Innovation in learning and teaching is too important to cut

The Coalition made the decision to close the Office for Learning and Teaching. from www.shutterstock.com

The Office of Learning and Teaching will today (May 16) announce the twelve Teaching Fellows and the Innovation and Development Grants for 2016. They will be the last as the OLT will cease operation at the end of June due to cuts announced in the recent federal budget.

The closure of the OLT, as well as the loss of its grants and fellowships, removes from Australian higher education the national commitment to innovation and improved performance in learning and teaching. It’s a commitment that dates back more than 20 years to OLT’s predecessor bodies, the Carrick Institute and the Australian Learning and Teaching Council.

The final cut “saved” some A$20.9 million. Compared to a total cut to higher education estimated to be around $2 billion in the same budget, it is a trivial amount. But it matters - and its impact is larger than the dollars involved.

Without a commitment to innovation in university education, how do we expect to nurture future innovators? How will we support collaboration and change in learning and teaching across the sector?

Without a peak agency and focused programs there is no national drive to spread innovation and change in learning and teaching across university education.

Far beyond the club

Some in the sector claimed the OLT was a “club”. The slur was repeated in the media and heard by government. It provided support for the argument that not much would be lost by the OLT’s demise.

It’s also untrue. Figure 1 shows the distribution of funding for OLT grants and fellowships over the period 2012-2015.

It shows how the funding was spread, unrelated to size or research intensity, from large public universities to small private higher education entities. If this is evidence of a club, it is large and dispersed, showing none of the signs of elitism implied by that word.

Source: Office of Learning and Teaching.

And the funding diagram conceals that every large grant and fellowship required collaboration across universities.

Networks of innovation were built across the sector and cut across the usual groups such as the Group of Eight (Go8), Innovative Research Universities (IRU) and Australian Technology Netowrk (ATN).

And the fellows made themselves available beyond their fellowships to share their findings - to help others improve curriculum, teaching methods and policy or pursue professional development.

All the resources produced with funding from the OLT are open to all - held on the web. This is the open access to innovation hoped for in research but achieved here in teaching and learning. One of the last acts of the OLT was a project to build a digital repository of resources for future use.

This is large scale and far-reaching innovation from a small amount of funding. The areas explored remain vital. Figure 2 shows the fields explored by OLT grants and fellowships.

Source: Office of Learning and Teaching.

How do we engage with the digital in learning and teaching and for our students; reframe our curriculum to prepare for employability for a different age; bring the ability to work at the research cutting edge into undergraduate education; embed more independent creative problem solving within our curriculum; ensure academic integrity; address global perspectives?

These questions were explored in OLT programs for change. Proposals for immediate action in more than one university were funded. The OLT didn’t merely support research on learning and teaching, it also implemented real reforms.

We cannot provide brilliant and relevant university education for the over 1.3 million students now enrolled in Australia by pretending we teach in small 19th-century universities.

We need programs to make systemic change. We cannot rely only on a cohort of legendary teachers as the answer.

What will happen now?

Each university invests to support excellent teaching, innovation, and improved education performance and change.

The level of their investment varies with capacity. Through OLT each time an applicant submitted a grant or a fellowship application there was a specific endorsement from university leadership to provide institutional support.

The OLT made each university a partner in better teaching and learning for the sector as a whole. Without such a scheme it’s highly likely constrained resources will be diverted to other ends.

And what of the motivation of academics to invest the time and bear the risks that innovation and change in education bring? Few academics will receive a job offer from a desirable university on the basis of their teaching.

Universities in the US, UK, Europe and Asia hire academics largely on the basis of research outcomes. Against these international pressures, focus on innovation and change in university education, requires investment and recognition. Australia’s small national agency and its programs spoke to this goal.

The price of everything, the value of nothing

All budgets are political because they signal what the government of the day values. In this case a small national investment was considered beyond our means and quality university education has been impoverished. The value of a small national body that builds collaboration for innovation and systemic change appears to have been poorly understood.

The Office of Learning and Teaching was a small but vital statement of our national priorities, of the importance we placed on innovation and excellence in university education. Its value far exceeded its price.

Some of the material in this article was presented in a speech given at the last OLT Conference, 28 April 2016.

The Conversation is a non-profit + your donation is tax deductible. Help knowledge-based, ethical journalism today.