Updated: Aug 22
In early May 2020, Advanced Higher Education sent out a call for academics to participate in 'external examiner training' which is certificated as continued professional development. For me, it was astounding that within forty-five minutes of sending the initial call for participants the workshop sessions had all been filled, and a second email was issued advising that interested participants were now being wait-listed. This surge of interest was intriguing as it seemed to either suggest that academics in HE were quite eager for CPD opportunities, or that any training regarding the process and diligences of 'external examining' had much to be desired. I considered myself fortunate to make the cut and found the five-units of training spread over four-weeks of participation to be informative, though not quite what I had initially expected. If anything, the experience of completing this module helped me become more confident about academic literacy regarding higher education standards, policies, procedures, and institutional culture. As an Early Career Researcher (ECR) who might have limited or no experience of being an external examiner, this certification is an excellent start.
What does the course offer?
At first, I assumed this module would be more procedural on academic standards, conventions, and the role of the external examiner - though this was not the case. While the module was inclusive of these issues in discussions and activities, the primary focus seemed to be more on deliberating the thought-processes which underlie the practices that make the role and duties of an external examiner one that is negotiable and ever-changing. The course sets out to make one more academically literate on standards and procedures, particularly focusing on the ethics and conduct of what could be deemed favourable standardised practice.
The module seemed to recruit academics across the UK who had various years of experience and expertise being seasoned external examiners, yet these colleagues presented an eagerness to engage with others and a strong desire to understand and learn more from the course content. Finally, I seemed to understand why recruitment for this course was so high, and this was due to the fact that academics across the sector feel the need to discuss quality assurance practices more openly in order to understand how much they should be evolving, adapting and reflecting on their professional practice. In other words, how do you know for certain that you are doing a fair and balanced job as an external examiner?
The units (outlined below) are an overview of the general areas for discussion and within each of these sessions, there was instructional guidance on practice, a variety of activities to reflect on, interactive sections to engage with others in the module and a reflective summary at the end of each unit. Participants were allowed to work through the sessions at their own pace with targeted online webinars scheduled to have sixty-minute 'live' discursive catchups with the module convenors Andy Lloyd and Pete Boyd, who were encouraging and supportive with their comments.
Why should an ECR sign up?
Post-PhD there are few and sometimes far opportunities for dedicated CPD, which are usually offered and at times encouraged by the HE institution of one's employment, hence this varies from one university to another. With academic workloads (research & teaching), there are also limited timeframes where one can etch out a suitable timeframe to sign up for the training of this nature without understanding the full benefit for undertaking the task. Firstly, successful completion of the course will get you listed as an official external examiner and you will be certified (one more credential to the CV). If anything the standardisation of practices and training of academics in the UK is a trend on the rise, in my opinion, it might only be a matter of time before this form of training becomes more of a necessity than a desire.
Setting aside the paperwork, this training offers ECRs a better understanding of QA procedures in HE. Even if one does not immediately take on a role as an external examiner, the assessment jargon is certainly helpful for understanding curriculum design, peer-review processes, interpretation of marking criteria, and moderation approaches, which are relevant for creating modules for QA approval to be externally examined by someone else. The only criticism might be that networking activities were few because the groups were quite large, and to be fair the course was undertaken during the Covid-19 lockdown and the busy marking season. On a final summative note, the training boosts one's confidence to approach external examining without the fears of being too uninformed about practices and procedures; there are no black and white steadfast rules, as all EE roles are down to negotiation, and this renews confidence that one can learn and improve on the job.
Public Engagement: Advance HE republished this blog post as part of their News + Events media profile on 17 August, 2020.