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EdLab spearheads educational innovation at UM

In Society
Written by  Jos Cortenraad Wednesday, 15 June 2016 00:00

The EdLab institute is set to become the driving force behind educational innovation at Maastricht University. Having spent the past year making connections and charting the terrain at UM, the institute has, according to EdLab director and UM vice rector Harm Hospers, demonstrated its right to exist. “The number of ideas and proposals is overwhelming. EdLab is a hotbed of innovation. And innovation, as you know, is never done.”

 

Establishing the EdLab was no easy task, but a sense of optimism now permeates Building X, on the site of the former Tapijn barracks. “Educational innovation used to happen on a project-by-project basis”, says Hospers. “So it’s important that we now have our own place with our own people and resources. A physical institute, where we hold meetings, give workshops and share knowledge and ideas. We’ve been at it for 12 months now and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the dynamics. All six faculties have come forward with different plans and ideas – more than we can deal with. There’s interest from administrators and academics, not to mention students. They of course are keen to know whether opting for Problem-Based Learning was the right choice, and whether it still meets the demands of the labour market.”

Commitment
A Maastricht native, Hospers lacks neither enthusiasm nor optimism. He has made undeniable progress on the site where, until the turn of the century, soldiers were stationed to guard the city. “It’s too early for concrete results, but the faculties have shown their commitment over the past year. All six deans have pledged to implement proven innovations, and every faculty has appointed at least one liaison. We organise meetings where they can come together to discuss ideas. Often they bring to the table existing plans from their own faculties, but then why should they all have to reinvent the wheel? Every programme is involved in the quest for innovation. Everyone is concerned with whether our brand of PBL is keeping up with the latest technological developments and increasing internationalisation. Does our education system do justice to the great diversity of cultures here in Maastricht? Together we’ll find the answers.”

Pillars
The work of the EdLab rests on three pillars. “The first one is educational innovation, for example in terms of exams and assessments. How does a tutor weigh up the individual contributions of different students working together on a group assignment? In practice all students pretty much get the same mark. That’s something that should change. The same holds for examining written work and giving constructive feedback on theses. Not everything can or should be assessed by way of multiple-choice questions, but marking written work is very labour intensive and often involves two different assessors. It may be possible to automate this digitally somehow. We’re looking for smart solutions.”

The different ideas are discussed in working groups, which then may or may not come up with a project proposal. Hospers has been particularly pleased by the openness of these discussions. “The differences between programmes fade into the background and you see that all faculties are facing the same issues. Sometimes one faculty has made more progress than another with a given innovation. And that’s fine – after all, knowledge exchange is one of the EdLab’s objectives. I’m seeing closer collaboration and increasing enthusiasm, and that’s an excellent basis to build on.”

Excellent
The second pillar of the EdLab focuses on the university’s excellence programmes. “UM has three programmes for excellent students: Honour+, MaRBLe and PREMIUM. Our plan is to bring these students together at the EdLab to collaborate on cross-faculty projects.” Educational Services make up the third pillar: “Here we’re talking about training programmes for educators in areas like examination and assessment, leadership and cultural diversity. Innovation also means equipping staff with specific tools; EdLab is able to shed light on the needs of UM staff. Participants come up with their own ideas, and we translate these from subject-specific into broader plans.”

Standing up
For students all these plans are, with the exception of the excellence programmes, not yet overly visible. “The point is to ensure that we’re providing the best possible education", says Walter Jansen, coordinator of innovation and one of the EdLab’s six permanent staff. “We’re also involved with accreditations, with trying to find the right balance between the different types of exams and the learning objectives. The average student isn’t much interested in that. That being said, we’re also experimenting with innovations that directly concern students – standing up during tutorials, for instance. Research suggests that this helps people stay alert and active for longer. We want to find out whether it’s really true in practice.”

This, according to Hospers, also falls under the umbrella of innovation. “The EdLab is open-minded; we never just dismiss an idea out of hand. My hope is that in four years the EdLab will be a place where administrators, teachers and students work together towards innovation. Only if you’re constantly innovating can you improve.”

Harm Hospers (1957), professor of Applied Health Psychology, studied Psychology in Groningen before joining the Faculty of Health Sciences in Maastricht in 1985. He defended his PhD thesis, 'Homosexual men and the HIV epidemic', in 1999. In the same year he was appointed programme director at the Faculty of Psychology, where he later became a member of the Faculty Board. Hospers was appointed dean of University College Maastricht in 2009 and dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Sciences in 2011. In 2015 he became vice rector for education at UM, a position he combines with his role as EdLab director.

www.EdLab.nl

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