Our values are the future of teaching
It’s often assumed that technology is the main driving force behind the evolution of teaching, but the University has emerged as an important advocate for using community values to shape an effective future for learning and the student experience.
"We’re combining futures thinking with a design-based approach,” says Professor Siân Bayne, the University’s Assistant Principal for Education. She has also been leading Near Future Teaching, a recently completed innovative project that saw Siân and her team work with more than 400 students and staff to produce a vision for a preferred future for teaching and learning at Edinburgh. Their work was ambitious, combining extensive research, workshops, and events – interviewing key people around campus and creating a series of videos that probed the trends and themes that emerged as crucial to those invested in improving the experience of learning.
“The purpose was to really understand the values held by the University community,” says Siân. “Then we could work out how they can be applied to digital education and the future of teaching in general. The workshops and events brought out very real and exciting trends, which we then used to map a future for university teaching. Emerging ideas were tested with staff and students, and we also took into account our future students by testing with about 60 school pupils.
“We saw this an exercise in co-design. This wasn’t about building a vision driven by predicting technological change, but about building one based on the values of our own community.”
The team's work identified four key values:
EXPERIENCE OVER ASSESSMENT: Students must have the space to think big and take risks
Shifting focus away from assessment and performance measurement to a more challenging and engaging student experience as a whole.
DIVERSITY AND JUSTICE: Higher education is a social good
The strength of Edinburgh’s diverse and international student body should inform how we mould and shape the curriculum. Social justice must be at the heart of what we do.
UNIVERSITY AS COMMUNITY: Technology must bring people together in meaningful, ethical ways
The values of the university community should be at the heart of the technological decision-making.
PARTICIPATION AND FLEXIBILITY: Students should have a lifelong relationship with the University.
Students would like to have more say over defining curricula and programmes of study and we should be opening up the University to more flexible and interdisciplinary ways of studying.
One bold tactic that allowed the team to test these values was the use of Future World scenarios – a series of possible and plausible situations for the world in the near future. In one, the University is imagined as part of a fiercely competitive sector, under pressure to provide opportunities for a growing global appetite for higher education, while simultaneously suffering from tighter immigration controls that have resulted in a decrease in international students. Another envisions the rise of technology contributing to a movement toward micro-credit, where conventional higher education degrees become less important than lifelong learning.
The scenarios encouraged conversations that sought out the practical challenges and opportunities each created, and how the values could be used to allow learning to continue to thrive in these conditions.
“This really helped us define the role of technology and digital education in relation to our University community, what it stands for and just how it should react to the very plausible scenarios we created,” says Siân. “Through this, we were then able to establish a set of aims and objectives, including around being more community focused and embracing technology as part of daily life, as well as being forward-looking and challenging for learners and understanding the University in a world so reliant on data. We’re now working to take these forward through the University’s student experience projects, as well as initiatives such as the Edinburgh Futures Institute, a location for ground-breaking interdisciplinary teaching.”
Meanwhile, valuable information has been gleaned from another project that’s also helping to shape teaching at Edinburgh. This time, the focus was on the experience and views of the University’s distance students. Distance education and being ‘at’ Edinburgh was part of the Principal’s Teaching Awards Scheme, which is funded through alumni donations.
Again, Siân was the project lead. She says: “Among other things, this project revealed that people value the quality of the teaching at Edinburgh, as well as the flexibility offered by being a distance student. For the most part, respondents felt intimately connected with their teachers and peers. It appears that our use of digital technologies to build online communities is being effective for these students.
“One surprising finding in this case was that students who never come to Edinburgh – and have no expectation that they’ll do so – are really attached to the idea of the campus. For example, they often use images of Old College as a screensaver on their laptop.”
Taking fundamental lessons from these projects and other activity, Siân believes the values-based approach is crucial in helping to make sure that teaching in Edinburgh is driven by a distinct strategy. “It’s important to have a very clear story to tell about digital technology and why we are making particular choices.”
She also emphasised the advantages of the co-design methodology that was used by the Near Future Teaching project. “We were able to work systematically across the University to co-build a specific vision. This is a new way of doing things and it was very productive in this case. It’s something we’d want to do more of in the future.”