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Centre for Online and Distance Education

Sustaining Innovation in Practice: Designing Educational Experiences


Written by
Clare Sansom

The final keynote speaker of the RIDE conference in 2023 was Jeff Grabill, who recently joined the University of Leeds as its pro-vice-chancellor for student education following a long and successful career at Michigan State University in the US. Jeff was introduced by the deputy director of CODE, Simon Rofe, who commented that he was introducing his boss: he, also, has recently moved to Leeds where he is Associate Professor (Reader) in International Politics.

Jeff began by explaining that his talk would draw on insights from his recent book, Design for Change in Higher Education, which he had largely written while still in the US, as well as his more recent experiences in Leeds. The focus of his talk would be learning design, but as its full title – ‘Educational Experiences (not just online) Must Be Designed’ – suggests, he would discuss a much broader range of experiences than that term often implies: not only online but on-campus, and not only campus learning but the whole range of campus experiences, informal as well as formal.

He then presented a strong case for change in how we design learning. Change, he suggested, is no longer an option: it is a requirement.  The current ‘business model’ of universities, he said, is not sustainable. Academics’ heavy workloads cannot be sustained, and the system in general tends to produce as many structural inequalities as it ameliorates. In both the US and the UK, this business model can be said to be ‘breaking under its own weight’ and we will need to think differently if we are to survive, let alone thrive.

The University of Leeds is currently engaging in the largest educational transformation that Jeff, at least, has ever heard of. Every School is re-thinking how it will teach and assess students in its disciplines, including online and digital components.  This offers opportunities as well as challenges: we can engage with so-called ‘grand challenges’, such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and with a population of increasingly diverse students who are eager to learn.

Design is a key component of the transformation programme at Leeds, and this is the case at all levels. He is not talking about how a module should be designed but about leading organisational change, which itself requires design and is as important for innovation as pedagogy and technology. This is discussed by Joshua Kim and Edward Maloney in their book Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education (2020).

As a university leader, Jeff is committed to facilitating change rather than imposing it: he is an influencer rather than a boss. Change will only be successful if those who are most affected feel involved in the process. He introduced the idea of ‘design as a conversation’ in which innovations are designed by putting stakeholders into a room together with an agenda to talk through.  He presented a pattern for this approach involving:

  • Identifying participants in a way that is inclusive and privileges those who are most impacted (such as students)
  • Committing to ideation that is attentive to perspective, difference, and turn-taking
  • Analysing our shared discourse
  • Prototyping and iterating based on user feedback (e.g. for an assessment)
  • Committing to action – for a design to be successful, it must be acted on.

He then introduced an activity that would illustrate how this approach can work in practice, related to the ‘sticky problem’ of assessment. He asked delegates to imagine that they are academics at the University of Leeds with the goal of providing students with opportunities for high-level intellectual assessed work. This should be ‘digital by default’ and allow an authentic assessment of student abilities. In the real world, however, ‘digital by default’ too often involves little more than replicating exams online; and we now also have to take into account the ‘provocation’ that students have access to AI systems built into the fundamental tools they use to produce their work.

We were given a discussion prompt to start conversations at our tables: ‘Design a conversation (in whatever discipline we choose) that enables reluctant colleagues to change assessment practices in ways that are authentic and leverage AI’. Specifically, we were asked to consider:

  • Who needs to be in the room (that is, involved in the conversation)?
  • What prior work is required?
  • What is the sequence of activities that you would create to structure this conversation?
  • What is the hardest problem that we need to solve to be successful with this design work?

This 10-minute exercise led into a lively plenary discussion, in which some participants presented the ideas that they had thought through and the questions it had raised.  These included the possibility of existential threats to the very existence of some universities, perhaps arising very quickly, and the future of AI in higher education: a theme that had run through the whole of the conference. One delegate raised the question of whether AI might one day be seen as important as electricity. More prosaically, there was a short discussion of the value of students giving feedback.

Jeff concluded with the hope that the exercise had given delegates a flavour of what he and his colleagues were trying to do in navigating their large and very complex institution around a ‘change curve’. CODE Director Linda Amrane-Cooper then ended the session – and with it, another very successful RIDE conference – by presenting him with a copy of the CODE book, Online and Distance Education for a Connected World.