Teaching Stories

Engaged Learning 101

During our smooth, buffer-free Skype call, Senior Lecturer in Design Thinking Ann Padley and I chatted about the fresh take the Innovation course at Bristol has undertaken. The 4-year integrated master’s programme collaborates with 14 subject disciplines (from Music, to Computer Science to Social Policy) and has a cohort of up to 80 students. The interdisciplinary programme is structured around two aims: i) specialisation in a subject and ii) the acquisition of practical skills and initiative.

‘Through the programme, we aim to make our students T-shaped graduates.’ What Padley means by this is that the course combines the breadth of practical skills students learn at the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship with the depth of knowledge from their subject disciplines. But how does the programme strike this balance between breadth and depth?

The course encourages students to fully immerse themselves within the department of their chosen subject area by fulfilling the same unit requirements as Single Honours Students. The added dimension of students in Innovation comes through core units.  

These units are not graded with the typical summative exam students are used to. These assignments are not floating around waiting to be marked, processed and dissolved into the academic ether.

These assessments are not meant to be forgotten. They are meant to engage and be engaged with.  

Such assessments are business plans, client presentations, and proposals for new innovations organisations to consider… They are projects that burst through the bubble of academia.

The value of these projects does not only come from their unconventional format. They reside in collaborative partnerships students build with each other, their tutors and… external actors. That’s right, students work with professionals through the concept of engaged learning.

In a nutshell, engaged learning is that bridge where theoretical knowledge and the oh-so-desired work experience employers seek finally meet. But the experience isn’t a simple binary between academia and the professional sector. Engaged learning fosters skills like collaboration, creativity, problem-solving… Transferable skills and experiences that would make students well rounded scholars as well as well rounded people.

The projects that students take on are conceived through their working relationship with tutors and the organisations that supervise them.  These projects are usually a long-term process. 2-3 weeks are taken to flesh out and evaluate the parameters of assignment and 9-10 weeks are taken to execute the project throughout a Teaching Block. This extended effort allows students to engage with a project they co-produced with their tutors.  Students get to shape their project alongside their industry professionals and give them the opportunity to claim authorship of their work.

You could call the Innovation programme the lovechild between a consultancy position or start-up experience and a full-time degree. The programme is practically designed to whet students’ appetite for experience and quench recruiter’s thirst for well-equipped entry-level applicants.

Ten engaged learning projects were led last year on the Centre’s Client-Led Briefs unit with companies ranging from a top national law firm to Northern Surveying, a family-owned quantity surveying practice. Padley highlights that such projects allow the concept of engaged learning to be put into practice rather than being taught as an isolated ‘island’ concept that students learn about without applying it to their wider academic interests and/or working skills.  

Engaged Learning projects are a refreshing pedagogical step forward, however, they are not without their challenges. This type of learning makes students learn about the unavoidable obstacles of the working world. (Clients that are difficult to get a hold of, team members not pulling their weight, uncertainty about the best next step to take…etc.)

This is when partnership principles are put into place to mitigate the obstacles of such projects and to safeguard and preserve the interests of students, academics and the external institutions.

When conceptualising these principles, Padley states ‘We need these principles to be able to help shape the way engaged learning takes place and to build an ecosystem focused on creating value for all parties involved.’ For her, principles are not only put into place to guide methodology, but to manage power dynamics between parties and peoples. Padley states that as well as collaborating with others, students and staff should also learn to gage compatibilities and delegate responsibilities in a just manner.

This hierarchy of power and responsibility should be viewed as a network that encourages the collaboration of knowledge. In the Client-Led Briefs units, Innovation students are considered ‘junior consultants’ and their tutors ‘senior consultants’. These titles do confirm that a hierarchy does not necessarily negate a partnership but enhance it.

Padley highlighted that students are not ‘placing an order from a set, defined menu.’ Although I was a bit confused at first, this intriguing metaphor did make sense. Students aren’t placing a fast order of work experience to companies through a quick business transaction. Students must think about the impact of their order, and the contributions of their exchange. Companies are not cashiers, they are waiters, more interactive and receptive to the order. They let you know about the seasonal specials, the tasty work constraints, the crunchy financial plans…

Engaged learning is about understanding this academic transaction. Students, staff and academics do not just create a partnership to passively exchange notes, but to examine and evaluate the benefits of their collaborative efforts.

Innovation is entering its fourth year and is expected to export its first cohort of graduates next summer. When I asked Padley about the work opportunities her future graduates were expected to fall into, she said that some graduates would have the potential to start their own business, use their entrepreneurial mindset within existing organisations, go into consulting, or forge their own path into a completely different sector they are passionate about.   The Innovation programme’s incorporation of Engaged Learning is a glimpse into the future pedagogical landscape of tertiary education. This is hopefully a landscape where assessments and projects are no longer feared for their immediate numerical outcomes but valued for their emergent learning experiences.  

Corrie Macleod