What kind of a university education would you like to receive if you were a student today?
Gabriele Siegert: I would want a stimulating, challenging education that would help me reach my goals.
As a student, how much individual freedom did you have in shaping your studies?
Siegert: I had a great deal of freedom, and that would still be important to me today. But at the same time, I would wish to receive precise information about what to expect and what is expected of me.
Higher education is meant to prepare students for the future. But do we know what the world will look like in 10 or 20 years?
Siegert: No, and it would be presumptuous to claim that we do. But one of the strengths of a university education is that it gives people the capacity to deal with uncertainty. Our students learn that learning never stops. And they leave university with the tools to build a professional career and to participate in the development of society through critical questioning and responsible, purposeful action – in the knowledge that nothing stays the way it is forever.
The Future of Teaching initiative sets the parameters within which teaching at UZH can be developed and strengthened. What prompted this initiative?
Siegert: The initial impulse came from our experiences during the pandemic. Teaching was massively affected, all lectures and classes had to be immediately shifted to online. The question soon arose: what do we do with all these new experiences and technologies after the pandemic?
UZH could have simply returned to its pre-pandemic mode.
Siegert: That would have been a real missed opportunity. Reorganizing our teaching during the pandemic took a great deal of effort – but at the same time unleashed a burst of creative energy. Especially with regard to digital formats, teaching staff at UZH were prepared to try out many different things and gained valuable experience along the way. We want to make the most of this momentum.
What is the core idea behind the Future of Teaching initiative?
Siegert: Quite simply, the aim is to develop and strengthen teaching at UZH. This is an important part of our societal mandate. To give them the best chance in life, all of our students deserve high-quality education that is up to date and future-proof.
"Our teaching staff will have
more incentives and opportunities
to develop and implement interesting and
innovative ideas in their teaching."
What are some key aspects of the initiative?
Siegert: Good teaching stands or falls with the commitment and skills of our instructors. In the first instance, therefore, it is important to create more incentives and opportunities for our teaching staff to develop and implement interesting and innovative ideas in their teaching. Secondly, we plan to work more closely with other universities around the world. Thirdly, we want to make access to university courses more flexible in order to promote lifelong learning. Fourthly, we are improving digital support for teachers and students. And fifth, we are working on a vision for the campus of the future – that is, on creating teaching and learning environments that are able to meet the changing educational demands.
You have mentioned five different strands of the initiative. That’s quite a broad range isn’t it?
Siegert: You always have to keep the big picture in mind when developing education and teaching. In the end, it all has to fit together, even apparent trivialities have to be taken into account. What use is it, for example, to set up a sophisticated hybrid teaching format incorporating participants from abroad if in the end no suitable space can be found for it because the booking system is not flexible enough? Or what is the point of a transdisciplinary seminar if it doesn’t actually fit into any curriculum?
How did you go about defining which areas the Future of Teaching initiative should focus on?
Siegert: We first looked at the overall context and systems in which UZH operates. We reviewed the relevant research literature on pedagogy in higher education, and used an international benchmarking study to find out which priorities are set by other higher education institutions that are leaders in teaching development.
"We want to play a greater role internationally
in shaping teaching development."
What are the most important international trends in teaching development?
Siegert: Our society has high expectations of its universities. Universities are seen as drivers of social and technological change, and at the same time they are expected to help manage the consequences of such change. For example, universities should enable their students to use analytical and problem-solving skills to approach the complex problems of our time. To meet this expectation, many universities are expanding their interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary courses.
Intensive discussions are also ongoing about how universities can become more accessible to a wider range of people. The European University Association’s vision of a “university without walls” is a good example of this. These attempts to open up higher education can be viewed in connection with the continuing trend toward increasingly heterogeneous student bodies. This trend began with the educational expansion of the 1960s and 1970s, and has steadily increased since then thanks to the transformation of society from industrialized to knowledge-based, the promotion of lifelong learning, and the internationalization of universities.
What is your assessment of this trend toward more openness, diversity and internationality at universities?
Siegert: Science and academic learning – and thus universities – need openness, diversity and internationality like humans need air to breathe. However, this evolution also poses a challenge for university teaching. The more diverse the individual starting points of the students when they arrive at university, the more time-consuming it is for teaching staff to ensure students’ needs are met and quality standards are maintained. Universities need to find innovative solutions for this problem.
This leads to another trend, which is that more and more universities are joining forces by forming networks and alliances to share teaching development resources – for example, by using new formats or platforms in partnership with other institutions, or jointly developing models for new forms of learning and certification.
How does UZH intend to respond to these development trends?
Siegert: We want to play a greater role internationally in shaping teaching development. In research, UZH already plays a leading international role, and we should also be part of the global vanguard in teaching.
How well is UZH currently positioned in this area?
Siegert: There are public European universities that are further along in teaching development than we are, especially in the Netherlands and Scandinavia. But UZH has the potential to catch up and take its place among the European leaders. With the introduction of a well thought-out quality assurance system and the establishment of a School for Transdisciplinary Studies, the only one of its kind in Switzerland, we have already taken two important steps in this direction. Mention should also be made of the diverse range of continuing education courses on offer; indeed, UZH is a pioneer in lifelong learning. Last but not least, in April 2022 UZH joined the university network UNA Europa. This is a particularly important step, because by partnering with other UNA members, we can be even more dynamic in driving teaching developments and continuing to internationalize our range of courses.
"It will be easier for instructors
to set up and run international courses."
How will teaching staff benefit from strengthened international networks?
Siegert: It will be easier for instructors to set up and run international courses, including in terms of the administration required. International cooperation projects are commonplace in research, and in the future they will become much more common in teaching as well.
As already mentioned, the Future of Teaching initiative places a strong emphasis on innovation. What experience can UZH build on here?
Siegert: The Teaching Fund has been in place at UZH since 2016 to encourage innovative and forward-looking ideas in teaching. Many of the courses supported by the fund have gone on to become fixtures in our degree programs. These positive experiences have served as encouragement for us to continue promoting innovation on a larger scale.
How big a scale are we talking about?
Siegert: The previous scheme, known as the “Lehrkredit” was replaced last summer by the broader UZH Teaching Fund (ULF), which consists of coordinated funding lines with five different profiles. The available funding has been almost tripled to nearly two million francs per year.
What else is new in the area of innovation support?
Siegert: Previously, support for innovation at UZH was rather patchy. Now, supported projects will be given more visibility within the university so that they can serve as examples and inspiration for teaching development across UZH. In other words, project funding should make a long-lasting, sustainable impact. As many teaching staff as possible should be able to benefit from new ideas, which is why we support networks for teaching staff and maintain platforms such as Teaching Tools. And instead of primarily supporting individual courses and modules, as in the past, we are now focusing on developing and overhauling entire study programs.
"Educational developments should take into consideration:
what skills and knowledge do we want students
to have acquired by the end of their studies?"
Why the focus on study programs?
Siegert: Educational developments should take into consideration the outcomes: what skills and knowledge do we want students to have acquired by the end of their studies? This automatically forces us to focus on study programs, as all elements of a curriculum must be coordinated to ensure that it is possible for students to achieve the learning objectives during their studies.
Coherent study programs are also important for managing the sometimes conflicting expectations of teaching staff, students and society. Study programs and the degrees they lead to constitute a promise to students and society. They are a strong currency, and we must ensure that they hold their value.
Can you explain that in more detail?
Siegert: It is important for prospective students to get an accurate picture of what they can expect from a higher education program, as well as what will be expected of them. A clear study program provides them with this information. Not only that, it also helps graduates later in their professional lives: the degree certificate and detailed transcript of records proves to employers that the graduate has acquired certain skills and knowledge.
In the past, students and employers sometimes had to make assumptions based on unspoken conventions about the contents and requirements of a degree. Nowadays, the requirements have to be set out much more explicitly and precisely, because the proliferation of different educational pathways means it’s harder to have an overview.
What are the hallmarks of a good study program?
Siegert: In a good program of study, the learning objectives, the specific teaching and learning settings, and the assessments are in alignment. As an orientation tool for developing study programs, we have established the UZH Curriculum framework which defines cross-faculty quality standards for study programs. According to this framework, programs should be research-based and geared toward learning objectives, student participation should be encouraged, and digital tools should be used to facilitate individual access to educational content. In addition, they should set transdisciplinary and international points of reference.
"Classroom teaching will continue
to be the focus in the future.
Where useful, digital formats are to be used
as a complement to classroom teaching."
Where should the balance be struck between on-site teaching and digital formats?
Siegert: Classroom teaching will continue to be the focus in the future; it is the only way students can socialize in the university environment, which is absolutely necessary for academic success. Where useful, digital formats are to be used as a complement to classroom teaching, for example to increase flexibility and to take into account the individual preferences and interests of students.
Does the Future of Teaching initiative bring any new obligations for teaching staff?
Siegert: If you apply for and receive funding, then of course you commit to undertake the agreed-upon measures. Otherwise, the initiative doesn’t bring obligations, but opens up opportunities. We have over 4,500 instructors at UZH, as well as many other employees who support teaching operations in a wide variety of ways. Imagine how much combined knowledge, skills, experience and ingenuity we have, all told! That’s a great foundation on which to build.