Webinar 2 - Co-creation for innovation

Join Mark Andrews, Adobe’s pedagogical evangelist, Debbie McVitty, Wonkhe editor, and a panel of HE professionals to discuss inspirational ideas and projects to transform higher education.

In this session (recorded on Tuesday 26 April) they are joined by Sam Grogan, Pro Vice Chancellor for Student Experience at Salford University, and Michelle Darlington, Head of Knowledge Transfer at Cambridge Judge Business School Centre for Social Innovation to focus on co-creation.


Explore why co-creation is so important, how it differs from collaboration, how to mitigate the power differentials that can make co-creation between students and faculty challenging, and how successful co-creation on programmes can lead to innovation and better outcomes.

Co-creation for innovation: Enhancing pedagogic strategy through student expertise

The roots of the modern Western university can be traced back to mediaeval monastic and cathedral schools. With a focus on topics such as grammar, arithmetic, logic and religious scripture, they offered a largely prescriptive education.

Fast-forward to today, and learning has become a forum of debate and discussion, even outside of institutionalised education. The democratisation of technology and spike in digital literacy has birthed a creator economy in which knowledge is constantly shared, analysed and reinterpreted on a global scale. And in a world where technological, social, environmental, political and economic contexts can change in an instant, this relentless discourse is almost impossible to track.

In such a volatile setting, the idea that universities can prepare students for success just by distributing information is woefully outdated. It’s also important to nurture the soft skills that enable them to apply that knowledge fluidly in a diverse range of situations.

To drive meaningful innovation in pedagogy that empowers learners to thrive, universities need to reflect and champion this culture of communication and co-creation through their curricula.

The threat of power differentials to co-creation

The difference between collaboration and co-creation is subtle. Where collaboration might support an individual’s vision, co-creation produces an outcome that no single person can claim to own.

That’s why co-creation can easily fall apart under the weight of power differentials, particularly in education. Students look to their teachers for direction and answers, and might feel limited in what they can add as academic novices. And many educators fear that relinquishing control to their students will jeopardise their professional identity as a scholarly expert. This gap in authority means pedagogic co-creation tends to default to a traditional hierarchical system, restricting the potential for innovation.

But with a slight change in perspective, it’s easy to see how these two positions are entirely compatible. While students lack an intimate knowledge of the subject matter, they possess immense expertise and agency through their understanding of contemporary society and digital tools. Educators, on the other hand, may be teaching students something that’s abstract to the world outside and might not be current to their needs. When each party focuses on their expertise, not their deficit, it opens the door for discussion and innovation as equals.

As with authentic assessment, leveraging students’ intelligences and capabilities regarding the external world to solve pedagogic challenges enables universities to more accurately prepare them for their vocational context.

Encouraging co-creative contribution

Recognising students’ expertise is a great first step towards co-creative education. But we also need to remove the barriers of anxiety that prevent students from contributing.

This is well represented in the University of Cambridge’s Thinking Through Drawing research network. Co-founded in 2010 by Michelle Darlington, the head of knowledge transfer, its events gave participants the opportunity to externalise their thinking process artistically. In time the network evolved into a platform for exploring interdisciplinary innovation in teaching.

In 2018, when Michelle joined the university’s Centre for Social Innovation to teach on the MST Social Innovation, the programme designers expressed a desire to co-create with students and the digital learning team. But when Michelle tried to use techniques from Thinking Through Drawing, she found that many students were too anxious to draw – not because they lacked skill, but because they were anxious about having their drawings judged.

To address this issue, students were encouraged to add to one another’s drawings. In doing so, Michelle reported: “When people are engaged in this collaborative problem-solving exercise, they lose ownership of their specific drawing. They become part of the bigger system where they’re not solving my problem, they’re solving your problem. When this change of mindset happens, it’s actually much easier to come up with a solution.”

By removing the ownership of ideas, students became far more likely to contribute to the co-creative process, and reach an agreeable solution. It stands to reason, then, that erasing personal biases from the co-creation of learning strategies can also lower the barriers to co-creative pedagogy. This would shift the focus from maintaining the status quo to reaching an optimal outcome, creating space for innovation.

Reassessing the relationship between disciplinary knowledge and soft skills

One excellent example of co-creative pedagogy in action is the University of Salford, where pro vice-chancellor Sam Grogan is leading the development of a post-pandemic learning and teaching strategy. Though the project is in its early stages, Sam has run cross-institutional workshops that invite students and teachers to explore how the strategy can be implemented. These ideas are then validated by incoming students, sixth form colleges and employers to gain authentic human output on all levels.

Within these sessions, attendees are encouraged to use only their first names, leaving titles and roles at the door. This prevents compartmentalisation, and allows co-creative communication that isn’t influenced by power differentials.

With regard to building a strategy that meets learners’ needs, Sam commented: “Disciplinary knowledge is the end-point, with the soft skills wrapped around the centre. What I’d like to do is reverse that relationship, so the skills that are needed in order to activate that knowledge are at the centre of the curriculum, and understood through the prism of the discipline.”

Approaching pedagogic strategy from a co-creative standpoint allows universities to refocus on the application rather than accumulation of knowledge. This gives learners the soft skills they’ll need to apply that knowledge within a cooperative and multidimensional vocational setting.

Enhancing pedagogic strategy through student expertise

The explosion in universal digital platforms has exponentially accelerated the discussion and evolution of knowledge. This has created a context for the application of learning that most university educators haven’t been trained to manage.

But this gap can be filled by drawing upon students’ experience of growing up in a rapidly changing world. Inviting students to guide the conversation of how education is delivered reveals the soft skills they’ll need to apply knowledge effectively. Through co-creation of relevant teaching and learning strategies, universities can adequately prepare students for success after higher education.

Click here to watch the webinar this article is based on.