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Keeping universities relevant through active learning

Student-centered and active learning are a necessity for European universities to remain relevant to young people and society. Cecilia Christersson and Patricia Staaf of Malmö University discuss the need for further European collaboration in education, as well as in research on education and active learning.

All universities face challenges such as widening participation, more diverse student populations, and digitalisation, which all lead to the need to further develop pedagogical methods and ways of understanding the role of higher education in society.

At Malmö University (MAU) in Sweden, there is a clear aim to attract a non-traditional student population and to promote a cross-disciplinary base in order to address societal challenges and propose solutions. This is done, among other things, through student-centered pedagogy and societal engagement. We call this challenge-based learning.

Challenge-based learning is both a method of approach and an application of pedagogical methods and is understood as an attitude towards learning that sees students as partners and the research process as a model for learning. The goal is to activate learning through curiosity and authentic challenges. Other aspects of challenge-based learning are addressing, developing and evaluating academic transferable skills; and integrating both research and collaboration with society in the educational programmes. The challenges that MAU is tackling are getting students more involved and engaged in the development of challenge-based learning and encouraging teaching staff to explore new learning-driven co-creative processes. The discussions with the EUA Learning & Teaching Thematic Peer Group on “Promoting active learning in universities” have given us inspiration and new ideas on how to deal with these challenges.

As part of our work in the group, we discussed ways to promote and enhance active learning in universities, with active learning understood as an approach to learning that exceeds purely pedagogical concerns, and also activates the societal mission and function of higher education. During the vivid discussions, we touched upon most aspects of higher education like professional development for teachers, collaboration with stakeholders, learning environments, assessment practices, curriculum design, and the need forlearning communities.

The group decided not to give one single definition of active learning but to embrace the need for different universities to profile their understanding of active learning. The main result of the discussions was the conclusion that there is a need for a cultural shift in higher education to enable innovative (re)design processes for the improvement of curriculum development, teaching approaches, as well as of the learning environment. This re-design of higher education should include students as partners. Universities also need to embrace and expand the concept of active learning by appreciating their position as part of learning communities.

A cultural shift may sound like a revolution, but it is more like a transformative process that needs to advance in small steps, with the possibility of experimentation and failure as an opportunity to learn. The different steps toward such a shift are further developed in our group’s report.

In addition to these outcomes, there is a distinct need for research on the development of learning and teaching in higher education to identify best practices, and to understand what works and why. International cooperation is key as such collaboration in the field of learning and teaching is also a powerful way to strengthen internationalisation.

Coming from Sweden, where there are no fees for higher education (apart from those for students who come from outside the EU), it was a valuable reminder of how different the prerequisites for higher education are within Europe, which emphasises the importance of strategies to deepen collaboration in research-integrated education between European universities.

It is imperative for higher education institutions to keep focusing on the quality, as well as the interplay in learning and teaching, in order to remain a relevant option for young people and their commitment to education and lifelong learning. Building networks and engaging in peer-learning activities are a crucial way for institutions to achieve this, but also to enhance their ability to influence relevant policies both at the European and national levels.

Cecilia Christersson and Patricia Staaf were the co-chairs of EUA’s Learning & Teaching Thematic Peer Group on “Promoting active learning in universities”.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Cecilia Christersson

Cecilia Christersson is the Pro Vice-Chancellor of Global Engagement and Challenge Based Learning at Malmö University in Sweden. Between 2010 and 2016 she was the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the same institution, holding in her portfolio education, quality and internationalisation. She is a DDS, PhD in Odontology and associate professor in dental materials science and prosthetic dentistry. Since 2016 she is chairing the National Committee for Refugee Academics in the Swedish Association of Higher Education Institutions. Cecilia is the recipient of the Value Based Leadership Award from the International Beliefs and Values Institute (USA) and the Janne Carlsson Award for Academic Leadership of the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm (Sweden).

Photo credit: ©Malmö University

Patricia Staaf

Patricia Staaf is Director of Malmö University’s Centre for Teaching and Learning. With a background in language and linguistics (licentiate of arts in Swedish), she has been working with different aspects of widening participation and inclusive higher education since she joined the university in 1999. She chairs two national networks Swednet: a network for educational development in higher education and Include: a university network on widening participation.

Photo credit: ©Lotta Orban, Malmö University

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