Who better to talk to us about all things BILT than its founder – Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost, Professor Judith Squires
What was your motivation for setting up the Bristol Institute for Learning and Teaching (BILT)?
When I was Pro Vice Chancellor for Education and Students, we were really keen to proactively foster a culture which celebrated fantastic education and promoted good teaching. We were aware there was a huge amount of innovation and good practice taking place across the institution, but we didn’t really have a formal mechanism for sharing that beyond the discipline or school. I worked very closely with academic colleagues to consider how best to take that forward and we decided we very much wanted to have an academic led, fairly small institution. We wanted it to be at the heart of the university – somewhere people could come to share their expertise and others could learn from. Alvin Birdi who was then in my team was really critical in helping shape the form that the Institute took. And so it was launched in 2017 and it was quite small at that point. But it very quickly gathered pace because there was such a need for it, and it resonated with the community.
I think there was another driver for me as well. I was looking at our different Pathways, (Pathways 1, 2 and 3), and really wanting to make sure we were creating space for scholarship of learning and teaching. Even where we had people who were innovating and had fantastic practice we had relatively little reflection or external engagement around education and innovation. We wanted to foster that culture of scholarship of learning and teaching as well and I’ve been really pleased with just how far we’ve come to pull education into a visible space.
How fundamental do you think BILT has been to projects like the Assessment and Feedback Strategy, and the intention that we have student-centred learning at the heart of the curriculum?
I think BILT has been critical because it’s affected cultural change in educational practice. You can change policies and processes, but you can’t drive change forward without the understanding, valuing and ownership of the change from colleagues who are actually doing the teaching. I don’t think the developments we’ve seen would have been embedded as effectively as they are without BILT.
In COVID we all had to innovate and change really rapidly which was quite a daunting task for many academics. I do feel that BILT provided a structure of resources and support around new practices, for example blended learning or online learning, and this proved to be incredibly important at that time.
But there are other initiatives where I think BILT continues to be important. It has been instrumental in allowing academics to embrace changes in thinking about how we assess students, with the emphasis on formative assessment. It has really helped give people the confidence to reduce the quantity of assessment so they can focus on learning.
When other issues emerge, like decolonising the curriculum for example, I think BILT provides a really fantastic route for allowing those conversations to flow around the university, including what that means in terms of innovation in your learning and teaching practices. It also facilitates these conversations with students and I think it will continue to have a role to foster all sorts of changes as we continue to innovate.
As you say, BILT is an invaluable resource for sharing best practice and facilitating change, but do you think people are aware of this, and of the work that BILT does?
Yes I do. I think that BILT has built up a profile that people are very much aware of and value. The newsletter is fantastic and I know people refer to the case studies and find them a really useful resource. We’ve amalgamated a whole series of other things into BILT which means everybody knows it as the place to go for taking on core staff development activities and support for the national teaching awards. I know a lot of people have told me just how much they valued the support they got for example if they were drafting cases for teaching fellowships. I also think that the annual conferences have taken some really interesting themes as their focus and have been hugely well attended which is an indication that people do see the value of engaging.
What was the most challenging aspect of getting BILT started?
I actually think that BILT was always well received because we were really careful to listen to colleagues about how they wanted us to structure it and we went to other institutions to see what seemed to work. We were mindful of trying to keep it as a place that enabled academics to support each other without it feeling like a separate activity, and I think because we set it up like that it was valued right from the outset.
What was challenging at the time was the introduction of the core staff development activities for those who teach. For example the CREATE programme was difficult to embed because that was quite a culture change and getting it right took time. I think it’s in a good place now and is really valued, but locating that in the culture established by BILT really helped.
Do you have a vision of where you’d like to see BILT heading next? By 2030, for example?
Well, I think by 2030 I would really like to see BILT help us continue to have conversations about how we offer more flexible programmes and flexible education. Things like, what do micro credentials mean? How do we engage with the lifelong learning conversation?
This seems to me a really important theme that I’d like to explore. I also think we’ve still got a lot of thinking to do as an institution about how we support hybrid online distance learning, what the digital and physical infrastructure we need to achieve that looks like, and what are the practices we need to do that well. Those two together should help us really think about how we have research-rich inclusive education at Bristol and what that entails. That’s always been what I’ve been really keen to foster and I think BILT will continue to add to that thinking.