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Reflections on Innovation, Part 3: Emails and the Opportunities They Contain

My experience of this IATL project began with reading my emails, and responding to them; it’s how I heard of the opportunity to conduct research as an undergraduate on the project ‘The Warwick Handbook of Innovative Teaching', and how I applied for it. One thing that has struck me as I have worked to gather material on innovative teaching and learning practises at Warwick is the extent to which this simple act of reading and responding to emails seems to be viewed as a rarity among the university’s organisers. The fact that staff and students alike do not seems to be a frequent lament on the part of those actively trying to provide extracurricular events. These first-class specialists volunteer their free time to share their knowledge and expertise, running exciting and engaging seminars and workshops designed to give an insight into a fantastically varied spectrum of interests. A passionate world of knowledge and information is hosted behind doors thrown wide open. But they’re often disappointingly under-attended. It has been suggested that this is, in part, because people do not read their emails, or do not act on the opportunities offered to them when they do. It seems to me that this is one symptom of a broader issue: a communication breakdown between staff and students.

This is reflected not only in extracurricular events, but in those opportunities made available which are specifically designed to enhance student experience. The question reiterated across the faculties seems to be: “how can so much time and energy be poured into creating opportunities for students to experience more of higher education beyond what is prescribed in their course, and making them readily available, for the response to be so lacklustre?” This sentiment is one I have encountered frequently, both in the interviews I have conducted and in the LDC showcases I have attended. It often appears coupled with a broad belief that students are increasingly adopting a brutally pragmatic approach to their education due to the continuing rise of tuition costs. The impression seems to be that students are asking not what they can learn, but what they are paying for. What is the outcome of this cost-benefit analysis of a degree? In simple terms: “Am I getting my money’s worth?”

Now, having an awareness of both sides of this equation, as a student and a nominal staff member, this breakdown in communication between student and staff is frustrating, especially because it has no easy fix. There is an overwhelming amount going on at Warwick; students are inundated with emails that are not always relevant. On one side there are the bare essentials of a student’s experience of university, particularly at undergraduate level, and on the other there is the possibility to get involved on a deeper level. Who is responsible for bridging the gap?

This perceived disparity in intent is difficult to pin down. What are the teachers attempting to teach? What are the learners expecting to learn? This, perhaps, is where innovative practice comes in. In collecting case studies of innovative teaching already going on at Warwick, I think it is accurate to say there is a growing focus on the part of academics on how to get inside the mind-set of a student to try and work out what they find valuable: the skills they will find useful, the material they will engage with, and the topics they will find interesting. This is manifesting particularly in non-conventional assessment and marking practices: a crucial point of overlap between approaches to teaching and to learning.

Innovation is a difficult thing to define, and something I won’t attempt to make a definitive statement on here (that can be saved for the handbook). But I would begin to reflect that a criterion for successful innovation would be contributing to the repair of this communication breakdown between staff and students regarding the purpose of education. In the remaining weeks of the project, I think that it would be valuable to look further into the perspective of students at Warwick to gain an insight into their experience of learning innovatively, and their view on its strengths and weaknesses. This might allow us to understand where the two approaches to education align and where they do not, so that we might offer constructive advice as to where innovative practice can be most useful for all concerned.

It is my hope that the handbook for innovative teaching and learning that we are working to create will fulfil this purpose, and be a useful tool for positive experimentation in education at Warwick. It has been a privilege to work on the project, and get to know the university in this light, and I hope that those who use the end result, when it comes, will reap as many benefits from this work as I have.

Laura Primiceri – final-year undergraduate in English and Comparative Literary Studies

Published: 2 March 2016