This guest blog has been written by Dilly Fung, Professor of Higher Education Development and Academic Director at University College London’s Arena Centre for Research-based Education (formerly CALT).
A recent international conference at University College London (UCL) explored international perspectives on creating a more ‘connected’ higher education sector. More than 300 delegates from 18 countries shared research and practices relating to breaking down the divisions, including those between research and student education, between students, researchers and professionals, and between students and local and wider communities.
Why this renewed emphasis on building such bridges?
As I argued at the conference, higher education already makes a tremendous impact for good across the world. As Universities UK claims, the sector drives productivity and growth, attracts talent from across the globe, and equips people with skills to succeed. The extraordinary range of high quality research carried out by the sector changes the world, and universities can transform people’s lives. But recent political events in the UK, in the US and beyond have shone a critical light on the gap between the languages, practices and even values of higher education and those of the societies in which they are situated. It’s time to look again at what we are doing, at how we’re articulating our multiple missions and, especially, how we are engaging in authentic partnerships with local and wider communities with respect to both research and education.
Introducing a Connected Curriculum
My work on Connected Curriculum offers a practical set of steps for changing the ways in which we design and enhance university curricula. Drawing on philosophical roots, my newly published open access book, A Connected Curriculum for Higher Education, proposes a fresh way of framing what we do. At its core, it emphasises the need for students to learn through research and critical enquiry, engaging actively with complex global challenges, but the framing introduces six key dimensions to support this goal. The book incorporates a series of vignettes of practice from institutions around the world, which illustrate a range of ways in which the underpinning principles can be put into practice.
In the book I argue that we need to create much stronger connections between students and researchers. How can students, at all levels of the curriculum, really benefit from studying in an environment where research takes place, and where researchers really are pushing on the edges of what we think we know? Practical steps adopted by a number of departments at UCL have included a ‘Meet The Researcher’ induction activity, in which students in small groups investigate the work of one of the department’s researchers, meet them to discuss it, then produce an ‘output’ (whether online or face to face) that communicates aspects of that body of work to a lay audience. This has proved extremely popular with both researchers and students, and offers just one way of beginning to break down the research-education gap.
A connected ‘throughline’
The Connected Curriculum framework emphasises the importance of creating a connected ‘throughline’, which anchors the narrative of the degree programme while empowering students to steadily build their skills and confidence and equipping them to make useful links across disciplines. This throughline can also act as a locus for challenging students to make and articulate connections between their academic learning and learning needed for the workplace. It can also explicitly challenge students to make connections across disciplines. An example of this is seen in UCL’s innovative Bachelor of Arts and Sciences (BASc) degree, in which students study across disciplines and are challenged in core modules to make explicit connections between them.
Key to the Connected Curriculum framework is changing the characteristics of student assessments, so that some assessment tasks at each level of study require students to produce ‘outputs’ for a specified, real world audience. Ideally, this includes opportunities for working in partnership with audiences drawn from wider societal groups – for example, local charities, high schools, online interest groups, policy makers, employers’ groups – to investigate a topic of mutual interest, for shared benefit. A radical proposal in the book is to move away from so much reliance on a modular system and towards programme-level Showcase Portfolios, which are curated by students and show the best of what they have done on the whole degree, including the work that is designed explicitly to be outward-facing.
At UCL we’re drawing on the Connected Curriculum framework, with its underpinning philosophy of empowering students to engage with the edge of knowledge, as a key part of our Education Strategy. The international conference in June showed that there is huge interest globally in re-framing what the sector is doing, within and across disciplines. We live in challenging times, but they are full of possibilities for universities to make even more of a difference.
For further information about the Connected Curriculum initiative, please contact Professor Dilly Fung at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @DevonDilly. You can download a copy of the book for free here.