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Transforming Education

Grand Challenges Online: Creating Inclusive, Engaging Learning Experiences

In an increasingly connected world, our students need to be able to think and act globally. That includes being adaptable, open and responsive to challenges. Grand Challenges and its subsequent evolution into Challenges Online is an excellent example of how we facilitate opportunities to learn in new ways and beyond subject areas or geographical boundaries.

Grand Challenges is essentially a project week that enables like-minded students to work in interdisciplinary groups on real-life problems guided by academics and invited speakers. Immersing themselves in something completely different and broadening their knowledge, students also naturally develop transferable skills including teamwork, presentation and project planning.

Threatened by the global pandemic, our response to ensure this flagship event continued was Challenges Online, enabling students to commit to working together from lockdown locations around the world.

Taking a leap of faith and using untried technology, Challenges Online had an immediate and positive reaction from students who had otherwise lost opportunities for internships and other employability-related programmes.

Rather than just transferring the existing model online, the team thought carefully about how digital participation could achieve the same objectives by identifying new opportunities and overcoming barriers to online working. Most important were the opportunities to increase diversity by including participants from universities around the world, which also enhanced global perspectives, peer learning and cultural exchange.

Students could choose to explore one of five exciting Challenge topics based on the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs): Climate and Environment Emergency; Fighting Fake News; Future Food; Planetary Health; and Social Inequality. Students were introduced to their Challenge and offered inspirational talks from guest speakers. On day five, students presented their projects to the rest of their Challenge and voted for their favourites which were showcased in the Grand Finale event.

Some of the winners contributed to the Career Zone Podcast and the programme can contribute to the completion of the Exeter Award.

Ninety-eight percent of those who took part said Challenges Online improved their employability skills, 94% would recommend the experience and 90% noted the programme gave them opportunities they would not otherwise have had.

Feedback also showed how the interdisciplinary way of working used in Challenges Online helps students to broaden their career horizons, and even rethink their career path by opening up new fields they may not have considered.

Challenges Online is a great example of innovative educational practice which can be adapted in a variety of other contexts to enhance the learning experience for staff and students. In December 2020 it was shortlisted for the global Reimagine Education Awards. The wider Career Zone team, which is integral in helping to deliver the Challenges Online programme, was also voted in the Top 10 Careers Services by Student Crowd for 2021.

Challenges Online has inspired many other online learning events across the University. For example, events previously held as ‘writing retreats’ have been restructured into less expensive and more inclusive formats, and many modules have advanced pedagogies which more actively engage students in their learning.

To see more examples of student projects from this year, view our website.

To find out more about the Challenges Online programme, visit our website or drop us an email at