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Curiosity and culture: blending digital and physical at the University of Northampton

When the university's new town centre campus opened, it was an unmissable opportunity to integrate digital innovation into the physical design of the campus and the student offer. But the success of such an extensive change programme depends on a third element: culture.

Digital is quite literally built into the University of Northampton from the ground up. Its Waterside campus enables the university’s digital transformation strategy and teaching and learning vision to evolve together, with physical and digital estate working hand in hand.

Opened in 2018, the new town centre campus was an opportunity to bring the university estate together, establishing a smaller footprint and reducing carbon emissions and energy bills while also bringing the university community closer to the town, its transport links and all the benefits that come with being a truly civic university. However, it was also a chance to integrate Northampton’s groundbreaking active blended learning pedagogy.

Weaving digital into the curriculum design

With the emphasis away from the traditional lecture – the campus has only one lecture theatre – and much more focused on hybrid and learning in social contexts, the Waterside campus is a flexible space for students and educators alike. Shân Wareing, deputy vice-chancellor at Northampton, explains:

“We assume that online and face-to-face learning and teaching take place in a continuum, so we don't particularly want rules about what you do when or what's on campus, what's off campus and what students do independently versus in a classroom.

“As a result, on the campus we’ve got formal and informal social learning spaces, collaborative spaces, small group learning spaces and areas for one-to-one conversations.”

The campus has been designed to enable staff and students alike to fully explore active blended learning throughout all their learning and teaching. As Rob Howe, head of learning technology, explains:

“We're trying to make sure that the tutors are close to the students so the students have good access to the people who are actually teaching them, within a learning environment that enables tutors to teach in the way they want to, to best support the students.”

For this to work, digital is woven into the curriculum design, with digital technologies enabling a consistent approach to curriculum design across the university. For example, the more centralised campus has been matched with a transition into new ways of centralised document storage supported by digital approaches, such as making Microsoft 365 available to all staff and creating more aligned, interactive educational resource opportunities that enable greater collaboration.

Creating a culture of curiosity at the top

Of course, such extensive digital and physical transformation requires an equally profound culture change – and that starts with understanding the culture of all the stakeholders. For Shân, it calls for “an appetite of curiosity and excitement” at the top. She advocates for senior leaders explaining the opportunities and challenges of digital transformation very clearly to boards of governors and university councils, especially given the expense and depreciation of digital.

“I'm absolutely sure that digital underpins the student experience and the staff experience, and we need to continue our digital transformation journey.

“I say don't be afraid of the hard stuff, but do properly programme and project manage it – it doesn't happen on its own. But there's no point in having it if you aren't using it. So culture change is absolutely as important as any other part of that digital transformation.”

Learning designer Jim Harris works across faculties on curriculum development and learning design, supporting staff in overcoming some of the fears they may have about future technologies. He agrees that understanding the culture, and the networks around people, rather than simply viewing operational silos, is hugely important, along with using data effectively. In terms of supporting staff with learning curriculum design, that involves building confidence and, above all, listening and understanding through open, honest discussions.

“I’ve found that good storytelling is key to overcoming fears.” I often say to people that I'm not the person who's going to give them a solution. I'm going to tell them a story about other people's solutions that I think are relevant to them and their students, and then together we'll work to build their own story on how to overcome their challenges.

"It takes active listening, patience, honesty and putting that person at the centre of the process, which is what we are trying to do in putting our students at the centre. It’s about engaging in a process of shared knowledge and development and not forgetting to celebrate points of confidence, reminding staff about what they enjoy doing with their students.”

Student perspectives

Students are equally engaged in the process of shared knowledge and development. Crucially, they are treated as equals in that process. Kate Coulson, head of learning and teaching enhancement, is convinced of the necessity and value of co-creating with students, for everyone involved.

“They are part of the team. We learn about their perspective, and they can take ownership and get so much more out of it. When I talk to colleagues who are genuinely co-creating with students, the enthusiasm and excitement they express is like a spiritual intervention.”

She points to the university’s working group on AI and how, among all the noise about AI in academia, the press and social media.

“Colleagues at Northampton have been co-creating some brilliant research on AI with students, and the outcomes of that research blew me away because they're positive about it. It gave me such a different perspective yet again. For me, the student role is essential. It's all about them, after all, and we learn so much from them: why wouldn't we do it?”

For Shân Wareing, too, the students are the key to how active blended learning and the Waterside campus at Northampton will continue to evolve.

“It’s always a work in progress, but my vision for the next five years is that our pedagogy will continue to be driven by underlying principles of how students learn. I think we often get ourselves into a tizz about this or that innovation but digital change isn’t how people learn.

"It allows us to be more flexible. It allows us to meet the needs of more students. It allows us to augment how they learn and give them access to things at different times. It allows us to be creative. But, underpinning that, students learn when it's relevant to them, when we go to where they are, when it's social, when they are in a structure that works for them.

"Digital certainly opens up opportunities – but I'd like to keep it about people and culture, rather than boxes.”

Kate Coulson’s four tips for working with students as co-creators

  1. Commit the time and resources
    It’s immensely rewarding but aligning student needs with the team’s needs can also be challenging and takes time. Stake a claim to that time.
  2. Acknowledge it's not an easy path
    It involves building trust and understanding, and including the right people – and the right people may be the ones who don’t want to engage. Develop a thick skin as students will tell you tough things you have to take on board.
  3. Cast your net wide
    Think beyond the students’ union president to programme and module level for representation.
  4. Don’t take your foot off the gas
    You cannot rest on your laurels. The students you have developed brilliant relationships with in February may have moved on by June and the process begins again with a new group of students. But always remember that it pays dividends.

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