Teaching innovations help university to maximise learning

As COVID-19 forced universities and faculty towards virtual and blended learning modalities, some institutions started to experiment with innovative teaching and learning practices. The Aga Khan University (AKU) has been reaping the benefits of embracing disruption as a positive force.

At the Aga Khan University campus in Kenya, teaching staffers have benefited from the institution’s Network of Quality, Teaching and Learning (QTL_net) that provides support and training to faculty to enhance teaching practices and the quality of their academic programmes.

According to Professor Tashmin Khamis, vice provost quality, teaching and learning at the Aga Khan University in Kenya, the training of academic staff enhances and strengthens the student learning experience and maximises learning outcomes.

Earlier in 2022, innovations in teaching and learning have earned the private Aga Khan University, which has campuses in Pakistan, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and the United Kingdom, the excellence for disruptive education award in the Zairi International Awards in Higher Education.

The initiative was organised by the Center for Learning Innovations and Customized Knowledge Solutions, or CLICKS, in collaboration with UNESCO and the UK-based charity Advance Higher Education.

CLICKS was established in 2012 with the primary purpose of “supporting the healthy growth and development of the higher education sector in the Arab region by developing relevant and innovative solutions, providing institutional assistance and support in a wide range of areas”, according to its website.

At the award ceremony, held in Dubai during the Middle East and North Africa higher education leadership forum, QTL_net emerged as the category winner out of about 90 entries from 31 countries.

The annual Zairi awards are based on outstanding performance of higher education institutions globally in research, digital transformation, community engagement and finding practical solutions to challenges facing higher education globally.

Similarly, the award for disruptive education focuses on innovative higher education institutions that have unique pedagogies that can shape and reimagine the future of higher education.

Innovative approaches

In its application, AKU across all its campuses presented three innovative ‘disruptive education’ initiatives taken by QTL_net to transform teaching practices, namely interdisciplinary peer-led models to educational development of faculty’s teaching practices; reward and recognition of teaching – through academic promotion; Higher Education Academy (HEA) fellowships; and recognition of outstanding teaching through a Teachers Academy as well as support for digital transformation in higher education in developing contexts.

“The world over, higher education faculty come into teaching with their content expertise through their PhDs or graduate programmes but without necessarily any formal training in teaching.

“Therefore, faculty tend to teach in the way they were taught – usually didactic lectures which we know are not effective in promoting the graduate attributes and soft skills required [in the workplace] – such as critical thinking, problem-solving, leadership and communication,” said Khamis.

Just as with any other discipline, she added, teaching has its own art and science and, by providing faculty with support for teaching in face-to-face and digital settings, students are more likely to learn through engaging pedagogical methods such as problem- and case-based learning that enable students to consult with faculty.

Speaking to University World News, Khamis observed that QTL_net has been successful in bringing faculty members from different disciplines and entities of Agha Khan University across all its intercontinental campuses in Asia, Africa and the UK, together enhancing peer learning.

Being an innovation pioneer in educational development in Pakistan and East Africa, she said the network makes an impact as it supports the teaching and learning activities of staff at AKU through mentorship services on quality, teaching and learning.

The peer-led approach used by QTL_net, has led to the development of communities of practice of faculty from which teaching champions from different disciplines are identified.

These champions “become facilitators of educational development with support from QTL_net and who then act as mentors to others in areas such as curriculum development, assessment for learning”.

“All QTL_net workshops use peer-led and practice-based approaches. By ensuring small groups of peers work with faculty outside their own discipline, they are more likely to be innovative and try new methods and teaching practices in safe inclusive spaces, where they feel they are not known and judged,” she said expounding that this builds faculty’s confidence to try these new teaching methods in a real setting in the classroom.

AKU offers a continuous support approach to faculty from the time they join the institution, and they are incentivised to pursue academic progression, to enhance teaching through the series of peer- and practice-led strategies that lead them to engage more with the scholarship of teaching and learning.

In addition, faculty and students have been introduced to interactive tools for synchronous online teaching through practical digital bootcamps and the use of virtual learning spaces such as Moodle for flipped learning approaches, which is an instructional method whereby students work at home and reinforcement happens during lectures.

Support structures and safe spaces

This is also strengthened by training and ensuring well-coordinated support services from essential services such as the library, information technology, offices of the registrar and students’ affairs, and developing policies and guidelines to create an enabling environment.

“Being needs-based has ensured relevance of programmes, while the practical experiential-based courses give faculty the confidence to try new methods with peers before informing practices in the real setting with students,” said Kiran Ali, a teaching and learning specialist in the office of the provost, AKU.

Khamis added that the Zairi international award is a recognition award for excellence in higher education – an acknowledgment that the institution promotes “global best practices in quality, teaching and learning and that being based in Asia and Africa does not mean compromising on quality but rather shows you can offer excellence where it is most needed.”

To adopt and effectively use the programme, accredited against the UK’s professional standards framework for teaching and supporting learning, Khamis said that university faculty should be committed to academic quality and a culture that rewards and recognises high-quality teaching.

She emphasised that faculty need to focus on the improvement of teaching in safe, inclusive, interdisciplinary spaces, something that QTL_net offers so that faculty can enjoy access to a vast range of resources, services, programmes on teaching excellence and scholarship of teaching and learning.

She urged the top management structures of universities, especially vice-chancellors, deans and provosts to support innovations that could be game changers in enhancing quality teaching and learning, while challenging faculty to voluntarily own such innovations for maximum outcomes.

This, said Khamis, should inspire other universities in Africa and Asia to gain global recognition and awards if they invest in the professionalisation of teaching and support faculty to enhance teaching practices.