Go ‘digital’, not ‘online’, to avoid spooking students – Leeds DVC

Jeff Grabill says lifelong learning will bring thousands more students to higher education, and universities must be honest about what they can expect

May 17, 2022
Jeff Grabill at the University of Leeds
Source: University of Leeds

Universities should talk about going digital, not online, to reassure students who want to get an in-person experience, the man behind one of the UK’s most ambitious education transformation strategies has said.

Jeff Grabill, deputy vice-chancellor, student education at the University of Leeds, has set himself the “exceptionally difficult” task of trying to redesign teaching and assessment for the next 20 years. With the overhaul, those who choose to be on campus will get a “deeply in-person and engaging” experience, but it will also be one that is supported by “digital technologies”, he explained.

The next generation of learners, the cohort currently considering studying at Leeds, has not been put off by the digital-first approach in areas such as exams, Professor Grabill said, and he did not foresee a clash with the Westminster government, which seems intent on pushing the in-person experience.

Instead, he continued, the strategy’s aim was to preserve the best things that were learned during the pandemic and to expand the university’s online offering, particularly in support of the lifelong learning agenda, which he predicted could bring thousands of learners to Leeds, many of whom would rarely – if ever – step foot on the campus.

“There’s a lot of confusion around what to call different educational experiences,” said Professor Grabill, who joined Leeds from Michigan State University during the pandemic.

“We have fully online programmes; they [students on such courses] are having an online educational experience that they choose. None of our students in Leeds are having an online experience. It is on-campus and in-person; it just has different technologies associated with it.”

Those who had chosen to learn online “love it” because it works for them, he said, but those who wanted to be on campus had been dissatisfied during the pandemic because of the mismatch between expectation and reality.

Professor Grabill said it was the scale of what Leeds is trying to do, under the leadership of vice-chancellor Simone Buitendijk, that attracted him to cross the Atlantic to take up the position.

He said the education strategy was one of the most transformative he has seen, with its focus on equipping students to move into communities and work with the skills needed to tackle some of the huge challenges the world faces.

Changes coming to the campus for the next generation of students include “less passive” classroom experiences, giving learners more access to their own data, greater emphasis on enterprise, with students encouraged to develop ideas for businesses, and closer links to industry.

Leeds was going for a “big, broad-based and comprehensive approach” to meet the growing demand for higher education in the coming years, said Professor Grabill, who nevertheless acknowledged that there was also a case for other institutions becoming more specialised. The UK sector, he predicted, would become more differentiated in a similar way to his native US.

Although he has encountered many parallels since moving countries, he said, he has noticed that the UK sector faces a higher regulatory burden, which takes up more time and energy.

“There’s good reason for it. It’s been fun to learn and fun to grow into that culture, but it carries significant costs and also impacts the ability of UK higher education to adapt,” he said.

“The more regulated it is, the more difficult it is for agility, innovation and adaptation. That will be one of the challenges in the UK; how to balance regulation with expectation from the public that universities innovate and grow and adapt to the needs of society.”


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Reader's comments (1)

Though the article doesn't give any specific examples of the enhancements alluded to (quite sensibly as I'm sure Professor Grabill doesn't want to give away all his secrets just yet), the scale and scope of the changes proposed is indeed no mean feat and has the potential to be quite transformative. In many ways I imagine that operationally there is already a great deal of what he suggests going on at Leeds in small pockets of unseen excellence. This in some ways makes the strategy easier to achieve because one is not building from the ground up but recognising the foundations already in place. The greater challenge therefore comes from identifying these already existing pockets of excellence, valuing them and recognising them, and providing the appropriate support for them to be scaled up. It does however always pique my curiosity when senior leaders talk about non-passive learning opportunities. This is because no small number of academics frequently try active learning only for it not to succeed largely through the majority of students in many of those settings lacking an interest in active learning. And thus the perception of its success comes down to to the few and the bold and the brave who carry the rest of the class by being extremely active and willing. And because, as with so many declarations of what does and doesn't work in learning it gives the idea that all disciplines and all class sizes and all cohorts and academics are equal. A bit like saying we know that lectures don't work when it actually depends on the skill of the specific member of staff as well as the discipline that is being taught. Therefore I hope that Leeds approaches this from a more bespoke perspective to play to the strengths of its courses and its staff, and wish them well on this endeavour and commend them for such a large-scale transformation looking towards the future.