Plymouth plays to its teaching strengths

October 21, 2005

Plymouth University this week enhanced its growing reputation as one of the UK's most innovative teaching institutions with the launch of four Centres of Excellence in Teaching and Learning.

The only other institution to boast four Cetls is the Open University, and most universities have only one centre. To underline its teaching reputation, Plymouth also claims seven national teaching fellows - equalled only by De Montfort University - and the national subject centre for geography.

The centres come with a total of £8 million capital funding and Pounds 500,000 a year for five years to cover running costs.

Plymouth's Cetls are in Education for Sustainable Development; Experiential Learning in Environmental and Natural Sciences; Placement Learning in Health and Social Care; and the Higher Education Learning Partnerships (Help), in which it is the lead institution.

Sue Burkhill, Plymouth's head of educational development, who played a key role in shaping the bids, acknowledges that the centres were hard won.

"They didn't just come out of the blue. We had a huge teaching and learning agenda already," she said.

The university held an internal competition for bids, then honed them to produce the final submissions. "The most challenging point was to say what you would do in the future without looking as if there are things you aren't doing now. We never expected to get four," she said.

"The most exciting thing is that in five years' time we should be talking about a Plymouth with a student learning experience that's very different."

Cetls, and the money that comes with them, are designed to reward excellent teaching practice and to help spread best practice throughout higher education.

Mark Stone, the director of Higher Education Learning Partners, which will work with the institutions, said: "Having five years of funding is unprecedented. We will be able to put in place longitudinal work that will be really meaningful."

He added: "You shouldn't underestimate the power of having money. It oils the wheels phenomenally. Providing money helps legitimate what people want to do."

Alan Dyer, associate director of Plymouth's Cetl for Education for Sustainable Development, said: "It's a brave move on the part of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Hefce is taking a risk, and so are we, but it's very important. Cetls have become our religion. They touch almost every part of the institution."

Plymouth will initially apply the principles drawn up by the centres across the university before disseminating them nationwide through subject centres and other networks.

'I'm going to spend £1 million today -  it's scary but exciting'

Ruth Weaver got a bit of a buzz when, leaving for work one morning, she was able to tell her children: "Mummy's going to spend £1 million today."

It will take longer than a day, but the revamping of Plymouth University's planetarium is a key aspect of its centre for excellence in teaching and learning for experiential learning.

The new building will be used rather like a virtual reality headset but on a far bigger scale.

"It's scary but exciting," said Dr Weaver, director of Plymouth's Cetl for Experiential Learning in the Environmental and Natural Sciences.

The initiative has the potential to take medical students inside a human body and make them feel part of it, and to provide disabled students with the experience of fieldwork.

"We are hoping we'll be able to get students to feel they are really immersed in a situation," Dr Weaver said.

The area around the building will also be relandscaped, using some of the Cetls' sustainability money, to create a hub at the centre of campus.

Dr Weaver's Cetl covers fieldwork, laboratory work and workplace learning.

The idea is to make the very best of fieldwork and work placements for students, she said.

Some of the capital funding will be used to create "lab+" - spaces akin to libraries, where students can drop in and work on materials.

"It will create an opportunity for students to revisit or to practise things they would do in the lab," Dr Weaver said.

For example, they could practise testing water quality in the lab ahead of going on a field trip.

She also wants to encourage interdisciplinary fieldwork trips.

Dr Weaver said: "I would love to take geographers, sociologists and architects to New York or Berlin. They would all have such different ideas.

Putting staff and students together where they may even clash is really interesting and important."

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