University in transition

There is a sense of the university as an idyll: cut off from the world, unchanging. In today’s rapidly evolving world, though, nothing could be further from the truth. Universities – and the people who run them – are having to keep up with the sometimes bewildering changes that are sweeping the educational landscape, working to the expectations of their students and the capabilities of their staff. Steering any ship through these waters requires effective leadership: something participants and speakers will be focusing on at this year’s OEB MidSummit.


By Alasdair MacKinnon


“The educational landscape moves too quickly for us to be able to afford to ignore the lessons learnt by others and reinvent solutions to the same problems over and over“, says Maren Deepwell, chief executive of the UK’s Association for Learning Technology. In her research she aims to explore how common challenges of educational leadership can be met and in what ways teams and individual staff can be empowered to do the same. “Collaboration, open practice and knowledge sharing have a big impact on success both in industry and education. But how can we apply those approaches to a traditional leadership model?” Together with Frank Buskermolen and Willem Spee from the Utrecht University of Applied Sciences (HU), Maren Deepwell will discuss the topic of leadership in times of change at a many-faceted and interactive session entitled “Building leadership to empower professional teams” at OEB MidSummit.


The Utrecht University of Applied Sciences (HU) is an exemplary case of a university in transition. It faces major structural changes taking place in the domains of organisation, real estate, education, and research. These transitions reflect the changing position of the Applied Sciences themselves in a word of rapid technological and social change. They are particularly evident in the University’s Institute of Communication, where such changes have what the Dean, Frank Buskermolen, describes as a “double effect” – acting on “both the subject matter and the technology of teaching”.


Buskermolen, who will be speaking at the MidSummit session alongside HU Head of Communication Studies Willem Spee, lists as examples of such factors: digitalisation, changes in the labour market, globalisation, migration issues, and urbanisation. They require, on the one hand, stronger relationships with research institutes and professional enterprises, and on the other, new teaching methods: in HU’s case a blended, adaptive learning environment based on Moodle. This platform, in the words of Spee, “challenges students to confront relevant professional tasks, to co-create, and to reflect on their professional performance and behaviour”.


This has naturally had a major effect on teachers, changing the nature of their leadership role within the learning environment. “The traditional classroom setting is changed towards one in which students work in learning teams, where they learn together and can get individual mentoring,” says Spee, adding, “Though the role of knowledge-provider is still there, it is strongly diminished.”


Concurrent modifications in managerial structure accompanied by, in Buskermolen’s words, “major educational tasks … positioned closer to the executive teaching staff”, mean that everyone at HU is feeling the change. Flexibility in leadership is a requirement in such times, especially as “different generations of teachers react differently in these challenges within the classroom and in blended- learning settings.” The University has set up a team-development programme aimed at supporting the senior teaching staff in their new role of developing and improving bachelor programmes.


Yet there is still one constant within the university environment: the students, who are (in Spee’s words) “forever young”. And in a time of innovation, teachers at HU are discovering that it helps to have “the innovators in house”. In this way, not just staff but also students are encountering a new leadership role: being put in charge of their own learning and working in professional teams. In this way, the University is creating the leaders of tomorrow.


OEB MidSummit takes place in Reykjavik on 8 – 9 June of this year. Find out more here.

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