University College London is pioneering a series of projects to break down the boundaries between teaching and research. Professor Dilly Fung, who leads on these initiatives within UCL, tells Rosie Niven how they are benefiting staff and students.
You are behind UCL’s Connected Curriculum framework – can you briefly explain this initiative?
Connected Curriculum at UCL is all about bringing research and education closer together, both for students and for academics. Traditionally, research and education have run in parallel, with students benefiting from ‘research-informed’ lectures. However UCL, as part of its UCL 2034 Strategy, has committed itself to taking this further, by developing new ways of enabling students to participate actively in research and enquiry at every level of the curriculum and become partners in our research community.
Programmes are being developed around a connected ‘throughline’ of enquiry-based activity, with the inclusion of interdisciplinary, inclusive, real-world projects encouraged. Student assessments are becoming increasingly outward facing, aimed at a specific audience. This approach, which enables students to develop teamwork, communication and digital skills, mirrors the research dissemination and public engagement activities carried out by our academic researchers and enables students to connect their academic studies with external organisations and audiences.
You launched UCL ChangeMakers earlier this year. Do you have an update on this and any other recent Connected Curriculum Activities?
The UCL ChangeMakers initiative, launched at UCL’s 2015 Teaching and Learning Conference, encourages students to take a lead in enhancing education and the wider student experience at UCL. Students can apply to carry out funded ChangeMakers projects, through which they can initiate new ideas, approaches or resources.
Already 24 students have led on education enhancement projects, for which they have received training and guidance. For example, speech and language science students produced a ‘best practice’ document for staff to use when redesigning their Moodle sites over the summer and archaeology students developed an approach to introducing PhD student forums at the Institute of Archaeology.
Student feedback has been extremely positive, as a recent interview with the UCL ChangeMakers team shows, students say that leading on projects has made them feel more empowered and enabled them to become partners in developing excellent educational practices.
Over the next year, more funds will be made available to enable students to take forward developments that are in line with the values and principles of Connected Curriculum, and we’re now looking to appoint some students as UCL ChangeMaker Scholars, to help us investigate and enhance approaches to education across the institution.
Part of this work is about improving the abilities of staff to teach and assess students effectively. How does investing in teaching benefit universities in terms of efficiency?
Developing effective and engaging approaches to teaching is vital and UCL has introduced an imaginative continuing professional development scheme, UCL Arena, which enables staff to share good practice, develop new strategies and also gain formal professional recognition for their expertise through our accreditation by the Higher Education Academy. More than 2,000 staff have signed up for regular UCL Arena updates, and through the scheme more than 300 people have already gained Arena and HEA Fellowship awards.
It is very inefficient for any large organisation to have individuals and groups working in isolation as they develop new ideas and resources and as they try to overcome challenges related to quality practices. UCL Arena, through its Arena Open Events series, enables colleagues to share and build on one another’s strengths and good practice is promoted through our online Teaching and Learning Portal.
We are now actively connecting these education enhancement activities with our quality assurance processes, so that all areas of institutional monitoring and development are logically and creatively interlinked, saving staff time and providing guidance at the point of need.
What are the benefits of a research-based education?
Research-based education is built on a philosophy of learning through enquiry, of never accepting what we already think we know. It’s about being willing to widen our conceptual horizons and building our capacities to challenge, create and act.
Through participating in research and enquiry, students and staff are all pushing the edges of their knowledge; they are also developing a very wide range of skills relevant to life, professional practice and employment more widely, including the ability to question, to test evidence, to see connections and work with others to solve complex conceptual and real-world problems.
Do you have any examples of how Connected Curriculum is making a difference in breaking down the boundaries between research and education?
The first step to breaking down boundaries between research and education has been developing new ways for students to connect with our expert researchers. Our Meet Your Researcher activity is a great example of an initiative which enables students to learn about, question and engage with researchers and their current research challenges. Feedback from both students and staff has been extremely positive, and departments are encouraged to connect this activity with other, curriculum-based opportunities for students to participate in research activities and their dissemination.
What do you like best about your current role?
My current role is extremely busy and varied. It’s a real privilege to be working with so many extraordinary academics, professionals and students, across many strands of developmental activity.
A particular joy over the past year has been a number of invitations to speak at institutions, conferences and organisations about research-based education at UCL and my related research in this area. As well as giving keynote presentations at a number of UK universities, I’ve shared our new approaches, and my related research, in the Republic of Ireland, Holland, Hong Kong and Australia.
Every visit enables me to learn more about inspirational developments across the sector, and to use new insights to improve our approaches at UCL.
What do you do in your spare time.
Strange though it may seem, I love to use time at weekends to read and analyse transcripts of my research interviews; they’re both informative and fascinating. But my favourite non-work activity is watching live Premier League football – a great way to let off steam!
Professor Dilly Fung is the director of the Arena Centre for Research-Based Education.