Our Master in Public Policy and Human Development (MPP) offers six highly-specialised tracks. Deciding which one to follow is one of the most important decisions our students will make during their time at UNU-MERIT. In order to support them in this process, our instructors have developed a digital platform that provides additional information to current and prospective students.
Each year students from across the world move to Maastricht for our award-winning Master’s programme. They come from various academic backgrounds and have different career objectives. During the first semester, the entire class takes the same courses, providing them with a strong basis in public policy while preparing them for the rest of the programme.
In November the students have to select a specialisation track, which they will then follow during the second semester. They can select either one of our six tracks or pursue a ‘free elective’, which allows them to take courses from various specialisations. To make a decision, students traditionally attend a ‘specialisation kick-off’ event – basically an introductory presentation of each track by its coordinator followed by Q&As. The presentation slides are then posted online to serve as reference. Students can also arrange one-on-one meetings with coordinators, should they have further questions.
While the meetings are useful, students often felt they were too short and the coordinators felt that having multiple meetings was very time consuming. Therefore, the students relied on hallway discussions with peers before selecting a track. Of course, this informal means of knowledge sharing is valuable for students, but it can also cause misunderstandings. We therefore asked ourselves: might there be a third way? In other words, would MPP students make more informed decisions if they had access to direct, formal information, which they could then review in their own time?
Detailed online guidance
This was how the project ‘SMART Choices and SMART Tools’ was born. We partnered up with SURF and the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, to provide open access information related to the MPP programme. Specifically through the SMART Choices part of the project, we aim to provide formal information for each specialisation, which students can view online.
As well as the specialisation kick-off event and option to meet the coordinator, each specialisation now has an online component – ‘SMART Choices Information’ – which includes a course guide, introductory videos, slides, readings, quizzes, and alumni testimonials. The online materials were supplemented with the option to connect online with a tutor and / or write on a discussion board. We provided this content to the class of 2017-2018 on 1 November 2017, knowing full well that the tracks had to be decided by 13 November.
Project coordinator Katerina Triantos worked closely with the specialisation coordinators and various staff members to ensure this content would be ready in time. Early results are encouraging: two thirds of students who took part in the evaluation said the SMART Choices content helped them in their track decision, and more than half said the content was an important contributing factor in their decision-making process.
The next step is to improve the content based on the student evaluations. One common complaint was the tight deadline to review materials, alongside an already packed schedule. That should be less of a problem in future. Now that the content is created, it will be available to the next cohorts much sooner. We are also planning to make the materials open access, thus making it available to prospective students and alumni. Lastly, this should benefit our specialisation coordinators – who should not only need fewer meetings, but should generally encounter better-informed students.
This remains, however, a work in progress. Minimising track changes mid-semester can only be a good thing, and we certainly trust that the additional information will ensure that the specialisation meets the students’ expectations. For now, we will have to wait and see. In the meantime, with 2018 already underway, we look forward to the second half of the project: SMART Tools.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
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