University College for Interdisciplinary Learning 10th Anniversary.
This year, University College for Interdisciplinary Learning (UCIL) turns 10. We asked the UCIL team to tell us a bit about the past 10 years, and their future plans.
Congratulations UCIL on your 10th birthday! How did it all start and how has UCIL grown over the past decade?
UCIL began life in 2012, inspired by the example of interdisciplinary colleges around the world. In the early days UCIL mainly provided a home for existing course units available to students from any degree background. Over the years, UCIL has become more confident about what it is and what it offers, and the portfolio of UCIL units has evolved and expanded accordingly. Currently we offer a portfolio of 30+ credit-bearing, interdisciplinary units, about half of which are fully online or blended, exploring subjects ranging from mental health to cyber security.
UCIL units bring together students from different disciplinary backgrounds, exposing them to multiple perspectives, broadening their knowledge and skills and challenging them to think critically about current, complex societal issues. In 2021-22 we reached the milestone of 3000 enrolments on UCIL units in a single year.
Students play a key role in approving, shaping and even commissioning new UCIL units, based on portfolio gaps they identify. Working in partnership with students has highlighted how motivated our learners are to explore, and be equipped to tackle, critical and complex current world issues. UCIL can respond to this demand, giving students a chance to develop their academic knowledge and skills and boost their employability.
So, the clue is in the name – University College for Interdisciplinary Learning. But what does that mean in terms of the ‘interdisciplinarity’ that UCIL offers?
We often talk about the 3 elements of interdisciplinarity. First, there are our students, who come from different degree disciplines. Second, UCIL courses are deliberately designed to look at a subject through different disciplinary lenses. The third element is what happens when you bring the first two elements together – the creation of new, interdisciplinary understanding. So, studying a unit like Understanding China’s Rise in a Globalising World as part of a diverse cohort can challenge the way students think and help to create a kind of mindset shift.
And, of course, the world our students will graduate into won’t observe neat disciplinary boundaries. We know that employers value people who can work across disciplinary boundaries, in multidisciplinary teams. So, studying a UCIL unit is good preparation for the workplace, as well as equipping our students with the mindset needed to solve the challenges our world faces!
UCIL offers fully online and blended course units that are popular with students. What lessons have you as a team learnt about developing course units across these different modalities?
We’ve learnt a lot! Taking the learner’s perspective is critical when you design teaching materials and learning experiences. It sounds simple, but as educators we can be too focused on the knowledge we want to convey, or the skills we want to develop. Working in the Education Development team, alongside subject-specialist academics, you learn to focus on the learner and to think about their journey through the unit. That applies regardless of whether the learning experiences you are designing will take place on-campus or online. Students value good learning, regardless of modality, if it’s done well.
What do you think is UCIL’s greatest strength?
We’re very student focused. Everybody in the wider UCIL team has the same starting point – What’s the student-centred solution to the problem? We’re constantly looking at what could we do better, and how we could add value for students.
That means that over time we’ve also got much better at working and collaborating with students as well, either in terms of responding to feedback or working with student members of the Student Staff Liaison Committee (SSLC). Working with students – and working on design and development by teams of equals – also helps us to be a more self-motivated, collaborative and energetic team ourselves. UCIL is definitely a passion project for lots of different people – and that’s a real strength.
What are your goals for UCIL? How does that fit within the wider University/FLP strategy?
We’re always looking to extend our reach so that more UoM students experience UCIL. The next target we’ve set ourselves is for 10% of all UG students to take a UCIL unit, and we’re also keen to build our offer for PGT students. And of course, we want to continue to offer a diverse portfolio of interdisciplinary units, and at the same time develop – and share – good teaching practice across the University, and beyond. Just now we’re exploring opportunities for developing short, stackable courses or ‘microcredentials’ for the post-professional market here in the UK and transnationally through our partnership with the University of Melbourne.
Finally, we’re keen to build on our national reputation as a sector leader in high quality interdisciplinary learning. In 2024 UCIL will host the UK Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning conference, which will help to raise the external profile of UCIL. So, really the strategy, or the UCIL ‘mission’, is all about continuing to learn from the past 10 years and looking forward to the next!
To find out more about UCIL head to our website: www.manchester.ac.uk/ucil