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Identity and belonging at the centre of new models of learning

22 Nov 2021 | Danielle Thibodeau and Janet De Wilde We share the comprehensive resources developed by Queen Mary, University of London, on Flexible Ecosystems enabled through our Collaborative Development Fund.

Danielle Thibodeau and Janet De Wilde (Queen Mary Academy, Queen Mary, University of London) have been examining whether the higher education sector is ready to operate as an eco-system of flexible learning opportunities. This wide-ranging initiative, supported by the Advance HE Collaborative Development Fund, attempted to scope how Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) were engaging with new technologies and adapting their offerings to better support the social and economic mobility of their learners. In this blog post they reflect on their findings and introduce the resources produced through the project.

Join our Tweetchat to discuss the project and hear more from the report authors:


8:00-9:00pm GMT Wednesday 24 November 21



So much of what we learned through our conversations with the sector came down to a question of identity. Do the students enrolled on work-integrated learning programmes identify as students, employees, or both? Do the educators leading the academic parts of those programmes see themselves as experts or co-creators with learners, putting their knowledge into practice in real time? Similarly, as HEIs grapple with how physically present they need their students and staff to be, the more challenges arise to traditional definitions of what it means to “be a student.” The move away from a ‘single-dose’ of higher education to life-long learning means that learners want and need to balance their studies with other aspects of their lives. The accelerated use of active online learning supported by micro-credentials or digital badges has given many learners a taste of new ways to achieve that balance. Open educational resources and decentralised technologies such as blockchain will further test the identity and roles of students, academics and institutions and the relationships between them.

The timing of this project meant that COVID-19 was still very much on everyone’s mind. A search of formal and less formal academic outputs reveals a plethora of both research articles and think pieces about the impact of the pandemic on universities. With academics and senior leadership teams immersed in an emergency response to providing, assessing and accrediting learning, understandably, less thought was given to what those changes could and should look like once we move past the point of crisis.  The majority of responses to our survey confirmed that there had been a rapid switch from a limited fully online offer, to nearly all programmes being entirely online. The scope of change since January 2020 has been so vast that, sector-wide, teams are engaged in work to analyse what the impact of those changes have been. However, whilst there is an appetite to learn from the experiences of learning online from both the staff and the student perspective, the practitioners who responded to our survey were unsure what that meant going forward. Colleagues working at the coalface have not had the space or time to really reflect on and consider how they want their educational practices to move forward. Giving people that space will likely be one of the most challenging tasks for HEIs as we move beyond crisis mode and into new, long-term ways of working.

The report provides a snapshot of the views of Advance HE members on the sector’s capability and readiness to provide flexible provision. This is supplemented by case studies which spotlight how member institutions from around the UK are putting some of these ideas into practice. Interviews with thought leaders from the global HE sector also serve to provide insight into how the traditional structures of HE are being challenged to provide flexibility and enable greater levels of participation from more diverse groups of learners:

  • Dr Alex Grech, Strategist and Lecturer at the University of Malta, discusses the impact of decentralised technologies like Blockchain on universities’ relationships with their learners.
  • Dr Norah McCrae, Associate Provost, Co-operative and Experiential Education at the University of Waterloo, discusses how work-integrated learning supports learning in the development of life-long learning skills.
  • Dr Lynn Ramsey, Programme Lead Multi-Campus Micro-credentials Project for the Irish Universities Association describes the process and benefits of creating a national framework for micro-credentials.

In addition to those interviews, you can also watch conversations we had about the benefits of flexible offerings at Queen Mary, University of London with Professor Stephanie Marshall, Vice-Principal (Education) and Sheila Gupta MBE, Vice-Principal (People, Culture and Inclusion). You can find those videos on the Queen Mary Academy website, here.

Colleagues at Advance HE member institutions can access the Flexible Ecosystems Project report and resources here

Last week, 16 November, we launched the Advance HE Collaborative Development Fund: New Challenges, New Solutions with the individual calls for applications all differing in focus and requirement. The deadline for applications and your proposals is noon on 21 December 2021, with projects commencing early in the new calendar year with final outputs being published in the summer. Find out more about the five projects in the 2021-22 Advance HE Collaborative Development Fund and apply here


We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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