The Need To Investigate Complex Trajectories

By Helena Troiano Gomà (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)

A Special Issue of the International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education entitled “In person, hybrid and online higher education: supporting students’ complex trajectories” is currently underway and is aimed at understanding the complex trajectories of
students in higher education. In particular, the focus is on the techniques available to analyse and describe them, ways of providing support, the results obtained by the students who follow them, and ways of measuring their diversity.

In this context, we consider a trajectory to be complex when it follows a different path and pace from that stipulated by the institution. Thus, among other possible routes, there are trajectories of delay, stop-out and change. The change can be of degree, of discipline, of higher education institution, or, particularly relevant to this journal, of modality (i.e., from face-to-face to hybrid or online education, or vice versa).

Why focus on the trajectory?

Higher education policies around the world have for some time been aimed at widening access, especially for students who would not have gone to university for reasons of social status, economic resources, functional diversity, age, etc.; such policies have often proposed forms of second chance access for this population. Contributing to this aim, distance universities have played a very relevant role because they have brought together many students who are underrepresented in other types of universities.

These access policies have been widely addressed, and indeed, to some extent, the socio-demographic profiles of students entering university have diversified. Nevertheless, the university is a complex medium and it is difficult to navigate and progress through its courses, especially for students who do not fit the traditional student profile. For non-traditional students, often the functioning of the university does not adjust to their needs, they do not have relatives who know the institution, and they are confronted with the academic and administrative complexity in solitude, especially when their performance is not very good. In spite of this, beyond the abandonment, there has been little attention paid to the progress of the students after their access to the university.

Obviously, there are some remarkable exceptions at different levels:

Why do we need a change of perspective?

In the limited attention that the university world pays to this issue of progression within the university studies, the perspective that prevails is that of the institutional evaluation. As a result, as Tinto points out the perspective is institutional, not from the student’s point of view; it focuses on the parameters of efficiency, not equity. This is probably because the quality agencies have incorporated into their protocols for assessing an institution, indicators on how many of the students who enrol at the start of a degree programme end up completing it. Thus, the conceptualization is made from the point of view of the institution and not from the point of view of the student. This has led the institutions to adopt student retention policies, i.e. measures to prevent students from dropping out or transferring to another institution.

From this perspective, the trajectory of the “perfect” student is the one that begins and ends in the same degree programme and the same institution. In fact, it is the one mostly followed by on-site students and, indeed, it is the one that entails less risk, in the sense that it leads towards higher final completion results and fewer dropouts. But the fact is that this is not the only trajectory that students follow at university, because the student enters a life process that is not predetermined. It is possible that they find that their performance is not what they expected, or that what they are doing in their degree does not match their previous expectations, or perhaps they find another path that they are more passionate about, or that there are unpredictable circumstances that happen to them and threaten the continuation of their studies.

Moreover, not all countries have such a majority of this linear trajectory, among other things because the institutional norms are different from country to country, but also because in different countries the transition to adulthood and the passage of young people through university is conceived in a different way.

A further step in the change of perspective

Up to this point, international evidence shows that linear trajectories (which begin, continue without interruption, and end in the same degree as they began, as the institution foresees) are not the only possible trajectories and it is increasingly common to find students who follow complex trajectories. Yet the existence of these complex trajectories can even be viewed positively, because they can be understood as the consequence of a greater availability of opportunities, as they can be alternative paths that prevent students from dropping out of their studies.

Looking at it in this light, it might be necessary to propose policies that could encourage, not the retention of students in the institution itself, but the persistence of students in their higher education studies. Policies that may encourage the complexity of the trajectories followed, but that would help students to navigate them and to be able to progress and complete some studies. Measures of flexibility, accompaniment, support for returning or changing studies, etc., that would really help students to succeed.

Knowing about programmes to support this kind of trajectories, but also knowing what these trajectories are like, how many students follow them, the profile of the students who most frequently do them, the results obtained, etc., is essential to be able to implement this kind of support and accompanying policies. It is for this reason that it is necessary to strengthen research in this area and this is what this Special Issue aims to promote.

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