Developing and enhancing learning and teaching through an internal knowledge exchange network

Author/Producer Professor Ron Ritchie
Published in Summer Newsletter 2008
Date Published 21 July 2008
Pages 4


Professor Ron Ritchie discusses the introduction of self-driven internal knowledge exchange networks at the University of the West of England


One of the key strategic priorities of the University of the West of England (UWE) is enhancing the student experience. Another is to position the university as one that makes a significant contribution through knowledge exchange, especially with external partners, institutions, agencies and organisations. The initiative outlined in this article links both of these priorities.

Concerns about the student experience, especially with regard to assessment and feedback issues, result from UWE’s internal monitoring and evaluation processes, including student evaluation data and through the National Student Survey.

The University has focused on these concerns for some time and has, for example, established a minimum entitlement to feedback statement as part of its assessment policy and introduced a university-wide ‘graduate development programme’ (see ) for all undergraduate students. More recently, a new Learning, Teaching and Assessment Strategy has been developed that establishes values which underpin our approaches. The strategy signals a commitment to the learning of all members of the university community (students and staff) and, of particular relevance to the initiative below, a commitment to assessment for, not merely of, learning (in other words, to formative as well as summative purposes of assessment and feedback).

One of the key enabling approaches proposed in the Strategy was the creation of a UWE Internal Knowledge Exchange Network (IKEN) to promote the development of pedagogic practice and research across the University. For a university keen to engage in knowledge exchange and the co-construction of knowledge with others externally, it seemed important to model such processes internally – sharing and learning from each other as we cumulatively construct improved understanding of our practices and how they might be enhanced.

The governance of UWE IKEN is under the auspices of the University’s Learning, Teaching and Assessment Committee (LTAC). LTAC commissions and supports activities which focus on identified priorities but the networks are self-driven. UWE IKEN therefore operates both within and beyond UWE’s formal structures. In some respects, it promotes the idea of a learning community. It provides ‘safe’ spaces for discussions and exploration of practice and issues, and allows ‘sanctioned behaviour’, innovation and risk taking to build confidence in colleagues to implement change and develop practice. Self-evaluation and local accountability of UWE IKEN activities are encouraged, as opposed to ‘policing’ by LTAC.

The first ‘node’ of UWE IKEN has focused on ‘assessment feedback’ (interpreted very broadly and covering student expectations, engagement and staff-student relationships). A group of approximately 20 volunteer assessment feedback champions (AFCs) from across all faculties, some working in specially established enquiry groups, were brought together. A stimulus for the establishment of the AFCs was a UWE-wide seminar (September 2007) to share assessment practices. Some of the enquiry groups were school or faculty-based, others had mixed membership. Each AFC drafted an enquiry proposal which was made available to the wider university to encourage others to join groups. The initial AFCs were organised into three clusters involving groups with similar interests (formative approaches; expectations; and practices) and each cluster was supported by a coordinator (a colleague from central services such as the library and IT services) who had access to some university-provided resource. The groups meet regularly and share ideas and practices through a specially created site on the intranet (for all staff) and the use of SharePoint (Microsoft®) for work in progress (for those actively involved). The intranet site is also where we have built up a ‘knowledge resource’ of materials locally generated and from external sources (added to when, for example, participants attend conferences, local events are organised with external speakers or participants come across materials during their enquiries and, of course, linking to HEA materials). Some of the networking involves face-to-face discussions, sometimes recorded and made available to others, and sometimes through virtual online means. As new examples of practice and interested colleagues from academic and professional support staff are identified, they are added to the network. Students have been actively involved in developments and in some groups. The cluster co-ordinators meet regularly to foster cross-cluster learning. Currently, IKEN is overseen by the author (in his AVC role) with invaluable support from a member of the Academic Registry.

Regular reports are made to LTAC and e-bulletins are widely circulated. As AVC, the author meets and communicates with members of faculty leadership teams with learning and teaching responsibilities to share developments and encourage faculty-based activities which have more impact over time.

A variety of events are being planned to further disseminate the outcomes of the activities taking place. These will be organised, in part, alongside the dissemination of a recent formal internal academic audit process which also focused on feedback and elicited views and experiences from faculty executive teams, academic staff and students. This formal quality assurance and enhancement process complemented the more ‘organic’ development of IKEN activities.

Since the successful establishment of the first node, new ones are being developed on work-based learning and employability and on sustainability. Further nodes will be added as LTAC identifies future priorities.

In many respects, the IKEN is at an early stage of development, but there are indications of its impact and evidence suggests that it is encouraging more sharing and co-development of practice than was previously the case. There have been challenges, especially related to finding ways of distilling the huge amount of material available and making it accessible to busy academics. Another relates to colleagues protecting time for developmental activities. The degree of engagement and activity amongst AFCs and the ‘buy in’ of others are variable as would be expected. There is an ongoing issue of influencing those who were described by one associate dean as ‘the hard to reach’. However, the more examples there are of the positive outcomes of such investment of time, the more other people are likely to commit to enquiries as a means of furthering their own learning and engaging in knowledge exchange with others, for transformative purposes aimed at enhancing the students’ learning experiences.