Hannah Cornish, Academic Developer at the Institute for Academic Development, discusses how the University, through the creation of the Centre for Experiential Learning, is actively supporting linking research and learning by encouraging students to learn as change agents…
Higher Education institutions are increasingly under pressure to justify themselves in terms of the impact that their research and teaching activities have on the world around them. Partly as a result of this, I recently became involved in an ESRC Impact Accelerator project that sought to examine the potential for bringing research, teaching and impact agendas into closer alignment across the University of Edinburgh.
The hypothesis we were exploring (which we reported on at the inaugural Learning and Teaching Conference in June) was whether the University could extend the impact of academic research more widely by developing courses and learning activities that gave students the opportunity to learn as genuine change agents. Could we see tangible benefits to adopting the approach of encouraging students to engage with real-world problems – as researchers do – and interacting with communities and organisations outside of the university?
Initially, myself and colleagues thought we might struggle to find examples of existing courses to investigate that took this approach. However, after a preliminary survey we soon realised that the greater problem lay in narrowing down a final selection! This abundance in the range and variety of courses was a welcome surprise, as was the extent to which many of them were actively student-led. Eventually, we settled on a somewhat representative sample of twelve courses, spanning nine different Schools. By looking at the key attributes and features of each course we were able to identify a basic three-way typology of course designs, which will be a useful tool for supporting the development of more of these courses in future  .
Crucially, however, the project also began to uncover some of the different routes or mechanisms by which these courses are working to benefit all the key players – the students, staff, the university, and external organisations and communities involved. Amongst others, the study revealed how developing these courses helped staff to reduce time pressures (by bringing research and teaching activities closer together), generated new research opportunities (by creating long-term collaborative partnerships with organisations and community, and creating opportunities for students and staff to build stronger relationships in research contexts), and gave students the autonomy, skills, and confidence to undertake their own research and promote change in the communities that matter to them. Although it is undoubtedly challenging to create a course that is “Win! Win! Win!” – where students benefit from a truly rich learning experience, partner organisations and communities benefit from undertaking work or developing a resource that otherwise might not have been possible, and staff benefit from enriching their research and teaching – this study has started to make sense of how it is possible.
Moving forwards, the one thing all of our courses had in common was that they involved Experiential Learning (EL) – with students learning by doing, and often reflecting on their practice during assessment. Although EL is by its nature very messy and non-linear (see Simon Beame’s recent TM post ), especially when working with external stakeholders, there does seem to be an increasing demand for these learning experiences.
However, the project identified a current lack of support within the University for this type of teaching. To this end, the IAD has recently launched the Centre for Experiential Learning, which will be a hub for pulling together best practice across the university, and supporting the development of new tools and frameworks to make designing and running EL courses easier in future. For further information (and to get involved!) please visit the Centre’s website.
 For example, the Design Agency project uses a vertically integrated design, where cohorts of students from different year groups, skill and experience levels, come together using a division of labour approach to collaborate on large projects over time.
 Organising for Social Change utilises a small-group short-placement design, where a whole class is divided into groups each of which work on an independent project with an external organisation that tackles a specific problem.
 Finally, we saw outreach designs, like the GeoScience outreach course – recently extended to Psychology students – where individual students work with external organisations to undertake specific research or public engagement activities for credit.