The three C’s: co-production, collaboration and crowd-sourcing

We (University of Salford) hosted the University Alliance Summit late last week. The Summit is a really useful event which brings together all of the universities in this mission group for a ‘state of the nation’ annual pow-wow on what’s hot and what’s not in the world of HE. It was also held on election day, giving the event a certain up-to-the-minute sense of currency in each of its sessions. This accident of timing also ensured a prompt finish as everyone then raced home to vote… (the date clash with voting day was an accident – we started our preparations for the summit before government announced the snap election; it’s slightly worrying on a number of levels when planning for a UA summit is something which has a longer lead-in time than a general election…)

Predictably, most sessions broached the wider view of the HE landscape, within and out-with the sector itself. We looked at the economics of it all and the various political roads that we might be skipping down post election. (Sitting now in the somewhat dazed state of post-election ‘erm… so… right, yeah, so what does it mean… oh, right….with them. Them? What, really… really?’ its still not a whole lot clearer – quite a lot of what was in purdah before the shenanigans of the 8th has remained in purdah because of, well, because of the shenanigans of the 8th.

What is clear is that there is complexity, change, ambiguity and volatility like never before – I’ve previously noted some of the ingredients in passing here. Each of these characteristics taken individually might cause some upset and some ripples on the pond, however, arriving and cumulatively accelerating together, each factor further enthused by the waves of the others, and one sees tsunamis of varying natures lining up (oh that they were that orderly….)

So, much of the discussion, debate and creative thinking of the Summit (and a fair bit of late night debate over red or white) focused upon the best way to meet and thrive in such an environment…

The answer (or some of it) of course, lies in genuine collaborative activity. It’s a difficult, but not impossible line to tread; on one level, egged on by TEF, REF, the CMA and notion of the student as consumer (I’ve published a little thought piece on this particular consumerism in a special TEF edition of Compass) we are all competitors, working to ensure we position ourselves effectively to stand out in an increasingly fragmented, but paradoxically crowded higher education landscape in which differentiation is not just desirable, but essential.

However, we’re also a fantastically collegiate sector – a real strength – ready to share and adopt good practice, adapting it to our own particular context. Thus far collaboration seems to largely focus around joint/ shared bidding on research projects/ grants, or engagement together in sector wide fixed term projects on shared issues such as retention, or widening participation. But I think there’s further future potential to be tapped into through collaboration. Whilst the joint/ shared working on projects and bids will (and absolutely should) undoubtedly continue, I think our collaborative activity could/ should/ might step up another gear and take a steer from the success of a crowd-sourcing model for collaboration. This is the modus operandi of the hive mind, the viral social media-influenced accumulation of knowledge, ideas and direction, in which the social constructivism as seen in our active and collaborative learning models, becomes social connectivism played out across the sector.

One such example of this crowd-sourced innovation is the Teaching Excellence Alliance (TEA). This is a new, inter-institutional flexible programme of work developed by colleagues in University Alliance institutions and the UA itself. The TEA draws upon, and informs a particular brand and understanding of excellence as aligned to our real-world, outward-facing, industry-and-community connected pedagogy, practiced across the University Alliance. You can read a recent blog I’ve written for Wonkhe on the TEA. This exciting work is in its inaugural year – the first event of many is a September Sandpit – a pedagogical symposium with a difference – its going to be a live teaching and learning hack-athon focusing on one of the UN global challenges – participants from across teaching teams and courses drawn from UA institutions will draw on the collective expertise to collaboratively design a programme of study which seeks to contribute to work which addresses the global challenge at hand. Its crowd-sourced expertise from Alliance colleagues, invested in two intensive days of co-production and co-creation and all pointed at real world issues. Adventures aplenty wait in the wings. Watch this space…

See you next week.

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Elections and co-production

This past week has seen the University of Salford Students’ Union run the voting process for their annual elections. Kicking off with gusto in January, the election process has slowly built up to this week, with the week itself ending at 5pm on a Friday with the live streamed and twitter saturated announcement of the winning candidates – four sabbatical officers and a union president. Check out their blog on the results here.

Its been an exciting campaign which, pleasingly, has had a record number of candidates step up to the plate – we even had a candidate put forward from across the seas – hailing from a programme of study in Malaysia. It’s great to see this level of engagement, which has also been mirrored in a record voter turn out, beating the record of last year, which was a significant jump in engagement from the year before – a positive engagement trend emerges, something that, as PVC Student Experience, I’m delighted to see. The USSU team have surpassed themselves and earned rest and wine (those would be my choices) in equal measure this weekend…

And so we now have a new sabbatical team waiting in the wings to step into office in the summer. I’m looking forward to working with them.

I think we (both the colleagues at the Union and those at the University) have moved our relationship forward leaps and bounds in the last couple of years. Whilst there’s always more to do, the dynamic between the two entities gives me cause for excitement because I see it becoming at once more focused and yet messier – essentially, I see it moving more and more into co-productive space. It’s a space/ way of working that really chimes well with the development of our Industrial Collaboration Zones. These zones, like the relationship with the USSU, work best when all parties involved in an idea or project bring their relevant expertise and perspectives to the table in order to build and develop something greater than the sum of its constituent parts. The process is always messier and inevitably takes more conversations, more iteration and more to-ing and fro-ing, but what comes out at the end of things is a product or position which is co-owned by all involved. And it works – it really works – one only has to look at our recent library development, (I blogged about it here) to see the value of co-creative thinking and practice.

There’s also something about pro-active personal responsibility within the act of co-creation – again I’m delighted to be working with the USSU as we further develop this expectation of our students and constituents, so that even before they arrive at the front door, there is a clear, shared understanding of what it means to be learner at UoS – what students can expect from the university and the USSU, and what the University and the USSU expects from them. Co-creators or co-producers in any project are jointly responsible for the outcome – there is no room for the passive participant or the passenger here – all co-creators who are recipients and owners of the outcome have to be able to proudly say – ‘I did some of that, and its bigger and better than had I tried on my own’. In a learning sphere (I mean learning in the widest sense here) this means the student taking up the position not of a spectator but of the Boalian ‘spect-actor’ – a proactive agent, actively required to play with the other agents in the production and play with the script to change it, to alter and improve the outcome; to shape the narrative or journey as it unfolds for the better, with ripples of impact spreading beyond the framework of the performance event itself – this engagement fosters a far more exciting, rewarding (and sometimes unpredictable) learning journey in which knowledge is not a commodity – something one comes to university to get or receive, but rather it becomes an experience – something one has, something living and breathing…

So that’s why I’m excited so see a great election come to fittingly fizzing fruition on Friday, (the end of that thought was irrationally pleasing) with increased engagement and passion demonstrated throughout the campaign and the voting period. And now we’re already heading headlong into the next academic cycle with the USSU and the new team (actually, the new president is a sabbatical officer from the year before this one). With the ICZs firmly at the forefront of thinking, we’ll be working together with our students to be the ‘hearts and lungs’ of an excellent, holistic student learning experience – without either organ, things just wouldn’t work, and each organ is dependent on the other to function properly. The possibilities within this genuine co-creation of coproduction are truly exciting as the USSU brings perspectives, positions and and expertise to the table we, as a University, simply can’t grasp by ourselves (and visa versa) – it’s a symbiotic partnership and I can’t wait to push it further.

See you next week.