Interview Erwin Bleumink: Together from idea to change
Erwin Bleumink is a member of the Acceleration Plan steering group on behalf of SURF. He’s been involved from the start in the developments that led to the Acceleration Agenda and later the Acceleration Plan. In September, Erwin bids farewell to the Steering group. In this interview, we look back on his time at the Acceleration plan, and we look ahead.
For Erwin, the road to the Acceleration Plan began at the SURF Education Days in 2016. Two speeches were given during the dinner, one on the influence of education on technology, and one on the influence of technology on education. The latter was Erwin’s speech. “I didn’t envy the other speaker, the influence of education on technology is minimal.” But the influence of technology on education was also not very big, as Erwin realised during the preparation of his speech.
I realised that we needed to collaborate with parties and institutions if we wanted to make an impact on education using technology.
A year after the Education Days, SURF organised a trip to Boston. The theme: education and technology. This study trip was an eye-opener for many of the participants. The trip led to a request addressed to SURF to make a proposal on what we could do for the Dutch educational sector. Anka Mulder wrote a piece on her experiences and her view on what could be done. When those came together, the Acceleration Plan was born.
Erwin explains: “At that time, there were ideas for educational innovation with technology here, there, and everywhere, in the Netherlands. There wasn’t any collaboration and no scaling up. If we wanted to increase the impact of technology on education, we had to work with SURF members and ensure that those who determine how education works are involved.” After Anka’s paper, things accelerated. At the 2017 SURF Education Days, the Netherlands Association for Universities of Applied Sciences, the Association of Universities in The Netherlands, and SURF presented the Acceleration Agenda to the Minister of Education. “And then we had to work towards results,” says Erwin.
How do you look back on your time with the Acceleration Plan?
“Living up to our proposal started with the choice to implement the plan in the form of partnership. That came about through trial and error, but we had the wind in our backs. Everyone saw we had to do something with digitisation.” Ambitions had to be formulated in the field of digitisation. Those ambitions weren’t only about improving the educational process. They were also about the way we view education.
Erwin explains: “This is how we started looking at education in a more flexible way.” Besides SURF, the Association of Universities of Applied Sciences (VH) and the Association of Universities (VSNU), Erwin also spoke with other parties about the ambitions surrounding digitisation. “We often heard people say the connection between education and the job market could be much better. Naturally, SURF couldn’t really play a role in this, because we can’t interfere with the content of education. That’s why I was very happy to see that this point was also important to the VH and the VSNU.”
We had the wind in our backs. Everyone saw we had to do something with digitalisation.
The 2017 Acceleration Agenda was rewritten into the Acceleration Plan in 2018, including the proposal of themes and teams, and a concrete approach. “The first period with the Steering group was interesting. It was very clear to us that we wanted to do things differently from the usual approach. We wanted freedom and flexibility for the teams. This is now paying off because ownership really lies with the teams and a lot of people are accountable for the results,” says Erwin. Institutions were asked which zones they wanted to participate in and the zone leaders and connectors were recruited. The teams started in early 2019. Erwin: “I look back on a process in which we have created something beautiful by working together.”
Which zone project has captured your attention?
“For me, the vision of making education more flexible stands out. And not only the vision on flexible education, but also the collaboration initiated by WUR, UU, and TU/e in the Student Mobility Pilot of the Flexible education zone to put that vision into practice. You can see we are transitioning from vision to realisation and implementation. I am really looking forward to the pilot becoming reality soon and the institutional barriers that still exist when it comes to flexible education will have been lifted. After all, making education more flexible is one of the ambitions we are working on in the Acceleration Plan,” says Erwin.
But there’s more. Eight zones are working on the opportunities that digitisation offers Dutch higher education, such as in the Learning analytics zone. Erwin: “What also appeals to me is that the way we look at learning analytics is changing. Data is, of course, a sensitive topic and it appears that there is already a lot more data available than I realised. Consider, for example, cohort information which you can use to gain insights that you would otherwise not have. Or think of the forecasts for the intake of first-year students in times of the COVID-19 crisis. We see developments around student data that allow us to think through possible scenarios better.”
I am really looking forward to the pilot becoming reality soon and the institutional barriers that still exist when it comes to flexible education will have been lifted.
The fact that COVID-19 crisis has had a huge impact on education, won’t surprise anyone. But the impact of technology on education will change as a result, Erwin expects: “What strikes me is that education still thinks that technology should support current education. Now you can see we switched to online education very quickly in March and everyone was very passionate about making it happen.” The closure of the physical campuses resulted in the existing education being converted to an online or remote version, which technology has made this possible. “But it didn’t lead to a different type of education. Now you see questions arising about the socialisation education provides, about personal training, and about the didactic aspects of online education.”
How should we deal with the Corona crisis in the Acceleration Plan?
As far as Erwin is concerned, the ambitions formulated should be maintained. “Flexible education, smart use of technology, and a better connection to the job market remain relevant. Of course, we never promised to get education completely online. Full online education makes a number of existing problems and challenges in education even clearer,” says Erwin. “Take large-scale summative testing. This is currently a major issue for the sector due to the pandemic. But that form of testing was under pressure long before COVID-19. What will happen to this in the future? Will we move away from large-scale tests? I hope that the COVID-19 crisis will help resolve this.”
Practical education is another aspect Erwin wonders about how it’ll change as a result of the pandemic. “Large scale lectures can easily be followed online, but that does not apply to practical training. That’s an area in which we still have some room to grow. It often concerns expensive set-ups that we do not just have available online. We have to rethink how we can do things differently and partly online. Investing in it takes a long time and benefits from cooperation.”
This also means that we, as a sector, take a critical look at platformisation, Erwin believes: “We’re running into the issue that in higher education we have become dependent on large platforms. Discussions about privacy in relation to these platforms are now emerging, especially among lecturers and students. However, much broader attention must be paid to safeguarding our educational values when using these platforms. This also concerns, for example, access to education, autonomy, and social cohesion. As far as I’m concerned, it should also be about whether these platforms offer what we need as a sector, and whether their working method matches the values we strive for. In order to influence this, we need to take much more ownership of the online learning environment.”
What results do you hope to see after four years of Acceleration Plan?
The zones are working on innovations at different levels that will be used by different people in education, all with the aim of contributing to better education for our students. “The danger of a project is that it gives innovations boost, but that it doesn’t last,” says Erwin.
Erwin hopes that innovations in institutions will actually bring about change and be implemented: “In 2017 I saw a number of innovators in institutions who were working together in a small setting. I also saw administrators who had a vision of educational innovation with IT that wasn’t yet anchored in their institution. These two factors must change. That’s why the Accelerating together zone is of great importance. They have a major task ahead of them: by 2023, educational innovation with IT musn’t only be ingrained in all institutional plans, but must also be anchored in an innovation strategy, and there must be a manager who is responsible for this and substantiates it.”
Administrators have a major task: by 2023, educational innovation with IT must be ingrained in all institutional plans.
This takes a lot from institutions, but it’s not impossible as SURF has also shown. “SURF had to develop a different working method to facilitate the Acceleration Plan. Institutions too will have to adopt a different working method to implement the innovations from the Acceleration Plan and to make educational innovation part of their strategy.”
In addition, institutions have to cooperate across institutional boundaries, says Erwin: “When it comes to making education more flexible, you have to make deals at a sectoral level. For example, on how you deal with recording study units. Even though I did not know yet who should facilitate that, we have taken steps in this direction by developing edubadges.”
Do you have a final message for the Acceleration teams?
Erwin: “I’d like to remind the participants of the Acceleration Plan: ultimately this programme is about what happens within your institution and whether change takes place there. Make use of the Acceleration Plan and the collaboration to get the rest of your institution involved. Use your team colleagues for this, but also use the Steering group and the Accelerating together zone. Turn to them if you run into issues because you are rarely the only one. Often there is a shared feeling or issue, which you can only resolve in collaboration. Then something really changes.”
You often see that innovation takes place where things come together.
Erwin adds: “I’d also like to advise the Steering group to think about anchoring. Think about how we really make the innovations from the zones a reality and give them continuity. Also, look out for ways in which innovations of different zones are related. You often see that innovation takes place where things come together. Take for example learning analytics and connection to the job market. It’d be nice if you could look at the data on where people end up after their studies. What does it mean for the education we provide in the future? What does this mean for lifelong development?”
And to the question, “anything else?” Erwin replies: “I want to thank the student administrators for their contributions. The fact that they were part of the Steering group really was a gift.”
Erwin says goodbye to SURF. His successor in the Acceleration Plan Steering group is Jet de Ranitz, SURF’s new CEO. We wish Erwin a lot of success and fun with his next adventure.