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Undergraduate Research in Australia


Students now live in a fast-paced world; a world of social networks, high-definition video, podcasts and virtual gaming on demand wherever and whenever it is wanted. If students want to know something they have instant access to chaotic and unplanned knowledge through the internet. This challenges who are the students and who are the teachers because students are free to decide what knowledge they want and they are free to contribute to it, for example, through "wikis" (e.g. "Wikipedia") or blogs.

Many higher education courses question the instant gratification of knowledge through the internet. They demand that students engage in sustained study, acquire a defined set of learning outcomes, and learn a relatively orderly and organised body of knowledge.

Moves to evidence-based teaching and learning including problem based learning, and increasing development and use of research-based curricula are indications of a move towards research-based teaching in Australian higher education.

Yet universities need to go further in preparing students for the complex and challenging world that they will face as professionals.

The demands of today's society require higher education to open up to creative solutions, to the generation and acquisition of new kinds of knowledge; to new kinds of thinking.

'What is required' says Ron Barnett, 'is not that students become masters of bodies of thought, but that they are enabled to begin to experience the space and challenge of open, critical inquiry (in all its personal and interpersonal aspects)' (1997:110).

This is not just for those who choose to pursue an academic career.

Today’s society demands resourcefulness and creativity and the ability to deal with complexity and uncertainty. We need new ways to engage students in the joy and excitement of learning to meet this agenda.

There is mounting evidence of the value of undergraduate research and inquiry in meeting these challenges; in developing in students the ability to investigate problems, to critically evaluate knowledge, to make rational judgments in the light of good evidence; evidence that they perhaps gather, to understand and reflect on what they are doing and why (Blackmore & Cousin 2003; Healey 2005, Levy & Petrulis 2007; Seymour, Hunter, Laursen & Deantoni 2004; Hunter, Laursen & Seymour 2006).

These are the skills of research and inquiry. Research and inquiry are central to contemporary professional life as well as to the development of capabilities associated with participation and justice in a democratic society.

In Research and Teaching: Beyond the divide, Angela Brew developed a model of higher education where the integration of research and teaching develops through scholarly knowledge-building communities with academics and students at all levels working together in inquiry and learning partnerships.

Central to this are new ideas about an inquiry-centred undergraduate student experience and how to nurture and foster it.

The vision addresses the needs within the Australian workforce for critical creative thinkers; people who can solve problems that we currently cannot contemplate; for skills and abilities to gather and evaluate evidence; in short, the skills of inquiry.

If we're serious about engaging students in research and inquiry, as we must be if we are to meet the needs of students for professional life in the twenty-first century, we need mechanisms and opportunities where the assumptions of academics, academic managers and policy-makers about what students are and are not capable of, can be challenged.

We also need ideas, models resources and protocols which assist in developing pedagogical practices that structure knowledge and learning in new ways; and we need to discuss and debate new ideas about who should do research and who should not, about how teaching and research should be organised, about the kinds of learning support and resources that should be provided for students, and about how spaces are used.

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