Skip to content
Paid for and created by Utrecht University

Innovate your education?

Change the culture!

utrecht ivar pel.jpg

How can we use technology in higher education? This question has never been more pressing. At Utrecht University it has been high on the priority list for a long time. The Dutch university has been investing millions of euro’s in evidence based (digital) teaching innovations for years and has become a convincing front runner, receiving praise from many external committees visiting the university every year.

“The continuous drive to improve education and experiment with new teaching methods, appears to be in our DNA,” says Mabelle Hernández, who is the manager of Educate-it; a university wide program supporting lecturers in enhancing their teaching and making it future proof. “The university’s extensive attention for educational innovation is paying off extra in this dire corona situation. All the knowledge, experience and evidence we have acquired over the past six years, have made the sudden forced transformation to remote education caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, go fast and smoothly. This is, however, merely a very welcome side effect.”

Because, stresses Hernández, Educate-it has never been exclusively about introducing technical innovations. “The use of technology in teaching is not a goal in itself, but needs to be viewed from a pedagogical perspective. The main question is, and always has been: how do we provide our students with the best education?”

Blended learning

In 2014 Hernández’s predecessor, and now Director Innovation of Education, Jan Haarhuis, started impelling the didactic concept of ‘blended learning’: the marriage between different forms of face-to-face and online teaching, reinforcing and enhancing each other.

utrecht hernandez.jpg

Hernández: “Since then we have come a long way, not so much adding digital tools like knowledge clips and e-modules on top of traditional forms of face-to-face teaching, but rather replacing them where possible. This way students absorb a lot of knowledge through autonomous study at the time and place of their choosing and are better prepared for face-to-face education. Time in the classroom can then be used for in-depth discussion.

By better matching the (learning) behavior of today’s and tomorrow’s students and striving for them to take responsibility for their own education and take an active role in it, they feel more challenged and involved. Being taken seriously makes students more motivated and inspired which helps them to grow into independent, free-thinking academics.

How do we know all this? In order to learn lessons from our methods, all educational innovations are being researched for their added value. The Organization Studies group at Utrecht University School of Governance carries out an annual study.”

‘Forced to think differently’

Meg Weijers is a student at the interdisciplinary Language and Culture program, taking courses at different faculties. “I have seen how digital education has been implemented in a variety of ways throughout the university. Interactive lectures, peer feedback, voting tools and final assignments; for me online tools combined with ‘offline’ ways of learning and assessing really means an enrichment.

For one of my courses, for instance, I had to write an essay and make a video as final assignment. The two had to be coherent and complementary, which forced me to think differently with regard to my subject. The use of video enabled me to put forward arguments I could not have written down as convincingly. At the same time, in my written essay I was able to elaborate on some specific aspects that would have been misplaced in the video. For me the combination was very motivating. It resulted in making a more nuanced and well-rounded final assignment, surfacing creativity that would have otherwise stayed unused.”

Culture change

In its 2019 Horizon Report, Educause indicates ‘Advancing Cultures of Innovation’ as a midterm trend expected to have a significant impact on the way universities approach teaching, learning and creative inquiry for the next three to five years. Utrecht University was way ahead with this insight, starting the Educate-it program in 2014, with culture change as one of the main principles.“If you want to successfully innovate education, you need to not only facilitate students and teachers with the most up-to-date resources and provide top of the bill support on a pedagogical, technical and practical level, but you also need to change the culture,” says Mabelle Hernández. “You need a culture within the university where willingness to sustainably innovate is the norm. This is not something you achieve overnight. It is a lengthy process.”

Scientific insights show how lecturers’ own initiative and motivation determine the pace in which they are willing to change. Therefore Utrecht University explicitly opted for a bottom-up approach with top down support. “We offer demand-driven services, based on the needs and ideas of lecturers. But it’s not only the teachers’ opinions that matter. Teachers and students determine what does and does not work together. They jointly look for possibilities to strengthen and redesign courses in a blended way.”

Sustainable innovation model

Sharing the gathered insights university-wide gradually creates a culture of permanent adaptation and stimulates the search for further improvement of education. It is one of the reasons why Utrecht University’s education is considered to be excellent and has the highest student pass rate in the Netherlands.”

In this animation Utrecht University’s approach – the sustainable innovation model - is explained.

Digital assessments

I often use digital learning methods and see them as a welcome and necessary addition to teachers’ toolkits”, says Thomas Riesthuis, assistant professor in Jurisprudence.

“For example, I use short videos to prepare students for their lectures. At first it took me some time to figure out how to connect these video’s to lectures and tutorials. But after a while I found that they are most useful for motivating students to explore important theoretical questions about law before face-to-face teaching and for helping them to think critically about the social and moral foundations of law, after their classes.”

At Utrecht University we are fortunate to receive a lot of support and are offered tried-and-tested tools to help innovate our programmes. I am also a big enthusiast when it comes to online assessment. Among other things, it reduces the number of administrative tasks which enables us to work more effectively and efficiently.”Hernández adds: “Almost every university is working with digital assessment. But the speed in which it has grown at Utrecht University is unprecedented. I think this reflects the willingness among our staff and students to adapt and to make use of new possibilities to enrich education.”


In the coming years Utrecht University will further develop the Utrecht Educational Model, with Future Learning Spaces and Programmatic assessment as important ingredients and the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals as a major guiding principle. Collaboration with society and industry will be intensified and the use of immersive teaching technology will be explored.

Utrecht joins forces with other organizations in various networks and alliances. For instance collaborating with other European universities in the network Charm-EU, Utrecht aims to offer interdisciplinary, challenge-based education in various forms that is suitable for several target demographics and can be enrolled at multiple participating universities.

Jan Haarhuis: “Although we expect to reach a lot more students in the future, providing remote and on campus education for both regular students and professionals, our aim is not quantity, but quality. We want to give students the space to develop and enable them to make substantial contributions to a better world.”

Founded: 1636 (learn more about the history of Utrecht University.)
Number of students: 30.000
Bachelor’s programs: 54
Master’s programs: 153
Number of dissertations per year: 525
Academic Ranking of World Universities 2019: 49 (see Utrecht in other rankings)

This content was paid for and created by Utrecht University.

The editorial staff of The Chronicle had no role in its preparation.

Find out more about paid content.