Why Europe needs an HE learning and teaching forum

The European University Association or EUA’s forthcoming TRENDS 2018 report points to the crucial importance of exchange and collaboration in higher education.

Compared to the strong emphasis on research, research excellence and innovation, developments in learning and teaching have tended to receive far less attention, both within universities and in public discussions.

However, over the past few years, this trend has evolved. In particular, the emergence of massive open online courses or MOOCs, issues pertaining to learning innovation, and student-centred and active learning inspire interest at all levels, including among the general public.

At the European level, the European Commission manifests the need for enhancing curricula and staff training in its recent Renewed Agenda, and the 2018 priorities of the Erasmus+ programme offer funding for initiatives on these issues.

Since the 2015 Yerevan Communiqué, the Bologna Process has started to discuss learning and teaching, and the next communiqué in May 2018 is expected to set out some new goals. National initiatives are increasing, and university networks are establishing working groups and projects on learning and teaching.

Learning and teaching strategies

But what are the actual changes that are taking place at European higher education institutions? They are not easy to grasp and demonstrate, and given the lack of reliable data, public discussions are often still based on individual cases and assumptions: one institution is praised for its blended learning initiative, whereas the sector in general is suspected of adhering to chalk and talk teaching.

Providing data on the learning and teaching situation at Europe’s universities is the purpose of the EUA’s TRENDS 2018 survey. The collection of data closed at the end of the summer, with over 300 responses from 43 European higher education systems.

The EUA has conducted its TRENDS studies since 1999, and the TRENDS 2015 study already diverted from the original purpose of the series, which was the implementation of Bologna reforms, focusing instead on developments in learning and teaching.

Compared to the last survey, TRENDS 2018 results show that some progress has been made. For example, 65% of respondents indicate having a centralised unit for learning and teaching as compared to 60% in TRENDS 2015, and, whereas in the previous survey 64% of institutions indicated having learning outcomes for all courses, this is now more than 75%.

Nearly all respondents state that their institutions have strategies for learning and teaching and embrace diverse teaching formats, such as problem-based learning: 43% think it works well, and 44% think that it works well “to some extent”, whereas only 4% say that they would not use it.

But results show that it takes time to establish such schemes and assessing their impact is not always easy. For example, only 15% believe that flipped classrooms are very useful; 39% believe it only to some extent, 13% believe it does not work and the rest did not wish to comment.

Similarly, delivering lectures via podcasts and videos – which would seem to be straightforward – is only fully embraced as a development trend by 17% of institutions and close to 60% give it a lukewarm “to some extent”.

The reasons for these trends are not easy to assess. Adverse reaction towards technology is unlikely to be the reason, as 90% indicate that the general acceptance for digital learning has increased and that its use has become more strategic.

Research suggests that the flipped classroom faces some of the same challenges as regular teaching, given that not all students study at home. Moreover, given the move towards student projects, smaller group work and other such formats, maybe there are not so many lectures left to be videoed?

A question of time

What certainly plays a role in this and other changes in learning and teaching is the time necessary to implement and develop these approaches, assess their actual impact and reach general acceptance by staff.

The development of staff enhancement approaches in higher education seems to be a good example to illustrate this. Whereas, until a few years ago, staff enhancement was anathema to most higher education systems, 77% of respondents to the survey indicate that they offer voluntary courses and 13% intend to do so – leaving only 10% without.

In addition, there is a clear move towards compulsory courses (37% have them in place and 17% are planned). A key point is certainly that, over time, measures prove useful, they gain acceptance and become common practice, in the case of the courses, first for teaching beginners and new staff and finally for all concerned.

In addition, 65% of institutions indicate the research that they carry out on their learning and teaching. It goes without saying that strategic plans, as well as centres for learning and teaching have an important role in initiating and supporting change in learning and teaching.

The survey results also reveal the importance of external collaboration: 90% of respondents indicate that their institutions collaborate on teaching enhancement in national (54.8 %) and international (52.8%) initiatives, in university networks (43.2%), with individual partner institutions (42.6%) or with commercial providers (12.5%).

When asked about inspiration for new strategies, national and international university associations seem to play a more important role than national governments and professional bodies.

The results described above would seem to support the purpose of the EUA’s European Learning and Teaching Forum that took place in Paris in September. The idea is to create an occasion for institutional leadership and other stakeholders to meet and exchange views on learning and teaching from an institutional perspective, bringing together education specialists, but also taking into consideration institutional strategy and governance.

The next forum is scheduled to take place in February 2019. A call to host the event has been announced, as well as – more importantly – a series of thematic peer groups, bringing together vice-rectors for learning and teaching from different European countries.

A first cycle of such group meetings was organised in the first half of 2017, the results of which were presented at the forum and will be published this autumn. In addition, the EFFECT Consortium has brought forward 10 Principles for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching – a document to stimulate discussion and cooperation on learning and teaching, as well as to provide guidance to institutions.

The results of TRENDS 2018 will be published early next year, in time for the Bologna Ministerial Conference in Paris.

Michael Gaebel is director of the Higher Education Policy Unit at the European University Association.