Innovating in Higher Education: Teaching, Learning and Institutional Cultures

Author(s) Andrew Hannan, Harold Silver
Publisher Open University Press
Published 2000
Pages 192
Price £27.99
ISBN 0335205372
Reviewed by Mr Malcolm Barry
Learning from Experience Trust
Review published 21 August 2006

Innovation is, by definition, novel and challenging – not always positive but forcing entities to reconsider ways and means of achieving their goals. It is to be hoped that an investigation of any phenomenon takes account, if not taking on, at least some of the characteristics of the matter under investigation. Sadly, in the present case, the somewhat leaden prose style reflects none of the energy and, indeed, enterprise, shown by innovators in higher education.

This is, perhaps, a reflection of the book’s origins. It is a report of a two-part research project, with different funding streams (and thus differing priorities). We learn perhaps more than we need to about the projects and the funders but this is perhaps inevitable in a book published by a society concerned with research into higher education. Briefly the project arose from the desire by the Partnership Trust to describe and understand innovations in teaching and learning that it and its corporate associates had funded over a seven-year period from 1988. The ESRC got into the act and, subsequently, the focus of the research was widened to take account of the Dearing Report on Higher Education (which, it is chilling to recall, was published in 1997).

There is a narrative to be told about the many innovations in learning and teaching within the sector but, inevitably, such a narrative is bound by its time of publication. Much has happened since 2000, including, of course, the establishment of ESCALATE and the support for Centres of Excellence in Teaching and Learning across the country. So this book is primarily of interest as an historical document.

It is none the worse for that: the first chapter presents an interesting “pre-history” covering 1950-1980s. It is somewhat sectorally bound, perhaps failing to take into account innovations in thinking about learning of adults which worked their way into odd pockets of higher education in British Universities (usually through Departments of Adult Education) but it is substantially correct to pinpoint the importance of the Enterprise in Higher Education (EHE) scheme in developments in University learning and teaching. EHE was deeply controversial, being seen as a Thatcherite project to instrumentalise higher education by defenders of the True Academic Faith. As with the equally suspect Manpower Services Commission, the more enlightened of our colleagues realised that, by working with and through these admittedly theoretically flawed bodies, progressive outcomes could be achieved. It is also good to read of B F Skinner’s work in the 1950s on “teaching machines” and “small steps”: while Skinner espoused the worst sort of behaviourism, who now would argue against the use of IT in all phases of education and a modular approach, even “bite-size” units of learning, as the approach to encourage learning, especially in this era of (intended) widening participation.

As befits a research study, we learn about the methodology employed. 15 universities were visited in the first phase, with five being selected for in-depth treatment in phase two. We could argue about the choice of institutions (in both phases) but they are representative both of type and territory. Nonetheless, my feeling is that, in both phases, the sample is rather small.

This view could be countered by the fact that, in the in-depth phase, where universities are described and identified (and individuals could be identified by those who knew the institutions), there are plenty of “me-too” moments: the sector is diverse but still not that diverse.

Various types of ‘innovation’ are described and here the book becomes very selective. Is ‘group or team work’ really so unfamiliar in higher education? On the other hand, changes in assessment method and an emphasis on skills development probably were. Key to this section of the book is the notion that innovation was seen as reflecting ‘the need to improve student learning’. Unfortunately, other pressures – increases in numbers and increasing diversity of the student body balance this worthy aim. Both the latter are to be welcomed and thus the necessary innovation that accompanies them; the text reads as if these are, in some quarters, matters for regret.

The chapter on teaching and learning has been overtaken by events, notably in the context of semi-compulsory initial staff development in universities. The chapter on the culture of institutions necessarily, but disappointingly, confines itself to the five institutions in phase two of the project and cries out for a separate volume. It supplies a possible author for this: there is a richly allusive quotation on page 78 from Ian McNay proposing a typology of institutions.

As the book progresses, the authors inevitably concentrate their conceptual energies on the five case study institutions (that one of these is the Open University, so atypical of the rest of the sector, is, in my view, a mistake and perhaps more reflective of a political context than an educational). Again, however, there are lessons from these that apply across the sector; for example what institutions did after the expiry of EHE funding. Similarly the chapter on the competitors, in which the RAE figures prominently, will be read with recognition, if not appreciation, by colleagues in several types of universities.

The final chapter, entitled Challenges of Innovation is, in many ways, the most interesting as it suggests questions for further investigation. Whether these questions (or, indeed, the findings of the book) will come as a surprise to any with an interest in higher education, is open to question: surely we can all guess the nature of change that needs to be made in our own practice and the inhibitors to this? Perhaps, though, we need to be reminded and to reflect on such questions.

As indicated above, however, this is less a book on teaching, learning and institutional cultures, as its sub-title seeks to claim, but more of a research report that, ploddingly written, is located at a particular moment and will be of current interest only to historians of higher education.