Quality, innovation and risk in HE learning and teaching

How can we (safely!) enhance the quality of learning and teaching in HE, while taking risks by deploying innovative (and often unexpected) approaches? At Northampton, we have addressed the issue in a number of ways, which boil down to the following mutually reinforcing strands:

– Criteria and templates, including design targets for NILE (our Blackboard VLE)(Figure 1) and templates to help course teams design and structure appealing online modules easily, flexibly and consistently.

– Support & interventions, including the CAIeRO designing for learning process (based on the Carpe Diem approach) and the Collaborative Learning Experiences Online (CLEO) workshop, in which participants are online learners for a day. All interventions are part of Northampton’s CPD framework, called C@N-DO: Changemaking at Northampton: Development Opportunities. Additional support and guidance is regularly offered by the Learning Technology team.

– Evidence, coming out of quality audits conducted within each school, and learning analytics, obtained from NILE usage.

NILE design targets

Figure 1

(click on the figure to enlarge it)

This approach enables us to focus on enhancement, but it also provides a safe environment to take risks and pilot new approaches in consultation with course teams across disciplines. If successful, ideas are transferred and adapted to meet the requirements of other courses. The journey continues!

Professor Alejandro Armellini
Institute of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education
University of Northampton

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Student expectations, personalisation and online provision

“Contact with tutors”, not surprisingly, is one of the top responses from students when asked about what they value from their university. Given our biographies as learners, the type of contact we are normally most familiar with in educational settings is face to face: we know how it works and what to expect.

Easy and regular access to tutors (and peers) can, however, take different forms, as can learning experiences on a university campus. A lecture, for example, can be incredibly inspiring. Some of my most memorable ‘learning moments’ happened during lectures. Equally, a lecture can be the most impersonal, disengaging and even alienating experience. An online learning environment can also be gripping or isolating for participants, depending on variables such as the quality of the design and the skill of the online tutor. However:

Student-tutor contact can, in many senses, be more individual and personal in an online module than in a campus-taught one. Moreover, ‘asynchronous’ student-tutor interaction allows the tutor time to think, come up with more succinctly formulated answers to questions, and has the great advantage that both parties have a written record of the communication.

Maria Schilstra, n.d., University of Hertfordshire

It may well be that by “contact with tutors” students actually refer to “personalisation”. We can achieve higher levels of personalisation and individualisation in a number of ways, not necessarily by increasing our demands on physical space. In other words, it is possible to teach better and teach smarter, even on a smaller campus. The new Waterside campus will make a more effective and efficient use of space.

Waterside is an additional lever to make us think now, together, about what our teaching and learning practice will look like in a couple of years’ time. We need to redesign, pilot and refine things well before we move. Will our teaching be better and smarter? For example, what would happen to our provision, our students and ourselves if we:

… gradually reduced the amount of face-to-face teaching?
… took deliberate steps to increase the quality of what we do in face-to-face settings?
… developed our competencies as designers of excellent, fit-for-purpose online courses?
… became highly skilled in online teaching, assessment and e-moderating?

Would this mean the disappearance of the traditional lecture, seminar, lab or studio-based session? Absolutely not. We need to identify what blends of approaches and modes of study are appropriate in each case. However, we must be prepared to address our students’ needs and enable them to succeed in the 21st century – with or without Waterside. Yesterday’s logic will not suffice to tackle this challenge.

The University of Northampton is well placed to pursue the above agenda: many colleagues have the knowledge, skill and motivation to scaffold and promote this change, increase learner personalisation and thrive in the new environment. There are support and development interventions in place. We have opportunities to inform, shape and benefit from the changes ahead: let’s engage with this process now.

Professor Alejandro Armellini
Director, Institute of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education
University of Northampton

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Open Northampton

The Open Northampton project aims to put Northampton on the global open educational resources (OER) map within 24 months. It will achieve that aim by promoting open practices and enabling colleagues to share exemplars of their academic materials under an open licence via the JORUM repository.

Colleagues can contribute materials in different formats. For example:

  • Content (such as handouts) for a teaching session (in MS Word or PDF);
  • Lecture presentations (in PowerPoint or PDF);
  • Video clips;
  • Audio clips;
  • Assessment activities;
  • Learning activities;
  • Case studies or scenarios;
  • Reading lists;
  • Other artefacts (diagrams, maps, etc).

The Open Northampton team will review the material using the CORRE quality process and add appropriate metadata to it, before releasing the content into JORUM.

Northampton colleagues interested in taking part in Open Northampton should contact Dr Ming Nie, the Project Coordinator.

Professor Alejandro Armellini
Director, Institute of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education
University of Northampton

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A C@N-do approach

Changemaking at Northampton (C@N) aligns with the AshokaU principles, as outlined in a previous post:

1. Responsibility for social change
2. Making a difference for the better
3. Initiative to innovate
4. Collaboration to maximise impact
5. Living according to values
6. Empathy without judgement

These principles shape our direction of travel as a university and form the basis for our draft strategic plan beyond Raising the Bar. Partnerships with students are central to a number of current initiatives that have already generated positive change:

The URB@N project: The Undergraduate Research Bursaries at Northampton (URB@N) is a bursary scheme offering opportunities for current undergraduate students to participate in a pedagogic research project taking place at the university. The research involves working in partnership with staff, and projects are focussed on enhancing the student experience.

Student Ambassadors: Student Ambassadors at Northampton encompasses various strands, including students who are paid to represent the university at promotional events such as open days and higher education fairs; students who are trained to go and work in local schools to support learning and raise pupils’ aspirations; and students who are trained and paid to advise and guide their peers and devise methods of support and practical activities for student groups.

Student mentors: Student mentoring schemes are operating in some parts of the University (such as Social Sciences) where students volunteer to act as mentors to their peers. After a selection and training process, mentors offer support and guidance to their course peers on academic and pastoral issues.

Student representatives: UoN has an established mechanism for embedding active student contribution into programmes through student representation, whereby each programme has a number of ‘student reps’ (usually one per year) who are responsible for gathering feedback from their peers and presenting these at Board of Study meetings. Student representation is also an important part of larger committees such as School-based Student Experience Committees.

CAIeRO (Creating Aligned Interactive educational Resource Opportunities, based on the Carpe Diem model): The inclusion of one or more students as ‘reality checkers’ is a simple, yet effective way of engaging learners in course planning, e-tivity and assessment design.

Student-led teaching awards: The Students’ Union are about to launch a scheme to reward excellence in teaching at Northampton, where students will be the key drivers in nominating staff.

Through C@N, we see opportunities to build on existing activities that involve working with students as partners, and extending them into other areas. Examples from other institutions who have established institutional directives towards student partnerships include:

Students as observers of teaching: Students can be trained to carry out teaching observations, and provide feedback to staff

Students evaluating and developing course materials: Students can be actively involved in reviewing course-related materials (such as module guides; VLE presence; assessment briefs), providing feedback and contributing to their design.

Students as ambassadors of technology-enhanced learning: Students are well placed to work in partnership with staff to identify opportunities for embedding technologies to support learning, and also advise and support staff in their development, including promoting, demonstrating and disseminating excellence through social media.

Working with students as partners is an area of growing interest, popularity and innovation in Higher Education. The University of Northampton is well-placed to shape this new and developing agenda. C@N brings together the wide range of existing innovative projects and initiatives at Northampton that focus on student partnerships for positive change, and  provides a framework to innovate and extend our partnership opportunities.

Professor Alejandro Armellini
Director, Institute of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, University of Northampton

Dr Rachel Maunder
Learning and Teaching Excellence Co-ordinator, School of Social Sciences, University of Northampton

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Internal call for funding: Learning Enhancement and Innovation Bids 2013-14

University of Northampton
Learning Enhancement and Innovation Bids 2013-14
Internal call for funding
Institute of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education
University of Northampton

We invite members of staff, from all University of Northampton schools and departments, to bid for funds to run projects in the field of pedagogic research and innovation. The call document sets out the parameters and criteria that bidders should consider before submitting proposals. It includes the application form and submission instructions.

Your bid

  • You can bid for funds between £3,000 and £20,000 to run projects aligned with one or more of the priority areas, as outlined below.
  • Each school may submit any number of bids.
  • The deadline for submissions is Friday 25th October 2013. Successful projects will be announced in mid November.
  • Projects can commence immediately, depending on the submitted workplan.
  • All funded projects must finish, including all deliverables, by 1st July 2014.

We look forward to receiving your bid.

Professor Alejandro Armellini
Director, Institute of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education
University of Northampton

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Changemaking at Northampton

At the University of Northampton we are planning and delivering positive change to benefit our students, our staff and the wider community. The diagram below captures the key elements of this change.



The central tenets of the AshokaU Changemaker Campus sit in the middle of the diagram. These principles inform everything we do at Northampton. The critical success factors from the Raising the Bar strategic plan form the following ring. Six overarching aims are stated in the white section and the result of meeting those aims is shown in the outer ring.

Let’s zoom into the six aims. Scaling up CPD (bottom of the diagram), leading to qualifications and accreditation in HE learning and teaching, is central to an outstanding student experience. Within the new CPD framework, staff will be given opportunities to engage in a variety of flexible interventions to gain both qualifications and accreditation. These opportunities will be fully aligned with their academic work.

Online and blended provision (top of the diagram) will be a major part of Northampton’s focus in the next 7 years. We must do this incrementally and in highly innovative ways if we are to achieve scalability and excellence in flexible learning. This component of the model could significantly change the way we work.

The use of high quality content from established repositories, as well as our contributions to them, will enable the university to be on the global map of open educational resources and associated practices (top-right of the diagram). There are two aspects to this: the enhancement of learning and teaching and global visibility. Small Open Online Courses (SOOCs) are already being developed and piloted.

The university will continue to develop its profile in the field of research and enterprise (bottom-right of the diagram) via research outputs, external funding and consultancy work. This includes social enterprise initiatives regionally, nationally and internationally, with industry and students as partners.

Market growth, through  global partnerships and innovative offerings for different modes of study will meet the needs of our diverse student body (bottom-left). In this way, we will upskill individuals, engage communities and build additional bridges to bring benefit to the region and beyond.

The University of Northampton’s move to the new Waterside Campus adds a complex set of challenges and unique opportunities. To maximise the benefit  of this ambitious project to our students, colleagues, the local community and the HE sector, we must think very carefully about what constitutes optimal physical and virtual learning spaces within a fit-for-purpose,  sustainable campus (top-left). 

The thinking and the planning have started. Let us join the debate for an exciting, inclusive and successful project.

Professor Alejandro Armellini
Director, Institute of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education
University of Northampton
4 July 2013



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Week 1: plotting learning activity

It is useful to characterise one’s approaches (both as teachers and learners) and map them against agreed criteria or frameworks. This week we are invited to do just that using this learning activity graph (autonomous < > directed; individual < > social).

An alternative is to map our approaches to design and delivery against a different 2×2 matrix such as the one below. This exercise can be done using many tools and against a range of variables. The purpose is to fully understand our own practice, and the practices of others, reflect on and improve them.

Content vs interaction Armellini April 13


Feedback and comments welcome.

Alejandro Armellini
17 April 2013

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