How can universities inject innovation into the curriculum?

‘Innovation is not the idea, prototype, or approval process – it’s the doing,’ says Roxanne Stockwell. And there needs to be space for failure…

‘Innovation’ might feel like an overused word at times, but I firmly believe it is fundamental to the survival of individual universities and to our collective shaping of the Higher Education sector. For me, innovation means responding to change in practical new ways. It’s not the idea, it’s not the prototype, and it’s certainly not an approval process – it’s the actual doing. Innovation is closely linked to our identity as an educational institution, as it is the bedrock on which our uniqueness and individuality is constructed.

Some argue that little has changed in the HE sector, and that it is ripe for major disruption. The new chair of the OfS takes this view in his paper “An avalanche is coming”, where he advocates a highly flexible, i-Tunes style HE learning algorithm of the future.

It is simply not true that little has changed in the HE sector. In the last decade we have seen more changes in regulation, tuition fees, KPIs, student numbers, league tables, consumerism, and the debates around skills and access, than at any time in the history of UK universities. But it is true that a lot of this change is related to regulation, accountability and Government policy. Our energy for innovation is being depleted on managing regulatory change. I argue that we need to reclaim our innovation space. Stop wasting it on the latest regulatory edict and start spending it on whatever matters to your institution the most.

At Pearson College London we focus on the student learning experience. The job market is changing, working practices are changing, and fee rises have understandably turned students into more critical consumers of HE. Students still want to enjoy their studies, have new experiences and make friends. But they also want to graduate with good career prospects. With the intense competition for jobs, disgruntled employers, and rapid technological change, we need to think carefully about how to construct a learning experience that will really help our students.

We aim to create our own blend of classroom, online and work integrated learning. Therefore, we are very much focused on weaving direct employer engagement into the fabric of the student experience. Many of the things we want our students to learn simply can’t be taught in traditional lectures. They need to be experienced and discovered first-hand. We base much around the concept of ‘authentic learning’ engaging directly with a wide range of employers .

“Innovation is about doing, about going further than the talking shop and straight into the arms of your customers.”

For example, our Escape Studios degrees in Visual Effects (VFX) were designed with Oscar winning studios, and the pedagogy was co-developed with students over several weeks of prototyping. This created a studio-based learning style with a strong focus on feedback, teamwork and artistry from the very first week – all essential for success in the VFX industry.

A second example grew out of a Business student’s major project in which he proposed that Pearson Business School should host its own “start up in residence” as an authentic learning resource for students. An initiative that was completely student driven. Students collectively chose an ed-tech start up from over 70 applications, and have benefited from mentorships and internships as well as the chance to provide real consultancy advice as part of their business modules. This is a start-up business within a business school, based within the offices of a FTSE100 business – what could be more connected and authentic than that?

We know from our own Pearson-CBI employer satisfaction survey that there can be issues with graduates’ commercial awareness and professional skills. The OECD has found that the link between degree design and industry is especially weak in the UK. We think the best way to address this is through direct engagement with a diverse range of companies. We don’t want employers sitting on the sidelines complaining, we want them to be involved. Ultimately, part of our mission is to transform the way employers work with universities in undergraduate education.

Innovation is about doing, about going further than the talking shop and straight into the arms of your customers. But that doesn’t mean all innovations are successful. Some don’t work out. And that’s fine as failure is an essential part of any innovative ecosystem. It’s crucial that space is made for failure. If you’re not failing somewhere you’re not innovating.

We’ve clocked up a few learning curves already. For example, we designed a beautiful little programme addressing the employability skills most needed by employers. It was very thorough and exquisitely mapped to requirements but it didn’t quite capture the interest of students. Through continual analysis and innovation, we’ve found individual days in industry, working on rapid mini-projects, to be far more engaging for students.

As a very new institution, we have no choice but to be innovative. We are of a boutique size, and that does make it easier to introduce change. On the other hand, the regulatory requirements are particularly onerous on small institutions, demanding a much higher percentage of revenue than the average UK university of 17,000 students, and the difficulties facing new institutions are frequently underestimated. Whatever our challenges as individual institutions, we all need to find more space for innovation on the things that matter. We shouldn’t allow regulatory change to be the only stimulus for innovation. I don’t think we should be downhearted by the many trials we collectively face. Necessity is the mother of invention. If you think about it, the very fact that there are so many challenges is a plus. The bigger the challenge the more scope and greater need for innovation.

Roxanne Stockwell is Principal of Pearson College London, the first higher education institution in the UK to be founded by a FTSE 100 company – Pearson Plc.

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