Looking back on 2019: Hans and Johanna
The first year of the Acceleration Plan is done. In a series of interviews, we look back on 2019 with the leaders of the zones. In this edition: Hans Nederlof (Fontys University of Applied Sciences), chairman of the Steering Group, and Johanna de Groot (SURF), programme manager of the Acceleration Plan.
What were your expectations at the start of the Acceleration Plan?
Johanna: They were positive. There was a lot of energy from the start.
Hans: For me, 2019 was the year in which the process of the previous years materialised. In 2017, we took a study trip about Customized Education to Boston with a small group of directors. We came back with large, but still, vague observations, which have evolved into the Acceleration Plan. We took a long time to think about what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it. Through The Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) and The Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences (VH) the sector made a commitment to the programme. It is quite special we were able to create administrative commitment on such a broad theme.
What did the Steering Group do in 2019?
Johanna: Establishing the action plans in April 2019 was an important step for us. Are these the plans we want to see for 2019? Are the teams taking off? Do the structures that we built work well? It took a while to find out how we could properly organise funding requests from the teams. We said from the start that we didn’t want to give the teams a certain amount of funds in advance, but how did we want to do it?
Hans: How do you design a structure for innovation with as little structure as possible? Ministries are used to getting detailed reports of what has been done with the money they put into a project. However, we said from the start that we didn’t want extensive reports. The Ministry of Education was positive about this approach and contributed constructively from the beginning. That’s really worth a compliment.
Johanna: We wanted to allow for innovation by giving space to the teams and creating a mindset for it. This does however, remain a point of attention. Not many people in higher education are used to just experiment away, not thinking everything through and discussing it ten times over. Our approach is: if you, as a team, think something is a good idea, get started. If something fails, it fails. This way, we accelerate. The emphasis is on doing rather than thinking and producing paper.
Hans: As the Steering Group, we feel a heavy responsibility. As you are in such a light accountability regime, you are very dependent on what you get from the different teams and the information the programme team obtains. It’s not the easiest way, but we really believe in this way of working.
Johanna: During the first period, we sometimes had to consciously stay away from interfering with the teams. It is a delicate balance. The teams shouldn’t feel we demand all kinds of things, but they should feel there is a solid support structure in place.
What are you most proud of?
Johanna: I really like how most teams managed to organise themselves around a shared mission. I know how difficult that is to do when you have all kinds of people coming together. It takes a lot of energy to form a team but has worked out very well for most teams. You can see it now works really well for them, although you have to give them enough time to build a team dynamic.
Has something gone different from what you hoped?
Hans: At one point, we decided it would be good if the Steering Group had more direct contact with the leaders of the zones. Perhaps we, as Steering Group, should have signaled sooner that this was necessary to avoid staying a bit far from the content and work of the zones. But we haven’t had any major challenges.
What should you do more in 2020?
Johanna: We are now discussing how to ensure the products, results, and expertise from the zones will find its way into all of higher education institutions in The Netherlands.
Hans: Ultimately, we are an Acceleration Plan for the whole higher education sector. If only 10 institutions out of 50 would benefit from the Acceleration Plan, we haven’t achieved our goal.
Johanna: There is a growing requirement to disseminate the results. We’re currently looking for a suitable form to do that. How we do it, will differ per team and per project.
Hans: Not all results are equally visible. Sometimes you need to amend legislation or the existing infrastructure. A lot is already happening in that area, but what actually materialises is less visible.
Johanna: I think it is a pitfall to want to measure everything. Sometimes a concrete product is delivered by a team, and you can measure the impact of that. However, you don’t always know what, for example, all conversations about flexible or learning analytics will bring about in the sector.
Hans: That also makes us vulnerable to critics. How do you make the delicate things visible? You can’t do it with a checklist. It helps if the boards of the institutions maintain confidence in the programme. That’s why we established the eighth zone, Accelerating together, with board members of participating institutions. In this way we maintain the support: we believe in this and we understand that you can’t point everything out in detail.
What do you hope to achieve in 2022?
Johanna: Undoubtedly there’ll be great results and products, but mainly we build a foundation, the structure of all those people working together. You’ll keep this when the programme finishes. Take the Code of Conduct that the zone Learning analytics is working on. This is interesting for all boards because everyone has to do something with it. In the context of the Acceleration Plan, we can tackle difficult themes together.
Hans: It would also be nice if the digitalisation is self-evident in higher education by 2022. We’re constantly spreading the word on how important digitalisation is for the job market where our students end up, but to use a metaphor: the plumber’s tap’s leaking at his own house.
And in 2030?
Hans: I really hope students will be positively surprised by the way in which digitalisation is applied within the institutions. Right now, it’s often still a stream of grumbling, so hopefully, then the tide will have turned.
Johanna: Maybe in ten years’ time the Acceleration Plan will be remembered as something that worked out well. We did things in a different way and that led to good results. The cooperation between so many parties alone is unique. I hope the Acceleration Plan will function as an example of how you can organise things: making room for innovation through trust.