PDP: Where does it sit?

There’s an interesting article in the latest issue of ESCALATE, arguing that PDP (personal development planning) should be delivered separately from the academic curriculum. The reasons given are that:

  • Students don’t see the value in it.
  • Academic staff don’t feel they have the expertise or the time to deliver the  personal one to one work it requires.
  • Recent guidelines from fundholders and others stress the employability aspect

There is some truth in all of these points, although I think that once the concept is explained to them, students do see the value of it,(well, some do) although I accept that the siren call of the city’s nightlife is likely to prove more alluring than spending their free time with their e-portfolio. More to the point, academic assignments carry marks and personal development plans (usually) don’t, so it’s a perfectly rational decision for a student to prioritise the former.

The second point, about academic staff not having the time or expertise also seems to me a question of priorities and values. If they could see the value of PDP then I am fairly sure that more would adapt their practice to incorporate it.  Which raises the question of whether PDP actually has any inherent value? The key word for me has always been “personal”. Obviously it has value for some people, but maybe not for others. I can’t see any teacher wanting to spend time making any student do something they don’t want to do, but equally it would be wrong to deny it to those students who do want to do it. We can of course provide all sorts of e-portfolio tools (Mahara, Pebble Pad, e-folio, and dare I say it even WordPress and Google Docs can be pressed into service), but all of them still need support both in terms of providing a reliable  network infrastructure, and in providing help to students. All of which adds to workloads.

Thirdly, of course employability is important, and I’d expect guidelines from Government and employers to stress it, but I wonder if the emphasis on”planning” is a little too instrumental. (And as the image implies, it isn’t too focussed on a very specific corporate type of employment) I’m not convinced that anything more than short to medium term career planning is possible, (or desirable) for most undergraduates. I know students are increasingly diverse, but we still seem to have quite a lot of 18-21 year old school leavers, who probably don’t have sufficient experience of full-time work to on which to base a realistic career plan. But the practice of planning is as relevant to preparing for a dissertation as it is to searching for a job.  I also think the reflective element of PDP is actually more helpful to putting thoughts in order, than trying to imagine a future. More accurately I think it’s part of the process of developing the mind set that can imagine that future and for that reason I wouldn’t want to lose it.

I am not saying we shouldn’t offer employability support. But, I do feel that there is a danger of falling into a “deficit” trap, of the sort that I suspect hindered the “learning development” movement in its earlier years. If we value these things then we  have to make them part of the whole student experience rather than push them off into some sort of pseudo academic ghetto. Value, in an academic environment is measured in marks.  So, I think if we want students to build personal development plans, we have to find some way of assessing them, or at least the process of building them.  The challenge is to do that without detracting from the importance of the disciplinary content of a student’s degree.  Now, there, I freely admit to being stuck!