Sheffield skills' stainless reputation

November 10, 1995

Sheffield University's enterprise initiative has gained a reputation as one of the country's most successful. English graduate Andrea Farley confirms the rumour. "This one project coloured my whole degree," she says.

Ms Farley's project was to turn Shakespeare teaching on its head. "It was like a mission," she says, recalling her daunting visits to schools to offer young minds a radical approach to King Lear. The kids loved it and at the same time Ms Farley gained some invaluable insights.

"The project taught me how to manage my time, how to set aims and objectives, organise tasks and resources. I realised I could have an idea and make it work," she said.

Many graduates have to wait for many years before coming to such a realisation. A key feature of the enterprise initiative was to give students the opportunities to develop competencies and aptitudes relevant to enterprise. Rather than attempting to develop these through traditional classroom-based teaching, at least some of the competencies were to be acquired through project-based work in a "real" setting outside the university.

As a result the student experience at Sheffield is now very different from 1990. Group work is common, presentations are a routine part of courses. Many students receive skills training and have the opportunity to carry out live projects with local employers.

At Sheffield, which entered the initiative in 1990, experiments with teaching innovations were already well under way, according to the director of the enterprise unit at the time Marilyn Wedgwood.

An enthusiastic proponent of EHE, Ms Wedgwood came to Sheffield from Manchester Polytechnic, as it was then. "I took the scattergun approach initially and talked to all departments," she says.

She encountered some negative responses, usually to do with the word enterprise itself. But all that was soon to change when it became understood that the project simply sought to enhance the students' learning experience through new forms of teaching and learning. Above all these were to stress active rather than passive learning.

Ms Wedgwood says students were included from the outset, not merely as recipients of changed courses but as contributors to change. And employers were to be brought into the equation with involvement in courses on a long-term basis.

Ultimately 86 funded curriculum development projects in 40 departments brought about real change in the way courses were designed and taught. After receiving small grants of between Pounds 1,000 and Pounds 2,000 for materials and staff release time, many academics continued to experiment with their teaching even after the funding had ceased.

In French, for example, a pilot study to introduce information technology into the second-year curriculum led the department to produce a third-year module as well.

The introduction of IT into the curriculum and the promotion of IT literacy amongst students were broad aims of EHE at Sheffield. As Ms Wedgwood saw it, enterprise was merely a catalyst for change. As a direct result of IT literacy projects, the university decided to fund two full-time multimedia development advisers to further encourage IT use in teaching.

It could be argued that much of the change that has taken place at the university would have come about anyway, with or without the support of EHE. What enterprise has undoubtedly done, according to Ms Wedgwood, is to speed up the change process and make it easier. "It is hard to believe, looking back, that we achieved so much so quickly," she says.

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