Let's talk about partnerships in Higher Education

The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai

Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”. As we are approaching the end of the academic year- one that, we can all agree, took place under exceptional circumstances, and tested our ability to act under an endless feeling of uncertainty- I would like to invite you to look into the future and see how we can best apply the lessons we learned during the pandemic. So we’re zooming out this week as we take a look at various types of partnerships in Higher Education, analyse their merits and find ways we can establish them in a sustainable manner. I’m sharing some of my thoughts on how we can get out of our silos and work together in different formats and, as usual, I’ve put together some useful resources to inspire you into putting these partnerships into practice in your institutions. Hope you enjoy reading and I am looking forward to your comments!

The value of partnerships

Working together, and especially bringing in different perspectives, can often lead to richer results that go beyond what can be achieved individually. While we are all aware of this, putting into practice in a sustained and sustainable manner at institutional level can really be a challenge in Higher Education. Universities are split into silos, reinforcing an “us vs them” divide: academic and non-academic staff, teachers and students, our department/ faculty and other faculties, etc. Of course there are exceptions, but this pattern is often so deeply entrenched in the institutional fabric that even when the benefits of collaboration are obvious, it is not easy to change course and start building bridges instead of separate (sand) castles.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the potential danger these rifts constitute and also provided an opportunity - if a rather ad-hoc, crisis one- to collaborate across different silos. Now it’s time to evaluate whether (and which of) these spontaneous partnerships could play a role in designing and delivering quality education and how they can be scaled up and institutionalised. Below I briefly discuss three types of partnerships and provide some resources and concrete examples.

Partnerships between faculty and educational developers

Teaching is often seen as an individual endeavour. While academia actively encourages collaboration and peer review where research is concerned, teaching is perceived as a solo activity. The pandemic has caused some visible changes to this dynamic: the forced move to remote teaching has prompted faculty to work with learning technologists and instructional designers to adapt their course design to the online environment. This is one form of partnership that, if institutionalised and complemented by appropriate incentives, can prove to be extremely beneficial in the long run, as it results in a constantly improving student experience.

Because it implies a structured collaboration across silos, involving both academic and non-academic staff (and, indeed, people who identify as both), this partnership can take time and effort to establish, as it requires trust and shared experiences. It also requires all those involved to step out of their comfort zone, admit their vulnerability and their limits and look for dialogue partners who are complementary in their knowledge and skills rather than from the same “bubble”.

We can further extend this category to include various non-academic services, whose work is intrinsically linked to the students’ journeys, such as libraries, admissions cervices, career services, etc. It’s important to acknowledge that in order to design an effective and rich learning experience, at course and programme level, academic staff would greatly benefit from input from these services, especially if provided in a sustained and structured manner.

Students as partners

While we all value students’ opinions and we strive to get their feedback, in many cases it’s difficult go much further than the end-of-course evaluations. We also feel vulnerable letting students take a peak “backstage” into our often messy course design process. The Covid-19 crisis has prompted many universities to open new dialogue channels with their students. Transforming this dialogue into a real partnership, with students as co-creators, would be an important next step. This can take many shapes, and can be implemented at different levels. Some examples are: student panels that work with faculty and educational developers in the process of course and programme design; pairing students and faculty for the duration of a course to reflect on learning design together, etc. In the “Resources” section you can find several useful examples I strongly recommend you browse through, if you are interested in this topic.

The most important things to consider in the context of these partnerships are:

  • establishing a clear structure and process,

  • explicit roles for both students and faculty involved,

  • clear benefits and incentives on both sides,

  • dedicated facilitation efforts,

  • embedding it in the overall university/ faculty setup,

  • building trust is also they key here, like in the previous section.

Borderless: cross-institutional & cross-disciplinary partnerships

How about looking for partners outside one’s institution (and even country) and/ or outside one’s discipline? While we often do that in our research, when it comes to teaching, universities tend to compete rather than cooperate and disciplines become closed fortresses among which it’s very difficult to transfer practices. But it does not need to be this way.

The pandemic created an opportunity for HE professionals to reach outside their institutions and connect - albeit only virtually- with peers from around the world. This exchanges can be extremely fruitful for all involved and we now need to find ways to embed them in our everyday work in a sustainable manner. We can start small by collectively building open educational resources, for instance, or co-teaching together with colleagues from other departments in order to offer students various disciplinary perspectives. By creating these opportunities “by design” rather than waiting for them to happen spontaneously, we increase the chances of making this a habit instead of an exception. Technology can facilitate these connections, when used intentionally, and we can take a moment to reflect on what we tried during the pandemic that could help our future goals in this direction.