| 9 minute read

A journey into radical innovation in higher education

Elena Galán-Muros
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Dive into our conversation with Farshida Zafar, Director of the Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship. The discussion spans crucial topics, including the challenges of navigating organisational politics for successful innovation, tips for educators to embrace change and foster critical thinking, and valuable advice for university leaders to support innovation without hindering creativity.

In this article, we summarise part of that conversation, but you can listen to the full interview in our podcast:

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Todd Davey:
You developed the Erasmus School of Law’s first blended-learning undergraduate program as a part-time law program. Can you tell us more about the journey that you undertook and what you learned from it?

Farshida Zafar:
The journey started with a formal request by the dean when I had just started my career at the Erasmus School of Law. In 2012, we were looking at redesigning the full bachelor’s in law curriculum and the Faculty of Law had chosen to shift their didactical format into problem-based learning.

We had a part-time program for undergrads who already have a career, so we were looking into re-education and upskilling. On an annual level, we had around 17 students, because these are people who already have a job.

This program, which was geared towards part-time students, didn’t fit in that picture. So, the request I had was: Can you come up with an idea to phase this program out? And then I said: What if I have a better plan and we can make it work?

Naive as I was, I didn’t look into the technology that was available, or the digital infrastructure. I didn’t look into the resources I had, I just went with what I knew, which was design thinking. I thought that, if I just empathise with these students, I can come up with a solution, which is what I did.

We did some desk research, had lots of interviews, and what I figured out was that the program as such was okay. The problem was with the organisation and the fact that you couldn’t expedite your journey here. And basically, what we did is combine the program with technology and test it out. When we launched the test, we expected 30 students, so we were very surprised when 230 students enrolled, even without marketing or any communication around it.

And then, without realising it, we had a fully-fledged, blended-learning program before blended learning became a thing.

What I have learned is that it is okay to sometimes make mistakes, but you have to own it. What I have also learned is that the type of technology that you use is not even the biggest issue. The biggest issue is your organisation readiness, the capacity, and creating a win-win for everyone. Also saying “sorry” a lot.

Todd Davey:
Sometimes it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission in universities. I was really impressed with the step that you took because interviewing students to find out what they want when there is a problem is not something that your standard professor would do.

That is quite a challenging exercise for many professors, and for universities generally. And I guess that leads into a question that I wanted to ask, because I was interested to read a comment that you made about innovators in higher education needing to understand the politics of your organisation to be able to innovate. Can you please elaborate on that?

Farshida Zafar:
I think it comes down to organizational sensitivity and understanding that politics is all around us. Where people come together, it is about politics. Everybody has conflicting interests, everybody wants something. When it comes down to politics, it is to understand how to create win for everyone.

At the end of the day, it’s not the technology that makes it work, but the people behind it. Yes, I have a legal degree, but I’m also a tech geek and, for me, it has always been about solving a problem from a human-centered perspective instead of a product-centered perspective.

Understanding that you have to deal with people regardless of the type of technology that you use will help you a long way within any organisation. At the end of the day, it’s about building long-lasting relationships.

Understanding what other people want in your organization, or what type of trends and development they are dealing with and how you can leverage that. That’s all politics. There’s zero technology involved. It’s about understanding people. And I think that is one thing that a lot of innovators tend to forget.

Todd Davey:
You have previously made an analogy about education being like gaming. Can explain bit why you think that is and how can universities use this perspective?

Farshida Zafar:
University is a game. If you look at our educational levels, these are all like game levels. You have these challenges: Do this assignment, here’s a test, … These are just challenges in every game, right? And then at the end of your master’s, you have the final boss, which is your thesis.

When you look at how games are designed, how they are really tried and tested on players to see what kind of emotions they evoke, what kind of state of mind it evokes, those are things that we could really learn from at universities.

And also, allow our students some cheat codes. The epitome of creativity is to take a shortcut and still get the same result. Maybe I shouldn’t be saying that, having a law degree now.

Todd Davey:
A certain chat device is coming to mind right now.

Farshida Zafar:
All institutions and universities are freaking out with ChatGPT. And I’m like: Why are you freaking out? The version that we are working with is not even their best version. So, if you’re freaking out about this and the next wave of generative AI is going to hit you, you might as well just close your university.

But you can also use it in your advantage. For example, if you’re teaching entrepreneurship, the way I would use it is to tell students: I want you to go to ChatGPT and put in a prompt to look at social entrepreneurship. Give me your 10 best ideas on social entrepreneurship. And then, from there, have a critical discussion and analysis.

Why would you force your students to fill in a business model canvas, if ChatGPT can do it too? The idea is not to not use these tools, the idea is to use these tools and have a critical lens on what is true, what is not true, what is viable and not, what is desirable, what is feasible, and what is not. I don’t understand why universities are freaking out. You can use these tools to force your students to become more critical thinkers.

Todd Davey:
Our members and listeners are quite diversified in terms of their roles, so I wanted to ask you a two part question: Could you give one tip how to future-proof your educational programs for leaders of higher education and also one to educators.

Farshida Zafar:
My tip to educators would be to have an open mind, but also to be critical. I feel in the West we do not appreciate our educators as much as we should. These are the people that are educating the future generations who are supposed to take care of us when we are too old to work. Having said that, I also feel like that educators are too much ingrained in their same flow every day in, every day out. You should ask yourselves: What would I like to get out of teaching and educating young generations and how can I do that differently?

If you can do that by using technology, go ahead and do it. Don’t be afraid if it fails or if you don’t get the immediate outcomes that you’re looking for. Introducing new technology takes some time.

And for the leaders: Do not qualify innovation as a hobby. It is not a hobby, it is an actual and very demanding job. And it’s very frustrating for innovators to hear: Have you reached your KPIs?

The best way to kill innovation is to come up with key performance indicators. If I launched 10 projects, that are quite innovative, radical and they are way on the spectrum of strategic radical innovations, I might pull the plug on projects. But if you as a leader demand KPIs, and you tell me you have to launch 10 projects, or otherwise your innovation has failed, then you’re already forcing me back into the system.

Cakes and souffles rise best when they are left alone. The same goes for innovation. And instead of KPIs, please use other outcome metrics. You can look into key value indicators, you can look into outcomes on the long run, but do not block everything by sticking to what you know, which is KPIs.

Interested in more Insights like this?

Head now to our episode Future-proofing graduates: The role of entrepreneurship education to hear all about how the University of Exeter’s programs empower students to take their ideas from theory to real-world success and encourages them to embrace entrepreneurship.

You can also learn about how micro-credentials have been pedaled as the cure-all solution to the current issues of the sector – such as inadaptability to change, lack of relevance to the labour market demand and societal challenges in our article The bright horizon of micro-credentials.

Stay tuned for the next episode on this series and don’t forget to follow us on your preferred podcast platform!

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