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A picture tells a thousand stories

Raymond Ross finds out how one college has helped its vulnerable entrants overcome the barriers of being a new student

A photograph of a college entrance or a classroom door can mean different things to different students. To the confident, it may be a door of opportunity or the threshold to success. To the vulnerable student, it may represent a barrier or the fear of failure and exclusion.

A recent Photovoice pilot, initiated at Adam Smith College in Kirkcaldy, armed students who were at risk of withdrawing from their courses with cameras. They were asked to take photographs to illustrate what college life was like for them. Many of the photographs taken were of gates, entrances, buildings, doors and corridors which engendered a sense of fear among the new learners, a mixture of school leavers, adult returners and students with additional learning or physical needs.

The project (also piloted at Cardonald College, Glasgow, and Reid Kerr College, Paisley) found that those students' initial perceptions were influenced by their fears, which impacted on their susceptibility even to minor setbacks; and their fears stemmed from being in unfamiliar surroundings and facing a lot of changes as a result of their decision to study at college.

The aim of the project, which received a Scotland's Colleges award for promoting equality and diversity, was to gain insightful information from potentially marginalised students, not the usual class representatives or respondents to questionnaires, surveys or focus groups.

The intention is to use the information to make its environment more user-friendly, so improving learning and teaching and boosting student retention. "You don't embark on a project like this unless the decision-makers in the college agree to act on the findings, and you have to have class tutors who are committed and willing to integrate it with their course," says Anne Gillen, research unit manager.

"The students must be volunteers because it's vital that they feel ownership. It's about empowering them, not pressuring them."

Twenty students from Adam Smith (80 across the group of colleges) were given a disposable camera with a set of instructions, including the ethical dimensions of taking photographs, and were asked to photograph:

- something they didn't understand or that made them confused;

- something that made them smile;

- something that surprised them;

- something that made them anxious or annoyed; and

- something that was a specific issue for them.

Mrs Gillen met each student individually to select the photographs they found most significant and help them construct a short narrative for each picture. "One of the strengths of the Photovoice approach is that it doesn't rely on traditional literacies or on confident writers or speakers," she says. "In the one-to-one session the photograph acts as a kind of mediator. The students might be nervous talking to you, but what they actually talk to is the picture and this allows them to open up."

The students were told from the outset not to worry about the quality of the photographs; what mattered was why they took them and what they said about them. "They knew how their photographs would be used," says Mrs Gillen. "We first met in the college boardroom with coffee and sandwiches to show that the project mattered, that they mattered, and that what they were doing would help students coming after them. They typically said that it made them feel valued, that their opinion mattered."

Not all the photographs were about fears or complaints - many were positive - but it has allowed the college to draw up an action plan which includes timetabling and physical access issues, improving services and enhancing the college ethos.

Individual points to be tackled include avoiding gaps between classes; better "policing" of disabled parking places; daily checks on automatic doors; a need for social spaces in all campuses; more attention to litter and graffiti; building social events into induction and making the college welcoming to new students.

"It's important that the first face they see is a friendly one and that there are plenty of opportunities for them to make friends quickly and easily. A lot expressed the fear of being 'left out' or being 'the odd one out'," says Mrs Gillen. "Most of the feedback is about the context they learn in and improving that context will mean improving it for everyone and for the benefit of the college as a whole."

The college plans to extend the project, drawing on more and different groups, such as international students, for further and continuous feedback.

Photovoice was developed by Caroline Wang of the University of Michigan and Mary Ann Burris of the University of London to enable marginalised people to express their circumstances andor point of view. It has been used across the world, including rural China and South African townships. This is its first formal use in a college in Scotland.

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