Innovation in teaching needn’t be in the pursuit of excellence

An evaluation of a HEFCE Catalyst funding round on teaching innovation causes Debbie McVitty to wonder whether metrics help or hinder innovation.

One of those reports that remind you just how much higher education policy has changed of late was published the other day – an evaluation of a HEFCE Catalyst Fund round for teaching innovation projects.

Funded projects were required to engage students in design, delivery and evaluation of the project, with different projects bringing in students to different degrees – some as collaborators, and others as end-users.

The approach to evaluation consists of surveying/interviewing project leads and some of the students who were involved in the projects. The report is not looking at whether teaching improved as a result of the projects, though it’s indicated that in lots of cases project leads undertook this kind of evaluation at local level.

But we do learn a good bit about what people believe supports innovation and what doesn’t. The credibility of a national programme, support from managers, and protected time to design and implement the project properly, were welcomed. Bureaucracy, a lack of a culture of collaboration and low tolerance for risk were seen as inhibitors.

It’s a pleasure to read about how evidently enjoyable student engagement was for the students involved and for project leaders – and indicates why it’s worth engaging students in co-design of resources and interventions that they are intended to be the end-users of.

It’s also clear that the experience of designing and implementing a new thing – and in some cases, having the opportunity to pilot and redesign interventions – is motivating for project leaders.

But there’s quite a lot here that’s predictable. National programmes to improve teaching rarely “work” if what you mean by “work” is producing measurable enhancements to learning and teaching. Funded projects are too small-scale, not sustainable, not replicable in other subjects. People move on, and enthusiasm fizzles out.

The report notes that there’s a perception that metrics-driven institutional cultures hamper innovation, contributing to risk-aversion. Which is counter-intuitive if your model of learning and teaching enhancement assumes that innovations are produced by a consciousness of inadequate teaching as demonstrated by metrics.

Maybe it can work that way sometimes – it’s not unusual to hear that dreadful NSS scores prompted a significant rethink in approach. But it’s as likely that poor scores prompt relatively minor policy change such as instituting feedback turnaround times. And if the numbers are OK, then complacency and a desire not to rock the boat can stifle new ideas.

Much innovation is not about fundamental rethinking in any case – it’s about incremental improvement, or even doing things differently for the sake of a refresh, or for working smarter, or opening up a new conversation with students – rather than the pursuit of a notion of teaching excellence.

Innovation might contribute to better teaching – or it might not. But the freedom to experiment – and the joy of creativity – and the hard graft of trying to make something different happen – that’s a very particular kind of better, and it might be just as important for sustaining healthy universities. What’s more, it probably won’t be embedded through the HE system because of national funding programmes, as worthy and well-intentioned as those might be.

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