How can we enable a culture of continuous improvement in HE through student partnerships?

Nomenclature-complexity alert! There are many alternative names and phrases used for some of the things talked about in this article. I have tended towards acronyms that cover all the bases – like LTSE. However, I acknowledge that they often seem quite awkward, and we really need snappier and more widely recognisable terminology. This is typical of a new field emerging from diverse academic and professional disciplines. And inevitably that causes problems. For example, I have found many areas of overlap with enterprise skills and entrepreneurship. In some disciplines, describing it in such terms is the natural way of thinking. In others, it is guaranteed to put people off. Even the word “partnership” might be contentious. There are already many kinds of partnership, and many people who may consider its cultivation to be within their own domain of stewardship.

This article is actually about a specific kind of staff-student partnership, for which different institutions have different names (Digichamps at Southampton; Student Ambassadors at Sheffield; E-Squad, FLAG Team and Digichamps at Warwick) none of which seem entirely accurate or very widely meaningful (I tested this out with a selection of people) . Within this sub-set of partnership types, I am especially concerned with partnership work that makes the most of, but is not dominated by, digital technologies. Part of the challenge is to find ways to make these approaches instantly recognisable across and beyond higher education – to students and staff of all kinds, to future students and their advisors, to funders and employers – a ubiquitous concept for all.

However, so as to avoid disappointment, I had better admit now that I haven’t yet found a perfect answer. But as set out in this article, I am getting closer to it, and I do have some strong contenders to be explored. An approach is emerging that relies upon more clearly defining the competencies that we expect students to have when working in these ways – what are they good at doing? how do they effectively contribute, and to what? We could answer those questions with an 80 page document full of fine-grained detail, but the aim instead is to identify a more distinctive concept, easily visualised and recognised, and getting to the essence of the approach.

Champions, ambassadors – a complex landscape of partnerships

There are increasingly many cases where universities have created and maintained teams of students to work in partnership with staff on projects that aim to enhance learning, teaching and the student experience (LTSE). The Student Ambassadors for Teaching and Learning (SALT) initiative at Sheffield, for example, recruits and trains over sixty such students each year, deploying them into eight teams – one for each of the five faculties, plus teams for three service departments (including IT). SALT is now funded centrally, with additional contributions from the three service departments. It operates as a cohesive network, with common support and training provided across the faculties – meaning that it can act as a conduit for sharing experiences and practices. There are obvious benefits for students in being part of the initiative, and for the institution in having a pool of creative, talented, enthusiastic students who can readily respond to project briefs as they are formulated by staff. Indeed, it might be that without the possibility of such enhancement projects, staff are discouraged from reflecting too much on the limitations and potential enhancement of existing teaching and learning practices. In this way student partnerships might release fresh impetus to innovate amongst staff and students.

Research-oriented initiatives following the Student as Producer approach are also common – for example, Warwick’s successful Undergraduate Research Support Scheme with 260 undergraduates each year. However, these tend to work less like cohesive networks. The URSS team put much effort into keeping a sense of unity and community amongst the students as they go off into their department-based research projects, and increasingly off to other countries. A URSS Portfolio web system and workflow, common to all students and supported by a team of cross-discipline mentors, helps with this task.

These initiatives complement existing routes to staff-student partnership with a different focus. For example, whereas Staff Student Liaison Committees are more concerned with highlighting problems and negotiating solutions, project-oriented partnerships can allow longer-term partnerships focussed upon innovations and the spread of innovations into new contexts. Partnership projects are often motivated by the idea that students can contribute in ways that staff cannot – bringing different perspectives, skills, resources and contacts (with other students) into the mix. Internships, where students work alongside professional staff, offer a third overlapping route to partnership.

At Sheffield, SALT coordinator Jessica Baily has also seen a growing overlap between teaching-oriented projects and research-oriented projects, with demand from students to use research methods and to produce research outputs from enhancement projects. The Sheffield initiative emerged directly as a response to QAA requirements, seeking an institutional approach for increasing student engagement, and is linked to work on surveying levels of engagement (Baily is a student engagement specialist with a background in social science and Students’ Union work). It does aim to change cultures through enabling and influencing changes in practice. At Lincoln University, culture change is even more explicitly stated as the reason for developing partnership schemes (through a HEA project entitled ). It is a clearly stated core value for the whole institution, although interpreted differently across the disciplines. At the Embedding Partnership in Teaching & Learning Symposium (Lincoln University, 2nd June 2015) it was noted that an institutional approach can work with diverse disciplines to encourage the development of distinctive “signature pedagogies” (Gurung, Chick & Haynie, 2009). This illustrates a maturing strategy for leading cultural change from the centre in cooperation with diverse disciplines, in which the development of distinctive disciplinary approaches are supported.

Enabling a culture of continuous improvement?

We might expect this increase in staff-student partnerships of all kinds, and the cross-pollination between the various streams (especially SSLC and enhancement projects), to enable a more continuous approach to (and culture of) continuous improvement – perhaps even a kaizen attitude. However, I have not yet seen strong evidence of this taking root in British higher education as a result of partnership initiatives (Lincoln might be a good candidate, but I would be please to hear of others) – raising the question of what can we do to enable such a culture change through student partnerships? This article outlines an approach to establishing such a culture of continuous improvement through student partnerships. It also outlines two biases that might be isolating core academic cultures from the influence of LTSE enhancement projects and new partnership-based approaches.

1. Technology-bias

At the University of Warwick several projects have used a partnership-team approach: Arts Faculty E-Squad (2007-2010), Social Sciences FLAG Team (2007-2010) and Life Sciences Digichamps (2014-ongoing). Interestingly, the Warwick focus has been biased towards technology-enhanced learning, teaching and student experience (TE-LTSE) projects, with some natural overlap with enhancing the research environment, practices and resources (in the Arts Faculty, Digital Humanities activities span cohesively across undergraduate, postgraduate and research activities; in Life Sciences the Digichamps have transformed how seminars work for teaching and for research teams). This follows a wider institutional pattern going back at least fifteen years: LTSE enhancement work has often been carried out by individual academics with an interest in technology, and in return it has been inspired and motivated by a widely-held belief that Warwick is behind-the-curve on the adoption of new technologies. As a result, institutional and faculty-based Teaching and Learning Showcase events and Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund (now defunct) projects were biased towards technology-based innovations, even when efforts were made to counteract the imbalance. Those at Warwick who are keen to enhance LTSE have themselves often found technological innovation to be a good wave to ride, with funding and attention more readily available. With the recent introduction of the Warwick International Higher Education Academy (WIHEA) we should see a realignment to a more integrated approach in which technology is an enabler and an inspiration, but not the main motivating principle. This in turn should pull the focus of TE-LTSE efforts away from the endless churn of the technology-innovation hype-cycle towards a deeper and more enduring focus upon improving core LTSE practices for everyone.

2. Periphery-bias

A second direction of bias has existed towards interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary and trans-institutional projects, which are still positioned at the periphery of most disciplines (not to say that they should be peripheral). Such projects might be called enrichment projects, as opposed to the enhancement projects that are targeted at improving core disciplinary activities. WIHEA might encourage a focus upon student partnerships for enhancing intra-disciplinary practice, and even the development of distinctive signature pedagogies – there are two recent notable cases upon which the present project intends to build:

  • In Classics, URSS students helped to develop a signature pedagogy based around new (digitally enhanced) research approaches to the use of ancient coins.
  • In Life Sciences, Digichamps students have helped to develop a new approach to lab work, in which students are prepared before hand, using Moodle-based online interactive lessons.

There could then be more of a balance between enriching the broader student experience (with activities that go beyond disciplinary curriculums) and enhancing learning, teaching and the student experience within disciplines.

Technology for learning’s sake: the Extended Classroom

In addressing the question:

how can we enable a culture of continuous improvement in HE through student partnerships?

we therefore have to be wary of focussing too much upon technology-for-technologies-sake. But at the same time we need to recognise the positive contribution made by new technologies in everyday life, work and learning. A rethinking of our student partnerships approach demands a rethinking of the role of digital technology and how we go about helping everyone to get the most from it. Fortunately, some of the groundwork is already in place, with the shift to a more cohesive platform-centric approach to academic technology provision. We have a basic road map, heading towards well-integrated physical and digital platforms that are designed to enable the creation and delivery of LTSE in diverse ways, but joined-up and made easily accessible through the platform. And most importantly we have a set of design principles that enframe our view of the benefits that technology offers for a campus-oriented, research-intensive university: we call it the Extended Classroom.

Here is our definition of the Extended Classroom (as used in our already successful Extended Classroom initiative). The definition comes in two parts:

Discipline-focused interactions between students and academics are the most important element of higher education. Everything that wraps around such interactions, including technologies, environments and support services should be designed to amplify and sustain their value. We call this wider infrastructure, and the design value putting the academic-student relationship at its core, the Extended Classroom.

The first part is written to encourage all academics to recognize their own practice and challenges in the idea. The second part is then potentially more challenging:

Using new technologies and techniques we can take this basic principle much further. The idea is this: high quality opportunities for people to learn, to teach, to collaborate and to think should never be unnecessarily constrained by physical location, availability in time, disability or ownership of specific technologies.

People should be able to participate in academic activities, on an equal basis, regardless of such constraints and using the devices and media that suit them best. They should be able to flow academic activities continuously across multiple times, places and participants as required, with no additional effort necessary, making the most of the academic-student interaction.

The Extended Classroom helps students and teachers to be better prepared for class, better equipped in class and better able to continue learning after class. It enables consistency across the student experience.

The Extended Classroom is then a set of design principles enabling design for appropriate flexibility. It unlocks LTSE designing from unnecessary constraints inherited from old technologies and spaces, allowing us to design for widening participation, increasing diversity, increasing impact and openness, and personalisation, amongst many other important HE values.

The Extended Classroom, and the concerns that it enables us to address, may then be the core design value for which our LTSE enhancement network (of students and staff) are the champions. So perhaps we can talk more specifically about Extended Classroom Champions? And then we can ask what their overarching aims should be, in the context of the Extended Classroom? And what competencies and patterns of organisation are necessary to achieve those aims?

Extended Classroom Champions – what do we need from them?

Extended Classroom Champions are skilled at adopting-adapting practices, using technology to its best potential to extend the classroom. And furthermore, they are skilled at helping other people to find extended classroom practices that fit with their needs and capabilities, practices that stick for a reasonable length of time, that spread to other people and other uses, and grow the wider capability for continual improvement. They are themselves excellent practitioners with the extended classroom, informed advocates spreading good practice, and active participants in the design process for extending the extended classroom. They can make a huge difference to an organisation. But where do they come from and how do we facilitate their work and their growth?

Our ultimate aim (in the Academic Technology team) is to see the widespread adoption and continual enhancement of best-possible approaches to technology-enhanced learning, teaching and student experiences. The imbalance between available resource (a very small team) and the size and supercomplexity of the University means that we have to use clever strategies to achieve this aim. We can’t ourselves do all of the work of achieving practice that fits in every context, sticks in use for a reasonable length of time, spreads across tens of thousands of people, and draws a genuinely representative range of those people into the design and development process for refining and growing our repertoire of designs and the platforms upon which they are based. However, we also can’t stop work at a very generic level of provision assuming that it will get adopted because it is all that there is available – even a very broad brush analysis reveals significant differences in basic practices, often for good reasons (although sometimes for no good reason). The more we drill down into the detail, the more essential diversity we discover, much of which is at the heart of being a super-inventive, super complex institution.

So, what we need is “champions” – lots of them! Not just people who are aware of the existence of our platform. Not just people who go around saying “Moodle is great”. No, we need people with a more intimate understanding of technologies and designs for TE-LTSE, for extending the classroom, and the variety of practices, projects and concerns into which they can fit. But more than that, we need people who have a reflexive and social understanding of how varied people go about assessing new practices, adopting new practices, adapting existing practice, continuing to use practices effectively, reflect on practice to discover fresh insights, become advocates and effective participants in the continual improvement through design process. We need people who are able to do empathic design.

We are then expecting two things from such Extended Classroom Champions. We need them to be able to use technologies themselves to enhance LTSE for themselves. Which means that they have to be good at adopting-adapting practices that fit and stick for their own purposes. But that is not enough. Many people are almost unconsciously good at doing that. It does not automatically follow that they can help others to adopt-adapt for fit and stick – that is to say, to spread design innovations and grow the capability for further design innovation. My PhD research discovered a strong bias in the University towards people who are good at personal design-innovation, but not acting effectively as design-innovation agents for others. The additional “designerly reflexivity”, an essential aspect of designerly capability, is not so well developed.

So how do we change that? Is there a process that can be facilitated to grow a population, a network, of Extended Classroom Champions who are not just good at developing their own practices, but are also great at helping others to develop?

I am currently designing just such a facilitated process for the Higher Education Academy Flexible Learning Strategic Enhancement Programme. The aim being to show how we can create a network of student champions who can help staff and other students to adopt-adapt new LTSE practices. The principle design value for the HEA project is “increasing appropriate flexibility” – that is to say, unlocking LTSE from un-necessarily inflexible practices. The “flipped classroom” design pattern is now the classic example of a more flexible approach. There are many more. Our Extended Classroom initiative at Warwick is concerned with technologies and techniques for achieving appropriate flexibility.

So we want to develop student champions to achieve greater and more appropriate flexibility. But not just flexibility, there are several other equally important design values, including: widening participation, developing signature pedagogies in the disciplines, reducing waste, sustainability and emotional durability. Student champions can help with all of these practices, projects and concerns.

The concept of champions expands further when we consider the essential role of students and staff of all kinds – and there are increasingly many kinds of staff members who have an impact on LTSE. The very same process can facilitate the growth of staff as Extended Classroom Champions. And we should consider this to be closely connected to and integrated with the work of student champions. The competencies required on both sides complement each other to achieve success. We should also think about the continuum from undergraduate, through postgraduate, to staff member.

What then does the facilitated process look like? I’ve started with the “organisational learning and design loop” that I developed in my PhD (influenced by the work of Everett Rogers, Donald Schön and Chris Argyris amongst many others). It is the same loop that has informed the design of the Extended Classroom initiative. The theory is that some additional assistance is needed to raise people beyond the level of mere awareness to a clearer state of recognition, and then beyond into building a sufficient understanding necessary for adoption (and adaptation) or at least informed rejection (and feeding the reasons behind that informed rejection back into the design process).

In Diffusion of Innovations (2003) Rogers described the basic conditions that enable adoption. We need to see: (1) relative advantage, (2) compatibility, (3) complexity, (4) trialability, and (5) observability. Innovations are interpreted and recognised by potential adopters through these characteristics. A positive-recognition-fit is achieved when we a potential adopter rates an innovation as:

  1. having a high-enough relative advantage;
  2. being sufficiently compatible with existing practices, projects and concerns (or the capability to change);
  3. not over-complex;
  4. with the potential to be tried-out before full adoption, without undue commitment or cost;
  5. observable in its workings and effects.

We can therefore rate products, services, practices, projects, ideas etc for their positive-recognition-fit and ease-of-adoption according to these factors, for any given group of people – although sometimes the variation between individuals is so great (especially concerning compatibility) that we struggle to analyse fit beyond the individual. To some extent Rogers makes a “rational actor” assumption – that people are on the look out for and actively assessing innovations according to reasoning that is influenced by the five factors. He adds to that model the notion of there being “change agents” out in the field shaping the reasoning of other people (and in his S-curve model, they are usually the early-adopters, but might also be trained and paid representatives of business and state). Rogers assumes that once adoption reaches a certain level of commonality, a network effect kicks in and accelerates adoption to ubiquity:

“The innovation will then continue to spread with little promotional effort by change agents, after a critical mass of adopters is reached.” (Rogers, 2003: Kindle location 4611)

However, a more common pattern in the University sees an innovative practice adopted by a small group in one context, and then sometimes spreading to other contexts, but in a form modified by accident or by design to achieve fit. This additional dimension of complexity, introduced by the reinterpretation and reinvention of innovations across contexts, makes it harder for even well-informed rational actors to make sound judgements concerning Rogers’ five factors. Trialability and observability are especially degraded, as innovations are seen as embedded in and adapted to specific contexts. The result may be that recognition of an innovation (according to the five factors) is impossible. In some cases we might be aware that there is something new on the horizon, but we fail to connect that with an understanding of what it is, why it might be of value and what it would take for us to adopt it. In many cases, the innovation even fails to reach a level of uniformity that earns it a single, stable, well-known name across different domains. So often in TE-LTSE we struggle with nomenclature – we even have many different terms used to name the field in which we are working!

So what can we do? A network of champions might help. Imagine if there were many people (staff and students) who are adept at facilitating the diffusion of innovations process by helping potential adopters through the innovation loop: to recognise, understand, adopt-adapt, continue-reflect, be informed advocates, and feedback into the design process. Imagine that they are working in a joined-up manner, developing the same ways of speaking about innovations, and feeding systematically into the design-development process.

In some rare cases such people already exist and are working in relative isolation. In my research I found many such cases at Warwick – all kinds of people, including undergraduates, helping people to adopt-adapt sometimes quite radical innovations. So one part of the strategy should be to find these people and get them working together. However, there is a potential stumbling block to be negotiated. Often, by the time they have become good at facilitating the loop and recognised as such, they have already developed their own repertoire of technologies and designs, which can come from anywhere on the internet, or be completely new creations. Often the choices that they make are dictated by cost, fashion (they may want to build a career around fashionable technologies) and ideology (open source, and anti-corporate). This need not be an entirely negative factor. Innovations that sit outside of the University platform may help to edge us towards more wide scale innovations. But often such diversity adds further complexity, reduces trialability, compatibility and observability, and makes positive recognition fit and consequent spread of innovations less likely.

Champions are great. But we need to grow them in the right kind of environment. An environment that helps them develop at an appropriate pace with appropriate opportunities and support.

We might do this in two or more phases, over an undergraduate student’s there year course.

In the first year, they would be supported in becoming expert users of Extended Classroom technologies and techniques in their own learning. Ideally, they should follow a well defined and visible pathway. We do have such a well defined pathway describing an ideal relationship between people and TE-LTSE designs:

  1. Going beyond simple awareness to recognition of a technology/technique and its relative advantage – the value that it gives us – in the Extended Classroom project, our technology cards do this job by accompanying a well-named technology with a simple statement of its purpose and nature, along with very clear and simple value propositions.
  2. Providing ways in which sufficient understanding may be developed (observability, trialability in Rogers’ terms).
  3. Leading to adoption-adaptation (that is adapting current practices and projects to fit, and to some extend adapting the new approach).
  4. And then ensuring continuation over time (this too can take some strategic thinking and acting) and opportunities to reflect on the practice.
  5. Leading to people becoming “informed advocates” for the technology/technique.
  6. And then bringing them into the design process to extend the technology/technique and create fresh innovations.

This is illustrated in the following diagram. With the addition of the idea that informed advocacy, design participation, and a reflective appreciation of the whole process turns people into champions. That reflective appreciation of the process is essential – we can then begin to transfer our own experience of the process to repeat it more effectively (with further innovations) or to help others through the same process (with the same or with different innovations).

Becoming an TE-LTSE champion involves multiple iterations of this process.

Becoming an Extended Classroom Champion involves multiple iterations of this process.

A facilitated process for students, and staff, becoming champions might then begin with run-throughs of the process with the individual themselves adopting-adapting technologies/techniques – as a reflective process from which they can learn. They would then take their reflective appreciation of the process and apply it in collaborative projects of increasing difficulty (we should be able to grade the difficulty of projects). The initial learning might take place in the first year of an undergraduate degree, and the application in the second year.

Gurung, R. A. R., N. L. Chick, and A. Haynie. (2009) Exploring Signature Pedagogies. Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Rogers, E. M. (2003) Diffusion of Innovations, 5th Edition. Simon and Schuster. Kindle edition.