What you can do to improve your university

The student run Leiden Green Office interviewed me. It was a follow up to an interview I did a year previous for the Leiden website. Central was the question what I was doing to improve sustainability at Leiden University. Quite a lot, and at the same time nothing at all. It is such an overwhelming question that everything you do seems to be insignificant, a mere drop in the ocean. Other people do so much more. It makes me feel humble to be interviewed for such a minor thing.

The same feeling of insignificance now fills me. I have decided to put my name forward for Leidse Academische Gemeenschap, one of the staff parties at the University Council. You know of my passion for University Democracy, as demonstrated by my work as Dienstraad chair of first SOZ and now LLInC, so it is not coming out of left field. I will not be on highest position on the list, just doing what I can respectfully to improve my university, which for now is mainly supporting the election campaign and getting the word out why voting in university democracy is so important. I could have selected other parties, or not to run at all, but I just feel very motivated by the values of LAG, which I think is people centered as I am in my daily work.

I will be out there to convince other people to believe in University Democracy as well. I hope to meet you there, and convince you to go out and vote. It is important, even if I am not.

The past informs the future: 8 years of Education Innovation

It started with a January mail of the director of Academical Affairs, sharing with his team the top ten most important people in Higher Ed of 2012, which included the Khan Academy. I shared a TED Talk of the Khan Academy with the team. The ICTO programme manager was drawn by the algorythmn in several more videos and found Daphne Koller, founder of Coursera and was intrigued by the potential.

Important? Yes, because serendipty is a strong force in education innovation, as is collaboration. Following this online exploration there was a skype call with the very accessible professor Koller of Stanford, and the request to all members of Academical Affairs to follow a couple of MOOCs and share our experiences. I personally followed the Gamification MOOC of professor Kevin Werbach of the Wharton School of Business, among royalty of MOOC stars. We all reported back. It was fun, exciting and new. We had no idea how this could be useful. There were no deliverables. No reports. Yet the ICTO manager decided on this basis to work with the Centre for Innovation on a small pilot.

That summer Leiden launched its own MOOC, after agreeing to a partnership with Coursera. We reached 40K students, and it made national newspaper headlines. My personal contribution was moderating the forums with that first MOOC on EU Law, having some free time on my hands. Already that fall, I was sitting down with prof Bakker and his assistant Jeanine de Roy-van Zuidewijn about a shared vision on community guidelines for a Terrorism course and a moderating team. Eventually this collaboration landed me a full time job at the Centre for Innovation in 2015 both as a project coordinator and more importantly the resident expert on platforms, moderation and community management. I still hold those expertise hats and they have served us well in the pandemic year of 2020.

So what have I learned in those 8 years that could help us going forward into 2021 and further?

  1. It is never clear beforehand how certain explorations will benefit the university. Instead genuine curiosity and willingness to be open to anything are beneficial in the long run to our alma mater. Out of 5 pilots, 4 might die, and 1 might be brilliant for further exploration. Any pilot might build out to a major programme and become influential.
  2. Do not let contracts and task descriptions limit you. Willingness by the bureaucracy to be flexibible how to interpret my tasks (from management assistant, to moderator, to project lead) helped transition the team from pilot to more structral positions. The only caution: be sure to introduce equity when determining new fuctions. It should free people, not introduce new injustices.
  3. Fail Fast. I never learned more than from when things went wrong, just doing stuff even if I wasn’t 100% certain how. The Centre for Innovation provides an environment where you dive into a project, just doing it , and allowing projects to be adjusted and updated as you find them. Made a mistake? Great, evaluate it, learn from it. No wagging fingers, provided you stayed within some boundaries.
  4. From a minimal viable product, through several iterations to a better product. Sounds Agile, but it is also known as the core of quality assurance: Plan Do Check Act or the Cirkle of Deming. Instead of waiting to get the full picture (which may never be gained), jumping in and start learning from practice. Pushing forward to improve quality is the way to go.
  5. The future is so bright, I gotta wear shades. It is completely unknown where education innovation will take us next. It is, however, no doubt very exciting.