Innovations to Improve the Student Experience: HigherEd Showcase

Dr. Peter Bryant, of the University of Sydney Business School, discusses innovations to the student experience stemming both from the COVID-19 pandemic and from the development of new technological and pedagogical approaches to higher education in this HigherEd Showcase.

David Linke, Managing Director of EduGrowth, sits down with Dr. Peter Bryant, Associate Dean of Education and Associate Professor at the University of Sydney Business School, to discuss USYD’s reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, changes that the university has made and is continuing to make, and a view toward the future of higher ed.

Professor Bryant describes his alternative to top-down and bottom-up methods of institutional change, which he calls “middle-out” innovation, as well as shares insights, lessons learned, and hopes for the future of higher education.

Highlights of their conversation and a full transcript follow below:

Adapting to the COVID-19 crisis

The pandemic years fractured higher education in an unprecedented way, Professor Bryant says. In particular, it has disrupted the student experience in two key areas:

  • Students’ expectations of the university experience differed greatly from their lived experience due to COVID-19 restrictions and changes to educational policy.
  • The educational and work environments that students were entering into changed in substantive ways to facilitate remote engagement.
  • The education that universities deliver now and in the future must adapt to these new realities.

Knowing that students were encountering big changes, Professor Bryant and his team surveyed the student population at the University of Sydney and found that:

  • Students felt socially isolated. Rites of passage from school into the workforce were interrupted.
  • Students found themselves in a “liminal journey”, uncertain of their current state and their future.
  • Equally, academics felt uncomfortable. Faculty reported feeling that they had lost their space on campus and now had to share areas of their lives that they felt less comfortable sharing.
“Students don’t know what their current state is. They feel everyone around them doesn’t know what their current state is, and they don’t know how to connect well with others when they’ve lost some of the fairly established social norms that they’re used to in an educational environment.”
Professor Peter Bryant, University of Sydney
EduGrowth Cross Border Partnerships to Drive Outcomes - Warwick Freeland featured image

Leveraging change to build a better system

Professor Bryant realised that, if leveraged in the right way, the changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic could actually improve education as a whole. This did not have to be a temporary and unfortunate halt to the normal order of education. It could actually spell a new and better development of the higher ed system. In the University of Sydney Business School:

  • Lectures for large, 400-person classes were abolished. Online courses, built and maintained by faculty, replaced them permanently.
  • Finely-tuned lectures are shared online, and professors no longer have to try to maintain the quality of a lecture for five or more repetitions of it in person.
  • Online lectures give students the opportunity to focus on parts that interest them more than others and give student agency, improving engagement.
“The capacity to improve and redo a lecture that’s recorded before students see it means that the first lecture is not better than the fifth when you’ve repeated it in the same sequence.”
Professor Peter Bryant, University of Sydney

Flexible education

Professor Bryant warns that the temptation to return to the ‘status quo’ of 2019 will be strong, but encourages educators and administrators to retain the positive changes brought about by the crisis of 2020 and 2021. Specifically, he advises that:

  • Courses should allow for multiple entry and exit points for learning.
  • Universities provide differently paced courses. With a student population numbering in the thousands, students will be learning at many different speeds.
  • Faculty resist creating a ‘scaffolded approach’ to learning, instead allowing for flexibility in coursework and degree progression.

Embracing space agnostic learning, or hybrid learning, will be a key shift for educational institutions. At the moment, students and faculty are still adapting to an education split between online and in-person. In the future, if leveraged correctly, this will be the primary and most effective mode of education.

“The real challenge for us as educators is how do we make sure that all the things we’ve done, we learn from them, and that they feed into what education in 2022 becomes.”
Professor Peter Bryant, University of Sydney
EduGrowth Cross Border Partnerships to Drive Outcomes - Ravneet Pawha speaking

Critical tools for the future of higher ed

Alongside the pandemic, expectations of the university experience are changing, both for students and for faculty. Professor Bryant shares a few of his insights from this time:

  • Students have shown a surprising willingness to collaborate. The future of education may be less individual and more collaborative.
  • Advisory is crucial. As students are given more and wider possibilities for study, they need direction from experienced educators as to which direction to take and why.
  • Uncertainty is an educational tool. Build classes such that they are safe for students to be uncertain and to try uncertain things.

Overall Professor Bryant encourages universities and educators to be open to new modes of teaching and learning. While the lecture still has a place in education, he says that we shouldn’t cling to it just because it has always been done.

“Higher education institutions are slow moving behemoths and it’s very hard often to make change in a way that’s lasting or gets through to the entire institution and changes the very fabric and culture of the institution.”
Professor Peter Bryant, University of Sydney

Middle-out innovation

Professor Bryant describes the traditional modes of change in higher education, starting with top-down in which change is imposed by an organizational leader, and bottom-up in which change occurs as a result of faculty piloting programs, writing grants, speaking at conferences, and otherwise trying to get their innovation more attention. Middle-out, on the other hand:

  • Focuses on the most critical and visible aspects of an organization.
  • Showcases success and catches other faculty members’ attention.
  • Leverages the support of peers and shows proof of concept, enabling university leadership to embrace the change more easily.

The middle-out approach is organic and leads to success throughout the institution before the institution itself adopts it in any formal way. In the middle-out approach, everyone wins because proof of concept comes before adoption. Fewer faculty members are left in opposition to the program because they have seen beforehand that it is effective.

“How do you actually get someone that’s in the middle, that both the innovators can look at and say, ‘Ah, I’m doing all that already’ and, ‘I can make it better.’ That’s the principle of middle-out.”
Professor Peter Bryant, University of Sydney

Accommodating innovation in the education space

It is easy for students, or even faculty, to feel that they are being treated as test subjects whenever a university makes some change or innovates in a radical way. This should not cause institutions to stop innovating though. Professor Bryant advises higher education spaces to:

  • Create a safe space for failure. Failure is a catalyst for learning and for refining the innovative product into something worthwhile.
  • Reward students. Don’t punish.
  • Treat vendors as partners. If the product in its current form does not fit the institution’s needs, work with them to adapt it.

Ultimately, open, adaptive, and innovation institutions will develop greater and more effective modes of learning, but the process to develop world class systems will take certain sacrifices or risks from the institution. Professor Bryant assures us that these are worth making.

“I can promise you that the way in which we do open learning could be one hundred times better than it is in the vast majority. It just takes an institution to be able to commit time, money, and a little reputational risk.”
Professor Peter Bryant, University of Sydney

Full Transcript


So now we’re going to change gears a little here and we’re going to hear from Peter Bryant who will give us a bit of a keynote and then we’ll do an in-conversation session. So as you welcome Peter to the stage, allow me to formally introduce him.

Associate Professor Peter Bryant is an Associate Dean of Education at the University of Sydney. Peter has a 25-year career that’s seen him working across adult education, workplace learning, marketing, and creative sectors. Most interesting, Peter has significant experience leading Education Technology programs to support the professional and policy development of teams in higher education that spans both institutions in Australia and across the UK. 


Thank you. I am looking forward to the conversation that will ensue from today’s discussion.

I am the Associate Dean of Education at the University of Sydney Business School. The University of Sydney is one of Australia’s oldest universities and has about 75,000 students. In the business school, we’ve got about sixteen-and-a-half thousand of those and 68% of them are international students which means in the current environment the vast majority of those international students, around 83% of them, are offshore currently.

Our business school is a globally ranked business school. We have accreditations in most of the major business school accreditations which means that our students generally have some of the highest levels of employability, after completing their degree, of any business schools in the country.

The pandemic years, however, have fractured the futures of our higher education for our students at the University of Sydney Business School in two different ways. Firstly it has changed the expectation of the experience that they were going to have of their higher education. We are just about to graduate our first group of students who have never set foot in the campus in our Masters of Commerce program, which is quite a frightening concept for a university that is not generally imbued with the skills of delivering online learning.

The second way it has fractured the environment they’re going into. In the work environment their expectations of mobility and their expectations of being able to attain the particular type of job they want to get at the completion of their degree have been heavily fractured.

So that means the education we deliver, the way in which we structure curriculum, and the way in which we do teaching, learning, and assessment have to adapt to those very fractured environments.

So we went and asked our students, and we said to them, in very visual forms, taking photos of your environment, making films, sharing social media, tell us what you’re feeling about the kind of fractured environments you’re in. And they told us that they were isolated, they felt socially isolated. They felt that their rites of passage from where they were in school, or after their first degree, to where they want to be in employment, have been disrupted.

And they felt that they’re very much wrapped in what academics like to refer to as a liminal journey. They’re feeling uncertain. They don’t know what their current state is. And they feel everyone around them doesn’t know what their current state is, and they don’t know how to actually aggregate and connect well with others when they’ve lost some of the fairly established social norms that they’re used to in an educational environment.

We also asked our academics what they felt about this whole process, and they told us that they felt they were losing their space. Their campus was their space. Their classroom was their space. They felt they were losing it. And they felt that the way in which they were actually having to educate meant that they were having to share spaces that they were not necessarily comfortable with: their house, their backyard, wherever they were sitting. It wasn’t an invasion of privacy, but it was a window into a world that they were not necessarily comfortable in sharing. And that then challenged their location and identity as academics.

So part of the way that we approach this at the business school is that we have taken a project called Connected Learning at Scale. And the idea about Connected Learning at Scale is, how do we actually build in at the design level of unitive study, curriculum and programs, and approach that actually enhances the student experience through making connections? And we built Connected Learning at Scale in a very proactive way to transform all three parts of the student experience, which was moving how we dealt with the lecture or how we dealt with the transmission and engagement of content, how we dealt with the classroom experience, the time spent with an academic in a face-to-face environment, and how we dealt with assessment, and how dealt with the feedback and feedforward we give our students. And how do we change those in a way that actually leverages scale, that doesn’t just cope with it, magnify it, or replicate itself in order to manage scale, but actually benefits from scale? And how do we use that capability and knowledge that is generated through this changed curriculum and learning and teaching approach to actually address critical global, local, and personal challenges?

So rather than talking about ABC plumbing or Frank’s accounting firm, we actually start to get students to talk about using accounting knowledge to address the environmental damage caused by plastic bags. And the data set they use to do their accounting on is actually about the removal of plastic bags and replacing them with a recyclable product. It’s a very complex ecosystem of teaching, learning and assessment. But for us it was critical, and because we started working on it before the pandemic it actually held us in good stead for we were able to shift during the pandemic to being entirely online, until this week hybridised, now back entirely online educational environment.

I want to talk about two really simple examples of things that we did in this very complex ecosystem. The first is the lecture. So in 2019, the lecture is a pretty common sight for everybody. The lecture in 2019 was very much a repeated exercise, because we could only fit 400 people in a lecture theatre and we have on average up to 2,000 students in any of our units of study, that had to be repeated five times. The same lecture, repeated five times, to five different groups of people. With four hundred people in a room, it is essentially broadcast. It’s one person talking to four hundred. It’s very static. There’s a fixed screen, the person can’t move from behind the teaching desk, and it’s quite static. It’s quite distant. The back of the lecture theatre is the distance of a distance learner. And it’s quite traditional. It’s what students have been expecting for when they go to university. Do they like it? Feedback, generally not. Although interestingly in feedback at the moment, they are desperate to return. And of course, with any teaching, it ranged from amazing and inspirational to dull and boring.

In 2021 the Business School has shifted the way in which we do our lectures. Our lectures are all online and they will remain online when we return to a campus based experience. Our lectures are chunked, they’re broken down into small pieces. Rather than a two hour block, they’re broken down into small little bits of knowledge, constructed often in a linear way but sometimes in a completely non-linear form. They’re interactive. Students can engage with the lectures even if they are asynchronous. They use multiple voices. They’re not just a single person talking. There are heaps of people talking. They use different forms of media and different hybridised forms of media, and all the lectures that are delivered in the business school – we deliver 297 hours a week of lectures – are DIY. They’re made by staff, some of them in very Heath-Robinson ways where they’ve mocked up different ways they can use visualisers and data projects, but sometimes in very professional ways and we have supported our staff to do that.

Once again, they do range from amazing and inspirational to sometimes dull and boring. But the capacity to improve and redo a lecture that’s recorded before students see it means that the first lecture is not better than the fifth when you’ve repeated it in the same sequence.

So for us, we’re changing the way in which our students engage with the lecture, we’re moving away from this idea that it’s linear, we’re moving toward students having agency and choice over how they navigate through a lecture. We’re encouraging our students to make a choice about what order they do topics in. We’re giving our students the capability to look at a sequence and go, we’ve got five things here and we want you to choose three. Which three are you interested in? We have a 13-week semester, there’s 13 hours of lectures in there. Because we’re using multiple voices, there is a real capability for someone talking about, for example in a unit called Leading in a Post-Crisis World, in that unit particularly we’ve had voices from all across industry talking.

But if you liked that particular person’s industry perspective, they might come up in week 7 or week 9, and when you’re given options to choose who you might have that conversation with or want to hear from, the students have agency over their choice to who hear they want to hear from. Some of them, we don’t give agency. Some of them are really critical, core pieces of learning. But in other instances, what we are trying to create is what we’ve described as a very snakes-and-ladders approach, where you can work your way through the snakes and ladders grid in whatever pace you wish. You can take a ladder and skip some bits or you can work the snake down through the content. But the students have agency over that. So we think that’s a really interesting way to approach the lecture that has held us in really good stead in order to prepare for where we are now in a pandemic. But most importantly, it removes the didacticism that is rooted in a lot of lectures. It removes the broadcast and builds in a sense of interactivity and engagement that fosters connection.

My second example is a program we have called Leading in a Post-Crisis World. It started in 2020 as Leading in a Post-Covid World, which was a very pre-emptive promise that unfortunately we’ve not been able to deliver on, the Post-Covid bit. So we thought we’d go with Post-Crisis because we are always as a society and as individuals, experiencing some form of crisis, preparing for some form of crisis, and exiting another.

So, leading in a post-crisis world is a program of three major components. It’s got a curricular aspect where students can do units in how they can develop their capacities to be a leader through crisis. It’s got extra-curricular for students who don’t want to pick up a unit but want to do activities that get them prepared to engage as leaders, and that’s activities like leadership legacy workshops, learning how to do effective pitching, and connecting with the kind of innovative research that’s coming out of the university that might give them some ideas about how they can develop different approaches and solve particular problems.

One particular project which we’re most proud of in Leading in a Post-Crisis World was a project called Future Makers. Future Makers was a crowd-sourcing project. We had nearly 1900 students from across the university come into a crowd-sourcing platform and try and describe to us and to each other what they thought were the most wicked, difficult, challenging, frightening problems that the world was facing in 2020. And then collectively crowd-source solutions to them. We dealt with how we get electric cars to be rolled out. We dealt with how we recover from the pandemic. We dealt with why is education in such a difficult situation. And these 1800 people collectively came together in a very engaged, collegial way to try and come up with solutions using good crowd-sourcing pedagogy, so we had lots of opportunities to vote and enhance other people’s ideas, refine them, make them better, and really come together with some excellent ideas, all of which were presented in a forum called the Business Not as Usual Forum to industry and which we broadcast live.

This kind of thing is how we build connections in our classroom. The lecture, that’s got an asynchronous element. This is synchronous. How do we make connections for our students in the classroom so that they engage in active ways, not just with each other, but with their own networks outside of the institution and with their own networks of academics and staff that are engaging with them in the teaching and learning?

So, to wrap this little mini keynote up. What did we learn from this kind of approach? This is only part of a very complex ecosystem of a lot of different things. I’ve just picked two examples. It’s really important for us to design for students to have multiple entry points into and out of teaching and learning at the Business School, to design for different speeds of learning. We’re 16 and a half thousand students. They’re going to be learning at different speeds and different paces. And that there are varied pathways through learning. There is not a single way. This is not a scaffolded approach. There are multiple ways to get from A to B, and how you engage with your learning will help you move between those multiple entry and exit points.

We definitely want to design ecosystems that intersected, built dependencies, and encouraged engagements. We wanted people to have ways in which they might be unit x that connects them with people doing unit y. We also wanted to incorporate a really strong theme that in a digital environment and in a physical environment, visual images and stories were important. Disaggregated theory helps as a structural way to understand what you see in front of you, what you hear, and what the digital story you want to tell is. So it’s really important to incorporate those in.

We also wanted to embrace the affordances of what we’ve called space agnostic learning, what a lot of institutions are calling hybridised or high-flex learning. How do we actually design learning that doesn’t build on only being capable to be done in a physical or an online space? How do you get people from physical and online spaces together working on common problems? So we’ve done a lot of designing to do that. And obviously for us, at the core of this is the idea that we really want to create a connected learning community, that at the heart of what we do is building connections between students, making those connections lasting, giving them capabilities to be leveraged to solve problems.

So that leaves us four simple points that I think will fit into the discussion. There is a risk at the end of all of this that institutions will want to snap back to the way we were in 2019, that the online exams that we’ve been running have got so many problems, let’s just go back to pen and paper, that students are desperate to go back to the lecture theatres so that they can cease attending by year twelve. So there is a real risk that we will not learn anything from our pandemic years. So the real challenge for us as educators is how do we make sure that all the things we’ve done, we learn from them, and that they feed into what education in 2022 becomes.

There’s also the risk that we will never feel normal again, that this will always feel like a churn and that we are constantly being buffeted by the forces of crisis. So there is an opportunity for us as an institution to decide what our normal is, and resist the assertion that this will never be normal, that we are now in the era of the never normal.

This offers us as an institution an opportunity to reimagine teaching and learning, to rethink about what teaching and learning for the modern era is. You go back and look at 14th century paintings of lecture theatres and they look like they do now. What is our opportunity here to reimagine? And finally, for us to learn from the crisis, to learn from what we’ve had to go through in the last two years so that we are in a situation where what we do shifts the experience for our students.


Peter, thank you so very much for that intro piece to allow us to delve into some stuff. Nothing excites me more than an analogy, so let’s go with your analogy of snakes and letters. I’m going to connect it to student agency. I think that snakes and ladders is a great analogy. The idea that you can go up, but you may slip down. How does a university like University of Sydney support students to make sure they’re making good choices, not just a choice.


There’s two parts to that. The first is the changes that the federal government has made through the job ready graduate program. That is looking at students’ performance academically as a way of measuring whether they are actually making the right choice, whether they are actually engaging at a program level with the right types of learning, the right disciplines, and the like. Now that’s a very big stick approach. It’s not the carrot approach. To me the most important part of students making the right choice from an agency perspective is two-fold. One, the connection. If you feel you can go and ask somebody, whether that’s a colleague in your cohort, whether that’s a more experienced senior student who has been there and done that and moved through into the second and third years of undergraduate programs and the final year of a postgraduate program, where you feel you can get advice from academics, program leaders, your teachers.

I think for students to be able to feel that they can interact to a point where they can ask that type of question where you say to them, right, look, you’re asking should I be a business analyst. You’re struggling in your business analytics program, you’re really not engaging with the deeply mathematical core knowledge necessary to this, and you’re really struggling. What do you want out of that? Oh well, my dad told me to work in data analytics because that’s where all the money is.

Well what do you really want to do? And you start to position them to say well actually maybe you could do something with that data analytics knowledge that isn’t data analytics. And I think that advice role is really critical. How you do it at scale is the real challenge. My previous institution, London School of Economics in the UK, had 11,000 students in the entire institution. University of Sydney has 75,000. So that’s one of the things that we’re really trying to work on now. How do you actually build an ecosystem of networks around students so that there isn’t just a single person being able to give that advice?


I don’t want to dwell on the pandemic. What were the surprises you saw, either from student resilience, or student experience, or even academic resilience that you saw during that period that you want to keep going and you want to amplify?


The two things that I think were most interesting to me were the absolute desire of students to be collaborative. We, as institutions, often structure assessment in ways that are quite individualistic and we build structures in our assessments that are sometimes competitive. Well you got a grade slightly higher than you, and so these structures are not necessarily collaborative for students, and one of the things when we did Future Makers, which was not assessment. It was extracurricular activity which students did on top of their learning. To get 1800 students from the business school wanting to collaborate, and there’s no grades, there’s no traditional motivation for participation which is grades. And I don’t necessarily make that case but it is fairly a common story in many institutions that I’ve worked with.


Is that the institution or is it the learner that wants to focus on grades?


I think it’s the institution or the individuals in the institution believing it’s the focus of the learner. Because every time I do something that’s not assessed, that’s not credit bearing, and we do it well, students turn up. If they see a benefit for them in terms of their learning, they show. It’s the same argument I make about attendance at lectures. Students stop attending lectures when they’re not getting anything out of them. If they’re getting stuff out of it and they think it’s beneficial, students turn up. Because ultimately, they’re investing three years of their life in a degree, so that’s a time investment that’s got to have a benefit for them at the end. So I’m definitely of the belief that for us to be able to support collaboration is a really important insight. 

The other one that I think was really important that I found is that how do we engage with the uncertainty that students have? So at one end we’ve got the argument that some course designers take and academics take, which is that students are empty vessels when they arrive and our job is to fill them up with knowledge and send them out the end as semi-completed engineers, architects, business people, whatever. But my argument is that there’s learning that comes from uncertainty, not knowing what the next footfall is, what’s in front of you. And how do you actually create environments where students themselves learn from their uncertainty? And actually academics have uncertainty and everyone is riddled with uncertainty, so how do you design a learning experience that actually builds that uncertainty in it? And I found that when we did that this time around in Leading in a Post-Crisis World, the students actually embraced it. And I was quite surprised at that because traditional logic says that the moment you build uncertainty into something, students get frightened and they want certainty. They want to know when something’s due, the day it’s due, the moment it’s due, what happens when it doesn’t happen, and all of those things. But building in a safe space to be uncertain was really important.


I want to come back to a really big thing that we spoke about, which is your middle-out innovation model in a minute. But there’s three or four questions that I want to cycle through if we can, and I want to do them fairly quickly because they’re all interconnected.

Can you elaborate on interactive asynchronous online lecture model you mentioned in the beginning of your introductory piece?


The really simple version is all our lectures are produced and delivered through our learning management system which is Canvas. We have built in using various models of technology, HP5 being the big one which is a HTML 5 creator, capabilities for students to interact directly with particular questions, to choose a particular pathway and then have videos that trigger down that particular pathway. We’re working on this thing called “synchronously asynchronous” at the moment, and some of that is going to be about how we create, similar to if you watch an Instagram video, you’ll notice that even if you’re watching it asynchronously, all the comments come in at the same time as you’re watching it. So people putting hearts and thumbs up and all those things pop up on the screen and then fall. We’re experimenting with ways in which that kind of technology can be used to create interaction. We’re working as hard as we can, noting that asynchronous can be watched at any point in a 24 hour day. How do you fake synchronous interaction in an asynchronous way? HTML 5 is a simple way to start.


These are 30 second responses here, because they literally are a bunch of great questions. But we don’t have time to answer every one of them in seven minutes.

“How long for academics to get used to teaching online? I gave up lectures in 2008 and it took me years.”


I’m with you. I gave up lectures a long time and I think in some ways it’s like giving up anything that’s addictive. There are great lecturers, brilliant lecturers…


Here’s the next question:

“Maybe we haven’t changed away from lectures for so long because they work. All this passion re: interaction makes me weigh the value of didactics… thoughts?


There is no doubt about it. I am not an anti-lecturer. I think there are actually brilliant lecturers out there, but there’s also the argument that it takes a lot of skill to do it really well. And how do we train people on a platform when we’re not actually training them to be teachers? That is actually the fundamental problem. It takes a skill. We’ve got to train people better at it and then lectures might be more valuable.


I’m going to ask you these questions, but don’t feel compelled to answer.

“Can you sell a premium university experience online given that open unis have been doing it cheaper for decades?”


Yes. Yes you can. I can promise you that the way in which we do open learning could be one hundred times better than it is in the vast majority. It just takes an institution to be able to commit time, money, and a little reputational risk, but yes. I one hundred percent believe it can be.


And also price is an indicator of quality as well. I think that we sometimes conflate that as humans, but it’s not actually directly connected.

“My experience was that student engagement with online lectures and course materials  dropped substantially during COVID compared to face-to-face. Tips for changing this?”


They can, because once again we’ve moved people from a relatively established model of education and when you move from a standard lecture in a lecture theatre where your lecture recording platform does all the work for you, and you’re used to showing your slides on giant 40-feet screens, when it’s reduced down to a tiny screen like this, some of the limitations get exposed. So without a doubt, for us the biggest thing we did was we gave most of our academics who were recording from home a microphone. That was the main thing that we did, give you a microphone so that the sound quality of your video immediately got better than what you were trying to use on your computer. And it’s amazing how that was a gateway to: “oh, maybe I should improve my video quality. Maybe I should think about the quality of my slides. Maybe I should think about editing.” Because you’ve opened the door that this is not a black box that is a black box that requires a PhD in sound to make a good video.


I will share that a few years on a trade mission for EdTech to the US, I ended up at Harvard and they were finding the optimum length of a lecture was about four to six minutes, and as long as the academic can continue to refine the messages to get the key messages down to that, student learning was improved without the 20-, 30-, 40-, 50-minute lecture.

I think there’s lots of learning science that we can apply to these things as well. And I think that’s really around that sort of nice integration between EdTech companies, EdTech providers, the platform capability, and the need of academics, and the need of educators to hit the student mark.

I really am intrigued by your middle-out innovation model. I wonder if you might spend a couple of minutes giving us an introduction to it.


For many years I’ve been looking at how we actually effect pedagogical change in an institution. Higher education institutions are slow moving behemoths and it’s very hard often to make change in a way that’s lasting or gets through to the entire institution and changes the very fabric and culture of the institution. The two traditional ways we’ve always done this is looking at bottom-up innovation where we’ve got all these great innovators who all pilot different things and they’re the first people to apply for grants, and the first people to present at teaching and learning festivals, and write papers, and brilliant at getting innovation. But it doesn’t tend to get much out of that kind of frisson of people interested in that.

And then you’ve got the top-down approach. And the top-down approach is always the Vice-Chancellor coming and saying, “you will do this.” I used to work in a university in the UK where the Vice-Chancellor literally stamped his fist on the table and said by the end of the year will be doing online assessment. And because the Vice-Chancellor dictated it, everybody did. Didn’t come with resources, didn’t come with any training, and didn’t come with any motivation, and it didn’t last once the Vice-Chancellor left. So top-down has its limitations as well.

For many years, I’ve been trying to think what’s the way in which you create a lasting pedagogical change environment but also make sure that it does impact on the culture and structure of the institution. And I came up with this idea of Middle-Out, and the idea of Middle-Out is that you find parts of the organization that are of critical importance, they don’t have to be the biggest, they don’t have to be the largest, they don’t have to be the most important, but are actually the most visible, and sometimes that’s the highest reputation academic you’ve got. Sometimes it’s the most visible program. Sometimes it’s a core unit. But you take the things that are very visible, that if you transform and you change, then someone looks and says, “Oh, if they can do it, why can’t I?”

David mentioned Harvard before. One of the really interesting things was a Harvard academic which I met, who was a professor and Nobel Prize winning physicist well into his 70s, apparently one of the worst lecturers Harvard’s ever had. Students were bored out of their skulls. Educational development colleagues worked with him there and made him look brilliant in shooting video. They had him walk around the campus like a rock star, he had makeup done, he had the whole thing, and they turned his lectures into videos. He loved it. He thought he looked like white hot. But everyone just looked and said, “Oh, if person x can do this, why can’t I?” and that’s the principle of Middle-Out. How do you actually get someone that’s in the middle, that both the innovators can look at and say, “Ah, I’m doing all that already” and “I can make it better.”

You’ve still got the top going, “This is something that we need to do institutionally.” But you’re starting to get that momentum in the middle, because when you think about institutional change, it’s easy to convert the bottom 25% or the innovating 25%. It’s almost impossible to move the intransigence. It’s the 50% in the middle you have to move, and that’s where Middle-Out focuses on.


Before we move away from your Middle-Out innovation model, what is the core benefit you see of finding that pilot, that sort of lighthouse in the middle, who’s got the whole profile. They’re critical and stuff. What’s the main benefit you see of having this idea of connecting around it? Not the grassroots nor the top-down, but out of the middle? What’s the key point? The key benefit?


The key benefit is that group in the middle 50% are looking for a hook. The vast majority of them have got, whether it’s a piece of fear that’s holding them back, whether it’s a previous experience that’s holding them back, it’s providing a, and I think that lighthouse analogy is a really good one, it provides them with a lighthouse to navigate towards, and because that group is only really one step away often from the the bit that gets them to to innovate, to change, then  having someone that they that they can actually see, “Oh they changed. Oh they did that unit. That program’s done it.” It makes them feel safer because, ultimately, whilst I talk about uncertainty, there is a major benefit to feeling safe.


I have a question around this because I think that you get that innovation also requires the capacity to be wrong. To be truly innovative you have to be willing to be wrong. How do you support both academics and the institutions that they’re working in to feel comfortable that you can be wrong?


When I was at the LSE we had a student forum, and one of my most engaged academics, a Professor of Sociology, stood up and said, “Look, I work. I try all these things in my classroom, and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t.” And the students got up and were livid at him. How dare you experiment on me. How dare you. I pay good money to get a well-structured education, and you know this guy got freaked at this, and it made me start to think, how do you do that in a way that doesn’t treat the students as an experimental bunnies, and how do you actually ensure that all the other structures around the institution, student satisfaction surveys, performance management, academic professional development, and all those kind of things don’t create that environment?

It is really hard. The two big things for me are, and it’s going to sound like a cliche, but it is creating a safe space for failure, it is allowing things to not work, but having good data, good rigorous evaluation, and good research to make sure that we understand why it didn’t work.

And then that’s the main stuff. The other thing is to not punish. Reward, not punish.


Is USYD to building its own solutions or do you see its role as finding and integrating solutions that have been built by outside providers?


My perspective on vendors, and I’ve written a blog post about this for the LSE higher education blog, is that we need to work with vendors. But we need to work with vendors as partners. So we need to structure our particular way in which we do education and have technology support and pedagogical support that actually delivers that way of learning. We definitely don’t need to be in a situation where we change to suit the provision of a piece of technology, and that’s a really difficult argument and debate to have. But for me, without a doubt, I don’t buy bespoke. Bespoke is a dangerous pathway to shadow IT and the depths of pits of having to redo it, yourself, in 25 years time when you realise your platform is broken.


So then there’s lots of dead-end products out there that have been employed there.


Working with vendors to actually feed into their development through our experiences is just as important for us to hear from vendors to feed into our pedagogy.


Fantastic, Peter. We could go on for a very long time and there are lots of other questions, and what we will do is we’ll suffer them through it towards the end and so that people can hear that. Peter, thank you so very much for your time. I truly do appreciate it.