jim had reservations about the education system before coming to college and I wondered if his experience at Moray College UHI has changed his opinion:
You are talking about an entirely different era here. There is simply no comparison to the hell I went through at school, to the wonderful experience I had at college.
Jim reports that … "With the help of the lecturers and staff of the college, I was able to push myself much further than I would have been able too otherwise. The biggest difference was actually realising that I had strengths that I could utilise as well."
One week later I talked to Grant (also happy to be named), who, though he was not at the graduation ceremony, had just gained a BSc in Computing. Grant also came to Moray College UHI as a non-traditional age student entering a further education level computing course, possessing an SVQ in painting and decorating. He had only intended to stay for one year while trying to find a job. Initially he was very uncertain but then he started enjoying the classwork. Grant recalled that:
Learning how to become a student again was quite difficult as I hadn't been in education for nearly 10 years and I wasn't the best pupil at school, so going from that to actually studying was a big step.
Grant admitted that he found learning, "particularly programming," difficult at times, but he could seek out support when it was required:
The lecturing staff were really good at helping and would sit with me and go through specific problems until I understood it. Other students were also really good helping with problems as well.
A lack of employment opportunities was a motivating factor for Grant and he believes that a persevering attitude helped him carry on when things just weren't going his way:
The fact that I was being turned down for jobs as I had no qualifications, I knew I had to work hard to get what I wanted. I feel quite proud to have managed to get my degree having planned to drop out at the end of every year I was here. I think I am a lot more responsible now than when I started. My parents are really proud of me for getting the degree as they can see the difference in me from what I was like before.
Despite similar educational pathways, Grant and Jim have very different perspectives regarding their educational experiences at Moray College UHI. For Jim, college has clearly had a profound impact upon him personally. Grant appears to have perceived the experience as necessary from an employability perspective, delineated by the potential rewards success could bring. Grant states:
I still feel that apprentice schemes are the way every person should go for most jobs. Learning on the job is the only way people really learn something.
It appears that Grant, considerably younger, has maintained a career-focussed, outward-looking perspective , while Jim has experienced college at a deeper, introspective level . Although both have ultimately achieved the same qualification, they reflect on it quite differently; Grant still perceives education as a necessary step on the road to employment, and has consistently held that opinion, while Jim who had no clear goal initially, appears to have undergone a fundamental personal transformation.
Although we offer a non-traditional route to higher-level qualifications (despite having university status), we may proudly consider ourselves a university of second chances. Our student entrants at further education levels come from a mix of backgrounds; HNC students can enter Moray College UHI with a minimum of one higher qualification at grade C, whereas mainstream universities are looking for a minimum of four Highers at grades AABB. We cater for many students with complicated and difficult circumstances (social deprivation, broken homes, etc.)  and although some have the necessary qualifications to gain entry to the top universities, they choose to come to us instead; often to our surprise, we discover them extremely competent, skilled, and conscientious. Our students encompass a broad spectrum of ability, unlikely to have any comparable equivalent at any other higher education institution.
With highly qualified students entering directly from school, mature students returning to education, and students working their way up through further education levels, our first year HNC classes can comprise a real mixture of age, experience, and ability.
In recent years, our student numbers have swelled with a growing number of well qualified school leavers, who come to us for their HNC year, using it as a springboard to get into what would have been their first-choice University. Often, they are still quite young or lacking in confidence and not quite ready to move away from home . Increasingly these students remain with us, perhaps because they make a network of friends or find the environment (small class sizes, etc.) comfortable and welcoming, while potentially avoiding being burdened with a student loan through being able to study at a university in their local area.
As lecturers at Moray College UHI, we need to develop different skills from traditional university lecturers (greater focus on social awareness, behavioural and classroom management), particularly in terms of HN courses. With highly qualified students entering directly from school, mature students returning to education, and students working their way up through further education levels, our first year HNC classes can comprise a real mixture of age, experience, and ability. We have become accustomed to such diverse cohorts and as demonstrated by Jim and Grant, the entry route does not have to be a bar to achievement. While we must by necessity be a great deal more supportive than traditional university lecturers, we still encourage independent learning and thinking. There are many pathways into and through further and higher education and while a qualification should not always be the ultimate measure of success, we believe that, no matter what has gone before—everybody deserves a second chance.
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4. ORA Prep. 8 Common Fears about University-and Why You Should Stop Worrying. (2014); http://www.oraprep.com/common-fears-university-worry/. Accessed 2016 November 30.
5. Tinklin, T., Riddell, S. and Wilson, A. Support for students with mental health difficulties in higher education: the students' perspective. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 33, 4 (2005), 495–512; http://www.ces.ed.ac.uk/PDF%20Files/TT_0419.pdf. Accessed 2016 November 30
Gillian M. Bain
Department of Computing
University of the Highlands and Islands
Moray Street, Elgin IV30 1JJ
Moray College UHI
Moray IV30 1JJ Graham.WilsonMoray@uhi.ac.uk
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