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University of Exeter Senior Manager Perspective

Michele Shoebridge

Deputy Registrar and Director of Academic Services




The overarching aim of the CASCADE project is to design and implement a range of innovative strategies and curriculum activities which ensure that students and staff develop their digital capabilities in the context of their own disciplines. The project will specifically work with postgraduate research students to encourage them to become ‘change agents’ promoting and developing digital literacies across the institution A primary outcome of the project will be a coherent, evidence-based and cross-institutional strategy to improve digital literacies at the University of Exeter. This will contribute to the design of framework for a wider institutional strategy for employability and skills.    


The Higher Education White Paper “Students at the Heart of the System” (June 2011) encourages ‘closer working between institutions, employers and students to create a better experience leading to better-qualified graduates’. This is the focus of COLLABORATE. It is an ambitious project which captures our challenging strategic aspirations at the University of Exeter to introduce new generation assignments based around real-life and scenario based activities which are designed collaboratively by programme teams, students and employers. Working in partnership, we shall use existing online audit tools to establish a baseline, refine existing curriculum mapping tools to facilitate the design of employment -sensitive assignments and redevelop an existing online package for enhancing assessment literacy amongst students, employers and staff. Student to student collaboration on assignments with our Australian partner will allow us to test the use of technologies for inter-institutional collaboration for assessment.


The INTEGRATE project addressed the educational challenges faced by the University of Exeter’s flagship Business School as it enters a phase of considerable student expansion and international diversification. The Business School growth in student numbers over the last five years is 125%, with approximately 40% of those students coming from international backgrounds. It was mission-critical for the University that the Business School continued to provide an excellent educational experience for all throughout expansion and technology played a major role in this. To this end, school staff and students, collaborating with the University’s Education Enhancement Unit, were involved in designing and delivering a ‘step change’ so that technology is used to enhance learning across all aspects of the curriculum.


The Online Coursework Evaluation (OCME) project evaluated the innovative work undertaken by the University of Exeter in developing an end-to-end coursework management solution which is completely paper-free and supports administrative processes, academic pedagogy and the student experience.


Alignment with institutional agendas and strategies

The projects align with a range of the institution’s strategies and the institution’s drive to be student-focused. Specifically, the projects align with the TEL (Technology Enhanced Learning) strategy, particularly with a guiding principle “pedagogic requirements should underpin the uses made of technology” and follows all seven goals of the strategy e.g. promoting innovation and the creative use of technology as well as the active researching of this to inform pedagogic practice. All key Jisc projects demonstrates alignment with the education strategy e.g. through the embedding of authentic, research-like digital activities into the curriculum as well as alignment with the Employability and Graduate Development/Work-integrated Learning strategy, where the university is very keen to develop skill sets in students that will help them to get jobs. COLLABORATE also aligns with the Assessment and Feedback strategy in particular, relating to innovation in assessment and feedback practice. Student engagement is an important area of focus for the institution (which helps deliver good NSS results) and the projects actively enhance these student engagement activities.


Impact on staff culture and capabilities

The projects have helped to put more time, energy and resource into helping academics become much closer to the technology and the e-development agendas, and have certainly impacted on those involved with the projects. The Integrate project, for instance, resulted in a complete change in culture within the Business School from one of almost no technology use to one where technology is widely prevalent in the first year.


However, the university’s biggest challenge is how to mainstream project innovations/outputs throughout the institution. In order to achieve this, the institution needs to influence and gain buy-in at all levels and use creative techniques for communications and engagement. For instance, Exeter has recently installed a range of “surface” tables, and these have been used to demonstrate and showcase projects to senior managers and members of the University Council, which has been a highly effective way of communicating complex projects.


I think it is all about consolidation and I think there is a tendency to think, ‘Oh we’ve done that now’ when actually you have to constantly go back and evaluate how effective it’s been, and I do think we need to be very creative in the way that we cascade it out and communicate it. And sometimes we think, if we put a website up or we have a bit of a seminar on it, that’s it; but actually what you’ve got to do, if you have a seminar you’ve got to make sure that you’re telling people why they’re coming to it, what you’re expecting them to do, and you’ve got to then evaluate what’s come out of that, and I do think you’ve got to keep monitoring; it’s so important. I’ve seen it time and time again when you’ve done a project and you feel that you’ve ticked all the boxes, but actually if you go back to it in a few years’ time you may find that it just hasn’t had the desired effects. So if you’re trying to change culture, you’ve just got to keep reinforcing time and time again.”


Impact on the student journey

Student feedback has informed all of these projects and student engagement underpins the university’s innovation projects. The Collaborate project is introducing new approaches to student assessment in ways which will improve their employability as well as providing a more stimulating and thought provoking learning experience and an emphasis on student-centred learning will increase autonomy and potentially extend student change agents to alumni and employers. The COLLABORATE project will embed authentic activities which will enhance student motivation as well as providing students with attributes that are desirable to employers.


The university has also undertaken considerable work on improving assessment e.g. in terms of using online marking/feedback systems to reduce turnaround times time, reduce paperwork and improve the quality of feedback (including across modules)– in response to an education vision that the Guild of Students submitted. This work is leading to other potential ideas e.g. reducing assessments and use of a new role of dedicated marker (a potential project in the Business School).


If students have a good experience, we don’t actually have a problem with retention, but you might want them to go on to do a postgraduate course …..we’re getting more students coming through, definitely; there’s no doubt about it.


Impact on institutional efficiencies and effectiveness

The projects have enhanced efficiencies and effectiveness in a number of ways. The OCM project aim is to reduce turnaround times for marking and feedback, improve the quality of the feedback and free up academic time. However, there were problems in engaging staff with the project and the OCM evaluation project is helping to overcome this staff engagement issue. The “Echo 360 lecture capture system” (part of the Integrate project) allows lectures to be recorded, automatically digitised and made available within the Exeter learning environment and an evaluation has shown that students value the opportunity to review lectures, particularly as an aid to revision for examinations and to enhance their understanding of difficult concepts. A future project will look at exploiting such content in more flexible ways. The CASCADE project has already issued briefing papers that suggest ways that digital technology can contribute to the efficiency and effectiveness of personal research and study practices.

The OCM project will definitely save money e.g. academic time, printing and paper.


The university has just started a “Lean Exeter” project, using lean methodologies in three areas: exam processes, research admin systems and recruitment – the aim being to reduce waste, bureaucracy and costs, to make processes more efficient and deliver a better service.


Impact on institutional management and wider engagement

The university is looking at options to embed innovations e.g. by creating new appointments so that members of the education enhancement team can spend more time with academics in the schools and to promote cross-fertilisation of ideas and practice. Other options involve the creation of communities of practice, possible “buddying” concepts and further developing the university’s teaching awards to e.g. use micro-funding to provide a monetary award in order to free up time for academic staff to undertake further innovative work.

The university was commended for education enhancement in a QAA review relating to a number of JISC projects e.g. the COLLABORATE project, the CASCADE project and the INTEGRATE project (which formed the basis of a case study).


The Jisc projects have been very well received in the sector and the staff are all in demand, which has really enhanced Exeter’s reputation.


I think you’ve got to find what pushes people’s buttons because some people don’t want a big financial reward, they’d actually prefer to have some actual practical e.g. technical support.”


I think the JISC projects are really important for sustained innovation because it’s always the bit that you can’t really do often in your budgets, and so getting funding and expertise in from the JISC is important.”


I do think that there is this point where you have to stop innovating, so I think some innovation is good, but then some sort of consolidations really before you move onto the next thing.”


I personally don’t think that innovation is the most important thing because students are quite naturally conservative and people say they come in with all these new ideas but actually we’re not finding that as much as maybe we thought we would. So I think that we need to be innovative but not always right on the front, but probably tucked in behind the leaders.”


I strongly believe that the JISC projects have really contributed to us getting our QAA commendation, yes, definitely.


Overall reflections

Some of the areas of development at Exeter will include exploiting surface technology, developing more apps for students and using social media more creatively and using mobile technologies. Developing student employability skills is also a priority. Lean methodologies will also be a strategic priority for Exeter and the university needs to further investigate cost-benefit analysis techniques.


It’s fantastic from a senior management perspective to have all these projects but what you really want is a change in the culture and to see a progression from where we come from and where we’re going.”