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Co-creating the curriculum

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Involving students in creating their own curriculum could be the future of higher education suggests Professor Catherine Bovill.

For the Professor of Student Engagement in Higher Education, based in the Institute for Academic Development at Edinburgh, a collaborative approach to education is key to ensuring a successful University experience for both staff and students.

Three students sitting round a table in a study space

“The people who are the absolute core and centre of what we do in universities are the students,” says Professor Bovill. “Yet they’re often the disenfranchised or don’t have power or a voice.”

Encouraging teaching staff to consider listening to student voices to create a more collaborative experience of learning and teaching has been Professor Bovill’s focus for the past two decades. She is one of 50 academics in the UK to receive a National Teaching Fellowship this year in recognition of her outstanding work in this field.

Championing co-creation

Professor Bovill has always recognised how important the student perspective can be when it comes to university learning and teaching: “My research is very much about enhancing student engagement at university.

“More specifically, I focus on how students and staff can co-design and co-create the curriculum,” she continues. “How working together they can design elements of the curriculum, teaching, learning and assessment in innovative ways.”

This idea of community and collaboration is at the heart of Professor Bovill’s work.

“Often when we talk about co-creation, everything’s quite individual – what the individual student will get from it,” she explains. “I think a lot of the benefits of co-creation are actually what the class get as a whole. We learn huge amounts from one another and learning from the processes of shared decision making is a key aspect of co-creation, and how we enable that to take place.”

Professor Cathy Bovill

Professor Catherine Bovill

Professor Bovill believes that inviting students into becoming collaborators in teaching and learning will play a huge part in the future of higher education: “I feel really passionately about making sure my research is going to make a difference, that it will enable teachers to think in different ways about teaching or for students to feel that they’ve got support to become more involved in their own education.”

National Teaching Fellowship

This extensive work into curriculum co-creation, has resulted in Professor Bovill being awarded a National Teaching Fellowship from Advance HE. The accolade recognises and celebrates those who have made an outstanding impact on student outcomes and the teaching profession in higher education.

“Honestly it just feels really amazing to be recognised for something which is connected to my research and my teaching,” says Professor Bovill. However, she’s more excited about the potential for further collaboration among colleagues.

“It gives me access to the Association of National Teaching Fellows,” she explains. “Colleagues who are all recognised for contributing to teaching in a meaningful way, and that creates a whole new network from whom I can learn. That feels like a powerful potential gain for us – for me and for the University.”

Professor Bovill is keen to express that her work has and always will be a team effort: “I’m so thrilled to have been recognised with this award, but so many people have contributed to helping me along the way, including a lot of excellent and inspiring students and staff colleagues.”

Breaking down barriers

Her drive to connect, collaborate and build a stronger sense of community between staff and students was ignited further when Professor Bovill, who studied for her undergraduate degree at Edinburgh, re-joined the University as a staff member in 2017.

The Gordon Aikman Lecture Theatre on George Square

On her return, she was struck by how different her experience of the campus was as a member of staff. She explains: “In a sense I knew the University so well, and yet there were parts I didn’t. I occupy different spaces as a staff member than I did as a student and that showed me another level on which we don’t always connect. It made me think how could we share those spaces in a way that can enable more conversations?”

Professor Bovill is passionate about breaking down barriers: “It’s not about ivory towers and language that’s not accessible. That’s not helpful if you’re talking about trying to bring students into the conversation – why are we talking in ways that we can’t even understand?”

Using her experiences to explore obstacles that staff and students can come up against Professor Bovill has championed a number of projects that encourage staff and students to connect more and share both sides of the University experience. In 2018 she launched Coffee and Cake Conversations, an initiative which saw staff and students meet informally outside their teaching spaces to try to build relationships and community.

The results spoke for themselves: “What was just so phenomenal was I received so many positive responses. One lecturer wrote, ‘I’m so happy I did this because it reminded me why I came to the University. The students were so smart, creative and funny. They made me realise why I love doing what I do’.”

“These informal conversations are powerful,” says Professor Bovill. “It’s about building an inviting intellectual community and being more open and willing to get to know one another. Forming these relationships also builds a sense of belonging. I think it can be so valuable just to break down barriers.”

In 2018 Professor Bovill also created and launched the University’s annual Learning and Teaching Conference, which brings together staff and students to celebrate and share good practice and innovation in learning and teaching. Over the past five years academics from across the University and beyond have attended to share their expertise.

Catherine Bovill at a lectern with a university logo on
Professor Catherine Bovill giving a keynote presentation at the 2022 Learning and Teaching Conference

After growing the audience to around 900 delegates in 2021, she took a step back from the conference so other colleagues could benefit from taking this on as a development opportunity: “It feels amazing to have seen the conference flourish, and to be able to pass that to someone else now and say I’m not precious, grow it in whatever way you want to.”

Collaborating across communities

Building communities is a key part of Professor Bovill’s work and it’s something she’s worked to do outside of the University of Edinburgh community too. A Visiting Fellow at the University of Winchester and the University of Bergen, she was also awarded a Fulbright scholarship to visit Elon University in North Carolina in 2019/20.

A building on the Elon University campus
Elon University

As well as collaborating with other universities and their staff, she’s also still working with the students. She often co-writes research papers with the students that have been a part of the project.

So how does that work when Professor Bovill has years of experience of writing?

“I think it’s about levelling the playing field,” she explains. “What we’re doing is bringing students into the academic world. Journal publications are a way that we communicate with our professional community and that isn’t necessarily a place that students would normally write for.”

“That’s a real benefit for students because it enables them to see into the academic world and how we craft articles and why we write them in particular ways,” she continues. “And I also benefit a great deal from students’ input because they think differently. They have different perspectives. This enables me to gain a much more rounded view of the research.”

Transforming the curriculum

Looking ahead, Professor Bovill is involved in a wealth of projects that offer opportunities to break down barriers and encourage a joint approach to learning and teaching: “Due to the benefits of co-creation, we have a duty to think about how we can offer co-creation opportunities to all students.”

A lecturers uses a guitar to teach his students

One such project is the Curriculum Transformation Programme, which looks to examine and revise how the University creates and delivers the curriculum, ensuring it evolves with our future students’ priorities. Professor Bovill is co-chair of the Student Engagement Strategy Group and a member of the Curriculum Design Principles and Architecture workstream, and she’s keen to make sure that students are a key part of that process: “We’re ensuring students are on committees and contributing to making decisions,” she explains.

However, Professor Bovill still thinks there’s a way to go: “My specialist area is the co-creation that takes place in the curriculum, rather than before it is designed. I would argue at the moment that classroom-based learning and teaching processes generally don’t have enough students involved in them.

“We need to do something about that, but I think that’s going take quite a shift – I don’t think it’s going to happen overnight,” she continues. “It’s a big culture change.”

Despite this, she’s positive about the future of this work at the University: “There are already many inspiring examples of co-creation from colleagues at Edinburgh. In the future, I would love to be able to say that all students at the University have had an opportunity to be part of the decision making when it comes to their curriculum.”

Image credits: Sam Ingram-Sills; Allan Bovill; Paul Dodds