Navigating the unknown in HE

Navigating the unknown: Why we need to be exploring new models of higher education and pedagogy for future-facing skills development and sustainable graduate success

By Dr Sam Grogan (PVC Student Experience, University of Salford) and Dr Graham Holden (HE Consultant and Researcher) 

Drivers for change

In their seminal text Future Shock futurologists Alvin and Heidi Toffler describe a future state in which the perception of individuals and entire societies is of “too much change in too short a period of time”. This, like many of their predictions, proved unerringly accurate with higher education being globally challenged to add value like never before. Universities must be globally connected, locally active and regionally effective. To this end, the traditional role of the university, producing knowledge through research and developing knowledge through teaching is arguably no longer sufficient in and of itself. The nature of these activities must not only result in impact on student outcomes and in research publications, but contribute to social good, economic generation, to the regional community and to the efforts of our global community. At the heart of this contribution lies innovation and idea creation. Developing the people, capabilities and environments which can, in themselves, successfully foster and sustainably develop impactful knowledge and people is a necessary focus for higher education as Universities are being asked to play increasingly prominent (and public) roles in addressing the big issues that face our planet.[1]

In the UK, the challenge landscape for higher education includes external demands and drivers focused upon;

> The UK productivity challenge; [2]

> The accelerating development of digital technologies, industry 4.0 and the onset of automation;

> The need to respond to Governmental agendas and strategies including (in the UK); the UK skills agenda, the Industrial Strategy, the social mobility agenda;

> The need to explicitly and more effectively demonstrate its value to wider society (the Civic University).

Against this disruptive and challenging wider landscape, UK universities are currently also facing a perfect storm of sector related troubles which may, in the next few years, severely hamper efforts towards adding value across the various change agenda mentioned above, most prominently; the Augar review of University tuition fees, the immediate and long term implications of Brexit, and pension woes across the sector – collectively presenting a web of thorny issues to be dealt with and overcome.

Whilst this perfect storm of sector related issues and the challenges being presented by the wider societal landscape perhaps beckon deeper questions and debate surrounding the future facing fitness of operating infrastructures and business models currently operated in various forms across the UKHE sector, the operating environment writ large also begs (re)consideration of efforts and activities in the arena of teaching and learning. Graduates worldwide now face an increasingly fast-paced, fluid, highly competitive, demanding, glocal workplace. The fiscal, political, social, technological, cultural and environmental forces at play have resulted in an environment of constant and accelerating change, creating challenges for graduates entering the world of work. To survive and prosper in this future state graduates must be more adaptable and capable than ever before.

 The Context: Disruption of capabilities toward sustainable career success

To meet the wider challenges of the graduate environment, there is a growing recognition that graduates need varying degrees of enterprising / entrepreneurial / intrapreneurial capabilities if they are to be effective within a constantly evolving context which recognises rapid change as normal. As Toffler predicted, the way to enable students to respond to this context and navigate the unavoidable future shocks is by facilitating students to ‘learn, unlearn and relearn’. Similarly, with the converging change agendas above and the increasing societal and industrial impacts of transformative technologies in mind, it is essential for higher education to recognise that deep disciplinary knowledge is no longer the complete key to sustained and sustainable graduate success, and that knowledge as an endpoint in and of itself no longer equates to power. In place of an industrial landscape which previously sought highly skilled disciplines organised around traditional subjects, a new understanding of what might constitute ‘technical and professional’ can be considered. This future-focused thinking positions interdisciplinarity alongside productive and compassionate relationships, personal resilience and adaptability, as some of the key personal technical and professional capitals on which the sustainable successes of the future may be built.

In order to develop these capabilities-as-capital towards a personalised productivity, and position students for sustained long-term success, change is needed in the dynamic sphere of teaching and learning on two primary fronts;

Disruption of student engagement

Students must engage in (higher) education in a manner which, as a baseline, moves beyond the ‘poor’ transactionalism associated with the notion of being a ‘consumer’ of education-as-product, (acquisition of knowledge-as-commodity) and steps towards the idea of being a ‘connected co-producer’ of their education. This experiential, iterative ideation of a connected future self, placed as a central concern of a students’ engagement, is achieved through a co-created (or, mindful of digital ubiquity and the distinctly fuzzy line between internal and external learning resources), a co-curated, guided, exploratory learning experience: a focused, curious, deliberate (yet sometimes inevitably messy) development of self within a disrupted, pluralistic landscape of work/live/play lived seamlessly across digital and physical domains. 

Disruption of higher education pedagogies

Given this, higher education must look beyond the habitual idea of the traditional degree programmes and associated modes and models of learning, to new means of facilitating the development of these personal capabilities in the graduate as digital global citizen. Teaching in higher education is still predominantly discipline-centric, determining the internal organisation of institutions and the design and delivery of the curriculum. This is largely predicated on the premise that dissemination and acquisition of disciplinary knowledge is the end goal for the tutor and student, rather than being the essential and cultural lens through which flexible, agile and adaptable capabilities-as-capital are gained. However, with the wider landscape above in mind, many universities are starting to highlight and consider a more competency and capability-centric learning journey, which embeds transferable capabilities and interdisciplinary thinking that will enable graduates to thrive in portfolio careers within a fluid volatile connected environment.

Whilst the grains that start a landslide appear to be rolling, there needs to be a significant shift in emphasis in our higher education practice: moving from disciplinary knowledge and traditional andragogies of knowledge acquisition to outward-facing, demand-led, problem-based models of cross-institutional interdisciplinary collaborative teaching and learning. These effectively position the development of a matrix of personal capabilities-as-capital as core curriculum and need to be developed to foster the 21st Century graduate capable of successfully and consistently navigating the unknown.

[1] UN Global Challenges include ageing, population growth and climate change.

[2] All the G7 economies have experienced slower productivity growth since the 2008 financial crash, but the slowdown has been greatest in the UK.


An earlier version of this thought piece was also published on the University Alliance’s Teaching Excellence Alliance’s website.

OneHE and Academics Without Borders agree partnership

OneHE and Academics Without Borders (Universitaires sans frontières), announce that they are entering into a partnership

OneHE, the global network for higher education educators, and Academics Without Borders, the Canada-based non-profit organisation focused on helping developing countries build their universities’ capacity to educate their own experts and conduct research to support their countries’ development have today announced a partnership. This announcement follows quickly on OneHE’s recent partnership agreement with GlobalMindED.

Olivia Fleming, co-Founder of OneHE and Director of Partnerships said “This new partnership represents a further milestone for OneHE in building its global footprint. Our conversations with Academics Without Borders and Greg Moran have been exciting from the outset and demonstrate that our vision for OneHE as a safe, collaborative space for educators worldwide has synergies with organisations and associations worldwide in the higher education space. We will now focus on delivering mutual value in this partnership because we recognise that we are working for the same end goal – for a better and fairer society.”

Greg Moran, Executive Director of Academics Without Borders said “This partnership makes perfect sense. OneHE is a global network connecting educators committed to quality, innovation and access in in higher education. Academics Without Borders provides a vehicle that enables those same educators who are willing to volunteer their expertise and energy to work with their colleagues in other parts of the world to enhance the capacity and quality of their academic programs. The OneHE network will markedly facilitate these connections and we expect that Academics Without Borders will add a welcome avenue for the meaningful expression of the passion for higher education of many OneHE members.”

OneHE is a membership platform that helps educators with a shared passion for learning and teaching to connect, collaborate and innovate in a safe space that is uniquely for them.

Academics Without Borders is a Canada-based non-profit organisation whose volunteer-based projects involve the full range of university activities from expanding and improving existing institutions and programs to helping create new ones. Believing that higher education is a critical component of prosperous, equitable, and sustainable communities, it supports universities in the developing world to enhance their quality and capacity.

OneHE and GlobalMindED announce partnership

OneHE and GlobalMindED, the US based innovation network today announced that they are to enter into a partnership.

OneHE, the global network for higher education educators, and GlobalMindED, the US not-for-profit organisation founded by Carol Carter to drive increased diversity and close the equity gap for first-generation to college and job seekers, have today announced that they have agreed to partner. For OneHE it represents its first major international partnership.

Speaking on the new partnership, Olivia Fleming, Founder and Director of Partnerships said “I am delighted. From our first conversation with Carol Carter and her team at GlobalMindED there has been a synergy of ideas, ambition and an enthusiasm to collaborate. We will now work together to explore the wider opportunities for the partnership and collaborating. It’s early days for OneHE but this is a significant development and a strong marker of our global ambition.”

Carol Carter added “In the new world of Higher ED impact, collaboration is the key currency. We see the GlobalMindED and OneHE Partnership as one of the best ways to close the global equity gap though high impact collaboration with uncommon collaborations, entrepreneurs, business leaders and educators who work with us to co-create the future of learning and work.”

OneHE is a membership platform that helps educators with a shared passion for learning and teaching to connect, collaborate and innovate in a safe space that is uniquely for them. Free to networks, OneHE recently launched to individuals and is currently running its first funding round through the OneHE Foundation.

GlobalMindED is a US-based innovation non-profit that closes the equity gap through education, entrepreneurship, employment and economic mobility to create a capable, diverse talent pipeline worldwide. GlobalMindED aims to improve access and equity in K-12 and higher education through improved graduation rates and sustainable careers. In addition to its annual conference, GlobalMindED works with fifteen GlobalMindED College Collaboratives and sponsors the Inclusive Leader Awards recognizing those who have done the most to open doors for women, people of color, ability status and underrepresented populations. GlobalMindED’s Bold Goal is to algorithmically connect 25,000,000 First Generation to College Students, those who work with them and those who to hire them to role models, mentors, internships and jobs worldwide.

OneHE members can register for the conference ($250 USD) and the Inclusive Leader Awards Dinner ($100 USD) at the discounted rate by contacting Saule Aliyeva.

If you are interested in discussing partnership working with OneHE, please contact us.

Student Experience: What is that? Which student? Which experience?


By Dr Harriet Dunbar-Morris, PFHEA – Dean of Learning and Teaching (University of Portsmouth, UK).

Outside of the higher education sector there is some confusion about ‘Student Experience’; I’m often asked: ‘Student Experience’, what is that; which student; which experience? That part of your job description, does it mean you’re some sort of holiday rep – the ‘Purplecoat’ (Portsmouth’s colour is purple) for making sure that the students at Portsmouth are having a good time (like in the sitcom ‘Hi-de-Hi’!)?

The term student experience is wide-ranging, applying as it does to a variety of different types of student (full-time, part-time, straight from school, mature, international, undergraduate, postgraduate), and meaning different things to each of them as individuals.

One thing we can all agree on in the sector is that an array of different things we provide in our universities affect the student experience, and thereby the quality of students’ learning: quality of teaching; level of academic support; types and modes of teaching; learning space and facilities; opportunities for extra-curricular activities; social space. These are the kinds of things we address in our TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) submissions, and in meeting our regulatory requirements (e.g. the QAA Higher Education Reviews in the UK), and, for a particular group of students, in our Access and Participation Plans.

But this makes the student experience a bit of a tick-box exercise. I believe it distances us from what we are actually doing in our universities – enabling our students to succeed, however they personally perceive success, and facilitating a development process, in which our students mature intellectually, emotionally and personally. We are partners with our students, co-creating their success.

At the University Portsmouth, this is encapsulated in the ‘Hallmarks of the Portsmouth Graduate’ – the set of attributes our students will acquire through their time with us. Other universities will have similar graduate attribute documents. The test is to embed these into our processes, and evaluate and monitor their delivery and achievement, but without divorcing it all from the student experience. This is one of the key responsibilities of my role at Portsmouth. I am sure others have similar responsibilities.

A model that I have found quite useful for getting my colleagues at Portsmouth to think about our students’ student experience through their eyes is the nine qualities model of student experience:


In the model intersecting qualities are grouped into clusters:

• value – e.g. financial, social, educational, professional, personal;

• belonging – e.g. enabling participation and engagement (vs. alienation);

• identity – HE allows people to extend or change themselves, and gain professional attributes (e.g. ‘bedside manner’ or ‘management capability’);

• discovery – e.g. encounter and create new ideas;

• achievement – e.g. getting into university, passing units, getting good marks, completing courses, getting employment;

• connection – e.g. make connections between people, ideas, experiences; develop networks; collaboration in communities;

• opportunity – e.g. academic and professional opportunities and prospects;

• students should feel their experience is enabled and personalised, they acquire competency and capacity to flourish, with information, support, guidance as and when needed.

I use the model with my colleagues to get them to think about our students e.g. who they are; how they approach higher education; ways in which they learn; how they change as they progress; and so on; and also how it links with our Hallmarks. I thought it might be useful to share this model with colleagues on OneHE who might like to consider how this works in their own context for their students’ student experience.

The version of the model developed by Coates, Kelly and Naylor that I use was a draft from March 2016 which has since been updated, and has since had more work

I will be interested to read what members of the OneHE community make of using this model with their colleagues.

Log-in to OneHE to share your thoughts

Digital in HE – a perspective from Coventry University

By Simon Launder, Deputy Chief Innovation Officer and Ian Dunn, Provost (Coventry University, UK)

The meaning of digital in education is changing.

In spite of universities often being at the bleeding edge of technological innovation in research, higher education providers have often lagged behind when it comes to digital innovation and the adoption of technology in teaching and learning.

To date there perhaps hasn’t been the competitive imperative in higher education, as seen in other industries such as finance or media, to develop technology on a continuous loop of innovation and improvement, but there are signs that the sector is waking up to the strategic advantage of adopting a digital mindset.

Albeit with exceptions in “pockets of innovation”, the use of technology in education was previously perceived on par with filing cabinets i.e. a place to store and find information. Today, the role of technology at universities is increasingly seen as a strategic differentiator. This surge of interest is evident from the scale of EdTech startups promising to deliver new and exciting digital insights and transformational experiences that until now have been broadly absent from education. This emergence is possibly driven by the students’ demand for the latest innovation. It is in this arena of innovation and strategic advantage that Coventry is playing, at a time where the student experience is everything.

Digital is strategy and digital is people.

We know our students today have different demands on education from those a decade or even a year ago. We also know the students of tomorrow are going to be expecting a different experience entirely; one that is developed to fit seamlessly alongside personal lives, where technology is embraced and the ‘consumption’ of information is ever-available – on any device – ready to pick-up from the last point of interaction.

Our digital strategy can’t be understood in isolation from the university’s overarching strategy. Rather, digital is an integral part of what the university is and will be. For example, as the university strengthens its focus on mobility and employability, digital will be an integral part of achieving that. The realisation of Coventry’s digital strategy will not be a commodity, or a solution chasing problem, but a strategic advantage reflected in concrete initiatives affecting the individual student. What is locational mobility without the opportunity for students working part-time to study whilst commuting? What is employability without the integration of subject-specific and industry-relevant tools across courses?

Obsessed with engaging our students and enabling them to enter the workforce of tomorrow.

Our students are digital integrators for whom technology blurs the lines between work and social, of study and entertainment, of private and public. They favour the simplicity and flexibility of ecosystems of products over single “do it all” platforms that are either hard to navigate or removed from the social experiences in which they live their lives and share with each other.

To cater to the unpredictable needs of the students of the future, we are embracing the continuous change and development that accompanies applications and digital services. We know change will provide richer, more intuitive and personalised experiences with each iteration; for Coventry, this change is seen as a positive, rather than an inconvenience.

Yet, the complex nature of education means that change isn’t easy. To avoid having continuous change that leads to loss of focus, we are guided by clear principles in our approach to the digital student experience:

Principle 1: We don’t invest and deliver the latest technology trends to lead the pack, but rather we identify true use cases to improve the students’ experience.

For example, we strive for all of our use of digital to emulate the digital worlds that populate and enhance our private lives. We look at digital innovation as a key component of delivering exceptional experiences throughout university life. By using data from the classroom and across campus, we can enrich not only the teaching quality but also advance the overall experience, engagement and wellbeing of our students and staff.

Principle 2: We will be guided by data and interdisciplinary evidence rather than buzzwords and promises.

For example, a key resource in Coventry’s digital portfolio is learner analytics. But analytics mean nothing in isolation. We believe that harvested digital touchpoints of a student’s daily routine alone won’t provide insights or deliver the nudge necessary to steer those who are drifting back on track. However, by taking this information within the context of psychology, educational theory, socioeconomic data, trained AI and targeted human intervention, we will be able to truly understand our learners and provide them with the support each one needs to succeed to their full ability.

Principle 3: Our digital portfolio is an integrated ecosystem with an ever-changing use of applications that speak with each other.

For example, we will embed in all our processes – from procurement to integration – the understanding that the nature of digital is such that no single provider provides a ‘one size fits all solution’. Our students will not compare the quality of our platforms with those of their schools or other universities, they will compare them with Netflix, Instagram or Spotify. Most importantly, they will compare them with the multitude of applications on their devices. To live up to these expectations, our role is not to reduce the number of applications, but to ensure that we constantly scan the horizon for ‘best of breed’ and when we find those solutions then we ensure that they speak well with each other and provide an integrated digital student experience.

The way forward.

Although the benefits of technology are evident in higher education through use and application, the way forward is likely to be one where technology supports on-campus learners; one where full-service online learning is widely available and one where new forms of super affordable but highly credible learning become available. Technology will not diminish the campus experience but enhance it through personalisation, for those students who wish to experience campus learning. And as the price point, development and accessibility of technology advances further then it is for the universities and EdTech community to develop the pedagogy and technology in unison to provision new channels of super low-cost personalised learning, available for all.

So, for universities to use digital to both compete in the same way as other industries, and support their students, there must be a strategic lead and drive across the whole institution. It is no good allowing digital to be an add-on to a strategy. The culture amongst the leadership team needs to strive for innovation with a clear responsibility for digital innovation at the highest levels of the Executive. At Coventry we believe that we have this and aim to lead the way for a new generation of higher education provision, obsessively focused on the ever-changing needs of our students in digital and beyond.