The HEAR Project: a launch without fanfare

Why soft launch a product or service? It could be part of its development, allowing the designer to gather feedback and fine-tune any problems. This may avert the negative press that comes with an error-strewn first encounter. However, the flip-side is that some will assume that there is a lack of confidence in aspects of the product. You might say there were overtones of this in Sony’s softly softly approach to the Playstation 4 and the media’s subsequent reaction: great controller but where’s the console?

The Higher Education Achievement Report or ‘HEAR’ was soft launched in September 2012. The HEAR is a formal record of student achievement provided by Higher Education Institutions. When it comes to an education or information tool, do the marketing rules remain the same? The project lacked a formal mandate and has relied instead on the enthusiasm of Vice-Chancellors to sign their Universities up to the trial, run in two ‘waves’ in an attempt to foster a sense of ownership in the early adopters, and to allow time for systems development and discussion with employer groups.

At the publication of the Government-commissioned Burgess Group report (pdf link)  in October 2007, the HEAR was seen as an enhanced student transcript, a way of providing better information to contextualise the degree result. It has since responded to the Government’s White Paper on Higher Education (pdf link) by making a case for providing students with a better deal; the HEAR as an enhancement tool for identifying and driving the development of ‘employability’ skills. This has turned the HEAR from a summative static document into a formative learning support tool.

The investment required in the project at an institution level can be measured in terms of the following areas:

  • Staff and student engagement, i.e. the promotion and development of the project, usually in partnership with the Students’ Union, and in particular the development of the ‘additional information’ section, discussed in more detail below;
  • IT systems, for example an online student portal, essential for any formative learning tool;
  • Support for personal tutoring and Career development activities as an ancillary consequence;
  • And, perhaps most significantly in terms of the structural changes required, Student record systems for central data storage and HEAR production.

Whether this investment is worthwhile depends on the practical use of HEARs by employers, and it is far from clear how many employers, and in which sectors, will use HEARs in their recruitment processes. The implementation group have seemingly acknowledged the unlikelihood that HEARs will replace existing recruitment methods, albeit with some reported use of outsourced recruitment tools, by describing its purpose partly as an aide memoire for students when filling-in job applications. The formative learning tool aspect is an astute repackaging for the full fee-paying generation and is perhaps now the most interesting aspect of the project, realigning its purpose away from the straightforward transcript envisaged at its conception to a developmental tool alongside – or eventually replacing? – Personal Development Planning (PDP).

It is in the additional information section, labelled 6.1, that a range of extra or co-curricular achievement can be captured, providing a more rounded picture of student achievement. It can only be a benefit to students to provide this information in a clear and summarised form. There remain doubts as to whether in certain sectors, such as the performing arts, the document would have any practical use: you couldn’t imagine bringing it along to an audition for an orchestra, for example. But the potential for enhancing student information is clear.

However, the opportunity for section 6.1 to become an all-encompassing record is tempered by the need for the achievement to be available verified and accessible to all students. The latest statement from the Steering Group on the former requirement is that activities can also be verified by ‘trusted third parties’, which would expand the potential range of achievements to include placement and volunteering activities in many cases.

A factor in the project’s development has been the Steering Group’s response to feedback from stakeholders. The flexibility afforded to Universities in what may be included in section 6.1 jars with the stipulation that a provided template must be used to allow comparability for employers, and there have been a wide variety of approaches. For example, named employability awards at the University of Gloucestershire state the name of the award on the HEAR with the detail of the achievement held elsewhere (Link to insight.glos.ac.uk pdf), whereas at the University of Sheffield there is an almost bewilderingly wide-ranging list of potential items (Link to shef.ac.uk/hear/section-6-1) which may at least ensure that all students have something listed.

The soft launch approach, understandable given the absence of a mandate from central government (compare with the Key Information Sets), may ultimately prove the project’s undoing. The Steering Group must sometimes feel that they’re trying to drive the project forward with wheel clamps secured on all four tyres. Whilst questions remain about its use by employers and public awareness is largely negligible at the present time, it may remain a niche project championed only within the HE sector. That would be a shame as the notion of improving the study record provided to students by their Universities is an honorable one.

Further details about the Higher Education Achievement Report can be found via this link: hear.ac.uk/about

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