Case #18: Development and Implementation of Victoria University’s Block Model
IAN SOLOMONIDES, DEPUTY VICE CHANCELLOR (ACADEMIC AND STUDENTS), VICTORIA UNIVERSITY, AUSTRALIA
DISCIPLINE: Curriculum Development, Teaching Innovation, Organizational Change Management, Professional Development, Higher Education
RESEARCH AREAS: Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), learning design
Victoria University has revolutionized Australian higher education, adopting a unique ‘Block Model’ of teaching. Described under The VU Way, the Block Model is characterized by high quality, intensive learning. Large impersonal lectures, transmissive pedagogy, and passive learning in concurrent semester-long units of study have been replaced by personalized, small group, deep and engaged learning in sequential units of study, significantly improving the learning experience and outcomes for students. Studying one subject at a time over four weeks in groups of no more than 35 with a dedicated teacher has enabled students to: quickly build a sense of belonging; receive constant, high impact feedback; spend time on the ‘right’ things; engage in authentic, active and collaborative learning with self-contained assessment; and not be burdened by juggling the competing demands of workload and assessment typical of the traditional university experience.
CASE EXAMPLE OF EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP
Faced with significant ongoing declining organizational and student quality indicators, Victoria University (VU) sought to radically redesign the experience of all its first-year students and is now extending this to include all students in the second year and beyond. As the office holder accountable for many aspects of educational quality assurance and enhancement, it was and is the author’s responsibility to guide the development, from its inception, develop the business case, and seek the endorsement and ongoing support of the University’s governing bodies. The inaugural Dean of the First Year College reported to the author who, in turn, made every opportunity to be visible to the College staff at development and staff meetings. He was also instrumental in developing the model’s underpinning teaching and learning philosophy and application of pedagogy.
With the VU Way, VU has created an interdisciplinary First Year College and systematically and systemically introduced block mode learning and teaching. In just nine months, every single unit across the first year of all bachelor degrees was re-written; more than 110 dedicated First Year College academics were recruited; and teaching spaces and timetables were re-designed to accommodate class sizes of no more than 35 students across a cohort of approximately 4500.
There are no lectures and a minimal number of exams in the Block Model, which has been described in the media as, “The most radical and comprehensive change any university in Australia has made in living memory to the way it teaches students” (Dodd, 2018). The initial idea was pitched to the Provost in May 2017 following deliberations of a small Task Force before ascendency through the Senior Executive Group and Council. A robust project program and management structure was put in place along with governance, risk management, and reporting.
“…what was and continues to be, a highly complex program of work embedding a new approach to learning and teaching, necessitated leadership elements as reflected by the Five-Pillars.”
REFLECTING ON AND APPLYING THE FIVE- PILLAR MODEL
Educational leadership evident in the implementation includes many roles across the university and includes positional and distributed leadership, requiring all elements of the Five-Pillar Model. The impetus for the change was poor institutional and student performance. Three distinct events were identified and brought together in its implementation: the creation (under the Provost) of a cross disciplinary, pan University, First Year College (subsequently lead by an appointed Dean); identification of pedagogy known to impact positively on learning gain with plans to implement this pedagogy in the remediation of high failure rate units (lead by the Task Force under the leadership of the author); and, identification of a curriculum organization model (lead by the Director of Connected Learning – a centralised team of faculty developers and learning designers). Hereafter the Task Force lead the combining of these elements into the Block Model with the author taking overall Project Ownership and key staff across the University taking a variety of leadership and change management roles.
The examples above, of what was and continues to be, a highly complex program of work embedding a new approach to learning and teaching, necessitated leadership elements as reflected by the Five Pillars. For example:
- The identification of high impact teaching practices and indicators of learning gain were drawn from Pedagogical Research. Outcomes from the Block Model and the change management are informing scholarly, published works.
- Affective Qualities were employed by positional and distributed leaders in the establishment of good will and enthusiasm for the change.
- The project was very clearly Action Oriented: being inherently risky as a disruptive innovation; establishing changes to resourcing, systems, services and process to ensure long-term transformation; and, yielding a number of significant innovations in technology enhanced teaching, student support, and curriculum design.
- The implementation took a highly collegial approach to curriculum design and development, the creation of co-curricular activities, the reimaging of front and back office services and systems, demonstrating Mentorship and Empowerment as colleagues were guided and supported to work in cross functional teams for collaborative advantage.
- Teaching Excellence was foregrounded as we systematically and systemically implemented active and collaborative learning in small groups, rapid grade turnaround and feedback, promoted a sense of belonging for students and staff, improved communication channels, and radically improved learning experiences.
All students have benefited; in 2018, compared with 2017, Victoria University has almost halved the failure rate, increased the pass rate by 10.7%, increased Distinctions by 6.8% and High Distinctions by 6.6% all the while ensuring maintenance of academic standards. The impact on pass rates for students from equity groups or educationally disadvantaged backgrounds has been particularly outstanding; for example, the pass rates of students from Indigenous backgrounds improved by 19%; those with low socioeconomic status backgrounds by 15.3%; non-English speaking backgrounds by 14.7%; the pass rate for students entering the University with very low matriculation points increased by 20%, whilst those with average entry points between increased by 7.2%, ensuring that by the end of the first year, there is no difference in student success based on any of the factors analysed. Clear, consistent and high expectations of students and staff have contributed to a culture of success and motivation and elevated student satisfaction and sense of belonging. Underpinning the innovation is a ‘driver-based model’ that monitors all parameters to ensure viability and return on investment. Load (a measure of the number of equivalent full-time students starting and finishing the year) improved by 8%, through increased retention and with a unique opportunity to have a new intake point half way through the first semester at block 3, 140 ‘new’ students enrolled in 2018 and another 507 in 2019. Together, these resulted in a positive return on investment, contributing to the irst VU budget surplus in five years. We are seeing trends of improved retention and performance continuing in 2019 along with increases in enrolment. The University is now extending block mode to all year levels under the First Year and Beyond initiative. VU’s block mode is a highly modified, unique version of a model developed by Professor David Helfand of Quest University, Canada. During a visit to Victoria University to see the initiative first hand, he intimated that, “It has been a true inspiration and a matter of complete wonderment to me that this institution has managed in the space of eight months to transform the education of 4500 students and is now eight months later doing it for the other 10000 or 15000. You have already by far a block programme with more students than all the other universities in the world combined that have block systems” (Helfand, 2019). It has been encouraging to see that unique models such as the Block Model can be scaled while maintaining high quality outcomes for students.
Dodd, T. (2018, August 22). University boss goes back to the classroom. The Australian. Retrieved from https://www.theaustralian.com.au
Helfand, D. (2019, June 11). Lecture on The Joys and Challenges of Teaching on the Block. Victoria University.
BIOGRAPHY & CURRENT ROLE
Ian has over 25 years of experience in UK and Australian education, joining Victoria University in 2016 where he is the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic and Students). He has worked across engineering, art and design, and education and was formerly head of Furniture and Product Design at Nottingham Trent University (UK) and Director of the Learning and Teaching Centre, Macquarie University. Ian has a pre-service Bachelor of Education (Honors) and a PhD in Undergraduate Education; the quality of student learning and engagement being the focus of his scholarly interests. At VU he is accountable for and is project owner of the First Year and Beyond initiative as part of The VU Way and within the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic and Students) portfolio is responsible for:
- Institutional quality assurance and enhancement including Connected Learning and the office for Academic Quality and Standards
- The Pro Vice Chancellor (Students) portfolio including the Library, Centre for Student Success, Student Administration, Student Services, and Student Life
- The VU Academy for Social Change and Leadership
- Skunk Control – a STEM based art installation group.
Universities Australia Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic) Group
Former President of The Council of Australian Directors of Academic Development (CADAD), now Council of Australasian University Leaders in Learning and Teaching (CAULLT)
Faculty Member, Australian Council of Open and Distance Education (ACODE) Learning Technology Leaders Institute